Reference > Quotations > S.A. Bent, comp. > Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men
S.A. Bent, comp.  Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men.  1887.
Edmund Burke
        [A distinguished orator and writer; born in Dublin, 1730, or, according to some authorities, in 1728; educated at Trinity College, and studied for the bar; published his “Vindication of Natural Society,” anonymously, 1756; entered Parliament, 1766; Paymaster-general in the Rockingham ministry, 1782; retired 1783; died 1797.]
In that way I let myself down to you.
          In 1759 Burke was introduced to William Gerard Hamilton, known, from his brilliant and only speech in the House of Commons, as “Single-speech Hamilton,” who made him his private secretary, and, at a later period, twitted him with being taken from a garret. “In that way,” proudly answered Burke, “I let myself down to you.”
  The Abbé Mably, an historical writer, made an even more pointed answer to a French count who had befriended him and then boasted of it, “Men of merit lodge in garrets, and fools inhabit palaces” (Les gens de mérite logent dans des greniers, et les sots habitent dans des hôtels).
  Burke was in the habit of frequenting in youth the gallery of the House of Commons to listen to the debates. “Some of these men,” he said, “talk like Demosthenes or Cicero; and I feel, when I am listening to them, as if I were in Athens or Rome.”
What shadows we are.
          In a speech at Bristol, on declining the poll, September, 1780, after an unsuccessful canvass, Burke alluded to the sudden death of one of the candidates, Mr. Coombe: “The worthy gentleman who has been snatched from us at the moment of the election, and in the middle of the contest, whilst his desires were as warm and his hopes as eager as ours, has feelingly told us what shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue.” Wordsworth said, “We all laugh at pursuing a shadow, though the lives of the multitude are devoted to the chase.”
  While making a personal canvass for an election in 1774, Burke and his friends entered a house where the wife of the owner was reading the Bible. “I have called, madam,” he said, “to solicit the favor of your husband’s vote and interest in the present election. You, I perceive,”—placing his finger on a passage that struck his eye,—“are making your ‘calling and election sure.’”—JENNINGS: Anecdotal History of Parliament.
  It was after the election of this year that Burke was followed in returning thanks by his colleague, Mr. Cruger, a merchant; who was content to express his approval of the sentiments of the illustrious orator, by exclaiming, “Gentlemen, I say ditto to Mr. Burke!”
  Burke, in his own speech on this occasion, expressed the proper relation between a representative and his constituents, by saying, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
  He remarked half-seriously of a personal relation with the city he represented, “Though I have the honor to represent Bristol, I should not like to live there: I should be obliged to be so much on my good behavior.”—BOSWELL’S Johnson, 1779.
  One of his constituents protested against concessions to the Irish; to which Burke replied, “Sir, it is proper to inform you that our measures must be healing.”
  He wrote to a member of the Bell Club of Bristol, Oct. 31, 1777: “If it be true in any degree that the governors form the people, I am certain that it is as true that the people in their turn impart their character to their rulers;” and, in a speech to the electors during his last canvass, in 1780, he said, “Depend upon it, that the lovers of freedom will be free.”
I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.
          In a speech on Conciliation with America, March 22, 1775, from which other quotations follow.
  Referring to the growth of the American colonies, he said, “No sea but what is vexed with their fisheries, no climate that is not witness to their toils.” He spoke of the colonists as “a recent people,—a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.” When he contemplated that fact, and reflected how profitable they had been to the mother country, “My rigor relents: I pardon something to the spirit of liberty.”
The wisdom of our ancestors.
          In the same speech, in 1775, Burke declared that he set out “with a perfect distrust of my own abilities, a total renunciation of every speculation of my own, and with a profound reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors.” Jennings (“Anecdotal History of Parliament”) asserts that Sir William Grant (1754–1832) was the first to use the expression, “the wisdom of our ancestors,” which he applied to a proposition of Sir Samuel Romilly to subject a man’s real property to the payment of all his debts. He entered Parliament, however, in 1790.
  “All government,” said Burke, in reference to a compromise with America, “indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”
  The religion of the colonies partook of their independent spirit. He called it “a refinement of the principles of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.”
  Looking at the determined character of the Americans, he declared that “a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered;” nor could an Englishman properly engage in that perpetual conquest: “An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.” As he could not draw an indictment against a whole people, so he could not be persuaded, when such a people are concerned, “that acts of lenity are not means of conciliation.” He would give magnanimity a place even in politics; he thought it “not seldom the truest wisdom: a great empire and little mind go ill together.” If it was merely slavery they wanted, they could have that anywhere: “it is a weed that grows on every soil.”
  In his speech on the Taxation of America, Burke asked, “Would twenty shillings have ruined Mr. Hampden’s fortune? No; but the payment of half twenty shillings, on the principle it was demanded, would have made him a slave.”
Liberty must be limited in order to be enjoyed.
          He also called liberty “a good to be improved, and not an evil to be lessened.”
  In a letter to the sheriffs of Bristol, April 3, 1777, Burke wrote, “He that accuses all mankind of corruption ought to remember that he is sure to convict only one.”
  He said of William Dowdeswell, chancellor of the exchequer in 1765, “Immersed in the greatest affairs, he never lost the ancient, native, genuine English character of a country gentleman.”
        “And thus he bore without abuse,
The grand old name of gentleman.”
TENNYSON: In Memoriam, ex.    
  “Men want arguments to reconcile their minds to what is done,” he wrote to the Marquis of Rockingham, Nov. 14, 1769, “as well as motives originally to act right.”
  “The poorest being,” he once said, “that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the sight of God and man.”
Those things which are not practicable are not desirable.
          “There is nothing in the world really beneficial,” he continued, “that does not lie within the reach of an informed understanding and a well-directed pursuit. There is nothing that God has judged good for us, that he has not given us the means to accomplish, both in the natural and the moral world. If we cry, like children, for the moon, like children we must cry on.” (Speech on the Plan for Economical Reform, Feb. 11, 1780.)
The public is poor.
          In the same speech he said, “If any merit of an extraordinary nature should emerge before that reduction is completed, I have left it open for an address of either House of Parliament, to provide for the case. To all other demands it must be answered with regret, but with firmness, ‘The public is poor.’” This is often quoted, “The state is always poor!”
  When George III. sent a message to the House in 1782, recommending economy in the public expenditure, Burke called it “the best of messages, to the best of people, from the best of kings.”
The people never give up their liberties except under some delusion.
          Speech at county meeting of Bucks, 1784.
  He declared that “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged; and I neither now do, nor ever will, admit of any other.”
There is a loss of friends.
          In a debate on the Canada Bill (1791), Fox had referred to France, and made reflections on Burke’s views of the Revolution. Burke, when replying on a subsequent night, was called to order by Fox’s friends, and even by Fox himself, until he said that, at the expense of the abandonment of friends, he would risk all to exclaim, “Fly from the French constitution!” Fox whispered, “There is no loss of friends.” To which Burke replied, “There is a loss of friends.” Their friendship of twenty-five years was at an end. But six years afterwards Burke could say of Fox, “He is a man to be loved.” Fox had said of the French Revolution, “How much it is the greatest event that ever happened in the world, and how much the best!” Samuel Rogers declared it to be “the greatest event in Europe since the eruption of the Goths.”
It is the day of no judgment that I am afraid of.
          To Pitt, who said, while discussing French affairs in 1791, that England and the British Constitution were safe till the day of judgment.
  Burke wrote to a French gentleman, October, 1789, “Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is, in my opinion, safe;” and in a letter to a member of the National Assembly, 1791, “Men are as much blinded by the extremes of misery as by the extremes of prosperity.” The disappointment of his hopes by the excesses of the French Revolution made him declare, “Without a monarchy in England we most certainly can enjoy neither peace nor liberty.” He said of the French philosophers, whose writings had done much to inculcate revolutionary ideas, “These fellows have a wrong twist in their heads, which ten to one gives them a wrong twist in their hearts also.”
  When the royal family was brought by the mob from Versailles to Paris, Oct. 5, 1789, Burke exclaimed, “The French have shown themselves the ablest architects of ruin that have hitherto existed in the world. They have done their business for us in a way that no Ramillies or Blenheim could have done.”
Pardon me, sir, we were two yesterday: we are one to-day.
          When Fox and Lord North formed their coalition, and entered the House together as the speaker was counting those present: “One, two”— On the arrival of Garibaldi in Rome, following the entrance of Victor Emmanuel, September, 1870, Pius IX. indicated in his good-natured way the position of the illustrious republican: “We were two: now we are three.”
  Burke wrote to Sir Hercules Langrishe, on the Roman Catholics of Ireland, in 1792: “That discretion, which in judicature is well said by Lord Coke to be a crooked cord, in legislature is a golden rule.” Sir Hercules was the gentleman, who, when asked if he had finished three bottles of port without assistance, replied, “Not quite: I had the assistance of a bottle of Madeira.”
  Burke wrote to the king of Poland in 1792: “He is noble who has a priority among freemen, not he who has a sort of wild liberty among slaves.”
I never knew a man that was bad, fit for service that was good.
          Said of Warren Hastings; as this, in the great speech on his impeachment: “Thank God, my lords, men that are greatly guilty are never wise.”
  “The people,” he once said, “have no interest in disorder. When they go wrong, it is their error and not their crime.”
  His faith in the popular judgment was shown by the remark, “In all disputes between the people and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favor of the people.”
  He wrote to Sir Philip Francis, Dec. 11, 1789: “There are situations in which despair does not imply inactivity.” Disraeli says, “Despair is the conclusion of fools.”—Sibyl.
It is enough for me to have rung the bell to him.
          When Mr. Bennet Langton observed that he would have been glad to hear another than Dr. Johnson, on every subject that was broached.—BOSWELL’S Johnson, 1780. Bourdaloue’s beadle, when some one praised a sermon of the great preacher, proudly exclaimed, “I am the man who rang the bell for him!” (C’est moi qui l’a sonné!) Johnson’s opinion of Burke was equally flattering: “I do not grudge Burke being the first man in the House of Commons, for he is the first man everywhere.”
  “A dull proser,” Burke once remarked, “is more endurable than a dull joker.”
Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.
          He wrote to Thomas Mercer, Feb. 26, 1790: “The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny.”
  He once said of political sermons, “Surely the church is a place where one day’s truce may be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.”
  Of his political principles he remarked, “I pitched my Whiggism low, that I might live by it.”
Swaggering paradoxes, when examined, often sink into pitiful logomachies.
          An illustration of his use of large words, of which the following is another: when Croft’s “Life of Dr. Young” was spoken of as a good imitation of Johnson’s style, Burke replied, “It has all the nodosities of the oak, without its strength; it has all the contortions of the sibyl, without the inspiration.”—PRIOR: Life.
I was not swaddled into a legislator.
          He said in a letter, “I was not swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator. Nitor in adversum is the motto for a man like me. At every step in my progress in life (for in every step I was traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport.”
  A member named Onslow endeavored on one occasion to obtain support for his opinion in favor of preventing the publication of the proceedings of the House of Commons, by claiming descent from three speakers of the House. Burke replied, “I have not the advantage of a parliamentary genealogy. I was not born, like the honorable gentleman, with ‘Order’ running through my veins.”
  “Difficulty,” he once remarked, “is good for man.”
The proper study of mankind is man.
          The motto which Burke suggested for a book Boswell said he should write after visiting the Isle of Man.—Life of Johnson, 1776. (From Pope’s “Essay on Man,” II. 1.)
  Johnson expressed a good opinion of Burke’s humor. The latter disapproved of the acceptance by a friend of the appointment of Dean of Ferns: “I do not like the name. It sounds like a barren title.”—PRIOR: Life. He claimed that Horace had a good living in view when he wrote:—
        “Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines.”
Satires, I. 1, 106.    
  He translated it,—
        “A modus in the tithes, and fines certain.”
  Mr. Hartley, while making a dull speech in the House, demanded that the Riot Act should be read. “The Riot Act, my dear friend!” exclaimed Burke, looking at the empty benches: “do you not see that the mob is completely dispersed?”
  During the last years of his parliamentary course, Burke’s long speeches fatigued the new generation, which had not heard the brilliant efforts of his earlier life. On one occasion when Burke rose, a country member expressed the hope that the right honorable gentleman was not going to bore them with a long speech; which fairly drove Burke out of the house. “Never before,” said Selywn, in reference to it, “did I see the fable realized,—a lion put to flight by the braying of an ass.” But Selwyn himself once replied to a nobleman, who, seeing him and others coming out, asked if the House were up, “No, but Burke is.” He had by that time gained the nickname of “the dinner-bell.”
  Burke called the divine right of kings and toastmasters, jure de-vino (divino).
  He compared the skulls in the catacombs to the old French noblesse: “They do not shock one’s feelings by pretending to be alive.”
His virtues were his arts.
          The inscription which Burke composed for the mausoleum of the Marquis of Rockingham.
I had indeed the folly to write it, but the wit to keep it to myself.
          When Fox asked him if he had shown Garrick a tragedy he had written.
A whale stranded upon the sea-shore of Europe.
          Of modern Spain. Edmund Waller said of James II., “He will be left alone like a whale upon the strand.”
I am alone: I have none to meet my enemies in the gate.
          Of the death of his only son. He said of this crushing event, “They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors.” In reply to attacks made upon his pension, he said in “A Letter to a Noble Lord,” referring to his son’s death, and his own retirement, “The storm has gone over me, and I lie like one of those old oaks which the hurricane has scattered about me.”—PRIOR: Life.
  He wrote to Matthew Smith: “I would rather sleep in the southern corner of a little country churchyard, than in the tombs of the Capulets.”
  Robert Hall said of Burke, “His imperial fancy laid all nature under tribute.”
  Dr. Johnson made the celebrated remark concerning him: “Burke, sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street, where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you stepped aside to take shelter for five minutes, he’d talk to you in such a manner that when you parted you would say, ‘This is an extraordinary man.’” At another time he supposed that a man were to take shelter from a shower under a shed with Burke, and the same judgment would be passed upon him. When Burke showed Johnson his house and lands near Beaconsfield, the philosopher exclaimed, “Non equidem invideo; miror magis” (I don’t envy: I rather wonder).—BOSWELL: Johnson, 1778. Johnson said at another time, when ill, “That fellow calls forth all my powers: were I to see Burke now, it would kill me.”

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