Burke’s Conception of an Elected Representative

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Edmund Burke, 1729-1797

Edmund Burke, 1729-1797

Concept description

Edmund Burke, an eighteen century British philosopher and Member of Parliament, described the responsibilities of an elected representative as that of acting in the interest of his constituents by exercising judgment on the basis of knowledge that is only available at the seat of government.

Speech to the Electors of Bristol

Burke’s philosophy on representation was famously articulated in his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol, reproduced below.

“I am sorry I cannot conclude without saying a word on a topic touched upon by my worthy colleague. I wish that topic had been passed by at a time when I have so little leisure to discuss it. But since he has thought proper to throw it out, I owe you a clear explanation of my poor sentiments on that subject.

“He tells you that “the topic of instructions has occasioned much altercation and uneasiness in this city;” and he expresses himself (if I understand him rightly) in favour of the coercive authority of such instructions.

“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

“My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

“To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, – these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Edmund Burke (1774), Speech to the Electors of Bristol The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 6 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–56, retrieved from The University of Chicago Press at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html, accessed 13 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 15 August 2016.

Image: Cropped from Painting of Edmund Burke MP c. 1767,
studio of Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Wikipedia, Edmund Burke, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke, accessed 13 August 2016.