a court. They attended mass in the chapel, where the old king, surrounded by bishops, sat in a pew just above that of Madame du Barri. The royal mistress astonished foreigners by hair without powder and cheeks without rouge, the simplest toilettes, and the most unassuming manners. Vice itself, in Burke’s famous words, seemed to lose half its evil by losing all its grossness. And there, too, Burke had that vision to which we owe one of the most gorgeous pages in our literature–Marie Antoinette, the young dauphiness, “decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendour and joy.” The shadow was rapidly stealing on. The year after Burke’s visit, the scene underwent a strange transformation. The king died; the mistress was banished in luxurious exile; and the dauphiness became the ill-starred Queen of France. Burke never forgot the emotions of the scene; they awoke in his imagination sixteen years after, when all was changed, and the awful contrast shook him with a passion that his eloquence has made immortal.
Madame du Deffand wrote to Horace Walpole that Burke had been so well received, that he ought to leave France excellently pleased with the country. But it was not so. His spirit was perturbed by what he had listened to. He came away with small esteem for that busy fermentation of intellect in which his French friends most exulted, and for which they looked forward to the gratitude and admiration of posterity. From the spot on which he stood there issued two mighty streams. It was from the ideas of the Parisian Freethinkers, whom Burke so detested, that Jefferson, Franklin, and Henry drew those theories of human society which were so soon to find life in American Independence. It was from the same ideas that later on that revolutionary tide surged forth, in which Burke saw no elements of a blessed fertility, but only a horrid torrent of red and desolating lava. In 1773 there was a moment of strange repose in Western Europe, the little break of stillness that precedes the hurricane. It was indeed the eve of a momentous epoch. Before sixteen years were over, the American Republic had risen, like a new constellation into the firmament, and the French monarchy, of such antiquity and fame and high pre-eminence in European history, had been shattered to the dust. We may not agree with Burke’s appreciation of the forces that were behind these vast convulsions. But at least he saw, and saw with eyes of passionate alarm, that strong speculative forces were at work, which must violently prove the very bases of the great social superstructure, and might not improbably break them up for ever.
Almost immediately after his return from France, he sounded a shrill note of warning. Some Methodists from Chatham had petitioned Parliament against a bill for the relief of Dissenters from subscription to the Articles. Burke denounced the intolerance of the petitioners. It is not the Dissenters, he cried, whom you have to fear, but the men who, “not contented with endeavouring to turn your eyes from the blaze and effulgence of light, by which life and immortality is so gloriously demonstrated by the Gospel, would even extinguish that faint glimmering of Nature, that only comfort supplied to ignorant man before this great illumination…. These are the people against whom you ought to aim the shaft of the law; these are the men to whom, arrayed in all the terrors of government, I would say, ‘You shall not degrade us into brutes.’ … The most horrid and cruel blow that can be offered to civil society is through atheism…. The infidels are outlaws of the constitution, not of this country, but of the human race. They are never, never to be supported, never to be tolerated. Under the systematic attacks of these people, I see some of the props of good government already begin to fail; I see propagated principles which will not leave to religion even a toleration. I see myself sinking every day under the attacks of these wretched people.” To this pitch he had been excited by the vehement band of men, who had inscribed on their standard, _Ecraser l’Infame_.
[Footnote 1: “Speech on Relief of Protestant Dissenters, 1773.”]
* * * * *
The second Parliament in which Burke had a seat was dissolved suddenly and without warning (October 1774). The attitude of America was threatening, and it was believed the Ministers were anxious to have the elections over before the state of things became worse. The whole kingdom was instantly in a ferment. Couriers, chaises, post-horses, hurried in every direction over the island, and it was noted, as a measure of the agitation, that no fewer than sixty messengers passed through a single turnpike on one day. Sensible observers were glad to think that, in consequence of the rapidity of the elections, less wine and money would be wasted than at any election for sixty years past. Burke had a houseful of company at Beaconsfield when the news arrived. Johnson was among them, and as the party was hastily breaking up, the old Tory took his Whig friend kindly by the hand: “Farewell, my dear sir,” he said, “and remember that I wish you all the success that ought to be wished to you, and can possibly be wished to you, by an honest man.”
The words were of good omen. Burke was now rewarded by the discovery that his labours had earned for him recognition and gratitude beyond the narrow limits of a rather exclusive party. He had before this attracted the attention of the mercantile public. The Company of Merchants trading to Africa voted him their thanks for his share in supporting their establishments. The Committee of Trade at Manchester formally returned him their grateful acknowledgments for the active part that he had taken in the business of the Jamaica free ports. But then Manchester returned no representative to Parliament. In two Parliaments Burke had been elected for Wendover free of expense. Lord Verney’s circumstances were now so embarrassed, that he was obliged to part with the four seats at his disposal to men who could pay for them. There had been some talk of proposing Burke for Westminster, and Wilkes, who was then omnipotent, promised him the support of the popular party. But the patriot’s memory was treacherous, and he speedily forgot, for reasons of his own, an idea that had originated with himself. Burke’s constancy of spirit was momentarily overclouded. “Sometimes when I am alone,” he wrote to Lord Rockingham (September 15, 1774), “in spite of all my efforts, I fall into a melancholy which is inexpressible, and to which, if I give way, I should not continue long under it, but must totally sink. Yet I do assure you that partly, and indeed principally, by the force of natural good spirits, and partly by a strong sense of what I ought to do, I bear up so well that no one who did not know them, could easily discover the state of my mind or my circumstances. I have those that are dear to me, for whom I must live as long as God pleases, and in what way He pleases. Whether I ought not totally to abandon this public station for which I am so unfit, and have of course been so unfortunate, I know not.” But he was always saved from rash retirement from public business by two reflections. He doubted whether a man has a right to retire after he has once gone a certain length in these things. And he remembered that there are often obscure vexations in the most private life, which as effectually destroy a man’s peace as anything that can occur in public contentions.
Lord Rockingham offered his influence on behalf of Burke at Malton, one of the family boroughs in Yorkshire, and thither Burke in no high spirits betook himself. On his way to the north he heard that he had been nominated for Bristol, but the nomination had for certain electioneering reasons not been approved by the party. As it happened, Burke was no sooner chosen at Malton than, owing to an unexpected turn of affairs at Bristol, the idea of proposing him for a candidate revived. Messengers were sent express to his house in London, and, not finding him there, they hastened down to Yorkshire. Burke quickly resolved that the offer was too important to be rejected. Bristol was the capital of the west, and it was still in wealth, population, and mercantile activity the second city of the kingdom. To be invited to stand for so great a constituency, without any request of his own and free of personal expense, was a distinction which no politician could hold lightly. Burke rose from the table where he was dining with some of his supporters, stepped into a post-chaise at six on a Tuesday evening, and travelled without a break until he reached Bristol on the Thursday afternoon, having got over two hundred and seventy miles in forty-four hours. Not only did he execute the journey without a break, but, as he told the people of Bristol, with an exulting commemoration of his own zeal that recalls Cicero, he did not sleep for an instant in the interval. The poll was kept open for a month, and the contest was the most tedious that had ever been known in the city. New freemen were admitted down to the very last day of the election. At the end of it, Burke was second on the poll, and was declared to be duly chosen (November 3, 1774). There was a petition against his return, but the election was confirmed, and he continued to sit for Bristol for six years.
The situation of a candidate is apt to find out a man’s weaker places. Burke stood the test. He showed none of the petulant rage of those clamorous politicians whose flight, as he said, is winged in a lower region of the air. As the traveller stands on the noble bridge that now spans the valley of the Avon, he may recall Burke’s local comparison of these busy, angry familiars of an election, to the gulls that skim the mud of the river when it is exhausted of its tide. He gave his new friends a more important lesson, when the time came for him to thank them for the honour which they had just conferred upon him. His colleague had opened the subject of the relations between a member of Parliament and his constituents; and had declared that, for his own part, he should regard the instructions of the people of Bristol as decisive and binding. Burke in a weighty passage upheld a manlier doctrine.
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect, their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that in which the determination precedes the discussion, in which one set of men deliberate and another decide, and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?… _Authoritative_ instructions, _mandates_ issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest convictions of his judgment and conscience–these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our Constitution.
[Footnote 1: “Speech at the conclusion of the Poll.”]
For six years the Bristol electors were content to be represented by a man of this independence. They never, however, really acquiesced in the principle that a member of Parliament owes as much to his own convictions as to the will of his constituents. In 1778 a bill was brought into Parliament, relaxing some of the restrictions imposed upon Ireland by the atrocious fiscal policy of Great Britain. The great mercantile centres raised a furious outcry, and Bristol was as blind and as boisterous as Manchester and Glasgow. Burke not only spoke and voted in favour of the commercial propositions, but urged that the proposed removal of restrictions on Irish trade did not go nearly far enough. There was none of that too familiar casuistry, by which public men argue themselves out of their consciences in a strange syllogism, that they can best serve the country in Parliament; that to keep their seats they must follow their electors; and that therefore, in the long run, they serve the country best by acquiescing in ignorance and prejudice. Anybody can denounce an abuse. It needs valour and integrity to stand forth against a wrong to which our best friends are most ardently committed. It warms our hearts to think of the noble courage with which Burke faced the blind and vile selfishness of his own supporters. He reminded them that England only consented to leave to the Irish in two or three instances the use of the natural faculties which God had given them. He asked them whether Ireland was united to Great Britain for no other purpose than that we should counteract the bounty of Providence in her favour; and whether, in proportion as that bounty had been liberal, we were to regard it as an evil to be met with every possible corrective? In our day there is nobody of any school who doubts that Burke’s view of our trade policy towards Ireland was accurately, absolutely, and magnificently right. I need not repeat the arguments. They made no mark on the Bristol merchants. Burke boldly told them that he would rather run the risk of displeasing than of injuring them. They implored him to become their advocate. “I should only disgrace myself,” he said; “I should lose the only thing which can make such abilities as mine of any use to the world now or hereafter. I mean that authority which is derived from the opinion that a member speaks the language of truth and sincerity, and that he is not ready to take up or lay down a great political system for the convenience of the hour; that he is in Parliament to support his opinion of the public good, and does not form his opinion in order to get into Parliament or to continue in it.”
[Footnote 1: _Two Letters to Gentlemen in Bristol_, 1778.]
A small instalment of humanity to Ireland was not more distasteful to the electors of Bristol than a small instalment of toleration to Roman Catholics in England. A measure was passed (1778) repealing certain iniquitous penalties created by an Act of William the Third. It is needless to say that this rudimentary concession to justice and sense was supported by Burke. His voters began to believe that those were right who had said that he had been bred at Saint Omer’s, was a Papist at heart, and a Jesuit in disguise. When the time came, _summa dies et ineluctabile fatum_, Burke bore with dignity and temper his dismissal from the only independent constituency that he ever represented. Years before he had warned a young man entering public life to regard and wish well to the common people, whom his best instincts and his highest duties lead him to love and to serve, but to put as little trust in them as in princes. Burke somewhere describes an honest public life as carrying on a poor unequal conflict against the passions and prejudices of our day, perhaps with no better weapons than passions and prejudices of our own.
The six years during which Burke sat in Parliament for Bristol, saw this conflict carried on under the most desperate circumstances. They were the years of the civil war between the English at home and the English in the American colonies. George III. and Lord North have been made scapegoats for sins which were not exclusively, their own. They were only the organs and representatives of all the lurking ignorance and arbitrary humours of the entire community. Burke discloses in many places, that for once the king and Parliament did not act without the sympathies of the mass. In his famous speech at Bristol, in 1780, he was rebuking the intolerance of those who bitterly taunted him for the support of the measure for the relaxation of the Penal Code. “It is but too true,” he said in a passage worth remembering, “that the love, and even the very idea, of genuine liberty is extremely rare. It is but too true that there are many whose whole scheme of freedom is made up of pride, perverseness, and insolence. They feel themselves in a state of thraldom, they imagine that their souls are cooped and cabined in, unless they have some man, or some body of men, dependent on their mercy. The desire of having some one below them, descends to those who are the very lowest of all; and a Protestant cobbler, debased by his poverty, but exalted by his share of the ruling Church, feels a pride in knowing it is by his generosity alone that the peer, whose footman’s instep he measures, is able to keep his chaplain from a gaol. This disposition is the true source of the passion which many men, in very humble life, have taken to the American war. _Our_ subjects in America; _our_ colonies; _our_ dependents. This lust of party power is the liberty they hunger and thirst for; and this Siren song of ambition has charmed ears that we would have thought were never organised to that sort of music.”
This was the mental attitude of a majority of the nation, and it was fortunate for them and for us that the yeomen and merchants on the other side of the Atlantic had a more just and energetic appreciation of the crisis. The insurgents, while achieving their own freedom, were indirectly engaged in fighting the battle of the people of the mother country as well. Burke had a vehement correspondent who wrote to him (1777) that if the utter ruin of this country were to be the consequence of her persisting in the claim to tax America, then he would be the first to say, _Let her perish!_ If England prevails, said Horace Walpole, English and American liberty is at an end; if one fell, the other would fall with it. Burke, seeing this, “certainly never could and never did wish,” as he says of himself, “the colonists to be subdued by arms. He was fully persuaded that if such should be the event, they must be held in that subdued state by a great body of standing forces, and perhaps of foreign forces. He was strongly of opinion that such armies, first victorious over Englishmen, in a conflict for English constitutional rights and privileges, and afterwards habituated (though in America) to keep an English people in a state of abject subjection, would prove fatal in the end to the liberties of England itself.” The way for this remote peril was being sedulously prepared by a widespread deterioration among popular ideas, and a fatal relaxation of the hold which they had previously gained in the public mind. In order to prove that the Americans had no right to their liberties, we were every day endeavouring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we were obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself. The material strength of the Government, and its moral strength alike, would have been reinforced by the defeat of the colonists, to such an extent as to have seriously delayed or even jeopardised English progress, and therefore that of Europe too. As events actually fell out, the ferocious administration of the law in the last five or six years of the eighteenth century was the retribution for the lethargy or approval with which the mass of the English community had watched the measures of the Government against their fellow-Englishmen in America.
[Footnote 1: _Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs_.]
It is not necessary here to follow Burke minutely through the successive stages of parliamentary action in the American war. He always defended the settlement of 1766; the Stamp Act was repealed, and the constitutional supremacy and sovereign authority of the mother country was preserved in a Declaratory Act. When the project of taxing the colonies was revived, and relations with them were becoming strained and dangerous, Burke came forward with a plan for leaving the General Assemblies of the colonies to grant supplies and aids, instead of giving and granting supplies in Parliament, to be raised and paid in the colonies. Needless to say that it was rejected, and perhaps it was not feasible. Henceforth Burke could only watch in impotence the blunders of Government, and the disasters that befell the national arms. But his protests against the war will last as long as our literature.
Of all Burke’s writings none are so fit to secure unqualified and unanimous admiration as the three pieces on this momentous struggle:–the Speech on American Taxation (April 19, 1774); the Speech on Conciliation with America (March 22, 1775); and the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol (1777). Together they hardly exceed the compass of the little volume which the reader now has in his hands. It is no exaggeration to say that they compose the most perfect manual in our literature, or in any literature, for one who approaches the study of public affairs, whether for knowledge or for practice. They are an example without fault of all the qualities which the critic, whether a theorist or an actor, of great political situations should strive by night and by day to possess. If the theme with which they deal were less near than it is to our interests and affections as free citizens, these three performances would still abound in the lessons of an incomparable political method. If their subject were as remote as the quarrel between the Corinthians and Corcyra, or the war between Rome and the Allies, instead of a conflict to which the world owes the opportunity of the most important of political experiments, we should still have everything to learn from the author’s treatment; the vigorous grasp of masses of compressed detail, the wide illumination from great principles of human experience, the strong and masculine feeling for the two great political ends of Justice and Freedom, the large and generous interpretation of expediency, the morality, the vision, the noble temper. If ever, in the fulness of time, and surely the fates of men and literature cannot have it otherwise, Burke becomes one of the half-dozen names of established and universal currency in education and in common books, rising above the waywardness of literary caprice or intellectual fashions, as Shakespeare and Milton and Bacon rise above it, it will be the mastery, the elevation, the wisdom, of these far-shining discourses in which the world will in an especial degree recognise the combination of sovereign gifts with beneficent uses.
The pamphlet on the _Present Discontents_ is partially obscured or muffled to the modern reader by the space which is given to the cabal of the day. The _Reflections on the French Revolution_ over-abounds in declamation, and–apart from its being passionately on one side, and that perhaps the wrong one–the splendour of the eloquence is out of proportion to the reason and the judgment. In the pieces on the American war, on the contrary, Burke was conscious that he could trust nothing to the sympathy or the prepossessions of his readers, and this put him upon an unwonted persuasiveness. Here it is reason and judgment, not declamation; lucidity, not passion; that produces the effects of eloquence. No choler mars the page; no purple patch distracts our minds from the penetrating force of argument; no commonplace is dressed up into a vague sublimity. The cause of freedom is made to wear its own proper robe of equity, self-control, and reasonableness.
Not one, but all those great idols of the political market-place whose worship and service has cost the race so dear, are discovered and shown to be the foolish uncouth stocks and stones that they are. Fox once urged members of Parliament to peruse the speech on Conciliation again and again, to study it, to imprint it on their minds, to impress it on their hearts. But Fox only referred to the lesson which he thought to be contained in it, that representation is the sovereign remedy for every evil. This is by far the least important of its lessons. It is great in many ways. It is greatest as a remonstrance and an answer against the thriving sophisms of barbarous national pride, the eternal fallacies of war and conquest; and here it is great, as all the three pieces on the subject are so, because they expose with unanswerable force the deep-lying faults of heart and temper, as well as of understanding, which move nations to haughty and violent courses.
The great argument with those of the war party who pretended to a political defence of their position, was the doctrine that the English Government was sovereign in the colonies as at home; and in the notion of sovereignty they found inherent the notion of an indefeasible right to impose and exact taxes. Having satisfied themselves of the existence of this sovereignty, and of the right which they took to be its natural property, they saw no step between the existence of an abstract right and the propriety of enforcing it. We have seen an instance of a similar mode of political thinking in our own lifetime. During the great civil war between the northern and southern states of the American Union, people in England convinced themselves–some after careful examination of documents, others by cursory glances at second-hand authorities–that the south had a right to secede. The current of opinion was precisely similar in the struggle to which the United States owed their separate existence. Now the idea of a right as a mysterious and reverend abstraction, to be worshipped in a state of naked divorce from expediency and convenience, was one that Burke’s political judgment found preposterous and unendurable. He hated the arbitrary and despotic savour which clung about the English assumptions over the colonies. And his repulsion was heightened when he found that these assumptions were justified, not by some permanent advantage which their victory would procure for the mother country or for the colonies, or which would repay the cost of gaining such a victory; not by the assertion and demonstration of some positive duty, but by the futile and meaningless doctrine that we had a right to do something or other, if we liked.
The alleged compromise of the national dignity implied in a withdrawal of the just claim of the Government, instead of convincing, only exasperated him. “Show the thing you contend for to be reason; show it to be common sense; show it to be the means of attaining some useful end; and then I am content to allow it what dignity you please.” The next year he took up the ground still more firmly, and explained it still more impressively. As for the question of the right of taxation, he exclaimed, “It is less than nothing in my consideration…. My consideration is narrow, confined, and wholly limited to the policy of the question. I do not examine whether the giving away a man’s money be a power excepted and reserved out of the general trust of Government…. _The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy._ It is not what a lawyer tells me I _may_ do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I _ought_ to do. I am not determining a point of law; I am restoring tranquillity, and the general character and situation of a people must determine what sort of government is fitted for them.” “I am not here going into the distinctions of rights,” he cries, “not attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions. _I hate the very sound of them_. This is the true touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of man: does it suit his nature in general?–does it suit his nature as modified by his habits?” He could not bear to think of having legislative or political arrangements shaped or vindicated by a delusive geometrical accuracy of deduction, instead of being entrusted to “the natural operation of things, which, left to themselves, generally fall into their proper order.”
[Footnote 1: “Speech on American Taxation.”]
Apart from his incessant assertion of the principle that man acts from adequate motives relative to his interests, and not on metaphysical speculations, Burke sows, as he marches along in his stately argument, many a germ of the modern philosophy of civilisation. He was told that America was worth fighting for. “Certainly it is,” he answered, “if fighting a people be the best way of gaining them.” Every step that has been taken in the direction of progress, not merely in empire, but in education, in punishment, in the treatment of the insane, has shown the deep wisdom, so unfamiliar in that age of ferocious penalties and brutal methods, of this truth–that “the natural effect of fidelity, clemency, kindness in governors, is peace, good-will, order, and esteem in the governed.” Is there a single instance to the contrary? Then there is that sure key to wise politics:–“_Nobody shall persuade me when a whole people are concerned, that acts of lenity are not means of conciliation_.” And that still more famous sentence, “_I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people_.”
Good and observant men will feel that no misty benevolence or vague sympathy, but the positive reality of experience, inspired such passages as that where he says,–“Never expecting to find perfection in men, and not looking for divine attributes in created beings, in my commerce with my contemporaries I have found much human virtue. The age unquestionably produces daring profligates and insidious hypocrites? What then? Am I not to avail myself of whatever good is to be found in the world, because of the mixture of evil that is in it?… Those who raise suspicions of the good, on account of the behaviour of evil men, are of the party of the latter…. A conscientious person would rather doubt his own judgment than condemn his species. He that accuses all mankind of corruption ought to remember that he is sure to convict only one. In truth, I should much rather admit those whom at any time I have disrelished the most, to be patterns of perfection, than seek a consolation to my own unworthiness in a general communion of depravity with all about me.” This is one of those pieces of rational constancy and mental wholeness in Burke which fill up our admiration for him–one of the manifold illustrations of an invincible fidelity to the natural order and operation of things, even when they seemed most hostile to all that was dear to his own personality.
ECONOMICAL REFORM–BURKE IN OFFICE–FALL OF HIS PARTY
Towards 1780 it began to be clear that the Ministers had brought the country into disaster and humiliation, from which their policy contained no way of escape. In the closing months of the American war, the Opposition pressed Ministers with a vigour that never abated. Lord North bore their attacks with perfect good-humour. When Burke, in the course of a great oration, parodied Burgoyne’s invitation to the Indians to repair to the king’s standard, the wit and satire of it almost suffocated the Prime Minister, not with shame but with laughter. His heart had long ceased to be in the matter, and everybody knew that he only retained his post in obedience to the urgent importunities of the king, whilst such colleagues as Rigby only clung to their place because the salaries were endeared by long familiarity. The general gloom was accidentally deepened by that hideous outbreak of fanaticism and violence, which is known as the Lord George Gordon Riots (June 1780). The Whigs, as having favoured the relaxation of the laws against popery, were especially obnoxious to the mob. The Government sent a guard of soldiers to protect Burke’s house in Charles Street, St. James’s; but after he had removed the more important of his papers, he insisted on the guard being despatched for the protection of more important places, and he took shelter under the roof of General Burgoyne. His excellent wife, according to a letter of his brother, had “the firmness and sweetness of an angel; but why do I say of an angel?–of a woman.” Burke himself courageously walked to and fro amid the raging crowds with firm composure, though the experiment was full of peril. He describes the mob as being made up, as London mobs generally are, rather of the unruly and dissolute than of fanatical malignants, and he vehemently opposed any concessions by Parliament to the spirit of intolerance which had first kindled the blaze. All the letters of the time show that the outrages and alarms of those days and nights, in which the capital seemed to be at the mercy of a furious rabble, made a deeper impression on the minds of contemporaries than they ought to have done. Burke was not likely to be less excited than others by the sight of such insensate disorder; and it is no idle fancy that he had the mobs of 1780 still in his memory, when ten years later he poured out the vials of his wrath on the bloodier mob which carried the King and Queen of France in wild triumph from Versailles to Paris.
In the previous February (1780) Burke had achieved one of the greatest of all his parliamentary and oratorical successes. Though the matter of this particular enterprise is no longer alive, yet it illustrates his many strong qualities in so remarkable a way that it is right to give some account of it. We have already seen that Burke steadily set his face against parliamentary reform; he habitually declared that the machine was well enough to answer any good purpose, provided the materials were sound. The statesman who resists all projects for the reform of the constitution, and yet eagerly proclaims how deplorably imperfect are the practical results of its working, binds himself to vigorous exertions for the amendment of administration. Burke devoted himself to this duty with a fervid assiduity that has not often been exampled, and has never been surpassed. He went to work with the zeal of a religious enthusiast, intent on purging his Church and his faith of the corruptions which lowered it in the eyes of men. There was no part or order of government so obscure, so remote, or so complex, as to escape his acute and persevering observation.
Burke’s object, in his schemes for Economical Reform, was less to husband the public resources and relieve the tax-payer–though this aim could not have been absent from his mind, overburdened as England then was with the charges of the American war–than to cut off the channels which supplied the corruption of the House of Commons. The full title of the first project which he presented to the legislature (February 1780), was, A Plan for the Better Security of the Independence of Parliament, and the Economical Reformation of the Civil and other Establishments. It was to the former that he deemed the latter to be the most direct road. The strength of the administration in the House was due to the gifts which the Minister had in his hands to dispense. Men voted with the side which could reward their fidelity. It was the number of sinecure places and unpublished pensions, which along with the controllable influence of peers and nabobs, furnished the Minister with an irresistible lever: the avarice and the degraded public spirit of the recipients supplied the required fulcrum. Burke knew that in sweeping away these factitious places and secret pensions, he would be robbing the Court of its chief implements of corruption, and protecting the representative against his chief motive in selling his country. He conceived that he would thus be promoting a far more infallible means than any scheme of electoral reform could have provided, for reviving the integrity and independence of the House of Commons. In his eyes, the evil resided not in the constituencies, but in their representatives; not in the small number of the one, but in the smaller integrity of the other. The evil did not stop where it began. It was not merely that the sinister motive, thus engendered in the minds of too lax and facile men, induced them to betray their legislative trust, and barter their own uprightness and the interests of the State. The acquisition of one of these nefarious bribes meant much more than a sinister vote. It called into existence a champion of every inveterate abuse that weighed on the resources of the country. There is a well-known passage in the speech on Economical Reform, in which the speaker shows what an insurmountable obstacle Lord Talbot had found in his attempt to carry out certain reforms in the royal household, in the fact that the turnspit of the king’s kitchen was a member of Parliament. “On that rock his whole adventure split,–his whole scheme of economy was dashed to pieces; his department became more expensive than ever; the Civil List debt accumulated.” Interference with the expenses of the household meant interference with the perquisites or fees of this legislative turnspit, and the rights of sinecures were too sacred to be touched. In comparison with them, it counted for nothing that the king’s tradesmen went unpaid, and became bankrupt; that the judges were unpaid; that the justice of the kingdom bent and gave way; the foreign ministers remained inactive and unprovided; the system of Europe was dissolved; the chain of our alliances was broken; all the wheels of Government at home and abroad were stopped. _The king’s turnspit was a member of Parliament_. This office and numbers of others exactly like it, existed solely because the House of Commons was crowded with venal men. The post of royal scullion meant a vote that could be relied upon under every circumstance and in all emergencies. And each incumbent of such an office felt his honour and interests concerned in the defence of all other offices of the same scandalous description. There was thus maintained a strong standing army of expensive, lax, and corrupting officials.
[Footnote 1: The Civil List at this time comprehended a great number of charges, such as those of which Burke speaks, that had nothing to do with the sovereign personally. They were slowly removed, the judicial and diplomatic charges being transferred on the accession of William IV.] The royal household was a gigantic nest of costly jobbery and purposeless profusion. It retained all “the cumbrous charge of a Gothic establishment,” though all its usage and accommodation had “shrunk into the polished littleness of modern elegance.” The outlay was enormous. The expenditure on the court tables only was a thing unfathomable. Waste was the rule in every branch of it. There was an office for the Great Wardrobe, another office of the Robes, a third of the Groom of the Stole. For these three useless offices there were three useless treasurers. They all laid a heavy burden on the taxpayer, in order to supply a bribe to the member of Parliament. The plain remedy was to annihilate the subordinate treasuries. “Take away,” was Burke’s demand, “the whole establishment of detail in the household: the Treasurer, the Comptroller, the Cofferer of the Household, the Treasurer of the Chamber, the Master of the Household, the whole Board of Green Cloth; a vast number of subordinate offices in the department of the Steward of the Household; the whole establishment of the Great Wardrobe; the Removing Wardrobe; the Jewel Office; the Robes; the Board of Works.” The abolition of this confused and costly system would not only diminish expense and promote efficiency; it would do still more excellent service in destroying the roots of parliamentary corruption. “Under other governments a question of expense is only a question of economy, and it is nothing more; with us, in every question of expense, there is always a mixture of constitutional considerations.”
Places and pensions, though the worst, were not by any means the only stumbling-block in the way of pure and well-ordered government. The administration of the estates of the Crown,–the Principality, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Duchy of Lancaster, the County Palatine of Chester,–was an elaborate system of obscure and unprofitable expenditure. Wales had to herself eight judges, while no more than twelve sufficed to perform the whole business of justice in England, a country ten times as large and a hundred times as opulent. Wales, and each of the duchies, had its own exchequer. Every one of these principalities, said Burke, has the apparatus of a kingdom, for the jurisdiction over a few private estates; it has the formality and charge of the Exchequer of Great Britain, for collecting the rents of a country squire. They were the field, in his expressive phrase, of mock jurisdictions and mimic revenues, of difficult trifles and laborious fooleries. “It was but the other day that that pert factious fellow, the Duke of Lancaster, presumed to fly in the face of his liege lord, our gracious sovereign–presumed to go to law with the king. The object is neither your business nor mine. Which of the parties got the better I really forget. The material point is that the suit cost about L15,000. But as the Duke of Lancaster is but agent of Duke Humphrey, and not worth a groat, our sovereign was obliged to pay the costs of both.” The system which involved these costly absurdities Burke proposed entirely to abolish. In the same spirit he wished to dispose of the Crown lands and the forest lands, which it was for the good of the community, not less than of the Crown itself, to throw into the hands of private owners.
One of the most important of these projected reforms, and one which its author did not flinch from carrying out two years later to his own loss, related to the office of Paymaster. This functionary was accustomed to hold large balances of the public money in his own hands and for his own profit, for long periods, owing to a complex system of accounts which was so rigorous as entirely to defeat its own object. The paymaster could not, through the multiplicity of forms and the exaction of impossible conditions, get a prompt acquittance. The audit sometimes did not take place for years after the accounts were virtually closed. Meanwhile the money accumulated in his hands, and its profits were his legitimate perquisite. Lord Holland, or his representatives, held the balances of his office from 1765, when he retired, until 1778, when they were audited. During this time he realised, as the interest on the use of these balances, nearly two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. Burke diverted these enormous gains into the coffers of the State. He fixed the paymaster’s salary at four thousand pounds a year, and was himself the first person who accepted the curtailed income.
Not the most fervid or brilliant of Burke’s pieces, yet the speech on Economical Reform is certainly not the least instructive or impressive of them. It gives a suggestive view of the relations existing at that time between the House of Commons and the Court. It reveals the narrow and unpatriotic spirit of the king and the ministers, who could resist proposals so reasonable in themselves, and so remedial in their effects, at a time when the nation was suffering the heavy and distressing burdens of the most disastrous war that our country has ever carried on. It is especially interesting as an illustration of its author’s political capacity. At a moment when committees and petitions and great county meetings showed how thoroughly the national anger was roused against the existing system, Burke came to the front of affairs with a scheme, of which the most striking characteristic proved to be that it was profoundly temperate. Bent on the extirpation of the system, he had no ill-will towards the men who had happened to flourish in it. “I never will suffer,” he said, “any man or description of men to suffer from errors that naturally have grown out of the abusive constitution of those offices which I propose to regulate. If I cannot reform with equity, I will not reform at all.” Exasperated as he was by the fruitlessness of his opposition to a policy which he detested from the bottom of his soul, it would have been little wonderful if he had resorted to every weapon of his unrivalled rhetorical armoury, in order to discredit and overthrow the whole scheme of government. Yet nothing could have been further from his mind than any violent or extreme idea of this sort. Many years afterwards, he took credit to himself less for what he did on this occasion than for what he prevented from being done. People were ready for a new modelling of the two Houses of Parliament, as well as for grave modifications of the Prerogative. Burke resisted this temper unflinchingly. “I had,” he says, “a state to preserve, as well as a state to reform. I had a people to gratify, but not to inflame or to mislead.” He then recounts without exaggeration the pains and caution with which he sought reform, while steering clear of innovation. He heaved the lead every inch of way he made. It is grievous to think that a man who could assume such an attitude at such a time, who could give this kind of proof of his skill in the great, the difficult art of governing, only held a fifth-rate office for some time less than a twelvemonth.
The year of the project of Economic Reform (1780) is usually taken as the date when Burke’s influence and repute were at their height. He had not been tried in the fire of official responsibility, and his impetuosity was still under a degree of control which not long afterwards was fatally weakened by an over-mastering irritability of constitution. High as his character was now in the ascendant, it was in the same year that Burke suffered the sharp mortification of losing his seat at Bristol. His speech before the election is one of the best known of all his performances; and it well deserves to be so, for it is surpassed by none in gravity, elevation, and moral dignity. We can only wonder that a constituency which could suffer itself to be addressed on this high level, should have allowed the small selfishness of local interest to weigh against such wisdom and nobility. But Burke soon found in the course of his canvas that he had no chance, and he declined to go to the poll. On the previous day one of his competitors had fallen down dead. “_What shadows we are_” said Burke, “_and what shadows we pursue!_”
In 1782 Lord North’s government came to an end, and the king “was pleased,” as Lord North quoted with jesting irony from the _Gazette_, to send for Lord Rockingham, Charles Fox, and Lord Shelburne. Members could hardly believe their own eyes, as they saw Lord North and the members of a government which had been in place for twelve years, now lounging on the opposition benches in their greatcoats, frocks, and boots, while Fox and Burke shone in the full dress that was then worn by ministers, and cut unwonted figures with swords, lace, and hair-powder. Sheridan was made an under-secretary of state, and to the younger Pitt was offered his choice of various minor posts, which he haughtily refused. Burke, to whom on their own admission the party owed everything, was appointed Paymaster of the Forces, with a salary of four thousand pounds a year. His brother, Richard Burke, was made Secretary of the Treasury. His son Richard was named to be his father’s deputy at the Pay-Office, with a salary of five hundred pounds.
This singular exclusion from cabinet office of the most powerful genius of the party has naturally given rise to abundant criticism ever since. It will be convenient to say what there is to be said on this subject, in connection with the events of 1788 (below, p. 200), because there happens to exist some useful information about the ministerial crisis of that year, which sheds a clearer light upon the arrangements of six years before. Meanwhile it is enough to say that Burke himself had most reasonably looked to some higher post. There is the distinct note of the humility of mortified pride in a letter written in reply to some one who had applied to him for a place. “You have been misinformed,” he says; “I make no part of the ministerial arrangement. Something in the official line may possibly be thought fit for my measure.” Burke knew that his position in the country entitled him to something above the official line. In a later year, when he felt himself called upon to defend his pension, he described what his position was in the momentous crisis from 1780 to 1782, and Burke’s habitual veraciousness forbids us to treat the description as in any way exaggerated. “By what accident it matters not,” he says, “nor upon what desert, but just then, and in the midst of that hunt of obloquy which has ever pursued me with a full cry through life, I had obtained a very full degree of public confidence…. Nothing to prevent disorder was omitted; when it appeared, nothing to subdue it was left uncounselled nor unexecuted, as far as I could prevail. At the time I speak of, and having a momentary lead, so aided and so encouraged, and as a feeble instrument in a mighty hand–I do not say I saved my country–I am sure I did my country important service. There were few indeed that did not at that time acknowledge it–and that time was thirteen years ago. It was but one view, that no man in the kingdom better deserved an honourable provision should be made for him.”
[Footnote 1: _Letter to a Noble Lord._]
We have seen that Burke had fixed the paymaster’s salary at four thousand pounds, and had destroyed the extravagant perquisites. The other economical reforms which were actually effected fell short by a long way of those which Burke had so industriously devised and so forcibly recommended. In 1782, while Burke declined to spare his own office, the chief of the cabinet conferred upon Barre a pension of over three thousand a year; above ten times the amount, as has been said, which, in Lord Rockingham’s own judgment, as expressed in the new Bill, ought henceforth to be granted to any one person whatever. This shortcoming, however, does not detract from Burke’s merit. He was not responsible for it. The eloquence, ingenuity, diligence, above all, the sagacity and the justice of this great effort of 1780, are none the less worthy of our admiration and regard because, in 1782, his chiefs, partly perhaps out of a new-born deference for the feelings of their royal master, showed that the possession of office had sensibly cooled the ardent aspirations proper to Opposition.
The events of the twenty months between the resignation of Lord North (1782) and the accession of Pitt to the office of Prime Minister (December 1783) mark an important crisis in political history, and they mark an important crisis in Burke’s career and hopes. Lord Rockingham had just been three months in office, when he died (July 1782). This dissolved the bond that held the two sections of the ministry together, and let loose a flood of rival ambitions and sharp animosities. Lord Shelburne believed himself to have an irresistible claim to the chief post in the administration; among other reasons, because he might have had it before Lord Rockingham three months earlier, if he had so chosen. The king supported him, not from any partiality to his person, but because he dreaded and hated Charles Fox. The character of Shelburne is one of the perplexities of the time. His views on peace and free trade make him one of the precursors of the Manchester School. No minister was so well informed as to the threads of policy in foreign countries. He was the intimate or the patron of men who now stand out as among the first lights of that time–of Morellet, of Priestley, of Bentham. Yet a few months of power seem to have disclosed faults of character, which left him without a single political friend, and blighted him with irreparable discredit. Fox, who was now the head of the Rockingham section of the Whigs, had, before the death of the late premier, been on the point of refusing to serve any longer with Lord Shelburne, and he now very promptly refused to serve under him. When Parliament met after Rockingham’s death, gossips noticed that Fox and Burke continued, long after the Speaker had taken the chair, to walk backwards and forwards in the Court of Bequests, engaged in earnest conversation. According to one story, Burke was very reluctant to abandon an office whose emoluments were as convenient to him as to his spendthrift colleague. According to another and more probable legend, it was Burke who hurried the rupture, and stimulated Fox’s jealousy of Shelburne. The Duke of Richmond disapproved of the secession, and remained in the Government. Sheridan also disapproved, but he sacrificed his personal conviction to loyalty to Fox.
If Burke was responsible for the break-up of the Government, then he was the instigator of a blunder that must be pronounced not only disastrous but culpable. It lowered the legitimate spirit of party to the nameless spirit of faction. The dangers from which the old liberties of the realm had just emerged have been described by no one so forcibly as by Burke himself. No one was so convinced as Burke that the only way of withstanding the arbitrary and corrupting policy of the Court was to form a strong Whig party. No one knew better than he the sovereign importance and the immense difficulty of repairing the ruin of the last twelve years by a good peace. The Rockingham or Foxite section were obviously unable to form an effective party with serious expectation of power, unless they had allies. They might, no doubt, from personal dislike to Lord Shelburne, refuse to work under him; but personal dislike could be no excuse for formally and violently working against him, when his policy was their own, and when its success was recognised by them no less than by him as of urgent moment. Instead of either working with the other section of their party, or of supporting from below the gangway that which was the policy of both sections, they sought to return to power by coalescing with the very man whose criminal subservience to the king’s will had brought about the catastrophe that Shelburne was repairing. Burke must share the blame of this famous transaction. He was one of the most furious assailants of the new ministry. He poured out a fresh invective against Lord Shelburne every day Cynical contemporaries laughed as they saw him in search of more and more humiliating parallels, ransacking all literature from the Bible and the Roman history down to Mother Goose’s tales. His passion carried him so far as to breed a reaction in those who listened to him. “I think,” wrote Mason from Yorkshire, where Burke had been on a visit to Lord Fitzwilliam in the autumn of 1782, “that Burke’s mad obloquy against Lord Shelburne, and these insolent pamphlets in which he must have had a hand, will do more to fix him (Shelburne) in his office than anything else.”
This result would have actually followed, for the nation was ill pleased at the immoral alliance between the Foxites and the man whom, if they had been true to their opinions a thousand times repeated, they ought at that moment to have been impeaching. The Dissenters, who had hitherto been his enthusiastic admirers, but who are rigid above other men in their demand of political consistency, lamented Burke’s fall in joining the Coalition, as Priestley told him many years after, as the fall of a friend and a brother. But Shelburne threw away the game. “His falsehoods,” says Horace Walpole, “his flatteries, duplicity, insincerity, arrogance, contradictions, neglect of his friends, with all the kindred of all these faults, were the daily topics of contempt and ridicule; and his folly shut his eyes, nor did he perceive that so very rapid a fall must have been owing to his own incapacity.” This is the testimony of a hostile witness. It is borne out, however, by a circumstance of striking significance. When the king recovered the reins at the end of 1783, not only did he send for Pitt instead of for Shelburne, but Pitt himself neither invited Shelburne to join him, nor in any way ever consulted him then or afterwards, though he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in Shelburne’s own administration.
Whatever the causes may have been, the administration fell in the spring of 1783. It was succeeded by the memorable ministry of the Coalition, in which Fox and Lord North divided the real power under the nominal lead of the Duke of Portland. Members saw Lord North squeezed up on the Treasury bench between two men who had a year before been daily menacing him with the axe and the block; and it was not North whom they blamed, but Burke and Fox. Burke had returned to the Pay-Office. His first act there was unfortunate. He restored to their position two clerks who had been suspended for malversation, and against whom proceedings were then pending. When attacked for this in the House, he showed an irritation which would have carried him to gross lengths, if Fox and Sheridan had not by main force pulled him down into his seat by the tails of his coat. The restoration of the clerks was an indefensible error of judgment, and its indiscretion was heightened by the kind of defence which Burke tried to set up. When we wonder at Burke’s exclusion from great offices, this case of Powell and Bembridge should not be forgotten.
The decisive event in the history of the Coalition Government was the India Bill. The Reports of the various select committees upon Indian affairs–the most important of them all, the ninth and eleventh, having been drawn up by Burke himself–had shown conclusively that the existing system of government was thoroughly corrupt and thoroughly inadequate. It is ascertained pretty conclusively that the Bill for replacing that system was conceived and drawn by Burke, and that to him belongs whatever merit or demerit it might possess. It was Burke who infected Fox with his own ardour, and then, as Moore justly says, the self-kindling power of Fox’s eloquence threw such fire into his defence of the measure, that he forgot, and his hearers never found out, that his views were not originally and spontaneously his own. The novelty on which the great stress of discussion was laid was that the Bill withdrew power from the Board of Directors, and vested the Government for four years in a commission of seven persons named in the Bill, and not removable by the House.
Burke was so convinced of the incurable iniquity of the Company, so persuaded that it was not only full of abuses, but, as he said, one of the most corrupt and destructive tyrannies that probably ever existed in the world, as to be content with nothing short of the absolute deprivation of its power. He avowed himself no lover of names, and that he only contended for good government, from whatever quarter it might come. But the idea of good government coming from the Company he declared to be desperate and untenable. This intense animosity, which, considering his long and close familiarity with the infamies of the rule of the Company’s servants, was not unnatural, must be allowed, however, to have blinded him to the grave objections which really existed to his scheme. In the first place, the Bill was indisputably inconsistent with the spirit of his revered Constitution. For the legislature to assume the power of naming the members of an executive body was an extraordinary and mischievous innovation. Then, to put patronage, which has been estimated by a sober authority at about three hundred thousand pounds a year, into the hands of the House of Commons, was still more mischievous and still less justifiable. Worst of all, from the point of view of the projectors themselves, after a certain time the nomination of the Commissioners would fall to the Crown, and this might in certain contingencies increase to a most dangerous extent the ascendancy of the royal authority. If Burke’s measure had been carried, moreover, the patronage would have been transferred to a body much less competent than the Directors to judge of the qualities required in the fulfilment of this or that administrative charge. Indian promotion would have followed parliamentary and party interest. In the hands of the Directors there was at least a partial security, in their professional knowledge, and their personal interest in the success of their government, that places would not be given away on irrelevant considerations. Their system, with all its faults, insured the acquisition of a certain considerable competency in administration before a servant reached an elevation at which he could do much harm.
Burke defended the Bill (December 1, 1783) in one of the speeches which rank only below his greatest, and it contains two or three passages of unsurpassed energy and impressiveness. Everybody knows the fine page about Fox as the descendant of Henry IV. of France, and the happy quotation from Silius Italicus. Every book of British eloquence contains the magnificent description of the young magistrates who undertake the government and the spoliation of India; how, “animated with all the avarice of age, and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another, wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and of passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting.” How they return home laden with spoil: “their prey is lodged in England; and the cries of India are given to seas and winds, to be blown about, in every breaking up of the monsoon, over a remote and unhearing ocean.” How in India all the vices operate by which sudden fortune is acquired; while in England are often displayed by the same person the virtues which dispense hereditary wealth, so that “here the manufacturer and the husbandman will bless the just and punctual hand that in India has torn the cloth from the loom, or wrested the scanty portion of rice and salt from the peasant of Bengal, or wrung from him the very opium in which he forgot his oppression and his oppressors.”
No degree of eloquence, however, could avail to repair faults alike in structure and in tactics. The whole design was a masterpiece of hardihood, miscalculation, and mismanagement. The combination of interests against the Bill was instant, and it was indeed formidable. The great army of returned nabobs, of directors, of proprietors of East India stock, rose up in all its immense force. Every member of every corporation that enjoyed privilege by charter, felt the attack on the Company as if it had been a blow directed against himself. The general public had no particular passion for purity or good government, and the best portion of the public was disgusted with the Coalition. The king saw his chance. With politic audacity he put so strong a personal pressure on the peers, that they threw out the Bill (December 1783). It was to no purpose that Fox compared the lords to the Janissaries of a Turkish Sultan, and the king’s letter to Temple, to the rescript in which Tiberius ordered the upright Sejanus to be destroyed. Ministers were dismissed, the young Pitt was installed in their place, and the Whigs were ruined. As a party, they had a few months of office after Pitt’s death, but they were excluded from power for half a century.
BURKE AND HIS FRIENDS
Though Burke had, at a critical period of his life, definitely abandoned the career of letters, he never withdrew from close intimacy with the groups who still live for us in the pages of Boswell, as no other literary group in our history lives. Goldsmith’s famous lines in _Retaliation_ show how they all deplored that he should to party give up what was meant for mankind. They often told one another that Edmund Burke was the man whose genius pointed him out as the triumphant champion of faith and sound philosophy against deism, atheism, and David Hume. They loved to see him, as Goldsmith said, wind into his subject like a serpent. Everybody felt at the Literary Club that he had no superior in knowledge, and in colloquial dialectics only one equal. Garrick was there, and of all the names of the time he is the man whom one would perhaps most willingly have seen, because the gifts which threw not only Englishmen, but Frenchmen like Diderot, and Germans like Lichtenberg, into amazement and ecstasy, are exactly those gifts which literary description can do least to reproduce. Burke was one of his strongest admirers, and there was no more zealous attendant at the closing series of performances in which the great monarch of the stage abdicated his throne. In the last pages that he wrote, Burke refers to his ever dear friend Garrick, dead nearly twenty years before, as the first of actors because he was the acutest observer of nature that he had ever known. Then among men who pass for being more serious than players, Robertson was often in London society, and he attracted Burke by his largeness and breadth. He sent a copy of his _History of America_, and Burke thanked him with many stately compliments for having employed philosophy to judge of manners, and from manners having drawn new resources of philosophy. Gibbon was there, but the bystanders felt what was too crudely expressed by Mackintosh, that Gibbon might have been taken from a corner of Burke’s mind without ever being missed. Though Burke and Gibbon constantly met, it is not likely that, until the Revolution, there was much intimacy between them, in spite of the respect which each of them might well have had for the vast knowledge of the other. When the _Decline and Fall_ was published, Burke read it as everybody else did; but he told Reynolds that he disliked the style, as very affected, mere frippery and tinsel. Sir Joshua himself was neither a man of letters nor a keen politician; but he was full of literary ideas and interests, and he was among Burke’s warmest and most constant friends, following him with an admiration and reverence that even Johnson sometimes thought excessive. The reader of Reynolds’s famous Discourses will probably share the wonder of his contemporaries, that a man whose time was so absorbed in the practice of his art, should have proved himself so excellent a master in the expression of some of its principles. Burke was commonly credited with a large share in their composition, but the evidence goes no further than that Reynolds used to talk them over with him. The friendship between the pair was full and unalloyed. What Burke admired in the great artist was his sense and his morals, no less than his genius; and to a man of his fervid and excitable temper there was the most attractive of all charms in Sir Joshua’s placidity, gentleness, evenness, and the habit, as one of his friends described it, of being the same all the year round. When Reynolds died in 1792, he appointed Burke one of his executors, and left him a legacy of two thousand pounds, besides cancelling a bond of the same amount.
Johnson, however, is the only member of that illustrious company who can profitably be compared with Burke in strength and impressiveness of personality, in a large sensibility at once serious and genial, in brooding care for all the fulness of human life. This striking pair were the two complements of a single noble and solid type, holding tenaciously, in a century of dissolvent speculation, to the best ideas of a society that was slowly passing. They were powerless to hinder the inevitable transformation. One of them did not even dimly foresee it. But both of them help us to understand how manliness and reverence, strength and tenderness, love of truth and pity for man, all flourished under old institutions and old ways of thinking, into which the forces of the time were even then silently breathing a new spirit. The friendship between Burke and Johnson lasted as long as they lived; and if we remember that Johnson was a strong Tory, and declared that the first Whig was the devil, and habitually talked about cursed Whigs and bottomless Whigs, it is an extraordinary fact that his relations with the greatest Whig writer and politician of his day were marked by a cordiality, respect, and admiration that never varied nor wavered. “Burke,” he said in a well-known passage, “is such a man that if you met him for the first time in the street, where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he’d talk to you in such a manner that, when you parted, you would say, This is an extraordinary man. He is never what we would call humdrum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off.” That Burke was as good a listener as he was a talker, Johnson never would allow. “So desirous is he to talk,” he said, “that if one is talking at this end of the table, he’ll talk to somebody at the other end.” Johnson was far too good a critic, and too honest a man, to assent to a remark of Robertson’s, that Burke had wit. “No, sir,” said the sage, most truly, “he never succeeds there. ‘Tis low, ’tis conceit.” Wit apart, he described Burke as the only man whose common conversation corresponded to his general fame in the world; take up whatever topic you might please, he was ready to meet you. When Burke found a seat in Parliament, Johnson said, “Now we who know Burke, know that he will be one of the first men in the country.” He did not grudge that Burke should be the first man in the House of Commons, for Burke, he said, was always the first man everywhere. Once when he was ill, somebody mentioned Burke’s name. Johnson cried out, “That fellow calls forth all my powers; were I to see Burke now it would kill me.”
Burke heartily returned this high appreciation. When some flatterer hinted that Johnson had taken more than his right share of the evening’s talk, Burke said, “Nay, it is enough for me to have rung the bell for him.” Some one else spoke of a successful imitation of Johnson’s style. Burke with vehemence denied the success: the performance, he said, had the pomp, but not the force of the original; the nodosities of the oak, but not its strength; the contortions of the sibyl, but none of the inspiration. When Burke showed the old sage of Bolt Court over his fine house and pleasant gardens at Beaconsfield, _Non invideo equidem_, Johnson said, with placid good-will, _miror magis_. They always parted in the deep and pregnant phrase of a sage of our own day, _except in opinion not disagreeing_. In truth, the explanation of the sympathy between them is not far to seek. We may well believe that Johnson was tacitly alive to the essentially conservative spirit of Burke even in his most Whiggish days. And Burke penetrated the liberality of mind in a Tory, who called out with loud indignation that the Irish were in a most unnatural state, for there the minority prevailed over the majority, and the severity of the persecution exercised by the Protestants of Ireland against the Catholics exceeded that of the ten historic persecutions of the Christian Church.
The parties at Beaconsfield, and the evenings at the “Turk’s Head” in Gerard Street, were contemporary with the famous days at Holbach’s country house at Grandval. When we think of the reckless themes that were so recklessly discussed by Holbach, Diderot, and the rest of that indefatigable band, we feel that, as against the French philosophic party, an English Tory like Johnson and an English Whig like Burke would have found their own differences too minute to be worth considering. If the group from the “Turk’s Head” could have been transported for an afternoon to Grandval, perhaps Johnson would have been the less impatient and disgusted of the two. He had the capacity of the more genial sort of casuist for playing with subjects, even moral subjects, with the freedom, versatility, and ease that are proper to literature. Burke, on the contrary, would not have failed to see, as indeed we know that he did not fail to see, that a social pandemonium was being prepared in this intellectual paradise of open questions, where God and a future life, marriage and the family, every dogma of religion, every prescription of morality, and all those mysteries and pieties of human life which have been sanctified by the reverence of ages, were being busily pulled to pieces as if they had been toys in the hands of a company of sportive children. Even the _Beggar’s Opera_ Burke could not endure to hear praised for its wit or its music, because his mind was filled by thought of its misplaced levity, and he only saw the mischief which such a performance tended to do to society. It would be hard to defend his judgment in this particular case, but it serves to show how Burke was never content with the literary point of view, and how ready and vigilant he was for effects more profound than those of formal criticism. It is true that Johnson was sometimes not less austere in condemning a great work of art for its bad morality. The only time when he was really angry with Hannah More was on his finding that she had read _Tom Jones_–that vicious book, he called it; he hardly knew a more corrupt work. Burke’s tendency towards severity of moral judgment, however, never impaired the geniality and tenderness of his relations with those whom he loved. Bennet Langton gave Boswell an affecting account of Burke’s last interview with Johnson. A few days before the old man’s death, Burke and four or five other friends were sitting round his bedside. “Mr. Burke said to him, ‘I am afraid, sir, such a number of us may be oppressive to you.’ ‘No, sir,’ said Johnson, ‘it is not so; and I must be in a wretched state indeed when your company is not a delight to me.’ Mr. Burke, in a tremulous voice, expressive of being very tenderly affected, replied, ‘My dear sir, you have always been too good to me.’ Immediately afterwards he went away. This was the last circumstance in the acquaintance of these two eminent men.”
One of Burke’s strongest political intimacies was only less interesting and significant than his friendship with Johnson. William Dowdeswell had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in the short Rockingham administration of 1765. He had no brilliant gifts, but he had what was then thought a profound knowledge both of the principles and details of the administration of the national revenue. He was industrious, steadfast, clearheaded, inexorably upright. “Immersed in the greatest affairs,” as Burke said in his epitaph, “he never lost the ancient, native, genuine English character of a country gentleman.” And this was the character in which Burke now and always saw not only the true political barrier against despotism on the one hand and the rabble on the other, but the best moral type of civic virtue. Those who admire Burke, but cannot share his admiration for the country gentleman, will perhaps justify him by the assumption that he clothed his favourite with ideal qualities which ought, even if they did not, to have belonged to that position.
In his own modest imitation and on his own humble scale he was a pattern of the activity in public duty, the hospitality towards friends, the assiduous protection of neglected worth, which ought to be among the chief virtues of high station. It would perhaps be doubly unsafe to take for granted that many of our readers have both turned over the pages of Crabbe’s _Borough_, and carried away in their minds from that moderately affecting poem, the description of Eusebius–
That pious moralist, that reasoning saint! Can I of worth like thine, Eusebius, speak? The man is willing, but the muse is weak.
Eusebius is intended for Burke, and the portrait is a literary tribute for more substantial services. When Crabbe came up from his native Aldborough, with three pounds and a case of surgical instruments in his trunk, he fondly believed that a great patron would be found to watch over his transformation from an unsuccessful apothecary into a popular poet. He wrote to Lord North and Lord Shelburne, but they did not answer his letters; booksellers returned his copious manuscripts; the three pounds gradually disappeared; the surgical instruments went to the pawnbroker’s; and the poet found himself an outcast on the world, without a friend, without employment, and without bread. He owed money for his lodging, and was on the very eve of being sent to prison, when it occurred to him to write to Burke. It was the moment (1781) when the final struggle with Lord North was at its fiercest, and Burke might have been absolved if, in the stress of conflict, he had neglected a begging-letter. As it was, the manliness and simplicity of Crabbe’s application touched him. He immediately made an appointment with the young poet, and convinced himself of his worth. He not only relieved Crabbe’s immediate distress with a sum of money that, as we know, came from no affluence of his own, but carried him off to Beaconsfield, installed him there as a member of the family, and took as much pains to find a printer for _The Library_ and _The Village_, as if they had been poems of his own. In time he persuaded the Bishop of Norwich to admit Crabbe, in spite of his want of a regular qualification, to holy orders. He then commended him to the notice of Lord Chancellor Thurlow. Crabbe found the Tiger less formidable than his terrifying reputation, for Thurlow at their first interview presented him with a hundred-pound note, and afterwards gave him a living. The living was of no great value, it is true; and it was Burke who, with untiring friendship, succeeded in procuring something like a substantial position for him, by inducing the Duke of Rutland to make the young parson his chaplain. Henceforth Crabbe’s career was assured, and he never forgot to revere and bless the man to whose generous hand he owed his deliverance.
Another of Burke’s clients, of whom we hardly know whether to say that he is more or less known to our age than Crabbe, is Barry, a painter of disputable eminence. The son of a seafarer at Cork, he had been introduced to Burke in Dublin in 1762, was brought over to England by him, introduced to some kind of employment, and finally sent, with funds provided by the Burkes, to study art on the continent. It was characteristic of Burke’s willingness not only to supply money, but what is a far rarer form of kindness, to take active trouble, that he should have followed the raw student with long and careful letters of advice upon the proper direction of his studies. For five years Barry was maintained abroad by the Burkes. Most unhappily for himself he was cursed with an irritable and perverse temper, and he lacked even the elementary arts of conduct. Burke was generous to the end, with that difficult and uncommon kind of generosity which moves independently of gratitude or ingratitude in the receiver.
From his earliest days Burke had been the eager friend of people in distress. While he was still a student at the Temple, or a writer for the booksellers, he picked up a curious creature in the park, in such unpromising circumstances that he could not forbear to take him under his instant protection. This was Joseph Emin, the Armenian, who had come to Europe from India with strange heroic ideas in his head as to the deliverance of his countrymen. Burke instantly urged him to accept the few shillings that he happened to have in his purse, and seems to have found employment for him as a copyist, until fortune brought other openings to the singular adventurer. For foreign visitors Burke had always a singular considerateness. Two Brahmins came to England as agents of Ragonaut Rao, and at first underwent intolerable things rather from the ignorance than the unkindness of our countrymen. Burke no sooner found out what was passing than he carried them down to Beaconsfield, and as it was summer-time, he gave them for their separate use a spacious garden-house, where they were free to prepare their food and perform such rites as their religion prescribed. Nothing was so certain to command his fervid sympathy as strict adherence to the rules and ceremonies of an ancient and sacred ordering.
If he never failed to perform the offices to which we are bound by the common sympathy of men, it is satisfactory to think that Burke in return received a measure of these friendly services. Among those who loved him best was Dr. Brocklesby, the tender physician who watched and soothed the last hours of Johnson. When we remember how Burke’s soul was harassed by private cares, chagrined by the untoward course of public events, and mortified by neglect from friends no less than by virulent reproach from foes, it makes us feel very kindly towards Brocklesby, to read what he wrote to Burke in 1788:–
MY VERY DEAR FRIEND–My veneration of your public conduct for many years past, and my real affection for your private virtues and transcendent worth, made me yesterday take a liberty with you in a moment’s conversation at my house, to make you an instant present of L1000, which for years past I had by will destined as a testimony of my regard on my decease. This you modestly desired me not to think of; but I told you what I now repeat, that unfavoured as I have lived for a long life, unnoticed professionally by any party of men, and though unknown at court, I am rich enough to spare to virtue (what others waste in vice) the above sum, and still reserve an annual income greater than I spend. I shall receive at the India House a bill I have discounted for L1000 on the 4th of next month, and then shall be happy that you will accept this proof of my sincere love and esteem, and let me add, _Si res ampla domi similisque affectibus esset_, I should be happy to repeat the like every year.
The mere transcription of the friendly man’s good letter has something of the effect of an exercise of religion. And it was only one of a series of kind acts on the part of the same generous giver.
It is always interesting in the case of a great man to know how he affected the women of his acquaintance. Women do not usually judge character either so kindly or so soundly as men do, for they lack that knowledge of the ordeals of practical life, which gives both justice and charity to such verdicts. But they are more susceptible than most men are to devotion and nobility in character. The little group of the blue-stockings of the day regarded the great master of knowledge and eloquence with mixed feelings. They felt for Burke the adoring reverence which women offer, with too indiscriminate a trust, to men of commanding power. In his case it was the moral loftiness of his character that inspired them, as much as the splendour of his ability. Of Sheridan or of Fox they could not bear to hear; of Burke they could not hear enough. Hannah More, and Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, the learned translator of Epictetus, and Fanny Burney, the author of _Evelina_ and _Cecilia_, were all proud of his notice, even while they glowed with anger at his sympathy with American rebels, his unkind words about the king, and his cruel persecution of poor Mr. Hastings. It was at Mrs. Vesey’s evening parties, given on the Tuesdays on which the Club dined at the “Turk’s Head,” that he often had long chats with Hannah More. She had to forget what she called his political malefactions, before she could allow herself to admire his high spirits and good humour. This was after the events of the Coalition, and her _Memoirs_, like the change in the mind of the Dissenters towards Burke, show what a fall that act of faction was believed to mark in his character. When he was rejected for Bristol, she moralised on the catastrophe by the quaint reflection, that Providence has wisely contrived to render all its dispensations equal, by making those talents which set one man so much above another, of no esteem in the opinion of those who are without them.
Miss Burney has described her flutter of spirits when she first found herself in company with Burke (1782). It was at Sir Joshua’s house on the top of Richmond Hill, and she tells, with her usual effusion, how she was impressed by Burke’s noble figure and commanding air, his penetrating and sonorous voice, his eloquent and copious language, the infinite variety and rapidity of his discourse. Burke had something to say on every subject, from bits of personal gossip, up to the sweet and melting landscape that lay in all its beauty before their windows on the terrace. He was playful, serious, fantastic, wise. When they next met, the great man completed his conquest by expressing his admiration of _Evelina_. Gibbon assured her that he had read the whole five volumes in a day; but Burke declared the feat was impossible, for he had himself read it through without interruption, and it had cost him three days. He showed his regard for the authoress in a more substantial way than by compliments and criticism. His last act, before going out of office, in 1783, was to procure for Dr. Burney the appointment of organist at the chapel of Chelsea.
We have spoken of the dislike of these excellent women for Sheridan and Fox. In Sheridan’s case Burke did not much disagree with them. Their characters were as unlike and as antipathetic as those of two men could be; and to antipathy of temperament was probably added a kind of rivalry, which may justly have affected one of them with an irritated humiliation. Sheridan was twenty years younger than Burke, and did not come into Parliament until Burke had fought the prolonged battle of the American war, and had achieved the victory of Economic Reform. Yet Sheridan was immediately taken up by the party, and became the intimate and counsellor of Charles Fox, its leader, and of the Prince of Wales, its patron. That Burke never failed to do full justice to Sheridan’s brilliant genius, or to bestow generous and unaffected praise on his oratorical successes, there is ample evidence. He was of far too high and veracious a nature to be capable of the disparaging tricks of a poor jealousy. The humiliation lay in the fact that circumstances had placed Sheridan in a position, which made it natural for the world to measure them with one another. Burke could no more like Sheridan than he could like the _Beggar’s Opera_. Sheridan had a levity, a want of depth, a laxity and dispersion of feeling, to which no degree of intellectual brilliancy could reconcile a man of such profound moral energy and social conviction as Burke.
The thought will perhaps occur to the reader that Fox was not less lax than Sheridan, and yet for Fox Burke long had the sincerest friendship. He was dissolute, indolent, irregular, and the most insensate gambler that ever squandered fortune after fortune over the faro-table. It was his vices as much as his politics that made George III. hate Fox as an English Catiline. How came Burke to accept a man of this character, first for his disciple, then for his friend, and next for his leader? The answer is a simple one. In spite of the disorders of his life, Fox, from the time when his acquaintance with Burke began, down to the time when it came to such disastrous end, and for long years afterwards, was to the bottom of his heart as passionate for freedom, justice, and beneficence as Burke ever was. These great ends were as real, as constant, as overmastering in Fox as they were in Burke. No man was ever more deeply imbued with the generous impulses of great statesmanship, with chivalrous courage, with the magnificent spirit of devotion to high imposing causes. These qualities we may be sure, and not his power as a debater and as a declaimer, won for him in Burke’s heart the admiration which found such splendid expression in a passage that will remain as a stock piece of declamation for long generations after it was first poured out as a sincere tribute of reverence and affection. Precisians, like Lafayette, might choose to see their patriotic hopes ruined rather than have them saved by Mirabeau, because Mirabeau was a debauchee. Burke’s public morality was of stouter stuff, and he loved Fox because he knew that under the stains and blemishes that had been left by a deplorable education, was that sterling, inexhaustible ore in which noble sympathies are subtly compounded with resplendent powers.
If he was warmly attached to his political friends, Burke, at least before the Revolution, was usually on fair terms in private life with his political opponents. There were few men whose policy he disliked more than he disliked the policy of George Grenville. And we have seen that he criticised Grenville in a pamphlet which did not spare him. Yet Grenville and he did not refuse one another’s hospitality, and were on the best terms to the very end. Wilberforce, again, was one of the staunchest friends of Pitt, and fought one of the greatest electioneering battles on Pitt’s side in the struggle of 1784; but it made no difference in Burke’s relations with him. In 1787 a coldness arose between them. Burke had delivered a strong invective against the French Treaty. Wilberforce said, “We can make allowance for the honourable gentleman, because we remember him in better days.” The retort greatly nettled Burke, but the feeling soon passed away, and they both found a special satisfaction in the dinner to which Wilberforce invited Burke every session. “He was a great man,” says Wilberforce. “I could never understand how at one time he grew to be so entirely neglected.”
Outside of both political and literary circles, among Burke’s correspondents was that wise and honest traveller whose name is as inseparably bound up with the preparation of the French Revolution, as Burke’s is bound up with its sanguinary climax and fulfilment. Arthur Young, by his Farmer’s Letters, and Farmer’s Calendar, and his account of his travels in the southern counties of England and elsewhere–the story of the more famous travels in France was not published until 1792–had won a reputation as the best informed agriculturist of his day. Within a year of his settlement at Beaconsfield, we find Burke writing to consult Young on the mysteries of his new occupation. The reader may smile as he recognises the ardour, the earnestness, the fervid gravity of the political speeches, in letters which discuss the merits of carrots in fattening porkers, and the precise degree to which they should be boiled. Burke throws himself just as eagerly into white peas and Indian corn, into cabbages that grow into head and cabbages that shoot into leaves, into experiments with pumpkin seed and wild parsnip, as if they had been details of the Stamp Act, or justice to Ireland. When he complains that it is scarcely possible for him, with his numerous avocations, to get his servants to enter fully into his views as to the right treatment of his crops, we can easily understand that his farming did not help him to make money. It is impossible that he should have had time or attention to spare for the effectual direction of even a small farm.
Yet if the farm brought scantier profit than it ought to have brought, it was probably no weak solace in the background of a life of harassing interests and perpetual disappointments. Burke was happier at Beaconsfield than anywhere else, and he was happiest there when his house was full of guests. Nothing pleased him better than to drive a visitor over to Windsor, where he would expatiate with enthusiasm “on the proud Keep, rising in the majesty of proportion, and girt with the double belt of its kindred and coeval towers, overseeing and guarding the subjected land.” He delighted to point out the house at Uxbridge where Charles I. had carried on the negotiations with the Parliamentary Commissioners; the beautiful grounds of Bulstrode, where Judge Jefferies had once lived; and the churchyard of Beaconsfield, where lay the remains of Edmund Waller, the poet. He was fond of talking of great statesmen–of Walpole, of Pulteney, and of Chatham. Some one had said that Chatham knew nothing whatever except Spenser’s _Faery Queen_. “No matter how that was said,” Burke replied to one of his visitors, “whoever relishes and reads Spenser as he ought to be read, will have a strong hold of the English language.” The delight of the host must have been at least equalled by the delight of the guest in conversation which was thus ever taking new turns, branching into topical surprises, and at all turns and on every topic was luminous, high, edifying, full.
No guest was more welcome than the friend of his boyhood, and Richard Shackleton has told how the friendship, cordiality, and openness with which Burke embraced him was even more than might be expected from long love. The simple Quaker was confused by the sight of what seemed to him so sumptuous and worldly a life, and he went to rest uneasily, doubting whether God’s blessing could go with it. But when he awoke on the morrow of his first visit, he told his wife, in the language of his sect, how glad he was “to find no condemnation; but on the contrary, ability to put up fervent petitions with much tenderness on behalf of this great luminary.” It is at his country home that we like best to think of Burke. It is still a touching picture to the historic imagination to follow him from the heat and violence of the House, where tipsy squires derided the greatest genius of his time, down to the calm shades of Beaconsfield, where he would with his own hands give food to a starving beggar, or medicine to a peasant sick of the ague; where he would talk of the weather, the turnips, and the hay with the team-men and the farm-bailiff; and where, in the evening stillness, he would pace the walk under the trees, and reflect on the state of Europe and the distractions of his country.
THE NEW MINISTRY–WARREN HASTINGS–BURKE’S PUBLIC POSITION
The six years which followed the destruction of the Coalition were, in some respects, the most mortifying portion of Burke’s troubled career. Pitt was more firmly seated in power than Lord North had ever been, and he used his power to carry out a policy against which it was impossible for the Whigs, on their own principles, to offer an effective resistance. For this is the peculiarity of the king’s first victory over the enemies who had done obstinate battle with him for nearly a quarter of a century. He had driven them out of the field, but with the aid of an ally who was as strongly hostile to the royal system as they had ever been. The king had vindicated his right against the Whigs to choose his own ministers; but the new minister was himself a Whig by descent, and a reformer by his education and personal disposition.
Ireland was the subject of the first great battle between the ministry and their opponents. Here, if anywhere, we might have expected from Burke at least his usual wisdom and patience. We saw in a previous chapter (p. 33) what the political condition of Ireland was when Burke went there with Hamilton in 1763. The American war had brought about a great change. The king had shrewdly predicted that if America became free Ireland would soon follow the same plan and be a separate state. In fact, along with the American war we had to encounter an Irish war also; but the latter was, as an Irish politician called it at the time, a smothered war. Like the Americans, the Anglo-Irish entered into non-importation compacts, and they interdicted commerce. The Irish volunteers, first forty, then sixty, and at last a hundred thousand strong, were virtually an army enrolled to overawe the English ministry and Parliament. Following the spirit, if not the actual path, of the Americans, they raised a cry for commercial and legislative independence. They were too strong to be resisted, and in 1782 the Irish Parliament acquired the privilege of initiating and conducting its own business, without the sanction or control either of the Privy Council or of the English Parliament. Dazzled by the chance of acquiring legislative independence, they had been content with the comparatively small commercial boons obtained by Lord Nugent and Burke in 1778, and with the removal of further restrictions by the alarmed minister in the following year. After the concession of their independence in 1782, they found that to procure the abolition of the remaining restrictions on their commerce–the right of trade, for instance, with America and Africa–the consent of the English legislature was as necessary as it had ever been. Pitt, fresh from the teaching of Adam Smith and of Shelburne, brought forward in 1785 his famous commercial propositions. The theory of his scheme was that Irish trade should be free, and that Ireland should be admitted to a permanent participation in commercial advantages. In return for this gain, after her hereditary revenue passed a certain point, she was to devote the surplus to purposes, such as the maintenance of the navy, in which the two nations had a common interest. Pitt was to be believed when he declared that of all the objects of his political life this was, in his opinion, the most important that he had ever engaged in, and he never expected to meet another that should rouse every emotion in so strong a degree as this.
A furious battle took place in the Irish Parliament. There, while nobody could deny that the eleven propositions would benefit the mercantile interests of the country, it was passionately urged that the last of the propositions, that which concerned the apportionment of Irish revenue to imperial purposes, meant the enslavement of their unhappy island. Their fetters, they went on, were clenched, if the English Government was to be allowed thus to take the initiative in Irish legislation. The factious course pursued by the English Opposition was much less excusable than the line of the Anglo-Irish leaders. Fox, who was ostentatiously ignorant of political economy, led the charge. He insisted that Pitt’s measures would annihilate English trade, would destroy the Navigation Laws, and with them would bring our maritime strength to the ground. Having thus won the favour of the English manufacturers, he turned round to the Irish Opposition, and conciliated them by declaring with equal vehemence that the propositions were an insult to Ireland, and a nefarious attempt to tamper with her new-born liberties. Burke followed his leader. We may almost say that for once he allowed his political integrity to be bewildered. In 1778 and 1779 he had firmly resisted the pressure which his mercantile constituents in Bristol had endeavoured to put upon him; he had warmly supported the Irish claims, and had lost his seat in consequence. The precise ground which he took up in 1785 was this. He appears to have discerned in Pitt’s proposals the germ of an attempt to extract revenue from Ireland, identical in purpose, principle, and probable effect with the ever-memorable attempt to extract revenue from the American colonies. Whatever stress may be laid upon this, we find it hard to vindicate Burke from the charge of factiousness. Nothing can have been more unworthy of him than the sneer at Pitt in the great speech on the Nabob of Arcot’s debts (1785), for stopping to pick up chaff and straws from the Irish revenue instead of checking profligate expenditure in India.
Pitt’s alternative was irresistible. Situated as Ireland was, she must either be the subservient instrument of English prosperity, or else she must be allowed to enjoy the benefits of English trade, taking at the same time a proportionate share of the common burdens. Adam Smith had shown that there was nothing incompatible with justice in a contribution by Ireland to the public debt of Great Britain. That debt, he argued, had been contracted in support of the government established by the Revolution; a government to which the Protestants of Ireland owed not only the whole authority which they enjoyed in their own country, but every security which they possessed for their liberty, property, and religion. The neighbourhood of Ireland to the shores of the mother country introduced an element into the problem, which must have taught every unimpassioned observer that the American solution would be inadequate for a dependency that lay at our very door. Burke could not, in his calmer moments, have failed to recognise all this. Yet he lent himself to the party cry that Pitt was taking his first measures for the re-enslavement of Ireland. Had it not been for what he himself called the delirium of the preceding session, and which had still not subsided, he would have seen that Pitt was in truth taking his first measures for the effective deliverance of Ireland from an unjust and oppressive subordination. The same delirium committed him to another equally deplorable perversity, when he opposed, with as many excesses in temper as fallacies in statesmanship, the wise treaty with France, in which Pitt partially anticipated the commercial policy of an ampler treaty three-quarters of a century afterwards.
A great episode in Burke’s career now opened. It was in 1785 that Warren Hastings returned from India, after a series of exploits as momentous and far-reaching, for good or evil, as have ever been achieved by any English ruler. For years Burke had been watching India. With rising wonder, amazement, and indignation he had steadily followed that long train of intrigue and crime which had ended in the consolidation of a new empire. With the return of Hastings he felt that the time had come for striking a severe blow, and making a signal example. He gave notice (June 1785) that he would, at a future day, make a motion respecting the conduct of a gentleman just returned from India.
Among minor considerations, we have to remember that Indian affairs entered materially into the great battle of parties. It was upon an Indian bill that the late ministry had made shipwreck. It was notoriously by the aid of potent Indian interests that the new ministry had acquired a portion of its majority. To expose the misdeeds of our agents in India was at once to strike the minister who had dexterously secured their support, and to attack one of the great strongholds of parliamentary corruption. The proceedings against Hastings were, in the first instance, regarded as a sequel to the struggle over Fox’s East India Bill. That these considerations were present in Burke’s thought there is no doubt, but they were purely secondary. It was India itself that stood above all else in his imagination. It had filled his mind and absorbed his time while Pitt was still an undergraduate at Cambridge, and Burke was looking forward to match his plan of economic reform with a greater plan of Indian reform. In the Ninth Report, the Eleventh Report, and in his speech on the India Bill of 1783, he had shown both how thoroughly he had mastered the facts, and how profoundly they had stirred his sense of wrong. The masterpiece known as the speech on the Nabob of Arcot’s debts, delivered in Parliament on a motion for papers (1785), handles matters of account, of interest turned into principal, and principal superadded to principal; it deals with a hundred minute technicalities of teeps and tuncaws, of gomastahs and soucaring; all with such a suffusion of interest and colour, with such nobility of idea and expression, as could only have come from the addition to genius of a deep morality of nature, and an overwhelming force of conviction. A space less than one of these pages contains such a picture of the devastation of the Carnatic by Hyder Ali, as may fill the young orator or the young writer with the same emotions of enthusiasm, emulation, and despair that torment the artist who first gazes on the Madonna at Dresden, or the figures of Night and Dawn and the Penseroso at Florence. The despair is only too well founded. No conscious study could pierce the secret of that just and pathetic transition from the havoc of Hyder Ali to the healing duties of a virtuous government, to the consolatory celebration of the mysteries of justice and humanity, to the warning to the unlawful creditors to silence their inauspicious tongues in presence of the holy work of restoration, to the generous proclamation against them that in every country the first creditor is the plough. The emotions which make the hidden force of such pictures come not by observation. They grow from the sedulous meditation of long years, directed by a powerful intellect and inspired by an interest in human well-being, which of its own virtue bore the orator into the sustaining air of the upper gods. Concentrated passion and exhaustive knowledge have never entered into a more formidable combination. Yet when Burke made his speech on the Nabob of Arcot’s debts, Pitt and Grenville consulted together whether it was worth answering, and came to the conclusion that they need not take the trouble.
Neither the scornful neglect of his opponents nor the dissensions of some who sat on his own side, could check the ardour with which Burke pressed on, as he said, to the relief of afflicted nations. The fact is, that Burke was not at all a philanthropist as Clarkson and Wilberforce were philanthropists. His sympathy was too strongly under the control of true political reason. In 1780, for instance, the slave-trade had attracted his attention, and he had even proceeded to sketch out a code of regulations which provided for its immediate mitigation and ultimate suppression. After mature consideration he abandoned the attempt, from the conviction that the strength of the West India interest would defeat the utmost efforts of his party. And he was quite right in refusing to hope from any political action what could only be effected after the moral preparation of the bulk of the nation. And _direct_ moral or philanthropic apostleship was not his function.
Macaulay, in a famous passage of dazzling lustre and fine historic colour, describes Burke’s holy rage against the misdeeds of Hastings as due to his sensibility. But sensibility to what? Not merely to those common impressions of human suffering which kindle the flame of ordinary philanthropy, always attractive, often so beneficent, but often so capricious and so laden with secret detriment. This was no part of Burke’s type. For is it enough to say that Burke had what is the distinctive mark of the true statesman, a passion for good, wise, and orderly government. He had that in the strongest degree. All that wore the look of confusion he held in abhorrence, and he detected the seeds of confusion with a penetration that made other men marvel. He was far too wise a man to have any sympathy with the energetic exercise of power for power’s sake. He knew well that triumphs of violence are for the most part little better than temporary makeshifts, which leave all the work of government to be encountered afterwards by men of essentially greater capacity than the hero of force without scruple. But he regarded those whom he called the great bad men of the old stamp, Cromwell, Richelieu, the Guises, the Condes, with a certain tolerance, because “though the virtues of such men were not to be taken as a balance to their crimes, yet they had long views, and sanctified their ambition by aiming at the orderly rule, and not the destruction of their country.” What he valued was the deep-seated order of systems that worked by the accepted uses, opinions, beliefs, prejudices of a community.
This love of right and stable order was not all. That was itself the growth from a deeper root, partly of conviction and partly of sympathy; the conviction of the rare and difficult conjunctures of circumstance which are needed for the formation of even the rudest forms of social union among mankind; and then the sympathy that the best men must always find it hard to withhold from any hoary fabric of belief, and any venerated system of government that has cherished a certain order and shed even a ray of the faintest dawn among the violences and the darkness of the race. It was reverence rather than sensibility, a noble and philosophic conservatism rather than philanthropy, which raised the storm in Burke’s breast against the rapacity of English adventurers in India and the imperial crimes of Hastings. Exactly the same tide of emotion which afterwards filled to the brim the cup of prophetic anger against the desecrators of the Church and the monarchy of France, now poured itself out against those who in India had “tossed about, subverted, and tore to pieces, as if it were in the gambols of boyish unluckiness and malice, the most established rights and the most ancient and most revered institutions of ages and nations.” From beginning to end of the fourteen years in which Burke pursued his campaign against Hastings, we see in every page that the India which ever glowed before his vision was not the home of picturesque usages and melodramatic costume, but rather, in his own words, the land of princes once of great dignity, authority, and opulence; of an ancient and venerable priesthood, the guides of the people while living, and their consolation in death; of a nobility of antiquity and renown; of millions of ingenious mechanics, and millions of diligent tillers of the earth; and finally, the land where might be found almost all the religions professed by men–the Brahminical, the Mussulman, the Eastern and the Western Christian. When he published his speech on the Nabob of Arcot, Burke prefixed to it an admirable quotation from one of the letters of the Emperor Julian. And Julian too, as we all know, had a strong feeling for the past. But what in that remarkable figure was only the sentimentalism of reaction, in Burke was a reasoned and philosophic veneration for all old and settled order, whether in the free Parliament of Great Britain, in the ancient absolutism of Versailles, or in the secular pomp of Oude and the inviolable sanctity of Benares, the holy city and the garden of God.
It would be out of place here to attempt to follow the details of the impeachment. Every reader has heard that great tale in our history, and everybody knows that it was Burke’s tenacity and power which caused that tale to be told. The House of Commons would not, it is true, have directed that Hastings should be impeached, unless Pitt had given his sanction and approval, and how it was that Pitt did give his sanction and approval so suddenly and on grounds ostensibly so slender, remains one of the secrets of history. In no case would the impeachment have been pressed upon Parliament by the Opposition, and assented to by ministers, if Burke had not been there with his prodigious industry, his commanding comprehensive vision, his burning zeal, and his power of kindling in men so different from him and from one another as Fox, Sheridan, Windham, Grey, a zeal only less intense than his own.
It was in the spring of 1786 that the articles of charge of Hastings’s high crimes and misdemeanours, as Burke had drawn them, were presented to the House of Commons. It was in February 1788 that Burke opened the vast cause in the old historic hall at Westminster, in an oration in which at points he was wound up to such a pitch of eloquence and passion that every listener, including the great criminal, held his breath in an agony of horror; that women were carried out fainting; that the speaker himself became incapable of saying another word, and the spectators of the scene began to wonder whether he would not, like the mighty Chatham, actually die in the exertion of his overwhelming powers. Among the illustrious crowd who thronged Westminster Hall in the opening days of the impeachment was Fanny Burney. She was then in her odious bondage at Court, and was animated by that admiration and pity for Hastings which at Court was the fashion. Windham used to come up from the box of the managers of the impeachment to talk over with her the incidents of the day, and she gave him her impressions of Burke’s speech, which were probably those of the majority of his hearers, for the majority were favourable to Hastings. “I told him,” says Miss Burney, “that Mr. Burke’s opening had struck me with the highest admiration of his powers, from the eloquence, the imagination, the fire, the diversity of expression, and the ready flow of language with which he seemed gifted, in a most superior manner, for any and every purpose to which rhetoric could lead.” “And when he came to his two narratives,” I continued, “when he related the particulars of those dreadful murders, he interested, he engaged, he at last overpowered me; I felt my cause lost. I could hardly keep on my seat. My eyes dreaded a single glance towards a man so accused as Mr. Hastings; I wanted to sink on the floor, that they might be saved so painful a sight. I had no hope he could clear himself; not another wish in his favour remained. But when from this narration Mr. Burke proceeded to his own comments and declamation–when the charges of rapacity, cruelty, tyranny, were general, and made with all the violence of personal detestation, and continued and aggravated without any further fact or illustration; then there appeared more of study than of truth, more of invective than of justice; and, in short, so little of proof to so much of passion, that in a very short time I began to lift up my head, my seat was no longer uneasy, my eyes were indifferent which way they looked, or what object caught them, and before I was myself aware of the declension of Mr. Burke’s powers over my feelings, I found myself a mere spectator in a public place, and looking all around it, with my opera-glass in my hand!”
In 1795, six years after Burke’s opening, the Lords were ready with their verdict. It had long been anticipated. Hastings was acquitted. This was the close of the fourteen years of labour, from the date of the Select Committee of 1781. “If I were to call for a reward,” Burke said, “it would be for the services in which for fourteen years, without intermission, I showed the most industry and had the least success. I mean the affairs of India; they are those on which I value myself the most; most for the importance; most for the labour; most for the judgment; most for constancy and perseverance in the pursuit.”
The side that is defeated on a particular issue, is often victorious on the wide and general outcome. Looking back across the ninety years that divide us from that memorable scene in Westminster Hall, we may see that Burke had more success than at first appeared. If he did not convict the man, he overthrew a system, and stamped its principles with lasting censure and shame. Burke had perhaps a silent conviction that it would have been better for us and for India if Clive had succeeded in his attempt to blow out his own brains in the Madras counting-house, or if the battle of Plassy had been a decisive defeat instead of a decisive victory. “All these circumstances,” he once said, in reference to the results of the investigation of the Select Committee, “are not, I confess, very favourable to the idea of our attempting to govern India at all. But there we are: there we are placed by the Sovereign Disposer, and we must do the best we can in our situation. The situation of man is the preceptor of his duty.” If that situation is better understood now than it was a century ago, and that duty more loftily conceived, the result is due, so far as such results can ever be due to one man’s action apart from the confluence of the deep impersonal elements of time, to the seeds of justice and humanity which were sown by Burke and his associates. Nobody now believes that Clive was justified in tricking Omichund by forging another man’s name; that Impey was justified in hanging Nuncomar for committing the very offence for which Clive was excused or applauded, although forgery is no grave crime according to Hindoo usage, and it is the gravest according to English usage; that Hastings did well in selling English troops to assist in the extermination of a brave people with whom he was at peace; that Benfield did well in conniving with an Eastern prince in a project of extortion against his subjects. The whole drift of opinion has changed, and it is since the trial of Hastings that the change has taken place. The question in Burke’s time was whether oppression and corruption were to continue to be the guiding maxims of English policy. The personal disinterestedness of the ruler who had been the chief founder of this policy, and had most openly set aside all pretence of righteous principle, was dust in the balance. It was impossible to suppress the policy without striking a deadly blow at its most eminent and powerful instrument. That Hastings was acquitted, was immaterial. The lesson of his impeachment had been taught with sufficiently impressive force–the great lesson that Asiatics have rights, and that Europeans have obligations; that a superior race is bound to observe the highest current morality of the time in all its dealings with the subject race. Burke is entitled to our lasting reverence as the first apostle and great upholder of integrity, mercy, and honour in the relation between his countrymen and their humble dependents.
He shared the common fate of those who dare to strike a blow for human justice against the prejudices of national egotism. But he was no longer able to bear obloquy and neglect, as he had borne it through the war with the colonies. When he opened the impeachment of Hastings at Westminster, Burke was very near to his sixtieth year. Hannah More noted in 1786 that his vivacity had diminished, and that business and politics had impaired his agreeableness. The simpletons in the House, now that they had at last found in Pitt a political chief who could beat the Whig leaders on their own ground of eloquence, knowledge, and dexterity in debate, took heart as they had never done under Lord North. They now made deliberate attempts to silence the veteran by unmannerly and brutal interruptions, of which a mob of lower class might have been ashamed. Then suddenly came a moment of such excitement as has not often been seen in the annals of party. It became known one day in the autumn of 1788 that the king had gone out of his mind.
The news naturally caused the liveliest agitation among the Whigs. When the severity of the attack forced the ministry to make preparations for a Regency, the friends of the Prince of Wales assumed that they would speedily return to power, and hastened to form their plans accordingly. Fox was travelling in Italy with Mrs. Armstead, and he had been two months away without hearing a word from England. The Duke of Portland sent a messenger in search of him, and after a journey of ten days the messenger found him at Bologna. Fox instantly set off in all haste for London, which he reached in nine days. The three months that followed were a time of unsurpassed activity and bitterness, and Burke was at least as active and as bitter as the rest of them. He was the writer of the Prince of Wales’s letter to Pitt, sometimes set down to Sheridan, and sometimes to Gilbert Elliot. It makes us feel how naturally the style of ideal kingship, its dignity, calm, and high self-consciousness all came to Burke. Although we read of his thus drawing up manifestoes and protests, and deciding minor questions for Fox, which Fox was too irresolute to decide for himself, yet we have it on Burke’s own authority that some time elapsed after the return to England before he even saw Fox; that he was not consulted as to the course to be pursued in the grave and difficult questions connected with the Regency; and that he knew as little of the inside of Carlton House, where the Prince of Wales lived, as of Buckingham House, where the king lived. “I mean to continue here,” he says to Charles Fox, “until you call upon me; and I find myself perfectly easy, from the implicit confidence that I have in you and the Duke, and the certainty that I am in that you two will do the best for the general advantage of the cause. In that state of mind I feel no desire whatsoever of interfering.” Yet the letter itself, and others which follow, testify to the vehemence of Burke’s interest in the matter, and to the persistency with which he would have had them follow his judgment, if they would have listened. It is as clear that they did not listen.
Apart from the fierce struggle against Pitt’s Regency Bill, Burke’s friends were intently occupied with the reconstruction of the Portland cabinet, which the king had so unexpectedly dismissed five years before. This was a sphere in which Burke’s gifts were neither required nor sought. We are rather in distress, Sir Gilbert Elliot writes, for a proper man for the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Lord J. Cavendish is very unwilling to engage again in public affairs. Fox is to be Secretary of State. Burke, it is thought, would not be approved of, Sheridan has not the public confidence, and so it comes down therefore to Grey, Pelham, myself, and perhaps Windham.” Elliot was one of Burke’s most faithful and attached friends, and he was intimately concerned in all that was going on in the inner circle of the party. It is worth while, therefore, to reproduce his account from a confidential letter to Lady Elliot, of the way in which Burke’s claim to recognition was at this time regarded and dealt with.
Although I can tell you nothing positive about my own situation, I was made very happy indeed yesterday by co-operating in the settlement of Burke’s, in a manner which gives us great joy as well as comfort. The Duke of Portland has felt distressed how to arrange Burke and his family in a manner equal to Burke’s merits, and to the Duke’s own wishes, and at the same time so as to be exempt from the many difficulties which seem to be in the way. He sent for Pelham and me, as Burke’s friends and his own, to advise with us about it; and we dined yesterday with him and the Duchess, that we might have time to talk the thing over at leisure and without interruption after dinner. We stayed accordingly, engaged in that subject till almost twelve at night, and our conference ended most happily and excessively to the satisfaction of us all. The Duke of Portland has the veneration for Burke that Windham, Pelham, myself and a few more have, and he thinks it impossible to do too much for him. He considers the reward to be given to Burke as a credit and honour to the nation, and he considers the neglect of him and his embarrassed situation as having been long a reproach to the country. The unjust prejudice and clamour which has prevailed against him and his family only determine the Duke the more to do him justice. The question was how? First, his brother Richard, who was Secretary to the Treasury before, will have the same office now; but the Duke intends to give him one of the first offices which falls vacant, of about L1000 a year for life in the customs, and he will then resign the Secretary to the Treasury, which, however, in the meanwhile is worth L3000 a year. Edmund Burke is to have the Pay-Office, L4000 a year; but as that is precarious and he can leave no provision for his son, it would, in fact, be doing little or nothing of any real or substantial value unless some _permanent_ provision is added to it. In this view the Duke is to grant him on the Irish establishment a pension of L2000 a year _clear_ for his own life, and the other half to Mrs. Burke for her life. This will make Burke completely happy, by leaving his wife and son safe from want after his death, if they should survive him. The Duke’s affectionate anxiety to accomplish this object, and his determination to set all clamour at defiance on this point of justice, was truly affecting, and increases my attachment for the Duke…. The Duke said the only objection to this plan was that he thought it was due from this country, and that he grudged the honour of it to Ireland; but as nothing in England was ready, this plan was settled. You may think it strange that to this moment Burke does not know a word of all this, and his family are indeed, I believe, suffering a little under the apprehension that he may be neglected in the general scramble. I believe there never were three cabinet counsellors more in harmony on any subject than we were, nor three people happier in their day’s work.
[Footnote 1: _Life and Letters of Sir G. Elliot_, i. 261-263.]
This leaves the apparent puzzle where it was. Why should Burke not