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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831–1902)
EDMUND BURKE, born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1729, was the son of a successful attorney, who gave him as good an education as the times and the country afforded. He went to school to an excellent Quaker, and graduated at Trinity College in 1748. He appears to have then gone to London in 1750 to “keep terms,” as it was called, at the Middle Temple, with the view of being admitted to the bar, in obedience to his father’s desire and ambition. But the desultory habit of mind, the preference for literature and philosophical speculation to connected study, which had marked his career in college, followed him and prevented any serious application to the law. His father’s patience was after a while exhausted, and he withdrew Burke’s allowance and left him to his own resources.  1
  This was in 1755, but in 1756 he married, and made his first appearance in the literary world by the publication of a book. About these years from 1750 to 1759 little is known. He published two works, one a treatise on the ‘Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,’ and the other a ‘Vindication of Natural Society,’ a satire on Bolingbroke. Stray allusions and anecdotes about other men in the diaries and correspondence of the time show that he frequented the literary coffee-houses, and was gradually making an impression on the authors and wits whom he met there. Besides the two books we have mentioned, he produced some smaller things, such as an ‘Essay on the Drama,’ and part of an ‘Abridgment of the History of England.’ But although these helped to secure him admission to the literary set, they did not raise him out of the rank of obscure literary adventurers, who from the Revolution of 1688, and especially after the union with Scotland, began to swarm to London from all parts of the three kingdoms. The first recognition of him as a serious writer was his employment by Dodsley the bookseller, at a salary of $100 a year, to edit the Annual Register, which Dodsley founded in 1769. Considered as a biographical episode, this may fairly be treated as a business man’s certificate that Burke was industrious and accurate. As his income from his father was withdrawn or reduced in 1755, there remain four years during which his way of supporting himself is unknown. His published works were certainly not “pot-boilers.” He was probably to some extent dependent on his wife’s father, Dr. Nugent, an Irish physician who when Burke made his acquaintance lived in Bath, but after his daughter’s marriage settled in London, and seems to have frequented and have been acceptable in the same coffee-houses as Burke, and for the same reasons. But Burke was not a man to remain long dependent on any one. These nine years were evidently not spent fruitlessly. They had made him known and brought him to the threshold of public life.  2
  In 1759, political discussion as we understand it—that is, those explorations of the foundations of political society and analyses of social relations which now form our daily intellectual food—was hardly known. The interest in religion as the chief human concern was rapidly declining. The interest in human society as an organism to be studied, and if need be, taken to pieces and put together again, was only just beginning. Montesquieu’s great work, ‘The Spirit of the Laws,’ which demanded for expediency and convenience in legislation the place which modern Europe had long assigned to authority, had only appeared in 1748. Swift’s satires had made serious breaches in the wall of convention by which the State, in spite of the convulsions of the seventeenth century, was still surrounded. But the writer whose speculations excited most attention in England was Bolingbroke. The charm of his style and the variety of his interests made him the chief intellectual topic of the London world in Burke’s early youth. To write like Bolingbroke was a legitimate ambition for a young man. It is not surprising that Burke felt it, and that his earliest political effort was a satire on Bolingbroke. It attracted the attention of a politician, Gerard Hamilton, and he quickly picked up Burke as his secretary, treated him badly, and was abandoned by him in disgust at the end of six years.  3
  The peculiar condition of the English governmental machine made possible for men of Burke’s kind at this period what would not be possible now. The population had vanished from a good many old boroughs, although their representation in Parliament remained, and the selection of the members fell to the lords of the soil. About one hundred and fifty members of the House of Commons were in this way chosen by great landed proprietors, and it is to be said to their credit that they used their power freely to introduce unknown young men of talent into public life. Moreover in many cases, if not in most, small boroughs, however well peopled, were expected to elect the proprietor’s nominee. Burke after leaving Hamilton’s service was for a short time private secretary to Lord Rockingham, when the latter succeeded Grenville in the Ministry in 1766; but when he went out, Burke obtained a seat in Parliament in 1765 in the manner we have described, for the borough of Wendover, from Lord Verney, who owned it. He made his first successful speech the same year, and was complimented by Pitt. He was already recognized as a man of enormous information, as any one who edited the Annual Register had to be.  4
  A man of such powers and tastes in that day naturally became a pamphleteer. Outside of Parliament there was no other mode of discussing public affairs. The periodical press for purposes of discussion did not exist. During and after the Great Rebellion, the pamphlet had made its appearance as the chief instrument of controversy. Defoe used it freely after the Restoration. Swift made a great hit with it, and probably achieved the first sensational sale with his pamphlet on ‘The Conduct of the Allies.’ Bolingbroke’s ‘Patriot King’ was a work of the same class. As a rule the pamphlet exposed or refuted somebody, even if it also freely expounded. It was inevitable that Burke should early begin to wield this most powerful of existing weapons. His antagonist was ready for him in the person of George Grenville, the minister who had made way for Burke’s friend and patron Lord Rockingham. Grenville showed, as easily as any party newspaper in our own day, that Rockingham and his friends had ruined the country by mismanagement of the war and of the finances. Burke refuted him with a mastery of facts and figures, and a familiarity with the operations of trade and commerce, and a power of exposition and illustration, and a comprehension of the fundamental conditions of national economy, which at once made him famous and a necessary man for the Whigs in the great struggle with the Crown on which they were entering.  5
  The nature of this struggle cannot be better described in brief space than by saying that the King, from his accession to the throne down to the close of the American War, was engaged in a persistent effort to govern through ministers chosen and dismissed, as the German ministers are now, by himself; while the subservience of Parliament was secured by the profuse use of pensions and places. To this attempt, and all the abuses which inevitably grew out of it, the Whigs with Burke as their intellectual head offered a determined resistance, and the conflict was one extraordinarily well calculated to bring his peculiar powers into play.  6
  The leading events in this long struggle were the attempt of the House of Commons to disqualify Wilkes for a seat in the House, to punish reporting their debates as a breach of privilege, and the prosecution of the war against the American colonies. It may be said to have begun at the accession of the King, and to have lasted until the resignation of Lord North after the surrender of Cornwallis, or from 1770 to 1783.  7
  Burke’s contributions to it were his pamphlet, ‘Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,’ and several speeches in Parliament: the first, like the pamphlet, on the general situation, and others on minor incidents in the struggle. This pamphlet has not only survived the controversy, but has become one of the most famous papers in the political literature of the Anglo-Saxon race. It is a century since every conspicuous figure in the drama passed away; it is seventy years since every trace of the controversy disappeared from English political life; most if not all of the principles for which Burke contended have become commonplaces of English constitutional practice; the discontents of that day have vanished as completely as those of 1630: but Burke’s pamphlet still holds a high place in every course of English literature, and is still read and pondered by every student of constitutional history and by every speculator on government and political morals.  8
  In 1774 Parliament was dissolved for the second time since Burke entered it; and there a misfortune overtook him which illustrated in a striking way the practical working of the British Constitution at that period. Lord Verney, to whom he had owed his seat for the borough of Wendover at two elections, had fallen into pecuniary embarrassment and could no longer return him, because compelled to sell his four boroughs. This left Burke high and dry, and he was beginning to tremble for his political future, when he was returned for the great commercial city of Bristol by a popular constituency. The six years during which he sat for Bristol were the most splendid portion of his career. Other portions perhaps contributed as much if not more to his literary or oratorical reputation; but this brought out in very bold relief the great traits of character which will always endear his memory to the lovers of national liberty, and place him high among the framers of great political ideals. In the first place, he propounded boldly to the Bristol electors the theory that he was to be their representative but not their delegate; that his parliamentary action must be governed by his own reason and not by their wishes. In the next, he resolutely sacrificed his seat by opposing his constituents in supporting the removal of the restrictions on Irish trade, of which English merchants reaped the benefit. He would not be a party to what he considered the oppression of his native country, no matter what might be the effect on his political prospects; and in 1780 he was not re-elected.  9
  But the greatest achievement of this period of his history was his share in the controversy over the American War, which was really not more a conflict with the colonies over taxation, than a resolute and obstinate carrying out of the King’s principles of government. The colonies were, for the time being, simply resisting pretensions to which the kingdom at home submitted. Burke’s speeches on ‘American Taxation’ (1774), on ‘Conciliation with America’ (1775), and his ‘Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol’ (1777) on the same subject, taken as a sequel to the ‘Thoughts on the Present Discontents,’ form a body of literature which it is not too much to pronounce not only a history of the dispute with the colonies, but a veritable political manual. He does not confine himself to a minute description of the arguments used in supporting the attempt to coerce America; he furnishes as he goes along principles of legislation applicable almost to any condition of society; illustrations which light up as by a single flash problems of apparently inscrutable darkness; explanations of great political failures; and receipts innumerable for political happiness and success. A single sentence often disposes of half a dozen fallacies firmly imbedded in governmental tradition. His own description of the rhetorical art of Charles Townshend was eminently applicable to himself:—“He knew, better by far than any man I ever was acquainted with, how to bring together within a short time all that was necessary to establish, to illustrate, and to decorate that side of the question which he supported.”  10
  This observation suggests the great advantage he derives as a political instructor from the facts that all his political speeches and writings are polemical. The difficulty of keeping exposition from being dry is familiar to everybody who has ever sought to communicate knowledge on any subject. But Burke in every one of his political theses had an antagonist, who was literally as he says himself, a helper: who did the work of an opposing counsel at the bar, in bringing out into prominence all the weak points of Burke’s case and all the strong ones of his own; who set in array all the fallacies to be exposed, all the idols to be overthrown, all the doubts to be cleared up. Moreover he was not, like the man who usually figures in controversial dialogues, a sham opponent, but a creature of flesh and blood like Grenville, or the Sheriffs of Bristol, or the King’s friends, or the Irish Protestant party, who met Burke with an ardor not inferior to his own. We consequently have, in all his papers and speeches, the very best of which he was capable in thought and expression, for he had not only to watch the city but to meet the enemy in the gate.  11
  After the close of the American War, the remainder of Burke’s career was filled with two great subjects, to which he devoted himself with an ardor which occasionally degenerated into fanaticism. One was the government of India by the East India Company, and the other was the French Revolution. Although the East India Company had been long in existence, and had towards the middle of the eighteenth century been rapidly extending its power and influence, comparatively little had been known by the English public of the nature of its operations. Attention had been drawn away from it by the events in America and the long contest with the King in England. By the close of the American War, however, the “Nabobs,” as they were called,—or returned English adventurers,—began to make a deep impression on English society by the apparent size of their fortunes and the lavishness of their expenditure. Burke calculated that in his time they had brought home about $200,000,000, with which they bought estates and seats in Parliament and became a very conspicuous element in English public and private life. At the same time, information as to the mode in which their money was made and their government carried on was scanty and hard to acquire. The press had no foreign correspondence; India was six months away, and all the Europeans in it were either servants of the Company, or remained in it on the Company’s sufferance. The Whigs finally determined to attempt a grand inquisition into its affairs, and a bill was brought in by Fox, withdrawing the government of India from the Company and vesting it in a commission named in the bill. This was preceded by eleven reports from a Committee of Inquiry. But the bill failed utterly, and brought down the Whig ministry, which did not get into office again in Burke’s time. This was followed in 1785, on Burke’s instigation, by the impeachment of the most conspicuous of the Company’s officers, Warren Hastings. Burke was appointed one of the managers on behalf of the Commons.  12
  No episode in his career is so familiar to the public as his conduct of this trial, owing to Warren Hastings having been the subject of one of the most popular of Macaulay’s Essays. None brought out more clearly Burke’s great dialectical powers, or so well displayed his mastery of details and his power of orderly exposition. The trial lasted eight years, and was adjourned over from one Parliamentary session to another. These delays were fatal to its success. The public interest in it died out long before the close, as usual in protracted legal prosecutions; the feeling spread that the defendant could not be very guilty when it took so long to prove his crime. Although Burke toiled over the case with extraordinary industry and persistence, and an enthusiasm which never flagged, Hastings was finally acquitted.  13
  But the labors of the prosecution were not wholly vain. It awoke in England an attention to the government of India which never died out, and led to a considerable curtailing of the power of the East India Company, and necessarily of its severity, in dealing with Indian States. The impeachment was preceded by eleven reports on the affairs of India by the Committee of the House of Commons, and the articles of impeachment were nearly as voluminous. Probably no question which has ever come before Parliament has received so thorough an examination. Hardly less important was the report of the Committee of the Commons (which consisted of the managers of the impeachment) on the Lords’ journals. This was an elaborate examination of the rules of evidence which govern proceedings in the trial of impeachments, or of persons guilty of malfeasance in office. This has long been a bone of contention between lawyers and statesmen. The Peers in the course of the trial had taken the opinion of the judges frequently, and had followed it in deciding on the admissibility of evidence, a great deal of which was important to the prosecution. The report maintained, and with apparently unanswerable force, that when a legislature sits on offenses against the State, it constitutes a grand inquest which makes its own rules of evidence; and is not and ought not to be tied up by the rules administered in the ordinary law courts, and formed for the most part for the guidance of the unskilled and often uneducated men who compose juries. As a manual for the instruction of legislative committees of inquiry it is therefore still very valuable, if it be not a final authority.  14
  Burke, during and after the Warren Hastings trial, fell into considerable neglect and unpopularity. His zeal in the prosecution had grown as the public interest in it declined, until it approached the point of fanaticism. He took office in the coalition which succeeded the Fox Whigs, and when the French Revolution broke out it found him somewhat broken in nerves, irritated by his failures, and in less cordial relations with some of his old friends and colleagues. He at once arrayed himself fiercely against the Revolution, and broke finally with what might be called the Liberty of all parties and creeds, and stood forth to the world as the foremost champion of authority, prescription, and precedent. Probably none of his writings are so familiar to the general public as those which this crisis produced, such as the ‘Thoughts on the French Revolution’ and the ‘Letters on a Regicide Peace.’ They are and will always remain, apart from the splendor of the rhetoric, extremely interesting as the last words spoken by a really great man on behalf of the old order. Old Europe made through him the best possible defense of itself. He told, as no one else could have told it, the story of what customs, precedent, prescription, and established usage had done for its civilization; and he told it nevertheless as one who was the friend of rational progress, and had taken no small part in promoting it. Only one other writer who followed him came near equaling him as a defender of the past, and that was Joseph de Maistre; but he approached the subject mainly from the religious side. To him the old régime was the order of Providence. To Burke it was the best scheme of things that humanity could devise for the advancement and preservation of civilization. In the papers we have mentioned, which were the great literary sensations of Burke’s day, everything that could be said for the system of political ethics under which Europe had lived for a thousand years was said with a vigor, incisiveness, and wealth of illustration which must make them for all time and in all countries the arsenal of those who love the ancient ways and dread innovation.  15
  The failure of the proceedings against Warren Hastings, and the strong sympathy with the French Revolution—at least in its beginning—displayed by the Whigs and by most of those with whom Burke had acted in politics, had an unfortunate effect on his temper. He broke off his friendship with Fox and others of his oldest associates and greatest admirers. He became hopeless and out of conceit with the world around him. One might have set down some of this at least to the effect of advancing years and declining health, if such onslaughts on revolutionary ideas as his ‘Reflections on the French Revolution’ and his ‘Letters on a Regicide Peace’ did not reveal the continued possession of all the literary qualities which had made the success of his earlier works. Their faults are literally the faults of youth: the brilliancy of the rhetoric, the heat of the invective, the violence of the partisanship, the reluctance to admit the existence of any grievances in France to justify the popular onslaught on the monarchy, the noblesse, and the Church. His one explanation of the crisis and its attendant horrors was the instigation of the spirit of evil. The effect on contemporary opinion was very great, and did much to stimulate the conservative reaction in England which carried on the Napoleonic wars and lasted down to the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832.  16
  There were, however, other causes for the cloud which came over Burke’s later years. In spite of his great services to his party and his towering eminence as an orator and writer, he never obtained a seat in the Cabinet. The Paymastership of the Forces, at a salary of $20,000 a year, was the highest reward, either in honor or money, which his party ever bestowed on him. It is true that in those days the Whigs were very particular in reserving high places for men of rank and family. In fact, their government was, from the Revolution of 1688 on, a thorough oligarchy, divided among a few great houses. That they should not have broken through this rule in Burke’s case, and admitted to the Cabinet a man to whom they owed so much as they did to him, excited wonder in his own day, and has down to our own time been one of the historical mysteries on which the students of that period love to expend their ingenuity. It is difficult to reconcile this exclusion and neglect of Burke with the unbounded admiration lavished on him by the aristocratic leaders of the party. It is difficult too to account for Burke’s quiet acquiescence in what seems to be their ingratitude. There had before his time been no similar instance of party indifference to such claims as he could well make, on such honors and rewards as the party had to bestow.  17
  The most probable explanation of the affair is the one offered by his latest and ablest biographer, Mr. John Morley. Burke had entered public life without property,—probably the most serious mistake, if in his case it can be called a mistake, which an English politician can commit. It is a wise and salutary rule of English public life that a man who seeks a political career shall qualify for it by pecuniary independence. It would be hardly fair in Burke’s case to say that he had sought a political career. The greatness of his talents literally forced it on him. He became a statesman and great Parliamentary orator, so to speak, in spite of himself. But he must have early discovered the great barrier to complete success created by his poverty. He may be said to have passed his life in pecuniary embarrassment. This alone might not have shut him out from the Whig official Paradise, for the same thing might have been said of Pitt and Fox: but they had connections; they belonged by birth and association to the Whig class. Burke’s relatives were no help or credit to him. In fact, they excited distrust of him. They offended the fastidious aristocrats with whom he associated, and combined with his impecuniousness to make him seem unsuitable for a great place. These aristocrats were very good to him. They lent him money freely, and settled a pension on him, and covered him with social adulation; but they were never willing to put him beside themselves in the government. His latter years therefore had an air of tragedy. He was unpopular with most of those who in his earlier years had adored him, and was the hero of those whom in earlier years he had despised. His only son, of whose capacity he had formed a strange misconception, died young, and he passed his own closing hours, as far as we can judge, with a sense of failure. But he left one of the great names in English history. There is no trace of him in the statute book, but he has, it is safe to say, exercised a profound influence in all succeeding legislation, both in England and America. He has inspired or suggested nearly all the juridical changes which distinguish the England of to-day from the England of the eighteenth century, and is probably the only British politician whose speeches and pamphlets, made for immediate results, have given him immortality.  18

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