All sorts of whispers have been circulated by idle or malicious gossip about Burke's first manhood. He is said to have been one of the numerous lovers of his fascinating countrywoman, Margaret Woffington. It is hinted that he made a mysterious visit to the American colonies. He was for years accused of having gone over to the Church of Rome, and afterwards recanting. There is not a tittle of positive evidence for these or any of the other statements to Burke's discredit. The common story that he was a candidate for Adam Smith's chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow, when Hume was rejected in favour of an obscure nobody (1751), can be shown to be wholly false. Like a great many other youths with an eminent destiny before them, Burke conceived a strong distaste for the profession of the law. His father, who was an attorney of substance, had a distaste still stronger for so vagrant a profession as letters were in that day. He withdrew the annual allowance, and Burke set to work to win for himself by indefatigable industry and capability in the public interest that position of power or pre-eminence which his detractors acquired either by accident of birth and connexions or else by the vile arts of political intrigue.
He began at the bottom of the ladder, mixing with the Bohemian society that haunted the Temple, practising oratory in the free and easy debating societies of Covent Garden and the Strand, and writing for the booksellers.
In 1756 he made his first mark by a satire upon Bolingbroke entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. It purported to be a posthumous work from the pen of Bolingbroke, and to present a view of the miseries and evils arising to mankind from every species of artificial society. The imitation of the fine style of that magnificent writer but bad patriot is admirable. As a satire the piece is a failure, for the simple reason that the substance of it might well pass for a perfectly true, no less than a very eloquent statement of social blunders and calamities. Such acute critics as Chesterfield and Warburton thought the performance serious. Rousseau, whose famous discourse on the evils of civilization had appeared six years before, would have read Burke's ironical vindication of natural society without a suspicion of its irony. There have indeed been found persons who insist that the Vindication was a really serious expression of the writer's own opinions. This is absolutely incredible, for various reasons. Burke felt now, as he did thirty years later, that civil institutions cannot wisely or safely be measured by the tests of pure reason.
His sagacity discerned that the rationalism by which Bolingbroke and the deistic school believed themselves to have overthrown revealed religion, was equally calculated to undermine the structure of political government. This was precisely the actual course on which speculation was entering in France at that moment. His Vindication is meant to be a reduction to an absurdity. The rising revolutionary school in France, if they had read it, would have taken it for a demonstration of the theorem to be proved. The only interest of the piece for us lies in the proof which it furnishes, that at the opening of his life Burke had the same scornful antipathy to political rationalism which flamed out in such overwhelming passion at its close.
In the same year (1756) appeared the Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, a crude and narrow performance in many respects, yet marked by an independent use of the writer's mind, and not without fertile suggestion. It attracted the attention of the rising aesthetic school in Germany. Lessing set about the translation and annotation of it, and Moses Mendelssohn borrowed from Burke's speculation at least one of the most fruitful and important ideas of his own influential theories on the sentiments. In England the Inquiry had considerable vogue, but it has left no permanent trace in the development of aesthetic thought.
Burke's literary industry in town was relieved by frequent excursions to the western parts of England, in company with William Burke. There was a lasting intimacy between the two namesakes, and they seem to have been involved together in some important passages of their lives; but we have Edmund Burke's authority for believing that they were probably not kinsmen. The seclusion of these rural sojourns, originally dictated by delicate health, was as wholesome to the mind as to the body. Few men, if any, have ever acquired a settled mental habit of surveying human affairs broadly, of watching the play of passion, interest, circumstance, in all its comprehensiveness, and of applying the instruments of general conceptions and wide principles to its interpretation with respectable constancy, unless they have at some early period of their manhood resolved the greater problems of society in independence and isolation. By 1756 the cast of Burke's opinions was decisively fixed, and they underwent no radical change.
He began a series of Hints on the Drama. He wrote a portion of an Abridgment of the History of England, and brought it down as far as the reign of John. It included, as was natural enough in a warm admirer of Montesquieu, a fragment on law, of which he justly said that it ought to be the leading science in every well-ordered commonwealth. Burke's early interest in America was shown by an Account of the European Settlements on that continent. Such works were evidently a sign that his mind was turning away from abstract speculation to the great political and economic fields, and to the more visible conditions of social stability and the growth of nations. This interest in the concrete phenomena of society inspired him with the idea of the Annual Register (1759), which he designed to present a broad grouping of the chief movements of each year. The execution was as excellent as the conception, and if we reflect that it was begun in the midst of that momentous war which raised England to her climax of territorial greatness in East and West, we may easily realize how the task of describing these portentous and far-reaching events would be likely to strengthen Burke's habits of wide and laborious observation, as well as to give him firmness and confidence in the exercise of his own judgment.