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Edmund Burke

      Edmund Burke, the great British politician, and one of the greatest political philosophers that ever lived, was born at Dublin, January 1, 1730, as son of a petty attorney. Conformably to the wishes of his father, he began to study law in London, but found it so little attractive that, encouraged by eminent men, particularly by Johnson, he turned to literary pursuits. His first work, "Vindication of Natural Society" (1756), which at once won him fame, is a keen satire on Bolingbroke, showing that the attacks of that writer upon revealed religion might as well be turned against all social and political institutions. His reputation was still enhanced by the "Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful" (1757); and at the same time he showed, by publishing "Dodd's Annual Register," that he was equally gifted for politics. As a preliminary for practical activity in that domain, he became private secretary of Gerard Hamilton, the lieutenant-general's assistant for Ireland, but soon found that his chief's smart mediocrity only wanted to turn to advantage the secretary's scantily rewarded talent. He returned to London (1764), and at once entered upon the political career in which he was to play so eminent a part.

      The Grenville ministry was dismissed and replaced by an administration of rather heterogeneous elements, under Lord Rockingham, not a great statesman, but combining unblemished character and solid gifts with rank and wealth. Burke became his private secretary and influential adviser, being at the same time elected a member for Wendover. Matters then were in a very critical state: while discontent was fast rising in America and commerce trembling for its colonial trade, two parties were fiercely opposed in Parliament. Pitt deemed it treason against the Constitution and to the colonies to tax America without its consent. Grenville declared it treason to crown and legislature to abandon that right. Burke, though in principle more inclining to Pitt, advised a middle course by redressing the grievances of the colonies, while maintaining the dignity of the crown. The government proposed (January, 1766) to repeal Grenville's Stamp Act, but to guard the constitutional rights of the mother-country by a "Declaratory Act." In the debate on these bills Burke made his maiden speech, which called forth universal admiration; a friend wrote to him, "You have made us hear a new eloquence." The bills passed, but the ministry, mined by both parties, soon afterward was obliged to resign. Burke summed up its activity in an excellent pamphlet, "A Short Account of a Late Short Administration," and now entered into opposition against Lord Chatham's ministry, which he called "a tessellated pavement without cement." On the other hand, he victoriously refuted the attacks of the Grenvilles against Rockingham, in his "Observations on the Present State of the Nation," exhibiting the emptiness of his opponents' declamations on the declining wealth of the country, and proving that its resources were fast increasing.

      Burke rises still higher in the "Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents" (1770), a powerful plea for the British Constitution in its development from 1688, and exhibiting the full maturity of his talent. He denies that the prevailing discontents are due to some factious libellers exciting the people, who have no interest in disorder, but are only roused by the impatience of suffering. The discontents were real, and their cause was a perversion of the true principles on which the Constitution rested. As hitherto, business had gone alternately through the hands of Whigs and Tories, the opposition controlling the government; but now a court faction had sprung up called "the king's friends," a double cabinet, acting as irresponsible wire-pullers behind the scenes. These men deriving, like Janissaries, a kind of freedom from the very condition of their servitude, were sitting in secondary, but efficient, departments of office and in the household of the royal family, so as to occupy the avenues to the throne and to forward or frustrate the execution of any measure according to their own interests; they endeavored to separate the crown from the administration, and to divide the latter within itself. To this cabal it was owing that British policy was brought into derision in those foreign countries which, a while ago, trembled at the power of England's arms. Above all, they tried to pervert the principles of Parliament by raising divisions among the people, by influencing the elections, by separating representatives from their constituents, and by undermining the control of the legislature over the executive. They maintained that all political connections were in their nature factious; but free commonwealths were ever made by parties, i.e., bodies of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon great leading principles in which they were agreed; government by parties was the very soul of representative institutions; it had raised England to her present power and protected the liberty of the people; while the cant, "measures not men," had always been the pretext for getting loose from every honorable engagement.

Burke, Johnson and their friends.

      Burke finds the remedy in restoring the Constitution to its original principles; all patriots must form a firm combination against the cabal; a just connection between representatives and constituents must be re-established; Parliament ought not to meddle with the privileges of the executive, but exercise real control upon the acting powers of the state, and if necessary, not be afraid to resort to impeachment, "that great guardian of the purity of the Constitution;" finally, if all means fail, there must be an interposition of the body of the people itself--"an unpleasant remedy but legal, when it is evident that nothing else can hold the Constitution to its true principles."

      He at the same time displayed a prominent activity in Parliament, where soon all internal questions gave way to the great contest with America. In 1771 he had accepted the place of an agent for New York, had become intimately acquainted with Franklin, and won a deep insight into American affairs. Of the six duties imposed by Townshend's Revenue Act (1767) five had been repealed, the tea duty alone remained. December 18, 1773, the cargo of an East Indian tea-ship was thrown into the sea at Boston, and the first armed conflict ensued. Court and government were resolved to put down this rebellion; Burke, on the contrary, supported in his great speech "On American Taxation" Rose-Fuller's motion (April, 1774) for suppressing the last duty. England had no right to tax the colonies, nor had she ever pretended to do so before Grenville's Stamp Act; that, as well as the most important duties of the Revenue Act, had been repealed; the tea-duty was slight and it produced short of nothing, the cost of collection devouring it to the bone; for the Americans refused to buy imported tea, and they were right to do so; having inherited English principles they resisted for the same reason for which Hampden had resisted the payment of the trifling ship-money, because the principle on which it was demanded would have made him a slave. It would be a signal folly to maintain the shadow of a duty and to risk the loss of an empire merely because the preamble of the Revenue Act said it was expedient that a revenue should be raised in his majesty's dominions in America.

      The blindness of the majority turned away from those wise counsels. Parliament was dissolved. Burke, elected for Bristol, forthwith introduced thirteen resolutions, which he defended in his celebrated speech for "Conciliation with the Colonies" (March 22, 1775). As he had told his constituents his aim was to reconcile British superiority with American liberty, he proposed to remove the ground of the difference in order to restore the former confidence of the colonies in the mother-country. "Fighting is not the best way of gaining a people of more than two millions, in which the fierce spirit of liberty is probably stronger than in any other country, and that liberty is founded upon English principles." Now, a fundamental point of our Constitution is that the people have power of "granting their own money;" the colonial assemblies have uncontested competence to raise taxes, and have frequently granted them for imperial purposes; sometimes so liberally that, in 1743, the Commons resolved to reimburse the expense; no method for procuring a representation in Parliament of the colonies has hitherto been advised, consequently no revenue by imposition has been raised before the Stamp Act; we therefore ought to acknowledge that only the general assemblies can grant "aids to his Majesty." To enforce the reverse principle is not only unjust, but impossible, "when three thousand miles of ocean lie between us and them. Seas roll and months pass between the order and the execution. We may impoverish the colonies and cripple our own most important trade, but it is preposterous to make them unserviceable, in order to keep them obedient." The motions were rejected; three years afterward, when it was too late, Burke's opponent, Lord North, proposed a similar plan.

      In 1780 Burke introduced his bill for "Economical reform in support of several petitions to correct the gross abuses in the management of public expenditure before laying fresh burdens upon the people." His speech derives a particular interest from its defining the difference of timely and gradual reformation from hasty and harsh, making clear work. The former was an amicable and temperate arrangement with a friend in power, leaving room for growth; the latter was imposing terms upon a conquered enemy under a state of inflammation. In 1782 Lord North was obliged to resign, and Rockingham became again premier, Burke paymaster-general of the army. He now carried his economical reform, abolishing sinecures, suppressing useless expenses, and cutting down salaries, among which was his own.

      After Rockingham's death and the overthrow of the short Shelburne administration, Burke turned his activity to the misgovernment of India; his speeches in support of Fox's East-India Bill (December 1, 1783), and on the Nabob of Arcot's debts (February 15, 1783), show that he had thoroughly mastered that intricate subject. He violently denounced the oppression exercised by the company, a prelude to his campaign against Warren Hastings, which he continued for eight years. His speech justifying the impeachment of the governor-general, said Erskine, "irresistibly carried away its brilliant audience by a superhuman eloquence."

      Burke in this contest was, as always, animated by the purest motives, but his passion went too far in comparing Hastings to Verres, and did not sufficiently allow for the difficult circumstances in which his adversary was placed. Without the latter's unscrupulous energy, India would have been lost. Hastings finally was acquitted, but Burke's attacks nevertheless had the effect of uncovering and redressing the prevailing abuses.

      The last period of Burke's life is filled up by his great struggle against the French revolution. Already in 1769 he had prophetically asserted that the derangement of French finances must infallibly lead to a violent convulsion, the influence of which upon France and even Europe could be scarcely divined; now he directed the attention of the House (February 4, 1790) to the dangers of the revolution, by which the French had shown themselves "the ablest architects of ruin," pulling down all their domestic institutions, making "a digest of anarchy" called "the rights of men," and establishing a ferocious, tyrannical, and atheistical democracy. It might be said that they had done service to England, a rival, by reducing their country to impotence and expunging it out of the system of Europe; but, by the vicinity of the two countries, their present distemper might prove more contagious than the gilded tyranny of Louis XIV. had been, and "much as it would afflict him, he would abandon his best friends and join with his worst enemies to oppose all violent exertions of the spirit of innovation, which by tearing to pieces the contexture of the state prevented all real reformation;" the last passage alluding to the apology of Fox, hitherto his closest friend, for French proceedings.

      These ideas Burke more fully developed in his famous "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790); liberals maintained that by this work he had deserted the cause of liberty; conservatives asserted that he had become the stoutest champion of order combined with rational freedom. It must be acknowledged that Burke erred by judging the state of France before the revolution too favorably; if he justly appreciated the pernicious influence of Rousseau, "that great professor and hero of vanity," he ought to have discerned that a nation, the higher classes of which were undermined by materialism and unbelief, while the masses lived in deep misery, was incapable of a temperate reform; the follies and terrors of the revolution were the children of the sins of the "ancien regime." But how amply has history confirmed his judgment on the revolution itself! While Fox admired the constitution of 1791 as "the most astonishing and glorious edifice of liberty that ever was erected," Burke foresaid that this constitutional king would be torn from his throne by the mob, that the wildest anarchy would put France in confusion, and that after its exhaustion an unlimited military despotism would be established.

      This work, which produced a European sensation, receives its true light by Burke's "Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs" (1791). His former friends having sided with Fox, he refuted the reproach of having abandoned his principles by an elaborate comparison of the English revolution of 1688 with that of France. His later writings, among which the "Thoughts on French Affairs" (1791) and "Thoughts on a Regicide Peace" (1796) are the principal, were directed against the foreign influence of the revolutionary system, "France being no more a state but a faction, which must be destroyed or will destroy Europe." Here again Burke was wrong; if France was a revolutionary crater, the safest way was to let it burn out in itself, while the insane aggression of continental powers only confirmed the reign of terror. Burke would go to war for the idea of prescriptive right; Pitt declined to fight for the French monarchy, and would make war only for the defence of English interests.

      Although Burke had the satisfaction of gaining the majority for his views, he retired from Parliament in 1794; a pension which he obtained he defended in the "Letter to a Noble Lord," a dignified plea, "pro domo." One of his last works was "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity" (1795). In a time when political economy was still in a state of infancy, he held the most enlightened opinions on all questions relating to it; his doctrines on prices, wages, rent, etc., are still worth reading. Above all, he opposes indiscreet government tampering with the trade of provisions. "Once habituated to get cheap bread, the people will never be satisfied to get it otherwise, and on the first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them."

      Burke died July 8, 1797. His was a character of unblemished purity, manly uprightness, and perfect disinterestedness. He was a conservative of the truest and best kind, but in his later years went too far in supporting existing institutions merely because they existed. Lacking practical accommodation to circumstances, he would probably not have been a great minister; neither was he a consummate parliamentary tactician and debater, nevertheless he stands in the first ranks of statesmen and orators. Lord Brougham goes too far in calling his speeches spoken dissertations; they were carefully prepared set speeches. In them, as in his writings, we admire the most varied information, philosophical acuteness, penetrating sagacity, curious felicity of expression, and an eloquence embracing the full range and depth of the subject. Fox avowed that he had learned more from Burke than from all other men and authors, and for the same reason his works will remain a mine of political wisdom. The only drawback is that in his eagerness he sometimes overstated his case, and, embittered by the struggles of his later years, occasionally condescended to expressions bordering upon scurrility.

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