EDMUND Burke was born in Dublin in 1729. He was brought up as a Protestant, although his mother and sister were professing Roman Catholics. He thus escaped the ruthless disqualifications to which Roman Catholics in Ireland were then subject, and his father was enabled to send him to Trinity College. Burke remained all his life a deeply religious man, but the faith which inspired him was expressed always in political terms. In 1750, became to London to read for the Bar, but soon abandoned the idea of the law as a profession. His father, in anger, cut off his allowance, and thereafter, for some years, Edmund led a vagabond existence, reading a prodigious amount, and dabbling in literature, politics, and the stage. In 1757 he produced a successful book, and married.
Jane Nugent made Burke an admirable wife. She was a Roman Catholic but she conformed, after her marriage, to the Church of England. The book was entitled A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. It is almost unreadable today, but it helped its author to make a number of agreeable friendships including those of David Garrick and Samuel Johnson. It also brought 'Mr. Burke of the Sublime and the Beautiful' invitations to a number of more or less great houses.
After applying unsuccessfully for a variety of employments he became, in 1759, private secretary to a second-rate politician named Hamilton. Burke served Hamilton for six years before they quarrelled. Six months afterwards he was appointed private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, who had just become Prime Minister. A seat was found for him in the House of Commons, and it was evident that the adventurer had arrived.
The political stage in England was occupied at that time by a number of selfish aristocratic groups which were competing with varying degrees of energy for the sweets of office and other personal ends. The great Whig families had enjoyed power for so long that, although at the accession of George III the Tories returned to Court, a Whig monopoly had in effect been created.
The corruption of power had led to politics being divorced from any foundation in political principle. The basis of all groups and parties had become personal; they were built up and held together mainly by means of places, pensions, contracts, honours, promotions, and open and secret favours of all kinds. Any party, on going into opposition, displayed a tendency to dissolve. A few of its members might remain faithful out of family loyalty or private friendship, or a belief in the advantages of collective bargaining. A majority, however, always preferred to come to terms with the group which had taken over the Seals and the Portfolios. The outstanding example of a disinterested statesman at this period was the elder Pitt. Pitt alone possessed the confidence of his countrymen and understood, in a time of crisis, how to summon the spirit of a nation from its depths. However, the unrepresentative character of Parliament made it difficult for public opinion to express itself. Moreover, Pitt himself became so haughty and autocratic that, in the end, he was an impossible colleague. It was in these circumstances that George III initiated his ill-starred attempt to use the corrupt elements in the political life of England in an effort to restore ancient royal prerogatives which had been falling into disuse. By using the prestige of the Crown and by resuming into his own hands most of the great volume of patronage which had, in previous reigns, been dispensed by Sir Robert Walpole and the two Pelhams, George III sought to create a Court Party centred upon himself.
Such was the political background when Burke entered public life. The fires of controversy which had plunged the country into civil war during the previous century had burnt very low, and a peace that was barely distinguishable from indifference had succeeded. This penniless Irishman sought to restore to English politics a foundation in faith and in principle which had well-nigh been lost.
He brought to his task a fervent missionary zeal. 'Politics', he characteristically observed, 'ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part'. In seeking to bring about this adjustment he displayed the genius of a prophet. He laid claim to revelation, and in his speeches and writings he left behind him a political testament. Burke held that the world, with all the institutions that it contains, is a direct, mysterious manifestation of God's providence, into the inner workings of which it would be impious to inquire too closely. He reserved his deepest reverence for the constitution of Britain in the form in which it had emerged from the Revolution Settlement of 1688. He regarded the fortuitous result of King James's folly and abdication as the most important revelation of divine goodness which had been vouchsafed to man since the events recorded in the New Testament.
Burke became the salaried manager of the Rockingham party. That party consisted of a group of great landowners not one of whom would have been distinguished apart from his rank and wealth. This was particularly true of Rockingham himself, who was a man of taste and high character, but sickly, indolent, ill-informed, and ineffective in debate. Burke sought to instil into such men a heightened sense of their responsibilities, and he found it an uphill task. He was an immersed political thinker seeking to work by and through an established order for which he claimed divine approval. He preached the gospel of aristocratic trusteeship because it appeared to answer the needs of the age.
The public life of Burke was dedicated to five 'great, just and honourable causes,' as he himself termed them. These lent unity to his career. His first political battle was fought about the person of John Wilkes on behalf of English liberties at home. The second battle was fought on behalf of English liberties in America. The third was fought on behalf of the peoples of India and resulted in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. The fourth battle, which gave birth to the Reflections on the Revolution in France and caused the breach with Fox, was fought in defence of European civilization against the menace of Jacobinism. The fifth and final battle was fought on behalf of Ireland, his native land. It was fought in reality throughout his life, but it flared up with pathetic and peculiar energy during the six-weeks period of his friend and patron Fitzwilliam's ill-fated Irish Viceroyalty in 1795.
For the details of these great political contests the reader must seek elsewhere. They belong to history and are in no danger of being forgotten. It is only possible here to refer shortly to the principal speeches and writings in which his genius found its supreme expression.
Burke's speeches, like his writings, were the fruit of immense research and the most elaborate preparation. Many of the most famous of them were revised by him for publication after they had been delivered. Burke was one of the greatest orators who have ever lived, but he was no debater. His manner was provocative; he was incapable of feeling the pulse of his audience; when he was really roused, taste, discretion, and dignity were often flung to the winds. Burke was at his best when delivering a great set piece. His lofty, rounded periods would roll out, hour after hour, over the heads of his audience, making a tremendous impression afterwards when they could be read over at leisure, but sometimes falling exceedingly flat at the time when they were delivered. When he was first in Parliament his flights of oratory frequently delighted and astonished the House. His genius was appreciated at once. It was found however, that after the floodwaters had subsided, the old, familiar landmarks reappeared. During his later years when, for a variety of reasons, he had grown unpopular, the House of Commons became allergic to his oratory. After the General Election of 1784 the younger members formed a declared anti-Burke combination. Whenever he rose to speak, and particularly if he was speaking about India, there would be a concerted outbreak of coughing and stamping of feet, aimed at making him lose his temper. If the attempt failed a solid phalanx of young bloods would rise as one man and march ostentatiously out of the House. Burke bitterly resented this treatment, and it is sad to have to record that the greatest of our parliamentary orators came to be known in the House as 'The Dinner Bell'.
His first political battle, on behalf of English liberties, produced the greatest of his early writings, the Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. The merit of this pamphlet, which appeared in 1770, lies in the luminous generalizations in which it abounds concerning the nature of political truth and human psychology. In this respect it remains, like Swift's Conduct of the Allies, one of the very small number of political tracts which possess a permanent appeal.
Burke's mastery of the English language appeared to reach its full height in the speeches which he delivered during the conflict over American taxation. To this period belong three of his greatest flights of oratory, the speeches on American Taxation (April 19, 1774), Conciliation with America (March 22, 1775) and the Plan for Economic Reform (February 11, 1780). The language of certain parts of the Authorized Version of the Bible is so splendid that it partakes of the nature of great poetry and gives the same satisfaction. Burke's style at its best does precisely this. His words, at white heat, seem to leap the gulf which normally separates prose from poetry, with the result that the political and imperial grammar which he outlined remains enshrined in some of the finest pages of our literature.
After the loss of the American Colonies Burke turned his thoughts towards the East. His motives were mixed, but perhaps the most fundamental cause was less India's need than his own: he was unable to exist unless he had some great cause outside himself for which to live. At the end of his life he considered that the struggle which he had waged on behalf of the peoples of India against their British oppressors constituted his most enduring title to fame. Burke's Indian period is distinguished by the great speeches on Fox's India Bill (December 1, 1783), and the Nabob of Arcot's Debts (February 28, 1785). It is distinguished further and above all by the impeachment and seven years' trial of Warren Hastings, first Governor-General of Bengal. Burke was the prime mover of the impeachment.
History has still to pronounce a final judgment on Warren Hastings. It may be that at this distance of time the facts are too blurred for any such authoritative judgment to be passed. The trial ended in Hastings's acquittal, and the award of a pension first to Burke, the principal accuser (by the Crown), and then to Hastings, the accused (by the East India Company). The award of a pension to Hastings drove Burke almost out of his mind.
Burke never objected to the fact that Britain had conquered India. Conquest, in his view, conferred a perfectly good title. His objection was to tyranny and misrule. On this realistic basis Burke enunciated a profoundly constructive principle.
'The title of conquest,' he declared, 'makes no difference at all . . . By conquest, which is a more immediate designation of the hand of God, the conqueror succeeds to all the painful duties and subordination which belonged to the Sovereign he has displaced, just as if he had come in by the positive law of some descent or election.' Absolute power was a thing which no law could give and no man could hold. We are all born in subjection-all born equally, high and low, governors and governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existent law, prior to all our devices and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to all our ideas and all our sensations, antecedent to our very existence, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir.'
The great four-day speech which Burke began on February 15, 1788, in opening the case for the prosecution of Hastings, is in many respects the most impressive which he ever delivered. Other notable efforts in the same cause were a four-day speech beginning on April 21, 1789, introducing the charge of bribery and corruption, and a nine-day speech, beginning on May 28, 1794, in general reply to the evidence which had been called on Hastings's behalf. The last two were, however, both marred by extravagant abuse and lapses of taste.
After the outbreak of the French Revolution the anti-Jacobin cause gave Burke the opportunity to win a European reputation. His Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in November, 1790. It was recognized on all sides that a prophet had arisen who was capable of answering Rousseau with a faith equally ardent and a profound empirical wisdom which was an effective English counterblast to the revolutionary 'smugglers of adulterated metaphysics,' as Burke dubbed them. The Reflections created a tremendous sensation, and edition followed edition. The richness and colour of Burke's style recalled more clearly even than before the language of Milton and other great writers of the seventeenth century. The matter, in its bold assertion of the claims of the emotions and the subconscious elements in men's minds, against nature, reason, and all the dominant ideas of the eighteenth century, looked forward to the century which followed.
It is interesting in this context to note Philip Francis's comment on Burke's famous passage about Marie Antoinette:
'..I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult...'
Francis wrote to Burke that all this was 'pure foppery.' 'I wish,' he added, 'you would let me teach you to write English.' 'What!' Burke replied, 'are not high rank, great splendour of descent, great personal elegance, and outward accomplishments, ingredients of moment in forming the interest we take in the misfortunes of men? The minds of those who do not think thus are not even systematically right.' Here already is the authentic note of the Romantic Movement in literature.
Rockingham had died in 1782. His heir was his nephew Fitzwilliam, to whom Burke stood in the relation in which he had formerly stood to Rockingham. Portland was the new head of the Rockingham group, and he and Fitzwilliam both gave pecuniary assistance on a large scale to Burke and all his family. In January, 1795, Fitzwilliam went to Dublin as Viceroy. Six weeks later he was recalled for having exceeded his instructions in attempting at all costs to force Roman Catholic emancipation upon that country. Numerous unpublished letters at Wentworth Woodhouse, where the largest portion of Burke's surviving papers are preserved, show how completely under Burke's influence Fitzwilliam was. Burke had very naturally hoped to use Fitzwilliam in the last round of the last political contest in which he was engaged-the cause of his native Ireland. Fitzwilliam's recall was a bitter grief to Burke, and with it disappeared the last chance of carrying through a full reconciliation from above between the English and Irish peoples.
In 1796, the year before he died, Burke published one of the most perfectly expressed and brilliantly successful political pamphlets that had ever been written. It was addressed to Fitzwilliam and entitled A Letter to a Noble Lord. It was a reply to a suggestion by the youthful Duke of Bedford that Burke in accepting a pension from the Exchequer had been corruptly bought by the Crown, and further that he had thereby betrayed his former policy of public economy. This pamphlet was an effective swansong. On July 9 of the next year, 1797, Burke died, of a cancer of the bowels, at his Beaconsfield home, and was buried in the parish church.
Something must be said in conclusion about Burke's private life in order to complete our sketch of the man. His marriage was ideally happy. He had one son who died unmarried three years before his father. Burke idolized this son and never recovered from his loss. The Burkes were a singularly united family, but unhappily this union included a brother and a distant cousin—Richard and William Burke—whose reputations were not good. The story is related in some detail in the present writer's life of Edmund Burke (Murray, 1939). The salient fact is that there was a bad financial smell about the Burkes. Edmund regarded all the actions of his brother, Dick, and his cousin, Will, in such a fond and sanguine light that he was incapable of appreciating the true significance of his own position. Dick and Will shared a common home and a common purse with Edmund and Edmund's wife. If their dishonest schemes had succeeded Edmund would himself have been enriched. In 1768 Edmund, who had formerly been practically penniless, purchased for twenty thousand pounds an estate of about six hundred acres at Beaconsfield. A farm and a fine collection of paintings and marbles were included. This purchase by Edmund represented an attempt to capitalize the various speculations in which his family were involved. It was a splendid prize, but it cost him thirty years of financial embarrassment and mental anguish. What is worse, it put him in what, to many men, would have been an intolerable position. He is to be found, for example, involved, through his family, in East India Stock speculations at a time when he was passionately opposing the Government's Indian policy. Burke publicly denied that he was personally interested in this stock, but it would be possible to describe this denial as a quibble.
Many years later it is odd to find Edmund straining every nerve to further two flagrantly dishonest schemes formulated by Will Burke in India for robbing the public funds there, at a time when Edmund was conducting the impeachment of Hastings for similar alleged offences. Will Burke had fled to India in 1777 to escape being arrested for debt, and had been there appointed, through Edmund's influence, Paymaster of the Forces. Burke complained bitterly of the campaign of obloquy which followed him all his life, but it must be confessed that he provided his enemies with the best of their material. He was betrayed in this respect by a flaw in his nature which is tragic by reason of its absence of all mean or petty motive. He was generous to a fault, and he allowed his judgment to be overwhelmed by the intensity of his family affections.
Many other instances could be given of his lack of common prudence in the handling of everyday affairs. It was known, for example, that he was the paid agent in London of the Colony of New York at a time when he was opposing the Government's American policy. It was not generally known, although Burke related the whole matter in a letter to Lord Rockingham, that he allowed himself to approach the Prime Minister, Lord North, about a most dubious West Indian land speculation at a time when he was threatening that Minister with impeachment on account of his American policy. Burke employed Charles Fox, who was then a Junior, not to say juvenile, Lord of the Treasury, in an unsuccessful effort to induce Lord North to admit as valid a preposterous claim of Richard Burke to lands worth one hundred thousand pounds in the West Indies.
Burke showed himself at least equally irresponsible in several other matters, some of which were known in his lifetime while others were not. When he was Paymaster-General in 1783 he restored to their places, out of pure humanity and in face of a loud public outcry, two suspended civil servants who were known to have embezzled large sums of public money and against whom prosecutions were impending. He tried further, in the same year, to procure for his son the second most valuable sinecure on the Exchequer, which was worth thousands of pounds a year to its possessor, at a time when he was labouring to force through Parliament, and claiming great merit for so doing, a series of Bills for suppressing as many as possible of such abuses and for putting down jobbery and corruption.
These instances could be multiplied, and the more Edmund was held up by his own little group to the admiration of mankind as a kind of superior being, the more loud grew the whispers that this idol possessed feet of clay. It was widely but unjustly supposed that Burke was a hypocrite and a prig. The truth is that he was a seer who was temperamentally unfitted for the responsibilities of office or the conduct of mundane affairs. It was universally agreed that Burke was one of the greatest figures in the public life of his age, and yet, when the opportunity occurred, his own party refrained from according him Cabinet rank. His failure to secure high office has been attributed to aristocratic prejudice, but such prejudice had, in fact, very little to do with the matter. Burke described the politician as the philosopher in action, but his closest friends and most fervent admirers understood best how totally unfitted their prophet-philosopher was to go into action or to support mundane responsibilities. Burke himself did not seriously contest this view, and during his later years, at any rate, he never aspired to Cabinet office.
Burke's great achievement is that he first gave shape and direction to what had formerly been little more than an inchoate mass of ideas floating in the English mind. The instinctive political empiricism of the average Englishman now wears for all time the impress of the mind of Edmund Burke. His outlook was not shared by all Englishmen, but it was and, essentially, it remains the outlook of the most characteristic section of the English people. That is the reason why this great Irishman is the most frequently quoted of any statesman who ever served England. Burke restored to English politics, as Wesley restored to English religion, a foundation in faith and in principle. Both worked in and through the existing institutions of their age, and both finished their lives outside them. Wesley's zeal carried him beyond the confines of the Church of England. Burke's zeal left the great exponent of party government isolated from both Whigs and Tories.
The most urgent need of Burke's nature was always some great cause to serve, some monstrous injustice to repair. When he had found it he was apt to identify himself too greedily with it. It was this weakness, divined and exploited by Philip Francis, which led Burke into the excesses which marred his conduct of the impeachment of Warren Hastings. Burke died in the belief that he had failed substantially in all the great causes for which he had fought. But the impression which is left on the mind by his career is not one of vanity. What his friend Samuel Johnson called the genius and affluence of Burke's thought and speech have been preserved in imperishable prose. He left behind him a political testament, the study of which remains to this day the finest school of state-craft that exists. Burke took his stand upon a foundation of human nature and political realism. From that firm ground he conducted his campaign against all doctrinaire theories, because 'in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.' The study of politics is an art and not a science. No exact rules can be laid down for it. For those who may wish to acquire that art a knowledge of Burke is the beginning of wisdom.
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