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Source: Introduction to Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1.
Introduction by E. J. Payne
An accomplished critic has observed, with much truth, that the only specimen of Burke is “all that he wrote,” because every product of his pen contains additional proofs of his power. Those who wish to understand the nature and importance of his multifarious labours should make the acquaintance of his writings in the mass, and master them singly in detail. It has long been understood that he who gives his nights and days to this task will acquire a knowledge of the principles of general politics, of the limitations which modify those principles in our own national policy, of the questions with which that policy deals, and of the secret of applying the English tongue to their illustration, which cannot be acquired in any other way. In the prosecution of this task the student will learn the practical importance of the maxim laid down in the Preface to a previous volume of this series, that all study, to be useful, must be pursued in a spirit of deference. He will find it necessary to exert an unusual degree of patience, and to acquire the habit of continually suspending his own judgment. He will find himself in contact with much that seems dry and uninviting. It may therefore be well to caution him at the outset, that Burke, like all writers of the first class, will not repay a prejudiced or a superficial perusal. He gains upon us, not altogether by the inherent interest of what he presents to us, but very much by the skill and force with which he presents it, and these qualities do not immediately strike the mental eye in all their fulness. The reader must meet his author half-way; he must contribute something more than a bare receptivity. It has been well said of Paradise Lost, that while few general readers are attracted by[vi] the subject, and fewer read it through, or often enough to discern the art with which it is written, every one who has once mastered it recurs to it with never-failing delight. There could not be a finer definition of a classical author, and it exactly describes Burke.
The details of Burke’s biography, and the general lessons of the period in which he played his part, must be sought from other sources. As a party politician he seems to stand too near to our own times to permit of our regarding him fairly and comprehensively. Why this should be so, in a case separated by a whole century from the present generation, it is difficult to see; but sufficient evidence of the fact may be gathered from the writings of party men down to our own day. Political parties will always divide civilised nations, and no Englishman can altogether dismiss the party relations of any celebrated politician. Liberals will always be disposed to forget the originality, the consistency, and the humanity of Burke’s views in the fact that he refused, at an important crisis, to sacrifice them in the mass to the opinion of a leader of far less wisdom and experience, though of more influence, than himself, and thereby broke up his party; while Conservatives will always see in him a determined Whig, a zealous advocate of religious liberty, and an audacious reformer. The coalition of 1782, in which he took an active part, is not one of the most creditable incidents in our political annals, and he shared fully in the bitter and ungenerous hostility with which his party treated its Whig rivals. His party services do not form the most memorable parts of his career. The “Observations on a late state of the Nation,” and the “Present Discontents,” for instance, only served to widen the breach between the Rockinghams and the other sections of the Whigs, without gaining them[vii] any additional strength in the court or in the popular party. His best efforts, if we except his advocacy of the cause of American liberty, are outside the policy of his party. Whiggism had small sympathy with religious freedom for Ireland, with humane and rational government in India, with the abolition of Slavery, or with the denunciation of its own caricature in the first French Republic. We must therefore regard Burke in a light different from that of party statesmanship.
The first question that is suggested on finding the political writings of an eminent party leader ranked among literary classics, is—What marks distinguish these writings from the common mass of political ephemera? Why should their author be remembered in respect of them, whilst more than one of those who equalled or exceeded him in contemporary reputation survives indeed as a great name, but in regard of permanent influence has passed away “as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but for a day”? By the virtue of what elements was a value communicated to them, extending, in the eyes of contemporaries, far beyond that of the arguments they enforced, the expedients they favoured, and the present effect they produced; and in the eyes of posterity, equally far beyond their worth as part of the annals of party, and as materials for general history? It is an insufficient answer to such questions to say that Burke was a politician and something more, in the sense in which we should say the same, for instance, of Sheridan. The personal triumphs of Sheridan may indeed be said to exceed, in the mass, those of any genius on record, not excepting Pericles himself. To speak all the day, with overpowering effect, in Westminster Hall—to go in succession to the theatres, and see in each a masterpiece of his own, played by the first of actors—at night, to repeat in Parliament the feat of the morning—in all these, constantly to have the eyes of a nation upon him, and the plaudits of a nation in his ears—this seems like the realisation of as wild a dream as ever flattered the ignorance of young ambition. The triumphs of Burke were of another kind. From the first he astonished: but he never attained the art of carrying a Parliamentary audience with him. He was too severe to persuade, and too bold to convince, a body to most of whom his philosophy was a stumblingblock and his statesmanship foolishness. In his latter years he commanded so little attention that the wits of the House[viii] called him the “dinner-bell.” Nothing is more melancholy than to read of the fate of the last Parliamentary speech which he gave to the world through the press, that on the Nabob of Arcot’s Debts (1785). Brougham considered this by far the finest of his orations, and it certainly contains his finest exordium. But no one listened to it, or seemed to understand it. Erskine slept through the five hours which it occupied in delivery, though he afterwards thumbed the printed copy to rags. Yet this was the speech in which the orator’s feelings were most thoroughly roused—in which there is more wealth of imagery, more invective, and more sarcasm than in any other. Never, says Dr. Goodrich, was there a greater union of brilliancy and force, or a more complete triumph over the difficulties of a subject. Near its close, Pitt asked Lord Grenville whether it would be necessary to reply. The answer was, “No! not the slightest impression has been made. The speech may with perfect safety be passed over in silence.”
But while the speeches of Sheridan are read once, and then laid on the shelf, the writings of Burke are the daily bread of statesmen, speakers, and political writers. We cannot take up a review or newspaper without finding some trace, however faint, of their effect. Similarly, as Coleridge says, the very sign-boards of our inns afford evidence that there was once a Titian in the world. We cannot peruse the speeches of any successful modern orator, without observing how much they owe to the method, the phraseology, the images, and even the quotations of Burke. To him may be applied with truth the epitaph of Ennius. The speeches of Canning are especially recommended as an example of what a clever man, without much originality, may make of himself with the aid of Burke. The difficulty is not, indeed, to see where Burke’s influence is to be found, but to preserve our own vision unaffected by it. His genius is of so peculiarly brilliant a nature, that it seems to affect the mind’s eye the more, the more the mind’s eye becomes accustomed to it. It seems to dazzle the strong intellect more effectually than the feeble. It has been well said that Burke sways the mass of intelligent and cultivated readers with almost as little resistance as a demagogue experiences from a mob. In the endeavour[ix] to penetrate the cause of this we shall not be much assisted by any criticism specially directed to the subject, though many capable men have penned such criticisms at greater or less length. Hazlitt, who has left two contradictory estimates of Burke, is the most conspicuous exception: and he, in another work, has admitted the futility of the attempt. The student will beware of falling into this error. He will aim at a minute knowledge of the relics of Burke’s genius, a comprehension of their method, and a perception of their relation to each other. In this way will an idea gradually be created, not to be got at second-hand, and a species of faith in his author will be generated, which will end in the disappearance of seeming discrepancies. He will supplement this by the interesting task of tracing the influence of Burke’s views upon those of more modern writers, an influence quite unparalleled, except in the history of theology. Burke’s reputation is full of variety. He devoted much of his toil to demolishing the modern school of philosophy, but the philosophers, both in Germany and in France, have forced him into their systems. He was born to a position outside the religious controversies of the day, and he confirmed himself in it by deliberation; but his extreme tolerance has exposed him to the claims of both parties. The Catholics tell us that he was really a Catholic, or would have been so if he had lived in our own time. He has often been quoted, like Scripture, for and against the same doctrine. Even the democrats admire him and approve him exceedingly, although they have somewhat against him. They did the same in his lifetime. “These priests (of the Rights of Man) begin by crowning me with their flowers and their fillets, and bedewing me with their odours, as a preface to the knocking me on the head with their consecrated axes.” Some charm forces from them an unbelieving homage, before they stamp him to pieces, and scatter his fragments to the winds.
This multifarious praise is balanced by a general outcry against him for deserting his early convictions. Burke’s consistency has always been a trite point of controversy, and many acute minds have been deceived by appearances. The charge against him will be found forcibly stated in Moore’s Life of Sheridan:
[x]He has left behind him two separate and distinct armouries of opinion, from which both Whig and Tory may furnish themselves with weapons, the most splendid, if not the most highly tempered, that ever Genius and Eloquence have condescended to bequeath to Party. . . . Burke was mighty in either camp: and it would have taken two great men to effect what he, by this division of himself, achieved. His mind, indeed, lies parted asunder in his works, like some vast continent severed by a convulsion of nature—each portion peopled by its own giant race of opinions, differing altogether in features and language, and committed in eternal hostility with each other.
This view has descended from Whig politicians of Burke’s time to the philosophical writers of our own day. This inconsistency was accounted for easily enough—in the last decade of his life he was alleged to be mad. The French Revolution at any rate, if it did not turn his brain, was said to have turned the current of his opinions, and made him a Conservative, as the horrors of Münster made More and Erasmus persecutors. Even Mr. Cobden echoed this cry. He admitted, however, a certain method in this madness. “Burke’s strictures on the Revolution,” he says, “began with criticism, grew into menace, and ended in a cry for war.” The story of his madness is stated in its most absurd form by Mr. Buckle. Burke lent support to this silly notion, by speaking of the decay of his powers in his last years, while he was preaching his crusade against the Republic with a force that seemed superhuman, and with a spirit that bordered on fanaticism. But it was reserved for Mr. Buckle to clothe this with the “dignity of history,” and to make lamentation over the “ruins of that mighty intellect.” It is sufficient in this place to say that the whole story is utterly without foundation. Burke’s intellect was never more firmly settled, never exerted more widely its magical influence, and never expressed itself in sager utterances, than in these last years. Let the student examine the “Letters on a Regicide Peace,” and he will find Burke’s folly wiser than the wisdom, and his madness saner than the reason, of his critics.
The term inconsistency may be used in different ways to imply charges of very various kinds. In the shifting circumstances[xi] of political life, the statesman is often forced into “inconsistent” positions. He often acts, in consequence, in ways which seem, and may really be, inconsistent. He reaches the climax of inconsistency by deliberately changing his opinions, and with them his course of policy. Such a change, accompanied by a frank avowal of the fact, and an exposition of his reasons, was that of a great modern statesman on the question of the Irish Church. But the inconsistency which lies in acting differently under different circumstances, with the same radical views, does not come under any of these heads. The physician may, one day, order the patient’s chamber window to be kept open, and the next, order it to be kept shut. But on the first day the wind was in the south-west, on the second day in the north-east. Of this nature was the inconsistency of Burke. He maintained to the last the perfect consistency of his political opinions. He valued himself upon it. “I believe,” he writes in the third person, “if he could venture to value himself upon anything, it is on the virtue of consistency that he would value himself the most. Strip him of this, and you leave him naked indeed.” In order to gain a first idea of the opinions to which Burke adhered so tenaciously, the student is advised to set out with the idea that Burke was always what would now be called a Conservative. Party distinctions are of so perishable a nature that unless we can fix on something belonging to our own times, and “coming home to our business and bosoms,” we are in danger of becoming the victims of words. We will not limit this term to the attitude or principles of the political party which is at this day in possession of it. By conservatism is meant that preference for and indulgence to what is already established, that faith in what has been tried, and that distrust of what exists only in speculation, which never wholly forsakes every sound politician, of whatever party. Passing from sentiment to logic, we might describe it, in the words of a German philosopher, as a system which holds the thinking away of what exists, and the thinking back in its place of what does not, to be the root of fallacies. Passing to practice, we use it to express briefly that policy in a commonwealth which, in the words of Hallam, “favours possession.” The word is attempted, for the nonce, to be changed from a counter into[xii] a coin. It indicates that memorable group of principles which are enforced in the Reflections on the French Revolution. In that work is contained, though not the first use of the idea, the first application in all its bearings of the doctrine of “conservation.” The principles of that work were eagerly adopted by the politicians of the restoration, and it was to these, and to their principles respectively, that the words conservateur and conservatif came to be first generally applied, about the years 1820–1830. Mr. Croker, in the Quarterly Review, is said to have first given the term an English application, and Canning, who drew so largely from the later statesmanship of Burke, seems to have fixed it in English parlance. Since it has become a party name, it has of course incurred the liability common to all party names of losing not only its original meaning, but all vestige of any meaning whatsoever. The vicissitudes of such names are curious. The term “Whig,” for instance, near the time of its first appearance, was interpreted by a lexicographer,homo fanaticus, factiosus.“Whiggism” he translated by enthusiasmus, perduellio. In the middle of the last century, however, “Whig” was a most honourable title, claimed by politicians of all parties. Supporters of the court, of the great families, and of the rights of the people, all boasted of it, much as contending sectaries might claim the honoured title of Christian. It was understood to imply exalted sentiments of constitutional liberty. When anything occurred in Parliament to offend these sentiments, men used to say, “it made all the Whig blood boil in their veins.” Whiggism seems now to be in its dotage, and to mean a spurious kind of Conservatism, which nobody is very eager to profess. The history of the term “Tory” is yet more curious. When it was introduced into our classical literature, the loyalty of a Tory was compared with the courtesy of a fasting bear.
Now the Whiggism of the last century was in nearly every respect more conservative than are the principles of any party which exists at present. Nearly all reforming measures proceeded from the Tories, and jealousy for the constitution was[xiii] the cardinal virtue of the Whigs. “As respects the practical questions then pending,” writes Macaulay, in his Essay on the Earl of Chatham, “the Tory was a reformer, and indeed an intemperate and indiscreet reformer, while the Whig was conservative even to bigotry.” The Whig was sneered at for maintaining a standing army to be the bulwark of liberty, septennial parliaments a protection against corruption, the electoral dominions an important accession to the wealth and strength of the country, and the public debt a blessing to the nation. The army, the national debt, and the septennial parliament were indeed important protections to the settlement of the crown made on the Revolution, and they gradually grew so firmly into the framework of the state that these sneers in time lost their place among the commonplaces of Toryism. As the Tories became reconciled to the Hanoverian succession, they took up a more practicable line. The influence enjoyed by Whig ministers was enormous. The first and second Georges were mere puppets in their hands. Within the limits of their court, these sovereigns were encouraged to do as they pleased, but they were never suffered to take part in the actual conduct of the state. Bolingbroke, in his celebrated “Patriot King,” had cleverly shown how this state of things might be reversed, and during the last twenty years of the reign of George II, the blow was being prepared which paralysed the Whig party for a whole generation, and from which they only recovered when they had identified themselves seriously and thoroughly with the interest of the mass of the nation. Frederick, Prince of Wales, had resolved to destroy the Whigs, and his plans were inherited by his son George III, with the commencement of whose reign Burke’s political career begins. If the old phalanx of Whigs had held together, they might have despised their assailants. But when Burke entered political life, the great Whig party, which included most of the great territorial families, had split into sections. What may be called the legitimate section of the party, that which had for several years been under the leadership of a member of the house of Pelham, had degenerated into a remnant, or as it was called in coarse old political English, a Rump. There was a section of “Bedfords,” headed by the Duke of Bedford, and another of “Grenvilles,” under Earl Temple. A fourth section, that which could have lent overwhelming weight to either of the others, and had from[xiv] 1757 to 1763 constituted the strength of the legitimate section, but which, standing by itself, was the weakest, was composed of the followers of the popular war minister, Lord Chatham. Such divisions were naturally the one thing needful to give effect to a policy of aggression on the part of the court. It was the first, which we have called the legitimate section of the party, then headed by the Marquis of Rockingham, into which Burke happened to be thrown. The sympathies of readers of the present day will probably be divided, as the sympathies of the mass of the people at the time were probably divided, between this party and that which lay under the influence of Chatham. Chatham, with the legitimate Whigs at his back, had been a brilliant, a popular, and a successful minister. But Chatham was no Whig at heart. His powerful influence was of a personal nature, and he despised Whiggism. The best men, by this system, were excluded from the highest offices. The chief arts which recommended to these were private deceit and public corruption. The whipper-in of an old premier, being an influential peer or near relative of an influential peer, had a right to expect the premiership in his turn. His business was to study the temper of the House of Commons, and to lead it by the nose; to cajole or intimidate the monarch, and to drain the Treasury to enrich his friends, supporters and parasites. It was not likely that under such a system statesmanship could rise to a very high level. Chatham became gradually weary of the supremacy of men whose title to power lay outside their personal capabilities. His own following was small; but he refused to coalesce with either of the parties, and, with childish vanity, never rested until he had constructed an administration in which he himself took the place of a Whig potentate by becoming a mere fainéant minister, whose name was necessary to enable government to proceed. It was a signal failure, and was probably the most miserable administration that England has ever seen. The consequences were disastrous. Chatham’s influence with his own cabinet speedily waned, and all that he had accomplished was to pave the way for a ministry in which the King’s will was supreme. The Whigs went over to it in bodies, America was lost, and England was brought to the verge of Revolution.
The principal historical thread which runs through the present volume is that of this contest between the King and the Whigs.[xv] The King fought his battle manfully, held each position, as it yielded to him, tenaciously, and gained his victory—though ingloriously. It would have been otherwise had America been compelled to submission. But America and Reform were the sacrifices made to secure his success. A dispassionate critic might possibly sympathise with him in this struggle for what many would regard as his natural rights. “There is something,” says Thackeray, “grand about his courage. . . . He bribed; he bullied; he darkly dissembled on occasion; he exercised a slippery perseverance, which one almost admires, as one thinks his character over. His courage was never to be beat. It trampled North under foot; it beat the stiff neck of the younger Pitt; even his illness never conquered that indomitable spirit.” It is impossible not to feel a certain satisfaction on seeing “the engineer hoist with his own petard,” and the poisoned chalice returned in its just circulation to the lips of those who mingled it. Corruption, in fact, was the only weapon with which to combat corruption. The King’s plan was to take the packed cards out of the hands of the Whigs, and play off their tricks upon themselves. The chief point for the student to observe is, that all his measures were innovations, attacks on existing interests, and reforms more or less impolitic and mischievous. The setting up of Lord Bute was intended as a reform. The whole system of the double cabinet, exposed in the “Present Discontents,” was intended to effect what Bute had failed in. The sham Chatham cabinet, however, was at bottom the boldest innovation, and if Townshend had carried out, as he probably would had he lived, the idea of parcelling out America into Royal Governments, the foundation would have been laid of a reform which, supposing a little less public spirit than actually existed among the upper classes, might have ended in reducing England to the model of contemporary continental governments. The taxation of America was the thin end of the wedge, and it was a happy thing for England and the world that it was so heroically resisted. The experiment of a ministry headed by a favourite was a conspicuous failure: but the succeeding administrations were an apprenticeship in kingcraft, and with Lord North as an instrument, the King appears, if not a finished master, at least as something better than a bungler. Like most monarchs by hereditary title, he was totally unfitted to direct the policy[xvi] of his country. He was wanting in that knowledge of the mass of social and political facts which forms the first requisite of the statesman, and in the philosopher’s familiarity with the general laws of human nature and of history. He was, however, a fair specimen of the active and popular monarch. Modelling himself, not on those who preceded him, but on the noblemen by whom he was surrounded, he devoted such talents as he had to the duties which he conceived to claim them, and he was rewarded by a full measure of popularity. The impression he left on the hearts of the nation, an index not without its value, comes nearer than any other we could mention to that left by the great Queen Elizabeth. Much of the policy of his reign was false, but historians have laid too much of the blame upon the King’s own shoulders. He was certainly not more ignorant or prejudiced than the bulk of his subjects. Where he erred, he erred with the nation. The reaction against the Whigs, which ended in their practical extinction, was a national reaction. The American War was favoured by pampered national pride, and its great failure was a national lesson.
The “Present Discontents” is chiefly interesting on account of the admirable method which it exhibits, the skilful alternation of the arguments, and the force and purity of the style. The topics of Whiggism in 1770 do not in themselves greatly stir the reader of history. Some of them were stale, others worn to rags. Years before the terrible spectre of a Double Cabinet arose to confound the Whigs and alarm the susceptibilities of a free nation, statesmen were pretty well agreed as to the meaning of Parliamentary independence. The whole nation, writes Pulteney to Swift, is so abandoned and corrupt, that the Crown can never fail of a majority in both Houses of Parliament. “I am convinced,” he says, “that our constitution is already gone; and we are idly struggling to maintain what in truth has been long lost.” The conclusion which he drew was to desist from an useless struggle against corruption. The precarious nature of the Whig domination, for which Burke contends as earnestly as for some elementary principle of morals, had long been known. Their fall, under changed circumstances, was imminent. Bolingbroke had found a plan for bringing it about, which he embodied in his famous tract “The Idea of a Patriot King”—a work important equally as a historical document, and as a model of style.[xvii] Chesterfield said that until he read that tract he did not know what the English language was capable of. The seed of the “Patriot King” was intended for the mind of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the King’s father, but it sprang up and bore its fruits in the son. It contains nothing specially of a Tory nature in its arguments, and is in fact a piece of the purest Whiggism. But it was an attack on existing interests in the guise of Reform; suggested an ideal Whiggism, purified from corruption and faction; and teemed with the common Whig claptrap of liberty and patriotism. The “Present Discontents,” which is intended as its refutation, has been considered the “text-book” of Whiggism, and Burke intended it to be the creed of his party. But the student must bear the “Patriot King” in mind, and be cautious of accepting the former as expounding the ultimate form which Whiggism was capable of assuming. Modern liberalism has a creed which differs widely from either. Bolingbroke had no hopes except from a liberal monarch. Burke rested his system upon an oligarchy of liberal noblemen and landowners. We can now, thanks to the diffusion of wealth and education, appeal securely to a liberal people.
How shall we reconcile all this with the reputation which Burke justly enjoys of being himself a great reformer, and the father of the present generation of reformers? The fact is, that liberalism has always rested upon the positions which it has won, and that the same man may often be fairly regarded in two aspects. Burke’s liberalism may seem moderate in quantity, but it had the merit of consistency. An early employment of his pen was to ridicule, by imitation, the Irish democrat Lucas. Another was to expose in a similar way the all-unsettling speculations of Bolingbroke. Indeed, the “Vindication of Natural Society” contains neither more nor less than the germs of the “Reflections on the French Revolution.” Very early in his career he declared in the House of Commons that being warned by the ill effect of a contrary procedure in great examples, he had taken his ideas of liberty very low; in order that they should stick to him, and that he might stick to them, to the end of his life. Johnson bore a remarkable testimony[xviii] to the nature of these early principles. He hated the party in which his friend had found himself by accident, and confirmed himself by consideration; and he charged Burke with selling himself, and acting contrarily to his convictions. “We know what his genuine principles were!” said this honest Tory, who had been one of Burke’s intimates long before he became the instrument of great men—“We are sure that he acts from interest!” But there were finer threads in reasoning than entered into the web of Dr. Johnson’s political philosophy. It is certain that Burke never thought he was deserting any principle of his own, in joining the Rockinghams. He had an old and most respectable connexion to support, and a new and disreputable one to oppose; and his party were at the time devoted to opposing certain most impolitic innovations. Burke’s conservatism was brought out to the full in fighting their battles.
Hazlitt has observed a remarkable anticipation of the political method of Burke in a speech of the Earl of Egmont, a nobleman of remarkable originality and capacity who had been the head of opposition to Dodington in the court of Leicester House. Without exalting him to the place of Burke’s master, we may agree with Hazlitt that the following passage contains the germ of Burke’s general reasoning on politics:
Sir, it is not common sense, but downright madness, to follow general principles in this wild manner, without limitation or reserve; and give me leave to say one thing, which I hope will be long remembered and well thought upon by those who hear me, that those gentlemen who plume themselves upon their open and extensive understanding, are in fact the men of the narrowest principles in the kingdom. For what is a narrow mind? it is a mind that sees any proposition in one single contracted point of view, unable to complicate any subject with the circumstances and considerations that are, or may, or ought to be, combined with it. And pray, what is that understanding that looks upon naturalization only in this general view, that naturalization is an increase of the people, and an increase of the people is the riches of the nation? Never admitting the least reflection, what the people are you let in upon us; how in the present bad regulation[xix] of our police, they are to be employed or maintained; how their principles, opinions, or practice may influence the religion or politicks of the State, or what operation their admission may have upon the peace and tranquillity of the country; is not such a genius equally contemptible and narrow with that of the poorest mortal upon earth, who grovels for his whole life within the verge of the opposite extreme?
“In this speech,” says Hazlitt, “we find the first denunciation of the intrusion of abstract theorems and metaphysical generalities into the science of politics.” It is certain, however, that something very like it is to be found in the “Politics” of Aristotle. It is not difficult to trace this anti-theoretical and conservative method in the works before us, written whilst Burke was labouring on the Whig side. In the following volume, containing the “Reflections on the French Revolution,” it will be found to be the burden of every page.
We have already remarked that the system denounced in the “Present Discontents,” and the aggressions on America, were intended as Reforms. Never did the spirit of conservatism appear more plainly than in the two famous Speeches contained in the present volume, which he composed, delivered, and wrote out for the press on two important occasions in the debates before the war actually broke out. But it is plain enough in the “Present Discontents.” Many historical allusions are introduced, all bearing on unsalutary innovation, and “alterations to the prejudice of our constitution.” It is not easy to say what may have been Burke’s real opinion on the constitution as exhibited at the time when this pamphlet was written. Bentham’s memorable “Fragment on Government” was as yet unwritten, though probably not unmeditated. The view of Montesquieu, Blackstone, and De Lolme was not yet treated, as it came to be treated in the succeeding generation, as a plausible romance. But the false picture of a supposed Saxon constitution was constantly held up to view by reformers, in contrast with that which subsisted. This picture Burke treated with the slight regard it deserved. Yet we find in the pamphlet no indication of a jealous attachment on his part to the forms of the “control” which “the higher people and the lower” are jointly to exercise. On the contrary, the House of Peers is treated as a form of popular representation: “the people[xx] by their representatives and grandees.” The “great peers” are included in a mass with the “leading landed gentlemen, the opulent merchants, and the substantial yeomanry,” as the natural strength of the kingdom, which is to be roused into exertion against the court faction. The climax of this popular theory is reached at p. 118, where he maintains King and Lords to be representatives of and trustees for the people, as well as the Commons, and the whole scheme of government to “originate with the People.” This seems like the Whig doctrine of the Revolution with deductions. But these are themselves historical. It is well known that every title in the House of Lords was anciently, if not elective, intended to represent local interests. The Lords represented themselves, and those who stood in the relation of homage to them. The Knights of the Shires and Burgesses represented themselves, and those freemen who, being in homage with no man, would otherwise have had no voice in the national deliberations. When Edward III demanded an aid in the fourteenth year of his reign, an answer was made by “the Prelates, Earls, and Barons, for themselves and for all their tenants, and the Knights of the Shires, for themselves and for the Commons of the land.” Similarly, Burke’s theory of the constitution is in its real elements simply the King and the People. The People deliberating and making laws, and the King controlling by his negative; the King deliberating and making choice of ministers, and the People having the control of their negative by refusing to support them. In all this there is a remarkable likeness to Harrington’s views on the proper place of a nobility and gentry in a popular government, and of the resolution of politics into “dividing and choosing,” like the two girls with the apple. There is also a remarkable tendency to transcend all narrow views as to “fixed forms in a mixed government.” There is no sign whatever of a disposition to regard King, Lords, and Commons as making up a precious and complete mosaic, preserved by a magical balance, which it would be perilous to disturb, much less to regard any fixed forms as the normal and final state of man.
It is here that Burke’s conservatism enters into the question. Here, he says in effect, I lay before you the established rights of the nation; and here, too, is the system by which these rights have always been carried into effect. That system has been[xxi] deranged by an interested and wicked faction, and we claim to have it restored; because it is not only the best possible, but the only possible system by which these rights can be secured. If it were answered that representation, as it then existed, was a miserable farce, and that the peers really governed the country by their control of elections, Burke’s answer was that the system, if not theoretically perfect, was good in working, and had acquired its title by prescription. Possession, he said in one of his writings, passed with him for title. This was in a particular case; but where interests were large, and meddling with them would be hazardous, it became his general maxim. “The old building stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then indeed it may come down upon our heads, all together, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the fall thereof” (1769). “No man examines into the defects of his title to his paternal estate, or to his established government” (1777). The Whig oligarchy, according to this convenient theory, had an established title to govern the kingdom. And rotten and incongruous as was the parliamentary system through which alone their influence could be maintained, none was to disturb it. Hence a conspicuous difference between the theory and the practice contemplated in Burke’s pamphlet. A Ministry accountable to Parliament, and a Parliament accountable to the People, are plausible demands, and they are demands which a happier generation has realised. But the consequences of a considerable majority for a single Whig minister, as in the palmy days of Walpole, were a ministry accountable to no one, and a parliament forced on the people whether they liked it or no. A true family likeness subsisted between Whiggism and the domination of the King’s friends, and hence the deadly struggle which ensued between them. Radical reform, as between the two, was as far off as ever, and the Whig opposed it with the most bitterness. The King’s man had something to hope, under any circumstances, for his master’s influence was permanent and indefinite. A slight concussion might destroy that of his rival, and hence the strongholds of Whiggism were guarded with great jealousy and vigilance. The Whig, in short, was a true Conservative.
The cry for radical reform is usually supported by some plausible[xxii] general maxim. Conservatism is averse from the employment of abstract principles in political reasoning, and in general to what metaphysicians call the philosophical method. “Das Christenthum ist keine Philosophie,” wrote a metaphysical theologian, at the end of his wearisome efforts to square religion with abstract principles. “Die Politik ist keine Philosophie,” is the summary of Burke. It is a matter of observation and of practice, and its laws are those of individual human nature enlarged. Abstract principles, like most things, have their use and their abuse: and the confusion of these has been a main difficulty to the thinking world. To the use of them we owe all our systems, and the effect of our systems, of religion, of law, and of education. All great changes for the better have been produced by engrafting upon the growing understanding of mankind, not bare statements of facts, but generalisations based on facts past and present, and proceeding transitively to other facts present and future. But while these principles in their use have been to civilisation as the dew and the rain, in their abuse they have been a mildew and a pestilence. What they have nourished they have the power to corrupt and to destroy. As an instance of an abstract principle often misapplied, let us take that which asserts the cheapest government to be the best. Burke, though he knew something of Economical Reform, was not of opinion that the statesman’s business consisted mainly in reducing the expenses of government to a minimum. The way in which this question stood in his mind connected with others is lucidly explained by Hazlitt, in the following extract, which will furnish a clue to an important section of Burke’s political theory:
He did not agree with some writers, that that mode of government is necessarily the best which is the cheapest. He saw in the construction of society other principles at work, and other capabilities of fulfilling the desires and perfecting the nature of man, besides those of securing the equal enjoyment of the means of animal life, and doing this at as little expense as possible. He thought that the wants and happiness of man were not to be provided for as we provide for those of a herd of cattle, merely by attending to their physical necessities. He thought more nobly of his fellows. He knew that man had his affections, and passions, and powers of imagination, as well as hunger and thirst, and the sense of heat and cold. He took his idea of political society from the pattern of private life, wishing, as he himself[xxiii] expresses it, to incorporate the domestic charities with the orders of the state, and to blend them together. He strove to establish an analogy between the compact that binds together the community at large, and that which binds together the several families which compose it. He knew that the rules that form the basis of private morality are not founded in reason; that is, in the abstract properties of those things which are the subjects of them, but in the nature of man, and his capacity of being affected by certain things from habit, from imagination, and sentiment, as well as from reason. Thus, the reason why a man ought to be attached to his wife and family is not, surely, that they are better than others (for in this case every one else ought to be of the same opinion), but because he must be chiefly interested in those things which are nearest to him, and with which he is best acquainted, since his understanding cannot reach equally to everything; because he must be most attached to those objects which he has known the longest, and which by their situation have actually affected him the most, not those which are in themselves the most affecting, whether they have ever made any impression on him or no: that is, because he is by his nature the creature of habit and feeling, and because it is reasonable that he should act in conformity to his nature. He was therefore right in saying, that it is no objection to an institution, that it is founded on prejudice, but the contrary, if that principle is natural and right: that is, if it arises from those circumstances which are properly subjects of feeling and association, not from any defect or perversion of the understanding in those things which fall properly under its jurisdiction. On this profound maxim he took his stand. Thus he contended that the prejudice in favour of nobility was natural and proper, and fit to be encouraged by the positive institutions of society, not on account of the real or personal merit of the individual, but because such an institution has a tendency to enlarge and raise the mind, to keep alive the memory of past greatness, to connect the different ages of the world together, to carry back the imagination over a long tract of time, and feed it with the contemplation of remote events: because it is natural to think highly of that which inspires us with high thoughts, which has been connected for many generations with splendour, with power, and with permanence. He also conceived that by transferring the respect from the person to the thing, and thus rendering it steady and permanent, the mind would be habitually formed to habits of deference, attachment, and fealty, to whatever else demanded its respect: that it would be led to fix its views on what was elevated and lofty, and be weaned from the low and narrow jealousy which never willingly or heartily admits of[xxiv] any superiority in others, and is glad of any opportunity to bring down all excellence to a level with its own miserable standard. Nobility did not therefore exist to the prejudice of the other orders of the state, but by and for them. The inequality of the different orders of society did not destroy the unity and harmony of the whole. The health and well-being of the moral world was to be promoted by the same means as the beauty of the natural world; by contrast, by change, by light and shade, by variety of parts, by order and proportion. To think of reducing all mankind to the same insipid level, seemed to him the same absurdity as to destroy the inequalities of surface in a country for the benefit of agriculture and commerce. In short, he believed that the interests of men in society should be consulted, and their several stations and employments assigned with a view of their nature not as physical, but as moral beings, so as to nourish their hopes, to lift their imagination, to enliven their fancy, to rouse their activity, to strengthen their virtue, and to furnish the greatest number of objects of pursuit and means of employment, to beings constituted as man is, consistently with the order and stability of the whole.
The same reasoning might be extended further. I do not say that his arguments are conclusive: but they are profound and true as far as they go. There may be disadvantages and abuses necessarily interwoven with his scheme, or opposite advantages of infinitely more value, to be derived from another state of things and state of society. This, however, does not invalidate either the truth or importance of Burke’s reasoning; since the advantages he points out as connected with the mixed form of government are really and necessarily inherent in it; since they are compatible in the same degree with no other; since the principle itself on which he rests his argument (whatever we may think of the application), is of the utmost weight and moment; and since on whatever side the truth lies, it is impossible to make a fair decision without having the opposite side of the question fully stated to us. This Burke has done in a masterly manner. He presents to you one view or face of society. Let him who thinks he can, give the reverse side with equal force, beauty, and clearness. It is said, I know, that truth is one; but to this I cannot subscribe, for it appears to me truth is many. There are as many truths as there are things, and causes of action, and contradictory principles, at work in society. In making up the account of good and evil, indeed, the final result must be one way or the other; but the particulars on which that result depends are infinite and various.
[xxv]The discovery of these things, these causes of action, these contradictory principles, is the first business of the statesman. No man can speculate properly on what things ought to be, who has not previously devoted his whole energies to the discovery of what they are. No man is entitled to criticise the abuse, who has not fully mastered the idea of the use of an institution. Here, indeed, we have arrived at the main point in Burke. Just as, in his Treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful, he did not aim at shewing the defects of these venerable ideas, or that people often judged by a false standard, but that the traditional ideas of the mass of mankind are sure, in the long run, to be correct, and to be confirmed by being explained and elucidated, so in dealing with social and political ideas, he always took his stand upon those in general currency, and sought to explain and confirm them. The best instructor is not he who describes the excellences of some wonderful thing which we cannot get, but he who explains and shows us how to use or to improve something which we have got. It is easy to imagine other states of society, but it is difficult to learn the true bearings of our own. The sense of political objects does not come by nature. A partial view, in politics, distorts the judgment, and destroys the mental balance; in no science is it so true that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Burke will always stand forth as a man whose political knowledge was complete. He was therefore, though a reformer, incapable of rash and inconsiderate action. The man who has arrived at a view of the whole plan of civil society, and taken in the mutual relations and dependencies of distant parts, is not in danger of being consumed by an irrational zeal for or against any established element in that society. “Sanguine and inconsiderate projects of reformation,” says Dugald Stewart, “are frequently the offspring of clear, and argumentative, and systematical understandings; but rarely of comprehensive minds. For checking them, nothing is so effectual as a general survey of the complicated structure of society.” It is only to him who has attained this point, that everything fills its proper space, and no more, in the mind’s eye. It is only then that a man gains what Burke calls that “elevation of reason, which brings things to the true point of comparison.” To the Englishman who wishes to gain this elevation, Burke will prove of valuable assistance. Burke will help him at once to comprehend the[xxvi] plan of his national polity, and the materials with which it deals. A German philosopher thought that the vast combination of interests which constituted the British Empire demanded a whole lifetime to be adequately understood. He recommended the learner to study the writings of Burke, in which this combination would be found concentrated and reflected, as in a mirror. The reader may be sure that he is following the track of a vigorous, acute, comprehensive intelligence; unsparing of fatigue, intent on and always arriving at some valuable result. It is this quality of solid bullion value which makes it impossible to distil Burke. Of the intellectual labour which prepared the way for this unlimited mastery over fact—which annihilates all obstacles between the group of facts and the intellect—it is not the place here to speak. It was commenced early, and carried on without intermission to the end. Once, in the vigour of his manhood, his constitution sank under his labours. It was with a just indignation that he said in defence of his pension, “I did not come into Parliament to con my lesson. I had earned my pension before I set my foot in St. Stephen’s Chapel.” These labours have made the works of Burke not only what Erskine termed them, “an immense magazine of moral and political wisdom,” but an immense magazine of moral and political fact. They will be to future ages what the works of Cicero are to us—we can reconstruct from them alone, with certainty and ease, the social and political scene in which their author lived.
Burke knew very well that nothing could stand long which did not stand on its merits. He led the way in Reform while raising his voice against innovation. The spirit of Conservatism and the spirit of Reform are really the necessary complements of each other. No statesman ever pretends to separate them. “A state without the means of some change,” Burke wrote, “is without the means of its conservation.” He was fond of tracing the operation of “the two principles of correction and conservation” at different periods in English history. The way in which these two principles are blended in Burke’s system, has been pointed out in a pamphlet by Professor Opzoomer. The student, however,[xxvii] will probably prefer to seek Burke’s doctrines of Reform, like those of Conservatism, in his own writings. Nowhere else, except in the Politics of Aristotle, shall we find these two principles so well harmonised. With Aristotle, he thinks the spirit of Conservatism the first requisite of the statesman, and its general diffusion the first condition of a well-ordered state. With Aristotle, he allows the fullest share of importance to the reform of existing institutions. In the older politician, indeed, we find a greater tendency, owing to the excessively analytical bent of the Greek mind, to regard the two principles as opposites; and the same distinction may be observed in the treatment of contrary elements in his moral philosophy. Burke traced the concurrent effect of these two principles everywhere; and he delighted to regard them in their concrete elements, as well as in the abstract form. He writes, for instance, of Parliaments:
Nothing is more beautiful in the theory of Parliaments, than that principle of renovation and union of permanence and change, that are happily mixed in their constitution: that in all our changes we are never wholly old or wholly new: that there are enough of the old to preserve unbroken the traditionary chain of the maxims and policy of our ancestors, and the law and custom of parliament; and enough of the new to invigorate us, and bring us to our true character, by being taken from the mass of the people: and the whole, though mostly composed of the old members, have, notwithstanding, a new character, and may have the advantage of change without the imputation of inconstancy.
It was chiefly in connexion with Irish and Indian questions, and on the economy of the Royal revenue, that his exertions in the cause of Reform were made. Burke had also his views of Parliamentary Reform; but his observations on the temper and tendencies of the age inclined him to postpone indefinitely all practical dealing with the question. The knowledge we possess of the times, and the history of the great battle in the succeeding generation, when the position of the Reformers was much strengthened, induces us to think that he was right. It may also be observed that there is in Burke a bona fide[xxviii] dealing with the question, which is wholly wanting in some later opponents of Parliamentary Reform, and notably in Canning.
In the beginning of the Speech on the East India Bill four canons of reform are laid down. They are indeed immediately applicable to a particular case, but they are substantially those which he applies generally. There must be abuses, he says, in all governments. But there are great abuses and small abuses. Small abuses ought indeed to be reformed, if possible, but if impossible, difficult, or dangerous to be reformed, they may be left alone. Great abuses stand on a different footing; and these are the conditions on which we are justified in violating standing rights (for this is the real point in all Reform) with a view to their correction: “1st. The object affected by the abuse should be great and important: 2nd. The abuse affecting this great object ought to be a great abuse: 3rd. It ought to be habitual, and not accidental: 4th. It ought to be utterly incurable in the body as it now stands constituted.”“All this,” Burke proceeds, “ought to be made as visible to me as the light of the sun, before I should strike off an atom of their charter.” Conservative as he was, this alone would clearly entitle him to be considered the forerunner of the modern Reformers. In one of his latest works he proudly declared that it had been the business of his strength to reform abuses in government; and he classed his last efforts against the French Republic under the same head. His book on the Revolution, he said, spared no existing abuse. “Its very purpose is to make war with abuses; not indeed to make war with the dead, but with those which live, and flourish, and reign.”
Very widely removed from this harmonious contrast of Conservatism and Reform, stands a darker and less reconcileable antithesis. In the Introduction to the succeeding volume it will be our business to follow the footsteps of Burke around the “Serbonian bog” of certain speculations, which were supposed to be at the bottom of the vast convulsion of France which commenced in 1789 and continues unfinished to this day. With that convulsion those speculations had little enough to do. Revolutions are never produced by opinions, but by political facts, such as actual badness of government, or oppression of one class by another. The wildest political opinions usually thrive best under[xxix] the strongest governments. Burke in his earlier years had traced the germs of Rousseau’s ideas in the writings of Bolingbroke, and exposed their tendency in his “Vindication of Natural Society.” Such ideas are not fraught with great danger, for they take fast hold only of crooked or ill-educated minds, and they rarely take so original a form as to rise to the level of an intellectual curiosity. Minds, however, once imbued with them do not soon relinquish them. It is the slow pressure of facts which imperceptibly modifies them. Fact is the best teacher in political science, and every man who has actually touched the political facts which surround him will recognise the soundness of the following emphatic words, addressed to the general public by one of the most memorable Reformers of our times. “The necessity,” says Lord Brougham, “of some considerable degree of restraint to the well-being of society—the impossibility of the supreme power being left in the hands of the whole people—the fatal effects of disregarding the right of property, the great corner-stone of all civil society—the interest which all classes, down to the humblest, have in the protection afforded by law to the accumulation of capital—the evils of resistance to established government, except in extreme, and therefore very rare cases—the particular interest which the whole people, low as well as high, must ever have in general obedience to the supreme power in the state—the almost uniform necessity of making all changes, even the most salutary, in any established institution, gradually and temperately—all these are the very first lessons which every political teacher must inculcate if he be fit for his office, and commonly honest.” Unequal distribution of power seems to be necessary for all government, and unequal distribution of property essential to its very existence. “Too much and too little,” says Burke, “are treason against property.” When a man pretends to invent a form of society in which there shall be no superior power, no property, and no religion to give effect to moral obligations, we know him at once to be a presumptuous sophist. As Siéyès said of Rousseau, “Croyant remonter aux principes, il s’arrête aux commencements.”
Burke was no democrat; but he thought that under certain circumstances a pure democracy might be a necessary and desirable form of government. This was consonant to the old[xxx] Whiggism; but it was going further than Cicero, who denies to democracy the very name of Republic. Burke’s objections to it under ordinary circumstances are most clearly stated in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs; the chief one being that the very frame of a democracy excludes all restraints upon the depraved ambition which its spirit fosters. He was no friend to aristocracy properly so called; which in these pages he stigmatises as “an austere and insolent domination.” Monarchy Burke preferred upon principle, and he naturally preferred the limited monarchy of England, which general opinion then held up to the envy of Europe. Montesquieu had recently given an impetus to the study of politics by a work in which the English constitution received a full measure of praise, and which Burke had studied with much care. There are many works which, after being exceedingly useful to mankind in their day, appear after a certain time to lose their importance, and such has been in a remarkable degree the fate of the “Esprit des Lois.” But it has been justly remarked, that it is chiefly to that work itself that we owe its present comparative uselessness. It was foolish to force a work of so miscellaneous a nature into any semblance of system. But this mass of ill-authenticated facts, of opinions derived from ignorant antiquity, of the theories of a modern recluse—this imperfect cyclopaedia of a science which can never be perfectly understood, is also rich with sound reflection, and brilliant with true philosophical genius. It is best known to the present generation by the caricature of Macaulay, contained in an essay written when he was fresh from college, and which his maturer judgment must have almost wholly disapproved. Sir James Mackintosh thought highly of it, while Burke made use of its materials, and was decidedly influenced by its spirit.
There is much in the mode of thinking of Montesquieu that reminds us of Burke. There is a similar power of approximating to truth by a rapid and exact glance at the object, and a similar determination always to keep his theory, as Mackintosh expresses it, “in the immediate neighbourhood of practice.” With Burke, Montesquieu thought that wisdom was often shown in leaving an evil uncorrected; that the evil of change might be greater than[xxxi] the evil of sufferance; that conjunctures must be awaited, and can rarely or never be forced on; that political genius consisted in a great measure in knowing where uniformity was necessary, and where inequalities might be tolerated; that there was a difference between legislation and government, between parsimony and economy, between taxation and revenue. He did not think much of the inherent wisdom of the masses. He thought the people always had either too much or too little action. “Quelquefois avec cent mille bras il renverse tout; quelquefois avec cent mille pieds il ne va que comme les insectes.” He had equally small faith in appeals to the reason of mankind in the mass. He more than eulogised the English constitution; and said with equal wit and truth of Harrington, what might be said of all who plan new forms of government without understanding the excellences of the old, that he had built Chalcedon when he had the shore of Byzantium before his eyes. He has been accused, like Burke, of degenerating into a solemn and mysterious enunciation of truisms. But there are some truths which are considered unimportant, because they are undisputed; so true that they may be safely neglected, or even tossed into the limbo of the most exploded errors. When they are brought to light, they are called truisms. Such truisms neither Montesquieu nor Burke disdained.
The political essays of Hume exhibit an order of mind equally rare with that of Burke. Both had derived their stimulus in different ways from the restless intellect of Bolingbroke. But Hume’s metaphysical studies, which had produced his marvellous power of contracting the mental eye to the subtleties of abstraction, had weakened the power of dilating it so as to take in the wide and complicated relations of fact. Hume, in dealing with contemporary topics, was an acute observer, but a bad reasoner: his mind played idly, and, as it were, in patches, on the surface of things which the less exquisite intellect of Burke penetrated in their depths and illuminated in their entirety. Burke stands apart from the metaphysical politics of Sidney and Locke, from whom the Whig writers of the early part of the century, and notably Hoadly and Tindal, had derived their tone, though he is occasionally indebted to them for an idea. He was familiar with Swift; but no trace is to be found in Swift’s writings of the large way of thinking which[xxxii] pervades Burke’s. The former is almost as remarkable for his reluctance to commit himself to broad and general views, as the latter for his eagerness to fortify his particular case by appealing to them. Swift indeed usually reasoned by a chain of minute particulars, and made his arguments turn in some form on personalities, which Burke, as far as was possible, avoided. Swift laboured, says Jeffrey, “not to point out the wrongs of Ireland, in the depression of her Catholic population, her want of education, or the discouragement of her industry; but to raise an outcry against an amendment of the copper or the gold coin, or against a parliamentary proposition for remitting the tithe of agistment.” Burke, like Demosthenes, preferred to treat a variety of topics in such a way as to bear with irresistible force on a single argument. Gordon, the English Machiavelli, supplied him with some hints; and from Bolingbroke he learned a philosophical mode of treatment, and an easy and powerful style. The “Vindication of Natural Society” is a singular proof that genius is, if not the child, at least the foster-child of imitation. But though Burke was never ashamed of borrowing a good idea, the sum of his obligations to the strictly political writers of this or any other country is small. He had the run of a wider field. The literature of England is remarkable for the extent in which it is pervaded by political ideas. Poets, divines, dramatists, and historians, alike illustrate the leading tendency of the English mind. In the two former of these classes Burke had an especial interest. Hooker and South, Milton and Dryden, were often to him a real fount of inspiration. His philosophical mind readily discerned any analogy which was convertible to his own purpose, and this faculty in him was rarely misused. Burke knew general English literature well; and he turned all his knowledge to such account that next to facts and reasonings upon facts, it became his chief resource. Burke moreover, like Cicero, had received the training, not of a politician, but of a man of letters. When Cicero first appeared in the character of a statesman, politicians used contemptuously to call him “the Greek,” and “the Scholar.” Every one of Burke’s productions exhibits a mind thoroughly tinctured with scholarship, in the widest sense of the word, and perfected in it by continuous practice. His scholarship is of the Roman rather than the Greek model. Cicero, Livy, and Tacitus were familiarised to[xxxiii] him by sympathy with their subject-matter. He was equally acquainted with the poets, and was often indebted to them for an illustration.
The general resemblance which may certainly be traced between the style (though not the method) of Burke and that of Cicero, is due rather to similarity of circumstances than to intentional imitation. There is an amusing passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which contains the opinion of the great critic on this point in 1773. Being asked what was the particular excellence of Burke’s eloquence, Johnson says, “Copiousness and fertility of allusion; a power of diversifying his matter by placing it in new relations. Burke has great information, and great command of language; though in my opinion it has not in every respect the highest elegance.”Boswell:“Do you think, Sir, that Burke has read Cicero much?”Johnson:“I don’t believe it, Sir. Burke has great knowledge, great fluency of words, and great promptness of ideas; so that he can speak with great illustration on any subject that comes before him. He is neither like Cicero, nor like Demosthenes, nor like any one else, but speaks as well as he can.” What Johnson indicated by this deficiency in the highest elegance was the familiarity of Burke’s style. In his own writings he rarely lost a certain formal and academical air, which does not disappear altogether in his conversations. Even in the delightful writings of Goldsmith there is a constant savour of the press. Burke’s political writings, on the other hand, have always the air of a spoken appeal from man to man. He is always forcible and earnest, but, in spite of the compass of his thought and the prodigality of his illustrations, the absence of self-consciousness is as remarkable as in the writings of Hooker and Taylor. As is usual in the case of men of good feeling, strong conviction, and high principles, there is no sense of labour or display in anything that he writes, and in this respect he even contrasts advantageously with such comparatively unambitious writers as Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, and Swift.
Changes have been traced in the progress of Burke’s style, but they are not worth considering. A remarkable identity connects his earliest and his latest works, but the greater diffuseness of the latter is attributable, of course, to the habit of public speaking.[xxxiv] Burke’s eloquence introduced a new model into Parliament. The conventional style of speaking in the middle of the last century may be best described in the words of Lord Hervey, who thus characterises the speaking of Lord Lyttelton, whose speech on the Jew Bill was considered a model of oratory: “He had a great flow of words, that were uttered in a lulling monotony, and the little meaning they had to boast of was generally borrowed from commonplace maxims of moralists, philosophers, patriots, and poets, crudely imbibed, half digested, ill put together, and confusedly refunded.” Walpole describes this nobleman as “talking heroics through his nose, with the gesticulations of a puppet.” Nothing can be more removed from this mixture of commonplace and falsetto, than the candour and profundity which mark the manner of Burke. He expressed his ideas with all the grandeur in which they were conceived; but the expression was always natural, and occasionally agreeably relieved by familiarity. It approaches to that manner of “good conversation” which he himself attributes, as a high excellence, to Cicero. Burke reprehended any attempt to separate the English which is written from the English which is spoken. Plautus and Terence, and the “beautiful fragments of Publius Syrus,” he considered to be models of good speaking and writing. He often casts to the winds all literary formality, and writes just as he may have spoken in public or private, freely and unrestrainedly. In this way Burke gave a lasting stimulus to English prose literature, as Wordsworth soon afterwards gave a stimulus to poetry, by the introduction of a fresher and more natural diction. His writings have ever since been the model of all who wish to say anything forcibly, naturally, freely, and in a comparatively small space. The common-sense politician recognises him as his master, and modern satire is indebted to him for originating the “Saturday Review” style. He fell naturally into that manner which was best adapted to take and to keep hold of the[xxxv] practical English mind, and he brought that manner at once to its perfection.
The chief art of the speaker and writer consists in giving every part of his work its due degree of force, and its proper shade of colour. This is remarkably exemplified in the products of the pen of Burke. “His words,” says Hazlitt, “are the most like things: his style is the most strictly suited to the subject. He unites every extreme and every variety of composition: the lowest and the meanest words and descriptions with the highest.” This is strictly true. Shakspere is no less conspicuously equal to himself whether drawing his greatest or his least characters, than Burke, on the occasion of the impeachment of Hastings, now preparing the highest flights of his rhetoric, and now employed upon the humble task of the legal draftsman. His addresses to the King and to the American Colonists should be noticed as specimens of the most difficult of all eloquence, that which produces its effect by extreme gravity and simplicity, avoiding all rhetorical ornament. There is a passage in the former which Lord Grenville thought the finest that Burke ever wrote—perhaps the finest in the English language—beginning, “What, gracious Sovereign, is the empire of America to us, or the empire of the world, if we lose our own liberties?” which was evidently suggested by the passage in St. Matthew, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” In the sections of his works in which this grave simplicity is most prominent, Burke frequently employed the impressive phrases of the Holy Scriptures, affording a signal illustration of the truth, that he neglects the most valuable repository of rhetoric in the English language who has[xxxvi] not well studied the English Bible. Refined tastes prefer the simpler parts of Burke’s works to the more ornate. Sir Samuel Romilly considered the best of his speeches, and indeed the best piece of oratory in the language, to be that “at Bristol previous to the Election,” which he contrasted with that on American Taxation, much to the disadvantage of the latter. The comparison is unjust. The latter, though premeditated in some of its parts, was delivered in haste, in the heat of a debate; the former was a skilful and elaborate address, carefully prepared, embracing a wide field of subjects, and intended as a lasting vindication of his policy. The Speech on Conciliation, however, which has generally been the most admired, both by contemporaries and posterity, is almost faultless. “It unites,” says Sir James Mackintosh, “the careful correctness of his first manner to the splendour of his second.” It may be added, that it is a masterpiece of method; of what Goldsmith called Burke’s way of “winding into his subject, like a serpent.”
Of the characteristics of Burke’s higher flights of rhetoric, it is difficult to say anything of value. Hazlitt confesses himself in despair at the task of analysing the style. “Its severe extravagance; its literal boldness; its matter-of-fact hyperboles; its running away with a subject, and from it, at the same time—but there is no making it out, for there is no example of the same thing anywhere else. We have no common measure to refer to; and his qualities contradict even themselves.” There is indeed something about the best rhetoric which baffles the analysis of the critic, as life evades the scalpel of the anatomist. And in Burke’s profuse employment of imagery to extend and amplify the thought—never merely echoing or repeating it—it is true that incongruity sometimes made its appearance. Sometimes, again, the brilliancy is overwrought, and instead of enforcing and illustrating the leading idea, draws off the attention to its picturesque accompaniment. But Burke’s mind was by nature generative and progressive. “Some collateral adjunct of the main proposition,” says De Quincey, “some temperament or restraint, some oblique glance at its remote affinities, will invariably be found to attend the progress of his sentences, like the spray from a waterfall, or the scintillations from the iron under the blacksmith’s hammer.” It is less wonderful that a few errors of taste or[xxxvii] method should find their way into such a train of ideas, than that these errors should be so few and so insignificant. It is hazardous to approach this fiery element too nearly. “Rhetoric,” says Selden, “is very good, or stark naught: there’s no medium in Rhetoric.” These higher beauties will be imitated at the student’s peril. In the manner of them, as in that of Pindar, there is no harbour for mediocrity: you must either succeed or fail. And the continual study of the finest passages is not to be recommended. “If dwelt on exclusively as models of style,” says Dr. Goodrich, “they are sure to vitiate the taste. It is like taking all our nutriment from highly seasoned food and stimulating drinks.”
The favourite epithet of Shakspere is “sweet”; that of Milton, “bright”; that of Taylor, “eternal.” That of Burke takes several forms, the chief being “great,”“noble,”“manly,” and “liberal.” Such epithets afford an index to the tendency of the works in which they abound. Taylor bears the thought of his reader in an irresistible current from the things of time to the things of eternity. Shakspere, above all things, refines the taste: Milton quickens and exalts the imagination. The peculiar effect of Burke is to enlarge, strengthen, liberalise, and ennoble the understanding. In following the train of his arguments, even in their minor particulars, he must be a wise man indeed who does not constantly perceive lights that never fell on him before. He must be an extraordinary man, and have laboured in an unusual degree in the study of the interests of Britain, who does not find his power of methodically comprehending those interests assisted and expanded by the perusal of every one of Burke’s political works, from the “Present State of the Nation” of 1769, to the posthumous Third Letter on the Regicide Peace. In the latter work Burke has been compared to an Atlas; not labouring, but sporting with the burden of a world on his shoulders. This Letter has been held to exceed in intellectual magnitude all other single efforts of the human brain. Compared to that astounding work, said a man fresh from perusing it, the most famous effusions of ancient and modern eloquence sink into child’s play.
[xxxviii]In his manner of working Burke was unlike Sydney Smith, who composed slowly, and seldom corrected what he wrote. Charles Butler tells us that he never sent a manuscript to the press which he had not so often altered that every page was almost a blot, and never received from the press a first proof which he did not almost equally alter. Often the printers never attempted to correct his proofs, finding it less trouble to take the whole matter to pieces and begin afresh. Most writers have constantly beside them as a model some favourite classical author. Voltaire’s model for prose was the “Petit Carême” of Massillon: for poetry, Racine. Burke, according to Butler, always had a “ragged Delphin Virgil” not far from his elbow. Milton, Pope, and Dryden were quite as familiar to him. He is said to have known Young’s Night Thoughts by heart; but, if this is true, it is somewhat strange that not a single quotation from that author is to be found in all his writings. In his illustrations, no less than in the body of his work, he is remarkable for an exquisite instinct of selection; which is the polar opposite of what is often called, by a false application of a mathematical term, exhaustiveness—formerly much practised by the Germans, and consisting, to use the phrase of Goldsmith, in a certain manner of “writing the subject to the dregs”; saying all that can be said on a given subject, without considering how far it is to the purpose; and valuing facts because they are true, rather than because they are significant. Burke also excels in the selection of words and epithets, in which he was assisted by his knowledge of the writers of Queen Anne’s period; but he did not aim at the perfection attained in the most carefully elaborated works of Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke, like Pope in verse, loved to assemble specimens of the finer lights and shades of words. “He can bribe, but he cannot seduce; he can buy, but he cannot gain; he can lie, but he cannot deceive.” Burke, though not incurious of such effects, never stops in his course to seek for them. It was rather his practice to bring out the hidden force of common words and phrases, in such a way as to give dignity even to vulgarisms. This habit was early acquired. A passage in one of his earliest works (The “Sublime and Beautiful”), beginning, “In the morning of our days, when[xxxix] the senses are unworn and tender,”&c., is as worthy of note in this respect, as any of the most brilliant passages of his latest writings. Indeed the remarkable unity of Burke’s writings is produced, as much as by anything, by the ever fresh, natural, energetic air of his diction. He never appears to go out of his way for beauties, and yet his work is full of them. The study of law-books and state papers never blunted his keen sense of literary beauty and propriety, nor was the necessity of grappling with a definite mass of dry facts enough to defeat its habitual operation. Everything that he wrote charms in the reading. To understand the full meaning of these remarks the reader must be familiar with the manner, at once dry and verbose, of the speeches of the younger Pitt.
It is a well-known canon of rhetoric, that, in the selection of words with a view to energy, we must always prefer those terms which are the least abstract and general. Campbell and Whately have pointed out as a remarkable instance of this rule, the well-known passage, “Consider the lilies, how they grow,”&c. To illustrate the effect produced by its systematic employment, we will take a passage from the present volume, and compare it with a passage to the same purpose, in the ordinary style, from an early work of Lord Brougham:
|In large bodies, the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern Aegypt and Arabia, and Curdistan, as he governs Thrace; nor has he the same dominion in Crimea and Algiers, which he has at Brusa and Smyrna. Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster. The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigour of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders (pp. 242–43).
|In all the despotisms of the East, it has been observed, that the further any part of the empire is removed from the capital, the more do its inhabitants enjoy some sort of rights and privileges; the more inefficacious is the power of the monarch; and the more feeble and easily decayed is the organisation of the government, &c. (Brougham’s Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers).
[xl]This particularising style is of the essence of poetry; and in prose it is impossible not to be struck with the energy which it produces. Brougham’s passage is excellent in its way; but it pales before the flashing lights of Burke’s sentences. The best instances of this energy of style are to be found in the classical writers of the seventeenth century. When South says, “An Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise, ” he communicates more effectually his notion of the difference between the intellect of fallen and of unfallen humanity than in all the philosophy of his sermon put together.
Almost every device of the accomplished prose-writer may be learned from Burke. One of the first things to be learned is to avoid the opposite errors of extreme conciseness and of extreme prolixity. The practised rhetorician does this by an instinct which is bound by no rule. It is, however, a safe maxim to employ Repetition; not in our vulgar sense, but as answering to what the Rhetoricians called Interpretatio; in the words of Archbishop Whately, “to repeat the same sentiment and argument in many different forms of expression; each in itself brief, but all, together, affording such an expansion of the sense to be conveyed, and so detaining the mind upon it, as the case may require.”“Cicero among the ancients,” he proceeds, “and Burke among the modern writers, afford the most abundant practical exemplifications of this rule.” Almost every page of the “Present Discontents” will afford one or more of such exemplifications. The following passage from the First Letter on a Regicide Peace is one of the most remarkable examples of the employment of this effect:
Even when men are willing, as sometimes they are, to barter blood for lucre, to hazard their safety for the gratification of their avarice, the passion which animates them to that sort of conflict, like all short-sighted passions, must see its objects distinct and near at hand. The passions of the lower order are hungry and impatient. Speculative plunder; contingent spoil; future, long-adjourned, uncertain booty; pillage which must enrich a late posterity, and which possibly may not reach to posterity at all; these, for any length of time, will never support a mercenary war. The people are in the right. The calculation of profit in all such wars is false. On balancing the account of such wars, ten thousand hogsheads of sugar are purchased at ten[xli] thousand times their price. The blood of man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man. It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.
Burke commonly practises the method of Interpretatio by first expanding the sense, and then contracting it into its most compendious and striking form. This device is indispensable when the author is dealing with a subject which is presumed to be unfamiliar to his readers. “The hearers,” says Dr. Whately, “will be struck by the forcibleness of the sentence which they will have been prepared to comprehend; they will understand the longer expression, and remember the shorter. Nor does any writer, nor even Macaulay, excel him in producing effect by that less methodical interspersion of short, pointed, and forcible sentences throughout the performance, which is so necessary to the energetic and suggestive style.
The concluding periods of the paragraph last quoted form a remarkable example of what Fuller has called work “sewn together with strong stitches.” When once heard, it is almost impossible that they should ever drop out of the memory. The following passage, which occurs later in the same work, will further illustrate this way of working, combined with more periodic structure:
And is then example nothing? It is everything. Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other. This war is a war against that example. It is not a war for Louis the Eighteenth, or even for the property, virtue, fidelity of France. It is a war for George the Third, for Francis the Second, and for all the dignity, property, honour and virtue of England, of Germany, and of all nations.
Here, as usual with Burke, the sententia (“Example is the school,”&c.) is introduced early in the passage, forming as it were[xlii] a light to lighten the reader’s path to the end. Passages such as these should be committed to the memory as standard examples of the Syntax of modern Rhetoric. This Syntax differs materially from the system employed by the earlier and equally great English rhetoricians, Milton and Taylor. The method of the latter has been called cumulative; that of Bolingbroke and Burke, constructive or artificial. The difference lies partly in a studied variety in the grouping of the ideas. The transition from the one style to the other answers to the transition in poetry from a style if unsymmetrical redundance to one in which (to quote the editor of Pope in this Series) the chief end was form or art. Not that specimens of the earlier style are wanting in Burke, but they are rare. The manner of the following passage will be instantly recognised by the reader of Taylor:
But when the fear, and the evil feared, come on together, and press at once upon us, deliberation itself is ruinous, which saves upon all other occasions; because when perils are instant, it delays decisions; the man is in a flutter, and in a hurry, and his judgment is gone, as the judgment of the deposed King of France and his ministers was gone, if the latter did not premeditatedly betray him.
We have here a passage which consists of what the Greeks called κόμματα, or short separate members, connected in a primitive way, by conjunctions. The modern or French method is to unite the members of the passage by a connexion of ideas; as Dr. Whately expresses it, “to interweave or rather felt them together,” by making the though pass over from one member to the other; by concealing the sutures, and making the parts fit into and complement each other. This method leaves better opportunities for marking boldly the transitions in the argument, and, if appropriate, making corresponding changes in style. In the literary art, as in all others, unprepared transition from one main member of the composition to another is an unfailing mark of barbarism. The Speech on Conciliation, which is the most remarkable of the works in this volume as a specimen of method, is full of illustrations of this canon. Of the boldness with which Burke sometimes broke[xliii] through his method for the sake of the method we have a striking instance at page 235, where he inserts in the first part, which consists of a description of the condition of America, and of American character, a series of objections to the employment of force against the Colonists, properly belonging to second part of the speech.
Burke employed with great effect the device, so fashionable in literary works of the age which immediately preceded him, of diversifying his writings by the introduction of what were called “characters.” Under this general denomination were included compendious sketches not only of what was most remarkable in remarkable persons, but also of places, nationalities, opinions, curious or obsolete manners—of anything, in short, of a particular nature, not being altogether foreign to the general purpose, which could be turned to account so as to relieve or to illustrate the performance. The characters of Mr. Grenville, of Charles Townshend, of the Chatham Ministry, and of the American Colonists, in this volume, are specimens. They should be compared with those of Walpole, Montesquieu, Fox, Savile, Howard, and others, in other parts of his writings, and with similar compositions of Clarendon and Bolingbroke. The student should also refer to the characters in the spurious “History of the Last Four Years of Queen Anne,” printed among the works of Swift. Burke had read this work, and had remarked the peculiarities of the style, though he never thought of pronouncing it a forgery. Burke excels in putting his characters in the peculiar light which suits his work, without seeming directly to intend it. They are drawn in a few easy, broad, and masterly strokes, fulfilling in a striking degree the canon that works of true are must always appear to have been done easily. They remind one of the description of a famous portrait by Velasquez, of which a painter said that every part seemed to have been “touched in with a wish”; and that the spectator could not help feeling that he could take up the brush and do the same thing himself.
Burke possessed the secret of being methodical without the appearance of method. The “Present Discontents,” which was originally cast in the form of a letter, and the “Reflections on the French Revolution,” which retains that form, appear at first sight[xliv] devoid of arrangement, though really as methodical as the epic of Tasso or the Hamlet of Shakspere. The unity of feeling which reinforces this unity of composition was derived from the tone of the author’s mind. It is evident that he wrote them, especially the latter, under the influence of some mental excitement. He appears even to have cultivated this excitement, on the ground that it stimulates the faculties, and in his own words, “suffers not a particle of the man to be lost.” Even vehement passion he considered to be so far from indicating an infirm judgment, that it was often not merely the accompaniment and auxiliary, but the actuating principle, of a powerful understanding.
In touching slightly on the points of contact between Burke and his contemporaries, it will be necessary to do what has hitherto been avoided—to consider separately his separate characters of orator and author. No man of modern times has united these characters with equal success. He was the only man of his day who had pursued the only and infallible path to becoming a real orator, that of writing much, and assiduously cultivating literary excellence. Bolingbroke, by universal consent the greatest orator of his time, had done the same thing: so had Chatham, in his early years, although scarcely anything of his labours saw the light. But most of Burke’s contemporaries had attained their proficiency in public speaking by the common and less troublesome plan of trying to do it as often as opportunity offered, and hardening themselves against failure. In this way fluency and[xlv] self-possession are always to be gained, eloquence never. The former go to make up the practical debater: and a few pointed remarks and striking images will be enough, with a clever man, to conceal want of art in combining his ideas, and incompetency to present them in their most effective form. The oratory of the younger Pitt, which is a good example of the speaking of a business-like, practical statesman, has much of this character. It is marked by a certain mechanical fluency, well adapted for bearing the speaker up while he is meditating what he shall say next, but accompanied by a baneful tautology and confusion of method. It is wanting in organic elasticity.
Excellent as is the first part of the Speech on American taxation, the student must look elsewhere than in Burke for the best specimens of the art of Parliamentary debate. The fine perception of the fitnesses of time and circumstances, and the habit of waiting assiduously upon the temper of individuals, and upon the nameless caprices of a collective body, were incompatible with the preoccupation of the state-philosopher. As a debater Burke was the inferior of Pitt, and in an increased degree, of Fox. The speeches of Fox, in spite of the indifferent state in which they have come down to us, are the classical models for debating, the most important being those on the Westminster Scrutiny and the Russian Armament. The first part of the latter, to repeat the advice of Brougham to the father of Macaulay on the subject of his son’s education, the student should “pore over till he has it by heart.” Among the few other models recommended by Brougham were Burke’s Thoughts on the Present Discontents, and Speech on Conciliation with America. With his usual enthusiasm for the ancient orators Brougham goes on to say that he must by no means conclude his studies with the moderns. “If he would be a great orator, he must go at once to the fountain-head, and be familiar with every one of the great orations of Demosthenes.”
How is it that so few speeches of modern times, out of so many which survive, grandly constructed, and finely adapted to their purpose, obtain a permanent place in literature? For this doubtless there must be something which shall touch the permanent nature of mankind at large, not only the temporary disposition of particular assemblies. Burke dealt largely in questions of great permanent interest, but this was hardly sufficient in itself[xlvi] to account for the extent in which his writings and speeches have been cherished. The first requisite for preservation is a certain amount of literary skill employed either in their original construction or in their preparation for the press. The same may be said of forensic oratory. Most of the speeches of Windham and Canning, of Erskine and Curran, have for succeeding generations an interest which hardly rises above that of the subjects with which they are concerned. Those of Grattan and Brougham possess something of the same interest which attaches to those of Burke.
The writings of Burke have often been classed, in point of style, with those of Johnson and Gibbon. The resemblance is only partial. Johnson conceived it to be his mission to reform his native tongue, an in his own words, to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations. “Something, perhaps,” he wrote at the end of the Rambler,“I have added to the harmony of its cadence.” This elegance is generally considered to be mechanical, and this harmony monotonous. It is the sound and painstaking common-sense—the candid and profound judgment, which give body and worth to the “alternate coruscations” of verbiage in which Johnson delighted. If we imagine Bolingbroke—whom nature intended for a demagogue, and endowed with a natural flow of exquisite and expressive language, coupled with a natural flimsiness and quackery of reasoning—possessed, instead, of this Johnsonian sense and judgment, we have something approaching to the manner of Burke. To write in the closet with the ardour inspired by the surroundings of the senate; to be copious, even to a fault; to flow in a torrent, regardless of measure and symmetry, unstudious of phrase and parenthesis; to shift the argument into different lights, as careless of the “harmony” or “unity” of the picture, and as successful in the effect of it, as Rubens; there is nothing of Johnson, nor of Gibbon in this. Gibbon set before himself a higher literary ideal tan ever governed the pen of Burke. Whatever may be faults of the style of Gibbon, it possesses one excellence of a high order—that its graces are not destroyed by translation. The censure of unnaturalness and affectation is, in general, unjustly applied to it. There is a constant elevation of expression: if monotonous, it is always dignified. But the tastes, studies, and objects of Burke were wholly diverse from those of Gibbon:[xlvii] and there are too few points at which their works can be said to touch to enable us, as to their style, to draw a just comparison
Of authors who were Burke’s contemporaries, the most characteristic of the manner of his age, but as manifested in an upper and non-literary class, is Walpole. The best literary artist is Goldsmith. The few first-class men of the time stand towards the popular authors of the day in a fixed relation which will be best understood by comparing Goldsmith as a writer of fiction with Richardson and Sterne. The literary vice of the age was a sickly and demoralising species of sentimentality. In oratory, it may be traced in some passages of Sheridan’s Indian speeches. Hardly one of the sentimental poets of the century is free from the taint. What it was in its culmination the reader may see in the once popular poems of Charlotte Smith. Bowles and Coleridge illustrate it at the time when it was about to disappear before the examples of Cowper, Rogers, and Wordsworth. A hundred forgotten novels exemplify it in prose. Rousseau, Goethe, and many others, show in what way it spread to the literature of neighbouring countries. Fielding and Smollet afford evidence of it, even whilst protesting against it by their example. A large section of the literature of the age is turned by it into a mass of unqualified rubbish, as worthless as the copper-plate page illustrations that adorned the volumes which contained it. Yet without reference to these it would be impossible to estimate the greatness of Reynolds and his school. Similarly, to estimate the importance of the manly tone of thought which Burke and Johnson exhibit, the student should glance at some of the best known among the didactic works of the age, such as Hervey’s Meditations, once one of the most popular books in the world. “The distemper of the age,” said Burke on one occasion, “is a poverty of spirit and of genius”: and he went on to say that it was characterised by “the politics and morals of girls at a boarding-school, rather than of men and statesmen.”
Johnson and Goldsmith, who were original thinkers by nature, and men of letters by profession, derived no literary stimulus from communication with Burke, and there is, in fact, a balance on the other side of the account. It was otherwise with Reynolds. Attracted by the profound appreciation of the fine arts expressed in the Treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful, the[xlviii] great painter had sought Burke’s acquaintance at an early period in his career. The powers of Burke as a critic and philosopher of art are clearly proved by that work, and by his letters to the painter Barry. But their best testimony is the fact that the Discourses of Reynolds are guided by a method, and expressed in a manner, which none who are familiar with Burke’s writing can hesitate for a moment in pronouncing to be his. Until the appearance of Malone’s edition of the works of Reynolds, it had been generally believed that Burke was the sole author of these Discourses. Many years afterwards, Northcote, who had good means of knowing, avowed his belief in what Malone had denied, that Burke had supplied much that was necessary to complete their literary form. To the reader of the present day, judging from these works themselves, it seems more probable that Burke composed them with facts supplied by Reynolds, than that the work of Reynolds was brought into shape and finished off by Burke. But the direct evidence is wholly in favour of the latter view. The “Discourses” are, however, pervaded by the mode of thought, as well as full of the expressions and illustrations, with which the reader of Burke is familiar. They bear evidence of a double influence. The philosophical critic guided the views of the artist, and his friendly pen corrected and embellished the writings in which they were expressed. Whatever may have been the exact share of Burke in them, they are models, in their kind, of style and expression, and part of the standard literature of England; and Sydney Smith, without any reference to Burke, has described them by the terms which Goldsmith so justly applied to his friend, as “full of all wisdom.”
Burke, in the history of English letters, represents the transition from the former style of the early part of the early part of the last century to the far less constrained one which has prevailed in the present. He restores to literature, in some measure, the wealth and freedom which it had enjoyed in the days of the great dramatists and philosophical divines. In the spirit of his writings, however, he is distinctly the son, and not the changeling, of his age. His philosophy recalls the didactic school of Young, Johnson, and Armstrong; he sometimes partakes the satirical vein of Churchill and Smollett; more rarely we trace in him a tone akin to that of the “patriot ports,” of Thomson, Akenside, and Glover. the influence of the great literary school of France, and of the[xlix] English copyists of their style and phrase, is often noticeable. He ahs, however, none of that habitual stiffness on which Johnson sometimes congratulated his contemporaries, which had been diffused by the effect of French examples. If the aims of writing could be reached by simple reasoning and description, closely and concisely expressed, much of the poetry and the prose of the last century would be unsurpassable. The more sensitive elements I human nature, however, will not consent to be thus desolated, and the formal writer is thwarted at every step by the recoil of his own mechanism. In the literary art, as in all others, nature must be patiently studied. Burke, who never aimed at merely literary fame, and never once, in his mature years, cherished the thought of living to future ages in his works, was well acquainted with the economics of his art. He devoted himself solely to the immediate object before him, with no sidelong glance at the printing press or the library shelf. He reasoned little, or not at all, when he conceived reason to be out of place, or insufficient for his purpose. He never rejected a phrase or a thought because it did not reach the standard required by literary dignity. With all this, his writing always reaches a high standard of practical excellence, and is always careful and workmanlike. It is, moreover, well attuned to the ear. The cadence of Burke’s sentences always reminds us that prose writing is only to be perfected by a thorough study of the poetry of the language. Few prose writers were so well acquainted with the general body of English verse, and few have habitually written so fully, so delicately, and so harmoniously.
This slight general sketch could not be better concluded than with the beautiful inscription composed by Dr. Parr for a national monument to Burke. Such a monument was demanded by public opinion, and the project was favoured by most of Burke’s friends and admirers; but the House was never moved in the subject, partly from a scruple lest the wishes expressed in Burke’s will should be violated, and partly on account of the disturbed state of popular opinion. The inscription is considered the best that Parr ever wrote: and as that eminent scholar was most eminent in inscriptions, it may be regarded as a masterpiece.
- edmundo . burke
- multis . et . exquisitis . litteris . imbuto
- et . summa . ingenii . praedito . gloria
- suis . amabili
- et . in . omni . genere . facetiarum . ornatissimo
- qui . rempublicam . propriam . britannorum
- idcirco . esse . optimam . statuebat
- quod . regalis . senatorii . popularisque . juris
- consensu . fundata . esset
- et . communione . utilitatis . stabilita
- qui . e . recondita . vi . verborum . quotidianorum
- quod . aut . verum . est
- aut . ad . id . quam . proxime . accedit
- acute . arguteque . elicuit
- intimos . quosdam . animi . sensus . patefecit
- et . adumbratas . in . eodem . a . natura
- rerum . imagines
- multo . expressiores . definiendo . et . explicando . reddidit
- qui . multiplices . et . abstrusas . rei . politicae . rationes
- cum . disciplina . morali . conjunctas
- uberrime . et . gravissime . illustravit
- qui . copiose . erudite . splendide . dicendo . effecit
- ut . omnes . artes . se . praeberent
- comites . eloquentiae . ac . ministras
- qui . vixit . ann . lxvii . mens . v . dies . xxvii
- decessit . viii . id . quintil . anno . sacro . m . dcc . lxxxxvii
- et . beaconsfieldiae . in . agro . buckingensi
- sepultus . est
- rex . senatusque . britannicus
- h . m . p . p . impen . ponendum . jusserunt.
[li]Burke is so copious and so clear a writer that the text of his works is, in general, amply sufficient to make him intelligible to an intelligent reader. It is believed that all additional illustration which is necessary is included in the Notes at the end of the volume; but those who require still further information may refer to the works mentioned in the footnote. It only remains to give some particulars of the history of the works in the present volume.
The “Present Discontents” is a political pamphlet of the old school. The style is mainly pedestrian, relieved by some touches of humour, and by a few passages of a descriptive character. It contains much solid reasoning, but no superfluities have been admitted, and there is a certain affectation of plainness, intended to sustain the author’s assumed character of a private citizen. The facts are admirably marshalled, and it is clear that long meditation in the writer’s mind has given the principal arguments as a well-rounded form. Burke had already written and printed an historical jeu-d’esprit, shadowing forth the principal maters in the pamphlet under the figment of an insurrection against the Crown of Spain, in the form of a remonstrance from the supposed insurgents. The pamphlet itself seems to have been commenced shortly after the unusually early prorogation of parliament in May 1769,[lii] when the turbulence of the freeholders of Middlesex was extending to the country at large. The nation was indignant that a ministry labouring under an unprecedented weight of odium should continue to stand their ground. Most of the counties were holding meetings for petitions of remonstrance to the King on the subject of the Middlesex election. The administration adopted the singular course of endeavouring to repress the symptoms, instead of to cure the disease. They moved heaven and earth, in the words of Burke, to prevent the progress of the spirit of petitioning. Rigby got it under in Essex: then proceeded to Norfolk, and was busy, when the first mention of this pamphlet occurs in Burke’s letters, opposing it in Northamptonshire. The ministry were looking with anxious eyes to Yorkshire, where the influence of Lord Rockingham was sufficient to authorise or to prevent a county petition; and the Whig leader seems to have hesitated on a matter so little in accordance with Whig traditions. Burke, however, urged him to this measure; and the Petition, which bears the marks of Burke’s pen, was signed by more than 10,000 freeholders. Lord Temple, in Buckinghamshire, was less scrupulous; and Burke assisted to present the remonstrance of the freeholders of that county at St. James’ on the 29th of November.
Burke had much difficulty in continuing his pamphlet from time to time, in adapting it to the frequent changes in the unsettled state of affairs. At first it seems to have been drawn out in the form of a letter, addressed to a retired member of the Rockingham party (John White, formerly M.P. for Retford). In October he sent a large portion of the manuscript to Lord Rockingham, with a request that it might be circulated among the party. He writes:
The whole is in a manner new cast, something to the prejudice of the order, which, if I can, I will rectify, though[liii] I fear this will be difficult. The former scheme would no ways answer, and I wish I had entirely thrown it aside, as it has embarrassed me a good deal. The whole attack on Pitt’s conduct must be omitted, or we shall draw the cry of the world upon us, as if we meant directly to quarrel with all mankind.
Burke wished the responsibility of the pamphlet to be divided fairly with all the other supporters of Lord Rockingham:
In order that it should be truly the common cause, make it at your meeting what you please. Let me know what ought to be left out, what softened, and what strengthened. On reading it to Will and Dick, they thought some things a little too ludicrous. I thought much otherwise, for I could rather wish that more had occurred to me (as more would, had my spirits been high) for I know how ill a long detail of politics, not animated by a direct controversy, wants every kind of help to make it tolerable.
Burke, in his desire to remove the responsibility as far as possible from himself, even suggested to the party “whether a thing of this nature should appear at all”; on the ground that it attacked the dearest objects of the court, did nothing to conciliate the Grenville party, and at the same time avowed doctrines which were the reverse of popular. He continued his work at the pamphlet in November. He then writes:
I find I must either speak very broad, or weaken the matter, and render it vulgar and ineffectual. I find some difficulties as I proceed; for what appear to me self-evident propositions, the conduct and pretences of people oblige one formally to prove; and this seems to me, and to others, a dull and needless labour. However, a good deal of its will soon be ready, and you may dispose of it as you please. It will, I am afraid, be long.
A week after this he writes:
I cannot now send the rest of my pamphlet. It is not in order, not quite finished, even in the scheme; but I wish that, if you approve what is done, you may send it back, for it ought not now to have a moment’s delay.
The conclusion was written, and the whole submitted to Lord Rockingham in December, about the time of the appearance of Junius’ celebrated Letter to the King. On the 23rd of that[liv] month Rockingham sent the manuscript to Dowdeswell. Rockingham writes: “I wish it was possible that this work could soon make its appearance. I am only fearful that my own delay may have made it more difficult. ” The Duke of Portland warmly approved of the work, but justly remarked that the king was not “so absolute a thing of straw” as he was represented in it. He objects also to the “softening or sliding over” the conduct of the Earl of Bute. The Duke writes:
I myself can speak of Lord Bute’s public avowal of the principles on which the present Court system is formed, at least eighteen years agone (a time that you will think his professions must have been remarkable to have struck so young a boy as I then was); and though he may possibly not have had sense enough to form all the plan himself, he has had villany enough to adopt it, and introduce it in a manner that perhaps nobody had the means of doing so effectually as himself.
In reply to the question of the policy of the publication, the Duke of Portland says:
What hurt the publication can do, I can’t foresee. “It will make you enemies.” So it will; but those only that for your own sake you would be ashamed to call friends, except one, who never will like you till he sees he can’t go on without you; and when that is the case, if he has as much honesty as sense, he will feel and own a pleasure that he never as yet can have experienced. As to serious, thinking people, men of weight and property either in a landed or commercial way, what injury can it do you in their opinions? Don’t they see and feel every day the mischiefs of the present system? You join with them in their complaint; you shew exactly where the sore arises, an point out the remedy; nay, pledge yourself (at least I hope the pamphlet may be understood in that light) to apply it. And as to the young men of property and independent people in both Houses, it is holding out a banner for them to come to, where, surely, interest cannot be said to point out the way, and where nothing but public good is to be sought for on the plainest, honestest, and most disinterested terms.
Internal evidence shows that the work was accommodated to circumstances which occurred early in 1770, and it does not appear to have been published until the month of April. Two quarto and two octavo editions were sold in that year, besides an[lv] Irish reprint. A fifth edition was published in 1775, and a sixth in 1784.
The pamphlet contains indications of that relaxation of the formal literary manner which we have noted above. A literary friend in Ireland remarked that the business of the House of Commons had had its effect on Burke’s style, and that the phraseology was “not so elegant as usual. ” He erred, however, in ascribing this to the author’s admitting insertions from other hands, to which he did not take the trouble to give his own colouring; for every line of the work is unmistakeably from the pen of Burke.
The pamphlet had little or no effect on the position of the Court party. They were even pleased with the liberal hostility it displayed. Compared with the scorpionlike flagellations of Junius, the stripes of Burke seemed like the chastisement of one who loved them. It was otherwise with the popular party. The “Answer” of Mrs. Macaulay, which was published in May 1770, embodies their opinions of it. This otherwise worthless production is valuable as a testimony to Burke’s political consistency. In it he is considered to be as determined and formidable an enemy to democracy as in the “Rights of Man,” twenty years afterwards.
Lord Chatham, the professed champion of an ideal antifactious Whiggism, declared in a letter to Lord Rockingham, that the pamphlet had “done much hurt to the cause.” On the back of this letter the following memorandum, dated July 13, 1792, was written by Burke:
Looking over poor Lord Rockingham’s papers, I find this letter from a man wholly unlike him. It concerns my pamphlet (“The Cause of the Discontents”). I remember to have seen this knavish letter at the time. The pamphlet is itself, by anticipation, an answer to that great artificer of fraud.He would not like it. It is pleasant to hear him talk of the great extensive public, who never conversed but with a parcel of low toad-eaters. Alas! alas! how different the real from the ostensible public man![lvi] Must all this theatrical stuffing and raised heels be necessary for the character of a great man?edmund burke. Oh! but this does not derogate from his great, splendid side. God forbid!E. B.
The Speech on American Taxation was delivered in the debate on the Repeal of the Tea-duty, the sole remnant of the taxes imposed by Townshend in 1767, purposely left to assert the right of taxation, when the rest were repealed in 1770, and in itself nothing, in the words of Lord Rockingham, but “an uncommercial, unproductive, pepper-corn rent.” The attempted enforcement of this duty produced that resistance which terminated in American independence.
The first official notice of this resistance was contained in an ominous message from the throne, May 7, 1774, produced by the advices of the outrages committed on board the teaships at Boston. A mob, disguised as Mohawk Indians, had boarded the ships, broken open the tea-chests, and poured their contents into the sea. In this message, and the address which was voted upon it, the objects aimed to be secured by the Boston Port Bill were only too clearly shadowed forth. This fatal measure, which removed the custom-house officers of Boston, and prohibited the “landing and discharging, lading and shipping of goods, wares and merchandizes at the said town of Boston or within the harbour thereof,” passed the House on the 25th, was immediately carried up to the Lords, and received they royal assent on the 31st of March. The more statesmanlike politicians, however, entertained the gravest apprehensions of the results of this measure: and, with the concurrence of some who had voted for it on general grounds, the motion in the debate upon which this speech was made, which had been so often proposed in former sessions, was again brought forward. It was negatived: and the numbers in its favour were much smaller than upon former occasions. The policy of coercion was further followed up by the monstrous attempt to subvert the constitution of the province of which the offending port was the capital, which appeared in due time under the form of a “Bill for the better regulating government in the Province of Massachusett’s Bay.” The purpose of this bill was, in the words of Burke in[lvii] the Annual Register, “to alter the constitution of that province as it stood in the charter of King William; to take the whole executive power out of the hands of the democratic port, and to vest the nomination of counsellors, judges, and magistrates of all kinds, including sheriffs, in the Crown, and in some cases in the King’s governor, and all to be removable at the pleasure of the Crown.”
Burke consented to the publication of this speech at the earnest solicitation of his friends. It is difficult to realise the great effect which it seems to have produced. Colonel Barré declared, in his excitement, that if it could be written out, he would nail it on every church door in the kingdom. Sir George Savile called it the greatest triumph of eloquence within his memory. Governor Johnstone said on the floor of the House that it was fortunate for the noble lords (North and Germaine) that spectators had been excluded during that debate, for if any had been present, they would have excited the people to tear the noble lords in pieces on their way home.
It seems to have been from a generous wish to give the ministry an opportunity of doing their best to restore tranquillity, and from an indisposition to appear in the light of a demagogue, while equally unwilling to soften down the terms in which he had spoken, that Burke deferred the publication of the Speech until the beginning of the ensuing year. It was several times reprinted, and, like most of Burke’s publications, provoked an “Answer,” which is not worthy of attention.
As to the Speech on Conciliation with America, and its relation to the former, the student is commended to the following note by Dr. Goodrich:
It would hardly seem possible that in speaking so soon again on the same subject, he could avoid making this speech to some extent an echo of his former one. But never were two productions more entirely different. His stand-point in the first was England. His topics were the inconsistency and folly of the ministry in their “miserable circle of occasional arguments and temporary expedients” for raising a revenue in America. His object was to recall the House to the original principles of the English colonial system—that of regulating the trade of the colonies and making it subservient to the interests of the mother country, while in other resects she left them “every characteristic mark of a free people in all their internal concerns.”[lviii] His stand-point in the second speech was America. His topics were her growing population, agriculture, commerce, and fisheries; the causes of her fierce spirit of liberty; the impossibility of repressing it by force, and the consequent necessity of some concession on the part of England. His object was (waiving all abstract questions about the right of taxation) to show that Parliament ought “to admit the people of the colonies into an interest in the constitution” by giving them (like Ireland, Wales Chester, Durham) a share in the representation; and to do this by leaving internal taxation to the Colonial Assemblies, since no one could think of an actual representation of America in Parliament at the distance of three thousand miles. The two speeches were equally diverse in their spirit. The first was in the strain of incessant attack, full of the keenest sarcasm, and shaped from beginning to end for the purpose of putting down the ministry. The second, like the plan it proposed, was conciliatory; temperate and respectful towards Lord North; designed to inform those who were ignorant of the real strength and feeling of America; instinct with the finest philosophy of man and of social institutions; and intended, if possible, to lead the House through Lord North’s scheme, into a final adjustment of the dispute, on the true principles of English liberty. It is the most finished of Mr. Burke’s speeches; and though it contains no passage of such vividness and force as the description of Hyder Ali in his Speech on the Nabob of Arcot’s debts, it will be read probably more than any of his other speeches, for the richness of its style and the lasting character of the instruction it conveys. Twenty years after Mr. Fox said, in applying its principles to the subject of parliamentary reform, “Let gentlemen read this speech by day, and meditate on it by night; let them peruse it again and again, study it, imprint it on their minds, impress it on their hearts: they will then learn that representation is the sovereign remedy for every evil.”
Nowhere else, according to Dr. Goodrich, who is well qualified to speak, notwithstanding all that has been written since, is there to be found so admirable a view of the causes which produced the American Revolution as in these two speeches. “They both deserve to be studied with the utmost diligence by every American scholar.”
The history of the events which happened between the dates of the two speeches, the action of the Congress which had now assembled, the renewed penal measures of the government, and[lix] the respective merits of the various conciliatory measures which were advocated by Chatham, North, Burke, and Hartley, though desirable to be known, are not material to the principles of colonial statesmanship which it embodies, it is to be found in the use made of them by Sir Robert Peel in his Speech on the Jamaica Government Bill, May 3, 1839.
It is believed that the sources from which help and information have been derived, in the compilation of this edition, are sufficiently indicated by the references. In addition, the Editor has to express his grateful acknowledgment of the assistance and encouragement he has received from many friends, and particularly from Dr. Watson and Mr. Boyes, both of St. John’s College, Oxford.
- Volito vivu’ per ora virom.
- Think Tories loyal, or Scotch Covenanters;
- Robbed tigers gentle; courteous, fasting bears.