The early history or this great man is unusually meagre; even the place of h birth has been disputed. According to some of his biographers, he was born at Dublin; according to others, in a little town in the county of Cork. The date of his birth, however, is more certain — 1st January, 1730. His father was an attorney of considerable practice; and, beside the results of his practice, had an estate or £150 or £200 a year. He married into the ancient family of the Nagles. Edmund was his second son; and, at a very early age was sent to Balytore school, a seminary in the north of lreand, well known for having furnished the bar and the pulpit of that country with many distinguished men — a fact the more worthy of note, because the school has, for near a century, been under the direction of Quakers, whose oratory is not generally esteemed the best model of imitation far young men of any profession, with the exception, perhaps, of those who are intended for certain walks of the drama.
Here young Burke is said to have distinguished himself "by an ardent attachment to study, a prompt command of words, and a good taste." He proved the power of his memory by the facility with which he became a capper of verses, and the precocity of his invention by writing a play, of which little is remembered, but "that Alfred was the principal character, and that the piece contained many sublime sentiments on liberty."
We lament the loss of this school-boy effusion; it is important to mark the gradations by which genius mounts. If the first essays of great men could always be known, we should often find their ascent to have been more gradual than is usually imagined. Many a young aspirant, who is dismayed at the height which others have attained, would be cheered and stimulated if he could ascertain what they had accomplished at his age, and the indolent and confident would be reminded that no superiority of talent can supply the necessity of early and regular exertion.
Burke regarded his preceptor, Mr. Shackelton, with feelings which did honour to both. For nearly forty-years that he went annually to Ireland, he invariably travelled many miles to pay him a visit; nor did he confine his friendship to old Mr. Shackelton, his son enjoyed it also, with whom he was in habits of constant correspondence.
From school, Burke went to Trinity College, Dublin but here, according to his contemporary, Goldsmith, he did not distinguish himself. It may excite surprise, that the motives which placed him at the head of his school, did not operate to raise him at the university; but let the progress of the human mind be carefully observed, and the inquirer will soon find that the springs of action are very different, in the child and the adult. The child performs his task from love of imitation, hope of reward, and fear of punishment; as the intellect strengthens, he begins to love learning for itself; or for the distinction which he hopes to gain by the exertion of original powers; that which was before a means becomes an end, and his former hopes and fears, and wishes, pass away and are forgotten.
We are far from asserting that such a change obtains in every mind, and still farther from maintaining that it always happens at a particular age. We only suggest this new birth as unfavourable to a very ardent affection for college exercises, because the natural and unavoidable distinction between man and man, will always tend to produce variety of object. Artificial motives will alone produce exact conformity of movement; and where these have not only faded from the view, but are supplied with others which have a contrary effect, it must cease to be matter of surprise, that men, whose originality in after-life instructs and delights future ages, should be so often outstripped in youth by competitors, whose names will only be known to posterity from their association with those whom they conquered.
How far our theory is correct we shall leave to the decision of our readers; the facts on which it is built are numerous and incontrovertible; and, if Burke be still thought to deserve censure for coolness with regard to university honours, let it be at least remembered that, among the companions of his disgrace, must be counted Johnson, Swift, Gibbon, Dryden, and even Milton himself.
At an early period of his life, Burke is said to have planned a confutation of the metaphysical theories of Berkeley and Hume — a task which be never executed. Indeed, according to some of his biographers, his ideas flowed with too great a rapidity to enable him to give that patient attention to minute distinction, without which it is in vain to attempt a confutation of these astute and subtle reasoners. We find it sufficiently difficult to decide upon the merits of what he has done; and, therefore, feel no inclination to institute an inquiry into the possibility of his genius.
In the year 1749 we find young Burke employed upon a subject more analogous to his future pursuits. At that period, Mr. Lucas, a political apothecary, wrote papers against government, and acquired by them as much popularity in Dublin as Mr. Wilkes afterwards obtained by his North Briton in London. Burke employed against Lucas the Reductio ad absurdum; he imitated his style so exactly as to deceive the public; and pursued the principles of his opponent to consequences, which, in the opinion of his biographers, necessarily resulted from those principles, and which rendered their falsity manifest.
"Ireland," says Dr. Bissett, "though often the mother, is seldom the nurse of genius." She does not seem to have any exception in favour of Mr. Burke, or he certainly would never have deserted her for Scotland. We are told he became ambitious of the logical chair at Glasgow; but, whether the application came too late, or whether the university was unwilling to receive a stranger, certain it is, Burke was unsuccessful. One account says, that he was passing the old college gate, when a label affixed to it, struck his eye, inviting all the candidates for the professorship to a competition, although it was known that a successor was already fixed upon. Burke was still young enough to be taken in by this form; although he had enjoyed the benefit of an academic education, and might have learnt, we think, to suspect the seeming fairness of such challenges.
Disappointed in Glasgow, Burke betook himself to London. His first arrival in the metropolis was in 1753; and he immediately entered himself of the Temple. Here he studied with unremitting diligence; but his exertions were not confined to the acquisition of knowledge, for, although, from the death of his elder brother, his ultimate expectations were considerable, yet, as his father was still alive , and had other children, his allowance was small; and he found it necessary to supply the deficiency by his own exertions, and we are told, he became a frequent contributor to the periodical publications. His manners, at this period of his life, were engaging; his habits and conversation were long remembered al the Grecian coffeehouse (then the rendezvous of the templars), and they left a strong and favourable impression of his talents and morals. On the other hand, his detractors have ridiculed him for passing his leisure with Mrs. Woffington the actress; but it should be recollected that she was his country-woman, and that her society was no less courted by men of genius than by men of pleasure.
Although he was professedly studying the law, he by no means confined himself to that science; there is reason to believe that, he never made it even a principal object of attention. If we may trust his biographers, he ranged over the whole expanse of human knowledge; even when he narrowed the bounds of his excursions, they appear almost too wide to be traversed by mortal energies. "The studies to which he gave himself up with peculiar zeal (says Dr. Bissett), were those which unfolded human nature, history, ethics, politics, pneumatology, poetry, and criticism."
The consequence of this application was a dangerous illness, and he resorted for medical advice to his countryman, Dr. Nugent, a physician of great skill and equal benevolence. The Doctor, considering that chambers are much better adapted for producing patients than curing them (an opinion which we hold from experience to be among the soundest in the profession), kindly offered him apartments in his own house, where the attention of this benevolent man and his family, gradually, with or without the assistance of medicine, restored his patient's health. Among the most attentive to young Burke, was the amiable daughter of his host. A warm and mutual attachment was formed between the convalescent and his gentle nurse, and soon after his recovery they were married. With Miss Nugent, Burke seems to have enjoyed uninterrupted happiness: "In all the anxious moments of my public life (he often said to his friends) every care vanishes when I enter my own house."
In 1756 appeared the first of his productions which he has thought worthy of acknowledgment. It is a very happy imitation of Bolingbroke, entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. it was a bold attempt for a young man, only in his twenty-seventh year, to impose upon the world the essays of his own inexperience for the productions of a veteran, and such a veteran as Bolingbroke; but the experiment succeeded. Macklin the player, who was a kind of professor of Belles Lettres at the Grecian coffee-house, affected to detect Bolingbroke at every turn, and exclaimed to the young templars, Burke, perhaps, being one of the audience, "Oh! this must be Harry Bolingbroke, I know him by his cloven foot." It is also said that Warburton, and even Chesterfield, were at first deceived. It may have been so, but to us the irony appears tolerably evident. Burke's intention by this ironical attack upon society, as at present constituted, was to shew the disciples of Lord Bolingbroke, that the same train of reasoning by which their master had attempted to explode the religion of their country, in whose fate they were but little interested, might be applied to the destruction of their property and the annihilation of their privileges, and wisely concluded that the "argument ad crumenam" was the most effective, if not the soundest which could be employed against them. There is a radical fallacy in the reasoning of the sceptical philosophers, which lays them fairly open to such attacks as this of Burke's. They take it for granted, that all the evils which exist, are effects of the peculiar systems under which they exist. They deem it sufficient to point out evil to prove the necessity of alteration, forgetting that good and bad, like up and down, are, practically speaking, only terms of comparison, and, that it is idle to point out defects in a system, without at the same time furnishing an opportunity of comparing them with remedies; for since a perfect system can never he made without perfect materials, it behoves the objector to shew that the defect is in the construction, and not in the elements, which he cannot do, unless by shewing how a different construction would have obviated the objection.
In a rapid and masterly sketch, Burke shews that political societies have seldom been employed but in injuring each other, — that, if we may trust history, a hasty, partial enumeration of the numbers who have lost their lives in public wars, more than equals the whole existing population of the earth. Turning from the external to the internal polity of governments, he shews that all are alike wayward, ignorant, selfish, and tyrannical, waging an eternal war with the happiness of our species. From all which he infers that we have done wrong in forming political communities and enacting laws, and that we should have rested satisfied with the simple relations of natural society.
As must be expected, the picture is overcharged, and sometimes the portrait verges upon caricature; yet the author has shewn great art in avoiding almost all exaggerations but what naturally resulted from the nature of the attack.
Soon after the Vindication of Natural Society, appeared the celebrated Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful. This work is too well known to require an analysis of the system. The investigation was new, and though far from being completely successful, has a least furnished some important suggestions. Johnson considered it a model of philosophical criticism: — "We have (he said) an example of true criticism in Burke's Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful. There is no great merit in shewing how many plays have ghosts in them, or how this ghost is better than that, you must shew how terror is impressed on the human heart."
The publication of this work formed a distinguished epoch in the life of Burke. He speedily became universally known and admired. The ignorant and superficial, from the subject, believed him to be a man of taste; the learned and the wise, from the execution, knew him to be a man of taste and profound philosophy. His acquaintance was immediately courted by the most distinguished literary characters. Mr. (afterwards Sir Joshua) Reynolds and Dr. Johnson were among the first who formed an intimate connection with him; and the latter in particular was so charmed with the genius and knowledge which he exhibited, that, at a very early period of their acquaintance, it was observed by Murphy, that Johnson would from Burke bear contradiction, which he would tolerate in no other person. Goldsmith, Topham Beauclerc, Sir John Hawkins, and many others equally distinguished for literature and classical acquirements, also became acquainted with him about this time; and of these was formed a literary club, which comprehended almost all the talent and genius of the day. But the principal and most immediate advantage derived by Burke from this publication, was a remittance of £100 which his father, who was enraptured at perusing the spirited and elegant production of his son, immediately forwarded to him; and which, with the sale of his book, relieved him from some very pressing pecuniary embarrassments.
In 1758 he proposed to Dodsley the plan of an "Annual Register" of the civil, political, and literary transactions of the times; a work, which, if conducted on liberal and impartial principles, must be allowed to have been a great desideratum in history. This proposal met with Dodsley's approbation, and it was carried into effect; Burke himself superintending the publication, and contributing largely to its contents for many years.
He had, at an early period of his life, been connected in intimate friendship with the Right Honourable William Gerard Hamilton, since known by the familiar appellation of "Single-Speech Hamilton;" a title which was founded on a general, though erroneous idea, that Mr. Hamilton had never delivered but one speech of any importance in the British senate; and that one so justly celebrated as to give rise to an opinion, which was strengthened by the intimacy of the parties, that it was composed for him by Mr. Burke. When Mr. Hamilton went over to Ireland as official secretary to Lord Halifax, then lord-lieutenant, he prevailed upon Burke to accompany him. Shortly after his arrival there, Mr. Hamilton having made another excellent speech in the Irish House of Commons, and having procured for Burke a pension of £300 a year on the Irish establishment, it was considered by many as a recompence for his assistance in their composition. This, however, we have reason to believe was not the case; the talents of Hamilton were very great, and fully adequate to the production of the speeches referred to; and his future silence in the senate may be easily accounted for by the indolence of that gentleman, whose ample fortune afforded him the means of indulging in that dissipation to which he was so ardently attached. His biographer, however, in negativing the above report, does not furnish us with any clue to guide us out of the labyrinth; and we are still at a loss to ascertain to what peculiar circumstances Burke was indebted for this liberal and seasonable supply. That it was not altogether owing to an understood or avowed agreement, on the part of Burke, to support the measures of his friend by the powerful efforts of his genius, may be collected from the circumstance of his never having been known as the author of any political publications on that side during the short period of his stay in Ireland. He also retained the pension for some time after his return to England; and did not throw it up until he had declared himself an avowed adherent to the party in opposition to that in which Hamilton ranked.
An anecdote which is recorded of the dissolution of their friendship, principally, we suppose, for the sake of the pun which it contains, is totally inconsistent with the facts related by Dr. Bissett. In a dispute which arose on some political question, Hamilton is reported to have told Burke, "that he took him from a garret;" "Then, Sir, by your own confession, it was I that descended to know you," was the indignant reply. Bissett, however, states, that though no intimate connection subsisted between these gentlemen after Burke's return from Ireland, yet that their friendship was never entirely dissolved, a circumstance which must have been unavoidable, had the above report been true; and he alleges, in confirmation of this, the authority of a letter written by Burke to Hamilton, which he had seen, and in which the former gentleman expostulates with his friend on his indolence, and reminds him, that he himself had a growing family to maintain, and must turn his talents to what would be useful; and, on that account, that he must politically associate with men of more active exertions.
On his return to England, his pecuniary circumstances being less embarrassed, and himself raised above want by his Irish pension, he applied himself with equal ardour, and increased success, to the study of politics. Several pamphlets which he published about this time, together with some occasional disquisitions in the Public Advertiser, introduced him to the notice of Mr. Fitzherbert, through whose friendly medium he became known to the Marquis of Rockingham and Lord Verney.
Now it was that Burke was destined to shine in his proper colours, as a distinguished orator and enlightened statesman. The administration, over which Mr. Grenville presided, having become unpopular to the nation and unpleasing to the court, his majesty, in 1765, appointed a new ministry, composed entirely of the friends and political adherents of the Marquis of Rockingham. The marquis became first lord of the treasury, and Burke was appointed his private secretary; a dissolution of parliament took place, and Burke was nominated by Lord Verney to represent the borough of Wendover, in Somersetshire.
Johnson had declared, that in whatever society Burke were placed, he would become the first man in it: "If he were to go into the stable," said Johnson, "and talk to the ostlers for five minutes, they would think him the wisest man they ever saw." This opinion was quickly realised. The high expectations which his party had formed of his genius and abilities were not disappointed. With that ardour of mind which ever prompted him to shine, he devoted the time previous to the meeting of parliament to a new course of study. For the purpose of storing his mind with facts, reasonings, imagery, and sentiments, he applied himself with unwearied diligence to the study of history, poetry, and philosophy. His biographer also assures us, that he at the same time dived deep into a study, of which it would be difficult for any but himself to perceive the utility, that of the Fathers, and the scholastic disputations of the middle ages. A study more evidently useful, but which to the elegant mind of Burke must have been almost equally unpleasing, was that of parliamentary usages, precedents, &c. in which he employed a great portion of his time, aware in how great a degree they were essential to the man of eminence in parliamentary business. He soon, however, felt that all acquirements would be of little service, unless accompanied by an easy and unembarrassed manner of communicating them to others. To obviate this difficulty, and accustom himself to hear his own opinions combated and to oppose those of others, he for some time frequented the Robin Hood Society; a debating club at that time in high reputation, and which has produced many men of distinguished oratorical powers. By this course of studies and exertions, continued for some months, he qualified himself for delivering at the opening of the ensuing session, a maiden speech, which excited the admiration of the house, and elicited the warmest praises from the great Mr. Pitt.
The influence which introduced Burke into the house of commons, had no doubt considerable weight in determining his parliamentary conduct. This will probably not be regarded as a harsh assertion, when we consider the comprehensiveness of his mind and the soundness of his judgment, and reflect on the measures which he advocated in his first parliamentary essay. The object of primary importance, when the Rockingham administration succeeded to power, was America; and Burke, with the rest of that party, advised and strongly contended to, measures which certainly, in whatever light we consider them, give us no very great idea of the political efficiency of their authors. Their intention was to conciliate the Americans by a repeal of the stamp act; but at the same time to save the honour of the mother country, by pressing an act declaratory of the right of the British parliament to tax the colonies. With reference, however, to subjects of domestic policy, this administration acted with greater prudence and better success. The repeal of the cyder act, a law which invested with an unjust and almost arbitrary power, the officers of the excise, gave universal satisfaction. Resolutions were passed, declaring the illegality of general warrants and the seizure of papers, circumstances which had excited so much dissatisfaction in the affair of Wilkes; and many excellent commercial regulations were carried into effect. But the consequences which must result from their measures, with respect to America, were so evident, and perhaps too the secret influence which afterwards removed the Earl of Chatham, was so strong, that they were quickly dismissed from office to make room for a new administration under the auspices of Pitt, created for that purpose Earl of Chatham, and lord privy seal.
In this brief sketch of the short-lived Rockingham administration we have scarcely mentioned Burke, as his public life was identified with the history of the party which he supported. On its dismissal, he published A short Defence of the late short-lived Administration; in which he advocated their measures with great plausibility, and in a style essentially different from that of any of his other productions. It bears the semblance of having been composed by a man of consummate plainness and simplicity, and was therefore more adapted for making converts than the most elaborate and highly-finished production, which would rather have been regarded with suspicion, as the pleadings of an ingenious and artful advocate. He soon after published an ironical answer to this defence, purporting to be written by a tallow-chandler and common-council man, in which, he attacks Lord Chatham and the new ministry with great humour, mingled with the keenest irony. Whatever may have been the merits or demerits of the Rockingham ministry, they certainly deserve high commendations for the liberal manner in which they retired from their offices. Not one of them retained either place, pension, or reversion for themselves or their friends. A piece of disinterestedness which must have been severely felt by Burke, from the narrowness of his private fortune.
In July 1766, Mr. Burke being once more free from all restraint, revisited his native land, endeared to him by long absence, and the remembrance of the friends of his earlier years, with many of whom he renewed his acquaintance. Towards the close of the year he returned to England, where a strong opposition had been organised against the measures of the new administration. In this Burke took an active part, and soon distinguished himself as the head of the Rockingham party, in which, although supported by men of powerful talents, Dowdeswell, Counsellor Dunning, and Colonel Barre, Burke always claimed pre-eminence. His speeches shone with a warmth of imagination united to a high degree of political knowledge, which the others could never attain. The opinion which Burke entertained of this ministry, which is commonly known by the Grafton administration, is thus humorously described by himself. After paying many merited eulogiums to the character of Lord Chatham, he claims the privilege of history to speak of the administration he had formed, and thus proceeds: — "He made an administration so checquered and speckled; he put together a piece of joining, so crossly indented and whimsically dove-tailed; a cabinet so variously inlaid; such a piece of diversified Mosaic; such a tessellated pavement without cement; here a bit of black stone, and there a bit of white; patriots and courtiers; king's friends and republicans; Whigs and Tories; treacherous friends and open enemies; that it was indeed a very curious show, but utterly unsafe to touch, and unsure to stand upon. The colleagues, whom he had assorted at the same boards, stared at each other, and were obliged to ask, 'Sir, your name? — Sir, you have the advantage of me — Mr. Such-a-one — Sir, I beg ten thousand pardons.' — I venture to say, it did so happen, that persons had a single office divided between them, who had never spoken to each other in their lives, until they found themselves, they knew not how, heads and points, in the same truckle-bed."
An administration, composed of materials so discordant, could not long remain united. The secret influence of the princess dowager was unceasingly employed in scattering dissensions among the ministry, and in counteracting the patriotic designs of Lord Chatham. Wearied with unavailing attempts to carry into effect the extensive plans which he had meditated for the good of his country, and finding it no longer in his power to oppose the cabal which had been formed in the cabinet against him, this great and patriotic statesman at length retired in disgust, under the united pressure of age and ill-health. He felt that he had no longer the power to oppose with effect those ruinous measures into which the country was about to be precipitated, and he resolved not to give even a tacit consent to them, by retaining an office of which the power had passed away from him.
On the resignation of Lord Chatham, the parliament was dissolved, and Burke was again returned for the borough of Wendover. The new parliament, which met in November 1768, is famous for the proceedings which took place in the memorable affair of Wilkes, and which are so well known as to render a repetition of them useless. Burke, on this occasion, took a high and constitutional ground, strenuously contending that an act of parliament alone could disqualify any person from sitting in the house of commons, who had been fairly elected by a majority of votes to a vacant seat. This principle, though then rejected, was, in an ensuing parliament, acknowledged, the resolution for inserting the name of Luttrell in the returned writ, instead of that of Wilkes, being rescinded by order of the house. This and other events which occurred about the same time, gave rise to those celebrated letters inserted in the Public Advertiser, under the signature of Junius. These letters have frequently been attributed to Burke, but on very insufficient grounds: he declared to Johnson that he was not the author of them; and the internal evidence of style, together with the very different political opinions of Burke and Junius, prove their characters to have been entirely distinct.
Nor did Burke on this important occasion confine himself to the many excellent speeches which he made in the house. He drew up a petition to the king, from the freeholders of Buckinghamshire (at Beaconsfield, in which county he had now purchased a house), complaining of the conduct of the house of commons in the expulsion of Wilkes, and praying for a dissolution of parliament. Indeed so unpopular at this time was the Grafton ministry, that their continuance in office was principally, if not solely, owing to the divisions among their antagonists. The opposition was composed of two parties, at the head of which were the Marquis of Rockingham and Mr. Grenville, which agreed on no other point than to harass the ministry. Mr. Grenville, about this time, published an Essay, on The present State of the Nation; to which Burke wrote an answer, under the title of Observations on the present State of the Nation. Grenville's principal object was to prove that the nation was about to be ruined by a deviation from those principles on which he acted during his administration, and that America was very well able to pay a certain proportion of taxes towards the support of the state. In his Observations on this pamphlet, Burke, with great perspicuity, follows Grenville through all his details, and proves the insufficiency and inaccuracy of his arguments and calculations: — "Grenville," said Burke, "is satisfied to repeat gravely, as he has done a hundred times before, that the Americans are able to pay, but does he lay open any part of his plan how they may be compelled to pay it, without plunging ourselves into calamities which outweigh ten times the proposed benefit?" He attacks the Grenville administration with severity and justice, he defends that of Rockingham with ingenuity, and ridicules, with the most sarcastic remarks, the conduct of their successors.
The effects of the new system of taxation on the imports of North America, which had been introduced at the recommendation of Mr. Charles Townsend, and which had principally occasioned the retirement of Chatham, now became obvious. The disturbances now assumed a more threatening aspect, and afforded Burke a capacious field for the display of those splendid talents with which he was endowed. For the purpose of intimidating the Americans, it was proposed to revive an obsolete law, by which the king was empowered to appoint a commission in England, for the trial of treason committed beyond seas. A law at once so unjust and so impolitic, met with the most strenuous opposition of Burke. This, however, was unavailing, and its immediate effects were such as be had predicted; — it exasperated the Americans, without causing the least obstruction to their measures.
While these extraordinary measures of colonial policy were carried into effect, the proceedings in the case of Wilkes, had raised so great a ferment throughout the whole of England, as to cause the most insulting, and imperious remonstrances to be drawn up and presented to the king, particularly one from the livery of London, which assumed a tone nearly approximating to that of licentious abuse. On this occasion Burke published Thoughts on the Causes of the present Discontents; the principal object of which is, to recommend the formation of an open aristocracy, consisting of men of talents, rank, property, and independence. Such an aristocracy, he conceives, having a greater interest in the welfare of the country, will be more likely to promote it, than either the people themselves on the one hand, or the minions of a court on the other. This, in the opinion of Dr. Bissett, may be regarded as a land-mark of Burke's own doctrines respecting the British government; and from this he conceives himself qualified to prove, that the sentiments avowed by him at this time, were those which he continued to act upon during the whole of his life. We, however, cannot implicitly subscribe to this doctrine; the design of the pamphlet in question is evidently to procure the reestablishment of the Rockingham party in power, and, viewed in that light, it is a most ingenious party performance. As a general system of government, it might perhaps be reckoned amongst the most visionary theories on that subject which have ever appeared; an aristocracy so formed, would quickly degenerate into an oligarchy, (indeed, in its best and most perfect form, it would be little else than a masked oligarchy,) and the consequences to the public welfare would be more deleterious and destructive than even the pure and unmixed power, either of a monarchy, or a democracy.
On the resignation of the Duke of Grafton in 1770, and the promotion of Lord North to a high and efficient situation in the cabinet, Burke uniformly opposed the measures brought forward by that minister, particularly those which affected the dispute with America. The discontents and disturbances excited by the laws, enforced by the late administration, were too evident not to be perceived, and too extensive not to be dreaded; yet the precipitation with which those measures had been enacted, left no medium for the minister to pursue. To remove at once the causes of discontent by repealing the obnoxious acts, was to acknowledge the incapacity of the British government to enforce obedience to them; and, on the other hand, to continue them, and to compel their execution, was to plunge the nation into an expensive and destructive war. In these distressing circumstances, Lord North was anxious to attain a medium where none could exist; he proposed to repeal all the obnoxious laws of the preceding administration, with the exception of that which imposed a duty on tea, in itself of no importance, but which he conceived it advisable to retain, as a mark of the authority of parliament over the colonies. This measure was evidently impolitic in the extreme, as it evinced the weakness of the government without removing the cause of the dispute. The opposition of the Americans was not to the amount of taxation, but to the principle, which was equally established by the most trifling tax, as by the most oppressive and degrading impositions. This measure, evidently founded on the same mistaken policy, and emanating from the same principles with that which Mr. Burke had so strongly advocated on his first appearance in the house of commons, was on this occasion opposed by that gentleman with the keenest force of his ridicule: "Lord North's scheme," he said, "was a heterogeneous mixture of concession and coercion; of concession not tending to conciliate, and of coercion that could not be carried into execution; at once exciting hatred for the intention, and contempt for the weakness. Thus, the malignity of your will is abhorred, and the debility of your power is contemned; and parliament, which you persuade to sanction your follies, is exposed to dishonour."
To account for this apparently extraordinary change of sentiment, Dr. Bisset observes with much metaphysical subtlety of reasoning, that "as Burke's great genius was more and more matured by experience, he became, in estimating plans for the conduct of affairs, less and less attentive to questions of abstraction;" and pursues his argument until he arrives at the conclusion that "abstract competency should be regarded as subservient to moral competency." "The Americans," says Bisset, reasoning for Burke, "have been very serviceable to Britain under the old system; do not therefore, let us rashly seek a new. Our commercial interests have been hitherto very greatly promoted by our friendly intercourse with the colonies; do not let us endanger possession or contingency; do not let us substitute untried theories for a system experimentally ascertained to be useful."
"Whatever opinion Burke," said his old friend Gerard Hamilton, "from any motive, supports, so ductile is his imagination, that he soon conceives it to be right." Burke was more accustomed to philosophise on certain questions than is usually supposed; and by revolving the question in every possible light, it is conceived that his mind was often as hill of arguments, on one side as on the other; hence it is, that men of quite opposite opinions have been equally desirous to quote his authority; and that there are in his works, passages that may be triumphantly brought forward by almost any party.
In the summer of 1772 he paid a visit to France, where his high reputation made his society courted by the most distinguished politicians and philosophers of the day. The hasty strides which republicanism and infidelity were making in that country were obvious to the eye of Burke; which is the less surprising, when we remember that they were observed about the same time by a man of much less discernment, and no religion, the late Horace Walpole, Lord Orford. So deeply, however, was the mind of Burke impressed with the dreadful effects which he apprehended from their united force, that, on his return to England, he could not avoid, in a speech in the house of commons, adverting to them as objects worthy of no common dread. He professed that he was not over-fond of calling in the aid of the secular arm to suppress doctrines and opinions; but if ever it was to be raised, it should be against those enemies of their kind, who would take from us the noblest prerogative of our nature, — that of being a religious animal. And he concluded by recommending, that a grand alliance should be formed among all believers, "against those ministers of rebellious darkness, who were endeavouring to shake all the works of God, established in beauty and order." In the course of the same session, on a motion by Sir Henry Houghton for the relief of dissenters, he expressed in strong terms, his opinion of the disqualifications under which they laboured, calling the toleration which they enjoyed by connivance, "a temporary relaxation of slavery;" a sort of liberty "not calculated for the meridian of England."
On the dissolution of parliament in 1774, he was returned, through the influence of the Marquis of Rockingham, for the borough of Malton, in Yorkshire; but when on the point of sitting down to dinner with his friends in that town, after the election, a deputation of merchants arrived from Bristol to request him to stand for that city. By the advice of his constituents at Malton, he consented to accompany them, and throwing himself into a post-chaise, proceeded with all possible expedition to Bristol. A large body of the principal merchants of that city, consisting chiefly of dissenters, had beheld with admiration his splendid talents, and considering him a firm friend to the cause of civil and religious liberty, stood forward in his behalf. The old members for that city were already opposed by Mr. Cruger; and on Burke's appearance on the hustings, which was not until the sixth day of the election, he delivered a most eloquent speech, in which, by his intimate acquaintance with the advantages and principles of commerce, and the local interests of Bristol, he produced so deep an impression on the minds of the electors, as to ensure his final success. He was returned for that city in conjunction with Mr. Cruger; a gentleman, who, it would seem, possessed no great share of that eloquence which so eminently distinguished his colleague. It is even reported, that after Burke had delivered one of his best speeches, at Bristol, Cruger rose up, and exclaimed, "I say ditto to Mr. Burke — I say ditto to Mr. Burke."
The meeting of the new parliament displayed a greater assemblage of talents than had perhaps ever appeared in any age or country. Fox had long been a member of the house of commons, but had never hitherto distinguished himself for oratorical abilities or political efficiency. Stimulated to exertion by the hitherto unrivalled eloquence and powers of Burke, he now commenced that glorious career in which he persevered until his decease; and Fox and Burke were not only regarded with admiration by the opposition, of which they were the undaunted champions and supporters, but were viewed by the minister and his adherents with mingled admiration and dread. The political connection now formed between these two great men soon led to an intimate friendship, which continued to unite them both in public and private life for many years.
The mistaken measures of the administration had now driven the Americans to the necessity of taking up arms in defence of their civil rights. The struggle was long and arduous. On the one hand, an extensive and fertile country, firmly united in the support of their rights; on the other, a nation so divided within itself that a majority perhaps of its inhabitants rejoiced in the successes of those whom the government would have taught them to regard as enemies. During the whole of the contest, Burke uniformly and ardently opposed the measures of Lord North, and defended and encouraged the Americans in the pursuit of those privileges for which they fought; a conduct which, notwithstanding the endeavours of his biographers to establish a thorough consistency throughout the whole of his political life, we can by no means reconcile with that which he afterwards pursued when France was engaged in a similar contest. In the course of this war he delivered many brilliant speeches which are convincing evidences of the vast extent of his genius, and the great superiority of his eloquence.
During the summer of 1776, Burke, together with several other leaders of opposition, took the extraordinary though not unprecedented step, of seceding from parliament, and retiring from the house, whenever any question relative to America was brought into discussion. We cannot conceive him justified in this conduct, notwithstanding the arguments adduced in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol; and it was the opinion of the opposition at large, that such measures should not be persisted in. Burke himself observed, on another occasion, that "Eloquence, though it might not procure a majority to members of opposition, was not without its effect, in modifying measures of ministry." In the succeeding session he returned with great vigour to his parliamentary duty, and became again a most active partisan of the opposition, and indefatigable in seizing every opportunity of harassing and distressing the ministry.
On his election for Bristol in 1774 he had openly declared himself against the popular doctrine, that the members of the house of commons, being the organ of the people, should, on all occasions, vote in concurrence with the sentiments, and in obedience to the instructions of their constituents. These sentiments he carried into execution, particularly in supporting the bill for relieving the trade of Ireland from many oppressive restrictions under which it then laboured; on which occasion he had received instructions from his constituents to oppose it. His exertions in favour of Sir George Saville's motion, for relieving the Catholics from certain penalties to which they were subject, were also disapproved of by the citizens of Bristol. On these and other occasions, he had acted in so direct an opposition to their declared opinions, that, when he presented himself a second time as a candidate for Bristol, at the general election in 1780, he was compelled, after an unsuccessful canvass, to decline the contest; which he did in a speech replete with his usual eloquence. In consequence of this disappointment, he took his seat in the new parliament for the borough of Malton.
The first session of the new parliament, which was distinguished by the accession of Pitt and Sheridan to the opposition, presented a scene similar to that of many preceding years. The ministry, supported by their numbers, continued to resist, with effect, the attacks of the opposition, which were energetic, and supported by a combination of talents never equalled. This assertion will not be regarded as an exaggeration, when we refer to the last effort of the opposition in the session of 1781. A motion by Fox, for the house to resolve itself into a committee, to consider of the American war, was supported by Sheridan, by Dunning, by Pitt, by Burke, and by Fox.
The ensuing session was very different in its history and in its results. The long continuance of the war with America had so completely shaken the confidence of the country members in the wisdom of the ministers, that hopes were entertained by the opposition, that a reiterated and well conducted series of attacks might finally ensure success. The contest was commenced by a resolution, moved by Mr. Fox, on February 7, 1782, accusing Lord Sandwich, then at the head of the Admiralty, of gross mismanagement in the conduct of naval affairs. The small majority by which this motion was negatived, encouraged them to proceed in their plan; and, several motions having been decided against them by a diminishing majority, on the 8th of March, Lord John Cavendish moved certain resolutions, recapitulating the failures, the misconduct, and the expenses of the war. These resolutions were met by a motion for the order of the day, and were lost by a majority of only ten.
This defection on the side of the administration gave heart to the minority, and they rallied with redoubled force and spirits on the 15th of March, when a motion of Sir John Rous, "That the house could have no further confidence in the ministers, who had the direction of public affairs," was negatived only by a majority of nine. The minority followed their fortune, and, on the 21st of the same month (the house being uncommonly crouded) the Earl of Surrey (late Duke of Norfolk) rose to make his promised motion, when Lord North spoke to order, saying, "He meant no disrespect to the noble earl; but, as notice had been given, that the object of the intended motion was the removal of his majesty's ministers, he meant to have acquainted the house that such a motion was unnecessary, as he could assure the house, on authority, — that the present administration was no more! and that his majesty had come to a full determination of changing his ministers; and, for the purpose of giving the necessary time for new arrangements, he moved an adjournment," which was instantly adopted.
During this adjournment, a new administration was formed, under the auspices of the Marquis of Rockingham, on whose public principles and private virtues the nation seemed to repose, after the violent struggle by which it had been agitated, with the securest and most implicit confidence. The Marquis of Rockingham was appointed first lord of the treasury, the Earl of Shelburne and Mr. Fox, joint-secretaries of state, Lord Camden president of the council, Duke of Grafton privy seal, Lord John Cavendish chancellor of the exchequer, and Mr. Burke paymaster-general of the forces.
The new ministry, which stood pledged to the people for many reforms, began immediately to put them into execution. The first object of their attention was the affairs of Ireland. A bill was passed through both houses, which, by repealing the act of the 6th George I. rendered the parliament of Ireland independent of that of Great Britain. This was coupled with a resolution, "That it was essentially necessary to the mutual happiness of the two countries, that a firm and solid connection should be forthwith established by the consent of both; and that his majesty should be requested to give the proper directions for promoting the same."
On the 5th of April, Burke brought forward his great and favourite plan of retrenchment in the expenditure of the civil list, by which the annual savings (and which would be yearly increasing) would amount to £72,368. It was objected by some members, that the bill was not so extensive as it had been originally framed; but Mr. Burke entered into the grounds of those omissions, which had been made either from a compliance with the opinions of others, or from a fuller consideration of the particular cases; at the same time he pledged himself, that he should at all times be ready to obey their call, whenever it appeared to be the general opinion of the house and of the people, to prosecute a more complete system of reform. A bill was also passed, disqualifying revenue officers from voting in the elections for members of parliament; and several other popular propositions were made and adopted.
The death of the Marquis of Rockingham, which took place on July 1, 1782, speedily dissolved the ministry, of which he alone formed the connecting link. It had been understood by Fox and Burke, that the Duke of Portland would have been nominated his successor. Great indeed was their disappointment when the Earl of Shelburne found means to procure the appointment for himself; when they considered him as having agreed that the Duke of Portland should be invested with the office, and that the plans of the Rockingham administration should be pursued. Fox and Burke immediately resigned. They not only differed with Shelburne in their opinion that the independence of America should be acknowledged; but, superior to the petty artifices of court intrigue, they viewed with contempt the mode by which their colleague had ascended to power.
Once again in opposition, Fox and Burke joined their forces in the ensuing session to those of Lord North, and attacked the general peace which had been concluded during the recess, with great force of talent and eminent success. The combined parties procured a majority in the house, and passed a vote of censure on the new ministry; which, after some ineffectual struggles, was compelled to retire. The Duke of Portland now became first lord of the treasury, Lord John Cavendish chancellor of the exchequer, Mr. Burke, as before, paymaster of the forces, and Mr. Fox and Lord North joint-secretaries of state, in what was called the coalition administration.
As this union of political interest was the most unpopular measure adopted in the present reign, and that which it has, above all others, been found most difficult to reconcile with purity and consistency of principle, it may be necessary to state what has been offered in apology, at least as far as Mr. Burke is concerned. It is well known to those in the least conversant in the politics which immediately preceded this period, how uniformly Lord North was upbraided for his conduct throughout the whole course of the American war: every thing that could attach to a bad ministry was laid to his charge, except perhaps the solitary exception of corruption in his own person, which was not much, while he was continually accused of being the mover of a mass of corruption in others; and as Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke were the two leading champions of the house of commons, in their several speeches will be found invectives of such a nature, as to men, judging of others in the ordinary habits of life, perhaps would be thought insurmountable barriers to their coalition. But we are told, that forming an administration upon a broad bottom of political interest is quite a different thing from contracting a private friendship: in the former many things are to be conceded, in regard to times and circumstances, and the opinions of others; in the latter, the question of right and wrong lies in a narrower compass, and is more readily judged of by the parties and their friends. Mr. Burke, therefore, may say, "that, in his several attacks on Lord North, he considered him as a principal promoter and encourager of the American war, a war which he held destructive of the interests and constitutional rights of this country. As a minister, therefore, he reprobated his conduct; but the American contest being over, and others measures about to be pursued, which, in his opinion, might heal the bruises of this war, he coalesced with him as a man, who (benefiting himself by his former mistakes) might still render important services to his country."
Such a defence as this may very well be admitted in favour of Mr. Burke and others; but Mr. Fox stood pledged upon different grounds. He not only Inveighed against the minister in the grossest terms of abuse, but against the man; whom, he said, "he would not trust himself in a room with, and from the moment that he ever acted with him, he would rest satisfied to be termed the most infamous of men." After such a particular declaration as this, emphatically and deliberately announced in a full house of commons, scarce nine months had elapsed when Mr. Fox cordially united with Lord North, and brought a suspicion on his character, with regard to consistency, which all the exertions of his future life were not able to remove. In the mean time, however, the new administration bade fair for permanence. It was strong in talents, in rank, and in the weight of landed interest. It seemed nearly such a combination of great families as Mr. Burke had wished in his Thoughts on the Causes of the present Discontents; but it wanted what was necessary to complete his plan, — "the approbation and confidence of the people." Suspicion attached to all their measures, and seemed, in the opinion of the people to be confirmed when they introduced the famous East India bill. This is not the place for discussing the merits of this important bill; it may suffice, as matter of fact, to state that it was considered as trenching too much on the prerogative, as creating a mass of ministerial influence which would be irresistible; and that the vast powers which it gave the house of commons might render the administration too strong for the crown. Had these objections been confined to the ex-ministers and their friends, the coalesced ministers might have repelled them, at least by force of numbers; but it was peculiarly unfortunate for Mr. Burke, Mr. Fox, and the Whig part of the administration, that they were opposed without doors by the voice of the people, and in the writings of all those authors who had the credit of being constitutional authorities. The East India bill, accordingly, although carried in the house of commons, was lost in that of the lords, and a new administration was formed in December 1783, at the head of which was Mr. Pitt.
The majority of the house of commons, however, still continuing attached to the dismissed ministers, public business was interrupted, and continued in an embarrassed state until his majesty determined to appeal to the people by a dissolution of parliament in May 1784. The issue of this was, that many of the most distinguished adherents to the coalition were rejected by their constituents, and Mr. Pitt, in the new parliament, acquired a majority quite decisive as to the common routine of business, but certainly for many years not comparable in talents to the opposition. Mr. Burke, again belonging to this class, exerted the utmost of those powers which so justly entitled him to the character he maintained in the world. To detail the progress of that high character through all the political business he went through would be incompatible with the nature and limits of this work; his talents will be best shewn in a general and minute review of his public life, as exemplified in his speeches, his political and other publications, and he will be found one of the greatest ornaments of the age he lived in.
A committee of the house of commons had been appointed in of which Burke was a member, to inquire into the execution of justice in the East Indies. In the course of their researches on the subject, Burke had seen what he conceived to be disgraceful peculation, combined with rapacious avarice; and atrocities of the deepest dye, committed under the semblance of justice, united in the person of the governor. general. In the beginning of July 1784, he made a speech on the enormities he ascribed to Hastings; and displayed, in the picture he drew, powers which might have composed a most admirable tragedy. He brought forward a string of resolutions, as the foundation of an inquiry into the conduct of Mr. Hastings. This was briefly opposed by Pitt, because there was not at that time that undoubted evidence of delinquency which alone could evince the propriety of the motion. Burke's fancy and passions getting much warmer from opposition, pictured to him Hastings as the greatest monster that ever cursed the earth; persisting in pressing the subject, he was at length overpowered by a loud and continual clamour. The want of effective talent on the ministerial benches, had repeatedly compelled them to have recourse to this expedient, to drown the eloquence of Burke. The dignity of conscious superiority should have rendered him indifferent to such a disturbance, instead of which he frequently fell into the most outrageous fits of passion; and once told them that he could discipline a pack of hounds to yelp with much more melody and equal comprehension.
From this time Burke devoted the whole of his attention to this important subject; and the committee of the house having presented a report, in which they accused Hastings and Hornby with having, "in sundry instances, acted in a manner repugnant to the honour and policy of this nation," Burke pledged himself to move an impeachment, when Hastings' return should enable him to refute the charges, if false. During the recess of 1785 Hastings returned from India. On the commencement of the ensuing session, Burke was challenged by Major Scott to bring forward his charges. This he promised to do; and, on Feb. 17, 1786, he called the attention of the house to that subject; and the impeachment was agreed to.
It is not our intention to repeat even the heads of the charges against Hastings. It will be sufficient to observe, that the variety and extent of Burke's powers were perhaps never exhibited to greater advantage than during this tedious trial. The opening speech of Burke, on the modes of bringing a public delinquent to justice, on the character and situation of the accuser, and the motives by which he ought to be actuated, exhibits at once a most extensive knowledge of the crown law of this kingdom, of the science of jurisprudence, and of ethics in general. His speech on the Ronilla war unites a most complete acquaintance with the Roman policy in the management of distant provinces, and that of modern Europe, to the wisest and most liberal principles respecting that department of government. His eloquence, though it did not prove the points he wished to establish concerning Hastings, and was in that view a waste of genius, yet contains facts, imagery, sentiments, and philosophy, that render it delightful and estimable.
No measure which he ever supported subjected Burke to more obloquy, and abuse than the prosecution of Hastings. It was stated, that he was instigated to it by personal resentment against the governor-general, in consequence of his inattention to Mr. W. Burke. "That Burke," says Dr. Bisset, "or any man, would undertake so laborious a task, which required such minuteness of investigation concerning so intricate details, the materials to be fetched from such a distance, with so great and powerful a body inimical to an inquiry, merely because his friend had been slighted, is hardly within the compass of credibility." Yet from whatever cause it did arise, it is certain that Burke indulged in the coarsest personal observations on Mr. Hastings, and in many violent exaggerations not founded on the slightest proof. On one occasion in particular it is stated, that, in a moment of Mr. Hastings' hesitation about the ceremony of kneeling at the bar, which proceeded from accident, Burke commanded him to kneel, with a ferocity in his countenance which no painting could express.
In the debates which took place, during his majesty's illness in 1788-9, on the settlement of a regency, Burke stood forward with an unusual degree of prominence, and in a manner which certainly did no credit either to his prudence or to his feelings. It is well known that the opinion expressed by Mr. Pitt on this occasion, was, that it remained with parliament to supply the deficiency, as in other circumstances not before provided for by the existing laws. Fox, on the other side, contended, that during this incapacity, there was virtually a demise of the crown; and that therefore the next heir should assume the powers of government, while the incapacity continued. Burke's intimate connection with the prince, the interest of his friends, and no doubt also his own hopes of again coming into office, led him to support this latter opinion. But the warmth with which he contended, and particularly the indecent and cruel expressions which burst from him respecting his majesty, created a more general dislike to his character than had hitherto been entertained, and occasioned a feeling in the house more formidable to his friends than to the minister whom they opposed.
His biographer, whose object it is to exhibit him to the world as perfectly consistent in his public character, appears to have been desirous to cast a veil over this part of his history. Yet, as it exhibits, perhaps, more characteristic features of the man as well as the politician, than any other action of his life, we have thought it improper to avoid noticing it. And when we consider, that this violence of temper and passion were exercised on the illustrious personage to whom, in a very few years, he was gratefully to acknowledge his obligation for the independence and comfort of his latter days, we cannot be surprised that those who intend an uniform and unqualified panegyric on his public life, wish to suppress his conduct during this memorable period.
We have now arrived at the last and most important era of the life of Burke, when at once dissolving almost every connection of his former life, he threw himself into the arms of those whom had uniformly and vehemently opposed. The revolution which was taking place in France was hailed by Fox as the dawn of returning liberty and justice, while Burke regarded it as the meteoric glare of anarchy and ruin, in a debate on the army estimates for 1790, adverting to the revolution in France, Fox considered that event as a reason for rendering a smaller military establishment necessary on our part: — "The new form," he said," that the government of France was likely to assume, would, he was persuaded, make her a better neighbour, and less propense to hostility, than when she was subject to the cabal and intrigues of ambitious and interested statesmen."
Burke soon after delivered his sentiments on the subject. Fully coinciding with Fox respecting the evils of the old despotism, and the dangers that accrued from it to this country, he thought very differently of the tranquillity to neighbours and happiness to themselves, likely to ensue from the late proceedings in France. Warming, as he advanced in the argument, he observed, "in the last age we had been in danger of being entangled, by the example of France, in the net of relentless despotism. Our present danger, from the model of a people whose character knew no medium, was that of being led through an admiration of successful fraud and violence, to imitate the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody, and tyrannical democracy."
Sheridan expressed his disapprobation of the remarks and reasonings of Burke on this subject, with much force. He thought them quite inconsistent with the general principles and conduct of one who so highly valued the British government and revolution: "The National Assembly," he said, "had exerted a firmness and perseverance, hitherto unexampled, that had secured the liberty of France, and vindicated the cause of mankind. What action of theirs authorised the appellation of a bloody, ferocious, and tyrannical democracy?" Burke, perceiving Sheridan's view of affairs in France, differed entirely from him, and thinking his friend's construction of his observations uncandid, declared, that Mr. Sheridan and he were from that moment separated for ever in politics. "Mr. Sheridan," he said, "has sacrificed my friendship in exchange for the applause of clubs and associations: I assure him he will find the acquisition too insignificant to he worth the price at which it is purchased."
The sentiments and opinions declared in the house of commons by Messrs. Fox and Sheridan, induced Burke to publish his Reflections on the French Revolution, in a more enlarged form, and more closely to contemplate its probable influence on British minds. To account for his apparent change of opinion on the subject of civil liberty, he informs us in his Reflections, that be was endeavouring to "preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end; and when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails, may be in danger of overloading upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve the equipoise."
In the session of 1790, he adhered uniformly to the sentiments which he had avowed in his discussions with Fox and Sheridan, identifying the whole body of the dissenters with Drs. Priestley and Price, and therefore looking upon them as the friends of the French revolution and the propagators of its principles in this country. He opposed a motion for the repeal of the test act, a measure which he had, at a former period, strenuously advocated. He also opposed a motion for reform in parliament. At this time Mr. Fox and he still continued in terms of friendship, though they did not frequently meet; but when, in 1791, a bill was proposed for the formation of a Constitution in Canada, Burke, in the course of the discussion, entered on the general principle of the rights of man, proceeded to its offspring the constitution of France, and expressed his conviction, that there was a design formed in this country against its constitution. After some of the members of his own party had called Mr. Burke to order, Mr. Fox spoke, and, after declaring his conviction, that the British constitution, though defective in theory, was in practice excellently adapted to this country, repeated his praises of the French revolution, which, he thought, on the whole, one of the most glorious events in the history of mankind. He then proceeded to express his dissent from Burke's opinions on the subject, as inconsistent with just views of the inherent rights of mankind. These besides, he said, were inconsistent with Mr. Burke's former principles.
Burke, in reply, complained of having been treated by Fox with harshness and malignity; and, after defending his opinions with regard to the new system pursued in France, denied the charge of inconsistency, and insisted that his opinions on government had been the same during all his political life. He said that Mr. Fox and he had often differed, and there had been no loss of friendship between them, but there is something in the cursed French revolution that envenoms every thing. Fox whispered, "there is no loss of friendship between us." Burke, with great warmth, answered, "There is! I know the price of my conduct; our friendship is at an end." Mr. Fox was very greatly agitated by this renunciation of friendship, and made many concessions, but still maintained that Burke had formerly held very different principles, and that he himself had learned from him those principles which he now reprobated, at the same time enforcing the allegation, by references to measures which Burke had either proposed or promoted, and by many apposite quotations from his speeches. This repetition of the charge of inconsistency prevented the impression which his affectionate and conciliating language and behaviour might otherwise have made on Burke. "It would be difficult," says Dr. Bisset, "to determine with certainty whether constitutional irritability or public principle was the chief cause of Burke's sacrifice of that friendship which he had so long cherished, and of which the talents and qualifications of its object rendered him so worthy." Another reason has been assigned, which might, perhaps, have had some weight in this determination. It is stated, that an observation of Fox, on the Reflections, that they were rather to be regarded as an effusion of poetic genius, than a philosophical investigation, had reached Burke's ears; a remark which mortified him as an author, and displeased him as a friend. Be this as it may, from the time of this debate, he remained at complete variance with Mr. Fox, and even treated him with great asperity in some of his subsequent publications.
Some days after this discussion, the following paragraph appeared in the Morning Chronicle: — "The great and firm body of the Whigs of England have decided on the dispute between Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke; and the former is declared to have maintained the pure doctrines by which they are bound together, and upon which they have invariably acted. The consequence is, that Mr. Burke retires from parliament." After this consignation to retirement, Mr. Burke no longer took any prominent part in the proceedings of parliament, except with regard to the French revolution and the prosecution of Hastings, which being terminated by the acquittal of that gentleman in the summer of 1794, he soon after resigned his seat, and retired to his villa at Beaconsfield, where, on the 2nd of August in the same year, he met with a severe domestic calamity, in the death of his only son, in the beginning of the year he also lost his brother Richard; but though this reiterated stroke of death deeply affected him, it neither relaxed the vigour of his mind, nor lessened the interest which he took in public affairs.
Soon after the death of his son, his majesty bestowed on him a pension of £1200 for his own life and that of his wife, charged on the civil list, and two other pensions of £2500 for three lives, payable out of the four and a half per cent. These gifts were represented as a reward for having changed his principles, and deserted his friends, and drew down some severe censures from Lord Lauderdale and the Duke of Bedford. These he repelled in a Letter to a noble Lord, in which he gives a sketch of his political life, and of the beneficial measures in which he had been engaged. Not content, however, with vindicating his own claim to a pension, he gives a retrospective view of the means by which the Duke of Bedford's ancestors acquired their property. This account of the Russell acquirements is generally conceived to be erroneous, and can only be attributed to irritation and auger at the censure passed by that nobleman, on what he regarded as a squandering of the public money.
When the appearance of melioration in the principles and government of France, induced his majesty to make overtures for peace to the French Directory, Burke resumed his pen, and, in his Thoughts on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace, expressed himself strongly against the safety of such a measure. This was his last work, and in point of style and reasoning, not inferior to any he had produced an the subject of the French character and government.
From the beginning of June 1797, his health rapidly declined; but his understanding exerted itself with undiminished force, and uncontracted range. On 7th July, he spent the morning in a recapitulation of the most important actions of his life, the circumstances in which he acted, and the motives by which he was prompted. Dwelling particularly on the French revolution, and on the separation from admired friends, he spoke with pleasure of the conscious rectitude of his intentions; and entreated that, if any unguarded asperity of his had offended them, to believe that no offence was intended. On the following day, while one of his friends, with the assistance of his servants, was carrying him into another room, he faintly uttered "God bless you!" fell back, and instantly expired, in the sixty-eighth year of his age.
In this sketch of the life of Edmund Burke, it has been impossible to insert even the titles of his numerous publications. They have been since published entire by his executors Drs. King and Lawrence, in five vols. 4to. and twelve vols. 8vo. and will ever form a stupendous monument of his great and unrivalled talents. By the political student, however, they will require to be read with a considerable portion of that judgment which, in the author, was frequently paralysed by the rapidity of his ideas, and the bewitching seductions of his imagination.
In his person, Burke was about five feet, ten inches high, erect, and well formed; with a countenance rather soft and open, which, except by an occasional bend of his brow, caused by his being nearsighted, indicated none of those great traits of mind which he possessed. The best print of him is from a half-length by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted when he was in the meridian of life.
An opinion has been very prevalent, that Sir Joshua Reynolds' lectures were written by Burke, — but whoever will compare these discourses with the Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, will find their theories of beauty to have been by no means the same. According to Burke, comparative smallness, smoothness, variety in the direction of their parts, freedom from angularity in their parts, delicacy of construction, clearness and brightness, colour without glare, — these are the constituents of beauty.
In this enumeration, Burke has omitted one great constituent of beauty, infinitely more important than all he has laid down — this principle Reynolds has supplied. It must have occurred to the readers of the Sublime and Beautiful, that the elements of Burke are not sufficiently defined to deserve the name of principles. Such phrases as "delicacy of construction," "clearness and brightness of colour without glare," "variety of direction in the parts," are too pliable to be made weapons of philosophical controversy. It might also be objected, that it would be possible to construct something in which all these constituents should be found, and which would at the same time produce no effect of beauty in the mind of the beholder. It might also be said that beautiful objects may be found in which one, or even several of Burke's principles are violated. What is more beautiful than the broad expanse of clear sky? and yet there is no "comparative smallness" in it. Are the willows arching over a river, and dipping their leaves in the stream, the broad water-plants floating on its surface, and the fragments of rock which ruffle the course of its waters, destructive of its beauty, by injuring its smoothness? Is there nothing beautiful in the form of a sphere, though it has but little "variation in the direction of its parts?" Would Burke have bent the "angles" of the larch fir, into curves; or would he have thought he had improved the beauty of the oak, by remodelling its form to correspond with the delicate construction of the acacia? If there be beauty in the "clear bright, colours" of noon, is there nothing to admire in the calm and sober shades of twilight? These are objections which would naturally strike the mind of an artist, and accordingly the whole tenour of the lectures is in opposition to that reckless devotion to analysis, which could alone have led Burke into such a narrow system.
Accordingly in the theory of beauty which is laid down in Sir Joshua Reynolds' third discourse, we find no reference to the elements of Burke. Beauty is there defined to consist in an abstraction of all that is singular, local, and peculiar in nature. That individual is most beautiful which approaches nearest to what we may be allowed to call the average form of the species to which it belongs.
"It may be objected," says he, "that n every particular species there are various central forms, which are separate and distinct from each other, and yet are undeniably beautiful; that in the human figure, for instance, the beauty of Hercules is one, of the Gladiator another, of the Apollo another; which makes so many different ideas of beauty.
"It is true, indeed, that these figures are each perfect in their kind, though of different characters and proportions; but still none of them is the representation of an individual, but of a class. And as there is one general form, which, as I have said, belongs to the human kind at large, so in each of these classes there is one common idea and central form, which is the abstract of the various individual forms belonging to that class. Thus, though the forms of childhood and age differ exceedingly, there is a common form in childhood, and a common form in age, which is the more perfect, as it is more remote from all peculiarities. But I must add further, that though the most perfect forms of each of the general divisions of the human figure are ideal, and superior to any individual form of that class; yet the highest perfection of the human figure is not to be found in any one of them. It is not in the Hercules, nor in the Gladiator, nor in the Apollo; but in that form which is taken from them all, and which partakes equally of the activity of the Gladiator, of the delicacy of the Apollo, and of the muscular strength of the Hercules. For perfect beauty in any species must combine all the characters which are beautiful in that species. It cannot consist in any one to the exclusion of the rest: no one, therefore, must be predominant, that no one may be deficient."
The discourse from which the foregoing extract has been taken, was delivered in the year 1770. Perhaps it might be objected, that Burke may have revised his theory in the thirteen years which then had elapsed since his publication, and might have taken that opportunity of correcting his error. Such a supposition is improbable on many grounds; but we have evidence which will go near to prove it false, and shew, that soon after the publication of Burke's Essay, Reynolds' Theory of Beauty was already formed. In the eighty-second number of the Idler, published in November 1759, which was allowedly written by Sir Joshua, the same doctrines are maintained with even more ability than in his lectures, and some passages in this article seem specially directed against the Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, which had then been before the public only two years, and would naturally be adverted to in any discussion connected with the subject on which it treats: — "Whoever shall attempt to prove, (says he,) that a form is beautiful from a particular gradation of magnitude, undulation of a curve, or direction of a line, or whatever other conceit of his imagination, he shall fix on as a criterion of form, he will be continually contradicting himself, and find at last, that the great mother nature will not be subjected to such narrow rules." (vol. ii. page 239.)
If to this internal evidence we add the external proof furnished by Mr. Burke's unequivocal disavowal, and Malone's very satisfactory statement, we hope the question will sit at rest. Perhaps it was not worthy so minute an investigation; but if posthumous reputation be the reward which has called forth the most important services mankind has received, we are all interested in shewing, that whatever it may want in substance, it shall, at least be rendered as certain as the imperfect state of human discrimination will admit.