be approved of for Chancellor of the Exchequer? What were the many difficulties described as seeming to be in the way of arranging for Burke in a manner equal to Burke’s merits and the Duke of Portland’s wishes? His personal relations with the chiefs of his party were at this time extremely cordial and intimate. He was constantly a guest at the Duke of Portland’s most private dinner-parties. Fox had gone down to Beaconsfield to recruit himself from the fatigues of his rapid journey from Bologna, and to spend some days in quiet with Windham and the master of the house. Elliot and Windham, who were talked about for a post for which one of them says that Burke would not have been approved, vied with one another in adoring Burke. Finally, Elliot and the Duke think themselves happy in a day’s work, which ended in consigning the man who not only was, but was admitted to be, the most powerful genius of their party, to a third-rate post, and that most equivocal distinction, a pension on the Irish establishment. The common explanation that it illustrates Whig exclusiveness, cannot be seriously received as adequate. It is probable, for one thing, that the feelings of the Prince of Wales had more to do with it than the feelings of men like the Duke of Portland or Fox. We can easily imagine how little that most worthless of human creatures would appreciate the great qualities of such a man as Burke. The painful fact which we are unable to conceal from ourselves is, that the common opinion of better men than the Prince of Wales leaned in the same direction. His violence in the course of the Regency debates had produced strong disapproval in the public, and downright consternation in his own party. On one occasion he is described by a respectable observer as having “been wilder than ever, and laid himself and his party more open than ever speaker did. He is folly personified, but shaking his cap and bells under the laurel of genius. He finished his wild speech in a manner next to madness.” Moore believes that Burke’s indiscretions in these trying and prolonged transactions sowed the seeds of the alienation between him and Fox two years afterwards. Burke’s excited state of mind showed itself in small things as well as great. Going with Windham to Carlton House, Burke attacked him in the coach for a difference of opinion about the affairs of a friend, and behaved with such unreasonable passion and such furious rudeness of manner, that his magnanimous admirer had some difficulty in obliterating the impression. The public were less tolerant. Windham has told us that at this time Burke was a man decried, persecuted, and proscribed, not being much valued even by his own party, and by half the nation considered as little better than an ingenious madman. This is evidence beyond impeachment, for Windham loved and honoured Burke with the affection and reverence of a son; and he puts the popular sentiment on record with grief and amazement. There is other testimony to the same effect. The late Lord Lansdowne, who must have heard the subject abundantly discussed by those who were most concerned in it, was once asked by a very eminent man of our own time, why the Whigs kept Burke out of their cabinets. “Burke!” he cried; “he was so violent, so overbearing, so arrogant, so intractable, that to have got on with him in a cabinet would have been utterly and absolutely impossible.”
[Footnote 1: Windham’s _Diary_, p. 213.]
On the whole, it seems to be tolerably clear that the difficulties in the way of Burke’s promotion to high office were his notoriously straitened circumstances; his ungoverned excesses of party zeal and political passion; finally, what Sir Gilbert Elliot calls the unjust prejudice and clamour against him and his family, and what Burke himself once called the hunt of obloquy that pursued him all his life. The first two of these causes can scarcely have operated in the arrangements that were made in the Rockingham and Coalition ministries. But the third, we may be sure, was incessantly at work. It would have needed social courage alike in 1782, 1783, and 1788 to give cabinet rank to a man round whose name there floated so many disparaging associations. Social courage is exactly the virtue in which the constructors of a government will always think themselves least able to indulge. Burke, we have to remember, did not stand alone before the world. Elliot describes a dinner-party at Lord Fitzwilliam’s, at which four of these half-discredited Irishmen were present. “Burke has now got such a train after him as would sink anybody but himself:–his son, who is quite _nauseated_ by all mankind; his brother, who is liked better than his son, but is rather offensive with animal spirits and with brogue; and his cousin, Will Burke, who is just returned unexpectedly from India, as much ruined as when he went many years ago, and who is a fresh charge on any prospects of power that Burke may ever have.” It was this train, and the ideas of adventurership that clung to them, the inextinguishable stories about papistry and Saint Omer’s, the tenacious calumny about the letters of Junius, the notorious circumstances of embarrassment and neediness–it was all these things which combined with Burke’s own defects of temper and discretion, to give the Whig grandees as decent a reason as they could have desired for keeping all the great posts of state in their own hands.
It seems difficult to deny that the questions of the Regency had caused the germs of a sort of dissatisfaction and strain in the relations between Fox and Burke. Their feelings to one another have been well compared to the mutual discontent between partners in unsuccessful play, where each suspects that it is the mistakes of the other that lost the game. Whether Burke felt conscious of the failures in discretion and temper, which were the real or pretended excuse for neglect, we cannot tell. There is one passage that reveals a chagrin of this kind. A few days after the meeting between the Duke of Portland and Elliot, for the purpose of settling his place in the new ministry, Burke went down to Beaconsfield. In writing (January 24, 1789) to invite Windham and Pelham to come to stay a night, with promise of a leg of mutton cooked by a dairymaid who was not a bad hand at a pinch, he goes on to say that his health has received some small benefit from his journey to the country. “But this view to health, though far from unnecessary to me, was not the chief cause of my present retreat. I began to find that I was grown rather too anxious; and had begun to discover to myself and to others a solicitude relative to the present state of affairs, which, though their strange condition might well warrant it in others, is certainly less suitable to my time of life, in which all emotions are less allowed; and to which, most certainly, all human concerns ought in reason to become more indifferent than to those who have work to do, and a good deal of day and of inexhausted strength to do it in.”
[Footnote 1: _Correspondence_, iii. 89.]
The king’s unexpected restoration to health two or three weeks later brought to nought all the hope and ambition of the Whigs, and confirmed Pitt in power for the rest of Burke’s lifetime. But an event now came to pass in the world’s history, which transformed Burke in an instant from a man decried, persecuted, proscribed, into an object of exultant adoration all over Europe.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
We have now come to the second of the two momentous changes in the world’s affairs, in which Burke played an imposing and historic part. His attitude in the first of them, the struggle for American independence, commands almost without alloy the admiration and reverence of posterity. His attitude in the second of them, the great revolution in France, has raised controversies which can only be compared in heat and duration to the master controversies of theology. If the history of society were written as learned men write the history of the Christian faith and its churches, Burke would figure in the same strong prominence, whether deplorable or glorious, as Arius and Athanasius, Augustine and Sabellius, Luther and Ignatius. If we ask how it is that now, nearly a century after the event, men are still discussing Burke’s pamphlet on the Revolution as they are still discussing Bishop Butler’s _Analogy_, the answer is that in one case as in the other the questions at issue are still unsettled, and that Burke offers in their highest and most comprehensive form all the considerations that belong to one side of the dispute. He was not of those, of whom Coleridge said that they proceeded with much solemnity to solve the riddle of the French Revolution by anecdotes. He suspended it in the same light of great social ideas and wide principles, in which its authors and champions professed to represent it. Unhappily he advanced from criticism to practical exhortation, in our opinion the most mischievous and indefensible that has ever been pressed by any statesman on any nation. But the force of the criticism remains, its foresight remains, its commemoration of valuable elements of life which men were forgetting, its discernment of the limitations of things, its sense of the awful emergencies of the problem. When our grandchildren have made up their minds, once for all, as to the merits of the social transformation which dawned on Europe in 1789, then Burke’s _Reflections_ will become a mere literary antiquity, and not before.
From the very beginning Burke looked upon the proceedings in France with distrust. He had not a moment of enthusiasm or sympathy of which to repent. When the news reached England that the insurgents of Paris had stormed the Bastille, Fox exclaimed with exultation, how much it was the greatest event that had ever happened in the world, how much the best. Is it an infirmity to wish for an instant that some such phrase of generous hope had escaped from Burke; that he had for a day or an hour undergone that fine illusion which was lighted up in the spirits of men like Wordsworth and Coleridge? Those great poets, who were destined one day to preach even a wiser and a loftier conservatism than his own, have told us what they felt–
When France in wrath her giant limbs upreared, And with that oath, which smote air, earth, and sea, Stamped her strong foot, and said she would be free.
Burke from the first espied the looming shadow of a catastrophe. In August he wrote to Lord Charlemont that the events in France had something paradoxical and mysterious about them; that the outbreak of the old Parisian ferocity might be no more than a sudden explosion, but if it should happen to be _character_ rather than accident, then the people would need a strong hand like that of their former masters to coerce them; that all depended upon the French having wise heads among them, and upon these wise heads, if such there were, acquiring an authority to match their wisdom. There is nothing here but a calm and sagacious suspense of judgment. It soon appeared that the old Parisian ferocity was still alive. In the events of October 1789, when the mob of Paris marched out to Versailles and marched back again with the king and queen in triumphal procession, Burke felt in his heart that the beginning of the end had come, and that the catastrophe was already at hand. In October he wrote a long letter to the French gentleman to whom he afterwards addressed the _Reflections_. “You hope, sir,” he said, “that I think the French deserving of liberty. I certainly do. I certainly think that all men who desire it deserve it. We cannot forfeit our right to it, but by what forfeits our title to the privileges of our kind. The liberty I mean is _social_ freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by equality of restraint. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice. _Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is in my opinion safe_.” The weightiest and most important of all political truths, and worth half the fine things that poets have sung about freedom–if it could only have been respected, how different the course of the Revolution! But the engineer who attempts to deal with the abysmal rush of the falls of Niagara, must put aside the tools that constructed the Bridgewater Canal and the Chelsea Waterworks. Nobody recognised so early as Burke that France had really embarked among cataracts and boiling gulfs, and the pith of all his first criticisms, including the _Reflections_, was the proposition that to separate freedom from justice was nothing else than to steer the ship of state direct into the Maelstrom. It is impossible to deny that this was true. Unfortunately it was a truth which the wild spirits that were then abroad in the storm made of no avail.
Destiny aimed an evil stroke when Burke, whose whole soul was bound up in order, peace, and gently enlarged precedent, found himself face to face with the portentous man-devouring Sphinx. He who could not endure that a few clergymen should be allowed to subscribe to the Bible instead of to the Articles, saw the ancient Church of Christendom prostrated, its possessions confiscated, its priests proscribed, and Christianity itself officially superseded. The economical reformer, who when his zeal was hottest declined to discharge a tide-waiter or a scullion in the royal kitchen who should have acquired the shadow of a vested interest in his post, beheld two great orders stripped of their privileges and deprived of much of their lands, though their possession had been sanctified by the express voice of the laws and the prescription of many centuries. He who was full of apprehension and anger at the proposal to take away a member of Parliament from St. Michael’s or Old Sarum, had to look on while the most august monarchy in Europe was overturned. The man who dreaded fanatics, hated atheists, despised political theorisers, and was driven wild at the notion of applying metaphysical rights and abstract doctrines to public affairs, suddenly beheld a whole kingdom given finally up to fanatics, atheists, and theorisers, who talked of nothing but the rights of man, and deliberately set as wide a gulf as ruin and bloodshed could make between themselves and every incident or institution in the history of their land. The statesman who had once declared, and habitually proved, his preference for peace over even truth, who had all his life surrounded himself with a mental paradise of order and equilibrium, in a moment found himself confronted by the stupendous and awful spectre which a century of disorder had raised in its supreme hour. It could not have been difficult for any one who had studied Burke’s character and career, to foretell all that now came to pass with him.
It was from an English, and not from a French point of view, that Burke was first drawn to write upon the Revolution. The 4th of November was the anniversary of the landing of the Prince of Orange, and the first act in the Revolution of 1688. The members of an association which called itself the Revolution Society, chiefly composed of Dissenters, but not without a mixture of Churchmen, including a few peers and a good many members of the House of Commons, met as usual to hear a sermon in commemoration of the glorious day. Dr. Price was the preacher, and both in the morning sermon, and in the speeches which followed in the festivities of the afternoon, the French were held up to the loudest admiration, as having carried the principles of our own Revolution to a loftier height, and having opened boundless hopes to mankind. By these harmless proceedings Burke’s anger and scorn were aroused to a pitch which must seem to us, as it seemed to not a few of his contemporaries, singularly out of all proportion to its cause. Deeper things were doubtless in silent motion within him. He set to work upon a denunciation of Price’s doctrines, with a velocity that reminds us of Aristotle’s comparison of anger to the over-hasty servant, who runs off with all speed before he has listened to half the message. This was the origin of the _Reflections_. The design grew as the writer went on. His imagination took fire; his memory quickened a throng of impressive associations; his excited vision revealed to him a band of vain, petulant upstarts persecuting the ministers of a sacred religion, insulting a virtuous and innocent sovereign, and covering with humiliation the august daughter of the Caesars; his mind teemed with the sage maxims of the philosophy of things established, and the precepts of the gospel of order. Every courier that crossed the Channel supplied new material to his contempt and his alarm. He condemned the whole method and course of the French reforms. His judgment was in suspense no more. He no longer distrusted; he hated, despised, and began to dread.
Men soon began to whisper abroad that Burke thought ill of what was going on over the water. When it transpired that he was writing a pamphlet, the world of letters was stirred with the liveliest expectation. The name of the author, the importance of the subject, and the singularity of his opinions, so Mackintosh informs us, all inflamed the public curiosity. Soon after Parliament met for the session (1790), the army estimates were brought up. Fox criticised the increase of our forces, and incidentally hinted something in praise of the French army, which had shown that a man could be a soldier without ceasing to be a citizen. Some days afterwards the subject was revived, and Pitt, as well as Fox, avowed himself hopeful of the good effect of the Revolution upon the order and government of France. Burke followed in a very different vein, openly proclaiming that dislike and fear of the Revolution which was to be the one ceaseless refrain of all that he spoke or wrote for the rest of his life. He deplored Fox’s praise of the army for breaking their lawful allegiance, and then he proceeded with ominous words to the effect that, if any friend of his should concur in any measures which should tend to introduce such a democracy as that of France, he would abandon his best friends and join with his worst enemies to oppose either the means or the end. This has unanimously been pronounced one of the most brilliant and effective speeches that Burke ever made. Fox rose with distress on every feature, and made the often-quoted declaration of his debt to Burke:–“If all the political information I have learned from books, all which I have gained from science, and all which my knowledge of the world and its affairs has taught me, were put into one scale, and the improvement which I have derived from my right honourable friend’s instruction and conversation were placed in the other, I should be at a loss to decide to which to give the preference. I have learnt more from my right honourable friend than from all the men with whom I ever conversed.” All seemed likely to end in a spirit of conciliation until Sheridan rose, and in the plainest terms that he could find, expressed his dissent from everything that Burke had said. Burke immediately renounced his friendship. For the first time in his life he found the sympathy of the House vehemently on his side.
In the following month (March 1790) this unpromising incident was succeeded by an aberration which no rational man will now undertake to defend. Fox brought forward a motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. He did this in accordance with a recent suggestion of Burke’s own, that he should strengthen his political position by winning the support of the Dissenters. Burke himself had always denounced the Test Act as bad, and as an abuse of sacred things. To the amazement of everybody, and to the infinite scandal of his party, he now pronounced the Dissenters to be disaffected citizens, and refused to relieve them. Well might Fox say that Burke’s words had filled him with grief and shame.
Meanwhile the great rhetorical fabric gradually arose. Burke revised, erased, moderated, strengthened, emphasised, wrote and re-wrote with indefatigable industry. With the manuscript constantly under his eyes, he lingered busily, pen in hand, over paragraphs and phrases, antitheses and apophthegms. The _Reflections_ was no superb improvisation. Its composition recalls Palma Giovine’s account of the mighty Titian’s way of working; how the master made his preparations with resolute strokes of a heavily-laden brush, and then turned his picture to the wall, and by and by resumed again, and then again and again, redressing, adjusting, modelling the light with a rub of his finger, or dabbing a spot of dark colour into some corner with a touch of his thumb, and finally working all his smirches, contrasts, abruptnesses, into the glorious harmony that we know. Burke was so unwearied in this insatiable correction and alteration that the printer found it necessary, instead of making the changes marked upon the proof-sheets, to set up the whole in type afresh. The work was upon the easel for exactly a year. It was November (1790) before the result came into the hands of the public. It was a small octavo of three hundred and fifty-six pages, in contents rather less than twice the present volume, bound in an unlettered wrapper of gray paper, and sold for five shillings. In less than twelve months it reached its eleventh edition, and it has been computed that not many short of thirty thousand copies were sold within the next six years.
The first curiosity had languished in the course of the long delay, but it was revived in its strongest force when the book itself appeared. A remarkable effect instantly followed. Before the _Reflections_ was published the predominant sentiment in England had been one of mixed astonishment and sympathy. Pitt had expressed this common mood both in the House of Commons and in private. It was impossible for England not to be amazed at the uprising of a nation whom they had been accustomed to think of as willing slaves, and it was impossible for her, when the scene did not happen to be the American colonies or Ireland, not to profess good wishes for the cause of emancipation all over the world. Apart from the natural admiration of a free people for a neighbour struggling to be free, England saw no reason to lament a blow to a sovereign and a government who had interfered on the side of her insurgent colonies. To this easy state of mind Burke’s book put an immediate end. At once, as contemporaries assure us, it divided the nation into two parties. On both sides it precipitated opinion. With a long-resounding blast on his golden trumpet Burke had unfurled a new flag, and half the nation hurried to rally to it–that half which had scouted his views on America, which had bitterly disliked his plan of Economic Reform, which had mocked his ideas on religious toleration, and which a moment before had hated and reviled him beyond all men living for his fierce tenacity in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. The king said to everybody who came near him that the book was a good book, a very good book, and every gentleman ought to read it. The universities began to think of offering the scarlet gown of their most honourable degree to the assailant of Price and the Dissenters. The great army of the indolent good, the people who lead excellent lives and never use their reason, took violent alarm. The timorous, the weak-minded, the bigoted, were suddenly awakened to a sense of what they owed to themselves. Burke gave them the key which enabled them to interpret the Revolution in harmony with their usual ideas and their temperament.
Reaction quickly rose to a high pitch. One preacher in a parish church in the neighbourhood of London celebrated the anniversary of the restoration of King Charles II. by a sermon, in which the pains of eternal damnation were confidently promised to political disaffection. Romilly, mentioning to a friend that the _Reflections_ had got into a fourteenth edition, wondered whether Burke was not rather ashamed of his success. It is when we come to the rank and file of reaction, that we find it hard to forgive the man of genius who made himself the organ of their selfishness, their timidity, and their blindness. We know, alas, that the parts of his writings on French affairs to which they would fly, were not likely to be the parts which calm men now read with sympathy, but the scoldings, the screamings, the unworthy vituperation with which, especially in the latest of them, he attacked everybody who took part in the Revolution, from Condorcet and Lafayette down to Marat and Couthon. It was the feet of clay that they adored in their image, and not the head of fine gold and the breasts and the arms of silver.
On the continent of Europe the excitement was as great among the ruling classes as it was at home. Mirabeau, who had made Burke’s acquaintance some years before in England, and even been his guest at Beaconsfield, now made the _Reflections_ the text of more than one tremendous philippic. Louis XVI. is said to have translated the book into French with his own hand. Catherine of Russia, Voltaire’s adored Semiramis of the North, the benefactress of Diderot, the ready helper of the philosophic party, pressed her congratulations on the great pontiff of the old order, who now thundered anathema against the philosophers and all their works.
It is important to remember the stage which the Revolution had reached, when Burke was composing his attack upon it. The year 1790 was precisely the time when the hopes of the best men in France shone most brightly, and seemed most reasonable. There had been disorders, and Paris still had ferocity in her mien. But Robespierre was an obscure figure on the back benches of the Assembly. Nobody had ever heard of Danton. The name of Republic had never been so much as whispered. The king still believed that constitutional monarchy would leave him as much power as he desired. He had voluntarily gone to the National Assembly, and in simple language had exhorted them all to imitate his example by professing the single opinion, the single interest, the single wish–attachment to the new constitution, and ardent desire for the peace and happiness of France. The clergy, it is true, were violently irritated by the spoliation of their goods, and the nobles had crossed the Rhine, to brood impotently in the safety of Coblenz over projects of a bloody revenge upon their country. But France, meanwhile, paid little heed either to the anger of the clergy or the menaces of the emigrant nobles, and at the very moment when Burke was writing his most sombre pages, Paris and the provinces were celebrating with transports of joy and enthusiasm the civic oath, the federation, the restoration of concord to the land, the final establishment of freedom and justice in a regenerated France. This was the happy scene over which Burke suddenly stretched out the right arm of an inspired prophet, pointing to the cloud of thunder and darkness that was gathering on the hills, and proclaiming to them the doom that had been written upon the wall by the fingers of an inexorable hand. It is no wonder that when the cloud burst and the doom was fulfilled, men turned to Burke, as they went of old to Ahithophel, whose counsel was as if a man had inquired of the oracle of God.
It is not to our purpose to discuss all the propositions advanced in the _Reflections_, much less to reply to them. The book is like some temple, by whose structure and design we allow ourselves to be impressed, without being careful to measure the precise truth or fitness of the worship to which it was consecrated by its first founders. Just as the student of the _Politics_ of Aristotle may well accept all the wisdom of it, without caring to protest at every turn against slavery as the basis of a society, so we may well cherish all the wisdom of the _Reflections_, at this distance of time, without marking as a rubric on every page that half of these impressive formulae and inspiring declamations were irrelevant to the occasion which called them forth, and exercised for the hour an influence that was purely mischievous. Time permits to us this profitable lenity. In reading this, the first of his invectives, it is important, for the sake of clearness of judgment, to put from our minds the practical policy which Burke afterwards so untiringly urged upon his countrymen. As yet there is no exhortation to England to interfere. We still listen to the voice of the statesman, and are not deafened by the passionate cries of the preacher of a crusade. When Burke wrote the _Reflections_ he was justified in criticising the Revolution as an extraordinary movement, but still a movement professing to be conducted on the principles of rational and practicable politics. They were the principles to which competent onlookers like Jefferson and Morris had expected the Assembly to conform, but to which the Assembly never conformed for an instant. It was on the principles of rational politics that Fox and Sheridan admired it. On these principles Burke condemned it. He declared that the methods of the Constituent Assembly, up to the summer of 1790, were unjust, precipitate, destructive, and without stability. Men had chosen to build their house on the sands, and the winds and the seas would speedily beat against it and overthrow it.
His prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. What is still more important for the credit of his foresight is, that not only did his prophecy come true, but it came true for the reasons that he had fixed upon. It was, for instance, the constitution of the Church, in which Burke saw the worst of the many bad mistakes of the Assembly. History, now slowly shaking herself free from the passions of a century, agrees that the civil constitution of the clergy was the measure which, more than any other, decisively put an end to whatever hopes there might have been of a peaceful transition from the old order to the new. A still more striking piece of foresight is the prediction of the despotism of the Napoleonic Empire. Burke had compared the levelling policy of the Assembly in their geometrical division of the departments, and their isolation from one another of the bodies of the state, to the treatment which a conquered country receives at the hands of its conquerors. Like Romans in Greece or Macedon, the French innovators had destroyed the bonds of union, under colour of providing for the independence of each of their cities. “If the present project of a Republic should fail,” Burke said, with a prescience really profound, “all securities to a moderate freedom fail with it. All the indirect restraints which mitigate despotism are removed; insomuch that, if monarchy should ever again obtain an entire ascendancy in France under this or any other dynasty, it will probably be, if not voluntarily tempered at setting out by the wise and virtuous counsels of the prince, the most completely arbitrary power that ever appeared on earth.” Almost at the same moment Mirabeau was secretly writing to the king that their plan of reducing all citizens to a single class would have delighted Richelieu. This equal surface, he said, facilitates the exercise of power, and many reigns in an absolute government would not have done as much as this single year of revolution, for the royal authority. Time showed that Burke and Mirabeau were right.
History ratifies nearly all Burke’s strictures on the levity and precipitancy of the first set of actors in the revolutionary drama. No part of the _Reflections_ is more energetic than the denunciation of geometric and literary methods; and these are just what the modern explorer hits upon, as one of the fatal secrets of the catastrophe. De Tocqueville’s chapter on the causes which made literary men the principal persons in France, and the effect which this had upon the Revolution (Bk. III. ch. i.), is only a little too cold to be able to pass for Burke’s own. Quinet’s work on the Revolution is one long sermon, full of eloquence and cogency, upon the incapacity and blindness of the men who undertook the conduct of a tremendous crisis upon mere literary methods, without the moral courage to obey the logic of their beliefs, with the student’s ignorance of the eager passion and rapid imagination of multitudes of men, with the pedant’s misappreciation of a people, of whom it has been said by one of themselves, that there never was a nation more led by its sensations and less by its principles. Comte, again, points impressively to the Revolution as the period which illustrates more decisively than another the peril of confounding the two great functions of speculation and political action: and he speaks with just reprobation of the preposterous idea in the philosophic politicians of the epoch, that society was at their disposal, independent of its past development, devoid of inherent impulses, and easily capable of being morally regenerated by the mere modification of legislative rules.
What then was it that, in the midst of so much perspicacity as to detail, blinded Burke at the time when he wrote the _Reflections_ to the true nature of the movement? Is it not this, that he judges the Revolution as the solution of a merely political question? If the Revolution had been merely political, his judgment would have been adequate. The question was much deeper. It was a social question that burned under the surface of what seemed no more than a modification of external arrangements. That Burke was alive to the existence of social problems, and that he was even tormented by them, we know from an incidental passage in the _Reflections_. There he tells us how often he had reflected, and never reflected without feeling, upon the innumerable servile and degrading occupations to which by the social economy so many wretches are inevitably doomed. He had pondered whether there could be any means of rescuing these unhappy people from their miserable industry without disturbing the natural course of things, and impeding the great wheel of circulation which is turned by their labour. This is the vein of that striking passage in his first composition which I have already quoted (p. 22). Burke did not yet see, and probably never saw, that one key to the events which astonished and exasperated him was simply that the persons most urgently concerned had taken the riddle which perplexed him into their own hands, and had in fiery earnest set about their own deliverance. The pith of the Revolution up to 1790 was less the political constitution, of which Burke says so much, and so much that is true, than the social and economic transformation, of which he says so little. It was not a question of the power of the king, or the measure of an electoral circumscription, that made the Revolution; it was the iniquitous distribution of the taxes, the scourge of the militia service, the scourge of the road service, the destructive tyranny exercised in the vast preserves of wild game, the vexatious rights and imposts of the lords of manors, and all the other odious burdens and heavy impediments on the prosperity of the thrifty and industrious part of the nation. If he had seen ever so clearly that one of the most important sides of the Revolution in progress was the rescue of the tiller of the soil, Burke would still doubtless have viewed events with bitter suspicion. For the process could not be executed without disturbing the natural course of things, and without violating his principle that all changes should find us with our minds tenacious of justice and tender of property. A closer examination than he chose to give of the current administration alike of justice and of property under the old system, would have explained to him that an hour had come in which the spirit of property and of justice compelled a supersession of the letter.
If Burke had insisted on rigidly keeping sensibility to the wrongs of the French people out of the discussion, on the ground that the whole subject was one for positive knowledge and logical inference, his position would have been intelligible and defensible. He followed no such course. His pleading turns constantly to arguments from feeling; but it is always to feeling on one side, and to a sensibility that is only alive to the consecrated force of historic associations. How much pure and uncontrolled emotion had to do with what ought to have been the reasoned judgments of his understanding we know on his own evidence. He had sent the proof-sheets of a part of his book to Sir Philip Francis. They contained the famous passage describing the French queen as he had seen her seventeen years before at Versailles. Francis bluntly wrote to him that, in his opinion, all Burke’s eloquence about Marie Antoinette was no better than pure foppery, and he referred to the queen herself as no better than Messalina. Burke was so excited by this that his son, in a rather officious letter, begged Francis not to repeat such stimulating remonstrance. What is interesting in the incident is Burke’s own reply. He knew nothing, he said, of the story of Messalina, and declined the obligation of proving judicially the virtues of all those whom he saw suffering wrong and contumely, before he endeavoured to interest others in their sufferings, and before endeavouring to kindle horror against midnight assassins at backstairs and their more wicked abettors in pulpits. And then he went on, “I tell you again that the recollection of the manner in which I saw the Queen of France in the year 1774 , and the contrast between that brilliancy, splendour, and beauty, with the prostrate homage of a nation to her, and the abominable scene of 1789 which I was describing, _did_ draw tears from me and wetted my paper. These tears came again into my eyes almost as often as I looked at the description–they may again.”
The answer was obvious. It was well to pity the unmerited agonies of Marie Antoinette, though as yet, we must remember, she had suffered nothing beyond the indignities of the days of October at Versailles. But did not the protracted agonies of a nation deserve the tribute of a tear? As Paine asked, were men to weep over the plumage, and forget the dying bird? The bulk of the people must labour, Burke told them, “to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice.” When we learn that a Lyons silk weaver, working as hard as he could for over seventeen hours a day, could not earn money enough to procure the most bare and urgent necessaries of subsistence, we may know with what benignity of brow eternal justice must have presented herself in the garret of that hapless wretch. It was no idle abstraction, no metaphysical right of man for which the Trench cried, but only the practical right of being permitted, by their own toil, to save themselves and the little ones about their knees from hunger and cruel death. The _mainmortable_ serfs of ecclesiastics are variously said to have been a million and a million and a half at the time of the Revolution. Burke’s horror, as he thought of the priests and prelates who left palaces and dignities to earn a scanty living by the drudgery of teaching their language in strange lands, should have been alleviated by the thought that a million or more of men were rescued from ghastly material misery. Are we to be so overwhelmed with sorrow over the pitiful destiny of the men of exalted rank and sacred function, as to have no tears for the forty thousand serfs in the gorges of the Jura, who were held in dead-hand by the Bishop of Saint-Claude?
The simple truth is that Burke did not know enough of the subject about which he was writing. When he said, for instance, that the French before 1789 possessed all the elements of a constitution that might be made nearly as good as could be wished, he said what many of his contemporaries knew, and what all subsequent investigation and meditation have proved, to be recklessly ill-considered and untrue. As to the social state of France, his information was still worse. He saw the dangers and disorders of the new system, but he saw a very little way indeed into the more cruel dangers and disorders of the old. Mackintosh replied to the _Reflections_ with manliness and temperance in the _Vindicicae Gallicae_. Thomas Paine replied to them with an energy, courage, and eloquence worthy of his cause, in the _Rights of Man_. But the substantial and decisive reply to Burke came from his former correspondent, the farmer at Bradfield in Suffolk. Arthur Young published his _Travels in France_ some eighteen months after the _Reflections_ (1792), and the pages of the twenty-first chapter in which he closes his performance, as a luminous criticism of the most important side of the Revolution, are worth a hundred times more than Burke, Mackintosh, and Paine all put together. Young afterwards became panic-stricken, but his book remained. There the writer plainly enumerates without trope or invective the intolerable burdens under which the great mass of the French people had for long years been groaning. It was the removal of these burdens that made the very heart’s core of the Revolution, and gave to France that new life which so soon astonished and terrified Europe. Yet Burke seems profoundly unconscious of the whole of them. He even boldly asserts that, when the several orders met in their bailliages in 1789, to choose their representatives and draw up their grievances and instructions, in no one of these instructions did they charge, or even hint at, any of those things which had drawn upon the usurping Assembly the detestation of the rational part of mankind. He could not have made a more enormous blunder. There was not a single great change made by the Assembly, which had not been demanded in the lists of grievances that had been sent up by the nation to Versailles. The division of the kingdom into districts, and the proportioning of the representation to taxes and population; the suppression of the intendants; the suppression of all monks and the sale of their goods and estates; the abolition of feudal rights, duties, and services; the alienation of the king’s domains; the demolition of the Bastille; these and all else were in the prayers of half the petitions that the country had laid at the feet of the king.
If this were merely an incidental blunder in a fact, it might be of no importance. But it was a blunder which went to the very root of the discussion. The fact that France was now at the back of the Assembly, inspiring its counsels and ratifying its decrees, was the cardinal element, and that is the fact which at this stage Burke systematically ignored. That he should have so ignored it, left him in a curious position, for it left him without any rational explanation of the sources of the policy which kindled his indignation and contempt. A publicist can never be sure of his position until he can explain to himself even what he does not wish to justify to others. Burke thought it enough to dwell upon the immense number of lawyers in the Assembly, and to show that lawyers are naturally bad statesmen. He did not look the state of things steadily in the face. It was no easy thing to do, but Burke was a man who ought to have done it. He set all down to the ignorance, folly, and wickedness of the French leaders. This was as shallow as the way in which his enemies, the philosophers, used to set down the superstition of eighteen centuries to the craft of priests, and all defects in the government of Europe to the cruelty of tyrants. How it came about that priests and tyrants acquired their irresistible power over men’s minds, they never inquired. And Burke never inquired into the enthusiastic acquiescence of the nation, and, what was most remarkable of all, the acquiescence of the army, in the strong measures of the Assembly. Burke was in truth so appalled by the magnitude of the enterprise on which France had embarked, that he utterly forgot for once the necessity in political affairs of seriously understanding the originating conditions of things. He was strangely content with the explanations that came from the malignants at Coblenz, and he actually told Francis that he charged the disorders not on the mob, but on the Duke of Orleans and Mirabeau, on Barnave and Bailly, on Lameth and Lafayette, who had spent immense sums of money, and used innumerable arts, to stir up the populace throughout France to the commission of the enormities that were shocking the conscience of Europe. His imagination broke loose. His practical reason was mastered by something that was deeper in him than reason.
This brings me to remark a really singular trait. In spite of the predominance of practical sagacity, of the habits and spirit of public business, of vigorous actuality in Burke’s character, yet at the bottom of all his thoughts about communities and governments there lay a certain mysticism. It was no irony, no literary trope, when he talked of our having taught the American husbandman “piously to believe in the mysterious virtue of wax and parchment.” He was using no idle epithet, when he described the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, “moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.” To him there actually was an element of mystery in the cohesion of men in societies, in political obedience, in the sanctity of contract; in all that fabric of law and charter and obligation, whether written or unwritten, which is the sheltering bulwark between civilisation and barbarism. When reason and history had contributed all that they could to the explanation, it seemed to him as if the vital force, the secret of organisation, the binding framework, must still come from the impenetrable regions beyond reasoning and beyond history. There was another great conservative writer of that age, whose genius was aroused into a protest against the revolutionary spirit as vehement as Burke’s. This was Joseph de Maistre, one of the most learned, witty, and acute of all reactionary philosophers. De Maistre wrote a book on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions. He could only find this principle in the operation of occult and supernatural forces, producing the half-divine legislators who figure mysteriously in the early history of nations. Hence he held, and with astonishing ingenuity enforced, the doctrine that nothing else could deliver Europe from the Satanic forces of revolution–he used the word Satanic in all literal seriousness–save the divinely inspired supremacy of the Pope. No natural operations seemed at all adequate either to produce or to maintain the marvel of a coherent society. We are reminded of a professor who, in the fantastic days of geology, explained the Pyramids of Egypt to be the remains of a volcanic eruption, which had forced its way upwards by a slow and stately motion; the hieroglyphs were crystalline formations; and the shaft of the great Pyramid was the air-hole of a volcano. De Maistre preferred a similar explanation of the monstrous structures of modern society. The hand of man could never have reared, and could never uphold them. If we cannot say that Burke laboured in constant travail with the same perplexity, it is at least true that he was keenly alive to it, and that one of the reasons why he dreaded to see a finger laid upon a single stone of a single political edifice, was his consciousness that he saw no answer to the perpetual enigma how any of these edifices had ever been built, and how the passion, violence, and waywardness of the natural man had ever been persuaded to bow their necks to the strong yoke of a common social discipline. Never was mysticism more unseasonable; never was an hour when men needed more carefully to remember Burke’s own wise practical precept, when he was talking about the British rule in India, that we must throw a sacred veil over the beginnings of government. Many woes might perhaps have been saved to Europe, if Burke had applied this maxim to the government of the new France.
Much has always been said about the inconsistency between Burke’s enmity to the Revolution and his enmity to Lord North in one set of circumstances, and to Warren Hastings in another. The pamphleteers of the day made selections from the speeches and tracts of his happier time, and the seeming contrast had its effect. More candid opponents admitted then, as all competent persons admit now, that the inconsistency was merely verbal and superficial. Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, was only one of many who observed very early that this was the unmistakable temper of Burke’s mind. “I admired, as everybody did,” he said, “the talents, but not the principles of Mr. Burke; his opposition to the Clerical Petition [for relaxation of subscription, 1772], first excited my suspicion of his being a High Churchman in religion, and a Tory, perhaps an aristocratic Tory, in the state.” Burke had indeed never been anything else than a conservative. He was like Falkland, who had bitterly assailed Strafford and Finch on the same principles on which, after the outbreak of the civil war, he consented to be secretary of state to King Charles. Coleridge is borne out by a hundred passages, when he says that in Burke’s writings at the beginning of the American Revolution and in those at the beginning of the French Revolution, the principles are the same and the deductions are the same; the practical inferences are almost opposite in the one case from those drawn in the other, yet in both equally legitimate. It would be better to say that they would have been equally legitimate, if Burke had been as right in his facts, and as ample in his knowledge in the case of France, as he was in the case of America. We feel, indeed, that partly from want of this knowledge, he has gone too far from some of the wise maxims of an earlier time. What has become of the doctrine that all great public collections of men–he was then speaking of the House of Commons–“possess a marked love of virtue and an abhorrence of vice.” Why was the French Assembly not to have the benefit of this admirable generalisation? What has become of all those sayings about the presumption, in all disputes between nations and rulers, “being at least upon a par in favour of the people;” and a populace never rebelling from passion for attack, but from impatience of suffering? And where is now that strong dictum, in the letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, that “general rebellions and revolts of a whole people never were _encouraged_, now or at any time; they are always _provoked_”?
[Footnote 1: _American Taxation_.]
When all these things have been noted, to hold a man to his formulae without reference to their special application, is pure pedantry. Burke was the last man to lay down any political proposition not subject to the ever varying interpretation of circumstances, and independently of the particular use which was to be made of it. Nothing universal, he had always said, can be rationally affirmed on any moral or political subject. The lines of morality, again, are never ideal lines of mathematics, but are broad and deep as well as long, admitting of exceptions, and demanding modifications. “These exceptions and modifications are made, not by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only first in rank of the virtues, political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all. As no moral questions are ever abstract questions, this, before I judge upon any abstract proposition, must be embodied in circumstances; for, since things are right and wrong, morally speaking, only by their relation and connection with other things, this very question of what it is politically right to grant, depends upon its relation to its effects.” “Circumstances,” he says, never weary of laying down his great notion of political method, “give, in reality, to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or obnoxious to mankind.”
This is at once the weapon with which he would have defended his own consistency, and attacked the absolute proceedings in France. He changed his front, but he never changed his ground. He was not more passionate against the proscription in France, than he had been against the suspension of Habeas Corpus in the American war. “I flatter myself,” he said in the _Reflections_, “that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty.” Ten years before he had said, “The liberty, the only liberty I mean, is a liberty connected with order.” The court tried to regulate liberty too severely. It found in him an inflexible opponent. Demagogues tried to remove the regulations of liberty. They encountered in him the bitterest and most unceasing of all remonstrants. The arbitrary majority in the House of Commons forgot for whose benefit they held power, from whom they derived their authority, and in what description of government it was that they had a place. Burke was the most valiant and strenuous champion in the ranks of the independent minority. He withstood to the face the king and the king’s friends. He withstood to the face Charles Fox and the Friends of the People. He may have been wrong in both, or in either, but it is unreasonable to tell us that he turned back in his course; that he was a revolutionist in 1770, and a reactionist in 1790; that he was in his sane mind when he opposed the supremacy of the Court, but that his reason was tottering when he opposed the supremacy of the Faubourg Saint Antoine.
There is no part of Burke’s career at which we may not find evidence of his instinctive and undying repugnance to the critical or revolutionary spirit and all its works. From the early days when he had parodied Bolingbroke, down to the later time when he denounced Condorcet as a fanatical atheist, with “every disposition to the lowest as well as the highest and most determined villainies,” he invariably suspected or denounced everybody, virtuous or vicious, high-minded or ignoble, who inquired with too keen a scrutiny into the foundations of morals, of religion, of social order. To examine with a curious or unfavourable eye the bases of established opinions, was to show a leaning to anarchy, to atheism, or to unbridled libertinism. Already we have seen how, three years after the publication of his _Thoughts on the Present Discontents_, and seventeen years before the composition of the _Reflections_, he denounced the philosophers with a fervour and a vehemence which he never afterwards surpassed. When a few of the clergy petitioned to be relieved from some of the severities of subscription, he had resisted them on the bold ground that the truth of a proposition deserves less attention than the effect of adherence to it upon the established order of things. “I will not enter into the question,” he told the House of Commons, “how much truth is preferable to peace. Perhaps truth may be far better. But as we have scarcely ever the same certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth were evident indeed, hold fast to peace.” In that intellectual restlessness, to which the world is so deeply indebted, Burke could recognise but scanty merit. Himself the most industrious and active-minded of men, he was ever sober in cutting the channels of his activity, and he would have had others equally moderate. Perceiving that plain and righteous conduct is the end of life in this world, he prayed men not to be over-curious in searching for, and handling, and again handling, the theoretic base on which the prerogatives of virtue repose. Provided that there was peace, that is to say, so much of fair happiness and content as is compatible with the conditions of the human lot, Burke felt that a too great inquisitiveness as to its foundations was not only idle but cruel.
If the world continues to read the _Reflections_, and reads it with a new admiration that is not diminished by the fact that on the special issue its tendency is every day more clearly discerned to have been misleading, we may be sure that it is not for the sake of such things as the precise character of the Revolution of 1688, where, for that matter, constitutional writers have shown abundantly that Burke was nearly as much in the wrong as Dr. Sacheverell. Nor has the book lived merely by its gorgeous rhetoric and high emotions, though these have been contributing elements. It lives because it contains a sentiment, a method, a set of informal principles, which, awakened into new life after the Revolution, rapidly transformed the current ways of thinking and feeling about all the most serious objects of our attention, and have powerfully helped to give a richer substance to all modern literature. In the _Reflections_ we have the first great sign that the ideas on government and philosophy which Locke had been the chief agent in setting into European circulation, and which had carried all triumphantly before them throughout the century, did not comprehend the whole truth nor the deepest truth about human character–the relations of men and the union of men in society. It has often been said that the armoury from which the French philosophers of the eighteenth century borrowed their weapons was furnished from England, and it may be added as truly that the reaction against that whole scheme of thought came from England. In one sense we may call the _Reflections_ a political pamphlet, but it is much more than this, just as the movement against which it was levelled was much more than a political movement. The Revolution rested on a philosophy, and Burke confronted it with an antagonistic philosophy. Those are but superficial readers who fail to see at how many points Burke, while seeming only to deal with the French monarchy and the British constitution, with Dr. Price and Marie Antoinette, was in fact, and exactly because he dealt with them in the comprehensive spirit of true philosophy, turning men’s minds to an attitude from which not only the political incidents of the hour, but the current ideas about religion, psychology, the very nature of human knowledge, would all be seen in a changed light and clothed in new colour. All really profound speculation about society comes in time to touch the heart of every other object of speculation, not by directly contributing new truths or directly corroborating old ones, but by setting men to consider the consequences to life of different opinions on these abstract subjects, and their relations to the great paramount interests of society, however those interests may happen at the time to be conceived. Burke’s book marks a turning-point in literary history, because it was the signal for that reaction over the whole field of thought, into which the Revolution drove many of the finest minds of the next generation, by showing the supposed consequences of pure individualistic rationalism.
We need not attempt to work out the details of this extension of a political reaction into a universal reaction in philosophy and poetry. Any one may easily think out for himself what consequences in act and thought, as well as in government, would be likely to flow, for example, from one of the most permanently admirable sides of Burke’s teaching–his respect for the collective reason of men, and his sense of the impossibility in politics and morals of considering the individual apart from the experience of the race. “We are afraid,” he says, “to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. _Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them_. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason: because prejudice with its reason has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” Is not this to say, in other words, that in every man the substantial foundations of action consist of the accumulated layers which various generations of ancestors have placed for him; that the greater part of our sentiments act most effectively when they act most mechanically, and by the methods of an unquestioned system; that although no rule of conduct or spring of action ought to endure, which does not repose in sound reason, yet this naked reason is in itself a less effective means of influencing action than when it exists as one part of a fabric of ancient and endeared association? Interpreted by a mobile genius, and expanded by a poetic imagination, all this became the foundation from which the philosophy of Coleridge started, and, as Mill has shown in a famous essay, Coleridge was the great apostle of the conservative spirit in England in its best form.
Though Burke here, no doubt, found a true base for the philosophy of order, yet perhaps Condorcet or Barnave might have justly asked him whether, when we thus realise the strong and immovable foundations which are laid in our character before we are born, there could be any occasion, as a matter of fact, for that vehement alarm which moved Burke lest a few lawyers, by a score of parchment decrees, should overthrow the venerated sentiments of Europe about justice and about property? Should he not have known better than most men the force of the self-protecting elements of society?
This is not a convenient place for discussing the issues between the school of order and the school of progress. It is enough to have marked Burke’s position in one of them. The _Reflections_ places him among the great Conservatives of history. Perhaps the only Englishman with whom in this respect he may be compared, is Sir Thomas More,–that virtuous and eloquent reactionist of the sixteenth century. More abounded in light, in intellectual interests, in single-minded care for the common weal. He was as anxious as any man of his time for the improved ordering of the Church, but he could not endure that reformation should be bought at the price of breaking up the ancient spiritual unity of Europe. He was willing to slay and be slain rather than he would tolerate the destruction of the old faith, or assent to the violence of the new statecraft. He viewed Thomas Cromwell’s policy of reformation, just as Burke viewed Mirabeau’s policy of revolution. Burke too, we may be very sure, would as willingly have sent Mirabeau and Bailly to prison or the block as More sent Phillips to the Tower and Bainham to the stake. For neither More nor Burke was of the gentle contemplative spirit, which the first disorder of a new society just bursting into life merely overshadows with saddening regrets and poetic gloom. The old harmony was to them so bound up with the purpose and meaning of life, that to wage active battle for the gods of their reverence was the irresistible instinct of self-preservation. More had an excuse which Burke had not, for the principle of persecution was accepted by the best minds of the sixteenth century, but by the best minds of the eighteenth it was emphatically repudiated.
Another illustrious name of Burke’s own era rises to our lips, as we ponder mentally the too scanty list of those who have essayed the great and hardy task of reconciling order with progress. Turgot is even a more imposing figure than Burke himself. The impression made upon us by the pair is indeed very different, for Turgot was austere, reserved, distant, a man of many silences and much suspense; while Burke, as we know, was imaginative, exuberant, unrestrained, and, like some of the greatest actors on the stage of human affairs, he had associated his own personality with the prevalence of right ideas and good influences. In Turgot, on the other hand, we discern something of the isolation, the sternness, the disdainful melancholy of Tacitus. He even rises out of the eager, bustling, shrill-tongued crowd of the Voltairean age with some of that austere moral indignation and haughty astonishment with which Dante had watched the stubborn ways of men centuries before. On one side Turgot shared the conservatism of Burke, though, perhaps, he would hardly have given it that name. He habitually corrected the headlong insistence of the revolutionary philosophers, his friends, by reminding them that neither pity, nor benevolence, nor hope can ever dispense with justice; and he could never endure to hear of great changes being wrought at the cost of this sovereign quality. Like Burke, he held fast to the doctrine that everything must be done for the multitude, but nothing by them. Like Burke, he realised how close are the links that bind the successive generations of men, and make up the long chain of human history. Like Burke, he never believed that the human mind has any spontaneous inclination to welcome pure truth. Here, however, is visible between them a hard line of division. It is not error, said Turgot, which opposes the progress of truth; it is indolence, obstinacy, and the spirit of routine. But then Turgot enjoined upon us to make it the aim of life to do battle in ourselves and others with all this indolence, obstinacy, and spirit of routine in the world; while Burke, on the contrary, gave to these bad things gentler names, he surrounded them with the picturesque associations of the past, and in the great world-crisis of his time he threw all his passion and all his genius on their side. Will any reader doubt which of these two types of the school of order and justice, both of them noble, is the more valuable for the race, and the worthier and more stimulating ideal for the individual?
It is not certain that Burke was not sometimes for a moment startled by the suspicion that he might unawares be fighting against the truth. In the midst of flaming and bitter pages, we now and again feel a cool breath from the distant region of a half-pensive tolerance. “I do not think,” he says at the close of the _Reflections_, to the person to whom they were addressed, “that my sentiments are likely to alter yours. I do not know that they ought. You are young; you cannot guide, but must follow, the fortune of your country. But hereafter they may be of some use to you, in some future form which your commonwealth may take. In the present it can hardly remain; but before its final settlement, it may be obliged to pass, as one of our poets says, ‘through great varieties of untried being,’ and in all its transmigrations to be purified by fire and blood.”
He felt in the midst of his hate that what he took for seething chaos, might after all be the struggle upwards of the germs of order. Among the later words that he wrote on the Revolution were these:–“If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men.” We can only regret that these rays of the _mens divinior_ did not shine with a more steadfast light; and that a spirit which, amid the sharp press of manifold cares and distractions, had ever vibrated with lofty sympathies, was not now more constant to its faith in the beneficent powers and processes of the Unseen Time.
BURKE AND HIS PARTY–PROGRESS OF THE REVOLUTION–IRELAND–LAST YEARS
For some months after the publication of the _Reflections_, Burke kept up the relations of an armed peace with his old political friends. The impeachment went on, and in December (1790) there was a private meeting on the business connected with it, between Pitt, Burke, Fox, and Dundas, at the house of the Speaker. It was described by one who knew, as most snug and amiable, and there seems to have been a general impression in the world at this moment that Fox might by some means be induced to join Pitt. What troubled the slumbers of good Whigs like Gilbert Elliot, was the prospect of Fox committing himself too strongly on French affairs. Burke himself was in the deepest dejection at the prospect; for Fox did not cease to express the most unqualified disapproval of the _Reflections_; he thought that, even in point of composition, it was the worst thing that Burke had ever published. It was already feared that his friendship for Sheridan was drawing him farther away from Burke, with whom Sheridan had quarrelled, into a course of politics that would both damage his own reputation and break up the strong union of which the Duke of Portland was the nominal head.
New floods in France had not yet carried back the ship of state into raging waters. Pitt was thinking so little of danger from that country that he had plunged into a policy of intervention in the affairs of Eastern Europe. When writers charge Burke with breaking violently in upon Pitt’s system of peace abroad and reform at home, they overlook the fact that before Burke had begun to preach his crusade against the Jacobins, Pitt had already prepared a war with Russia. The nation refused to follow. They agreed with Fox that it was no concern of theirs whether or not Russia took from Turkey the country between the Boug and Dniester; they felt that British interests would be more damaged by the expenses of a war than by the acquisition by Russia of Ockzakow. Pitt was obliged to throw up the scheme, and to extricate himself as well as he could from rash engagements with Prussia. It was on account of his services to the cause of peace on this occasion that Catherine ordered the Russian ambassador to send her a bust of Fox in white marble, to be placed in her colonnade between Demosthenes and Cicero. We may take it for granted that after the Revolution rose to its full height the bust of Fox accompanied that of Voltaire down to the cellar of the Hermitage.
While the affair of the Russian armament was still occupying the minister, an event of signal importance happened in the ranks of his political adversaries. The alliance which had lasted between Burke and Fox for five and twenty years came to a sudden end, and this rift gradually widened into a destructive breach throughout the party. There is no parallel in our parliamentary history to the fatal scene. In Ireland, indeed, only eight years before, Flood and Grattan, after fighting side by side for many years, had all at once sprung upon one another in the Parliament House with the fury of vultures: Flood had screamed to Grattan that he was a mendicant patriot, and Grattan had called Flood an ill-omened bird of night, with a sepulchral note, a cadaverous aspect, and a broken beak. The Irish, like the French, have the art of making things dramatic, and Burke was the greatest of Irishmen. On the opening of the session of 1791, the Government had introduced a bill for the better government of Canada. It introduced questions about church establishments and hereditary legislators. In discussing these Fox made some references to France. It was impossible to refer to France without touching the _Reflections on the French Revolution_. Burke was not present, but he heard what Fox had said, and before long Fox again introduced French affairs in a debate on the Russian armament. Burke rose in violent heat of mind to reply, but the House would not hear him. He resolved to speak when the time came for the Canada Bill to be recommitted. Meanwhile some of his friends did all that they could to dissuade him from pressing the matter farther. Even the Prince of Wales is said to have written him a letter. There were many signs of the rupture that was so soon to come in the Whig ranks. Men so equally devoted to the common cause as Windham and Elliot nearly came to a quarrel at a dinner-party at Lord Malmesbury’s, on the subject of Burke’s design to speak; and Windham, who for the present sided with Fox, enters in his diary that he was glad to escape from the room without speaking to the man whom, since the death of Dr. Johnson, he revered before all other men besides.
On the day apointed for the Canada Bill, Fox called at Burke’s house, and after some talk on Burke’s intention to speak, and on other matters, they walked down to Westminster and entered the House together, as they had so many a time done before, but were never to do again. They found that the debate had been adjourned, and it was not until May 6th that Burke had an opportunity of explaining himself on the Revolution in France. He had no sooner risen than interruptions broke out from his own side, and a scene of great disorder followed. Burke was incensed beyond endurance by this treatment, for even Fox and Windham had taken part in the tumult against him. With much bitterness he commented on Fox’s previous eulogies of the Revolution, and finally there came the fatal words of severance. “It is indiscreet,” he said, “at any period, but especially at my time of life, to provoke enemies, or give my friends occasion to desert me. Yet if my firm and steady adherence to the British Constitution place me in such a dilemma, I am ready to risk it, and with, my last words to exclaim, ‘Fly from the French Constitution.'” Fox at this point eagerly called to him that there was no loss of friends. “Yes, yes,” cried Burke, “there is a loss of friends. I know the price of my conduct. I have done my duty at the price of my friend. Our friendship is at an end.”
The members who sat on the same side were aghast at proceedings which went beyond their worst apprehensions. Even the ministerialists were shocked. Pitt agreed much more with Fox than with Burke, but he would have been more than human if he had not watched with complacency his two most formidable adversaries turning their swords against one another. Wilberforce, who was more disinterested, lamented the spectacle as shameful. In the galleries there was hardly a dry eye. Fox, as might have been expected from his warm and generous nature, was deeply moved, and is described as weeping even to sobbing. He repeated his former acknowledgment of his debt to Burke, and he repeated his former expression of faith in the blessings which the abolition of royal despotism would bring to France. With unabated vehemence Burke again rose to denounce the French Constitution–“a building composed of untempered mortar–the work of Goths and Vandals, where everything was disjointed and inverted.” After a short rejoinder from Fox the scene came to a close, and the once friendly intercourse between the two heroes was at an end. When they met in the Managers’ box in Westminster Hall on the business of Hastings’s trial, they met with the formalities of strangers. There is a story that when Burke left the House on the night of the quarrel it was raining, and Mr. Curwen, a member of the Opposition, took him home in his carriage. Burke at once began to declaim against the French. Curwen dropped some remark on the other side. “What!” Burke cried out, grasping the check-string, “are you one of these people! Set me down!” It needed all Curwen’s force to keep him where he was; and when they reached his house Burke stepped out without saying a single word.
We may agree that all this did not indicate the perfect sobriety and self-control proper to a statesman, in what was a serious crisis both to his party and to Europe. It was about this time that Burke said to Addington, who was then Speaker of the House of Commons, that he was not well. “I eat too much, Speaker,” he said, “I drink too much, and I sleep too little.” It is even said that he felt the final breach with Fox as a relief from unendurable suspense; and he quoted the lines about Aeneas, after he had finally resolved to quit Dido and the Carthaginian shore, at last being able to snatch slumber in his ship’s tall stern. There can be no doubt how severe had been the tension. Yet the performance to which Burke now applied himself is one of the gravest and most reasonable of all his compositions. He felt it necessary to vindicate the fundamental consistency between his present and his past. We have no difficulty in imagining the abuse to which he was exposed from those whose abuse gave him pain. In a country governed by party, a politician who quits the allies of a lifetime must expect to pay the penalty. The Whig papers told him that he was expected to surrender his seat in Parliament. They imputed to him all sorts of sinister motives. His name was introduced into ironical toasts. For a whole year there was scarcely a member of his former party who did not stand aloof from him. Windham, when the feeling was at its height, sent word to a host that he would rather not meet Burke at dinner. Dr. Parr, though he thought Mr. Burke the greatest man upon earth, declared himself most indignantly and most fixedly on the side of Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Fox. The Duke of Portland, though always described as strongly and fondly attached to him, and Gilbert Elliot, who thought that Burke was right in his views on the Revolution, and right in expressing them, still could not forgive the open catastrophe, and for many months all the old habits of intimacy among them were entirely broken off.
Burke did not bend to the storm. He went down to Margate, and there finished the _Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs_. Meanwhile he despatched his son to Coblenz to give advice to the royalist exiles, who were then mainly in the hands of Calonne, one of the very worst of the ministers whom Louis XVI. had tried between his dismissal of Turgot in 1774, and the meeting of the States-General in 1789. This measure was taken at the request of Calonne, who had visited Burke at Margate. The English Government did not disapprove of it, though they naturally declined to invest either young Burke or any one else with authority from themselves. As little came of the mission as might have been expected from the frivolous, unmanly, and enraged spirit of those to whom it was addressed.
In August (1791), while Richard Burke was at Coblenz, the _Appeal_ was published. This was the last piece that Burke wrote on the Revolution, in which there is any pretence of measure, sobriety, and calm judgment in face of a formidable and perplexing crisis. Henceforth it is not political philosophy, but the minatory exhortation of a prophet. We deal no longer with principles and ideas, but with a partisan denunciation of particular acts, and a partisan incitement to a given practical policy. We may appreciate the policy as we choose, but our appreciation of Burke as a thinker and a contributor to political wisdom is at an end. He is now only Demosthenes thundering against Philip, or Cicero shrieking against Mark Antony.
The _Reflections_ had not been published many months before Burke wrote the _Letter to a Member of the National Assembly_ (January 1791), in which strong disapproval had grown into furious hatred. In contains the elaborate diatribe against Rousseau, the grave panegyric on Cromwell for choosing Hale to be Chief Justice, and a sound criticism on the laxity and want of foresight in the manner in which the States-General had been convened. Here first Burke advanced to the position that it might be the duty of other nations to interfere to restore the king to his rightful authority, just as England and Prussia had interfered to save Holland from confusion, as they had interfered to preserve the hereditary constitution in the Austrian Netherlands, and as Prussia had interfered to snatch even the malignant and the turban’d Turk from the pounce of the Russian eagle. Was not the King of France as much an object of policy and compassion as the Grand Seignior? As this was the first piece in which Burke hinted at a crusade, so it was the first in which he began to heap upon the heads, not of Hebert, Fouquier-Tinville, Billaud, nor even of Robespierre or Danton–for none of these had yet been heard of–but of able and conscientious men in the Constituent Assembly, language of a virulence which Fox once said seriously that Burke had picked, even to the phrases of it, out of the writings of Salmasius against Milton, but which is really only to be paralleled by the much worse language of Milton against Salmasius. It was in truth exactly the kind of incensed speech which, at a later date, the factions in Paris levelled against one another, when Girondins screamed for the heads of Jacobins, and Robespierre denounced Danton, and Tallien cried for the blood of Robespierre.
Burke declined most wisely to suggest any plan for the National Assembly. “Permit me to say,”–this is in the letter of January 1791, to a member of the Assembly,–“that if I were as confident as I ought to be diffident in my own loose general ideas, I never should venture to broach them, if but at twenty leagues’ distance from the centre of your affairs. I must see with my own eyes; I must in a manner touch with my own hands, not only the fixed, but momentary circumstances, before I could venture to suggest any political project whatsoever. I must know the power and disposition to accept, to execute, to persevere. I must see all the aids and all the obstacles. I must see the means of correcting the plan, where correctives would be wanted. I must see the things: I must see the men. Without a concurrence and adaptation of these to the design, the very best speculative projects might become not only useless but mischievous. Plans must be made for men. People at a distance must judge ill of men. They do not always answer to their reputation when you approach them. Nay, the perspective varies, and shows them quite other than you thought them. At a distance, if we judge uncertainly of men, we must judge worse of _opportunities_, which continually vary their shapes and colours, and pass away like clouds.” Our admiration at such words is quickly stifled when we recall the confident, unsparing, immoderate criticism which both preceded and followed this truly rational exposition of the danger of advising, in cases where we know neither the men nor the opportunities. Why was savage and unfaltering denunciation any less unbecoming than, as he admits, crude prescriptions would have been unbecoming?
By the end of 1791, when he wrote the _Thoughts on French Affairs_, he had penetrated still farther into the essential character of the Revolution. Any notion of a reform to be effected after the decorous pattern of 1688, so conspicuous in the first great manifesto, had wholly disappeared. The changes in France he allowed to bear little resemblance or analogy to any of those which had been previously brought about in Europe. It is a revolution, he said, of doctrine and theoretic dogma. The Reformation was the last revolution of this sort which had happened in Europe; and he immediately goes on to remark a point of striking resemblance between them. The effect of the Reformation was “to introduce other interests into all countries than those which arose from their locality and natural circumstances.” In like manner other sources of faction were now opened, combining parties among the inhabitants of different countries into a single connection. From these sources, effects were likely to arise fully as important as those which had formerly arisen from the jarring interests of the religious sects. It is a species of faction which “breaks the locality of public affections.”
[Footnote 1: De Tocqueville has unconsciously imitated Burke’s very phrases. “Toutes les revolutions civiles et politiques ont eu une patrie, et s’y sont enfermees. La Revolution. francaise … on l’a vue rapprocher ou diviser les hommes en depit des lois, des traditions, des caracteres, de langue, rendant parfois ennemis des compatriotes, et freres des etrangers; _ou plutot elle a forme audessus de toutes les nationalites particulieres, une patrie intellectuelle commune dont les hommes de toutes les nations ont pu devenir citoyens_.”–Ancien Regime, p. 15.]
He was thus launched on the full tide of his policy. The French Revolution must be hemmed in by a cordon of fire. Those who sympathised with it in England must be gagged, and if gagging did not suffice, they must be taught respect for the constitution in dungeons and on the gallows. His cry for war abroad and harsh coercion at home waxed louder every day. As Fox said, it was lucky that Burke took the royal side in the Revolution, for his violence would certainly have got him hanged if he had happened to take the other side.
It was in the early summer of 1792 that Miss Burney again met Burke at Mrs. Crewe’s villa at Hampstead. He entered into an animated conversation on Lord Macartney and the Chinese expedition, reviving all the old enthusiasm of his companion by his allusions and anecdotes, his brilliant fancies and wide information. When politics were introduced, he spoke with an eagerness and a vehemence that instantly banished the graces, though it redoubled the energies of his discourse. “How I wish,” Miss Burney writes, “that you could meet this wonderful man when he is easy, happy, and with people he cordially likes! But politics, even on his own side, must always be excluded; his irritability is so terrible on that theme, that it gives immediately to his face _the expression of a man who is going to defend himself from murderers_.”
Burke still remained without a following, but the ranks of his old allies gradually began to show signs of wavering. His panic about the Jacobins within the gates slowly spread. His old faith, about which he had once talked so much, in the ancient rustic, manly, home-bred sense of the English people, he dismissed as if it had been some idle dream that had come to him through the ivory gate. His fine comparison of the nation to a majestic herd, browsing in peace amid the importunate chirrupings of a thousand crickets, became so little appropriate, that he was now beside himself with apprehension that the crickets were about to rend the oxen in pieces. Even then, the herd stood tranquilly in their pastures, only occasionally turning a dull eye, now to France, and now to Burke. In the autumn of 1791 Burke dined with Pitt and Lord Grenville, and he found them resolute for an honest neutrality in the affairs of France, and “quite out of all apprehensions of any effect from the French Revolution in this kingdom, either at present or any time to come.” Francis and Sheridan, it is true, spoke as if they almost wished for a domestic convulsion; and cool observers who saw him daily, even accused Sheridan of wishing to stir up the lower ranks of the people by the hope of plundering their betters. But men who afterwards became alarmists, are found, so late as the spring of 1792, declaring in their most confidential correspondence that the party of confusion made no way with the country, and produced no effect. Horne Tooke was its most conspicuous chief, and nobody pretended to fear the subversion of the realm by Horne Tooke. Yet Burke, in letters where he admits that the democratic party is entirely discountenanced, and that the Jacobin faction in England is under a heavy cloud, was so possessed by the spectre of panic, as to declare that the Duke of Brunswick was as much fighting the battle of the crown of England, as the Duke of Cumberland fought that battle at Culloden.
Time and events, meanwhile, had been powerfully telling for Burke. While he was writing his _Appeal_, the French king and queen had destroyed whatever confidence sanguine dreamers might have had in their loyalty to the new order of things, by attempting to escape over the frontier. They were brought back, and a manful attempt was made to get the new constitution to work, in the winter of 1791-92. It was soon found out that Mirabeau had been right when he said that for a monarchy it was too democratic, and for a republic there was a king too much. This was Burke’s _Reflections_ in a nutshell. But it was foreign intervention that finally ruined the king, and destroyed the hope of an orderly issue. Frederick the Great had set the first example of what some call iniquity and violence in Europe, and others in milder terms call a readjustment of the equilibrium of nations. He had taken Silesia from the house of Austria, and he had shared in the first partition of Poland. Catherine II. had followed him at the expense of Poland, Sweden, and Turkey. However we may view these transactions, and whether we describe them by the stern words of the moralist, or the more deprecatory words of the diplomatist, they are the first sources of that storm of lawless rapine which swept over every part of Europe for five and twenty years to come. The intervention of Austria and Prussia in the affairs of France was originally less a deliberate design for the benefit of the old order, than an interlude in the intrigues of Eastern Europe. But the first effect of intervention on behalf of the French monarchy was to bring it in a few weeks to the ground.
In the spring of 1792 France replied to the preparations of Austria and Prussia for invasion by a declaration of war. It was inevitable that the French people should associate the court with the foreign enemy that was coming to its deliverance. Everybody knew as well then as we know it now that the queen was as bitterly incensed against the new order of things, and as resolutely unfaithful to it, as the most furious emigrant on the Rhine. Even Burke himself, writing to his son at Coblenz, was constrained to talk about Marie Antoinette as that “most unfortunate woman, who was not to be cured of the spirit of court intrigue even by a prison.” The king may have been loyally resigned to his position, but resignation will not defend a country from the invader; and the nation distrusted a chief who only a few months before had been arrested in full flight to join the national enemy. Power naturally fell into the hands of the men of conviction, energy, passion, and resource. Patriotism and republicanism became synonymous, and the constitution against which Burke had prophesied was henceforth a dead letter. The spirit of insurrection that had slumbered since the fall of the Bastille and the march to Versailles in 1789, now awoke in formidable violence, and after the preliminary rehearsal of what is known in the revolutionary calendar as the 20th of June (1792), the people of Paris responded to the Duke of Brunswick’s insensate manifesto by the more memorable day of the 10th of August. Brunswick, accepting the hateful language which the French emigrants put into his mouth, had declared that every member of the national guard taken with arms in his hands would be immediately put to death; that every inhabitant who should dare to defend himself would be put to death and his house burnt to the ground; and that if the least insult was offered to the royal family, then their Austrian and Prussian majesties would deliver Paris to military execution and total destruction. This is the vindictive ferocity which only civil war can kindle. To convince men that the manifesto was not an empty threat, on the day of its publication a force of nearly 140,000 Austrians, Prussians, and Hessians entered France. The sections of Paris replied by marching to the Tuileries, and after a furious conflict with the Swiss guards, they stormed the chateau. The king and his family had fled to the National Assembly. The same evening they were thrown into prison, whence the king and queen only came out on their way to the scaffold.
It was the king’s execution in January 1793 that finally raised feeling in England to the intense heat which Burke had for so long been craving. The evening on which the courier brought the news was never forgotten by those who were in London at the time. The playhouses were instantly closed, and the audiences insisted on retiring with half the amusement for which they had paid. People of the lowest and the highest rank alike put on mourning. The French were universally denounced as fiends upon earth. It was hardly safe for a Frenchman to appear in the streets of London. Placards were posted on every wall, calling for war, and the crowds who gathered round them read them with loud hurrahs.
* * * * *
It would be a great mistake to say that Pitt ever lost his head, but he lost his feet. The momentary passion of the nation forced him out of the pacific path in which he would have chosen to stay. Burke had become the greatest power in the country, and was in closer communication with the ministers than any one out of office. He went once about this time with Windham and Elliot to inform Pitt as to the uneasiness of the public about the slackness of our naval and military preparation. “Burke,” says one of the party, “gave Pitt a little political instruction in a very respectful and cordial way, but with the authority of an old and most informed statesman; and although nobody ever takes the whole of Burke’s advice, yet he often, or always rather, furnishes very important and useful matter, some part of which sticks and does good. Pitt took it all very patiently and cordially.”
It was in the December of 1792 that Burke had enacted that famous bit of melodrama out of place known as the Dagger Scene. The Government had brought in an Alien Bill, imposing certain pains and restrictions on foreigners coming to this country. Fox denounced it as a concession to foolish alarms, and was followed by Burke, who began to storm as usual against murderous atheists. Then without due preparation he began to fumble in his bosom, suddenly drew out a dagger, and with an extravagant gesture threw it on the floor of the House, crying that this was what they had to expect from their alliance with France. The stroke missed its mark, and there was a general inclination to titter, until Burke, collecting himself for an effort, called upon them with a vehemence to which his listeners could not choose but respond, to keep French principles from their heads, and French daggers from their hearts; to preserve all their blandishments in life, and all their consolations in death; all the blessings of time, and all the hopes of eternity. All this was not prepared long beforehand, for it seems that the dagger had only been shown to Burke on his way to the House as one that had been sent to Birmingham to be a pattern for a large order. Whether prepared or unprepared, the scene was one from which we gladly avert our eyes.
Negotiations had been going on for some months, and they continued in various stages for some months longer, for a coalition between the two great parties of the State. Burke was persistently anxious that Fox should join Pitt’s Government. Pitt always admitted the importance of Fox’s abilities in the difficult affairs which lay before the ministry, and declared that he had no sort of personal animosity to Fox, but rather a personal good-will and good-liking. Fox himself said of a coalition, “It is so damned right, to be sure, that I cannot help thinking it must be.” But the difficulties were insuperable. The more rapidly the Government drifted in Burke’s direction, the more impossible was it for a man of Fox’s political sympathies and convictions to have any dealings with a cabinet committed to a policy of irrational panic, to be carried out by a costly war abroad and cruel repression at home. “_What a very wretched man!_” was Burke’s angry exclamation one day, when it became certain that Fox meant to stand by the old flag of freedom and generous common sense.
When the coalition at length took place (1794), the only man who carried Burke’s principles to their fullest extent into Pitt’s cabinet was Windham. It is impossible not to feel the attraction of Windham’s character, his amiability, his reverence for great and virtuous men, his passion for knowledge, the versatility of his interests. He is a striking example of the fact that literature was a common pursuit and occupation to the chief statesmen of that time (always excepting Pitt), to an extent that has been gradually tending to become rarer. Windham, in the midst of his devotion to public affairs, to the business of his country, and, let us add, a zealous attendance on every prize fight within reach, was never happy unless he was working up points in literature and mathematics. There was a literary and classical spirit abroad, and in spite of the furious preoccupations of faction, a certain ready disengagement of mind prevailed. If Windham and Fox began to talk of horses, they seemed to fall naturally into what had been said about horses by the old writers. Fox held that long ears were a merit, and Windham met him by the authority of Xenophon and Oppian in favour of short ones, and finally they went off into what it was that Virgil meant when he called a horse’s head _argutum caput_. Burke and Windham travelled in Scotland together in 1785, and their conversation fell as often on old books as on Hastings or on Pitt. They discussed Virgil’s similes; Johnson and L’Estrange, as the extremes of English style; what Stephens and A. Gellius had to say about Cicero’s use of the word _gratiosus_. If they came to libraries, Windham ran into them with eagerness, and very strongly enjoyed all “the _feel_ that a library usually excites.” He is constantly reproaching himself with a remissness, which was purely imaginary, in keeping up his mathematics, his Greek tragedies, his Latin historians. There is no more curious example of the remorse of a book-man impeded by affairs. “What progress might men make in the several parts of knowledge,” he says very truly, in one of these moods, “if they could only pursue them with the same eagerness and assiduity as are exerted by lawyers in the conduct of a suit.” But this distraction between the tastes of the book-man and the pursuits of public business, united with a certain quality of his constitution to produce one great defect in his character, and it was the worst defect that a statesman can have. He became the most irresolute and vacillating of men. He wastes the first half of a day in deciding which of two courses to take, and the second half in blaming himself for not having taken the other. He is constantly late at entertainments, because he cannot make up his mind in proper time whether to go or to stay at home; hesitation whether he shall read in the red room or in the library, loses him three of the best hours of a morning; the difficulty of early rising he finds to consist less in rising early than in satisfying himself that the practice is wholesome; his mind is torn for a whole forenoon in an absurd contest with himself, whether he ought to indulge a strong wish to exercise his horse before dinner. Every page of his diary is a register of the symptoms of this unhappy disease. When the Revolution came, he was absolutely forced, by the iron necessity of the case, after certain perturbations, to go either with Fox or with Burke. Under this compulsion he took one headlong plunge into the policy of alarm. Everybody knows how desperately an habitually irresolute man is capable of clinging to a policy or a conviction, to which he has once been driven by dire stress of circumstance. Windham having at last made up his mind to be frightened by the Revolution, was more violently and inconsolably frightened than anybody else.
Pitt, after he had been forced into war, at least intended it to be a war on the good old-fashioned principles of seizing the enemy’s colonies and keeping them. He was taunted by the alarmists with caring only for sugar islands, and making himself master of all the islands in the world except Great Britain and Ireland. To Burke all this was an abomination, and Windham followed Burke to the letter. He even declared the holy rage of the _Third Letter on a Regicide Peace_, published after Burke’s death, to contain the purest wisdom and the most unanswerable policy. It was through Windham’s eloquence and perseverance that the monstrous idea of a crusade, and all Burke’s other violent and excited precepts, gained an effective place and hearing in the cabinet, in the royal closet, and in the House of Commons, long after Burke himself had left the scene.
We have already seen how important an element Irish affairs became in the war with America. The same spirit which had been stirred by the American war was inevitably kindled in Ireland by the French Revolution. The association of United Irishmen now came into existence, with aims avowedly revolutionary. They joined the party which was striving for the relief of the Catholics from certain disabilities, and for their admission to the franchise. Burke had watched all movements in his native country, from the Whiteboy insurrection of 1761 downwards, with steady vigilance, and he watched the new movement of 1792 with the keenest eyes. It made him profoundly uneasy. He could not endure the thought of ever so momentary and indirect an association with a revolutionary party, either in Ireland or any other quarter of the globe, yet he was eager for a policy which should reconcile the Irish. He was so for two reasons. One of them was his political sense of the inexpediency of proscribing men by whole nations, and excluding from the franchise on the ground of religion a people as numerous as the subjects of the King of Denmark or the King of Sardinia, equal to the population of the United Netherlands, and larger than were to be found in all the states of Switzerland. His second reason was his sense of the urgency of facing trouble abroad with a nation united and contented at home; of abolishing in the heart of the country that “bank of discontent, every hour accumulating, upon which every description of seditious men may draw at pleasure.”
In the beginning of 1792 Burke’s son went to Dublin as the agent and adviser of the Catholic Committee, who at first listened to him with the respect due to one in whom they expected to meet the qualities of his father. They soon found out that he was utterly without either tact or judgment; that he was arrogant, impertinent, vain, and empty. Wolfe Tone declared him to be by far the most impudent and opinionative fellow that he had ever known in his life. Nothing could exceed the absurdity of his conduct, and on one occasion he had a very narrow escape of being taken into custody by the Serjeant-at-arms, for rushing down from the gallery into the Irish House of Commons, and attempting to make a speech in defence of a petition which he had drawn up, and which was being attacked by a member in his place. Richard Burke went home, it is said, with two thousand guineas in his pocket, which the Catholics had cheerfully paid as the price of getting rid of him. He returned shortly after, but only helped to plunge the business into further confusion, and finally left the scene covered with odium and discredit. His father’s _Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe_ (1792) remains an admirable monument of wise statesmanship, a singular interlude of calm and solid reasoning in the midst of a fiery whirlwind of intense passion. Burke perhaps felt that the state of Ireland was passing away from the sphere of calm and solid reason, when he knew that Dumouriez’s victory over the allies at Valmy, which filled Beaconsfield with such gloom and dismay, was celebrated at Dublin by an illumination.
Burke, who was now in his sixty-fourth year, had for some time announced his intention of leaving the House of Commons as soon as he had brought to an end the prosecution of Hastings. In 1794 the trial came to a close; the thanks of the House were formally voted to the managers of the impeachment; and when the scene was over Burke applied for the Chiltern Hundreds. Lord Fitzwilliam nominated Richard Burke for the seat which his father had thus vacated at Malton. Pitt was then making arrangements for the accession of the Portland Whigs to his Government, and it was natural, in connection with these arrangements, to confer some favour on the man who had done more than anybody else to promote the new alliance. It was proposed to make Burke a peer under the style of Lord Beaconsfield,–a title in a later age whimsically borrowed for himself by a man of genius with a delight in irony. To the title it was proposed to attach a yearly income for two or more lives. But the bolt of destiny was at this instant launched. Richard Burke, the adored centre of all his father’s hopes and affections, was seized with illness and died (August 1794). We cannot look without tragic emotion on the pathos of the scene, which left the remnant of the old man’s days desolate and void. A Roman poet has described in touching words the woe of the aged Nestor, as he beheld the funeral pile of his son, too untimely slain–
Attendas quantum de legibus ipse queratur Fatorum et nimio de stamine, quum videt acris Antilochi barbam ardentem: quum quaerit ab omni Quisquis adest socius, cur haec in tempora duret, Quod facinus dignum tam longo admiserit aevo.
Burke’s grief finds a nobler expression. “The storm has gone over me, and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me. I am stripped of all my honours; I am torn up by the roots and lie prostrate on the earth…. I am alone. I have none to meet my enemies in the gate…. I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me have gone before me. They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors.”
Burke only lived three years after this desolating blow. The arrangements for a peerage, as a matter of course, came to an end. But Pitt was well aware of the serious embarrassments by which Burke was so pressed that he saw actual beggary very close at hand. The king, too,–who had once, by the way, granted a pension to Burke’s detested Rousseau, though Rousseau was too proud to draw it–seems to have been honourably interested in making a provision for Burke. What Pitt offered was an immediate grant of L1200 a year from the Civil List for Mrs. Burke’s life, to be followed by a proposition to Parliament in a message from the king, to confer an annuity of greater value upon a statesman who had served the country to his own loss for thirty years. As a matter of fact, the grant, L2500 a year in amount, much to Burke’s chagrin, was never brought before Parliament, but was conferred directly by the Crown, as a charge on the four and a half per cent fund for two or more lives. It seems as if Pitt were afraid of challenging the opinion of Parliament; and the storm which the pension raised out of doors, was a measure of the trouble which the defence of it would have inflicted on the Government inside the House of Commons. According to the rumour of the time, Burke sold two of his pensions upon lives for L27,000, and there was left the third pension of L1200. By and by, when the resentment of the Opposition was roused to the highest pitch by the infamous Treason and Sedition Bills of 1795, the Duke of Bedford and Lord Lauderdale, seeking to accumulate every possible complaint against the Government, assailed the grant to Burke, as made without the consent of Parliament, and as a violent contradiction to the whole policy of the plan for economic reform. The attack, if not unjustifiable in itself, came from an unlucky quarter. A chief of the house of Bedford was the most unfit person in the world to protest against grants by favour of the Crown, Burke was too practised a rhetorician not to see the opening, and his _Letter to a Noble Lord_ is the most splendid repartee in the English language.
It is not surprising that Burke’s defence should have provoked rejoinder. A cloud of pamphlets followed the _Letter to a Noble Lord_–some in doggerel verse, others in a magniloquent prose imitated from his own, others mere poisonous scurrility. The nearest approach to a just stroke that I can find, after turning over a pile of this trash, is an expression of wonder that he, who was inconsolable for the loss of a beloved son, should not have reflected how many tender parents had been made childless in the profusion of blood, of which he himself had been the most relentless champion. Our disgust at the pages of insult which were here levelled at a great man, is perhaps moderated by the thought that Burke himself, who of all people ought to have known better, had held up to public scorn and obloquy men of such virtue, attainments, and real service to mankind as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley.
It was during these months that he composed the _Letters on a Regicide Peace_, though the third and fourth of them were not published until after his death. There have been those to whom these compositions appeared to be Burke’s masterpieces. In fact they are deplorable. They contain passages of fine philosophy and of skilful and plausible reasoning, but such passages only make us wonder how they come to be where they are. The reader is in no humour for them. In splendour of rhetoric, in fine images, in sustention, in irony, they surpass anything that Burke ever wrote, but of the qualities and principles that, far more than his rhetoric, have made Burke so admirable and so great–of justice, of firm grasp of fact, of a reasonable sense of the probabilities of things–there are only traces enough to light up the gulfs of empty words, reckless phrases, and senseless vituperations, that surge and boil around them.
It is with the same emotion of “grief and shame” with which Fox heard Burke argue against relief to Dissenters, that we hear him abusing the courts of law because they did not convict Hardy and Horne Tooke. The pages against divorce and civil marriage, even granting that they point to the right judgment in these matters, express it with a vehemence that is irrational, and in the dialect, not of a statesman, but of an enraged Capucin. The highly wrought passage in which Burke describes external aggrandisement as the original thought and the ultimate aim of the earlier statesmen of the Revolution, is no better than ingenious nonsense. The whole performance rests on a gross and inexcusable anachronism. There is a contemptuous refusal to discriminate between groups of men who were as different from one another as Oliver Cromwell was different from James Nayler, and between periods which were as unlike in all their conditions as the Athens of the Thirty Tyrants was unlike Athens after Thrasybulus had driven the Tyrants out. He assumes that the men, the policy, the maxims of the French Government are the men, the policy, and the maxims of the handful of obscure miscreants who had hacked priests and nobles to pieces at the doors of the prisons four years before. Carnot is to him merely “that sanguinary tyrant,” and the heroic Hoche becomes “that old practised assassin,” while the Prince of Wales, by the way, and the Duke of York are the hope and pride of nations. To heap up that incessant iteration about thieves, murderers, housebreakers, assassins, bandits, bravoes with their hands dripping with blood and their maw gorged with property, desperate paramours, bombastical players, the refuse and rejected offal of strolling theatres, bloody buffoons, bloody felons–all this was as unjust to hundreds of disinterested, honest, and patriotic men who were then earnestly striving to restore a true order and solid citizenship in France, as the foul-mouthed scurrility of an Irish Orangeman is unjust to millions of devout Catholics.
Burke was the man who might have been expected before all others to know that in every system of government, whatever may have been the crimes of its origin, there is sure, by the bare necessity of things, to rise up a party or an individual, whom their political instinct will force into resistance to the fatalities of anarchy. Man is too strongly a political animal for it to be otherwise. It was so at each period and division in the Revolution. There was always a party of order, and by 1795, when Burke penned these reckless philippics, order was only too easy in France. The Revolution had worn out the passion and moral enthusiasm of its first years, and all the best men of the revolutionary time had been consumed in a flame of fire. When Burke talked about this war being wholly unlike any war that ever was waged in Europe before, about its being a war for justice on the one side, and a fanatical bloody propagandism on the other, he shut his eyes to the plain fact that the Directory had after all really sunk to the moral level of Frederick and Catherine, or for that matter, of Louis the Fourteenth himself. This war was only too like the other great wars of European history. The French Government had become political, exactly in the same sense in which Thugut and Metternich and Herzberg were political. The French Republic in 1797 was neither more nor less aggressive, immoral, piratical, than the monarchies which had partitioned Poland, and had intended to redistribute the continent of Europe to suit their own ambitions. The Coalition began the game, but France proved too strong for them, and they had the worst of their game. Jacobinism may have inspired the original fire which made her armies irresistible, but Jacobinism of that stamp had now gone out of fashion, and to denounce a peace with the Directory because the origin of their government was regicidal, was as childish as it would have been in Mazarin to decline a treaty of regicide peace with the Lord Protector.
What makes the _Regicide Peace_ so repulsive is not that it recommends energetic prosecution of the war, and not that it abounds in glaring fallacies in detail, but that it is in direct contradiction with that strong, positive, rational, and sane method which had before uniformly marked Burke’s political philosophy. Here lay his inconsistency, not in abandoning democratic principles, for he had never held them, but in forgetting his own rules that nations act from adequate motives relative to their interests, and not from metaphysical speculation; that we cannot draw an indictment against a whole people; that there is a species of hostile justice which no asperity of war wholly extinguishes in the minds of a civilised people. “Steady independent minds,” he had once said, “when they have an object of so serious a concern to mankind as _government_ under their contemplation, will disdain to assume the part of satirists and declaimers.” Show the thing that you ask for, he cried during the American war, to be reason, show it to be common sense. We have a measure of the reason and common sense of Burke’s attitude in the _Regicide Peace_, in the language which it inspired in Windham and others, who denounced Wilberforce for canting when he spoke of peace; who stigmatised Pitt as weak and a pander to national avarice for thinking of the cost of the war; and who actually charged the liverymen of London who petitioned for peace with open sedition.
It is a striking illustration of the versatility of Burke’s moods that immediately before sitting down to write the _Fourth Letter on a Regicide Peace_ he had composed one of the most lucid and accurately meditated of all of his tracts, which, short as it is, contains ideas on free trade which were only too far in advance of the opinion of his time. In 1772 a Corn Bill had been introduced–it was passed in the following year–of which Adam Smith said that it was like the laws of Solon, not the best in itself, but the best which the situation and tendency of the times would admit. In speaking upon this measure, Burke had laid down those sensible principles on the trade in corn, which he now in 1795 worked out in the _Thoughts and Details on Scarcity_. Those who do not concern themselves with economics will perhaps be interested in the singular passage, vigorously objected to by Dugald Stewart, in which Burke sets up a genial defence of the consumption of ardent spirits. It is interesting as an argument, and it is most characteristic of the author.
The curtain was now falling. All who saw him felt that Burke’s life was quickly drawing to a close. His son’s death had struck the final blow. We could only wish that the years had brought to him what it ought to be the fervent prayer of us all to find at the close of the long struggle with ourselves and with circumstance,–a disposition to happiness, a composed spirit to which time has made things clear, an unrebellious temper, and hopes undimmed for mankind. If this was not so, Burke at least busied himself to the end in great interests. His charity to the unfortunate emigrants from France was diligent and unwearied. Among other solid services he established a school near Beaconsfield for sixty French boys, principally the orphans of Quiberon, and the children of other emigrants who had suffered in the cause. Almost the last glimpse that we have of Burke is in a record of a visit to Beaconsfield by the author of the _Vindiciae Gallicae_. Mackintosh had written to Burke to express his admiration for his character and genius, and recanting his old defence of the Revolution. “Since that time,” he said, “a melancholy experience has undeceived me on many subjects, in which I was then the dupe of my enthusiasm.” When Mackintosh went to Beaconsfield (Christmas, 1796) he was as much amazed as every one else with the exuberance of his host’s mind in conversation. Even then Burke entered with cordial glee into the sports of children, rolling about with them on the carpet, and pouring out in his gambols the sublimest images, mixed with the most wretched puns. He said of Fox, with a deep sigh, “He is made to be loved.” There was the irresistible outbreak against “that putrid carcase, that mother of all evil–the French Revolution.” It reminded him of the accursed things that crawled in and out of the mouth of the vile hag in Spenser’s Cave of Error; and he repeated the nauseous stanza. Mackintosh was to be the faithful knight of the romance, the brightness of whose sword was to flash destruction on the filthy progeny.
It was on the 9th of July 1797 that, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, preserving his faculties to the last moment, he expired. With magnanimous tenderness Fox proposed that he should be buried among the great dead in Westminster Abbey; but Burke had left strict injunctions that his funeral should be private, and he was laid in the little church at Beaconsfield. It was a terrible moment in the history of England and of Europe. An open mutiny had just been quelled in the fleet. There had been signs of disaffection in the army. In Ireland the spirit of revolt was smouldering, and in a few months broke out in the fierce flames of a great rebellion. And it was the year of the political crime of Campo Formio, that sinister pacification in which violence and fraud once more asserted their unveiled ascendancy in Europe. These sombre shadows were falling over the western world when a life went out which, notwithstanding some grave aberrations, had made great spaces in human destiny very luminous.
BURKE’S LITERARY CHARACTER
A story is told that in the time when Burke was still at peace with the Dissenters, he visited Priestley, and after seeing his library and his laboratory, and hearing how his host’s hours were given to experiment and meditation, he exclaimed that such a life must make him the happiest and most to be envied of men. It must sometimes have occurred to Burke to wonder whether he had made the right choice when he locked away the fragments of his History, and plunged into the torment of party and Parliament. But his interests and aptitudes were too strong and overmastering for him to have been right in doing otherwise. Contact with affairs was an indispensable condition for the full use of his great faculties, in spite of their being less faculties of affairs than of speculation. Public life was the actual field in which to test, and work out, and use with good effect the moral ideas which were Burke’s most sincere and genuine interests. And he was able to bring these moral ideas into such effective use because he was so entirely unfettered by the narrowing spirit of formula. No man, for instance, who thought in formulae would have written the curious passage that I have already referred to, in which he eulogises gin, because “under the pressure of the cares and sorrows of our mortal condition, men have at all times and in all countries called in some physical aid to their moral consolation.” He valued words at their proper rate, that is to say, he knew that some of the greatest facts in the life and character of man, and in the institutions of society, can find no description and no measurement in words. Public life, as we can easily perceive, with its shibboleths, its exclusive parties, its measurement by conventional standards, its attention to small expediencies before the larger ones, is not a field where such characteristics are likely to make an instant effect.
Though it is not wrong to say of Burke that as an orator he was transcendent, yet in that immediate influence upon his hearers which is commonly supposed to be the mark of oratorical success, all the evidence is that Burke generally failed. We have seen how his speech against Hastings affected Miss Burney, and how the speech on the Nabob of Arcot’s debts was judged by Pitt not to be worth answering. Perhaps the greatest that he ever made was that on conciliation with America; the wisest in its temper, the most closely logical in its reasoning, the amplest in appropriate topics, the most generous and conciliatory in the substance of its appeals. Yet Erskine, who was in the House when this was delivered, said that it drove everybody away, including people who, when they came to read it, read it over and over again, and could hardly think of anything else. As Moore says rather too floridly, but with truth,–“In vain did Burke’s genius put forth its superb plumage, glittering all over with the hundred eyes of fancy–the gait of the bird was heavy and awkward, and its voice seemed rather to scare than attract.” Burke’s gestures were clumsy; he had sonorous but harsh tones; he never lost a strong Irish accent; and his utterance was often hurried and eager. Apart from these disadvantages of accident which have been overcome by men infinitely inferior to Burke, it is easy to perceive, from the matter and texture of the speeches that have become English classics, that the very qualities which are excellences in literature were drawbacks to the spoken discourses. A listener in Westminster Hall or the House of Commons, unlike the reader by his fireside in the next century, is always thinking of arguments and facts that bear directly on the special issue before him. What he wishes to hear is some particularity of event or inference which will either help him to make up his mind, or will justify him if his mind is already made up. Burke never neglected these particularities, and he never went so wide as to fall for an instant into vagueness, but he went wide enough into the generalities that lent force and light to his view, to weary men who cared for nothing, and could not be expected to care for anything, but the business actually in hand and the most expeditious way through it. The contentiousness is not close enough and rapid enough to hold the interest of a practical assembly, which, though it was a hundred times less busy than the House of Commons to-day, seems to have been eager in the inverse proportion of what it had to do, to get that little quickly done.
Then we may doubt whether there is any instance of an orator throwing his spell over a large audience, without frequent resort to the higher forms of commonplace. Two of the greatest speeches of Burke’s time are supposed to have been Grattan’s on Tithes and Fox’s on the Westminster Scrutiny, and these were evidently full of the splendid commonplaces of the firstrate rhetorician. Burke’s mind was not readily set to these tunes. The emotion to which he commonly appealed was that too rare one, the love of wisdom; and he combined his thoughts and knowledge in propositions of wisdom so weighty and strong, that the minds of ordinary hearers were not on the instant prepared for them.
It is true that Burke’s speeches were not without effect of an indirect kind, for there is good evidence that at the time when Lord North’s ministry was tottering, Burke had risen to a position of the first eminence in Parliament. When Boswell said to him that people would wonder how he could bring himself to take so much pains with his speeches, knowing with certainty that not one vote would be gained by them, Burke answered that it is very well worth while to take pains to speak well in Parliament; for if a man speaks well, he gradually establishes a certain reputation and consequence in the general opinion; and though an Act that has been ably opposed becomes law, yet in its progress it is softened and modified to meet objections whose force has never been acknowledged directly. “Aye, sir,” Johnson broke in, “and there is a gratification of pride. Though we cannot outvote