BURKE at his best is England at its best, said the late Lord Acton, in one of the tributes to Burke in the writings of that profound scholar. But Burke's Works extend to many volumes, and he is often at his best in every one of them. Can we be sure that even in an age of popular reprints his "best" reaches as far as it might? It was in the course of the preparation of the most recent popular issue of Burke's Works that it became more and more clear to the present editor that there must be very many to whom even such a selection would be forbidding. And yet they need not be deprived of the wisdom of Burke. Collections of his choice maxims have been published before, though not perhaps satisfactorily in recent years. A new selection may be acceptable, but in no case can the aim be that of providing the "tricking short-cut," — scouted by Burke himself.
Embedded as some of these maxims are in pages where they might least be expected, by those who knew not Burke, there is great danger of their being lost to the practical man with little time for study, whose importance Burke was surely not the one to underrate. Perhaps the true lover of the classic, who is apt to regard the slightest infringement of its original form as an outrage, or the painstaking reader to whom the selections of others may be "something between a hindrance and a help," will appreciate that the object of the present selection is not merely the reduction of bulk or the rearrangement of an author's excellences. While the first purpose will be achieved in giving prominence to the gem, a secondary one is the reference to the setting; and especially in the case of Burke is it believed that familiarity with part will lead to a desire for acquaintance with the whole.
There are two further objects which it is hoped the method adopted will serve. No arrangement according to date has been followed. The comparative reading of Burke's works through all his phases will demonstrate more thoroughly than argument that there was that consistency in principle upon which Coleridge remarked in 1817; which was also a theme of Lord Acton's, although it is not generally admitted even now. Again, from greater familiarity with Burke's maxims, ascribed to their proper place, it is hoped that Burke may often come by his own. It is curious how the credit of many of his utterances has been assigned to other orators and writers, whose real merit is in apt and wise, though often unacknowledged, appropriation.
While such a collection as this may be of first interest to the politician and student of affairs, no party-purpose has been sought, as has been the case with some citations from Burke. Burke is above all parties of to-day, and like Scripture can be quoted by them all in turn. One or two piquant sentences, from his correspondence, which might be wrested from their historical sense, have been omitted for this reason. Although he never proceeded to the practice of the law, Burke's writings will always have a special claim to the attention of lawyers, as some parts of this little book would be sufficient to show.
It is idle now to discuss whether Burke's speeches had the effect on the House of Commons we should have expected. Enough that as soon as printed they appealed to his age, and that they have been resorted to by the wise of every succeeding age. They have been quoted by every one who wished to invoke the sanction of a great name, or to round off the poverty of his own speech with a phrase of power and elegance. They are not likely to be less valued in the future than in the past. The position of Burke to-day may best be summed up in a few testimonies, out of the many, which have been paid to him by his successors in statesmanship and literature. He was the greatest man since Milton, according to Macaulay; the greatest, almost the only great, political writer, in the opinion of Sir Leslie Stephen; our greatest English prose writer, be appeared to Matthew Arnold, to Gladstone, sometimes almost divine; while Mr. Morley, in one of many opinions which his invaluable studies of Burke have called forth, declares him to be the largest master of civil wisdom in our tongue.
Born in Dublin, most probably on January 12, 1729, Edmund Burke came to London in 1750. He published his first work in 1756, and in 1761 entered upon political life as secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, Chief Secretary for Ireland, always known as "Single-Speech Hamilton." Four years later Burke gained his real opportunity when appointed private secretary to Lord Rockingham, the Prime Minister. He was brought into Parliament for the pocket borough of Wendover, and from that time he supplied the mind and the energy of the Whig party. His purest fame is associated with his utterances on the War with the American Colonies and his plans for Economical Reform. But to the affairs of Ireland throughout his life, and of India and France in turn, he directed the full force of that voice and pen, which have been fairly estimated only by history.
The leading city of Bristol honoured itself by electing Burke its member in 1774 ; but private interests were then too strong to allow a commercial city to be represented by a statesman whose ideas of justice took in not only Bristol and England but Ireland and America. Though Burke was forced from the seat in 1780 his hustings speeches at Bristol have ever since been the classic pronouncement on the duty of the representative.
Of an age of great statesmen, and of the many who filled greater positions, Burke almost alone survives as a living force to this generation Chatham, Pitt, Fox, North, and many others, have left their record of mighty or momentous deeds in our national biography and history. Burke has left that too, but also the greatest body of political writings in the language, remaining intact to this day. It is devoutly hoped that reverence for their historic place has not been forgotten in zeal for commending them more widely by the present treatment to a busier age.
Yet this pre-eminent statesman was never in the Cabinet, and never occupied an official station higher than that of Paymaster of the Forces. The unusual emolument of that post, which had been its principal attraction, was by his own regulation cut down to a fixed moderate salary. Burke was rather the inspirer of those who held high office. The character of his inspiration may be gathered from the tribute of a relative, when he had been a few years only in Parliament. He
"is full of real business, intent upon doing solid good to his country, as much as if he was to receive twenty per cent, from the commerce which he labours to improve and extend."
As a man of letters he was the friend of Johnson and Goldsmith and Gibbon, as well as of Reynolds and Garrick. At his country house at Beaconsfield he was a practical agriculturist and lived the high life of the squire of the best traditions. A philanthropist in daily life, Barry the painter and Crabbe the poet were only notable instances of his benevolence. For he left a character attested by what is sometimes called the impossible evidence of his own valet.
"He is a great man; he knows and does everything but what is mean or little."
So he lived, and in death he preferred the simple country church of Beaconsfield to the glories of Westminster Abbey.
Burke's reputation is not confined to England. During his lifetime it extended through Europe and America. By Irishmen he is claimed as one of the greatest glories of their country. By Americans he is still revered as one of the assertors of their liberties. In April, 1907, President Roosevelt took from Burke the text of his great speech at Jamestown. The character of Burke is enshrined in great thoughts, which, as the French philosopher has said, come straight from the heart.