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Edmund Burke Post by :maltiti Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :3706

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Edmund Burke

A Lecture delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Society.


Mr. John Morley, who amongst other things has written two admirable books about Edmund Burke, is to be found in the Preface to the second of them apologizing for having introduced into the body of the work extracts from his former volume--conduct which he seeks to justify by quoting from the Greek (always a desirable thing to do when in difficulty), to prove that, though you may say what you have to say well once, you cannot so say it twice.

A difficulty somewhat of the same kind cannot fail to be felt by everyone who takes upon himself to write on Burke; for however innocent a man's own past life may be of any public references to the subject, the very many good things other men have said about it must seriously interfere with true liberty of treatment.

Hardly any man, and certainly no politician, has been so bepraised as Burke, whose very name, suggesting, as it does, splendour of diction, has tempted those who would praise him to do so in a highly decorated style, and it would have been easy work to have brought together a sufficient number of animated passages from the works of well-known writers all dedicated to the greater glory of Edmund Burke, and then to have tagged on half-a-dozen specimens of his own resplendent rhetoric, and so to have come to an apparently natural and long-desired conclusion without exciting any more than the usual post-lectorial grumble.

This course, however, not recommending itself, some other method had to be discovered. Happily, it is out of the question within present limits to give any proper summary of Burke's public life. This great man was not like some modern politicians, a specialist, confining his activities within the prospectus of an association; nor was he, like some others, a thing of shreds and patches, busily employed to-day picking up the facts with which he will overwhelm his opponents on the morrow; but was one ever ready to engage with all comers on all subjects from out the stores of his accumulated knowledge. Even were we to confine ourselves to those questions only which engaged Burke's most powerful attention, enlisted his most active sympathy, elicited his most bewitching rhetoric, we should still find ourselves called upon to grapple with problems as vast and varied as Economic Reform, the Status of our Colonies, our Empire in India, our relations with Ireland both in respect to her trade and her prevalent religion; and then, blurring the picture, as some may think--certainly rendering it Titanesque and gloomy--we have the spectacle of Burke in his old age, like another Laocoon, writhing and wrestling with the French Revolution; and it may serve to give us some dim notion of how great a man Burke was, of how affluent a mind, of how potent an imagination, of how resistless an energy, that even when his sole unassisted name is pitted against the outcome of centuries, and we say Burke and the French Revolution, we are not overwhelmed by any sense of obvious absurdity or incongruity.

What I propose to do is merely to consider a little Burke's life prior to his obtaining a seat in Parliament, and then to refer to any circumstances which may help us to account for the fact that this truly extraordinary man, whose intellectual resources beggar the imagination, and who devoted himself to politics with all the forces of his nature, never so much as attained to a seat in the Cabinet--a feat one has known to be accomplished by persons of no proved intellectual agility. Having done this, I shall then, bearing in mind the aphorism of Lord Beaconsfield, that it is always better to be impudent than servile, essay an analysis of the essential elements of Burke's character.

The first great fact to remember is that the Edmund Burke we are all agreed in regarding as one of the proudest memories of the House of Commons was an Irishman. When we are in our next fit of political depression about that island, and are about piously to wish, as the poet Spenser tells us men were wishing even in his time, that it were not adjacent, let us do a little national stocktaking, and calculate profits as well as losses. Burke was not only an Irishman, but a typical one--of the very kind many Englishmen, and even possibly some Scotchmen, make a point of disliking. I do not say he was an aboriginal Irishman, but his ancestors are said to have settled in the county of Galway, under Strongbow, in King Henry the Second's time, when Ireland was first conquered and our troubles began. This, at all events, is a better Irish pedigree than Mr. Parnell's.

Skipping six centuries, we find Burke's father an attorney in Dublin--which somehow sounds a very Irish thing to be--who in 1725 married a Miss Nagle, and had fifteen children. The marriage of Burke's parents was of the kind called mixed--a term which doubtless admits of wide application, but when employed technically signifies that the religious faith of the spouses was different; one, the father, being a Protestant, and the lady an adherent to what used to be pleasantly called the 'old religion.' The severer spirit now dominating Catholic councils has condemned these marriages, on the score of their bad theology and their lax morality; but the practical politician, who is not usually much of a theologian--though Lord Melbourne and Mr. Gladstone are distinguished exceptions--and whose moral conscience is apt to be robust (and here I believe there are no exceptions), cannot but regret that so good an opportunity of lubricating religious differences with the sweet oil of the domestic affections should be lost to us in these days of bitterness and dissension. Burke was brought up in the Protestant faith of his father, and was never in any real danger of deviating from it; but I cannot doubt that his regard for his Catholic fellow-subjects, his fierce repudiation of the infamies of the Penal Code--the horrors of which he did something to mitigate--his respect for antiquity, and his historic sense, were all quickened by the fact that a tenderly loved and loving mother belonged through life and in death to an ancient and an outraged faith.

The great majority of Burke's brothers and sisters, like those of Laurence Sterne, were 'not made to live;' and out of the fifteen but three, beside himself, attained maturity. These were his eldest brother Garrett, on whose death Edmund succeeded to the patrimonial Irish estate, which he sold; his younger brother, Richard, a highly speculative gentleman, who always lost; and his sister, Juliana, who married a Mr. French, and was, as became her mother's daughter, a rigid Roman Catholic--who, so we read, was accustomed every Christmas Day to invite to the Hall the maimed, the aged, and distressed of her vicinity to a plentiful repast, during which she waited upon them as a servant. A sister like this never did any man any serious harm.

Edmund Burke was born in 1729, in Dublin, and was taught his rudiments in the country--first by a Mr. O'Halloran, and afterwards by a Mr. FitzGerald, village pedagogues both, who at all events succeeded in giving their charge a brogue which death alone could silence. Burke passed from their hands to an academy at Ballitore, kept by a Quaker, whence he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin. He was thus not only Irish born, but Irish bred. His intellectual habit of mind exhibited itself early. He belonged to the happy family of omnivorous readers, and, in the language of his latest schoolmaster, he went to college with a larger miscellaneous stock of reading than was usual with one of his years; which, being interpreted out of pedagogic into plain English, means that 'our good Edmund' was an enormous devourer of poetry and novels, and so he remained to the end of his days. That he always preferred Fielding to Richardson is satisfactory, since it pairs him off nicely with Dr. Johnson, whose preference was the other way, and so helps to keep an interesting question wide open. His passion for the poetry of Virgil is significant. His early devotion to Edward Young, the grandiose author of the Night Thoughts, is not to be wondered at; though the inspiration of the youthful Burke, either as poet or critic, may be questioned, when we find him rapturously scribbling in the margin of his copy:


'Jove claimed the verse old Homer sung,
But God Himself inspired Dr. Young.'


But a boy's enthusiasm for a favourite poet is a thing to rejoice over. The years that bring the philosophic mind will not bring--they must find--enthusiasm.

In 1750 Burke (being then twenty-one) came for the first time to London, to do what so many of his lively young countrymen are still doing--though they are beginning to make a grievance even of that--eat his dinners at the Middle Temple, and so qualify himself for the Bar. Certainly that student was in luck who found himself in the same mess with Burke; and yet so stupid are men--so prone to rest with their full weight on the immaterial and slide over the essential--that had that good fortune been ours we should probably have been more taken up with Burke's brogue than with his brains. Burke came to London with a cultivated curiosity, and in no spirit of desperate determination to make his fortune. That the study of the law interested him cannot be doubted, for everything interested him, particularly the stage. Like the sensible Irishman he was, he lost his heart to Peg Woffington on the first opportunity. He was fond of roaming about the country during, it is to be hoped, vacation- time only, and is to be found writing the most cheerful letters to his friends in Ireland (all of whom are persuaded that he is going some day to be somebody, though sorely puzzled to surmise what thing or when, so pleasantly does he take life), from all sorts of out-of-the-way country places, where he lodges with quaint old landladies who wonder maternally why he never gets drunk, and generally mistake him for an author until he pays his bill. When in town he frequented debating societies in Fleet Street and Covent Garden, and made his first speeches; for which purpose he would, unlike some debaters, devote studious hours to getting up the subjects to be discussed. There is good reason to believe that it was in this manner his attention was first directed to India. He was at all times a great talker, and, Dr. Johnson's dictum notwithstanding, a good listener. He was endlessly interested in everything--in the state of the crops, in the last play, in the details of all trades, the rhythm of all poems, the plots of all novels, and indeed in the course of every manufacture. And so for six years he went up and down, to and fro, gathering information, imparting knowledge, and preparing himself, though he knew not for what.

The attorney in Dublin grew anxious, and searched for precedents of a son behaving like his, and rising to eminence. Had his son got the legal mind?--which, according to a keen observer, chiefly displays itself by illustrating the obvious, explaining the evident, and expatiating on the commonplace. Edmund's powers of illustration, explanation, and expatiation could not indeed be questioned; but then the subjects selected for the exhibition of those powers were very far indeed from being obvious, evident, or commonplace, and the attorney's heart grew heavy within him. The paternal displeasure was signified in the usual manner--the supplies were cut off. Edmund Burke, however, was no ordinary prodigal, and his reply to his father's expostulations took the unexpected and unprecedented shape of a copy of a second and enlarged edition of his treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful, which he had published in 1756 at the price of three shillings. Burke's father promptly sent the author a bank-bill for 100 pounds--conduct on his part which, considering he had sent his son to London and maintained him there for six years to study law, was, in my judgment, both sublime and beautiful. In the same year Burke published another pamphlet--a one-and- sixpenny affair--written ironically in the style of Lord Bolingbroke, and called A Vindication of Natural Society; or, A View of the Miseries and Evils arising to Mankind from Every Species of Civil Society. Irony is a dangerous weapon for a public man to have ever employed, and in after-life Burke had frequently to explain that he was not serious. On these two pamphlets' airy pinions Burke floated into the harbour of literary fame. No less a man than the great David Hume referred to him, in a letter to the hardly less great Adam Smith, as an Irish gentleman who had written a 'very pretty treatise on the Sublime.' After these efforts Burke, as became an established wit, went to Bath to recruit, and there, fitly enough, fell in love. The lady was Miss Jane Mary Nugent, the daughter of a celebrated Bath physician, and it is pleasant to be able to say of the marriage that was shortly solemnized between the young couple, that it was a happy one, and then to go on our way, leaving them--where man and wife ought to be left--alone. Oddly enough, Burke's wife was also the offspring of a 'mixed marriage'--only in her case it was the father who was the Catholic; consequently both Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Burke were of the same way of thinking, but each had a parent of the other way. Although getting married is no part of the curriculum of a law student, Burke's father seems to have come to the conclusion that after all it was a greater distinction for an attorney in Dublin to have a son living amongst the wits in London, and discoursing familiarly on the 'Sublime and Beautiful,' than one prosecuting some poor countryman, with a brogue as rich as his own, for stealing a pair of breeches; for we find him generously allowing the young couple 200 pounds a year, which no doubt went some way towards maintaining them. Burke, who was now in his twenty-eighth year, seems to have given up all notion of the law. In 1758 he wrote for Dodsley the first volume of the Annual Register, a melancholy series which continues to this day. For doing this he got 100 pounds. Burke was by this time a well-known figure in London literary society, and was busy making for himself a huge private reputation. The Christmas Day of 1758 witnessed a singular scene at the dinner table of David Garrick. Dr. Johnson, then in full vigour of his mind, and with the all-dreaded weapons of his dialectics kept burnished by daily use, was flatly contradicted by a fellow-guest some twenty years his junior, and, what is more, submitted to it without a murmur. One of the diners, Arthur Murphy, was so struck by this occurrence, unique in his long experience of the Doctor, that on returning home he recorded the fact in his journal, but ventured no explanation of it. It can only be accounted for--so at least I venture to think--by the combined effect of four wholly independent circumstances: First, the day was Christmas Day, a day of peace and goodwill, and our beloved Doctor was amongst the sincerest, though most argumentative, of Christians, and a great observer of days. Second, the house was David Garrick's, and consequently we may be certain that the dinner had been a superlatively good one; and has not Boswell placed on record Johnson's opinion of the man who professed to be indifferent about his dinner? Third, the subject under discussion was India, about which Johnson knew he knew next to nothing. And fourth, the offender was Edmund Burke, whom Johnson loved from the first day he set eyes upon him to their last sad parting by the waters of death.

In 1761 that shrewd old gossip, Horace Walpole, met Burke for the first time at dinner, and remarks of him in a letter to George Montague:

'I dined at Hamilton's yesterday; there were Garrick, and young Mr. Burke, who wrote a book in the style of Lord Bolingbroke, that was much admired. He is a sensible man, but has not worn off his authorism yet, and thinks there is nothing so charming as writers, and to be one. He will know better one of these days.'

But great as were Burke's literary powers, and passionate as was his fondness for letters and for literary society, he never seems to have felt that the main burden of his life lay in that direction. He looked to the public service, and this though he always believed that the pen of a great writer was a more powerful and glorious weapon than any to be found in the armoury of politics. This faith of his comes out sometimes queerly enough. For example, when Dr. Robertson in 1777 sent Burke his cheerful History of America, in quarto volumes, Burke, in the most perfect good faith, closes a long letter of thanks thus:--

'You will smile when I send you a trifling temporary production made for the occasion of the day, and to perish with it, in return for your immortal work.'

I have no desire, least of all in Edinburgh, to say anything disrespectful of Principal Robertson; but still, when we remember that the temporary production he got in exchange for his History of America was Burke's immortal letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the American War, we must, I think, be forced to admit that, as so often happens when a Scotchman and an Irishman do business together, the former got the better of the bargain.

Burke's first public employment was of a humble character, and might well have been passed over in a sentence, had it not terminated in a most delightful quarrel, in which Burke conducted himself like an Irishman of genius. Some time in 1759 he became acquainted with William Gerard Hamilton, commonly called 'Single-speech Hamilton,' on account of the celebrity he gained from his first speech in Parliament, and the steady way in which his oratorical reputation went on waning ever after. In 1761 this gentleman went over to Ireland as Chief Secretary, and Burke accompanied him as the Secretary's secretary, or, in the unlicensed speech of Dublin, as Hamilton's jackal. This arrangement was eminently satisfactory to Hamilton, who found, as generations of men have found after him, Burke's brains very useful, and he determined to borrow them for the period of their joint lives. Animated by this desire, in itself praiseworthy, he busied himself in procuring for Burke a pension of 300 pounds a year on the Irish establishment, and then the simple 'Single- speech' thought the transaction closed. He had bought his poor man of genius, and paid for him on the nail with other people's money. Nothing remained but for Burke to draw his pension and devote the rest of his life to maintaining Hamilton's reputation. There is nothing at all unusual in this, and I have no doubt Burke would have stuck to his bargain, had not Hamilton conceived the fatal idea that Burke's brains were exclusively his (Hamilton's). Then the situation became one of risk and apparent danger.

Burke's imagination began playing round the subject: he saw himself a slave, blotted out of existence--mere fuel for Hamilton's flame. In a week he was in a towering passion. Few men can afford to be angry. It is a run upon their intellectual resources they cannot meet. But Burke's treasury could well afford the luxury; and his letters to Hamilton make delightful reading to those who, like myself, dearly love a dispute when conducted according to the rules of the game by men of great intellectual wealth. Hamilton demolished and reduced to stony silence, Burke sat down again and wrote long letters to all his friends, telling them the whole story from beginning to end. I must be allowed a quotation from one of these letters, for this really is not so frivolous a matter as I am afraid I have made it appear--a quotation of which this much may be said, that nothing more delightfully Burkean is to be found anywhere:--

'MY DEAR MASON,--

'I am hardly able to tell you how much satisfaction I had in your letter. Your approbation of my conduct makes me believe much the better of you and myself; and I assure you that that approbation came to me very seasonably. Such proofs of a warm, sincere, and disinterested friendship were not wholly unnecessary to my support at a time when I experienced such bitter effects of the perfidy and ingratitude of much longer and much closer connections. The way in which you take up my affairs binds me to you in a manner I cannot express; for, to tell you the truth, I never can (knowing as I do the principles upon which I always endeavour to act) submit to any sort of compromise of my character; and I shall never, therefore, look upon those who, after hearing the whole story, do not think me perfectly in the right, and do not consider Hamilton an infamous scoundrel, to be in the smallest degree my friends, or even to be persons for whom I am bound to have the slightest esteem, as fair and just estimators of the characters and conduct of men. Situated as I am, and feeling as I do, I should be just as well pleased that they totally condemned me as that they should say there were faults on both sides, or that it was a disputable case, as I hear is (I cannot forbear saying) the affected language of some persons. . . . You cannot avoid remarking, my dear Mason, and I hope not without some indignation, the unparalleled singularity of my situation. Was ever a man before me expected to enter into formal, direct, and undisguised slavery? Did ever man before him confess an attempt to decoy a man into such an alleged contract, not to say anything of the impudence of regularly pleading it? If such an attempt be wicked and unlawful (and I am sure no one ever doubted it), I have only to confess his charge, and to admit myself his dupe, to make him pass, on his own showing, for the most consummate villain that ever lived. The only difference between us is, not whether he is not a rogue--for he not only admits but pleads the facts that demonstrate him to be so; but only whether I was such a fool as to sell myself absolutely for a consideration which, so far from being adequate, if any such could be adequate, is not even so much as certain. Not to value myself as a gentleman, a free man, a man of education, and one pretending to literature; is there any situation in life so low, or even so criminal, that can subject a man to the possibility of such an engagement? Would you dare attempt to bind your footman to such terms? Will the law suffer a felon sent to the plantations to bind himself for his life, and to renounce all possibility either of elevation or quiet? And am I to defend myself for not doing what no man is suffered to do, and what it would be criminal in any man to submit to? You will excuse me for this heat.'

I not only excuse Burke for his heat, but love him for letting me warm my hands at it after a lapse of a hundred and twenty years.

Burke was more fortunate in his second master, for in 1765 being then thirty-six years of age, he became private secretary to the new Prime Minister, the Marquis of Rockingham; was by the interest of Lord Verney returned to Parliament for Wendover, in Bucks; and on January 27th, 1766, his voice was first heard in the House of Commons.

The Rockingham Ministry deserves well of the historian, and on the whole has received its deserts. Lord Rockingham, the Duke of Richmond, Lord John Cavendish, Mr. Dowdeswell, and the rest of them, were good men and true, judged by an ordinary standard; and when contrasted with most of their political competitors, they almost approach the ranks of saints and angels. However, after a year and twenty days, his Majesty King George the Third managed to get rid of them, and to keep them at bay for fifteen years. But their first term of office, though short, lasted long enough to establish a friendship of no ordinary powers of endurance between the chief members of the party and the Prime Minister's private secretary, who was at first, so ran the report, supposed to be a wild Irishman, whose real name was O'Bourke, and whose brogue seemed to require the allegation that its owner was a popish emissary. It is satisfactory to notice how from the very first Burke's intellectual pre-eminence, character, and aims were clearly admitted and most cheerfully recognised by his political and social superiors; and in the long correspondence in which he engaged with most of them there is not a trace to be found, on one side or the other, of anything approaching to either patronage or servility. Burke advises them, exhorts them, expostulates with them, condemns their aristocratic languor, fans their feeble flames, drafts their motions, dictates their protests, visits their houses, and generally supplies them with facts, figures, poetry, and romance. To all this they submit with much humility. The Duke of Richmond once indeed ventured to hint to Burke, with exceeding delicacy, that he (the Duke) had a small private estate to attend to as well as public affairs; but the validity of the excuse was not admitted. The part Burke played for the next fifteen years with relation to the Rockingham party reminds me of the functions I have observed performed in lazy families by a soberly clad and eminently respectable person who pays them domiciliary visits, and, having admission everywhere, goes about mysteriously from room to room, winding up all the clocks. This is what Burke did for the Rockingham party--he kept it going.

But fortunately for us, Burke was not content with private adjuration, or even public speech. His literary instincts, his dominating desire to persuade everybody that he, Edmund Burke, was absolutely in the right, and every one of his opponents hopelessly wrong, made him turn to the pamphlet as a propaganda, and in his hands


'The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains.'


So accustomed are we to regard Burke's pamphlets as specimens of our noblest literature, and to see them printed in comfortable volumes, that we are apt to forget that in their origin they were but the children of the pavement, the publications of the hour. If, however, you ever visit any old public library, and grope about a little, you are likely enough to find a shelf holding some twenty-five or thirty musty, ugly little books, usually lettered 'Burke,' and on opening any of them you will come across one of Burke's pamphlets as originally issued, bound up with the replies and counter-pamphlets it occasioned. I have frequently tried, but always in vain, to read these replies, which are pretentious enough--usually the works of deans, members of Parliament, and other dignitaries of the class Carlyle used compendiously to describe as 'shovel-hatted'--and each of whom was as much entitled to publish pamphlets as Burke himself. There are some things it is very easy to do, and to write a pamphlet is one of them; but to write such a pamphlet as future generations will read with delight is perhaps the most difficult feat in literature. Milton, Swift, Burke, and Sydney Smith are, I think, our only great pamphleteers.

I have now rather more than kept my word so far as Burke's pre-parliamentary life is concerned, and will proceed to mention some of the circumstances that may serve to account for the fact that, when the Rockingham party came into power for the second time in 1782, Burke, who was their life and soul, was only rewarded with a minor office. First, then, it must be recorded sorrowfully of Burke that he was always desperately in debt, and in this country no politician under the rank of a baronet can ever safely be in debt. Burke's finances are, and always have been, marvels and mysteries; but one thing must be said of them--that the malignity of his enemies, both Tory enemies and Radical enemies, has never succeeded in formulating any charge of dishonesty against him that has not been at once completely pulverized, and shown on the facts to be impossible. {1} Burke's purchase of the estate at Beaconsfield in 1768, only two years after he entered Parliament, consisting as it did of a good house and 1,600 acres of land, has puzzled a great many good men--much more than it ever did Edmund Burke. But how did he get the money? After an Irish fashion--by not getting it at all. Two-thirds of the purchase-money remained on mortgage, and the balance he borrowed; or, as he puts it, 'With all I could collect of my own, and by the aid of my friends, I have established a root in the country.' That is how Burke bought Beaconsfield, where he lived till his end came; whither he always hastened when his sensitive mind was tortured by the thought of how badly men governed the world; where he entertained all sorts and conditions of men--Quakers, Brahmins (for whose ancient rites he provided suitable accommodation in a greenhouse), nobles and abbes flying from revolutionary France, poets, painters, and peers; no one of whom ever long remained a stranger to his charm. Burke flung himself into farming with all the enthusiasm of his nature. His letters to Arthur Young on the subject of carrots still tremble with emotion. You all know Burke's Thoughts on the Present Discontents. You remember--it is hard to forget--his speech on Conciliation with America, particularly the magnificent passage beginning, 'Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great empire and little minds go ill together.' You have echoed back the words in which, in his letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the hateful American War, he protests that it was not instantly he could be brought to rejoice when he heard of the slaughter and captivity of long lists of those whose names had been familiar in his ears from his infancy, and you would all join with me in subscribing to a fund which should have for its object the printing and hanging up over every editor's desk in town and country a subsequent passage from the same letter:

'A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood. He would feel some apprehension at being called to a tremendous account for engaging in so deep a play without any knowledge of the game. It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven (which in the depths of its wisdom tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting than an impotent, helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, and contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise. . . .

'If you and I find our talents not of the great and ruling kind, our conduct at least is conformable to our faculties. No man's life pays the forfeit of our rashness. No desolate widow weeps tears of blood over our ignorance. Scrupulous and sober in a well-grounded distrust of ourselves, we would keep in the port of peace and security; and perhaps in recommending to others something of the same diffidence, we should show ourselves more charitable to their welfare than injurious to their abilities.'

Footnote:

{1} All the difficulties connected with this subject will be found collected, and somewhat unkindly considered, in Mr. Dilke's Papers of a Critic, vol. ii. The equity draughtsman will be indisposed to attach importance to statements made in a Bill of Complaint filed in Chancery by Lord Verney against Burke fourteen years after the transaction to which it had reference, in a suit which was abandoned after answer put in. But, in justice to a deceased plaintiff, it should be remembered that in those days a defendant could not be cross-examined upon his sworn answer.


You have laughed over Burke's account of how all Lord Talbot's schemes for the reform of the king's household were dashed to pieces, because the turnspit of the king's kitchen was a Member of Parliament. You have often pondered over that miraculous passage in his speech on the Nabob of Arcot's debts, describing the devastation of the Carnatic by Hyder Ali--a passage which Mr. John Morley says fills the young orator with the same emotions of enthusiasm, emulation, and despair that (according to the same authority) invariably torment the artist who first gazes on 'The Madonna' at Dresden, or the figures of 'Night' and 'Dawn' at Florence. All these things you know, else are you mighty self-denying of your pleasures. But it is just possible you may have forgotten the following extract from one of Burke's farming letters to Arthur Young:

'One of the grand points in controversy (a controversy indeed chiefly carried on between practice and speculation) is that of deep ploughing. In your last volume you seem, on the whole, rather against that practice, and have given several reasons for your judgment which deserve to be very well considered. In order to know how we ought to plough, we ought to know what end it is we propose to ourselves in that operation. The first and instrumental end is to divide the soil; the last and ultimate end, so far as regards the plants, is to facilitate the pushing of the blade upwards, and the shooting of the roots in all the inferior directions. There is further proposed a more ready admission of external influences--the rain, the sun, the air, charged with all those heterogeneous contents, some, possibly all, of which are necessary for the nourishment of the plants. By ploughing deep you answer these ends in a greater mass of the soil. This would seem in favour of deep ploughing as nothing else than accomplishing, in a more perfect manner, those very ends for which you are induced to plough at all. But doubts here arise, only to be solved by experiment. First, is it quite certain that it is good for the ear and grain of farinaceous plants that their roots should spread and descend into the ground to the greatest possible distances and depths? Is there not some limit in this? We know that in timber, what makes one part flourish does not equally conduce to the benefit of all; and that which may be beneficial to the wood, does not equally contribute to the quantity and goodness of the fruit; and, vice versa, that what increases the fruit largely is often far from serviceable to the tree. Secondly, is that looseness to great depths, supposing it is useful to one of the species of plants, equally useful to all? Thirdly, though the external influences--the rain, the sun, the air--act undoubtedly a part, and a large part, in vegetation, does it follow that they are equally salutary in any quantities, at any depths? Or that, though it may be useful to diffuse one of these agents as extensively as may be in the earth, that therefore it will be equally useful to render the earth in the same degree pervious to all? It is a dangerous way of reasoning in physics, as well as morals, to conclude, because a given proportion of anything is advantageous, that the double will be quite as good, or that it will be good at all. Neither in the one nor the other is it always true that two and two make four.'

This is magnificent, but it is not farming, and you will easily believe that Burke's attempts to till the soil were more costly than productive. Farming, if it is to pay, is a pursuit of small economies; and Burke was far too Asiatic, tropical, and splendid to have anything to do with small economies. His expenditure, like his rhetoric, was in the 'grand style.' He belongs to Charles Lamb's great race, 'the men who borrow.' But indeed it was not so much that Burke borrowed as that men lent. Right- feeling men did not wait to be asked. Dr. Brocklesby, that good physician, whose name breathes like a benediction through the pages of the biographies of the best men of his time, who soothed Dr. Johnson's last melancholy hours, and for whose supposed heterodoxy the dying man displayed so tender a solicitude, wrote to Burke, in the strain of a timid suitor proposing for the hand of a proud heiress, to know whether Burke would be so good as to accept 1,000 pounds at once, instead of waiting for the writer's death. Burke felt no hesitation in obliging so old a friend. Garrick, who, though fond of money, was as generous-hearted a fellow as ever brought down a house, lent Burke 1,000 pounds. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who has been reckoned stingy, by his will left Burke 2,000 pounds, and forgave him another 2,000 pounds which he had lent him. The Marquis of Rockingham by his will directed all Burke's bonds held by him to be cancelled. They amounted to 30,000 pounds. Burke's patrimonial estate was sold by him for 4,000 pounds; and I have seen it stated that he had received altogether from family sources as much as 20,000 pounds. And yet he was always poor, and was glad at the last to accept pensions from the Crown in order that he might not leave his wife a beggar. This good lady survived her illustrious husband twelve years, and seemed as his widow to have had some success in paying his bills, for at her death all remaining demands were found to be discharged. For receiving this pension Burke was assailed by the Duke of Bedford, a most pleasing act of ducal fatuity, since it enabled the pensioner, not bankrupt of his wit, to write a pamphlet, now of course a cherished classic, and introduce into it a few paragraphs about the House of Russell and the cognate subject of grants from the Crown. But enough of Burke's debts and difficulties, which I only mention because all through his life they were cast up against him. Had Burke been a moralist of the calibre of Charles James Fox, he might have amassed a fortune large enough to keep up half a dozen Beaconsfields, by simply doing what all his predecessors in the office he held, including Fox's own father, the truly infamous first Lord Holland, had done--namely, by retaining for his own use the interest on all balances of the public money from time to time in his hands as Paymaster of the Forces. But Burke carried his passion for good government into actual practice, and, cutting down the emoluments of his office to a salary (a high one, no doubt), effected a saving to the country of some 25,000 pounds a year, every farthing of which might have gone without remark into his own pocket.

Burke had no vices, save of style and temper; nor was any of his expenditure a profligate squandering of money. It all went in giving employment or disseminating kindness. He sent the painter Barry to study art in Italy. He saved the poet Crabbe from starvation and despair, and thus secured to the country one who owns the unrivalled distinction of having been the favourite poet of the three greatest intellectual factors of the age (scientific men excepted)--Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Cardinal Newman. Yet so distorted are men's views that the odious and anti-social excesses of Fox at the gambling-table are visited with a blame usually wreathed in smiles, whilst the financial irregularities of a noble and pure-minded man are thought fit matter for the fiercest censure or the most lordly contempt.

Next to Burke's debts, some of his companions and intimates did him harm and injured his consequence. His brother Richard, whose brogue we are given to understand was simply appalling, was a good-for-nothing, with a dilapidated reputation. Then there was another Mr. Burke, who was no relation, but none the less was always about, and to whom it was not safe to lend money. Burke's son, too, whose death he mourned so pathetically, seems to have been a failure, and is described by a candid friend as a nauseating person. To have a decent following is important in politics.

A third reason must be given: Burke's judgment of men and things was often both wrong and violent. The story of Powell and Bembridge, two knaves in Burke's own office, whose cause he espoused, and whom he insisted on reinstating in the public service after they had been dismissed, and maintaining them there, in spite of all protests, till the one had the grace to cut his throat and the other was sentenced by the Queen's Bench to a term of imprisonment and a heavy fine, is too long to be told, though it makes interesting reading in the twenty-second volume of Howell's State Trials, where at the end of the report is to be found the following note:

'The proceedings against Messrs. Powell and Bembridge occasioned much animated discussion in the House of Commons, in which Mr. Burke warmly supported the accused. The compassion which on these and all other occasions was manifested by Mr. Burke for the sufferings of those public delinquents, the zeal with which he advocated their cause, and the eagerness with which he endeavoured to extenuate their criminality, have received severe reprehension, and in particular when contrasted with his subsequent conduct in the prosecution of Mr. Hastings.'

The real reason for Burke's belief in Bembridge is, I think, to be found in the evidence Burke gave on his behalf at the trial before Lord Mansfield. Bembridge had rendered Burke invaluable assistance in carrying out his reforms at the Paymaster's Office, and Burke was constitutionally unable to believe that a rogue could be on his side; but, indeed, Burke was too apt to defend bad causes with a scream of passion, and a politician who screams is never likely to occupy a commanding place in the House of Commons. A last reason for Burke's exclusion from high office is to be found in his aversion to any measure of Parliamentary Reform. An ardent reformer like the Duke of Richmond--the then Duke of Richmond--who was in favour of annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and payment of members, was not likely to wish to associate himself too closely with a politician who wept with emotion at the bare thought of depriving Old Sarum of parliamentary representation.

These reasons account for Burke's exclusion, and jealous as we naturally and properly are of genius being snubbed by mediocrity, my reading at all events does not justify me in blaming any one but the Fates for the circumstance that Burke was never a Secretary of State. And after all, does it matter much what he was? Burke no doubt occasionally felt his exclusion a little hard; but he is the victor who remains in possession of the field; and Burke is now, for us and for all coming after us, in such possession.

It now only remains for me, drawing upon my stock of assurance, to essay the analysis of the essential elements of Burke's mental character, and I therefore at once proceed to say that it was Burke's peculiarity and his glory to apply the imagination of a poet of the first order to the facts and the business of life. Arnold says of Sophocles:

'He saw life steadily, and saw it whole.'
Substitute for the word 'life' the words 'organised society,' and you get a peep into Burke's mind. There was a catholicity about his gaze. He knew how the whole world lived. Everything contributed to this: his vast desultory reading; his education, neither wholly academical nor entirely professional; his long years of apprenticeship in the service of knowledge; his wanderings up and down the country; his vast conversational powers; his enormous correspondence with all sorts of people; his unfailing interest in all pursuits, trades, manufactures--all helped to keep before him, like motes dancing in a sunbeam, the huge organism of modern society, which requires for its existence and for its development the maintenance of credit and of order. Burke's imagination led him to look out over the whole land: the legislator devising new laws, the judge expounding and enforcing old ones, the merchant despatching his goods and extending his credit, the banker advancing the money of his customers upon the credit of the merchant, the frugal man slowly accumulating the store which is to support him in old age, the ancient institutions of Church and University with their seemly provisions for sound learning and true religion, the parson in his pulpit, the poet pondering his rhymes, the farmer eyeing his crops, the painter covering his canvases, the player educating the feelings. Burke saw all this with the fancy of a poet, and dwelt on it with the eye of a lover. But love is the parent of fear, and none knew better than Burke how thin is the lava layer between the costly fabric of society and the volcanic heats and destroying flames of anarchy. He trembled for the fair frame of all established things, and to his horror saw men, instead of covering the thin surface with the concrete, digging in it for abstractions, and asking fundamental questions about the origin of society, and why one man should be born rich and another poor. Burke was no prating optimist: it was his very knowledge how much could be said against society that quickened his fears for it. There is no shallower criticism than that which accuses Burke in his later years of apostasy from so-called Liberal opinions. Burke was all his life through a passionate maintainer of the established order of things, and a ferocious hater of abstractions and metaphysical politics. The same ideas that explode like bombs through his diatribes against the French Revolution are to be found shining with a mild effulgence in the comparative calm of his earlier writings. I have often been struck with a resemblance, which I hope is not wholly fanciful, between the attitude of Burke's mind towards government and that of Cardinal Newman towards religion. Both these great men belong, by virtue of their imaginations, to the poetic order, and they both are to be found dwelling with amazing eloquence, detail, and wealth of illustration on the varied elements of society. Both seem as they write to have one hand on the pulse of the world, and to be for ever alive to the throb of its action; and Burke, as he regarded humanity swarming like bees into and out of their hives of industry, is ever asking himself, How are these men to be saved from anarchy? whilst Newman puts to himself the question, How are these men to be saved from atheism? Both saw the perils of free inquiry divorced from practical affairs.

'Civil freedom,' says Burke, 'is not, as many have endeavoured to persuade you, a thing that lies hid in the depth of abstruse science. It is a blessing and a benefit, not an abstract speculation, and all the just reasoning that can be upon it is of so coarse a texture as perfectly to suit the ordinary capacities of those who are to enjoy and of those who are to defend it.'

'Tell men,' says Cardinal Newman, 'to gain notions of a Creator from His works, and if they were to set about it (which nobody does), they would be jaded and wearied by the labyrinth they were tracing; their minds would be gorged and surfeited by the logical operation. To most men argument makes the point in hand more doubtful and considerably less impressive. After all, man is not a reasoning animal, he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, actual animal.'

Burke is fond of telling us that he is no lawyer, no antiquarian, but a plain, practical man; and the Cardinal, in like manner, is ever insisting that he is no theologian--he leaves everything of that sort to the schools, whatever they may be, and simply deals with religion on its practical side as a benefit to mankind.

If either of these great men has been guilty of intellectual excesses, those of Burke may be attributed to his dread of anarchy, those of Newman to his dread of atheism. Neither of them was prepared to rest content with a scientific frontier, an imaginary line. So much did they dread their enemy, so alive were they to the terrible strength of some of his positions, that they could not agree to dispense with the protection afforded by the huge mountains of prejudice and the ancient rivers of custom. The sincerity of either man can only be doubted by the bigot and the fool.

But Burke, apart from his fears, had a constitutional love for old things, simply because they were old. Anything mankind had ever worshipped, or venerated, or obeyed, was dear to him. I have already referred to his providing his Brahmins with a greenhouse for the purpose of their rites, which he watched from outside with great interest. One cannot fancy Cardinal Newman peeping through a window to see men worshipping false though ancient gods. Warren Hastings' high-handed dealings with the temples and time-honoured if scandalous customs of the Hindoos filled Burke with horror. So, too, he respected Quakers, Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists, and all those whom he called Constitutional Dissenters. He has a fine passage somewhere about Rust, for with all his passion for good government he dearly loved a little rust. In this phase of character he reminds one not a little of another great writer--whose death literature has still reason to deplore--George Eliot; who, in her love for old hedgerows and barns and crumbling moss- grown walls, was a writer after Burke's own heart, whose novels he would have sat up all night to devour; for did he not deny with warmth Gibbon's statement that he had read all five volumes of Evelina in a day? 'The thing is impossible,' cried Burke; 'they took me three days doing nothing else.' Now, Evelina is a good novel, but Silas Marner is a better.

Wordsworth has been called the High Priest of Nature. Burke may be called the High Priest of Order--a lover of settled ways, of justice, peace, and security. His writings are a storehouse of wisdom, not the cheap shrewdness of the mere man of the world, but the noble, animating wisdom of one who has the poet's heart as well as the statesman's brain. Nobody is fit to govern this country who has not drunk deep at the springs of Burke. 'Have you read your Burke?' is at least as sensible a question to put to a parliamentary candidate, as to ask him whether he is a total abstainer or a desperate drunkard. Something there may be about Burke to regret, and more to dispute; but that he loved justice and hated iniquity is certain, as also it is that for the most part he dwelt in the paths of purity, humanity, and good sense. May we be found adhering to them!


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Edmund Burke

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