Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 3. Political Career

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

I. Edmund Burke

§ 3. Political Career

But, perhaps, the most interesting quality of the essay is the sidelight that it throws on Burke’s temperament, the sensitive, brooding imagination which, coupled with a restless, speculative intellect, seeking ever to illuminate facts by principles, gives tone to Burke’s speeches and pamphlets; for it is this temperament which imparts vividness and colour to the dry details of historical and statistical knowledge, and it is this temperament which at once directs, keeps in check and prescribes its limits to, that speculative, enquiring intellect. In the sentences in which Burke paints the lot of those who bear the burden of political society, the unhappy wretches employed in lead, tin, iron, copper and coal mines, who scarce ever see the light of the sun, the enfans perdus of the army of civil society; in these vivid paragraphs, and not less in his failure to draw from them any but an ironical conclusion, a reductio ad absurdum of Bolingbroke’s paradoxes, we get an insight into one of the most radical characteristics of Burke’s mind. In his later works, he did not often touch directly on the subject of the poor and their lot, though it was a theme, he says, on which he had “often reflected and never reflected without feeling from it”; but his sensibility was not more acute than his conviction was profound that legislation and political adjustment could do little or nothing to alleviate their lot. Burke’s whole life was a prolonged warfare against the folly and injustice of statesmen; but there was no admixture in his nature of what the old physiologists called the sanguine temperament. His political life was inspired by no gleam of the confidence which animated a statesman like Gladstone. The connection between revealed religion and political society was, to him, a deeper one than the superficial irony of A Vindication might suggest. If we confine our view to this life, the lot of humanity must always seem a dubious one. Wise government may lighten the lot of men, it can never make it more than tolerable for the great majority. The effect of this cast of mind on Burke’s attitude towards the French revolution, and the interval which it creates between him and the great poets of the romantic revival, with whom he has otherwise much in common, will appear later.

In closing Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke declares that

  • they come from one, almost the whole of whose public exertion has been a struggle for the liberty of others; from one in whose breast no anger durable or vehement has ever been kindled, but by what he considered as tyranny.
  • In all those struggles, he declared in 1795, when his hopes for catholic emancipation in Ireland were shattered by the dismissal of Lord Fitzwilliam, he had been unsuccessful.
  • My sanguine hopes are blasted, and I must consign my feelings on that terrible disappointment to the same patience in which I have been obliged to bury the vexation I suffered on the defeat of the other great, just, and honourable causes in which I have had some share, and which have given more of dignity than of peace to a long laborious life.
  • A brief enumeration of these “great, just, and honourable causes” will indicate sufficiently for the purposes of this History the outlines of Burke’s public career.