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MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
_Printed 1888. Reprinted 1892, 1897, 1902, 1907_
(_A Library Edition, of the book published in the “English Men of Letters Series_)
The present writer published a study on Burke some twenty years ago. It was almost entirely critical, and in no sense a narrative. The volume that is now submitted to my readers first appeared in the series of _English Men of Letters_. It is biographical rather than critical, and not more than about a score of pages have been reproduced in it from the earlier book. Three pages have been inserted from an article on Burke contributed by me to the new edition of the _Encyclopoedia Britannica_; and I have to thank Messrs. Black for the great courtesy with which they have allowed me to transcribe the passage here. These borrowings from my former self, the reader will perhaps be willing to excuse, on the old Greek principle that a man may once say a thing as he would have it said, [Greek: dis de ouk endechetai]–he can hardly say it twice.
EARLY LIFE AND FIRST WRITINGS
THE CONSTITUTIONAL STRUGGLE
THE ROCKINGHAM PARTY–PARIS–ELECTION AT BRISTOL–THE AMERICAN WAR
ECONOMICAL REFORM–BURKE IN OFFICE–FALL OF HIS PARTY
BURKE AND HIS FRIENDS
THE NEW MINISTRY–WARREN HASTINGS–BURKE’S PUBLIC POSITION
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
BURKE AND HIS PARTY–PROGRESS OF THE REVOLUTION–IRELAND–LAST YEARS
BURKE’S LITERARY CHARACTER
EARLY LIFE, AND FIRST WRITINGS
It will soon be a hundred and twenty years since Burke first took his seat, in the House of Commons, and it is eighty-five years since his voice ceased to be heard there. Since his death, as during his life, opinion as to the place to which he is entitled among the eminent men of his country has touched every extreme. Tories have extolled him as the saviour of Europe. Whigs have detested him as the destroyer of his party. One undiscriminating panegyrist calls him the most profound and comprehensive of political philosophers that has yet existed in the world. Another and more distinguished writer insists that he is a resplendent and far-seeing rhetorician, rather than a deep and subtle thinker. A third tells us that his works cannot be too much our study, if we mean either to understand or to maintain against its various enemies, open and concealed, designing and mistaken, the singular constitution of this fortunate island. A fourth, on the contrary, declares that it would be hard to find a single leading principle or prevailing sentiment in one half of these works, to which something extremely adverse cannot be found in the other half. A fifth calls him one of the greatest men, and, Bacon alone excepted, the greatest thinker, who ever devoted himself to the practice of English politics. Yet, oddly enough, the author of the fifth verdict will have it that this great man and great thinker was actually out of his mind when he composed the pieces for which he has been most widely admired and revered.
A sufficient interval has now passed to allow all the sediment of party fanaticism to fall to the bottom. The circumstances of the world have since Burke’s time undergone variation enough to enable us to judge, from many points of view, how far he was the splendid pamphleteer of a faction, and how far he was a contributor to the universal stock of enduring wisdom. Opinion is slowly, but without reaction, settling down to the verdict that Burke is one of the abiding names in our history, not because he either saved Europe or destroyed the Whig party; but because he added to the permanent considerations of wise political thought, and to the maxims of wise practice in great affairs, and because he imprints himself upon us with a magnificence and elevation of expression that places him among the highest masters of literature, in one of its highest and most commanding senses. Those who have acquired a love for abstract politics amid the almost mathematical closeness and precision of Hobbes, the philosophic calm of Locke or Mill, or even the majestic and solemn fervour of Milton, are revolted by the unrestrained passion and the decorated style of Burke. His passion appears hopelessly fatal to success in the pursuit of Truth, who does not usually reveal herself to followers thus inflamed. His ornate style appears fatal to the cautious and precise method of statement, suitable to matter which is not known at all unless it is known distinctly. Yet the natural ardour which impelled Burke to clothe his judgments in glowing and exaggerated phrases, is one secret of his power over us, because it kindles in those who are capable of that generous infection a respondent interest and sympathy. But more than this, the reader is speedily conscious of the precedence in Burke of the facts of morality and conduct, of the many interwoven affinities of human affection and historical relation, over the unreal necessities of mere abstract logic. Burke’s mind was full of the matter of great truths, copiously enriched from the fountains of generous and many-coloured feeling. He thought about life as a whole, with all its infirmities and all its pomps. With none of the mental exclusiveness of the moralist by profession, he fills every page with solemn reference and meaning; with none of the mechanical bustle of the common politician, he is everywhere conscious of the mastery of laws, institutions, and government over the character and happiness of men. Besides thus diffusing a strong light over the awful tides of human circumstance, Burke has the sacred gift of inspiring men to use a grave diligence in caring for high things, and in making their lives at once rich and austere. Such a part in literature is indeed high. We feel no emotion of revolt when Mackintosh speaks of Shakespeare and Burke in the same breath as being both of them above mere talent. And we do not dissent when Macaulay, after reading Burke’s works over, again, exclaims, “How admirable! The greatest man since Milton.”
The precise date of Burke’s birth cannot be stated with certainty. All that we can say is that it took place either in 1728 or 1729, and it is possible that we may set it down in one or the other year, as we choose to reckon by the old or the new style. The best opinion is that he was born at Dublin on the 12th of January 1729 (N.S.) His father was a solicitor in good practice, and is believed to have been descended from some Bourkes of county Limerick, who held a respectable local position in the time of the civil wars. Burke’s mother belonged to the Nagle family, which had a strong connection in the county of Cork; they had been among the last adherents of James II., and they remained firm Catholics. Mrs. Burke remained true to the Church of her ancestors, and her only daughter was brought up in the same faith. Edmund Burke and his two brothers, Garret and Richard, were bred in the religion of their father; but Burke never, in after times, lost a large and generous way of thinking about the more ancient creed of his mother and his uncles.
In 1741 he was sent to school at Ballitore, a village some thirty miles away from Dublin, where Abraham Shackleton, a Quaker from Yorkshire, had established himself fifteen years before, and had earned a wide reputation as a successful teacher and a good man. According to Burke, he richly deserved this high character. It was to Abraham Shackleton that he always professed to owe whatever gain had come to him from education. If I am anything, he said many years afterwards, it is the education I had there that has made me so. His master’s skill as a teacher did not impress him more than the example which was every day set before him, of uprightness and simplicity of heart. Thirty years later, when Burke had the news of Shackleton’s death (1771), “I had a true honour and affection,” he wrote, “for that excellent man. I feel something like a satisfaction in the midst of my concern, that I was fortunate enough to have him once under my roof before his departure.” No man has ever had a deeper or more tender reverence than Burke for homely goodness, simple purity, and all the pieties of life; it may well be that this natural predisposition of all characters, at once so genial and so serious as his, was finally stamped in him by his first schoolmaster. It is true that he was only two years at Ballitore, but two years at that plastic time often build up habits in the mind that all the rest of a life is unable to pull down.
In 1743 Burke became a student of Trinity College, Dublin, and he remained there until 1748, when he took his Bachelor’s degree. These five years do not appear to have been spent in strenuous industry in the beaten paths of academic routine. Like so many other men of great gifts, Burke in his youth was desultory and excursive. He roamed at large over the varied heights that tempt our curiosity, as the dawn of intelligence first lights them up one after another with bewitching visions and illusive magic. “All my studies,” Burke wrote in 1746, when he was in the midst of them, “have rather proceeded from sallies of passion, than from the preference of sound reason; and, like all other natural appetites, have been very violent for a season, and very soon cooled, and quite absorbed in the succeeding. I have often thought it a humorous consideration to observe and sum up all the madness of this kind I have fallen into, this two years past. First, I was greatly taken with natural philosophy; which, while I should have given my mind to logic, employed me incessantly. This I call my _furor mathematicus_. But this worked off as soon as I began to read it in the college, as men by repletion cast off their stomachs all they have eaten. Then I turned back to logic and metaphysics. Here I remained a good while, and with much pleasure, and this was my _furor logicus_, a disease very common in the days of ignorance, and very uncommon in these enlightened times. Next succeeded the _furor historicus_, which also had its day, but is now no more, being entirely absorbed in the _furor poeticus_.”
This is from one of Burke’s letters to Richard Shackleton, the son of his schoolmaster, with whom he had formed one of those close friendships that fill the life of generous youth, as ambition fills an energetic manhood. Many tears were shed when the two boys parted at Ballitore, and they kept up their intimacy by a steady correspondence. They discuss the everlasting dispute as to the ultimate fate of those who never heard the saving name of Christ. They send one another copies of verses, and Burke prays for Shackleton’s judgment on an invocation of his new poem, to beauteous nymphs who haunt the dusky wood, which hangs recumbent o’er the crystal flood. Burke is warned by Shackleton to endeavour to live according to the rules of the Gospel, and he humbly accepts the good advice, with the deprecatory plea that in a town it is difficult to sit down to think seriously. It is easier, he says, to follow the rules of the Gospel in the country than at Trinity College, Dublin. In the region of profaner things the two friends canvass the comparative worth of Sallust and of Tully’s Epistles. Burke holds for the historian, who has, he thinks, a fine, easy, diversified narrative, mixed with reflection, moral and political, neither very trite nor obvious, nor out of the way and abstract; and this is the true beauty of historical observation.
Some pages of verse describe to Shackleton how his friend passes the day, but the reader will perhaps be content to learn in humbler prose that Burke rose with the dawn, and strode forth into the country through fragrant gardens and the pride of May, until want of breakfast drove him back unwillingly to the town, where amid lectures and books his heart incessantly turned to the river and the fir-woods of Ballitore. In the evening he again turned his back on the city, taking his way “where Liffey rolls her dead dogs to the sea,” along to the wall on the shore, whence be delighted to see the sun sink into the waters, gilding ocean, ships, and city as it vanished. Alas, it was beneath the dignity of verse to tell us what we should most gladly have known. For,
“The muse nor can, nor will declare, What is my work, and what my studies there.”
What serious nourishment Burke was laying in for his understanding we cannot learn from any other source. He describes himself as spending three hours almost every day in the public library; “the best way in the world,” he adds oddly enough, “of killing thought.” I have read some history, he says, and among other pieces of history, “I am endeavouring to get a little into the accounts of this, our own poor country,”–a pathetic expression, which represents Burke’s perpetual mood, as long as he lived, of affectionate pity for his native land. Of the eminent Irishmen whose names adorn the annals of Trinity College in the eighteenth century, Burke was only contemporary at the University with one, the luckless sizar who in the fulness of time wrote the _Vicar of Wakefield_. There is no evidence that at this time he and Goldsmith were acquainted with one another. Flood had gone to Oxford some time before. The one or two companions whom Burke mentions in his letters are only shadows of names. The mighty Swift died in 1745, but there is nothing of Burke’s upon the event. In the same year came the Pretender’s invasion, and Burke spoke of those who had taken part in it in the same generous spirit that he always showed to the partisans of lost historic causes.
Of his own family Burke says little, save that in 1746 his mother had a dangerous illness. In all my life, he writes to his friend, I never found so heavy a grief, nor really did I well know what it was before. Burke’s father is said to have been a man of angry and irritable temper, and their disagreements were frequent. This unhappy circumstance made the time for parting not unwelcome. In 1747 Burke’s name had been entered at the Middle Temple, and after taking his degree, he prepared to go to England to pursue the ordinary course of a lawyer’s studies. He arrived in London in the early part of 1750.
A period of nine years followed, in which the circumstances of Burke’s life are enveloped in nearly complete obscurity. He seems to have kept his terms in the regular way at the Temple, and from the mastery of legal principles and methods which he afterwards showed in some important transactions, we might infer that he did more to qualify himself for practice than merely dine in the hall of his inn. For law, alike as a profession and an instrument of mental discipline, he had always the profound respect that it so amply deserves, though he saw that it was not without drawbacks of its own. The law, he said, in his fine description of George Grenville, in words that all who think about schemes of education ought to ponder, “is, in my opinion, one of the first and noblest of human sciences; _a science which does more to quicken and invigorate the understanding than all the other kinds of learning put together_; but it is not apt, except in persons very happily born, to open and to liberalise the mind exactly in the same proportion.” Burke was never called to the bar, and the circumstance that, about the time when he ought to have been looking for his first guinea, he published a couple of books which had as little as possible to do with either law or equity, is a tolerably sure sign that he had followed the same desultory courses at the Temple as he had followed at Trinity College. We have only to tell over again a very old story. The vague attractions of literature prevailed over the duty of taking up a serious profession. His father, who had set his heart on having a son in the rank of a barrister, was first suspicious, then extremely indignant, and at last he withdrew his son’s allowance, or else reduced it so low that the recipient could not possibly live upon it. This catastrophe took place some time in 1755,–a year of note in the history of literature, as the date of the publication of Johnson’s _Dictionary_. It was upon literature, the most seductive, the most deceiving, the most dangerous of professions, that Burke, like so many hundreds of smaller men before and since, now threw himself for a livelihood.
[Footnote 1: _American Taxation_.]
Of the details of the struggle we know very little. Burke was not fond in after life of talking about his earlier days, not because he had any false shame about the straits and hard shifts of youthful neediness, but because he was endowed with a certain inborn stateliness of nature, which made him unwilling to waste thoughts on the less dignified parts of life. This is no unqualified virtue, and Burke might have escaped some wearisome frets and embarrassments in his existence, if he had been capable of letting the detail of the day lie more heavily upon him. So far as it goes, however, it is a sign of mental health that a man should be able to cast behind him the barren memories of bygone squalor. We may be sure that whatever were the external ordeals of his apprenticeship in the slippery craft of the literary adventurer, Burke never failed in keeping for his constant companions generous ambitions and high thoughts. He appears to have frequented the debating clubs in Fleet Street and the Piazza of Covent Garden, and he showed the common taste of his time for the theatre. He was much of a wanderer, partly from the natural desire of restless youth to see the world, and partly because his health was weak. In after life he was a man of great strength, capable not only of bearing the strain of prolonged application to books and papers in the solitude of his library, but of bearing it at the same time with the distracting combination of active business among men. At the date of which we are speaking, he used to seek a milder air at Bristol, or in Monmouthshire, or Wiltshire. He passed the summer in retired country villages, reading and writing with desultory industry, in company with William Burke, a namesake but perhaps no kinsman. It would be interesting to know the plan and scope of his studies. We are practically reduced to conjecture. In a letter of counsel to his son in after years, he gave him a weighty piece of advice, which, is pretty plainly the key to the reality and fruitfulness of his own knowledge. “_Reading_,” he said, “_and much reading, is good. But the power of diversifying the matter infinitely in your own mind, and of applying it to every occasion that arises, is far better; so don’t suppress the_ vivida vis.” We have no more of Burke’s doings than obscure and tantalising glimpses, tantalising, because he was then at the age when character usually either fritters itself away, or grows strong on the inward sustenance of solid and resolute aspirations. Writing from Battersea to his old comrade, Shackleton, in 1757, he begins with an apology for a long silence which seems to have continued from months to years. “I have broken all rules; I have neglected all decorums; everything except that I have never forgot a friend, whose good head and heart have made me esteem and love him. What appearance there may have been of neglect, arises from my manner of life; chequered with various designs; sometimes in London, sometimes in remote parts of the country; sometimes in France, and shortly, please God, to be in America.”
One of the hundred inscrutable rumours that hovered about Burke’s name was, that he at one time actually did visit America. This was just as untrue as that he became a convert to the Catholic faith; or that he was the lover of Peg Woffington; or that he contested Adam Smith’s chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow along with Hume, and that both Burke and Hume were rejected in favour of some fortunate Mr. James Clow. They are all alike unfounded. But the same letter informs Shackleton of a circumstance more real and more important than any of these, though its details are only doubtfully known. Burke had married–when and where, we cannot tell. Probably the marriage took place in the winter of 1756. His wife was the daughter of Dr. Nugent, an Irish physician once settled at Bath. One story is that Burke consulted him in one of his visits to the west of England, and fell in love with his daughter. Another version makes Burke consult him after Dr. Nugent had removed to London; and tells how the kindly physician, considering that the noise and bustle of chambers over a shop must hinder his patient’s recovery, offered him rooms in his own house. However these things may have been, all the evidence shows Burke to have been fortunate in the choice or accident that bestowed upon him his wife. Mrs. Burke, like her father, was, up to the time of her marriage, a Catholic. Good judges belonging to her own sex describe her as gentle, quiet, soft in her manners, and well-bred. She had the qualities which best fitted and disposed her to soothe the vehemence and irritability of her companion. Though she afterwards conformed to the religion of her husband, it was no insignificant coincidence that in two of the dearest relations of his life the atmosphere of Catholicism was thus poured round the great preacher of the crusade against the Revolution.
About the time of his marriage, Burke made his first appearance as an author. It was in 1756 that he published _A Vindication of Natural Society_, and the more important essay, _A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful_. The latter of them had certainly been written a long time before, and there is even a traditional story that Burke wrote it when he was only nineteen years old. Both of these performances have in different degrees a historic meaning, but neither of them would have survived to our own day unless they had been associated with a name of power. A few words will suffice to do justice to them here. And first as to the _Vindication of Natural Society_. Its alternative title was, _A View of the Miseries and Evils arising to Mankind from every Species of Civil Society, in a Letter to Lord —-, by a late Noble Writer_.
Bolingbroke had died in 1751, and in 1754 his philosophical works were posthumously given to the world by David Mallet, Dr. Johnson’s beggarly Scotchman, to whom Bolingbroke had left half-a-crown in his will, for firing off a blunderbuss which he was afraid to fire off himself. The world of letters had been keenly excited about Bolingbroke. His busy and chequered career, his friendship with the great wits of the previous generation, his splendid style, his bold opinions, made him a dazzling figure. This was the late Noble Writer whose opinions Burke intended to ridicule, by reducing them to an absurdity in an exaggeration of Bolingbroke’s own manner. As it happened, the public did not readily perceive either the exaggeration in the manner, or the satire in the matter. Excellent judges of style made sure that the writing was really Bolingbroke’s, and serious critics of philosophy never doubted that the writer, whoever he was, meant all that he said. We can hardly help agreeing with Godwin, when he says that in Burke’s treatise the evils of existing political institutions, which had been described by Locke, are set forth more at large, with incomparable force of reasoning and lustre of eloquence, though the declared intention of the writer was to show that such evils ought to be considered merely trivial. Years afterwards, Boswell asked Johnson whether an imprudent publication by a certain friend of his at an early period of his life would be likely to hurt him? “No, sir,” replied the sage; “not much; it might perhaps be mentioned at an election.” It is significant that in 1765, when Burke saw his chance of a seat in Parliament, he thought it worth while to print a second edition of his _Vindication_, with a preface to assure his readers that the design of it was ironical. It has been remarked as a very extraordinary circumstance that an author who had the greatest fame of any man of his day as the master of a superb style, for this was indeed Bolingbroke’s position, should have been imitated to such perfection by a mere novice, that accomplished critics like Chesterfield and Warburton should have mistaken the copy for a firstrate original. It is, however, to be remembered that the very boldness and sweeping rapidity of Bolingbroke’s prose rendered it more fit for imitation than if its merits had been those of delicacy or subtlety; and we must remember that the imitator was no pigmy, but himself one of the giants. What is certain is that the study of Bolingbroke which preceded this excellent imitation left a permanent mark, and traces of Bolingbroke were never effaced from the style of Burke.
The point of the _Vindication_ is simple enough. It is to show that the same instruments which Bolingbroke had employed in favour of natural against revealed religion, could be employed with equal success in favour of natural as against, what Burke calls, artificial society. “Show me,” cries the writer, “an absurdity in religion, and I will undertake to show you a hundred for one in political laws and institutions…. If, after all, you should confess all these things, yet plead the necessity of political institutions, weak and wicked as they are, I can argue with equal, perhaps superior force, concerning the necessity of artificial religion; and every step you advance in your argument, you add a strength to mine. So that if we are resolved to submit our reason and our liberty to civil usurpation, we have nothing to do but to conform as quietly as we can to the vulgar notions which are connected with this, and take up the theology of the vulgar as well as their politics. But if we think this necessity rather imaginary than real, we should renounce their dreams of society, together with their visions of religion, and vindicate ourselves into perfect liberty.”
The most interesting fact about this spirited performance is, that it is a satirical literary handling of the great proposition which Burke enforced, with all the thunder and lurid effulgence of his most passionate rhetoric, five and thirty years later. This proposition is that the world would fall into ruin, “if the practice of all moral duties, and the foundations of society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every individual.” The satire is intended for an illustration of what with Burke was the cardinal truth for men, namely, that if you encourage every individual to let the imagination loose upon all subjects, without any restraint from a sense of his own weakness, and his subordinate rank in the long scheme of things, then there is nothing of all that the opinion of ages has agreed to regard as excellent and venerable, which would not be exposed to destruction at the hands of rationalistic criticism. This was Burke’s most fundamental and unswerving conviction from the first piece that he wrote down to the last, and down to the last hour of his existence.
It is a coincidence worth noticing that only two years before the appearance of the _Vindication_, Rousseau had published the second of the two memorable Discourses in which he insisted with serious eloquence on that which Burke treats as a triumph of irony. He believed, and many thousands of Frenchmen came to a speculative agreement with him, that artificial society had marked a decline in the felicity of man, and there are passages in the Discourse in which he demonstrates this, that are easily interchangeable with passages in the _Vindication_. Who would undertake to tell us from internal evidence whether the following page, with its sombre glow, is an extract from Burke, or an extract from the book which Rousseau begins by the sentence that man is born free, yet is he everywhere in chains?–
There are in Great Britain upwards of a hundred thousand people employed in lead, tin, iron, copper, and coal mines; these unhappy wretches scarce ever see the light of the sun; they are buried in the bowels of the earth; there they work at a severe and dismal task, without the least prospect of being delivered from it; they subsist upon the coarsest and worst sort of fare; they have their health miserably impaired, and their lives cut short, by being perpetually confined in the close vapour of these malignant minerals. A hundred thousand more at least are tortured without remission by the suffocating smoke, intense fires, and constant drudgery, necessary in refining and managing the products of those mines. If any man informed us that two hundred thousand innocent persons were condemned to so intolerable slavery, how should we pity the unhappy sufferers, and how great would be our just indignation against those who inflicted so cruel and ignominious a punishment!… But this number, considerable as it is, and the slavery, with all its baseness and horror, which we have at home, is nothing to what the rest of the world affords of the same nature. Millions daily bathed in the poisonous damps and destructive effluvia of lead, silver, copper, and arsenic, to say nothing of those other employments, those stations of wretchedness and contempt, in which civil society has placed the numerous _enfans perdus_ of her army. Would any rational man submit to one of the most tolerable of these drudgeries, for all the artificial enjoyments which policy has made to result from them?… Indeed the blindness of one part of mankind co-operating with the frenzy and villainy of the other, has been the real builder of this respectable fabric of political society: and as the blindness of mankind has caused their slavery, in return their state of slavery is made a pretence for continuing them in a state of blindness; for the politician will tell you gravely that their life of servitude disqualifies the greater part of the race of man for a search of truth, and supplies them with no other than mean and insufficient ideas. This is but too true; and this is one of the reasons for which I blame such institutions.
From the very beginning, therefore, Burke was drawn to the deepest of all the currents in the thought of the eighteenth century. Johnson and Goldsmith continued the traditions of social and polite literature which had been established by the Queen Anne men. Warburton and a whole host of apologists carried on the battle against deism and infidelity. Hume, after furnishing the arsenal of scepticism with a new array of deadlier engines and more abundant ammunition, had betaken himself placidly to the composition of history. What is remarkable in Burke’s first performance is his discernment of the important fact, that behind the intellectual disturbances in the sphere of philosophy, and the noisier agitations in the sphere of theology, there silently stalked a force that might shake the whole fabric of civil society itself. In France, as all students of its speculative history are agreed, there came a time in the eighteenth century when theological controversy was turned into political controversy. Innovators left the question about the truth of Christianity, and busied themselves with questions about the ends and means of governments. The appearance of Burke’s _Vindication of Natural Society_ coincides in time with the beginning of this important transformation. Burke foresaw from the first what, if rationalism were allowed to run an unimpeded course, would be the really great business of the second halt of his century.
If in his first book Burke showed how alive he was to the profound movement of the time, in the second he dealt with one of the most serious of its more superficial interests. The essay on the Sublime and Beautiful fell in with a set of topics on which the curiosity of the better minds of the age, alike in France, England, and Germany, was fully stirred. In England the essay has been ordinarily slighted; it has perhaps been overshadowed by its author’s fame in weightier matters. The nearest approach to a full and serious treatment of its main positions is to be found in Dugald Stewart’s lectures. The great rhetorical art-critic of our own day refers to it in words of disparagement, and in truth it has none of the flummery of modern criticism. It is a piece of hard thinking, and it has the distinction of having interested and stimulated Lessing, the author of _Laokoeon_ (1766), by far the most definitely valuable of all the contributions to aesthetic thought in an age which was not poor in them. Lessing was so struck with the _Inquiry_ that he set about a translation of it, and the correspondence between him and Moses Mendelssohn on the questions which Burke had raised contains the germs of the doctrine as to poetry and painting which _Laokoeon_ afterwards made so famous. Its influence on Lessing and on Kant was such as to justify the German historian of the literature of the century in bestowing on it the coveted epithet of epoch-making.
The book is full of crudities. We feel the worse side of the eighteenth century when Burke tells us that a thirst for Variety in architecture is sure to leave very little true taste; or that an air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty; or that sad fuscous colours are indispensable for sublimity. Many of the sections, again, are little more than expanded definitions from the dictionary. Any tyro may now be shocked at such a proposition as that beauty acts by relaxing the solids of the whole system. But at least one signal merit remains to the _Inquiry_. It was a vigorous enlargement of the principle, which Addison had not long before timidly illustrated, that critics of art seek its principles in the wrong place, so long as they limit their search to poems, pictures, engravings, statues, and buildings, instead of first arranging the sentiments and faculties in man to which art makes its appeal. Addison’s treatment was slight and merely literary; Burke dealt boldly with his subject on the base of the most scientific psychology that was then within his reach. To approach it on the psychological side at all was to make a distinct and remarkable advance in the method of the inquiry which he had taken in hand.
Burke was thirty years old before he approached even the threshold of the arena in which he was destined to be so great a figure. He had made a mark in literature, and it was to literature rather than to public affairs that his ambition turned. He had naturally become acquainted with the brother-authors who haunted the coffee-houses in Fleet Street; and Burke, along with his father-in-law, Dr. Nugent, was one of the first members of the immortal club where Johnson did conversational battle with all comers. We shall, in a later chapter, have something to say on Burke’s friendships with the followers of his first profession, and on the active sympathy with which he helped those who were struggling into authorship. Meanwhile, the fragments that remain of his own attempts in this direction are no considerable contributions. His _Hints for an Essay on the Drama_ are jejune and infertile, when compared with the vigorous and original thought of Diderot and Lessing at about the same period. He wrote an Account of the European Settlements in America. His _Abridgment of the History of England_ comes down no further than to the reign of John. A much more important undertaking than his history of the past was his design for a yearly chronicle of the present. The _Annual Register_ began to appear in 1759. Dodsley, the bookseller of Pall Mall, provided the sinews of war, and he gave Burke a hundred pounds a year for his survey of the great events which were then passing in the world. The scheme was probably born of the circumstances of the hour, for this was the climax of the Seven Years’ War. The clang of arms was heard in every quarter of the globe, and in East and West new lands were being brought under the dominion of Great Britain.
In this exciting crisis of national affairs, Burke began to be acquainted with public men. In 1759 he was introduced, probably by Lord Charlemont, to William Gerard Hamilton, who only survives in our memories by his nickname of Single-speech. As a matter of fact, he made many speeches in Parliament, and some good ones, but none so good as the first, delivered in a debate in 1755, in which Pitt, Fox, Grenville, and Murray all took part, and were all outshone by the new luminary. But the new luminary never shone again with its first brilliance. He sought Burke out on the strength of the success of the _Vindication of Natural Society_, and he seems to have had a taste for good company. Horace Walpole describes a dinner at his house in the summer of 1761. “There were Garrick,” he says, “and a young Mr. Burke, who wrote a book in the style of Lord Bolingbroke, that is much admired. He is a sensible man, but has not worn off his authorism yet, and thinks there is nothing so charming as writers, and to be one. He will know better one of these days.” The prophecy came true in time, but it was Burke’s passion for authorism that eventually led to a rupture with his first patron. Hamilton was a man of ability, but selfish and unreasonable. Dr. Leland afterwards described him compendiously as a sullen, vain, proud, selfish, canker-hearted, envious reptile.
In 1761 Hamilton went to Ireland as secretary to Lord Halifax, and Burke accompanied him in some indefinite capacity. “The absenteeism of her men of genius,” an eminent historian has said, “was a worse wrong to Ireland than the absenteeism of her landlords. If Edmund Burke had remained in the country where Providence had placed him, he might have changed the current of its history.”  It is at least to be said that Burke was never so absorbed in other affairs as to forget the peculiar interests of his native land. We have his own word, and his career does not belie it, that in the elation with which he was filled on being elected a member of Parliament, what was first and uppermost in his thoughts was the hope of being somewhat useful to the place of his birth and education; and to the last he had in it “a dearness of instinct more than he could justify to reason.” In fact the affairs of Ireland had a most important part in Burke’s life at one or two critical moments, and this is as convenient a place as we are likely to find for describing in a few words what were the issues. The brief space can hardly be grudged in an account of a great political writer, for Ireland had furnished the chief ordeal, test, and standard of English statesmen.
[Footnote 1: Fronde’s _Ireland_, ii. 214.]
Ireland in the middle of the eighteenth century was to England just what the American colonies would have been, if they had contained, besides the European settlers, more than twice their number of unenslaved negroes. After the suppression of the great rebellion of Tyrconnel by William of Orange, nearly the whole of the land was confiscated, the peasants were made beggars and outlaws, the Penal Laws against the Catholics were enacted and enforced, and the grand reign of Protestant Ascendancy began in all its vileness and completeness. The Protestants and landlords were supreme; the peasants and the Catholics were prostrate in despair. The Revolution brought about in Ireland just the reverse of what it effected in England. Here it delivered the body of the nation from the attempted supremacy of a small sect. There it made a small sect supreme over the body of the nation. “It was, to say the truth,” Burke wrote, “not a revolution but a conquest,” and the policy of conquest was treated as the just and normal system of government. The last conquest of England was in the eleventh century. The last conquest of Ireland was at the very end of the seventeenth.
Sixty years after the event, when Burke revisited Ireland, some important changes had taken place. The English settlers of the beginning of the century had formed an Irish interest. They had become Anglo-Irish, just as the colonists still further west had formed a colonial interest and become Anglo-American. The same conduct on the part of the mother country promoted the growth of these hostile interests in both cases. The commercial policy pursued by England towards America was identical with that pursued towards Ireland. The industry of the Anglo-Irish traders was restricted, their commerce and even their production fettered, their prosperity checked, for the benefit of the merchants of Manchester and Bristol. _Crescit Roma Albae ruinis_. “The bulk of the people,” said Stone, the Primate, “are not regularly either lodged, clothed, or fed; and those things which in England are called necessaries of life, are to us only accidents, and we can, and in many places do, subsist without them.” On the other hand, the peasantry had gradually taken heart to resent their spoliation and attempted extirpation, and in 1761 their misery under the exactions of landlords and a church which tried to spread Christianity by the brotherly agency of the tithe-proctor, gave birth to Whiteboyism–a terrible spectre, which, under various names and with various modifications, has ridden Ireland down to our own time.
Burke saw the Protestant traders of the dependency the victims of the colonial and commercial system; the Catholic landowners legally dispossessed by the operation of the penal laws; the Catholic peasantry deeply penetrated with an insurgent and vindictive spirit; and the Imperial Government standing very much aloof, and leaving the country to the tender mercies of the Undertakers and some Protestant churchmen. The Anglo-Irish were bitterly discontented with the mother country; and the Catholic native Irish were regarded by their Protestant oppressors with exactly that combination of intense contempt and loathing, and intense rage and terror, which their American counterpart would have divided between the Negro and the Red Indian. To the Anglo-Irish the native peasant was as odious as the first, and as terrible as the second. Even at the close of the century Burke could declare that the various descriptions of the people were kept as much apart as if they were not only separate nations, but separate species. There were thousands, he says, who had never talked to a Roman Catholic in their whole lives, unless they happened to talk to a gardener’s workman or some other labourer of the second or third order; while a little time before this they were so averse to have them near their persons, that they would not employ even those who could never find their way beyond the stables. Chesterfield, a thoroughly impartial and just observer, said in 1764 that the poor people in Ireland were used worse than negroes by their masters and the middlemen. We should never forget that in the transactions with the English Government during the eighteenth century, the people concerned were not the Irish, but the Anglo-Irish, the colonists of 1691. They were an aristocracy, as Adam Smith said of them, not founded in the natural and respectable distinctions of birth and fortune, but in the most odious of all distinctions, those of religious and political prejudices–distinctions which, more than any other, animate both the insolence of the oppressors and the hatred and indignation of the oppressed.
The directions in which Irish improvement would move were clear from the middle of the century to men with much less foresight than Burke had. The removal of all commercial restrictions, either by Independence or Union, on the one hand, and the gradual emancipation of the Catholics, on the other, were the two processes to which every consideration of good government manifestly pointed. The first proved a much shorter and simpler process than the second. To the first the only obstacle was the blindness and selfishness of the English merchants. The second had to overcome the virulent opposition of the tyrannical Protestant faction in Ireland, and the disgraceful but deep-rooted antipathies of the English nation. The history of the relation between the mother country and her dependency during Brake’s life, may be characterised as a commercial and legislative struggle between the imperial government and the Anglo-Irish interest, in which each side for its own convenience, as the turn served, drew support from the Catholic majority.
A Whiteboy outbreak, attended by the usual circumstances of disorder and violence, took place while Burke was in Ireland. It suited the interests of faction to represent these commotions as the symptoms of a deliberate rebellion. The malcontents were represented as carrying on treasonable correspondence, sometimes with Spain and sometimes with France; they were accused of receiving money and arms from their foreign sympathisers, and of aiming at throwing off the English rule. Burke says that he had means and the desire of informing himself to the bottom upon the matter, and he came strongly to the conclusion that this was not a true view of what had happened. What had happened was due, he thought, to no plot, but to superficial and fortuitous circumstances. He consequently did not shrink from describing it as criminal, that the king’s Catholic subjects in Ireland should have been subjected, on no good grounds, to harassing persecution, and that numbers of them should have been ruined in fortune, imprisoned, tried, and capitally executed for a rebellion which was no rebellion at all. The episode is only important as illustrating the strong and manly temper in which Burke, unlike too many of his countrymen with fortunes to make by English favour, uniformly considered the circumstances of his country. It was not until a later time that he had an opportunity of acting conspicuously on her behalf, but whatever influence he came to acquire with his party was unflinchingly used against the cruelty of English prejudice.
Burke appears to have remained in Ireland for two years (1761-63). In 1763 Hamilton, who had found him an invaluable auxiliary, procured for him, principally with the aid of the Primate Stone, a pension of three hundred pounds a year from the Irish Treasury. In thanking him for this service, Burke proceeded to bargain that the obligation should not bind him to give to his patron the whole of his time. He insisted on being left with a discreet liberty to continue a little work which he had as a rent-charge upon his thoughts. Whatever advantages he had acquired, he says, had been due to literary reputation, and he could only hope for a continuance of such advantages on condition of doing something to keep the same reputation alive. What this literary design was, we do not know with certainty. It is believed to have been a history of England, of which, as I have said, a fragment remains. Whatever the work may have been, it was an offence to Hamilton. With an irrational stubbornness, that may well astound us when we think of the noble genius that he thus wished to confine to paltry personal duties, he persisted that Burke should bind himself to his service for life, and to the exclusion of other interests. “To circumscribe my hopes,” cried Burke, “to give up even the possibility of liberty, to annihilate myself for ever!” He threw up the pension, which he had held for two years, and declined all further connection with Hamilton, whom he roundly described as an infamous scoundrel. “Six of the best years of my life he took me from every pursuit of my literary reputation, or of improvement of my fortune…. In all this time you may easily conceive how much I felt at seeing myself left behind by almost all of my contemporaries. There never was a season more favourable for any man who chose to enter into the career of public life; and I think I am not guilty of ostentation in supposing my own moral character and my industry, my friends and connections, when Mr. Hamilton first sought my acquaintance, were not at all inferior to those of several whose fortune is at this day upon a very different footing from mine.”
It was not long before a more important opening offered itself, which speedily brought Burke into the main stream of public life. In the summer of 1765 a change of ministry took place. It was the third since the king’s accession five years ago. First, Pitt had been disgraced, and the old Duke of Newcastle dismissed. Then Bute came into power, but Bute quailed before the storm of calumny and hate which his Scotch nationality, and the supposed source of his power over the king, had raised in every town in England. After Lord Bute, George Grenville undertook the Government. Before he had been many months in office, he had sown the seeds of war in the colonies, wearied Parliament, and disgusted the king. In June 1765 Grenville was dismissed. With profound reluctance the king had no other choice than to summon Lord Rockingham, and Lord Rockingham, in a happy moment for himself and his party, was induced to offer Burke a post as his private secretary. A government by country gentlemen is too apt to be a government of ignorance, and Lord Rockingham was without either experience or knowledge. He felt, or friends felt for him, the advantage of having at his side a man who was chiefly known as an author in the service of Dodsley, and as having conducted the _Annual Register_ with great ability, but who even then was widely spoken of as nothing less than an encyclopaedia of political knowledge.
It is commonly believed that Burke was commended to Lord Rockingham by William Fitzherbert. Fitzherbert was President of the Board of Trade in the new government, but he is more likely to be remembered as Dr. Johnson’s famous example of the truth of the observation, that a man will please more upon the whole by negative qualities than by positive, because he was the most acceptable man in London, and yet overpowered nobody by the superiority of his talents, made no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seemed always to listen, did not oblige you to hear much from him, and did not oppose what you said. Besides Fitzherbert’s influence, we have it on Burke’s own authority that his promotion was partly due to that mysterious person, William Burke, who was at the same time appointed an under-secretary of state. There must have been unpleasant rumours afloat as to the Burke connection, and we shall presently consider what they were worth. Meanwhile, it is enough to say that the old Duke of Newcastle hurried to the new premier, and told him the appointment would never do; that the new secretary was not only an Irish adventurer, which was true, but that he was an Irish papist, which was not true; that he was a Jesuit, that he was a spy from Saint Omer’s, and that his real name was O’Bourke. Lord Rockingham behaved like a man of sense and honour, sent for Burke, and repeated to him what he had heard. Burke warmly denounced the truthlessness of the Duke’s tattle. He insisted that the reports which his chief had heard would probably, even unknown to himself, create in his mind such suspicions as would stand in the way of a thorough confidence. No earthly consideration, he said, should induce him to continue in relations with a man whose trust in him was not entire; and he pressed his resignation. To this Lord Rockingham would not consent, and from that time until his death, seventeen years afterwards, the relations between them were those of loyal and honourable service on the one hand, and generous and appreciative friendship on the other. Six and twenty years afterwards (1791) Burke remembered the month in which he had first become connected with a man whose memory, he said, will ever be precious to Englishmen of all parties, as long as the ideas of honour and virtue, public and private, are understood and cherished in this nation.
The Rockingham ministry remained in office for a year and twenty days (1765-66). About the middle of this term (December 26, 1765) Burke was returned to Parliament for the borough of Wendover, by the influence of Lord Verney, who owned it, and who also returned William Burke for another borough. Lord Verney was an Irish peer, with large property in Buckinghamshire; he now represented that county in Parliament. It was William Burke’s influence with Lord Verney that procured for his namesake the seat at Wendover. Burke made his first speech in the House of Commons a few days after the opening of the session of 1766 (January 27), and was honoured by a compliment from Pitt, still the Great Commoner. A week later he spoke again on the same momentous theme, the complaints of the American colonists, and his success was so marked that good judges predicted, in the stiff phraseology of the time, that he would soon add the palm of the orator to the laurel of the writer and the philosopher. The friendly Dr. Johnson wrote to Langton that Burke had gained more reputation than any man at his first appearance had ever gained before. The session was a great triumph to the new member, but it brought neither strength nor popularity to the administration. At the end of it the king dismissed them, and the Chatham Government was formed–that strange combination which has been made famous by Burke’s description of it as a piece of joinery so crossly indented and whimsically dovetailed, such a piece of diversified mosaic, such a tessellated pavement without cement, that it was indeed a very curious show, but utterly unsafe to touch and unsure to stand upon. There was no obvious reason why Burke should not have joined the new ministry. The change was at first one of persons rather than of principles or of measures. To put himself, as Burke afterwards said, out of the way of the negotiations which were then being carried on very eagerly and through many channels with the Earl of Chatham, he went to Ireland very soon after the change of ministry. He was free from party engagements, and more than this, he was free at the express desire of his friends; for on the very day of his return the Marquis of Rockingham wished him to accept office under the new system. Burke “believes he might have had such a situation, but he cheerfully took his fate with his party.” In a short time he rendered his party the first of a long series of splendid literary services by writing his _Observations on the Present State of the Nation_ (1769). It was a reply to a pamphlet by George Grenville, in which the disappointed minister accused his successors of ruining the country. Burke, in answering the charge, showed a grasp of commercial and fiscal details at least equal to that of Grenville himself, then considered the first man of his time in dealing with the national trade and resources. To this easy mastery of the special facts of the discussion, Burke added the far rarer art of lighting them up by broad principles, and placing himself and his readers at the highest and most effective point of view for commanding their general bearings.
If Burke had been the Irish adventurer that his enemies described, he might well have seized with impatience the opening to office that the recent exhibition of his powers in the House of Commons had now made accessible to him. There was not a man in Great Britain to whom the emoluments of office would have been more useful. It is one of the standing mysteries in literary biography how Burke could think of entering Parliament without any means that anybody can now trace of earning a fitting livelihood. Yet at this time Burke, whom we saw not long ago writing for the booksellers, had become affluent enough to pay a yearly allowance to Barry, the painter, in order to enable him to study the pictures in the great European galleries, and to make a prolonged residence at Rome. A little later he took a step which makes the riddle still more difficult, and which has given abundant employment to wits who are _maximi in minimis_, and think that every question which they can ask, yet to which history has thought it worth while to leave no answer, is somehow a triumph of their own learning and dialectic.
In 1769 Burke purchased a house and lands known as Gregories, in the parishes of Penn and Beaconsfield, in the county of Bucks. It has often been asked, and naturally enough, how a man who, hardly more than a few months before, was still contented to earn an extra hundred pounds a year by writing for Dodsley, should now have launched out as the buyer of a fine house and estate, which cost upwards of twenty-two thousand pounds, which could not be kept up on less than two thousand five hundred a year, and of which the returns did not amount to one-fifth of that sum. Whence did he procure the money, and what is perhaps more difficult to answer, how came he first to entertain the idea of a design so ill-proportioned to anything that we can now discern in his means and prospects? The common answer from Burke’s enemies, and even from some neutral inquirers, gives to every lover of this great man’s high character an unpleasant shock. It is alleged that he had plunged into furious gambling in East India stock. The charge was current at the time, and it was speedily revived when Burke’s abandonment of his party, after the French Revolution, exposed him to a thousand attacks of reckless and uncontrolled virulence. It has been stirred by one or two pertinacious critics nearer our own time, and none of the biographers have dealt with the perplexities of the matter as they ought to have done. Nobody, indeed, has ever pretended to find one jot or tittle of direct evidence that Burke himself took a part in the gambling in India or other stocks. There is evidence that he was a holder of the stock, and no more. But what is undeniable is that Richard Burke, his brother, William Burke, his intimate if not his kinsman, and Lord Verney, his political patron, were all three at this time engaged together in immense transactions in East India stock; that in 1769 the stock fell violently; that they were unable to pay their differences; and that in the year when Edmund Burke bought Gregories, the other three were utterly ruined, two of them beyond retrieval. Again it is clear that, after this, Richard Burke was engaged in land-jobbing in the West Indies; that his claims were disputed by the Government as questionable and dishonest; and that he lost his case. Edmund Burke was said, in the gossip of the day, to be deeply interested in land at Saint Vincent’s. But there is no evidence. What cannot be denied is that an unpleasant taint of speculation and financial adventurership hung at one time about the whole connection, and that the adventures invariably came to an unlucky end.
Whether Edmund Burke and William Burke were relations or not, and if so, in what degree they were relations, neither of them ever knew; they believed that their fathers sometimes called one another cousins, and that was all that they had to say on the subject. But they were as intimate as brothers, and when William Burke went to mend his broken fortunes in India, Edmund Burke commended him to Philip Francis–then fighting his deadly duel of five years with Warren Hastings at Calcutta–as one whom he had tenderly loved, highly valued, and continually lived with in an union not to be expressed, quite since their boyish years. “Looking back to the course of my life,” he wrote in 1771, “I remember no one considerable benefit in the whole of it which I did not, mediately or immediately, derive from William Burke.” There is nothing intrinsically incredible, therefore, considering this intimacy and the community of purse and home which subsisted among the three Burkes, in the theory that when Edmund Burke bought his property in Buckinghamshire, he looked for help from the speculations of Richard and William. However this may have been, from them no help came. Many years afterwards (1783) Lord Verney filed a bill in Chancery claiming from Edmund Burke a sum of L6000, which he alleged that he had lent at the instigation of William Burke, to assist in completing the purchase of Beaconsfield. Burke’s sworn answer denied all knowledge of the transaction, and the plaintiff did not get the relief for which he had prayed.
In a letter to Shackleton (May 1, 1768), Burke gave the following account of what he had done:–“I have made a push,” he says, “with all I could collect of my own, and the aid of my friends, to cast a little root in this country. I have purchased a house, with an estate of about six hundred acres of land, in Buckinghamshire, twenty-four miles from London. It is a place exceedingly pleasant; and I propose, God willing, to become a farmer in good earnest. You, who are classical, will not be displeased to know that it was formerly the seat of Waller, the poet, whose house, or part of it, makes at present the farmhouse within an hundred yards of me.” The details of the actual purchase of Beaconsfield have been made tolerably clear. The price was twenty-two thousand pounds, more or less. Fourteen thousand were left on mortgage, which remained outstanding until the sale of the property by Mrs. Burke in 1812. Garret Burke, the elder brother, had shortly before the purchase made Edmund his residuary legatee, and it is guessed that of this bequest two thousand pounds were in cash. The balance of six thousand was advanced by Lord Rockingham on Burke’s bond.
The purchase after all was the smallest part of the matter, and it still remains a puzzle not only how Burke was able to maintain so handsome an establishment, but how he could ever suppose it likely that he would be able to maintain it. He counted, no doubt, on making some sort of income by farming. The Irish estate, which he had inherited from his brother, brought in five hundred a year (Arthur Young’s _Ireland_, ii. 193). For a short time he received a salary of seven hundred pounds a year as agent for New York. We may perhaps take for granted that he made as much more out of his acres. He received something from Dodsley for his work on the _Annual Register_ down to 1788. But when all these resources have been counted up, we cannot but see the gulf of a great yearly deficit. The unhappy truth is that from the middle of 1769, when we find him applying to Garrick for the loan of a thousand pounds, down to 1794, when the king gave him a pension, Burke was never free from the harassing strain of debts and want of money. It has been stated with good show of authority, that his obligations to Lord Rockingham amounted to not less than thirty thousand pounds. When that nobleman died (1782), with a generosity which is not the less honourable to him for having been so richly earned by the faithful friend who was the object of it, he left instructions to his executors that all Burke’s bonds should be destroyed.
We may indeed wish from the bottom of our hearts that all this had been otherwise. But those who press it as a reproach against Burke’s memory, may be justly reminded that when Pitt died, after drawing the pay of a minister for twenty years, he left debts to the amount of forty thousand pounds. Burke, as I have said elsewhere, 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. At least, every creditor was paid in good time, and nobody suffered but himself. Those who think these disagreeable matters of supreme importance, and allow such things to stand between them and Brake’s greatness, are like the people–slightly to alter a figure from a philosopher of old–who, when they went to Olympia, could only perceive that they were scorched by the sun, and pressed by the crowd, and deprived of comfortable means of bathing, and wetted by the rain, and that life was full of disagreeable and troublesome things, and so they almost forgot the great colossus of ivory and gold, Phidias’s statue of Zeus, which they had come to see, and which stood in all its glory and power before their perturbed and foolish vision.
There have been few men in history with whom personal objects counted for so little as they counted with Burke. He really did what so many public men only feign to do. He forgot that he had any interests of his own to be promoted, apart from the interests of the party with which he acted, and from those of the whole nation, for which he held himself a trustee. What William Burke said of him in 1766 was true throughout his life, “Ned is full of real business, intent upon doing solid good to his country, as much as if he was to receive twenty per cent from the Empire.” Such men as the shrewd and impudent Bigby atoned for a plebeian origin by the arts of dependence and a judicious servility, and drew more of the public money from the pay-office in half a dozen quarter-days than Burke received in all his life. It was not by such arts that Burke rose. When we remember all the untold bitterness of the struggle in which he was engaged, from the time when the old Duke of Newcastle tried to make the Marquis of Rockingham dismiss his new private secretary as an Irish Jesuit in disguise (1765), down to the time when the Duke of Bedford, himself battening “in grants to the house of Russell, so enormous as not only to outrage economy, but even to stagger credibility,” assailed the Government for giving Burke a moderate pension, we may almost imagine that if Johnson had imitated the famous Tenth Satire a little later, he would have been tempted to apply the poet’s cynical criticism of the career heroic to the greater Cicero of his own day. “I was not,” Burke said, in a passage of lofty dignity, “like his Grace of Bedford, swaddled and rocked and dandled into a legislator; _Nitor in adversum_ is the motto for a man like me. I possessed not one of the qualities, nor cultivated one of the arts, that recommend men to the favour and protection of the great. I was not made for a minion or a tool. As little did I follow the trade of winning the hearts, by imposing on the understandings of the people. At every step of my progress in life, for in every step was I traversed and opposed, and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home; otherwise no rank, no toleration even for me.”
THE CONSTITUTIONAL STRUGGLE
Foreign observers of our affairs looked upon the state of England between the accession of George III. and the loss of the American colonies (1760-76) with mixed disgust and satisfaction. Their instinct as absolute rulers was revolted by a spectacle of unbridled faction and raging anarchy; their envy was soothed by the growing weakness of a power which Chatham had so short a time before left at the highest point of grandeur and strength. Frederick the Great spoke with contempt of the insolence of Opposition and the virulence of parties; and vowed that, petty German prince as he was, he would not change places with the King of England. The Emperor Joseph pronounced positively that Great Britain was declining, that Parliament was ruining itself, and that the colonies threatened a catastrophe. Catherine of Russia thought that nothing would restore its ancient vigour to the realm, short of the bracing and heroic remedy of a war. Even at home, such shrewd and experienced onlookers as Horace Walpole suspected that the state of the country was more serious than it had been since the Great Rebellion, and declared it to be approaching by fast strides to some sharp crisis. Men who remembered their Roman history, fancied that they saw every symptom of confusion that preceded the ruin of the Commonwealth, and began to inquire uneasily what was the temper of the army. Men who remembered the story of the violence and insatiable factiousness of Florence, turned again to Macchiavelli and to Guicciardini, to trace a parallel between the fierce city on the Arno and the fierce city on the Thames. When the King of Sweden, in 1772, carried out a revolution, by abolishing an oligarchic council and assuming the powers of a dictator, with the assent of his people, there were actually serious men in England who thought that the English, after having been guilty of every meanness and corruption, would soon, like the Swedes, own themselves unworthy to be free. The Duke of Richmond, who happened to have a claim to a peerage and an estate in France, excused himself for taking so much pains to establish his claim to them, by gravely asking who knew that a time might not soon come when England would not be worth living in, and when a retreat to France might be a very happy thing for a free man to have?
The reign had begun by a furious outbreak of hatred between the English and the Scotch. Lord Bute had been driven from office, not merely because he was supposed to owe his power to a scandalous friendship with the king’s mother, but because he was accused of crowding the public service with his detested countrymen from the other side of the Tweed. He fell, less from disapproval of his policy, than from rude prejudice against his country. The flow of angry emotion had not subsided before the whisper of strife in the American colonies began to trouble the air; and before that had waxed loud, the Middlesex election had blown into a portentous hurricane. This was the first great constitutional case after Burke came into the House of Commons. As, moreover, it became a leading element in the crisis which was the occasion of Burke’s first remarkable essay in the literature of politics, it is as well to go over the facts.
The Parliament to which he had first been returned, now approaching the expiry of its legal term, was dissolved in the spring of 1768. Wilkes, then an outlaw in Paris, returned to England, and announced himself as a candidate for the city. When the election was over, his name stood last on the poll. But his ancient fame as the opponent and victim of the court five years before, was revived. After his rejection in the city, he found himself strong enough to stand for the county of Middlesex. Here he was returned at the head of the poll after an excited election. Wilkes had been tried in 1764, and found guilty by the King’s Bench of republishing Number Forty-five of the _North Briton_, and of printing and publishing the _Essay on Woman_. He had not appeared to receive sentence, and had been outlawed in consequence. After his election for Middlesex, he obtained a reversal of his outlawry on a point of technical form. He then came up for sentence under the original verdict. The court sent him to prison for twenty-two months, and condemned him to pay a fine of a thousand pounds.
Wilkes was in prison when the second session of the new Parliament began. His case came before the House in November 1768, on his own petition, accusing Lord Mansfield of altering the record at his trial. After many acrimonious debates and examinations of Wilkes and others at the bar of the House, at length, by 219 votes against 136, the famous motion was passed which expelled him from the House. Another election for Middlesex was now held, and Wilkes was returned without opposition. The day after the return, the House of Commons resolved by an immense majority, that having been expelled, Wilkes was incapable of serving in that Parliament. The following month Wilkes was once more elected. The House once more declared the election void. In April another election took place, and this time the Government put forward Colonel Luttrell, who vacated his seat for Bossiney for the purpose of opposing Wilkes. There was the same result, and for the fourth time Wilkes was at the head of the poll. The House ordered the return to be altered, and after hearing by counsel the freeholders of Middlesex who petitioned against the alteration, finally confirmed it (May 8, 1769) by a majority of 221 to 152. According to Lord Temple, this was the greatest majority ever known on the last day of a session.
The purport and significance of these arbitrary proceedings need little interpretation. The House, according to the authorities, had a constitutional right to expel Wilkes, though the grounds on which even this is defended would probably be questioned if a similar case were to arise in our own day. But a single branch of the legislature could have no power to pass an incapacitating vote either against Wilkes or anybody else. An Act of Parliament is the least instrument by which such incapacity could be imposed. The House might perhaps expel Wilkes, but it could not either legally or with regard to the less definite limits of constitutional morality, decide whom the Middlesex freeholders should not elect, and it could not therefore set aside their representative, who was then free from any disabling quality. Lord Camden did not much exaggerate, when he declared in a debate on the subject in the House of Lords, that the judgment passed upon the Middlesex election had given the constitution a more dangerous wound than any which were given during the twelve years’ absence of Parliament in the reign of Charles I. The House of Commons was usurping another form of that very dispensing power, for pretending to which the last of the Stuart sovereigns had lost his crown. If the House by a vote could deprive Wilkes of a right to sit, what legal or constitutional impediment would there be in the way, if the majority were at any time disposed to declare all their most formidable opponents in the minority incapable of sitting?
In the same Parliament, there was another and scarcely less remarkable case of Privilege, “that eldest son of Prerogative,” as Burke truly called it, “and inheriting all the vices of its parent.” Certain printers were accused of breach of privilege for reporting the debates of the House (March, 1771). The messenger of the serjeant-at-arms attempted to take one of them into custody in his own shop in the city. A constable was standing by, designedly, it has been supposed, and Miller, the printer, gave the messenger into his custody for an assault. The case came on before the Lord Mayor, Alderman Wilkes, and Alderman Oliver, the same evening, and the result was that the messenger of the House was committed. The city doctrine was, that if the House of Commons had a serjeant-at-arms, they had a serjeant-at-mace. If the House of Commons could send their citizens to Newgate, they could send its messenger to the Compter. Two other printers were collusively arrested, brought before Wilkes and Oliver, and at once liberated.
The Commons instantly resolved on stern measures. The Lord Mayor and Oliver were taken and despatched to the Tower, where they lay until the prorogation of Parliament. Wilkes stubbornly refused to pay any attention to repeated summonses to attend at the bar of the House, very properly insisting that he ought to be summoned to attend _in his place_ as member for Middlesex. Besides committing Crosby and Oliver to the Tower, the House summoned the Lord Mayor’s clerk to attend with his books, and then and there forced him to strike out the record of the recognisances into which their messenger had entered on being committed at the Mansion House. No Stuart ever did anything more arbitrary and illegal. The House deliberately intended to constitute itself, as Burke had said two years before, an arbitrary and despotic assembly. “The distempers of monarchy were the great subjects of apprehension and redress in the last century. In this, the distempers of Parliament.”
Burke, in a speech which he delivered in his place in 1771, warned the House of the evils of the course upon which they were entering, and declared those to be their mortal enemies who would persuade them to act as if they were a self-originated magistracy, independent of the people, and unconnected with their opinions and feelings. But these mortal enemies of its very constitution were at this time the majority of the House. It was to no purpose that Burke argued with more than legal closeness that incapacitation could not be a power according to law, inasmuch as it had neither of the two properties of law: it was not _known_, “you yourselves not knowing upon what grounds you will vote the incapacity of any man;” and it was not _fixed_, because it was varied according to the occasion, exercised according to discretion, and no man could call for it as a right. A strain of unanswerable reasoning of this kind counted for nothing, in spite of its being unanswerable. Despotic or oligarchic pretensions are proof against the most formidable battery that reason and experience can construct against them. And Wilkes’s exclusion endured until this Parliament–the Unreported Parliament, as it was called, and in many respects the very worst that ever assembled at Westminster–was dissolved, and a new one elected (1774), when he was once again returned for Middlesex, and took his seat.
The London multitude had grown zealous for Wilkes, and the town had been harassed by disorder. Of the fierce brutality of the crowd of that age, we may form a vivid idea from the unflinching pencil of Hogarth. Barbarous laws were cruelly administered. The common people were turbulent, because misrule made them miserable. Wilkes had written filthy verses, but the crowd cared no more for this than their betters cared about the vices of Lord Sandwich. They made common cause with one who was accidentally a more conspicuous sufferer. Wilkes was quite right when he vowed that he was no Wilkite. The masses were better than their leader. “Whenever the people have a feeling,” Burke once said, “they commonly are in the right: they sometimes mistake the physician.” Franklin, who was then in London, was of opinion that if George III. had had a bad character, and John Wilkes a good one, the latter might have turned the former out of the kingdom; for the turbulence that began in street riots, at one time threatened to end in revolt. The king himself was attacked with savage invective in papers, of which it was said that no one in the previous century would have dared to print any like them until Charles was fast locked up in Carisbrooke Castle.
As is usual when the minds of those in power have been infected with an arbitrary temper, the employment of military force to crush civil disturbances became a familiar and favourite idea. The military, said Lord Weymouth, in an elaborate letter which he addressed to the Surrey magistrates, can never be employed to a more constitutional purpose than in the support of the authority and dignity of the magistracy. If the magistrate should be menaced, he is cautioned not to delay a moment in calling for the aid of the military, and making use of them effectually. The consequence of this bloody scroll, as Wilkes rightly called it, was that shortly afterwards an affray occurred between the crowd and the troops, in which some twenty people were killed and wounded (May 10, 1768). On the following day, the Secretary of War, Lord Barrington, wrote to the commanding officer, informing him that the king highly approved of the conduct both of officers and men, and wished that his gracious approbation of them should be communicated to them.
Burke brought the matter before the House in a motion for a Committee of Inquiry, supported by one of the most lucid and able of his minor speeches. “If ever the time should come,” he concluded, “when this House shall be found prompt to execute and slow to inquire; ready to punish the excesses of the people, and slow to listen to their grievances; ready to grant supplies, and slow to examine the account; ready to invest magistrates with large powers, and slow to inquire into the exercise of them; ready to entertain notions of the military power as incorporated with the constitution,–when you learn this in the air of St. James’s, then the business is done; then the House of Commons will change that character which it receives from the people only.” It is hardly necessary to say that his motion for a Committee was lost by the overwhelming majority of 245 against 30. The general result of the proceedings of the Government from the accession of George III. to the beginning of the troubles in the American colonies, was in Burke’s own words, that the Government was at once dreaded and contemned; that the laws were despoiled of all their respected and salutary terrors; that their inaction was a subject of ridicule, and their exertion of abhorrence; that our dependencies had slackened in their affections; that we knew neither how to yield, nor how to enforce; and that disconnection and confusion, in offices, in parties, in families, in Parliament, in the nation, prevailed beyond the disorders of any former time.
It was in the pamphlet on the _Present Discontents_, published in 1770, that Burke dealt at large with the whole scheme of policy of which all these irregularities were the distempered incidents. The pamphlet was composed as a manifesto of the Rockingham section of the Whig party, to show, as Burke wrote to his chief, how different it was in spirit and composition from “the Bedfords, the Grenvilles, and other knots, who are combined for no public purpose, but only as a means of furthering with joint strength their private and individual advantage.” The pamphlet was submitted in manuscript or proof to the heads of the party. Friendly critics excused some inelegancies which they thought they found in occasional passages, by taking for granted, as was true, that he had admitted insertions from other hands. Here for the first time he exhibited, on a conspicuous scale, the strongest qualities of his understanding. Contemporaries had an opportunity of measuring this strength, by comparison with another performance of similar scope. The letters of Junius had startled the world the year before. Burke was universally suspected of being their author, and the suspicion never wholly died out so long as he lived. There was no real ground for it beyond the two unconnected facts, that the letters were powerful letters, and that Burke had a powerful intellect. Dr. Johnson admitted that he had never had a better reason for believing that Burke was Junius, than that he knew nobody else who had the ability of Junius. But Johnson discharged his mind of the thought, at the instant that Burke voluntarily assured him that he neither wrote the letters of Junius, nor knew who had written them. The subjects and aim of those famous pieces were not very different from Burke’s tract, but any one who in our time turns from the letters to the tract, will wonder how the author of the one could ever have been suspected of writing the other. Junius is never more than a railer, and very often he is third-rate even as a railer. The author of the _Present Discontents_ speaks without bitterness even of Lord Bute and the Duke of Grafton; he only refers to persons, when their conduct or their situation illustrates a principle. Instead of reviling, he probes, he reflects, he warns; and as the result of this serious method, pursued by a man in whom close mastery of detail kept exact pace with wide grasp of generalities, we have not the ephemeral diatribe of a faction, but one of the monumental pieces of political literature.
The last great pamphlet in the history of English public affairs had been Swift’s tract _On the Conduct of the Allies_ (1711), in which the writer did a more substantial service for the Tory party of his day than Burke did for the Whig party of a later date. Swift’s pamphlet is close, strenuous, persuasive, and full of telling strokes; but nobody need read it to-day except the historical student, or a member of the Peace Society, in search of the most convincing exposure of the most insane of English wars. There is not a sentence in it which does not belong exclusively to the matter in hand: not a line of that general wisdom which is for all time. In the _Present Discontents_ the method is just the opposite of this. The details are slurred, and they are not literal. Burke describes with excess of elaboration how the new system is a system of double cabinets; one put forward with nominal powers in Parliament, the other concealed behind the throne, and secretly dictating the policy. The reader feels that this is worked out far too closely to be real. It is a structure of artificial rhetoric. But we lightly pass this over, on our way to more solid matter; to the exposition of the principles of a constitution, the right methods of statesmanship, and the defence of party.
[Footnote 1: This was not Burke’s judgment on the long war against Louis XIV.–See _Regicide Peace_, i.]
It was Bolingbroke, and not Swift, of whom Burke was thinking, when he sat down to the composition of his tract. The _Patriot King_ was the fountain of the new doctrines, which Burke trained his party to understand and to resist. If his foe was domestic, it was from a foreign armoury that Burke derived the instruments of resistance. The great fault of political writers is their too close adherence to the forms of the system of state which they happen to be expounding or examining. They stop short at the anatomy of institutions, and do not penetrate to the secret of their functions. An illustrious author in the middle of the eighteenth century introduced his contemporaries to a better way. It is not too much to say that at that epoch the strength of political speculation in this country, from Adam Smith downwards, was drawn from France; and Burke had been led to some of what was most characteristic in his philosophy of society by Montesquieu’s _Spirit of Laws_ (1748), the first great manual of the historic school. We have no space here to work out the relations between Montesquieu’s principles and Burke’s, but the student of the _Esprit des Lois_ will recognise its influence in every one of Burke’s masterpieces.
So far as immediate events were concerned, Burke was quick to discern their true interpretation. As has been already said, he attributed to the king and his party a deliberateness of system which probably had no real existence in their minds. The king intended to reassert the old right of choosing his own ministers. George II. had made strenuous but futile endeavours to the same end. His son, the father of George III., Frederick, Prince of Wales, as every reader of Dodington’s Diary will remember, was equally bent on throwing off the yoke of the great Whig combinations, and making his own cabinets. George III. was only continuing the purpose of his father and his grandfather; and there is no reason to believe that he went more elaborately to work to obtain his ends.
It is when he leaves the artifices of a cabal, and strikes down below the surface to the working of deep social forces, that we feel the breadth and power of Burke’s method. “I am not one of those,” he began, “who think that the people are never wrong. They have been so, frequently and outrageously, both in other countries and in this. But I do say that _in all disputes between them and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people_.” Nay, experience perhaps justifies him in going further. When popular discontents are prevalent, something has generally been found amiss in the constitution or the administration. “The people have no interest in disorder. When they go wrong, it is their error, and not their crime.” And then he quotes the famous passage from the Memoirs of Sully, which both practical politicians and political students should bind about their necks, and write upon the tables of their hearts:–“The revolutions that come to pass in great states are not the result of chance, nor of popular caprice…. As for the populace, it is never from a passion for attack that it rebels, but from impatience of suffering.”
What really gives its distinction to the _Present Discontents_ is not its plea for indulgence to popular impatience, nor its plea for the superiority of government by aristocracy, but rather the presence in it of the thought of Montesquieu and his school, of the necessity of studying political phenomena in relation, not merely to forms of government and law, but in relation to whole groups of social facts which give to law and government the spirit that makes them workable. Connected with this, is a particularly wide interpretation and a particularly impressive application of the maxims of expediency, because a wide conception of the various interacting elements of a society naturally extends the considerations which a balance of expediencies will include. Hence, in time, there came a strong and lofty ideal of the true statesman, his breadth of vision, his flexibility of temper, his hardly measurable influence. These are the principal thoughts in the _Discontents_ to which that tract owes its permanent interest. “Whatever original energy,” says Burke, in one place, “may be supposed either in force or regulation, the operation of both is in truth merely instrumental. Nations are governed by the same methods, and on the same principles, by which an individual without authority is often able to govern those who are his equals or superiors; by a knowledge of their temper, and by a judicious management of it…. The laws reach but a very little way. Constitute Government how you please, infinitely the greater part of it must depend upon the exercise of powers, which are left at large to the prudence and uprightness of ministers of state. Even all the use and potency of the laws depends upon them. Without them, your Commonwealth is no better than _a scheme upon paper; and not a living, active, effective constitution_.” Thus early in his public career had Burke seized that great antithesis which he so eloquently laboured in the long and ever memorable episode of his war against the French Revolution: the opposition between artificial arrangements in politics, and a living, active, effective organisation, formed by what he calls elsewhere in the present tract the natural strength of the kingdom, and suitable to the temper and mental habits of the people. When he spoke of the natural strength of the kingdom, he gave no narrow or conventional account of it. He included in the elements of that strength, besides the great peers and the leading landed gentlemen, the opulent merchants and manufacturers, and the substantial yeomanry. Contrasted with the trite versions of Government as fixed in King, Lords, and Commons, this search for the real organs of power was going to the root of the matter in a spirit at once thoroughly scientific and thoroughly practical. Burke had, by the speculative training to which he had submitted himself in dealing with Bolingbroke, prepared his mind for a complete grasp of the idea of the body politic as a complex growth, a manifold whole, with closely interdependent relations among its several parts and divisions. It was this conception from which his conservatism sprang. Revolutionary politics have one of their sources in the idea that societies are capable of infinite and immediate modifications, without reference to the deep-rooted conditions that have worked themselves into every part of the social structure. The same opposition of the positive to the doctrinaire spirit is to be observed in the remarkable vindication of Party, which fills the last dozen pages of the pamphlet, and which is one of the most courageous of all Burke’s deliverances. Party combination is exactly one of those contrivances which, as it might seem, a wise man would accept for working purposes, but about which he would take care to say as little as possible. There appears to be something revolting to the intellectual integrity and self-respect of the individual in the systematic surrender of his personal action, interest, and power, to a political connection in which his own judgment may never once be allowed to count for anything. It is like the surrender of the right of private judgment to the authority of the Church, but with its nakedness not concealed by a mystic doctrine. Nothing is more easy to demolish by the bare logical reason. But Burke cared nothing about the bare logical reason, until it had been clothed in convenience and custom, in the affections on one side, and experience on the other. Not content with insisting that for some special purpose of the hour, “when bad men combine, the good must associate,” he contended boldly for the merits of fidelity to party combination in itself. Although Burke wrote these strong pages as a reply to Bolingbroke, who had denounced party as an evil, they remain as the best general apology that has ever been offered for that principle of public action, against more philosophic attacks than Bolingbroke’s. Burke admitted that when he saw a man acting a desultory and disconnected part in public life with detriment to his fortune, he was ready to believe such a man to be in earnest, though not ready to believe him to be right. In any case he lamented to see rare and valuable qualities squandered away without any public utility. He admitted, moreover, on the other hand, that people frequently acquired in party confederacies a narrow, bigoted, and proscriptive spirit. “But where duty renders a critical situation a necessary one, it is our business to keep free from the evils attendant upon it, and not to fly from the situation itself. It is surely no very rational account of a man that he has always acted right, but has taken special care to act in such a manner that his endeavours could not possibly be productive of any consequence…. When men are not acquainted with each other’s, principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts of business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy.”
In terms of eloquent eulogy he praised the sacred reverence with which the Romans used to regard the _necessitudo sortis_, or the relations that grew up between men who had only held office together by the casual fortune of the lot. He pointed out to emulation the Whig junto who held so close together in the reign of Anne–Sunderland, Godolphin, Somers, and Marlborough–who believed “that no men could act with effect who did not act in concert; that no men could act in concert who did not act with confidence; and that no men could act with confidence who were not bound together by common opinions, common affections, and common interests.” In reading these energetic passages, we have to remember two things: first, that the writer assumes the direct object of party combination to be generous, great, and liberal causes; and second, that when the time came, and when he believed that his friends were espousing a wrong and pernicious cause, Burke, like Samson bursting asunder the seven green withes, broke away from the friendships of a life, and deliberately broke his party in pieces.
[Footnote 1: See on the same subject, _Correspondence_, ii. 276, 277.]
When Burke came to discuss the cure for the disorders of 1770, he insisted on contenting himself with what he ought to have known to be obviously inadequate prescriptions. And we cannot help feeling that he never speaks of the constitution of the government of this country, without gliding into a fallacy identical with that which he himself described and denounced, as thinking better of the wisdom and power of human legislation than in truth it deserved. He was uniformly consistent in his view of the remedies which the various sections of Opposition proposed against the existing debasement and servility of the Lower House. The Duke of Richmond wanted universal suffrage, equal electoral districts, and annual parliaments. Wilkes proposed to disfranchise the rotten boroughs, to increase the county constituencies, and to give members to rich, populous, trading towns–a general policy which was accepted fifty-six years afterwards. The Constitutional Society desired frequent parliaments, the exclusion of placemen from the House, and the increase of the county representation. Burke uniformly refused to give his countenance to any proposals such as these, which involved a clearly organic change in the constitution. He confessed that he had no sort of reliance upon either a triennial parliament or a place-bill, and with that reasonableness which as a rule was fully as remarkable in him as his eloquence, he showed very good grounds for his want of faith in the popular specifics. In truth, triennial or annual parliaments could have done no good, unless the change had been accompanied by the more important process of amputating, as Chatham called it, the rotten boroughs. Of these the Crown could at that time reckon some seventy as its own property. Besides those which belonged to the Crown, there was also the immense number which belonged to the Peerage. If the king sought to strengthen an administration, the thing needful was not to enlist the services of able and distinguished men, but to conciliate a duke, who brought with him the control of a given quantity of voting power in the Lower House. All this patrician influence, which may be found at the bottom of most of the intrigues of the period, would not have been touched by curtailing the duration of parliaments.
What then was the remedy, or had Burke no remedy to offer for these grave distempers of Parliament? Only the remedy of the interposition of the body of the people itself. We must beware of interpreting this phrase in the modern democratic sense. In 1766 he had deliberately declared that he thought it would be more conformable to the spirit of the constitution, “by lessening the number, to add to the weight and independency of our voters.” “Considering the immense and dangerous charge of elections, the prostitute and daring venality, the corruption of manners, the idleness and profligacy of the lower sort of voters, no prudent man would propose to increase such an evil.” In another place he denies that the people have either enough of speculation in the closet, or of experience in business, to be competent judges, not of the detail of particular measures only, but of _general schemes of policy_. On Burke’s theory, the people, as a rule, were no more concerned to interfere with Parliament, than a man is concerned to interfere with somebody whom he has voluntarily and deliberately made his trustee. But here, he confessed, was a shameful and ruinous breach of trust. The ordinary rule of government was being every day mischievously contemned and daringly set aside. Until the confidence thus outraged should be once more restored, then the people ought to be excited to a more strict and detailed attention to the conduct of their representatives. The meetings of counties and corporations ought to settle standards for judging more systematically of the behaviour of those whom they had sent to Parliament. Frequent and correct lists of the voters in all important questions ought to be procured. The severest discouragement ought to be given to the pernicious practice of affording a blind and undistinguishing support to every administration. “Parliamentary support comes and goes with office, totally regardless of the man or the merit.” For instance, Wilkes’s annual motion to expunge the votes upon the Middlesex election had been uniformly rejected, as often as it was made while Lord North was in power. Lord North had no sooner given way to the Rockingham Cabinet than the House of Commons changed its mind, and the resolutions were expunged by a handsome majority of 115 to 47. Administration was omnipotent in the House, because it could be a man’s most efficient friend at an election, and could most amply reward his fidelity afterwards. Against this system Burke called on the nation to set a stern face. Root it up, he kept crying; settle the general course in which you desire members to go; insist that they shall not suffer themselves to be diverted from this by the authority of the government of the day; let lists of votes be published, so that you may ascertain for yourselves whether your trustees have been faithful or fraudulent; do all this, and there will be no need to resort to those organic changes, those empirical innovations, which may possibly cure, but are much more likely to destroy.
[Footnote 1: “Observations on State of the Nation,” _Works_, i. 105, b.]
[Footnote 2: “Speech on Duration of Parliaments.”]
It is not surprising that so halting a policy should have given deep displeasure to very many, perhaps to most, of those whose only common bond was the loose and negative sentiment of antipathy to the court, the ministry, and the too servile majority of the House of Commons. The Constitutional Society was furious. Lord Chatham wrote to Lord Rockingham that the work in which these doctrines first appeared, must do much mischief to the common cause. But Burke’s view of the constitution was a part of his belief with which he never paltered, and on which he surrendered his judgment to no man. “Our constitution,” in his opinion, “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.” This image was ever before his mind. It occurs again in the last sentence of that great protest against all change and movement, when he describes himself as one who, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise. When we think of the odious mis-government in England which the constitution permitted, between the time when Burke wrote and the passing of Lord Sidmouth’s Six Acts fifty years later, we may be inclined to class such a constitution among the most inadequate and mischievous political arrangements that any free country has ever had to endure. Yet it was this which Burke declared that he looked upon with filial reverence. “Never will I cut it in pieces, and put it into the kettle of any magician, in order to boil it with the puddle of their compounds into youth and vigour; on the contrary, I will drive away such pretenders; I will nurse its venerable age, and with lenient arts extend a parent’s breath.”
[Footnote 1: _Present Discontents_.]
[Footnote 2: _Reflections on the French Revolution_.]
He was filled with the spirit, and he borrowed the arguments, which have always marked the champion of faith and authority against the impious assault of reason or innovation. The constitution was sacred to him as the voice of the Church and the oracles of her saints are sacred to the faithful. Study it, he cried, until you know how to admire it, and if you cannot know and admire, rather believe that you are dull, than that the rest of the world has been imposed upon. We ought to understand it according to our measure and to venerate where we are not able presently to comprehend. Well has Burke been called the Bossuet of politics.
Although, however, Burke’s unflinching reverence for the constitution, and his reluctance to lay a finger upon it, may now seem clearly excessive, as it did to Chatham and his son, who were great men in the right, or to Beckford and Sawbridge, who were very little men in the right, we can only be just to him by comparing his ideas with those which were dominant throughout an evil reign. While he opposed more frequent parliaments, he still upheld the doctrine that “to govern according to the sense, and agreeably to the interests, of the people is a great and glorious object of government.” While he declared himself against the addition of a hundred knights of the shire, he in the very same breath protested that, though the people might be deceived in their choice of an object, he “could scarcely conceive any choice they could make, to be so very mischievous as the existence of any human force capable of resisting it.” To us this may seem very mild and commonplace doctrine, but it was not commonplace in an age when Anglican divines–men like Archbishop Markham, Dr. Nowell or Dr. Porteus–had revived the base precepts of passive obedience and non-resistance, and when such a man as Lord Mansfield encouraged them. And these were the kind of foundations which Burke had been laying, while Fox was yet a Tory, while Sheridan was writing farces, and while Grey was a schoolboy.
[Footnote 1: “To the Chairman of the Buckinghamshire Meeting,” 1780.]
It is, however, almost demonstrably certain that the vindication of the supremacy of popular interests over all other considerations would have been bootless toil, and that the great constitutional struggle from 1760 to 1783 would have ended otherwise than it did, but for the failure of the war against the insurgent colonies, and the final establishment of American Independence. It was this portentous transaction which finally routed the arbitrary and despotic pretensions of the House of Commons over the people, and which put an end to the hopes entertained by the sovereign of making his personal will supreme in the Chambers. Fox might well talk of an early Loyalist victory in the war, as the terrible news from Long Island. The struggle which began unsuccessfully at Brentford in Middlesex, was continued at Boston in Massachusetts. The scene had changed, but the conflicting principles were the same. The war of Independence was virtually a second English civil war. The ruin of the American cause would have been also the ruin of the constitutional cause in England; and a patriotic Englishman may revere the memory of Patrick Henry and George Washington not less justly than the patriotic American. Burke’s attitude in this great contest is that part of his history about the majestic and noble wisdom of which there can be least dispute.
THE ROCKINGHAM PARTY–PARIS–ELECTION AT BRISTOL–THE AMERICAN WAR
The war with the American colonies was preceded by an interval of stupor. The violent ferment which had been stirred in the nation by the affairs of Wilkes and the Middlesex election, was followed, as Burke said, by as remarkable a deadness and vapidity. In 1770 the distracted ministry of the Duke of Grafton came to an end, and was succeeded by that of Lord North. The king had at last triumphed. He had secured an administration of which the fundamental principle was that the sovereign was to be the virtual head of it, and the real director of its counsels. Lord North’s government lasted for twelve years, and its career is for ever associated with one of the most momentous chapters in the history of the English nation and of free institutions.
Through this long and eventful period, Burke’s was as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He had become important enough for the ministry to think it worth while to take pains to discredit him. They busily encouraged the report that he was Junius, or a close ally of Junius. This was one of the minor vexations of Burke’s middle life. Even his friends continued to torment him for incessant disclaimers. Burke’s lofty pride made him slow to deal positively with what he scorned as a malicious and unworthy imputation. To such a friend as Johnson he did not, as we have seen, disdain to volunteer a denial, but Charles Townshend was forced to write more than one importunate letter before he could extract from Burke the definite sentence (November 24, 1771):–“I now give you my word and honour that I am not the author of Junius, and that I know not the author of that paper, and I do authorise you to say so.” Nor was this the only kind of annoyance to which he was subjected. His rising fame kindled the candour of the friends of his youth. With proverbial good-nature, they admonished him that he did not bear instruction; that he showed such arrogance as in a man of his condition was intolerable; that he snapped furiously at his parliamentary foes, like a wolf who had broken into the fold; that his speeches were useless declamations; and that he disgraced the House by the scurrilities of the bear-garden. These sharp chastenings of friendship Burke endured with the perfect self-command, not of the cold and indifferent egotist, but of one who had trained himself not to expect too much from men. He possessed the true solace for all private chagrins in the activity and the fervour of his public interests.
In 1772 the affairs of the East India Company and its relations with the Government had fallen into disorder. The Opposition, though powerless in the Houses of Parliament, were often able to thwart the views of the ministry in the imperial board-room in Leadenhall Street. The Duke of Richmond was as zealous and as active in his opposition to Lord North in the business of the East Indies, as he was in the business of the country at Westminster. A proposal was made to Burke to go out to India at the head of a commission of three supervisors, with authority to examine the concerns of every department, and full powers of control over the company’s servants. Though this offer was pressed by the directors, Burke, after anxious consideration, declined it. What his reasons were there is no evidence; we can only guess that he thought less of his personal interests than of those of the country and of his party. Without him the Rockingham connection would undoubtedly have fallen to ruin, and with it the most upright, consistent, and disinterested body of men then in public life. “You say,” the Duke of Richmond wrote to him (November 15, 1772), “the party is an object of too much importance to go to pieces. Indeed, Burke, you have more merit than any man in keeping us together.” It was the character of the party, almost as much as their principles, that secured Burke’s zeal and attachment; their decorum, their constancy, their aversion to all cabals for private objects, their indifference to office, except as an instrument of power and a means of carrying out the policy of their convictions. They might easily have had office if they would have come in upon the king’s terms. A year after his fall from power Lord Rockingham was summoned to the royal closet, and pressed to resume his post. But office at any price was not in their thoughts. They knew the penalties of their system, and they clung to it undeterred. Their patriotism was deliberate and considered. Chalcedon was called the city of the blind, because its founders wilfully neglected the more glorious site of Byzantium which lay under their eyes. “We have built our Chalcedon,” said Burke, “with the chosen part of the universe full in our prospect.” They had the faults to which an aristocratic party in opposition is naturally liable. Burke used to reproach them with being somewhat languid, scrupulous, and unsystematic. He could not make the Duke of Richmond put off a large party at Goodwood for the sake of an important division in the House of Lords; and he did not always agree with Lord John Cavendish as to what constitutes a decent and reasonable quantity of fox-hunting for a political leader in a crisis. But it was part of the steadfastness of his whole life to do his best with such materials as he could find. He did not lose patience nor abate his effort, because his friends would miss the opportunity of a great political stroke rather than they would miss Newmarket Races. He wrote their protests for the House of Lords, composed petitions for county meetings, drafted resolutions, and plied them with information, ideas, admonitions, and exhortations. Never before nor since has our country seen so extraordinary a union of the clever and indefatigable party-manager, with the reflective and philosophic habits of the speculative publicist. It is much easier to make either absolutism or democracy attractive than aristocracy; yet we see how consistent with his deep moral conservatism was Burke’s attachment to an aristocratic party, when we read his exhortation to the Duke of Richmond to remember that persons in his high station in life ought to have long views. “You people,” he writes to the Duke (November 17, 1772), “of great families and hereditary trusts and fortunes are not like such as I am, who, whatever we may be by the rapidity of our growth, and even by the fruit we bear, and flatter ourselves that, while we creep on the ground, we belly into melons that are exquisite for size and flavour, yet still we are but annual plants that perish with our season, and leave no sort of traces behind us. You, if you are what you ought to be, are in my eye the great oaks that shade a country, and perpetuate your benefits from generation to generation. The immediate power of a Duke of Richmond, or a Marquis of Rockingham, is not so much of moment; but if their conduct and example hand down their principles to their successors, then their houses become the public repositories and office of record for the constitution…. I do not look upon your time or lives as lost, if in this sliding away from the genuine spirit of the country, certain parties, if possible–if not, the heads of certain families–should make it their business by the whole course of their lives, principally by their example, to mould into the very vital stamina of their descendants those principles which ought to be transmitted pure and unmixed to posterity.”
Perhaps such a passage as this ought to be described less as reflection than as imagination–moral, historic, conservative imagination–in which order, social continuity, and the endless projection of past into present, and of present into future, are clothed with the sanctity of an inner shrine. We may think that a fox-hunting duke and a racing marquis were very poor centres round which to group these high emotions. But Burke had no puny sentimentalism, and none of the mere literary or romantic conservatism of men like Chateaubriand. He lived in the real world, and not in a false dream of some past world that had never been. He saw that the sporting squires of his party were as much the representatives of ancestral force and quality as in older days were long lines of Claudii and Valerii. His conservative doctrine was a profound instinct, in part political, but in greater part moral. The accidental roughness of the symbol did not touch him, for the symbol was glorified by the sincerity of his faith and the compass of his imagination.
With these ideas strong within him, in 1773 Burke made a journey to France. It was almost as though the solemn hierophant of some mystic Egyptian temple should have found himself amid the brilliant chatter of a band of reckless, keen-tongued disputants of the garden or the porch at Athens. His only son had just finished a successful school-course at Westminster, and was now entered a student at Christ Church. He was still too young for the university, and Burke thought that a year could not be more profitably spent than in forming his tongue to foreign languages. The boy was placed at Auxerre, in the house of the business agent of the Bishop of Auxerre. From the Bishop he received many kindnesses, to be amply repaid in after years when the Bishop came in his old age, an exile and a beggar, to England.
While in Paris, Burke did all that he could to instruct himself as to what was going on in French society. If he had not the dazzling reception which had greeted Hume in 1764, at least he had ample opportunities of acquainting himself with the prevailing ideas of the time in more than one of the social camps into which Paris was then divided. Madame du Deffand tells the Duchess of Choiseul that though he speaks French extremely ill, everybody felt that he would be infinitely agreeable if he could more easily make himself understood. He followed French well enough as a listener, and went every day to the courts to hear the barristers and watch the procedure. Madame du Deffand showed him all possible attention, and her friends eagerly seconded her. She invited him to supper parties, where he met the Count de Broglie, the agent of the king’s secret diplomacy; Caraccioli, successor of nimble-witted Galiani, the secretary from Naples; and other notabilities of the high world. He supped with the Duchess of Luxembourg, and heard a reading of La Harpe’s _Barmecides_. It was high treason in this circle to frequent the rival _salon_ of Mademoiselle Lespinasse, but either the law was relaxed in the case of foreigners, or else Burke kept his own counsel. Here were for the moment the headquarters of the party of innovation, and here he saw some of the men who were busily forging the thunderbolts. His eye was on the alert, now as always, for anything that might light up the sovereign problems of human government. A book by a member of this circle had appeared six months before, which was still the talk of the town, and against which the Government had taken the usual impotent measures of repression. This was the _Treatise on Tactics_, by a certain M. de Guibert, a colonel of the Corsican legion. The important part of the work was the introduction, in which the writer examined with what was then thought extraordinary hardihood, the social and political causes of the decline of the military art in France. Burke read it with keen interest and energetic approval. He was present at the reading of a tragedy by the same author, and gave some offence to the rival coterie by preferring Guibert’s tragedy to La Harpe’s. To us, however, of a later day, Guibert is known neither for his tragedy nor his essay on tactics, nor for a memory so rapid that he could open a book, throw one glance like a flash of lightning on to a page, and then instantly repeat from it half a dozen lines word for word. He lives in literature as the inspirer of that ardent passion of Mademoiselle Lespinasse’s letters, so unique in their consuming intensity that, as has been said, they seem to burn the page on which they are written. It was perhaps at Mademoiselle Lespinasse’s that Burke met Diderot. The eleven volumes of the illustrative plates of the _Encyclopaeedia_ had been given to the public twelve months before, and its editor was just released from the giant’s toil of twenty years. Voltaire was in imperial exile at Ferney. Rousseau was copying music in a garret in the street which is now called after his name, but he had long ago cut himself off from society; and Burke was not likely to take much trouble to find out a man whom he had known in England seven years before, and against whom he had conceived a strong and lasting antipathy, as entertaining no principle either to influence his heart or to guide his understanding save a deranged and eccentric vanity.
It was the fashion for English visitors to go to Versailles. They saw the dauphin and his brothers dine in public, before a crowd of princes of the blood, nobles, abbes, and all the miscellaneous throng of