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A PORTION" of the following chapters has already
appeared in the "Fortnightly Eeview." This
portion has since undergone many considerable modi-
fications, while the rest, including the whole of the
last two chapters, is now published for the first

It scarcely requires to be said that the stand-point
of my book is not in any sense biographical. When
the outward facts of a statesman's life have once been
established and set forth in an accessible record, it
seems a work of supererogation to ask the reader
once more to tread ground with which he is already
sufficiently familiar. Mr. Macknight's industry has
found out for us all that we can hope to know as
to the personal events and dates of Burke's career.
From the historical side the case is different. The
opinions we hold about every prominent statesman

vr- - PREFACE.

will from time to time need revision, as our view
shifts about the events in which he took a part,
about the general nature of progress, and about the
meaning of all history.

Biography, in the hands of a man of the requisite
capacity and sensibility, is perhaps the very highest
form of prose work. One may, I think, almost count
upon one's fingers the really good biographies in
English literature ; but then, alas ! it is not every man
whose life would suffice to inspire work of this high
and rare kind. The biographer, stripping his subject,
as much as he can, of what is irrelevant and acci-
dental in the surrounding conditions, delights the
reader with a fresh and impressive picture of a
human character. The writer of a historical study,
on the other hand, taking much lower ground, aims
not at a reproduction of the central figure of his
meditations, but at a criticism of his hero's relations,
and contributions to the main transactions of his time.
This at least is the design of the following pages.



Born at Dublin . January 12 (N.S.), 1729

Came to England 1750

Went to Ireland as Private Secretaiy to Single-
speech Hamilton 1761

Private Secretary to Lord Rockingham 1765

Elected forj Wendover, one of Lord Verney's

Boroughs December, 1765

Elected for Bristol November, 1774

Declining the Poll at Bristol, elected for Malton,

Lord Rockingham's Borough 1780

Paymaster- General in" the Second Rockingham

Ministry April to July, 1782

Held the same office in the Coalition Ministry . April to Dec. 1783

Retired from Parliament July, 1794

Lost his Son 1794

Died at Bcaconsiiekl July 9, 1797





Introduction 1

English parties from 1760 to 1790 3

Burke's task during this time, the revival of "Whig doctrine . . 9

The ideal of a Patriot King exploded by the incapacity of George in. 11
The Thoughts on the Present Discontents a virtual refutation of the

Patriot Kiwj 13

Illustrates Burke's general influence on the Whigs 15

Four movements of English political thought in this century, and

Burke's place in the third of them 16

His appreciation of the relativity of political conceptions ... 20

The exigencies of practical politics weakened him as a thinker . 26
But the tone which they gave to his treatment of questions

strengthened his influence 28

His wisdom 30

His repugnance to inquiries into the g ouuds of prevailing beliefs . 32



Exhibited as early <os 1778 36

He opposes, for example, a relaxation of Subscription .... 37

Proclaims his preference for peace over truth 44

A passionate enthusiasm for order, the key to his character ... 46

His consistency 50


As an object either of pictorial or moral study, Burke is incom-
parably interesting 55

His patrician competitors 60

Historic study is concerned with his attitude in the greater move-
ments of his time 62

Important activities at work in the Spiritual, Industrial, Specula-
tive, and Political Orders 63

Their common direction, (1) Industrial Development, (2) Over-
throw of Privilege 66

Burke's mind moved along with these tendencies, though unaware
of their goal 69

Three leading issues from 1760 to 1783 (1) the supremacy of the
Lower House in the Legislature, (2) the supremacy of the
popular will in the Lower House, (3) the responsibility to the
House of Commons of the Executive 72

NOTE . 75





England after 1688 an aristocratic republic 77

The first great constitutional case in Burke's time ... .78

Circumstances of the Middlesex Election 78

Usurpation by the Commons 82

Explanation of popular sympathy with Wilkes 85

Burke's comprehension of Wilkism 87

Illustration of the strength of the popular feeling 89

Case of Privilege. The Printers 91

Interference with the records of an independent court .... 93

Significance of this case 95

Pretensions of the Lower House 96

Employment of military force in civil disturbances 97

Arrears of Civil List discharged without accounts 100

Necessity for Parliamentary Reform 102

Burke's consistent hostility to the Reform projects of his party . 103

To triennial parliaments 104

To the exclusion of placemen and pensioners 108

His own theory of the relations between the House and the

country 109

His practical recommendations Ill

Displeasure of his party 112

His policy in precise accord with his general conception of the

Constitution , n^


Same defects in this conception

Its comparative value 122


Two false prophecies on the conquest of Canada 125

The American Rebellion unconnected with this event .... 126

Love of independence involved in Puritanism 127

The social conditions of the Colonies gave room for the expansion

of such a sentiment 130

The Rebellion the last outcome of the ideas of the sixteenth cen-
tury, and not the first of those of the eighteenth 133

Spirit prevalent in the mother country 135

Importance of the contest for English and European liberty . .14.0
The attitude of England a consequence of a metaphysical convic-
tion about Rights 143

Mischievous fallacy implied in this conviction 146

Burke's detestation of it 147

Justice, or the highest form of expediency, the true criterion in

politics 150

This truth forgotten in every part of our colonial policy . . . .152

The nature of this policy 153

Its bearings on the Rebellion 157

Morality of the Declaration of Independence 161

Philosophy of American evolution not yet possible 162





Burke' s love of good government 165

I. Economical Reform. Its constitutional importance . . . .168

The Royal Household 171

The Estates of the Crown 172

The Office of Paymaster 173

Meagre practical results of Burke's scheme 174

It illustrates his capacity in the political art 176

II. Ireland. Peculiarity of Irish history 177

Anglo-Irish relations with England and with the natives during

the eighteenth century 180

Removal of commercial and religious restrictions, the double

process obviously necessary 184

The effect of the American War on the Anglo-Irish . . . .185
Legislative independence, and commercial concessions . . . 1 8(3

Pitt's propositions of 1785 187

Burke's mischievous and unjust hostility to them 188

The Penal Laws against the Catholics 191

Burke's exposure of their character 193

III. India. Is the sovereignty over inferior races desirable for us

in our present stage ? 19(5

Does the end justify the means in politics ? 201



Assertion that Burke's sympathies were misplaced examined

and rebutted ' . . . 203

Character of English relations with India . 208

Policy of Hastings 214

His acquittal did not weaken the lesson of his impeachment . 216

Change in the system of government . . .217

Important difference between Burke's India Bill and Pitt's . .218
India augments the demoralisation of opinion commenced by
our attitude in the war with the Colonists 224



The Revolution compared with the Reformation 225

What it was, and is 227

Why France was its earliest centre 231

Distinguished from the movement of its so-called precursors . . 235

Its volcanic character not an unmixed evil 239

It was not merely negative and destructive 240

Its positive contributions 241

Their effect on such men as Chateaubriand and De Maistre . . . 245

Results of the political inexperience of the French 247

Not entirely such as publicists often represent 250

Burke's evil destiny in falling on this time 253

The manner of his hostility to the Revolution 255

Difference between the leader and his followers 257

His parly foresight of the effects of the 6th of October . . . .261



And of the demolition of all standing ordinances 262

His mistake as to what was possible 267

Differences between England and pre-revolutionary France . . . 268

Constitutionalism impracticable in France 270

Burke discerned this by 1791 273

Errors in the revolutionary method 276

Burke's just denunciation of them 280

This method a result of the predominance of the men of letters . 282
True character of the function of the speculative class .... 284
The "methodising of anarchy," imputed to the men of letters,
more justly applicable to the clergy and aristocracy .... 286

Illustrated by the laws against the Calvinists 289

Anarchy in the secular order 294

The Proletarians and the Church 296

Anti-social character of the pre-revolutionary system . . . .299

Liberty and the French Revolution 302

The Dogma of the Sovereignty of the People 308

Conclusion , 310




TT is almost exactly one hundred years since Burke
first took his seat in the House of Commons,
and it is something like three-quarters of a century
since his voice ceased to lie heard there on great
public questions. Since his death, as during his life,
opinion as to the place to which he is entitled among
the eminent men of his country has touched every
extreme. Tories have extolled him as the saviour
of Europe. Whigs have detested him as the destroyer
of his party. One umliscriminating panegyrist calls
him " the most profound and comprehensive of political
philosophers that has yet existed in the world."
Another and more distinguished writer insists that
he is " a resplendent and far-seeing rhetorician rather



than a deep and subtle thinker." A third tells us
that his works " cannot be too much your study if
you mean either to understand or to maintain against
its various enemies, open and concealed, designing
and mistaken, the singular constitution of this fortu-
nate island." A fourth, on the contrary, declares that
it would be hard to find a single leading principle or
prevailing sentiment in one half of these works to
which something extremely adverse cannot be found
in the other half. A fifth calls him " one of the
greatest men, and, Bacon alone excepted, the greatest
thinker who ever devoted himself to the practice of
English politics ; " and yet, oddly enough, the author
of this fifth verdict will have it that this great man
and great thinker was actually out of his mind when
he composed those pieces for which he has been most
generally admired and revered.

These diversities of opinion are not difficult to be
accounted for, and they are very well worth consider-
ing, both because they are useful in illustrating the
general position of English politics in the latter half
of the eighteenth century, and because they bear
with much force upon the probable course of English
political opinion in the latter half of the nineteenth


A hundred years ago the government of England
had come to a dead lock. For seventy years the
Whigs had ruled the country. The Eevolution of
1688 was the consummation of that struggle between
the sovereign and the nobles which had gone on in
England since its conquest by the Normans. The same
struggle was universal in Western Europe. It was
an inevitable consequence of the decay of the feudal
system, after the aim which gave life to it, the defence
of the West against the barbarian from the North and
the Ottoman from the East, had been satisfactorily
accomplished. But the case of England was peculiar.
At the moment when William I. established the
authority of the Crown, the nucleus of a strong
coalition against it already existed in the partially
dispossessed and exasperated Saxon nobles. For one
of its effects, this accelerated the contest, and the
English nobles assailed the authority of the Crown
before the corresponding but inverse movement began
in France, where the Crown had to attack the
authority of the great nobles. Another effect was,
that in England the people, sympathising with the
Saxon originators of the coalition, and identifying the
Crown with all that they had to detest in Norman
oppression, uniformly sided with the nobles against the

J? 2


Crown. This attitude became traditional, and receiving
a fresh impulse from the assumption of an unpopular
religious supremacy by the monarch, survived the
defection of the nobles to their former rival in the
Great Rebellion. This kind of defection has been a
common characteristic of the history of Western Europe
during the break-up of the mediaeval system, hi
France, for example, the monarch having first crushed
the nobles by the help of the people, afterwards
patronised them, and struck an alliance with them
against the people. In England, the nobles in the
same spirit felt instinctively that the Crown, which
they had reduced to a position of safe inferiority to
themselves, was to be supported against the people,
their own ally in earlier times. This did not, how-
ever, prevent them from again courting the popular
support, when they supposed that James n. was
about once more to assert the authority of the
monarchy. Their alarm, which was perhaps justified
by the strength of the reaction they had done their
best to promote thirty years before, probably made
them sincere in their proclamation of free and popular
ideas. A few nobles adhered to the principles which
had been learnt in the Civil Wars, and stuck to the
Crown. But the majority understood the interns of


their order more correctly, and their sagacity had
been rewarded with prolonged power.

But now time had robbed them of the little handful
of tolerably disinterested chiefs who had once led
them, as well as of the tolerably disinterested prin-
ciples which the party had so long found it con-
venient to profess. The inevitable exposure which
must sooner or later come upon every oligarchy over-
took the oligarchy of the revolution families. The
patrician senators forgot to continue to hold on the
popular mask, and the bugbear of Jacobitism had at
length fallen fairly to pieces. The Divine Eight of
Kings had been fully expanded into the Divine Eight
of Nobles. The nation saw a select horde of peers
wrangling for places and for the public money, devoted
to selfish and low-minded intrigues, and perfectly
indifferent to the welfare of the State. There was no
more in this than the invariable issue of an oligarchic
system under all conditions and in all countries.
Time and security soon wear off the thin whitewash
which distinguishes a patrician Whig from an avowed
Tory. Every system of government which rests upon
the capacity of a very small and charily recruited
body, is sure in time to become a monstrous burden
to the community in which it prevails, and to find


itself, confronted with popular revolution in a more
or less violent form.

There were tw r o quarters from which the corrupt
Whigs of a hundred or a hundred and ten years ago
might have expected the decisive attack to be made
the Monarch and the Commonalty. The first vigorous-
minded ruler who should come to the throne was sure
to despise their incapacity and resent their patronage.
The first breath of political life and agitation that should
stir the people would instantly disclose the selfishness
and incompetency of their protectors. As it happened,
they offended the conceit and self-will of that ignorant
youth who in 1760 ascended the throne of Great
Britain. The struggle which began thus ignobly be-
tween the uneducated and obstinate youth and the
oligarchs who thwarted him for their own ends, lasted
until the former had grown into an uneducated and
obstinate adult, and most of his original opponents had
ceased to live. The old Whig party was broken up in
1770. Chatham and the Rockinghams were thoroughly
estranged and disunited. George Grenville's death had
left a certain strong section of Whigs free to enlist
under any banner. Another and more powerful section
were deprived of a leader by the death of the Duke of
Bedford. Lord North's ministry was strengthened by


recruits or renegades from both of these connexions ;
by the Earl of Suffolk, for example, from the Grenville
section, and by the Earl of Sandwich from the Bedford
section. The Duke of Grafton also was restored in
1771, on the death of Halifax. 1 But this transforma-
tion of the North government was in a manner a
partially accidental and temporary absorption of the
old families. The Tory principle that the king should
not be obliged to take a minister who should be dis-
pleasing to him, as against the old Whig principle that
the king was the doge of an oligarchic council, was not
precisely established until 1783. The contest between
George HI. and the old Whigs was over in this year,
when the King, having by a sort of sly, dull, underhand
imitation of a coup d' etat, sent down Lord Temple to
menace the House of Lords with his displeasure in
case they passed Fox's India Bill, got the Bill thrown
out. With his usual rude impetuosity, he sent the
next day to demand the seals from the Coalition cabi-
net. The question at issue in this twenty years' war
had been the right of the sovereign to choose his own
ministers. The King won. He had kept Lord North
in power for twelve years. He turned out the Coalition,

1 Stanhope., v. 293. Masscy, ii. 70. Donne's Correspondence of
ill. with Lnrfl Xorfh, i. 48, srq.


he installed Pitt. The sway of the revolution families
was finally broken ; their exclusive title to place and
pay finally abrogated. 1 This *nuch was at least settled,
that the monarch, whatever else he might be, should at
all events not be a puppet in the hands of Whig chief-
tains; and that the government of the country, to
whomsoever it might fall, should no longer be the appa-
nage of a band of incompetent nobles, whose only claim
to it was that their grandfathers had dethroned a king
by whom their pride had been wounded, and by whom,
the Anglican clergy, his rivals in bigotry, had been
irritated and alarmed into revolt against their own
ecclesiastical principles. " The general election of 1784,"
Lord Russell says, "determined for more than forty
years the question of the government of England."

1 Tii 1782 Fox prophesied to Pitt under the gallery that the
Rockinghams would go out, and the old system be revived. " And
they look to you," he added. "If they reckon upon me," Pitt
replied, "they may find themselves mistaken." Fox afterwards
repeated this, and said, " I believe they do reckon on Pitt, and I
believe they will not be mistaken." Sir G. C. Lewis says that
"neither of the parties in this dialogue were quite right in their
anticipations" (Administrations of Great Britain from 1783 to 1830,
p. 76), and argues that the contest between Fox and the King ended
in a compromise. He does not mean, I take it, that there was any
compromise on that part of the contest which turned on the King's
independence of the old connexions in choosing his minister. This
feature at least of the old system was distinctly revived and sustained.


Meanwhile, events had happened which had made
the King's victory of 1783 far less decisive in liis own
favour than it might have seemed to him and to others
at the time. It was a final victory over the Old "Whigs,
but it inflicted no more than a momentary defeat on the
New. This party, which performed so conspicuous a
function in English politics, and the lingering remnants
of which still figure on the political stage, was the
creation of Edmund Burke. Most of them vilipended
him bitterly in later days. Some of their political
descendants vilipend him now. With the usual inso-
lent thanklessness shown by patricians in every age
and country towards the greater plebeians who supply
them with ideas and a policy, the party never offered
him a seat in their cabinets. But for all that, he was
their inspirer. To him they owed the whole vitality of
their creed, the whole coherence of their principles,
the whole of that enlightenment, that rational love of
liberty, that antipathy to arbitrary ideas, on which rest
their just claims to the gratitude of their descendants.
Burke, from 1770 to 1790, was in the politics of the
eighteenth centuiy what Wesley was in its religion.
He entered into the midst of the valley and found it
full of dry bones. By his imagination, his reasoning,
his enormous knowledge, above all, by his ardour and


impetuosity of character, he brought the dead Whig
principles up from out of the grave, and kindled a life
in them, which has only just flickered out for ever in
our own days. He made a vigorous effort to restore
popular ideas to that high place in practical politics
from which they had been excluded ever since the
glorious days of the Great Eebellion. From the Resto-
ration to the Revolution, the spirit of reaction enjoyed
a scarcely disturbed triumph. From the Revolution
down to the accession of George in. English statesmen
were all absorbed either in maintaining or overthrow-
ing that final movement for aristocratic supremacy, of
which in truth no more than the mere prologue had
been completed with the dethronement of James II.
There was no room for ideas until the task of suppress-
ing Jacobitism had been brought to a decisive close;
and even when this was done, and the ceaseless in-
trigues and machinations of fifty years were thoroughly
and for ever baffled, time was still needed in which the
statesmen of the old school might gradually disappear
to make way for others, who to a new set of circum-
stances should bring a new set of maxims and a new
spirit. It was Burke who first seized the true sig-
nificance of the situation, who first proclaimed the
principles of the rising movement, and who thus led


the Whigs to the forgotten truth, that a government
exists for the sake of the whole people.

Bolingbroke, abandoning the old theory of Divine
Eight, had seen this as clearly as either Burke or any
other thinker. The whole argument of the Patriot
King turns on the doctrine that the good of the people
is the ultimate and true end of government. Locke
himself furnished this base to Bolingbroke's famous
speculation, " That since men were directed by nature
to form societies, because they cannot by their natures
subsist without them, nor in a state of individuality,
and since they were directed in like manner to estab-
lish governments, because societies cannot be main-
tained without them, nor subsist in a state of anarchy,
the ultimate end of all governments is the good of the
people, for whose sake they were made, and without
whose consent they would not have been made." 1
Starting from this, Bolingbroke expounded the spirit
in which a patriotic monarch would govern his subjects,
insisting that he should make no difference between his
own rights and those of his people, except in regarding
the first as trusts, and the last as absolute property. If
George in. trained as he is said to have been in the
doctrines of this work, had possessed capacity and
3 The Idea of a Patriot Kimj, \\ 118 (ed. 1749).


generosity enough to understand and assimilate them,

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyEdmund Burke: a historical study → online text (page 1 of 18)