Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 13. The Speech on Economical Reform

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 13. The Speech on Economical Reform

A rapid review of the main causes which engaged Burke’s oratory has necessitated the omission in their proper places of one or two speeches and writings which deserve notice in even a short sketch. The quietest, the lightest in tone—if Burke’s oratory can ever be so described—is the speech on economical reform of February, 1780. It forms a point of rest between the earlier and the later storms. In no other speech is Burke so content to be simply persuasive, at times genial and amusing; and the philosophical colour of his mind, the tendency to elevate the discussion of every point by large generalisations, the fruit of long study and deep insight, gains a new interest from the absence of the passion with which his wisdom is usually coloured or set aglow. The exordium, after stating the end of his reforms to be not merely economy but the reduction of corrupt influence, winds its way into the subject by a skilful suggestion of the odium which such proposals must excite and of the necessity which alone has induced him to incur that odium—a necessity arising at once from the dire straits in which the war has involved the nation’s finances and from the imperative demand of the people. The first consideration is skilfully heightened by a reference to the reform of French finances under Louis XVI and Necker—“The French have imitated us; let us, through them, imitate ourselves; ourselves in our better and happier days.” The second is used to point the difference in characteristic fashion between a timely and temperate, and a late and violent, reform. The principles which have shaped his proposals are then enunciated and the details elaborated with a knowledge of the expedients and methods of finance which justifies Burke’s claim that he had made political economy an object of his studies before “it had employed the thoughts of speculative men in other parts of Europe.” And, at every turn, the dry details of economy are illuminated by broad generalisations, on not the economic only, but the moral, aspects of the question—“Kings are naturally lovers of low company”—and by the colours of a rich imagination, as in the description of the last relics of feudal institutions:

  • Our palaces are vast inhospitable halls. There the bleak winds, there “Boreas and Eurus and Caurus and Argestes loud,” howling through the vacant lobbies, and clattering the doors of deserted guard-rooms, appal the imagination and conjure up the grim spectres of departed tyrants—the Saxon, the Norman, and the Dane; the stern Edwards and fierce Henries—who stalk from desolation to desolation, through the dreary vacuity and melancholy succession of chill and comfortless chambers.
  • Burke’s humour, when not barbed and winged with scorn, is somewhat elephantine. The paragraph on the difficulties which beset Lord Talbot’s attempts to reform the Household from the fact that “the turnspit in the king’s kitchen was a member of Parliament” is a good example of his over-elaborate, somewhat turgid art. The peroration, on the other hand, on the will of the people and the responsibility of the House to its constituents, with a covert reference to the corrupt influence of the court, illustrates the power of this diffuseness, this elaboration of the details of a figure, to adorn a sentiment which comes warm from the speaker’s heart:
  • Let us cast away from us, with a generous scorn, all the love-tokens and symbols that we have been vain and light enough to accept;—all the bracelets and snuff-boxes and miniature pictures, and hair devices, and all the other adulterous trinkets that are the pledges of our alienation, and monuments of our shame. Let us return to our legitimate home and all jars and quarrels will be lost in embraces.… Let us identify, let us incorporate ourselves with the people. Let us cut all the cables and snap the chains which tie us to an unfaithful shore, and enter the friendly harbour that shoots far out into the main its moles and jettees to receive us.