The point of departure for this study is Clark’s assertion of an important contractarian element in Burke’s political thought, a theme he relates to Burke’s essentially Whig political identity through most of his career and to his continuing “Old Whig” defense of the Revolution of 1688-89. Clark indicates that Burke held a contractual view of the basis of civil society, a view that he “may have modifi ed” in the Refl ections and later, when he “[came] to see the earlier contract which created civil society itself within a providential setting.” Clark insists, however, that Burke adhered consistently to a contractarian account of the English government and more generally that contract fi gures along with hereditary right, prescription, hierarchy, order, and property as one of the foundational elements of Burke’s political theory. 3

These statements are provocative because most scholars have excluded Burke from the contractarian or social contract tradition of political theory and (when they have raised the question) have denied that Burke is in any meaningful sense a contract theorist. Gough’s older study has the merit of discussing Burke, but it does so in a chapter entitled “The Contract Theory in Decline.” Burke’s references to the idea, and especially to the “original contract,” are treated as an aspect of the conventional Whig portrayal of

the events of 1688 and as mere “phraseology” that no longer captures the lively and distinctive arguments of Burke’s political thought. 4 More recent studies of the social contract and its role both in history and in political theory have omitted Burke altogether. 5 Scholars of Burke’s general political theory appear to have largely concurred with the assessment that Burke at least does not belong in the canonical contractarian tradition, even if they have taken Burke at his word and ascribed some signifi cance to his famous assertion that “society is indeed a contract,” a passage to which we shall of course return. 6

More relevant for present purposes are the more recent commentators whose interpretations appear to contrast with Clark’s. Bromwich, for example, remarks strikingly on “Burke’s prejudice against the very idea of contract.” Burke’s stance is surprising, Bromwich suggests, because modernization has typically been understood as a progress from status to contract, where the latter concept implies the prevalence (and legitimacy) of conduct based entirely on a calculus of self-interest (or “utilitarianism”); in the face of this apparently inexorable change, Burke “keeps up a principled resistance to what believers in contract have come to call progress” and stands out as “perhaps the greatest critic of utilitarianism [in this sense].” 7 Kramnick presents a more extreme picture of Burke as anti-modern and as a defender of the older hierarchical status society. “The liberal sees the state as a mere contractual arrangement, a voluntaristic creation of self-seeking and autonomous individuals concerned primarily with the secure enjoyment of their property rights”; since Burke’s outlook is fundamentally anti-liberal, it follows that his view of the state, wrapped up in mystery and tradition, is noncontractual. 8 Pocock, fi nally, agrees with Clark in seeking to place Burke in his proper Whig context (one that opposed a radical Lockean view of 1688 as having involved a revolutionary dissolution of government); yet Pocock says that in his Refl ections Burke upholds the social order as sacred, natural, historical, and traditional-but not as contractual, and theoretical contractarianism is not attributed to him. 9

This apparent disagreement about the role of contract in Burke’s political thought suggests that a closer examination of this issue might be fruitful. Clark’s claim that contract is among the basic ingredients in Burkean theory of course has textual support and hence a certain plausibility. In particular we will have to consider carefully two notable passages: Burke’s explicit endorsement of the Old Whig doctrine that “the original contract, implied and expressed in the constitution of this country,” had been breached in 1688; 10 and the passage already mentioned in which Burke declares society to be a contract of a special sort (Refl 260-61). 11 Much will depend, of course, on an analysis of the term “contract” itself and the roles it can play in political theory: given the complexity of the concept it may turn out that opposing interpretations can be sustained once variant meanings or emphases have been explicated. On the whole I will argue that, given mainstream senses of contract and contractarianism and the function of these

ideas in political theory, Burke should not be regarded as a contract theorist. More deeply, I will argue that Burke adheres to a fundamentally situational rather than contractual understanding of morality and social duty. In order to explain Burke’s use of contract terminology, however (and at the risk of perpetuating confusion), I will suggest that there is a recognizable though nonstandard sense of contract that does enter (though subordinately) into his political and social thought.