EDMUND BURKE was one of the most distinguished politicians and political writers of the fast century, whose life, it has been long expected, would have been written by those to whom he entrusted the care of his fame. Nothing, however, has yet appeared, except compilations by strangers, from public documents and records, published to gratify present curiosity. Some of these, however, are written with care and ability, and must form the basis of the following sketch.
Mr. Burke's biographers are not agreed as to his birthplace. Some say he was born in the city of Dublin; others, in a little town in the county of Cork; but all are agreed in the date, Jan. 1, 1730. His father was an attorney of considerable practice, who had married into the ancient and respectable family of the Nagles, and besides the results of his practice, possessed a small estate of £150 or £200 a year. Edmund was his second son, and at a very early age, was sent to Balytore school; a seminary in the North of Ireland, well known for having furnished the bar and the pulpit of Ireland with many eminent characters. This school has been kept by quakers for near a century; and the son of Mr. Abraham Shackleton, to whom Mr. Burke was a pupil, has been for these many years past the head-master. It has been creditable to both parties (viz. the present preceptor and the quondam pupil of his father), that the strictest friendship has always subsisted between them; not only by a constant correspondence, but by occasional visits. At this school young Burke soon distinguished himself by an ardent attachment to study, a prompt command of words, and a good taste. His memory unfolded itself very early, and he soon became distinguished as (what was called) the best "capper" of verses in the school; but as this phrase is not so generally known in England as in Ireland, it may be necessary to explain it: — What is called capping of verses is repeating any one line out of the classics, and following it up by another, beginning with the same letter with which the former line ended; for instance,
Aequam memento rebus in ardui-s
S-ervare mentem, non secus in bonis.
This was carried on, in the way of literary contest, between two boys, which begat an emulation for reading above the ordinary line of duty, and at the same time called out and strengthened the powers of memory. Burke not only took the lead in this, but in all general exercises: he was considered as the first Greek and Latin scholar; to these he added the study of poetry and belles lettres; and, before he left the school, produced a play in three acts, founded on some incidents in the early part of the history of England, of which little is now remembered, unless that Alfred formed the principal character, and that this part contained many sublime sentiments on liberty.
Before he left Balytore school his elder brother died, which determined his father to send Edmund to the university. He was accordingly entered of Trinity college, Dublin, where some say he pursued his studies with the same unceasing application as at school; while Goldsmith, and others, his contemporaries, assure us that he displayed no particular eminence in the performance of his exercises. Both accounts may be, in some measure, true. Burke might have pursued his studies, those desultory studies which occupied the time of Milton and Dryden at Cambridge, and of Johnson and Gibbon at Oxford, without much desire to obtain academical distinctions. We are told, however, that he applied himself with sufficient diligence to those branches of mathematical and physical science which are most subservient to the purposes of life; and though he neglected the syllogistic logic of Aristotle, he cultivated the method of induction pointed out by Bacon. Pneumatology likewise, and ethics, occupied a considerable portion of his attention; and whilst attending to the acquisition of knowledge, he did not neglect the means of communicating it. He studied rhetoric, and the art of composition, as well as logic, physics, history, and moral philosophy; and, according to one of his biographers, had at an early part of his life planned a confutation of the metaphysical theories of Berkeley and Hume. For such a task as this, Dr. Gleig (in the well-written life of Burke inserted in the Supplement to the Encycl. Britannica) doubts whether nature intended him. Through the ever active mind of Burke ideas seem to have flowed with too great a rapidity to permit him to give that patient attention to minute distinctions, without which it is vain to attempt a confutation of the subtleties of Berkeley and Hume. Dr. Reid, the ablest antagonist of these two philosophers, was remarkable for patient thinking, and even apparent slowness of apprehension; and we have not a doubt, but that if he had possessed the rapidity of thought which characterised Burke, his confutation of Hume and Berkeley would have been far from conclusive.
In 1749 we find Burke employed in a way more suitable to his talents, and more indicative of his future pursuits. At that period Mr. Lucas, afterwards Dr. Lucas, a political apothecary, wrote a number of papers against government, and acquired by them as great popularity in Dublin, as Wilkes afterwards obtained by his North Briton in London. Burke, although young, perceived almost intuitively, the pernicious tendency of Lucas's effusions, and resolved to counteract it, which he did by writing several essays in the style of Lucas, imitating it so exactly as to deceive the public, and pursuing his principles to consequences necessarily resulting from them, which demonstrated their absurdity. This was the first instance of that imitative skill which he afterwards displayed in a mimicry of Bolingbroke; and it has been observed, that his first literary effort, like his last, was calculated to guard his country against anarchical innovations.
According to some accounts, he went from Dublin, where there was little prospect of a settlement adequate to his talents and wishes, to London, where he entered himself as a student in the Middle Temple. According to other accounts, however, he was by design or accident at Glasgow, where he became a candidate for the professorship of logic, then vacant, but whether the application was made too late, or that the university was unwilling to receive a stranger, certain it is that he was unsuccessful. One account says, that he was passing the old college gate, when a label affixed to it struck his eye, which had been pasted up as a mere matter of form, inviting all candidates for the professorship to a competition, although it was known that a successor was already fixed upon. If this be the fact, Mr. Burke's mistake must have been very soon rectified, without his having the mortification of a disappointment after trial.
It is certain, however, that about 1753 he came to London, and entered himself, as already noticed, as a student of the Middle Temple, where he is said to have studied, as in every other situation, with unremitting diligence. Many of his habits and conversations were long remembered at the Grecian coffee-house (then the great rendezvous of the students of the Middle Temple), and they were such as were highly creditable to his morals and his talents. With the former, indeed, we should not know how to reconcile a connection imputed to him at this time with Mrs. Woffington, the actress, if we gave credit to the report; but it is not very likely, that one in Mr. Burke's narrow circumstances would have been admitted to more than a slight acquaintance with a lady of that description. Though by the death of his elder brother, he was to have succeeded to a very comfortable patrimony, yet as his father was living, and had other children, it could not be supposed that his allowance was very ample. This urged him to draw upon his genius for the deficiency of fortune, and we are told that he became a frequent contributor to the periodical publications. His first publication is said to have been a poem, which did not succeed. There is no certain information, however, concerning these early productions, unless that he found it necessary to apply with so much assiduity as to injure his health. A dangerous illness ensued, and he resorted for medical advice to Dr. Nugent, a physician whose skill in his profession was equalled only by the benevolence of his heart. He was, if we are not mistaken, a countryman of Burke's, a Roman-catholic, and at one time an author by profession. This benevolent friend, considering that the noise and various disturbances incidental to chambers, must retard the recovery of his patient, furnished him with apartments in his own house, where the attention of every member of the family contributed more than medicine to the recovery of his health. It was during this period that the amiable manners of miss Nugent, the doctor's daughter, made a deep impression on the heart of Burke; and as she could not be insensible to such merit as his, they felt for each other a mutual attachment, and were married soon after his recovery. With this lady he appears to have enjoyed uninterrupted felicity. He often declared to his intimate friends, "That, in all the anxious moments of his public life, every care vanished when he entered his own house."
Mr. Burke's first known publication, although not immediately known, was his very happy imitation of Bolingbroke, entitled "A Vindication of Natural Society," 1756, 8vo. To assume the style and character of such a writer, who had passed through all the high gradations of official knowledge for near half a century, a fine scholar, a most ready and eloquent speaker, and one of the best writers of his time, was, perhaps, one of the boldest attempts ever undertaken, especially by a young man, a stranger to the manners, habits, and connections of the literati of this country, who could have no near view of the great character he imitated, and whose time of life would not permit of those long and gradual experiments by which excellence of any kind is to he obtained. Burke, however, was not without success in his great object, which was to expose the dangerous tendency of lord Bolingbroke's philosophy. When this publication first appeared, we are told that almost every body received it as the posthumous work of lord Bolingbroke, and it was praised up to the standard of his best writings. "The critics knew the turn of his periods; his style; his phrases; and above all, the matchless dexterity of his metaphysical pen and amongst these, nobody distinguished himself more than the lately departed veteran of the stage, Charles Macklin; who, with the pamphlet in his hand, used frequently to exclaim at the Grecian coffeehouse (where he gave a kind of literary law to the young Templars at that time), "Oh! sir, this must be Harry Bolingbroke: I know him by his cloven foot." But much of this account is mere assumption. Macklin, and such readers as Macklin, might be deceived; but no man was deceived whose opinion deserved attention. The public critics certainly immediately discovered the imitation, and one at least of them was not very well pleased with it. We are told, indeed, that lord Chesterfield and bishop Warburton were at first deceived; but this proves only the exactness of the imitation; a more attentive perusal discovered the writer's real intention.
The next production of Mr. Burke's pen was "A Philosophical Enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," 1756, 8vo, which soon engaged all readers who had the least pretensions to taste or science. Beside possessing novelty of opinion in many particulars, this book attracted by its style and ingenuity of reasoning: every body read it; and even those who could not assent to many of the general principles, concurred in praising the author for talents of a very extraordinary kind. A criticism on it, ascribed to Johnson, but really written by Mr. Murphy, concludes in the following manner: "Upon the whole, though we think the author of this piece mistaken in many of his fundamental principles, and also in his deductions from them, yet we must say, we have read his book with pleasure. He has certainly employed much thinking: there are many ingenious and elegant remarks, which, though they do not enforce or improve his first position, yet, considering them detached from his system, they are new and just. And we cannot dismiss this article without recommending a perusal of the book to all our readers, as we think they will be recompensed by a great deal of sentiment, perspicuous, elegant, and harmonious style, in many passages both sublime and beautiful!" Some time after this, Mr. Burke, who had devoted much of his time to the study of history and politics, proposed to Mr. Dodsley, the plan of an "Annual Register" of the civil, political, and literary transactions of the times; and the proposal being acceded to, the work was begun, and carried on for many years, either by Mr. Burke himself, or under his immediate inspection, and was uncommonly successful.
The celebrity of such works soon made Mr. Burke known to the literati; amongst whom were the late George lord Lyttelton, the right honourable William Gerard Hamilton, the late Dr. Markham, archbishop of York, Dr. Johnson, sir Joshua Reynolds, and many other eminent characters, who were proud to patronize a young man of such good private character, and such very distinguished talents. It was in consequence of these connections that we soon after find Mr. Burke in the suite of the earl of Halifax, appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, October 1761. Here, by his talents, as well as by his convivial and agreeable manners, he made himself not only useful at the castle, but renewed and formed several valuable acquaintances.
Before he left Ireland he had a pension settled on him, on that establishment, of £200 per year (some say £300), which was said to be obtained through the interest of the right hon. William Gerard Hamilton, the official secretary to the lord lieutenant. Report said at the same time, that Mr. Burke had obliged Mr. Hamilton in turn, by writing that celebrated speech for him, which (as he had never afterwards spoken another of such consequence) procured him through life the name of "Single Speech Hamilton." This, however, although talked of in the better circles of that day, is totally without foundation, nor is it strictly true, as will be noticed in that gentleman's article, that Mr. Hamilton spoke only once. The connection, however, between these gentlemen did not last very long; for a few years afterwards, on some political contest, Mr. Hamilton telling Mr. Burke, as coarsely as it was unfounded, "that he took him from a garret," the latter very spiritedly replied, "Then, sir, by your own confession, it was I that descended to know you." — He at the same time flung up his pension and a coolness, it is said, ever after subsisted between them. Mr. Malone, however, in his late Life of Mr. Hamilton, takes no notice of his connection with Burke.
Mr. Burke's fame as a writer was now established; and what added another wreath to this character were some pamphlets written before the peace of 1763. These introduced him to the acquaintance of the late Mr. Fitzherbert, father of the present lord St. Helen's; a gentleman who esteemed and protected men of letters; and who possessed, with a considerable share of elegant knowledge, talents for conversation which were very rarely equalled. Through the medium of Mr. Fitzherbert, and owing to some political essays in the Public Advertiser, he became acquainted with the late marquis of Rockingham, and the late lord Verney; events which opened the first great dawn of his political life: and soon after his acquaintance with lord Rockingham, a circumstance took place which gave this nobleman an opportunity to draw forth Mr. Burke's talents. The administration formed in 1763, under the honourable George Grenville, becoming unpopular from various causes, his majesty, through the recommendation of his uncle, the duke of Cumberland, appointed a new ministry, of which the duke of Grafton and general Conway were secretaries of state, and the marquis of Rockingham first lord of the treasury. In this arrangement, which took place in 1765, Mr. Burke was appointed private secretary to the marquis of Rockingham, and soon after, through the interest of lord Verney, was returned one of the representatives in parliament for the borough of Wendover in Buckinghamshire. On this he prepared himself for becoming a public speaker, by studying, still more closely than he had yet done, history, poetry, and philosophy; and by storing his mind with facts images, reasonings, and sentiments. He paid great attention likewise to parliamentary usage; and was at much pains to become acquainted with old records, patents, and precedents, so as to render himself complete master of the business of office. That he might communicate without embarrassment the knowledge which he had thus acquired, he frequented, with many other men of eminence, the Robin Hood society; and, thus prepared, he delivered in the ensuing session his maiden speech, which excited the admiration of the house, and drew very high praise from Mr. Pitt, afterwards earl of Chatham. The proceedings of the administration with which Mr. Burke was connected, belong to history; and it may be sufficient here to notice, that the principal object which engaged their attention was the stamp-act, which had excited great discontents in America. Mr. Grenville and his party, under whose auspices this act was passed, were for inforcing it by coercive measures; and Mr. Pitt and his followers denied that the parliament of Great Britain had a right to tax the Americans. By Mr. Burke's advice, as it has been said, the marquis of Rockingham adopted a middle course, repealing the act to gratify the Americans, and passing law declaratory of the right of Great Britain to legislate for America in taxation, as in every other case. But by whatever advice such a measure was carried, it argued little wisdom, the repeal and the declaratory act being inconsistent with each other. The ministry were therefore considered as unfit to guide the helm of a great empire, and were obliged to give way to a new arrangement, formed under the auspices of Mr. Pitt, then earl of Chatham. This change created a considerable deal of political commotion; and the public papers and pamphlets of that day turned their satire against the newly-created earl of Chatham: they charged him with weakening and dividing an interest which the public wished to be supported; and lending his great name and authority to persons who were supposed to be of a party which had been long held to be obnoxious to the whig interest of the country. Though these charges were afterwards fully refuted by the subsequent conduct of the noble earl, the late ministry were entitled to their share of praise, not only for being very active in promoting the general interests of the state by several popular acts and resolutions, but by their uncommon disinterestedness; as they shewed, upon quitting their places, that they retired without a place, pension, or reversion, secured to themselves or their friends. This was a stroke which the private fortune of Mr. Burke could ill bear; but he had the honour of being a member of a virtuous administration; he had the opportunity of opening his great political talents to the public; and, above all, of shewing to a number of illustrious friends (and in particular the marquis of Rockingham) his many private virtues and amiable qualities, joined to a reach of mind scarcely equalled by any of his contemporaries.
In July 1766, Mr. Burke, finding himself disengaged from political business, visited Ireland after an absence of many years; and here he renewed many of those pleasing friendships and connections which engaged the attention of his younger days, always rendered still more pleasing by the prospect of a rising fortune, and a capacity of doing good to those we love and esteem. He returned to England towards the close of the year; and, finding a strong opposition formed against the duke of Grafton, who was sapping the spirit and force of those resolutions passed under the late administration, he threw himself into the foremost ranks, and there soon shewed what a formidable adversary he was likely to be. The opinion which Mr. Burke had of the Grafton administration is thus humorously described by himself. After paying many merited eulogiums on the character of lord Chatham, he claims the freedom of history to speak of the administration he formed, and thus proceeds: — "He made an administration so chequered 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 a 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, pigging together, heads and points, in the same truckle-bed."
An administration, of which he had this opinion, was not likely to proceed uncensured; particularly, when his favourite repealing act "began to be in as bad an odour in the house as the stamp act had the session before." Other revenue acts following this, called out the force and variety of his talents; and the house began to perceive, that to whatever side this young statesman threw in his weight, it must add consideration and respect to his party.
The session of 1768 opened with a perturbed prospect. The distresses occasioned by the high price of provisions, the restraining act relative to the East India company, the "nullum tempus" bill, and other matters, afforded great room for discussion, in which Mr. Burke took a part which not only shewed the powers of his eloquence, but the great resources of his information. He was soon considered as the head of the Rockingham party in the house of commons; and his great assiduity in preparing business for discussion, joined to his powers for speaking and writing, fully qualified him for this character. It is true, there were other persons of great name on the same side; such as the late right honourable W. Dowdeswell — the gravity of whose deportment, whose practical knowledge of business, and great integrity of character, made him always well heard and respected; Mr. Dunning (late lord Ashburton), whose legal knowledge and powers of elocution will be long remembered; and colonel Barre, whose political observation, and pointed replies, were always formidable to administration. But, notwithstanding the acknowledged merit of these gentlemen and others, Burke stood foremost for uniting the powers of fancy with the details of political information. In his speeches there was something for every mind to be gratified, which we have often seen occasionally exemplified even by those who disliked his general politics.
The parliament being dissolved in 1768, Mr. Burke was re-elected for Wendover. The opposition to the duke of Grafton's administration consisted of two parties, that of the marquis of Rockingham, and that of Mr. Grenville, but these two parties had nothing in common except their dislike of the ministry. This appeared very strikingly in a pamphlet written by Mr. Grenville, entitled "The present state of the Nation," which was answered by Burke, in "Observations on the present state of the Nation." One of the first subjects which occupied the attention of the new parliament was the expulsion of Wilkes for various libels, and the question, whether, after being so expelled, he was eligible to sit in the same parliament. Burke, on this occasion, endeavoured to prove that nothing but an act of the legislature can disqualify any person from sitting in parliament who is legally chosen, by a majority of electors, to fill a vacant seat. It is well known that his friend Dr. Johnson maintained a contrary doctrine in his "False Alarm;" but in this as well as other occasions during the American war, difference of opinion did not prevent a cordial intercourse between two men whose conversation during their whole lives was the admiration and ornament of every literary society. The question itself can hardly be said to have ever received a complete decision. All that followed was the expulsion of Wilkes during the present parliament, and the rescinding of that decision in a future parliament, without. argument or inquiry, in order to gratify those constituents who soon after rejected Wilkes with unanimous contempt.
The proceedings on this question gave rise to the celebrated letters signed Junius, which appeared in the Public Advertiser, and had been preceded by many other anti-ministerial letters by the same writer, under other signatures. They were at that time, and have often since been attributed to Mr. Burke, and we confess we once, and indeed for many years, were strongly of this opinion, but after the recent publication of these celebrated Letters, with Junius's private correspondence with Mr. Henry Woodfall, the printer of the Public Advertiser, and with Mr. Wilkes, it is as impossible to attribute them to Burke, as it is at present to discover any other gentleman to whom they may, from any reasonable grounds, be ascribed. It may be added too, that in a confidential conversation with Dr. Johnson, he spontaneously denied them, which, as the doctor very properly remarks, is more decisive proof than if he had denied them on being asked the question.
Besides Burke's speeches on the Middlesex election, he drew up a petition to the king from the freeholders of Buckinghamshire, where he had now purchased his house and lands at Beaconsfield, complaining of the conduct of the house of commons, in the matter of the expulsion, and praying for a dissolution of parliament. This petition was more temperate and decorous than some others addressed to the throne on that subject. About the same time he published "Thoughts on the public Discontents," a pamphlet from which they who wish to establish a "consistent whole" in Mr. Burke's conduct, derive some of their proofs. In this he proposed to place the government in the hands of an open aristocracy of talents, virtue, property, and rank, combined together on avowed principles, and supported by the approbation and confidence of the people; and the aristocracy which he thought fittest for this great trust, was a combination of those whig families which had most powerfully supported the revolution and consequent establishments. He expressed also, in strong terms, his disapprobation of any change in the constitution and duration of parliament; and declared himself as averse from an administration which should have no other support than popular favour, as from one brought forward merely by the influence of the court. In all Mr. Burke's publications there is a fascination of style and manner, which carries the reader with him to a certain distance; but to this scheme there were so many obvious objections that it made few converts, and courtiers and whigs equally opposed it, thinking it perhaps too comprehensive for the selfishness of party.
In 1770, the duke of Grafton, unable to resist the opposition within and without doors, resigned, and was succeeded by lord North, whose measures Mr. Burke uniformly opposed, particularly on the great questions agitated, and measures adopted with regard to America. So determined was he in his opposition to that minister, as to ridicule the proposition for a repeal of the obnoxious laws of the preceding administration, retaining only the duty on tea, as a mark of the authority of parliament over the colonies; although this, if wrong, could not be more so than a similar measure which he supported, and, as already noticed, some say he advised, during the marquis of Rockingham's administration. The most brilliant of his speeches were made in the course of this disastrous war, during which, although the attempt has been wade, we are totally at a loss to reconcile his principles with what he adopted on a subsequent occasion, nor are we of opinion that the question can be decided by selecting detached passages from his speeches (the most important of which he published); but from a consideration, not only of the general tendency of the whole towards the welfare of the state, and the sentiments of the nation, but on the actual effects produced. And it must not be omitted that his opposition to government continued after all Europe had leagued against Great Britain, a conduct consistent enough with the character of a partizan, but which has little in it of true independent patriotism.
Much of Burke's ardour in the course of this long political warfare has been thus accounted for by his old friend Gerard Hamilton: "Whatever opinion Burke, from any motive, supports, so ductile is his imagination, that he soon conceives it to be right." We apprehend also, that Burke was more accustomed to philosophize on certain questions than is usually supposed, and that by revolving the question in every possible light, his mind was often as full of arguments on one side as on the other, neither of which he could on all occasions conceal; and 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. Burke's judgment, had he given it full play, would have rendered him an oracle, to whom all parties would have been glad to appeal; but his political attachments were unfortunately strong while they lasted, and not unmixed with ambition, which frequently brought the independence of his character into suspicion. No opinion was ever more just than that of his friend Goldsmith, that Burke "gave up to party" what "was meant for mankind."
In 1772, he took a trip to France, and while he remained in that country his literary and political eminence made him courted by all the anti-monarchical and infidel philosophers of the time. That he saw in the religious scepticism and political theories of Voltaire, Helvetius, Rousseau, and D'Alembert, even at that period, the probable overthrow of religion and government, is not surprising, for these consequences were foreseen, about the same time, by a man of much less discernment, and of no religion, the late Horace Walpole, lord Orford. Burke, however, was so impressed with the subject, that on his return he could not avoid introducing his sentiments in the house of commons, and pointing out the conspiracy of atheism to the watchful jealousy of government. He professed he was not over-fond of calling in the aid of the secular arm to suppress doctrines and opinions; but if ever it were 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. About the same time he supported a motion for the relief of dissenters, and in the course of his speech called the toleration which they enjoyed by connivance "a temporary relaxation of slavery," a sort of liberty "not calculated for the meridian of England."
In 1774, a dissolution of parliament took place, and Mr. Burke was returned one of the members for Malton; when, just as he was sitting down to dinner with his constituents after the election, an express arrived from Bristol (consisting of a deputation of some merchants), informing him, that a considerable body of the citizens of Bristol, wishing, at that critical season, to be represented by some gentleman of tried abilities and known commercial knowledge, had put him up in nomination as one of their candidates; and that they had set off express to apprise him of that event, Mr. Burke, after acknowledging this high honour, and thanking the gentlemen for their zeal and assiduity in his favour, returned into the room where his Malton constituents were about sitting down to dinner, and told them the nature of the express he had just received, and requested their advice how to act. He observed, "That as they had done him the honour of thinking him worthy to be their member, he would, if it was their wish, endeavour to support that station with gratitude and integrity; but if they thought the general cause on which they were all embarked could he better assisted by his representing the city of Bristol, he was equally at their order." They immediately decided for Bristol; when, after taking a short repast with them, he threw himself into a post-chaise, and without ever taking rest on the road, arrived in that city on Thursday the 13th of October, being the sixth day of the poll.
His speech to the electors was as liberal as their invitation. He did not, like other candidates, on a spur of mistaken gratitude, or the artifice of popular conciliation, pledge himself to be the mere vehicle of their instructions; he frankly told them his opinion of the trust they had reposed in him; and what rendered this conduct still more creditable to his feelings was, that his colleague (Mr. Cruger) had just before expressed himself in favour of the coercive authority of his constituents' instructions. Mr. Burke's sentiments on this occasion are well worth transcribing, as, in our opinion, they place that point, "How far representatives are bound by the instructions of their constituents," out of the reach of all future litigation. "Certainly, gentlemen," says he, "it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention; it is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own: but his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men. Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates: but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good resulting from the general reason of the whole: — you choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far as any other from any endeavour to give it effect."
With these open and manly sentiments, Mr. Burke entered the house of commons, and we know of no instance in which he did not preserve the tenor of them; but in 1780, when he stood candidate for Bristol again, it was found that he had given offence to his constituents, by maintaining that he should be independent in his conduct, by supporting the trade of Ireland, and by voting on sir George Saville's bill in favour of the Roman catholics; and although he endeavoured to vindicate himself with his usual eloquence, he lost his election, and took his seat in the new parliament for Malton.
The Spring of 1782 opened a new scene of great political importance. The American war had continued seven years, and having been unsuccessful, not only the people, but very nearly a majority of the parliament, became tired of it. The minister was now attacked with great force, and the several motions which the opposition introduced, relative to the extinction of the war, were lost only by a very small minority. Finding the prospect of success brightening, the opposition determined to put the subject at issue. Accordingly on the 8th of March, lord John Cavendish moved certain resolutions, recapitulating the failures, the misconduct, and the expences of the war, the debate on which lasted till two o'clock in the morning, when the house divided on the order of the day, which had been moved by the secretary at war, and which was carried only by a majority of ten. This defection on the side of 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 20th of the same month (the house being uncommonly crowded) the earl of Surrey (now duke of Norfolk) rose to make his promised motion, when lord North spoke to order, by 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 become 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 arrangements were as follow: The marquis of Rockingham 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 (who was at the same time made a privy counsellor) paymaster-general of the forces.
Upon the meeting of parliament after the recess, the new ministry, which stood pledged to the country for many reforms, began to put them into execution. They first began with the affairs of Ireland; and as the chief ground of complaint of the sister kingdom was the restraining power of the 6th of George the First, a bill was brought in to repeal this act, coupled with a resolution of the house, "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." These passed without opposition, and his majesty at the same time appointed his grace the duke of Portland lord lieutenant of that kingdom. They next brought in bills for disqualifying revenue officers for voting in the election for members of parliament; and on the 15th of April, Mr. Burke brought forward his great plan of reform in the civil list expenditure, by which the annual saving (and which would he yearly increasing) would amount to £72,368. It was objected by some members that this bill was not so extensive as it was 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 sense of the house and of the people to prosecute a more complete system of reform. This bill was followed by another for the regulation of his own office; but the lateness of the season did not afford time for the completion of all plans of regulation and retrenchment, which were in the contemplation of the new ministry, and indeed all their plans were deranged by the death of the marquis of Rockingham July 1, 1782. On this event it was discovered that there was not that perfect union of principles among the leaders of the majority, to which the country had looked up; for, lord Shelburne (afterwards marquis of Lansdowne) being appointed first lord of the treasury, a statesman who had incessantly and powerfully co-operated with the party in opposition to the late war, except in the article of avowing the independence of America, this gave umbrage to the Rockingham division of the cabinet, who were of opinion that "by this change the measures of the former administration would be broken in upon." Mr. Fox, therefore, lord John Cavendish, Mr. Burke, and others, resigned their respective offices, and Mr. Pitt, then a very young man, succeeded lord George Cavendish as chancellor of the exchequer, lord Sidney succeeded Mr. Fox as secretary of state, and colonel Barre Mr. Burke as paymaster of the forces, lord Sherburne retaining his office as first minister.
By this change Mr. Burke fell once more into the ranks of opposition, and continued in that situation until after the general peace of 1783, when Mr. Fox, joining his parliamentary interest with that of lord North, gained a majority in the house of commons, which after some ineffectual struggles on the part of Mr. Pitt, terminated in what was called the coalition administration, composed of the duke of Portland 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. 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, be reprobated his conduct; but the American contest being over, and other 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 ground. 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, a 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 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 arranged 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 then he will be found one of the greatest ornaments of the age he lived in.
Referring, therefore, at large to these documents, the next great political object of Mr. Burke's attention was in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, esq. governor general of Bengal. Whatever merit or demerit there was in this procedure, it originated with him; he pledged himself to undertake it long before Mr. Hastings's return from India, and was as good as his word on his arrival; parliament, however, sanctioned his motions for an impeachment, and from that time to its final determination it was their own act and deed. In the prosecution of this tedious and expensive trial, the variety and extent of Mr. Burke's powers, perhaps, never came out with greater lustre; he has been charged by some with shewing too much irritability of temper on this occasion, and by others of private and interested pique; but though we acknowledge there appear to be grounds for the first charge (which is too often the concomitant of great and ardent minds in the eager and impassioned pursuits of their object) we have every reason to acquit him of the other. It was, on the contrary, his political interest to forego the impeachment, and his friends, we believe, strongly advised him to that measure, but we have every reason to think he felt it his duty to act otherwise; and though the subsequent decision of the house of lords has shewn he was in an error, we must suppose it an error of his understanding, not of his heart. Such at least is the language of some of his biographers on this subject; but, although he may be exculpated of malice or avarice in this affair, we cannot help being of opinion, that his character, the character. of his heart, as well as his head, must suffer by the recollection of his many and violent exaggerations without proof, and particularly his harsh and coarse notice of Mr. Hastings, and his own personal ostentation. On one occasion, when in the moment of Mr. Hastings's hesitation about the ceremony of kneeling at the bar, which proceeded from accident, he commanded him to kneel, with a ferocity in his countenance which no painting could express, we question if there was a human being in that vast assembly who would have exchanged feelings with him.
The next important measure in which Mr. Burke stood forward with an unusual degree of prominence, was the settlement of a regency during his majesty's illness in 1788-9. On his conduct at this time, his biographers who wish to prove him uniformly consistent in political principle, seem inclined to cast a veil; but, as in that conduct he betrayed more characteristic features of the man as well as the politician than at any other period of his life, we know not how to get rid of some notice of it in a narrative, however short, which professes to be impartial. In fact, his repeated interference in the debates to which the regency gave rise, were far more formidable to his own friends than to the ministers. Either unconscious that constitutional principles and popular opinion were against the part his friends took, or despising both in a case in which he thought himself right, prudence so completely deserted him, that, not content with the urgency of legal and speculative argument, he burst forth in expressions respecting his majesty, so indecent, irreverent, and cruel, as to create more general dislike to his character than had ever before been entertained; 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 obligations 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.
The next and last aera of his history is, perhaps, the most important of all, as it is that concerning which the opinions of the world are still divided. We allude to his interference, for such it may be called, with the conduct and progress of the French revolution. Many of his friends in parliament, as well as numbers of wise and good men out of it, augured from the meeting of the states-general of France, great benefit to that nation, of which the government was considered as despotic and oppressive; and some were sanguine enough to predict a new and happy order of things to all the nations connected with France, when its government should become more free. These sentiments, we can well remember, were not only general, but perhaps universal, although they might not always proceed from the same sources. There were some who loved liberty, and would hail its dawn in any country. There were others who hated the French government as the perpetual enemy of Great Britain. Mr. Burke saw nothing in the proceedings of the French which was favourable either to liberty or peace. He was well acquainted with the genius of the French people, and with the principles of those philosophers, as they called themselves, by whom a total revolution in church and state had long been projected; and from the commencement of their career in the constituent assembly, when they established, as the foundation of all legal government, the metaphysical doctrine of the "rights of man," he predicted that torrent of anarchy and infidelity which they have since attempted to pour over all Europe. Mr. Fox, and some of the other leading men in opposition, considered this as a vain fear, and a coolness took place between them and Mr. Burke, although they continued for some time to act together in parliament. In the mean time he published his celebrated "Reflections on the French Revolution," the instantaneous effect of which was to reduce the nation, hitherto unanimous or indifferent on the subject, to two distinct parties, the one admiring the glorious prospects arising from the French revolution, the other dreading its consequences to this nation in particular, and to the world at large. Many able writers of the former class took up their pens on this occasion, in what were called "answers" to Mr. Burke, and some of them were certainly written with great ability. The controversy was long and obstinate, and cannot be said to have terminated until the commencement of the war in 1793, when the changes of government and practice in France rendered most of the points discussed with Mr. Burke no longer of immediate importance. France, as he had predicted, was plunged into barbarous and atrocious anarchy, and the friends of her projected liberty, dearly as they clung to the idea, were obliged to confess themselves disappointed in every hope, while Mr. Burke's predictions were erroneous in one only, namely, that France was now blotted out of the map of Europe.
In the mean time, an open rupture took place between Mr. Burke and his oldest friends in opposition. In 1790 he had so far expressed his dislike of experiments on the established laws and constitution, as to oppose the repeal of the test-act, and a motion for the reform of parliament. With regard to the latter, we know not that he ever was friendly, but it is certain that he once maintained the propriety of relieving the dissenters from certain disabilities. He was now, however, as he declares in his "Reflections," 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 it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve the equipoise." He had identified the whole body of dissenters with Drs. Priestley and Price, and from their writings, particularly those of Priestley, saw nothing but a cooperation with the French in revolutionary measures. Such were his sentiments, when, in 1791, a bill was proposed for the formation of a constitution in Canada. In discussing it Mr. Burke entered on the general principles of legislation, considered the doctrines 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 members of his own party had called Mr. Burke to order, Mr. Fox, 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; he thought it, on the whole, one of the most glorious events in the history of mankind; and proceeded to express his dissent from Mr. Burke's opinions on the subject, as inconsistent with just views of the inherent rights of mankind. These, besides, were, he said, inconsistent with Mr. Burke's former principles. Mr. Burke, in reply, said: "Mr. Fox has treated me with harshness and malignity; after having harassed with his light troops in the skirmishes of order, he brought the heavy artillery of his own great abilities to bear on me." He maintained that the French constitution and general system were replete with anarchy, impiety, vice, and misery; that the discussion of a new polity for a province that had been under the French, and was now under the English government, was a proper opportunity of comparing the French and British constitutions. He denied the charge of inconsistency; his opinions on government, he insisted, had been the same during all his political life. He said, Mr. Fox and he had often differed, and that there had been no loss of friendship between them; but there is something in the "cursed French revolution" which envenoms every thing. On this Mr. Fox whispered: "There is no loss of friendship between us." Mr. 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 in the course of his speech still maintained that Mr. Burke had formerly held very different principles. It would be difficult, says one of his biographers, to determine with certainty, whether constitutional irritability or public principle was the chief cause of Mr. Burke's sacrifice of that friendship which he had so long cherished, and of which the talents and qualities of its object rendered him so worthy. It would perhaps be as difficult to prove that such a sacrifice was necessary, and we fear that his reconciliation with lord North and his quarrel with Mr. Fox must, even by the most favourable of his panegyrists, be placed among the inconsistencies of this otherwise truly eminent character. From this time, Messrs. Burke and Fox remained at complete variance, nor have we ever heard that any personal interview took place afterwards between them.
Mr. Burke being now associated with Mr. Pitt, although neither soliciting, nor invited into any public station, continued to write from time to time, memorials and remarks on the state of France, and the alliance of the great powers of Europe that was formed against the new order of things in that distracted country. Some of these were published after his death, but as all of them are included in his collected works, it is unnecessary now to specify their dates and titles. Having resolved to quit the bustle of public life as soon as the trial of Mr. Hastings should be concluded, he vacated his seat when that gentleman was acquitted, and retired to his villa at Beaconsfield, where on Aug. 2, 1794, he met with a heavy domestic loss in the death of his only son. In the beginning of the same year he had lost his brother Richard, whom he tenderly loved; out though this reiterated stroke of death deeply affected him, it never relaxed the vigour of his mind, nor lessened the interest which he took in the public welfare. In this retreat he was disturbed by a very unprovoked attack upon his character by some distinguished speakers in the house of peers. Soon after the death of his son, his majesty bestowed a pension of £1200 for his own life and that of his wife on the civil list, and two other pensions of £2500 a year for three lives, payable out of the four and a half per cent. These gifts were now represented as a reward for having changed his principles, and deserted his friends, although they were bestowed after he had left parliament. This charge he repelled in a letter addressed to earl Fitzwilliam, written in terms of eloquent and keen sarcasm.
When the appearance of amelioration in the principles and government of France induced his majesty to make overtures of peace to the French Directory, Mr. Burke resumed his pen, and gave his opinions against the safety of such a negociation in a series of letters entitled: "Thoughts on the prospect of a Regicide Peace." This was his last work, and in point of style and reasoning not inferior to any he had produced on the subject of the French character and government.
From the beginning of July 1797, his health rapidly declined; but his understanding exerted itself with undiminished force and uncontracted range. On the 7th of that month, when the French revolution was mentioned, he spoke with pleasure of the conscious rectitude of his own intentions in what he had done and written respecting it; intreated those about him to believe, that if any unguarded expression of his on the subject had offended any of his former friends, no offence was by him intended; and he declared his unfeigned forgiveness of all who had on account of his writings, or for any other cause, endeavoured to do him an injury. On the day following, whilst one of his friends, assisted by his servant, 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. He was interred on the 13th, in the church of Beaconsfield, close to his son and brother.
Edmund Burke in his person was about five feet ten inches high, erect, and well formed; with a countenance rather soft and open; and except by an occasional bend of his brow, caused by his being near-sighted, indicated none of those great traits of mind by his countenance which he was otherwise well known to possess. The best print of him is from a half-length by sir Joshua Reynolds, painted when Mr. Burke was in the meridian of life.
Of his talents and acquirements it would be difficult to speak, did we not trust to his long and justly-established fame to fill up the deficiencies of our description. The richness of his mind illustrated every subject he touched upon. In conversing with him he attracted by his novelty, variety, and research; in parting from him, we involuntarily exclaimed "What an extraordinary man!" As an orator, though not so grand and commanding in his manner as lord Chatham, whose form of countenance and penetrating eye gave additional force to his natural and acquired talents, yet he had excellencies which always gave him singular pre-eminence in the senate. He was not (though it was evident he drew from these great resources) like Cicero, or Demosthenes, or any one else; the happy power of diversifying his matter, and placing it in various relations, was all his own; and here he was generally truly sublime and beautiful. He had not, perhaps, always the art of concluding in the right place, partly owing to the vividness of his fancy, and the redundancy of his matter; and partly owing to that irritability of temper which he himself apologizes for to his friends in his last notice of them; but those speeches which he gave the public do not partake of this fault, which shew that in his closet his judgment returned to its usual standard.
As a writer he is still higher; and judging of him from his earliest to his latest productions, he must be considered as one of those prodigies which are sometimes given to the world to be admired, but cannot be imitated; he possessed all kinds of styles, and gave them to the head and heart in a most exquisite manner: pathos, taste, argument, experience, sublimity, were all the ready colours of his palette, and from his pencil they derived their brightest dyes. He was one of the few whose writings broke the fascinating links of party, and compelled all to admire the brilliancy of his pen. He was a firm professor of the Christian religion, and exercised its principles in its duties; wisely considering, "That whatever disunites man from God, disunites man from man." He looked within himself for the regulation of his conduct, which was exemplary in all the relations of life; he was warm in his affections, simple in his manners, plain in his table, arrangements, &c. &c. and so little affected with the follies and dissipations of what is called "the higher classes," that he was totally ignorant of them; so that this great man, with all his talents, would be mere lumber in a modern drawing-room; not but that he excelled in all the refinements as well as strength of conversation, and could at times badinage with great skill and natural ease; but what are these to a people where cards and dice constitute their business; and fashionable phrases, and fashionable vices, their conversation?
His entire works have been published by his executors, Drs. King and Laurence, in 5 vols. 4to, and 10 vols. 8vo, and will ever form a stupendous monument of his great and unrivalled talents. For reasons, however, which we have already hinted, they will require to be read by the political student with a considerable portion of that judgment which, in the author, was frequently paralyzed by the rapidity of his ideas, and the bewitching seductions of his imagination. And when the details of his public and private life shall be given from more authentic sources, and sanctioned by his correspondence, which is said to be extensive, no reasonable doubt can be entertained that he will deserve to be considered as the most illustrious political character of the eighteenth century.