BURKE, EDMUND (1729–1797), British statesman and political writer. His is one of the greatest names in the history of political literature. There have been many more important statesmen, for he was never tried in a position of supreme responsibility. There have been many more effective orators, for lack of imaginative suppleness prevented him from penetrating to the inner mind of his hearers; defects in delivery weakened the intrinsic persuasiveness of his reasoning; and he had not that commanding authority of character and personality which has so often been the secret of triumphant eloquence. There have been many subtler, more original and more systematic thinkers about the conditions of the social union. But no one that ever lived used the general ideas of the thinker more successfully to judge the particular problems of the statesman. No one has ever come so close to the details of practical politics, and at the same time remembered that these can only be understood and only dealt with by the aid of the broad conceptions of political philosophy. And what is more than all for perpetuity of fame, he was one of the great masters of the high and difficult art of elaborate composition.
A certain doubtfulness hangs over the circumstances of Burke’s life previous to the opening of his public career. The very date of his birth is variously stated. The most probable opinion is that he was born at Dublin on the 12th of January 1729, new style. Of his family we know little more than his father was a Protestant attorney, practising in Dublin, and that his mother was a Catholic, a member of the family of Nagle. He had at least one sister, from whom descended the only existing representatives of Burke’s family; and he had at least two brothers, Garret Burke and Richard Burke, the one older and the other younger than Edmund. The sister, afterwards Mrs French, was brought up and remained throughout life in the religious faith of her mother; Edmund and his brothers followed that of their father. In 1741 the three brothers were sent to school at Ballitore in the county of Kildare, kept by Abraham Shackleton, an Englishman, and a member of the Society of Friends. He appears to have been an excellent teacher and a good and pious man. Burke always looked back on his own connexion with the school at Ballitore as among the most fortunate circumstances of his life. Between himself and a son of his instructor there sprang up a close and affectionate friendship, and, unlike so many of the exquisite attachments of youth, this was not choked by the dust of life, nor parted by divergence of pursuit. Richard Shackleton was endowed with a grave, pure and tranquil nature, constant and austere, yet not without those gentle elements that often redeem the drier qualities of his religious persuasion. When Burke had become one of the most famous men in Europe, no visitor to his house was more welcome than the friend with whom long years before he had tried poetic flights, and exchanged all the sanguine confidences of boyhood. And we are touched to think of the simple-minded guest secretly praying, in the solitude of his room in the fine house at Beaconsfield, that the way of his anxious and overburdened host might be guided by a divine hand.
In 1743 Burke became a student at Trinity College, Dublin, where Oliver Goldsmith was also a student at the same time. But the serious pupil of Abraham Shackleton would not be likely to see much of the wild and squalid sizar. Henry Flood, who was two years younger than Burke, had gone to complete his education at Oxford. Burke, like Goldsmith, achieved no academic distinction. His character was never at any time of the academic cast. The minor accuracies, the limitation of range, the treading and re-treading of the same small patch of ground, the concentration of interest in success before a board of examiners, were all uncongenial to a nature of exuberant intellectual curiosity and of strenuous and self-reliant originality. His knowledge of Greek and Latin was never thorough, nor had he any turn for critical niceties. He could quote Homer and Pindar, and he had read Aristotle. Like others who have gone through the conventional course of instruction, he kept a place in his memory for the various charms of Virgil and Horace, of Tacitus and Ovid; but the master whose page by night and by day he turned with devout hand, was the copious, energetic, flexible, diversified and brilliant genius of the declamations for Archias the poet and for Milo, against Catiline and against Antony, the author of the disputations at Tusculum and the orations against Verres. Cicero was ever to him the mightiest of the ancient names. In English literature Milton seems to have been more familiar to him than Shakespeare, and Spenser was perhaps more of a favourite with him than either.
It is too often the case to be a mere accident that men who become eminent for wide compass of understanding and penetrating comprehension, are in their adolescence unsettled and desultory. Of this Burke is a signal illustration. He left Trinity in 1748, with no great stock of well-ordered knowledge. He neither derived the benefits nor suffered the drawbacks of systematic intellectual discipline.
After taking his degree at Dublin he went in the year 1750 to London to keep terms at the Temple. The ten years that followed were passed in obscure industry. Burke was always extremely reserved about his private affairs. All that we know of Burke exhibits him as inspired by a resolute pride, a certain stateliness and imperious elevation of mind. Such a character, while free from any weak shame about the shabby necessities of early struggles, yet is naturally unwilling to make them prominent in after life. There is nothing dishonourable in such an inclination. “I was not swaddled and rocked and dandled into a legislator,” wrote Burke when very near the end of his days: “Nitor in adversum is the motto for a man like me. At every step of my progress in life (for in every step I was traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport. Otherwise no rank, no toleration even, for me.”
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. Dodsley gave him £100 for each annual volume, and the sum was welcome enough, for towards the end of 1756 Burke had married. His wife was the daughter of a Dr Nugent, a physician at Bath. She is always spoken of by his friends as a mild, reasonable and obliging person, whose amiability and gentle sense did much to soothe the too nervous and excitable temperament of her husband. She had been brought up, there is good reason to believe, as a Catholic, and she was probably a member of that communion at the time of her marriage. Dr Nugent eventually took up his residence with his son-in-law in London, and became a popular member of that famous group of men of letters and artists whom Boswell has made so familiar and so dear to all later generations. Burke, however, had no intention of being dependent. His consciousness of his own powers animated him with a most justifiable ambition, if ever there was one, to play a part in the conduct of national affairs. Friends shared this ambition on his behalf; one of these was Lord Charlemont. He introduced Burke to William Gerard Hamilton (1759), now only remembered by the nickname “single-speech,” derived from the circumstance of his having made a single brilliant speech in the House of Commons, which was followed by years of almost unbroken silence. Hamilton was by no means devoid of sense and acuteness, but in character he was one of the most despicable men then alive. There is not a word too many nor too strong in the description of him by one of Burke’s friends, as “a sullen, vain, proud, selfish, cankered-hearted, envious reptile.” The reptile’s connexion, however, was for a time of considerable use to Burke. When he was made Irish secretary, Burke accompanied him to Dublin, and there learnt Oxenstiern’s eternal lesson, that awaits all who penetrate behind the scenes of government, quam parva sapientia mundus regitur.
The penal laws against the Catholics, the iniquitous restrictions on Irish trade and industry, the selfish factiousness of the parliament, the jobbery and corruption of administration, the absenteeism of the landlords, and all the other too familiar elements of that mischievous and fatal system, were then in full force. As was shown afterwards, they made an impression upon Burke that was never effaced. So much iniquity and so much disorder may well have struck deep on one whose two chief political sentiments were a passion for order and a passion for justice. He may have anticipated with something of remorse the reflection of a modern historian, that the absenteeism of her landlords has been less of a curse to Ireland than the absenteeism of her men of genius. At least he was never an absentee in heart. He always took the interest of an ardent patriot in his unfortunate country; and, as we shall see, made more than one weighty sacrifice on behalf of the principles which he deemed to be bound up with her welfare.
When Hamilton retired from his post, Burke accompanied him back to London, with a pension of £300 a year on the Irish Establishment. This modest allowance he hardly enjoyed for more than a single year. His patron having discovered the value of so laborious and powerful a subaltern, wished to bind Burke permanently to his service. Burke declined to sell himself into final bondage of this kind. When Hamilton continued to press his odious pretensions they quarrelled (1765), and Burke threw up his pension. He soon received a more important piece of preferment than any which he could ever have procured through Hamilton.
The accession of George III. to the throne in 1760 had been followed by the disgrace of Pitt, the dismissal of Newcastle, and the rise of Bute. These events marked the resolution of the court to change the political system which had been created by the Revolution of 1688. That system placed the government of the country in the hands of a territorial oligarchy, composed of a few families of large possessions, fairly enlightened principles, and shrewd political sense. It had been preserved by the existence of a Pretender. The two first kings of the house of Hanover could only keep the crown on their own heads by conciliating the Revolution families and accepting Revolution principles. By 1760 all peril to the dynasty was at an end. George III., or those about him, insisted on substituting for the aristocratic division of political power a substantial concentration of it in the hands of the sovereign. The ministers were no longer to be the members of a great party, acting together in pursuance of a common policy accepted by them all as a united body; they were to become nominees of the court, each holding himself answerable not to his colleagues but to the king, separately, individually and by department. George III. had before his eyes the government of his cousin the great Frederick; but not every one can bend the bow of Ulysses, and, apart from difference of personal capacity and historic tradition, he forgot that a territorial and commercial aristocracy cannot be dealt with in the spirit of the barrack and the drill-ground. But he made the attempt, and resistance to that attempt supplies the keynote to the first twenty-five years of Burke’s political life.
Along with the change in system went high-handed and absolutist tendencies in policy. The first stage of the new experiment was very short. Bute, in a panic at the storm of unpopularity that menaced him, resigned in 1763. George Grenville and the less enlightened section of the Whigs took his place. They proceeded to tax the American colonists, to interpose vexatiously against their trade, to threaten the liberty of the subject at home by general warrants, and to stifle the liberty of public discussion by prosecutions of the press. Their arbitrary methods disgusted the nation, and the personal arrogance of the ministers at last disgusted the king. The system received a temporary check. Grenville fell, and the king was forced to deliver himself into the hands of the orthodox section of the Whigs. The marquess of Rockingham (July 10, 1765) became prime minister, and he was induced to make Burke his private secretary. Before Burke had begun his duties, an incident occurred which illustrates the character of the two men. The old duke of Newcastle, probably desiring a post for some nominee of his own, conveyed to the ear of the new minister various absurd rumours prejudicial to Burke,—that he was an Irish papist, that his real name was O’Bourke, that he had been a Jesuit, that he was an emissary from St Omer’s. Lord Rockingham repeated these tales to Burke, who of course denied them with indignation. His chief declared himself satisfied, but Burke, from a feeling that the indispensable confidence between them was impaired, at once expressed a strong desire to resign his post. Lord Rockingham prevailed upon him to reconsider his resolve, and from that day until Lord Rockingham’s death in 1782, their relations were those of the closest friendship and confidence.
The first Rockingham administration only lasted a year and a few days, ending in July 1766. The uprightness and good sense of its leaders did not compensate for the weakness of their political connexions. They were unable to stand against the coldness of the king, against the hostility of the powerful and selfish faction of Bedford Whigs, and, above all, against the towering predominance of William Pitt. That Pitt did not join them is one of the many fatal miscarriages of history, as it is one of the many serious reproaches to be made against that extraordinary man’s chequered and uneven course. An alliance between Pitt and the Rockingham party was the surest guarantee of a wise and liberal policy towards the colonies. He went further than they did, in holding, like Lord Camden, the doctrine that taxation went with representation, and that therefore parliament had no right to tax the unrepresented colonists. The ministry asserted, what no competent jurist would now think of denying, that parliament is sovereign; but they went heartily with Pitt in pronouncing the exercise of the right of taxation in the case of the American colonists to be thoroughly impolitic and inexpedient. No practical difference, therefore, existed upon the important question of the hour. But Pitt’s prodigious egoism, stimulated by the mischievous counsels of men of the stamp of Lord Shelburne, prevented the fusion of the only two sections of the Whig party that were at once able, enlightened and disinterested enough to carry on the government efficiently, to check the arbitrary temper of the king, and to command the confidence of the nation. Such an opportunity did not return.
The ministerial policy towards the colonies was defended by Burke with splendid and unanswerable eloquence. He had been returned to the House of Commons for the pocket borough of Wendover, and his first speech (January 27, 1766) was felt to be the rising of a new light. For the space of a quarter of a century, from this time down to 1790, Burke was one of the chief guides and inspirers of a revived Whig party. The “age of small factions” was now succeeded by an age of great principles, and selfish ties of mere families and persons were transformed into a union resting on common conviction and patriotic aims. It was Burke who did more than any one else to give to the Opposition, under the first half of the reign of George III., this stamp of elevation and grandeur. Before leaving office the Rockingham government repealed the Stamp Act; confirmed the personal liberty of the subject by forcing on the House of Commons one resolution against general warrants, and another against the seizure of papers; and relieved private houses from the intrusion of officers of excise, by repealing the cider tax. Nothing so good was done in an English parliament for nearly twenty years to come. George Grenville, whom the Rockinghams had displaced, and who was bitterly incensed at their formal reversal of his policy, printed a pamphlet to demonstrate his own wisdom and statesmanship. Burke replied in his Observations on a late Publication on the Present State of the Nation (1769), in which he showed for the first time that he had not only as much knowledge of commerce and finance, and as firm a hand, in dealing with figures as Grenville himself, but also a broad, general and luminous way of conceiving and treating politics, in which neither then nor since has he had any rival among English publicists.
It is one of the perplexing points in Burke’s private history to know how he lived during these long years of parliamentary opposition. It is certainly not altogether mere impertinence to ask of a public man how he gets what he lives upon, for independence of spirit, which is so hard to the man who lays his head on the debtor’s pillow, is the prime virtue in such men. Probity in money is assuredly one of the keys to character, though we must be very careful in ascertaining and proportioning all the circumstances. Now, in 1769, Burke bought an estate at Beaconsfield, in the county of Buckingham. It was about 600 acres in extent, was worth some £500 a year, and cost £22,000. People have been asking ever since how the penniless man of letters was able to raise so large a sum in the first instance, and how he was able to keep up a respectable establishment afterwards. The suspicions of those who are never sorry to disparage the great have been of various kinds. Burke was a gambler, they hint, in Indian stock, like his kinsmen Richard and William, and like Lord Verney, his political patron at Wendover. Perhaps again, his activity on behalf of Indian princes, like the raja of Tanjore, was not disinterested and did not go unrewarded. The answer to all these calumnious innuendoes is to be found in documents and title-deeds of decisive authority, and is simple enough. It is, in short, this. Burke inherited a small property from his elder brother, which he realized. Lord Rockingham advanced him a certain sum (£6000). The remainder, amounting to no less than two-thirds of the purchase-money, was raised on mortgage, and was never paid off during Burke’s life. The rest of the story is equally simple, but more painful. Burke made some sort of income out of his 600 acres; he was for a short time agent for New York, with a salary of £700; he continued to work at the Annual Register down to 1788. But, when all is told, he never made as much as he spent; and in spite of considerable assistance from Lord Rockingham, amounting it is sometimes said to as much as £30,000, Burke, like the younger Pitt, got every year deeper into debt. Pitt’s debts were the result of a wasteful indifference to his private affairs. Burke, on the contrary, was assiduous and orderly, and had none of the vices of profusion. But he had that quality which Aristotle places high among the virtues—the noble mean of Magnificence, standing midway between the two extremes of vulgar ostentation and narrow pettiness. He was indifferent to luxury, and sought to make life, not commodious nor soft, but high and dignified in a refined way. He loved art, filled his house with statues and pictures, and extended a generous patronage to the painters. He was a collector of books, and, as Crabbe and less conspicuous men discovered, a helpful friend to their writers. Guests were ever welcome at his board; the opulence of his mind and the fervid copiousness of his talk naturally made the guests of such a man very numerous. Non invideo equidem, miror magis, was Johnson’s good-natured remark, when he was taken over his friend’s fine house and pleasant gardens. Johnson was of a very different type. There was something in this external dignity which went with Burke’s imperious spirit, his spacious imagination, his turn for all things stately and imposing. We may say, if we please, that Johnson had the far truer and loftier dignity of the two; but we have to take such men as Burke with the defects that belong to their qualities. And there was no corruption in Burke’s outlay. When the Pitt administration was formed in 1766, he might have had office, and Lord Rockingham wished him to accept it, but he honourably took his fate with the party. He may have spent £3000 a year, where he would have been more prudent to spend only £2000. But nobody was wronged; his creditors were all paid in time, and his hands were at least clean of traffic in reversions, clerkships, tellerships and all the rest of the rich sinecures which it was thought no shame in those days for the aristocracy of the land and the robe to wrangle for, and gorge themselves upon, with the fierce voracity of famishing wolves. The most we can say is that Burke, like Pitt, was too deeply absorbed in beneficent service in the affairs of his country, to have for his own affairs the solicitude that would have been prudent.
In the midst of intense political preoccupations, Burke always found time to keep up his intimacy with the brilliant group of his earlier friends. He was one of the commanding figures at the club at the Turk’s Head, with Reynolds and Garrick, Goldsmith and Johnson. The old sage who held that the first Whig was the Devil, was yet compelled to forgive Burke’s politics for the sake of his magnificent gifts. “I would not talk to him of the Rockingham party,” he used to say, “but I love his knowledge, his genius, his diffusion and affluence of conversation.” And everybody knows Johnson’s vivid account of him: “Burke, Sir, is such a man that if you met him for the first time in the street, where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he’d talk to you in such a manner that when you parted you would say, ‘This is an extraordinary man.’ ” They all grieved that public business should draw to party what was meant for mankind. They deplored that the nice and difficult test of answering Berkeley had not been undertaken, as was once intended, by Burke, and sighed to think what an admirable display of subtlety and brilliance such a contention would have afforded them, had not politics “turned him from active philosophy aside.” There was no jealousy in this. They did not grudge Burke being the first man in the House of Commons, for they admitted that he would have been the first man anywhere.
With all his hatred for the book-man in politics, Burke owed much of his own distinction to that generous richness and breadth of judgment which had been ripened in him by literature and his practice in it. He showed that books are a better preparation for statesmanship than early training in the subordinate posts and among the permanent officials of a public department. There is no copiousness of literary reference in his work, such as over-abounded in the civil and ecclesiastical publicists of the 17th century. Nor can we truly say that there is much, though there is certainly some, of that tact which literature is alleged to confer on those who approach it in a just spirit and with the true gift. The influence of literature on Burke lay partly in the direction of emancipation from the mechanical formulae of practical politics; partly in the association which it engendered, in a powerful understanding like his, between politics and the moral forces of the world, and between political maxims and the old and great sentences of morals; partly in drawing him, even when resting his case on prudence and expediency, to appeal to the widest and highest sympathies; partly, and more than all, in opening his thoughts to the many conditions, possibilities and “varieties of untried being,” in human character and situation, and so giving an incomparable flexibility to his methods of political approach.
This flexibility is not to be found in his manner of composition. That derives its immense power from other sources; from passion, intensity, imagination, size, truth, cogency of logical reason. Those who insist on charm, on winningness in style, on subtle harmonies and fine exquisiteness of suggestion, are disappointed in Burke: they even find him stiff and over-coloured. And there are blemishes of this kind. His banter is nearly always ungainly, his wit blunt, as Johnson said, and often unseasonable. As is usual with a man who has not true humour, Burke is also without true pathos. The thought of wrong or misery moved him less to pity for the victim than to anger against the cause. Again, there are some gratuitous and unredeemed vulgarities; some images that make us shudder. But only a literary fop can be detained by specks like these.
The varieties of Burke’s literary or rhetorical method are very striking. It is almost incredible that the superb imaginative amplification of the description of Hyder Ali’s descent upon the Carnatic should be from the same pen as the grave, simple, unadorned Address to the King (1777), where each sentence falls on the ear with the accent of some golden-tongued oracle of the wise gods. His stride is the stride of a giant, from the sentimental beauty of the picture of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, or the red horror of the tale of Debi Sing in Rungpore, to the learning, positiveness and cool judicial mastery of the Report on the Lords’ Journals (1794), which Philip Francis, no mean judge, declared on the whole to be the “most eminent and extraordinary” of all his productions. But even in the coolest and driest of his pieces there is the mark of greatness, of grasp, of comprehension. In all its varieties Burke’s style is noble, earnest, deep-flowing, because his sentiment was lofty and fervid, and went with sincerity and ardent disciplined travail of judgment. He had the style of his subjects; the amplitude, the weightiness, the laboriousness, the sense, the high flight, the grandeur, proper to a man dealing with imperial themes, with the fortunes of great societies, with the sacredness of law, the freedom of nations, the justice of rulers. Burke will always be read with delight and edification, because in the midst of discussions on the local and the accidental, he scatters apophthegms that take us into the regions of lasting wisdom. In the midst of the torrent of his most strenuous and passionate deliverances, he suddenly rises aloof from his immediate subject, and in all tranquillity reminds us of some permanent relation of things, some enduring truth of human life or human society. We do not hear the organ tones of Milton, for faith and freedom had other notes in the 18th century. There is none of the complacent and wise-browed sagacity of Bacon, for Burke’s were days of personal strife and fire and civil division. We are not exhilarated by the cheerfulness, the polish, the fine manners of Bolingbroke, for Burke had an anxious conscience, and was earnest and intent that the good should triumph. And yet Burke is among the greatest of those who have wrought marvels in the prose of our English tongue.
Not all the transactions in which Burke was a combatant could furnish an imperial theme. We need not tell over again the story of Wilkes and the Middlesex election. The Rockingham ministry had been succeeded by a composite government, of which it was intended that Pitt, now made Lord Chatham and privy seal, should be the real chief. Chatham’s health and mind fell into disorder almost immediately after the ministry had been formed. The duke of Grafton was its nominal head, but party ties had been broken, the political connexions of the ministers were dissolved, and, in truth, the king was now at last a king indeed, who not only reigned but governed. The revival of high doctrines of prerogative in the crown was accompanied by a revival of high doctrines of privilege in the House of Commons, and the ministry was so smitten with weakness and confusion as to be unable to resist the current of arbitrary policy, and not many of them were even willing to resist it. The unconstitutional prosecution of Wilkes was followed by the fatal recourse to new plans for raising taxes in the American colonies. These two points made the rallying ground of the new Whig opposition. Burke helped to smooth matters for a practical union between the Rockingham party and the powerful triumvirate, composed of Chatham, whose understanding had recovered from its late disorder, and of his brothers-in-law, Lord Temple and George Grenville. He was active in urging petitions from the freeholders of the counties, protesting against the unconstitutional invasion of the right of election. And he added a durable masterpiece to political literature in a pamphlet which he called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770). The immediate object of this excellent piece was to hold up the court scheme of weak, divided and dependent administrations in the light of its real purpose and design; to describe the distempers which had been engendered in parliament by the growth of royal influence and the faction of the king’s friends; to show that the newly formed Whig party had combined for truly public ends, and was no mere family knot like the Grenvilles and the Bedfords; and, finally, to press for the hearty concurrence both of public men and of the nation at large in combining against “a faction ruling by the private instructions of a court against the general sense of the people.” The pamphlet was disliked by Chatham on the one hand, on no reasonable grounds that we can discover; it was denounced by the extreme popular party of the Bill of Rights, on the other hand, for its moderation and conservatism. In truth, there is as strong a vein of conservative feeling in the pamphlet of 1770 as in the more resplendent pamphlet of 1790. “Our constitution,” he said, “stands on a nice equipoise, with steep precipices and deep waters upon all sides of it. In removing it from a dangerous leaning towards one side, there may be a risk of oversetting it on the other. Every project of a material change in a government so complicated as ours is a matter full of difficulties; in which a considerate man will not be too ready to decide, a prudent man too ready to undertake, or an honest man too ready to promise.” Neither now nor ever had Burke any other real conception of a polity for England than government by the territorial aristocracy in the interests of the nation at large, and especially in the interests of commerce, to the vital importance of which in our economy he was always keenly and wisely alive. The policy of George III., and the support which it found among men who were weary of Whig factions, disturbed this scheme, and therefore Burke denounced both the court policy and the court party with all his heart and all his strength.
Eloquence and good sense, however, were impotent in the face of such forces as were at this time arrayed against a government at once strong and liberal. The court was confident that a union between Chatham and the Rockinghams was impossible. The union was in fact hindered by the waywardness and the absurd pretences of Chatham, and the want of force in Lord Rockingham. In the nation at large, the late violent ferment had been followed by as remarkable a deadness and vapidity, and Burke himself had to admit a year or two later that any remarkable robbery at Hounslow Heath would make more conversation than all the disturbances of America. The duke of Grafton went out, and Lord North became the head of a government, which lasted twelve years (1770–1782), and brought about more than all the disasters that Burke had foretold as the inevitable issue of the royal policy. For the first six years of this lamentable period Burke was actively employed in stimulating, informing and guiding the patrician chiefs of his party. “Indeed, Burke,” said the duke of Richmond, “you have more merit than any man in keeping us together.” They were well-meaning and patriotic men, but it was not always easy to get them to prefer politics to fox-hunting. When he reached his lodgings at night after a day in the city or a skirmish in the House of Commons, Burke used to find a note from the duke of Richmond or the marquess of Rockingham, praying him to draw a protest to be entered on the Journals of the Lords, and in fact he drew all the principal protests of his party between 1767 and 1782. The accession of Charles James Fox to the Whig party, which took place at this time, and was so important an event in its history, was mainly due to the teaching and influence of Burke. In the House of Commons his industry was almost excessive. He was taxed with speaking too often, and with being too forward. And he was mortified by a more serious charge than murmurs about superfluity of zeal. Men said and said again that he was Junius. His very proper unwillingness to stoop to deny an accusation, that would have been so disgraceful if it had been true, made ill-natured and silly people the more convinced that it was not wholly false. But whatever the London world may have thought of him, Burke’s energy and devotion of character impressed the better minds in the country. In 1774 he received the great distinction of being chosen as one of its representatives by Bristol, then the second town in the kingdom.
In the events which ended in the emancipation of the American colonies from the monarchy, Burke’s political genius shone with an effulgence that was worthy of the great affairs over which it shed so magnificent an illumination. His speeches are almost the one monument of the struggle on which a lover of English greatness can look back with pride and a sense of worthiness, such as a churchman feels when he reads Bossuet, or an Anglican when he turns over the pages of Taylor or of Hooker. Burke’s attitude in these high transactions is really more impressive than Chatham’s, because he was far less theatrical than Chatham; and while he was no less nobly passionate for freedom and justice, in his passion was fused the most strenuous political argumentation and sterling reason of state. On the other hand he was wholly free from that quality which he ascribed to Lord George Sackville, a man “apt to take a sort of undecided, equivocal, narrow ground, that evades the substantial merits of the question, and puts the whole upon some temporary, local, accidental or personal consideration.” He rose to the full height of that great argument. Burke here and everywhere else displayed the rare art of filling his subject with generalities, and yet never intruding commonplaces. No publicist who deals as largely in general propositions has ever been as free from truisms; no one has ever treated great themes with so much elevation, and yet been so wholly secured against the pitfalls of emptiness and the vague. And it is instructive to compare the foundation of all his pleas for the colonists with that on which they erected their own theoretic declaration of independence. The American leaders were impregnated with the metaphysical ideas of rights which had come to them from the rising revolutionary school in France. Burke no more adopted the doctrines of Jefferson in 1776 than he adopted the doctrines of Robespierre in 1793. He says nothing about men being born free and equal, and on the other hand he never denies the position of the court and the country at large, that the home legislature, being sovereign, had the right to tax the colonies. What he does say is that the exercise of such a right was not practicable; that if it were practicable, it was inexpedient; and that, even if this had not been inexpedient, yet, after the colonies had taken to arms, to crush their resistance by military force would not be more disastrous to them than it would be unfortunate for the ancient liberties of Great Britain. Into abstract discussion he would not enter. “Show the thing you contend for to be reason; show it to be common sense; show it to be the means of attaining some useful end.” “The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy.” There is no difference in social spirit and doctrine between his protests against the maxims of the English common people as to the colonists, and his protests against the maxims of the French common people as to the court and the nobles; and it is impossible to find a single principle either asserted or implied in the speeches on the American revolution which was afterwards repudiated in the writings on the revolution in France.
It is one of the signs of Burke’s singular and varied eminence that hardly any two people agree precisely which of his works to mark as the masterpiece. Every speech or tract that he composed on a great subject becomes, as we read it, the rival of every other. But the Speech on Conciliation (1775) has, perhaps, been more universally admired than any of his other productions, partly because its maxims are of a simpler and less disputable kind than those which adorn the pieces on France, and partly because it is most strongly characterized by that deep ethical quality which is the prime secret of Burke’s great style and literary mastery. In this speech, moreover, and in the only less powerful one of the preceding year upon American taxation, as well as in the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol in 1777, we see the all-important truth conspicuously illustrated that half of his eloquence always comes of the thoroughness with which he gets up his case. No eminent man has ever done more than Burke to justify the definition of genius as the consummation of the faculty of taking pains. Labour incessant and intense, if it was not the source, was at least an inseparable condition of his power. And magnificent rhetorician though he was, his labour was given less to his diction than to the facts; his heart was less in the form than the matter. It is true that his manuscripts were blotted and smeared, and that he made so many alterations in the proofs that the printer found it worth while to have the whole set up in type afresh. But there is no polish in his style, as in that of Junius for example, though there is something a thousand times better than polish. “Why will you not allow yourself to be persuaded,” said Francis after reading the Reflections, “that polish is material to preservation?” Burke always accepted the rebuke, and flung himself into vindication of the sense, substance and veracity of what he had written. His writing is magnificent, because he knew so much, thought so comprehensively, and felt so strongly.
The succession of failures in America, culminating in Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, wearied the nation, and at length the persistent and powerful attacks of the opposition began to tell. “At this time,” wrote Burke, in words of manly self-assertion, thirteen years afterwards, “having a momentary lead (1780–1782), so aided and so encouraged, and as a feeble instrument in a mighty hand—I do not say I saved my country—I am sure I did my country important service. There were few indeed at that time that did not acknowledge it. It was but one voice, that no man in the kingdom better deserved an honourable provision should be made for him.” In the spring of 1782 Lord North resigned. It seemed as if the court system which Burke had been denouncing for a dozen years was now finally broken, and as if the party which he had been the chief instrument in instructing, directing and keeping together must now inevitably possess power for many years to come. Yet in a few months the whole fabric had fallen, and the Whigs were thrown into opposition for the rest of the century. The story cannot be omitted in the most summary account of Burke’s life. Lord Rockingham came into office on the fall of North. Burke was rewarded for services beyond price by being made paymaster of the forces, with the rank of a privy councillor. He had lost his seat for Bristol two years before, in consequence of his courageous advocacy of a measure of tolerance for the Catholics, and his still more courageous exposure of the enormities of the commercial policy of England towards Ireland. He sat during the rest of his parliamentary life (to 1794) for Malton, a pocket borough first of Lord Rockingham’s, then of Lord Fitzwilliam’s. Burke’s first tenure of office was very brief. He had brought forward in 1780 a comprehensive scheme of economical reform, with the design of limiting the resources of jobbery and corruption which the crown was able to use to strengthen its own sinister influence in parliament. Administrative reform was, next to peace with the colonies, the part of the scheme of the new ministry to which the king most warmly objected. It was carried out with greater moderation than had been foreshadowed in opposition. But at any rate Burke’s own office was not spared. While Charles Fox’s father was at the pay-office (1765–1778) he realized as the interest of the cash balances which he was allowed to retain in his hands, nearly a quarter of a million of money. When Burke came to this post the salary was settled at £4000 a year. He did not enjoy the income long. In July 1782 Lord Rockingham died; Lord Shelburne took his place; Fox, who inherited from his father a belief in Lord Shelburne’s duplicity, which his own experience of him as a colleague during the last three months had made stronger, declined to serve under him. Burke, though he had not encouraged Fox to take this step, still with his usual loyalty followed him out of office. This may have been a proper thing to do if their distrust of Shelburne was incurable, but the next step, coalition with Lord North against him, was not only a political blunder, but a shock to party morality, which brought speedy retribution. Either they had been wrong, and violently wrong, for a dozen years, or else Lord North was the guiltiest political instrument since Strafford. Burke attempted to defend the alliance on the ground of the substantial agreement between Fox and North in public aims. The defence is wholly untenable. The Rockingham Whigs were as substantially in agreement on public affairs with the Shelburne Whigs as they were with Lord North. The movement was one of the worst in the history of English party. It served its immediate purpose, however, for Lord Shelburne found himself (February 24, 1783) too weak to carry on the government, and was succeeded by the members of the coalition, with the duke of Portland for prime minister (April 2, 1783). Burke went back to his old post at the pay-office and was soon engaged in framing and drawing the famous India Bill. This was long supposed to be the work of Fox, who was politically responsible for it. We may be sure that neither he nor Burke would have devised any government for India which they did not honestly believe to be for the advantage both of that country and of England. But it cannot be disguised that Burke had thoroughly persuaded himself that it was indispensable in the interests of English freedom to strengthen the party hostile to the court. As we have already said, dread of the peril to the constitution from the new aims of George III. was the main inspiration of Burke’s political action in home affairs for the best part of his political life. The India Bill strengthened the anti-court party by transferring the government of India to seven persons named in the bill, and neither appointed nor removable by the crown. In other words, the bill gave the government to a board chosen directly by the House of Commons; and it had the incidental advantage of conferring on the ministerial party patronage valued at £300,000 a year, which would remain for a fixed term of years out of reach of the king. In a word, judging the India Bill from a party point of view, we see that Burke was now completing the aim of his project of economic reform. That measure had weakened the influence of the crown by limiting its patronage. The measure for India weakened the influence of the crown by giving a mass of patronage to the party which the king hated. But this was not to be. The India Bill was thrown out by means of a royal intrigue in the Lords, and the ministers were instantly dismissed (December 18, 1783). Young William Pitt, then only in his twenty-fifth year, had been chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Shelburne’s short ministry, and had refused to enter the coalition government from an honourable repugnance to join Lord North. He was now made prime minister. The country in the election of the next year ratified the king’s judgment against the Portland combination; and the hopes which Burke had cherished for a political lifetime were irretrievably ruined.
The six years that followed the great rout of the orthodox Whigs were years of repose for the country, but it was now that Burke engaged in the most laborious and formidable enterprise of his life, the impeachment of Warren Hastings for high crimes and misdemeanours in his government of India. His interest in that country was of old date. It arose partly from the fact of William Burke’s residence there, partly from his friendship with Philip Francis, but most of all, we suspect, from the effect which he observed Indian influence to have in demoralizing the House of Commons. “Take my advice for once in your life,” Francis wrote to Shee; “lay aside 40,000 rupees for a seat in parliament: in this country that alone makes all the difference between somebody and nobody.” The relations, moreover, between the East India Company and the government were of the most important kind, and occupied Burke’s closest attention from the beginning of the American war down to his own India Bill and that of Pitt and Dundas. In February 1785 he delivered one of the most famous of all his speeches, that on the nabob of Arcot’s debts. The real point of this superb declamation was Burke’s conviction that ministers supported the claims of the fraudulent creditors in order to secure the corrupt advantages of a sinister parliamentary interest. His proceedings against Hastings had a deeper spring. The story of Hastings’s crimes, as Macaulay says, made the blood of Burke boil in his veins. He had a native abhorrence of cruelty, of injustice, of disorder, of oppression, of tyranny, and all these things in all their degrees marked Hastings’s course in India. They were, moreover, concentrated in individual cases, which exercised Burke’s passionate imagination to its profoundest depths, and raised it to such a glow of fiery intensity as has never been rivalled in our history. For it endured for fourteen years, and was just as burning and as terrible when Hastings was acquitted in 1795, as in the select committee of 1781 when Hastings’s enormities were first revealed. “If I were to call for a reward,” wrote Burke, “it would be for the services in which for fourteen years, without intermission, I showed the most industry and had the least success, I mean in the affairs of India; they are those on which I value myself the most; most for the importance; most for the labour; most for the judgment; most for constancy and perseverance in the pursuit.” Sheridan’s speech in the House of Commons upon the charge relative to the begums of Oude probably excelled anything that Burke achieved, as a dazzling performance abounding in the most surprising literary and rhetorical effects. But neither Sheridan nor Fox was capable of that sustained and overflowing indignation at outraged justice and oppressed humanity, that consuming moral fire, which burst forth again and again from the chief manager of the impeachment, with such scorching might as drove even the cool and intrepid Hastings beyond all self-control, and made him cry out with protests and exclamations like a criminal writhing under the scourge. Burke, no doubt, in the course of that unparalleled trial showed some prejudice; made some minor overstatements of his case; used many intemperances; and suffered himself to be provoked into expressions of heat and impatience by the cabals of the defendant and his party, and the intolerable incompetence of the tribunal. It is one of the inscrutable perplexities of human affairs, that in the logic of practical life, in order to reach conclusions that cover enough for truth, we are constantly driven to premises that cover too much, and that in order to secure their right weight to justice and reason good men are forced to fling the two-edged sword of passion into the same scale. But these excuses were mere trifles, and well deserve to be forgiven, when we think that though the offender was in form acquitted, yet Burke succeeded in these fourteen years of laborious effort in laying the foundations once for all of a moral, just, philanthropic and responsible public opinion in England with reference to India, and in doing so performed perhaps the most magnificent service that any statesman has ever had it in his power to render to humanity.
Burke’s first decisive step against Hastings was a motion for papers in the spring of 1786; the thanks of the House of Commons to the managers of the impeachment were voted in the summer of 1794. But in those eight years some of the most astonishing events in history had changed the political face of Europe. Burke was more than sixty years old when the states-general met at Versailles in the spring of 1789. He had taken a prominent part on the side of freedom in the revolution which stripped England of her empire in the West. He had taken a prominent part on the side of justice, humanity and order in dealing with the revolution which had brought to England new empire in the East. The same vehement passion for freedom, justice, humanity and order was roused in him at a very early stage of the third great revolution in his history—the revolution which overthrew the old monarchy in France. From the first Burke looked on the events of 1789 with doubt and misgiving. He had been in France in 1773, where he had not only the famous vision of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, “glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour and joy,” but had also supped and discussed with some of the destroyers, the encyclopaedists, “the sophisters, economists and calculators.” His first speech on his return to England was a warning (March 17, 1773) that the props of good government were beginning to fail under the systematic attacks of unbelievers, and that principles were being propagated that would not leave to civil society any stability. The apprehension never died out in his mind; and when he knew that the principles and abstractions, the un-English dialect and destructive dialectic, of his former acquaintances were predominant in the National Assembly, his suspicion that the movement would end in disastrous miscarriage waxed into certainty.
The scene grew still more sinister in his eyes after the march of the mob from Paris to Versailles in October, and the violent transport of the king and queen from Versailles to Paris. The same hatred of lawlessness and violence which fired him with a divine rage against the Indian malefactors was aroused by the violence and lawlessness of the Parisian insurgents. The same disgust for abstractions and naked doctrines of right that had stirred him against the pretensions of the British parliament in 1774 and 1776, was revived in as lively a degree by political conceptions which he judged to be identical in the French assembly of 1789. And this anger and disgust were exasperated by the dread with which certain proceedings in England had inspired him, that the aims, principles, methods and language which he so misdoubted or abhorred in France were likely to infect the people of Great Britain.
In November 1790 the town, which had long been eagerly expecting a manifesto from Burke’s pen, was electrified by the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event. The generous Windham made an entry in his diary of his reception of the new book. “What shall be said,” he added, “of the state of things, when it is remembered that the writer is a man decried, persecuted and proscribed; not being much valued even by his own party, and by half the nation considered as little better than an ingenious madman?” But the writer now ceased to be decried, persecuted and proscribed, and his book was seized as the expression of that new current of opinion in Europe which the more recent events of the Revolution had slowly set flowing. Its vogue was instant and enormous. Eleven editions were exhausted in little more than a year, and there is probably not much exaggeration in the estimate that 30,000 copies were sold before Burke’s death seven years afterwards. George III. was extravagantly delighted; Stanislaus of Poland sent Burke words of thanks and high glorification and a gold medal. Catherine of Russia, the friend of Voltaire and the benefactress of Diderot, sent her congratulations to the man who denounced French philosophers as miscreants and wretches. “One wonders,” Romilly said, by and by, “that Burke is not ashamed at such success.” Mackintosh replied to him temperately in the Vindiciae Gallicae, and Thomas Paine replied to him less temperately but far more trenchantly and more shrewdly in the Rights of Man. Arthur Young, with whom he had corresponded years before on the mysteries of deep ploughing and fattening hogs, added a cogent polemical chapter to that ever admirable work, in which he showed that he knew as much more than Burke about the old system of France as he knew more than Burke about soils and roots. Philip Francis, to whom he had shown the proof-sheets, had tried to dissuade Burke from publishing his performance. The passage about Marie Antoinette, which has since become a stock piece in books of recitation, seemed to Francis a mere piece of foppery; for was she not a Messalina and a jade? “I know nothing of your story of Messalina,” answered Burke; “am I obliged to prove judicially the virtues of all those I shall see suffering every kind of wrong and contumely and risk of life, before I endeavour to interest others in their sufferings?... Are not high rank, great splendour of descent, great personal elegance and outward accomplishments ingredients of moment in forming the interest we take in the misfortunes of men?... I tell you again that the recollection of the manner in which I saw the queen of France in 1774, and the contrast between that brilliancy, splendour and beauty, with the prostrate homage of a nation to her, and the abominable scene of 1780 which I was describing, did draw tears from me and wetted my paper. These tears came again into my eyes almost as often as I looked at the description,—they may again. You do not believe this fact, nor that these are my real feelings; but that the whole is affected, or as you express it, downright foppery. My friend, I tell you it is truth; and that it is true and will be truth when you and I are no more; and will exist as long as men with their natural feelings shall exist” (Corr. iii. 139).
Burke’s conservatism was, as such a passage as this may illustrate, the result partly of strong imaginative associations clustering round the more imposing symbols of social continuity, partly of a sort of corresponding conviction in his reason that there are certain permanent elements of human nature out of which the European order had risen and which that order satisfied, and of whose immense merits, as of its mighty strength, the revolutionary party in France were most fatally ignorant. When Romilly saw Diderot in 1783, the great encyclopaedic chief assured him that submission to kings and belief in God would be at an end all over the world in a very few years. When Condorcet described the Tenth Epoch in the long development of human progress, he was sure not only that fulness of light and perfection of happiness would come to the sons of men, but that they were coming with all speed. Only those who know the incredible rashness of the revolutionary doctrine in the mouths of its most powerful professors at that time; only those who know their absorption in ends and their inconsiderateness about means, can feel how profoundly right Burke was in all this part of his contention. Napoleon, who had begun life as a disciple of Rousseau, confirmed the wisdom of the philosophy of Burke when he came to make the Concordat. That measure was in one sense the outcome of a mere sinister expediency, but that such a measure was expedient at all sufficed to prove that Burke’s view of the present possibilities of social change was right, and the view of the Rousseauites and too sanguine Perfectibilitarians wrong. As we have seen, Burke’s very first niece, the satire on Bolingbroke, sprang from his conviction that merely rationalistic or destructive criticism, applied to the vast complexities of man in the social union, is either mischievous or futile, and mischievous exactly in proportion as it is not futile.
To discuss Burke’s writings on the Revolution would be to write first a volume upon the abstract theory of society, and then a second volume on the history of France. But we may make one or two further remarks. One of the most common charges against Burke was that he allowed his imagination and pity to be touched only by the sorrows of kings and queens, and forgot the thousands of oppressed and famine-stricken toilers of the land. “No tears are shed for nations,” cried Francis, whose sympathy for the Revolution was as passionate as Burke’s execration of it. “When the provinces are scourged to the bone by a mercenary and merciless military power, and every drop of its blood and substance extorted from it by the edicts of a royal council, the case seems very tolerable to those who are not involved in it. When thousands after thousands are dragooned out of their country for the sake of their religion, or sent to row in the galleys for selling salt against law,—when the liberty of every individual is at the mercy of every prostitute, pimp or parasite that has access to power or any of its basest substitutes,—my mind, I own, is not at once prepared to be satisfied with gentle palliatives for such disorders” (Francis to Burke, November 3, 1790). This is a very terse way of putting a crucial objection to Burke’s whole view of French affairs in 1789. His answer was tolerably simple. The Revolution, though it had made an end of the Bastille, did not bring the only real practical liberty, that is to say, the liberty which comes with settled courts of justice, administering settled laws, undisturbed by popular fury, independent of everything but law, and with a clear law for their direction. The people, he contended, were no worse off under the old monarchy than they will be in the long run under assemblies that are bound by the necessity of feeding one part of the community at the grievous charge of other parts, as necessitous as those who are so fed; that are obliged to flatter those who have their lives at their disposal by tolerating acts of doubtful influence on commerce and agriculture, and for the sake of precarious relief to sow the seeds of lasting want; that will be driven to be the instruments of the violence of others from a sense of their own weakness, and, by want of authority to assess equal and proportioned charges upon all, will be compelled to lay a strong hand upon the possessions of a part. As against the moderate section of the Constituent Assembly this was just.
One secret of Burke’s views of the Revolution was the contempt which he had conceived for the popular leaders in the earlier stages of the movement. In spite of much excellence of intention, much heroism, much energy, it is hardly to be denied that the leaders whom that movement brought to the surface were almost without exception men of the poorest political capacity. Danton, no doubt, was abler than most of the others, yet the timidity or temerity with which he allowed himself to be vanquished by Robespierre showed that even he was not a man of commanding quality. The spectacle of men so rash, and so incapable of controlling the forces which they seemed to have presumptuously summoned, excited in Burke both indignation and contempt. And the leaders of the Constituent who came first on the stage, and hoped to make a revolution with rose-water, and hardly realized any more than Burke did how rotten was the structure which they had undertaken to build up, almost deserved his contempt, even if, as is certainly true, they did not deserve his indignation. It was only by revolutionary methods, which are in their essence and for a time as arbitrary as despotic methods, that the knot could be cut. Burke’s vital error was his inability to see that a root and branch revolution was, under the conditions, inevitable. His cardinal position, from which he deduced so many important conclusions, namely, that, the parts and organs of the old constitution of France were sound, and only needed moderate invigoration, is absolutely mistaken and untenable. There was not a single chamber in the old fabric that was not crumbling and tottering. The court was frivolous, vacillating, stone deaf and stone blind; the gentry were amiable, but distinctly bent to the very last on holding to their privileges, and they were wholly devoid both of the political experience that only comes of practical responsibility for public affairs, and of the political sagacity that only comes of political experience. The parliaments or tribunals were nests of faction and of the deepest social incompetence. The very sword of the state broke short in the king’s hand. If the king or queen could either have had the political genius of Frederick the Great, or could have had the good fortune to find a minister with that genius, and the good sense and good faith to trust and stand by him against mobs of aristocrats and mobs of democrats; if the army had been sound and the states-general had been convoked at Bourges or Tours instead of at Paris, then the type of French monarchy and French society might have been modernized without convulsion. But none of these conditions existed.
When he dealt with the affairs of India Burke passed over the circumstances of our acquisition of power in that continent. “There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginnings of all government,” he said. “The first step to empire is revolution, by which power is conferred; the next is good laws, good order, good institutions, to give that power stability.” Exactly on this broad principle of political force, revolution was the first step to the assumption by the people of France of their own government. Granted that the Revolution was inevitable and indispensable, how was the nation to make the best of it? And how were surrounding nations to make the best of it? This was the true point of view. But Burke never placed himself at such a point. He never conceded the postulate, because, though he knew France better than anybody in England except Arthur Young, he did not know her condition well enough. “Alas!” he said, “they little know how many a weary step is to be taken before they can form themselves into a mass which has a true political personality.”
Burke’s view of French affairs, however consistent with all his former political conceptions, put an end to more than one of his old political friendships. He had never been popular in the House of Commons, and the vehemence, sometimes amounting to fury, which he had shown in the debates on the India Bill, on the regency, on the impeachment of Hastings, had made him unpopular even among men on his own side. In May 1789—that memorable month of May in which the states-general marched in impressive array to hear a sermon at the church of Notre Dame at Versailles—a vote of censure had actually been passed on him in the House of Commons for a too severe expression used against Hastings. Fox, who led the party, and Sheridan, who led Fox, were the intimates of the prince of Wales; and Burke would have been as much out of place in that circle of gamblers and profligates as Milton would have been out of place in the court of the Restoration. The prince, as somebody said, was like his father in having closets within cabinets and cupboards within closets. When the debates on the regency were at their height we have Burke’s word that he was not admitted to the private counsels of the party. Though Fox and he were on friendly terms in society, yet Burke admits that for a considerable period before 1790 there had been between them “distance, coolness and want of confidence, if not total alienation on his part.” The younger Whigs had begun to press for shorter parliaments, for the ballot, for redistribution of political power. Burke had never looked with any favour on these projects. His experience of the sentiment of the populace in the two greatest concerns of his life,—American affairs and Indian affairs,—had not been likely to prepossess him in favour of the popular voice as the voice of superior political wisdom. He did not absolutely object to some remedy in the state of representation (Corr. ii. 387), still he vigorously resisted such proposals as the duke of Richmond’s in 1780 for manhood suffrage. The general ground was this:—“The machine itself is well enough to answer any good purpose, provided the materials were sound. But what signifies the arrangement of rottenness?”
Bad as the parliaments of George III. were, they contained their full share of eminent and capable men; and, what is more, their very defects were the exact counterparts of what we now look back upon as the prevailing stupidity in the country. What Burke valued was good government. His Report on the Causes of the Duration of Mr Hastings’s Trial shows how wide and sound were his views of law reform. His Thoughts on Scarcity attest his enlightenment on the central necessities of trade and manufacture, and even furnished arguments to Cobden fifty years afterwards. Pitt’s parliaments were competent to discuss, and willing to pass, all measures for which the average political intelligence of the country was ripe. Burke did not believe that altered machinery was at that time needed to improve the quality of legislation. If wiser legislation followed the great reform of 1832, Burke would have said this was because the political intelligence of the country had improved.
Though averse at all times to taking up parliamentary reform, he thought all such projects downright crimes in the agitation of 1791–1792. This was the view taken by Burke, but it was not the view of Fox, nor of Sheridan, nor of Francis, nor of many others of his party, and difference of opinion here was naturally followed by difference of opinion upon affairs in France. Fox, Grey, Windham, Sheridan, Francis, Lord Fitzwilliam, and most of the other Whig leaders, welcomed the Revolution in France. And so did Pitt, too, for some time. “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world,” cried Fox, with the exaggeration of a man ready to dance the carmagnole, “and how much the best!” The dissension between a man who felt so passionately as Burke, and a man who spoke so impulsively as Charles Fox, lay in the very nature of things. Between Sheridan and Burke there was an open breach in the House of Commons upon the Revolution so early as February 1790, and Sheridan’s influence with Fox was strong. This divergence of opinion destroyed all the elation that Burke might well have felt at his compliments from kings, his gold medals, his twelve editions. But he was too fiercely in earnest in his horror of Jacobinism to allow mere party associations to guide him. In May 1791 the thundercloud burst, and a public rupture between Burke and Fox took place in the House of Commons.
The scene is famous in English parliamentary annals. The minister had introduced a measure for the division of the province of Canada and for the establishment of a local legislature in each division. Fox in the course of debate went out of his way to laud the Revolution, and to sneer at some of the most effective passages in the Reflections. Burke was not present, but he announced his determination to reply. On the day when the Quebec Bill was to come on again, Fox called upon Burke, and the pair walked together from Burke’s house in Duke Street down to Westminster. The Quebec Bill was recommitted, and Burke at once rose and soon began to talk his usual language against the Revolution, the rights of man, and Jacobinism whether English or French. There was a call to order. Fox, who was as sharp and intolerant in the House as he was amiable out of it, interposed with some words of contemptuous irony. Pitt, Grey, Lord Sheffield, all plunged into confused and angry debate as to whether the French Revolution was a good thing, and whether the French Revolution, good or bad, had anything to do with the Quebec Bill. At length Fox, in seconding a motion for confining the debate to its proper subject, burst into the fatal question beyond the subject, taxing Burke with inconsistency, and taunting him with having forgotten that ever-admirable saying of his own about the insurgent colonists, that he did not know how to draw an indictment against a whole nation. Burke replied in tones of firm self-repression; complained of the attack that had been made upon him; reviewed Fox’s charges of inconsistency; enumerated the points on which they had disagreed, and remarked that such disagreements had never broken their friendship. But whatever the risk of enmity, and however bitter the loss of friendship, he would never cease from the warning to flee from the French constitution. “But there is no loss of friends,” said Fox in an eager undertone. “Yes,” said Burke, “there is a loss of friends. I know the penalty of toy conduct. I have done my duty at the price of my friend—our friendship is at an end.” Fox rose, but was so overcome that for some moments he could not speak. At length, his eyes streaming with tears, and in a broken voice, he deplored the breach of a twenty years’ friendship on a political question. Burke was inexorable. To him the political question was so vivid, so real, so intense, as to make all personal sentiment no more than dust in the balance. Burke confronted Jacobinism with the relentlessness of a Jacobin. The rupture was never healed, and Fox and he had no relations with one another henceforth beyond such formal interviews as took place in the manager’s box in Westminster Hall in connexion with the impeachment.
A few months afterwards Burke published the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, a grave, calm and most cogent vindication of the perfect consistency of his criticisms upon the English Revolution of 1688 and upon the French Revolution of 1789, with the doctrines of the great Whigs who conducted and afterwards defended in Anne’s reign the transfer of the crown from James to William and Mary. The Appeal was justly accepted as a satisfactory performance for the purpose with which it was written. Events, however, were doing more than words could do, to confirm the public opinion of Burke’s sagacity and foresight. He had always divined by the instinct of hatred that the French moderates must gradually be swept away by the Jacobins, and now it was all coming true. The humiliation of the king and queen after their capture at Varennes; the compulsory acceptance of the constitution; the plain incompetence of the new Legislative Assembly; the growing violence of the Parisian mob, and the ascendency of the Jacobins at the Common Hall; the fierce day of the 20th of June (1792), when the mob flooded the Tuileries, and the bloodier day of the 10th of August, when the Swiss guard was massacred and the royal family flung into prison; the murders in the prisons in September; the trial and execution of the king in January (1793); the proscription of the Girondins in June, the execution of the queen in October—if we realize the impression likely to be made upon the sober and homely English imagination by such a heightening of horror by horror, we may easily understand how people came to listen to Burke’s voice as the voice of inspiration, and to look on his burning anger as the holy fervour of a prophet of the Lord.
Fox still held to his old opinions as stoutly as he could, and condemned and opposed the war which England had declared against the French republic. Burke, who was profoundly incapable of the meanness of letting personal estrangement blind his eyes to what was best for the commonwealth, kept hoping against hope that each new trait of excess in France would at length bring the great Whig leader to a better mind. He used to declaim by the hour in the conclaves at Burlington House upon the necessity of securing Fox; upon the strength which his genius would lend to the administration in its task of grappling with the sanguinary giant; upon the impossibility, at least, of doing either with him or without him. Fox’s most important political friends who had long wavered, at length, to Burke’s great satisfaction, went over to the side of the government. In July 1794 the duke of Portland, Lord Fitzwilliam, Windham and Grenville took office under Pitt. Fox was left with a minority which was satirically said not to have been more than enough to fill a hackney coach. “That is a calumny,” said one of the party, “we should have filled two.” The war was prosecuted with the aid of both the great parliamentary parties of the country, and with the approval of the great bulk of the nation. Perhaps the one man in England who in his heart approved of it less than any other was William Pitt. The difference between Pitt and Burke was nearly as great as that between Burke and Fox. Burke would be content with nothing short of a crusade against France, and war to the death with her rulers. “I cannot persuade myself,” he said, “that this war bears any the least resemblance to any that has ever existed in the world. I cannot persuade myself that any examples or any reasonings drawn from other wars and other politics are at all applicable to it” (Corr. iv. 219). Pitt, on the other hand, as Lord Russell truly says, treated Robespierre and Carnot as he would have treated any other French rulers, whose ambition was to be resisted, and whose interference in the affairs of other nations was to be checked. And he entered upon the matter in the spirit of a man of business, by sending ships to seize some islands belonging to France in the West Indies, so as to make certain of repayment of the expenses of the war.
In the summer of 1794 Burke was struck to the ground by a blow to his deepest affection in life, and he never recovered from it. His whole soul was wrapped up in his only son, of whose abilities he had the most extravagant estimate and hope. All the evidence goes to show that Richard Burke was one of the most presumptuous and empty-headed of human beings. “He is the most impudent and opiniative fellow I ever knew,” said Wolfe Tone. Gilbert Elliot, a very different man, gives the same account. “Burke,” he says, describing a dinner party at Lord Fitzwilliam’s in 1793, “has now got such a train after him as would sink anybody but himself: his son, who is quite nauseated by all mankind; his brother, who is liked better than his son, but is rather oppressive with animal spirits and brogue; and his cousin, William Burke, who is just returned unexpectedly from India, as much ruined as when he went years ago, and who is a fresh charge on any prospects of power Burke may ever have. Mrs Burke has in her train Miss French [Burke’s niece], the most perfect She Paddy that ever was caught. Notwithstanding these disadvantages Burke is in himself a sort of power in the state. It is not too much to say that he is a sort of power in Europe, though totally without any of those means or the smallest share in them which give or maintain power in other men.” Burke accepted the position of a power in Europe seriously. Though no man was ever more free from anything like the egoism of the intellectual coxcomb, yet he abounded in that active self-confidence and self-assertion which is natural in men who are conscious of great powers, and strenuous in promoting great causes. In the summer of 1791 he despatched his son to Coblenz to give advice to the royalist exiles, then under the direction of Calonne, and to report to him at Beaconsfield their disposition and prospects. Richard Burke was received with many compliments, but of course nothing came of his mission, and the only impression that remains with the reader of his prolix story is his tale of the two royal brothers, who afterwards became Louis XVIII. and Charles X., meeting after some parting, and embracing one another with many tears on board a boat in the middle of the Rhine, while some of the courtiers raised a cry of “Long live the king”—the king who had a few weeks before been carried back in triumph to his capital with Mayor Pétion in his coach. When we think of the pass to which things had come in Paris by this time, and of the unappeasable ferment that boiled round the court, there is a certain touch of the ludicrous in the notion of poor Richard Burke writing to Louis XVI. a letter of wise advice how to comport himself.
At the end of the same year, with the approval of his father he started for Ireland as the adviser of the Catholic Association. He made a wretched emissary, and there was no limit to his arrogance, noisiness and indiscretion. The Irish agitators were glad to give him two thousand guineas and to send him home. The mission is associated with a more important thing, his father’s Letters to Sir Hercules Langrishe, advocating the admission of the Irish Catholics to the franchise. This short piece abounds richly in maxims of moral and political prudence. And Burke exhibited considerable courage in writing it; for many of its maxims seem to involve a contradiction, first, to the principles on which he withstood the movement in France, and second, to his attitude upon the subject of parliamentary reform. The contradiction is in fact only superficial. Burke was not the man to fall unawares into a trap of this kind. His defence of Catholic relief—and it had been the conviction of a lifetime—was very properly founded on propositions which were true of Ireland, and were true neither of France nor of the quality of parliamentary representation in England. Yet Burke threw such breadth and generality over all he wrote that even these propositions, relative as they were, form a short manual of statesmanship.
At the close of the session of 1794 the impeachment of Hastings had come to an end, and Burke bade farewell to parliament. Richard Burke was elected in his father’s place at Malton. The king was bent on making the champion of the old order of Europe a peer. His title was to be Lord Beaconsfield, and it was designed to annex to the title an income for three lives. The patent was being made ready, when all was arrested by the sudden death of the son who was to Burke more than life. The old man’s grief was agonizing and inconsolable. “The storm has gone over me,” he wrote in words which are well known, but which can hardly be repeated too often for any who have an ear for the cadences of noble and pathetic speech,—“The storm has gone over me, and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me. I am stripped of all my honours; I am torn up by the roots and lie prostrate on the earth. . . . I am alone. I have none to meet my enemies in the gate. . . . I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me have gone before me. They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors.”
A pension of £2500 was all that Burke could now be persuaded to accept. The duke of Bedford and Lord Lauderdale made some remarks in parliament upon this paltry reward to a man who, in conducting a great trial on the public behalf, had worked harder for nearly ten years than any minister in any cabinet of the reign. But it was not yet safe to kick up heels in face of the dying lion. The vileness of such criticism was punished, as it deserved to be, in the Letter to a Noble Lord (1796), in which Burke showed the usual art of all his compositions in shaking aside the insignificances of a subject. He turned mere personal defence and retaliation into an occasion for a lofty enforcement of constitutional principles, and this, too, with a relevancy and pertinence of consummate skilfulness. There was to be one more great effort before the end.
In the spring of 1796 Pitt’s constant anxiety for peace had become more earnest than ever. He had found out the instability of the coalition and the power of France. Like the thrifty steward he was, he saw with growing concern the waste of the national resources and the strain upon commerce, with a public debt swollen to what then seemed the desperate sum of £400,000,000. Burke at the notion of negotiation flamed out in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, in some respects the most splendid of all his compositions. They glow with passion, and yet with all their rapidity is such steadfastness, the fervour of imagination is so skilfully tempered by close and plausible reasoning, and the whole is wrought with such strength and fire, that we hardly know where else to look either in Burke’s own writings or elsewhere for such an exhibition of the rhetorical resources of our language. We cannot wonder that the whole nation was stirred to the very depths, or that they strengthened the aversion of the king, of Windham and other important personages in the government against the plans of Pitt. The prudence of their drift must be settled by external considerations. Those who think that the French were likely to show a moderation and practical reasonableness in success, such as they had never shown in the hour of imminent ruin, will find Burke’s judgment full of error and mischief. Those, on the contrary, who think that the nation which was on the very eve of surrendering itself to the Napoleonic absolutism was not in a hopeful humour for peace and the European order, will believe that Burke’s protests were as perspicacious as they were powerful, and that anything which chilled the energy of the war was as fatal as he declared it to be.
When the third and most impressive of these astonishing productions came into the hands of the public, the writer was no more. Burke died on the 8th of July 1797. Fox, who with all his faults was never wanting in a fine and generous sensibility, proposed that there should be a public funeral, and that the body should lie among the illustrious dead in Westminster Abbey. Burke, however, had left strict injunctions that his burial should be private; and he was laid in the little church at Beaconsfield. It was the year of Campo Formio. So a black whirl and torment of rapine, violence and fraud was encircling the Western world, as a life went out which, notwithstanding some eccentricities and some aberrations, had made great tides in human destiny very luminous. (J. Mo.)
Authorities.—Of the Collected Works, there are two main editions—the quarto and the octavo. (1) Quarto, in eight volumes, begun in 1792, under the editorship of Dr F. Lawrence; vols. i.-iii. were published in 1792; vols. iv.-viii., edited by Dr Walter King, sometime bishop of Rochester, were completed in 1827. (2) Octavo in sixteen volumes. This was begun at Burke’s death, also by Drs Lawrence and King; vols. i.-viii. were published in 1803 and reissued in 1808, when Dr Lawrence died; vols. ix.-xii. were published in 1813 and the remaining four vols. in 1827. A new edition of vols. i.-viii. was published in 1823 and the contents of vols. i.-xii. in 2 vols. octavo in 1834. An edition in nine volumes was published in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1839. This contains the whole of the English edition in sixteen volumes, with a reprint of the Account of the European Settlements in America which is not in the English edition.
Among the numerous editions published later may be mentioned that in Bohn’s British Classics, published in 1853. This contains the fifth edition of Sir James Prior’s life; also an edition in twelve volumes, octavo, published by J. C. Nimmo, 1898. There is an edition of the Select Works of Burke with introduction and notes by E. J. Payne in the Clarendon Press series, new edition, 3 vols., 1897. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, edited by Earl Fitzwilliam and Sir R. Bourke, with appendix, detached papers and notes for speeches, was published in 4 vols., 1844. The Speeches of Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons and Westminster Hall, were published in 4 vols., 1816. Other editions of the speeches are those On Irish Affairs, collected and arranged by Matthew Arnold, with a preface (1881), On American Taxation, On Conciliation with America, together with the Letter to the Sheriff of Bristol, edited with introduction and notes by F. G. Selby (1895).
The standard life of Burke is that by Sir James Prior, Memoir of the Life and Character of Edmund Burke with Specimens of his Poetry and Letters (1824). The lives by C. MacCormick (1798) by R. Bisset (1798, 1800) are of little value. Other lives are those by the Rev. George Croly (2 vols., 1847), and by T. MacKnight (3 vols., 1898). Of critical estimates of Burke’s life the Edmund Burke of John Morley, “English Men of Letters” series (1879), is an elaboration of the above article; see also his Burke, a Historical Study (1867); “Three Essays on Burke,” by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen in Horae Sabbaticae, series iii. (1892); and Peptographia Dublinensis, Memorial Discourses preached in the Chapel of Trinity College, Dublin, 1895–1902; Edmund Burke, by G. Chadwick, bishop of Derry (1902).