Jesse Norman's fine biography of Edmund Burke (2013) is well-worth reading. I never thought I would recommend a book about a working politician; but Burke is not your ordinary working politician. The book's cover blurb is quite correct when it identifies Burke as "the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the last three hundred years."
Born in Ireland in 1729, Burke served many terms in Parliament, and became a key figure in the Whig Party (pro-Parliament and pro-aristocracy). A compelling orator and brilliant political theorist, Burke is best known for his sympathies for (but not support of) the American Revolution. This stands in sharp contrast to Burke's militant opposition to the French Revolution.
The former, Burke thought, was brought about by the failure of King George III to treat the American colonials as true Englishmen, with the full rights and privileges thereof. The latter, Burke argued, was grounded in a romantic utopian dream which entailed the overthrow of traditional standards of morality and government. "The [French] had fallen under the malign influence of Rousseau" (145), which inevitably led to the horrors of regicide and political anarchy.
The American Revolution arose--Burke thought--because of genuine grievances which were not properly addressed by the English king nor Parliament. It was the king who arbitrarily asserted his power over the colonies. The revolutionaries simply wanted redress and repeatedly did not get it. The American Revolution did not lead to "the destruction of America's society and institutions." But the French Revolution was completely different, seeking not to address specific and just grievances, and which therefore, led to the wholesale destruction of existing French institutions (252).
Norman's biography is divided into two parts. In the first part, Norman sets out a well-crafted biography covering the ground from Burke's humble Irish origins, to his death in July of 1797. Burke became a member of Parliament in 1765, and quickly demonstrated his great skills as an orator and political thinker. Burke was an opponent of slavery, a defender of human rights (including rights for Catholics in Ireland) and a champion of the free market. Burke participated in the debate over Irish self-governance, he was there for the debate over the American war for independence, as well as the French Revolution. Burke was also present during the Parliamentary debate over the increase of English rule and authority in India. These were very important moments in modern English history. Throughout this entire time, Burke opined on the importance of tradition, the great value of existing political and cultural institutions, and steadfastly argued that societal change (which is inevitable) must be slow, incremental, and avoid all use of arbitrary political power.
The second half of Norman's biography addresses Burke's political thought and endorses Winston's Churchill's assessment of Burke as "a foremost apostle of liberty" (281). Yet, as Norman points out, even though Burke was the first conservative, he would not fit well in contemporary "conservative" political parties (in both America and the UK), who often claim his legacy as their own (283). This lack of fit would stem from Burke's stress on moderation in all things political, and his worries about religious absolutism (i.e., the Christian right).
Yet, Burke is no fan of romantic idealism (the utopian society), nor would he be anything but critical of the rank individualism which dominates modern liberalism. As a classic liberal (a champion of freedom), ironically, Burke is regarded as the "first conservative," because of his near total opposition to arbitrary government power or the tyranny of the majority (in a democracy). Since Burke would argue that the state should be very reluctant to wield its power, it is safe to say that he would not be a fan of those "conservatives" today who think American exceptionalism is itself ample justification for war and military action.
Norman's Edmund Burke: The First Conservative is an enjoyable read. You can find it here: Edmund Burke