Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 4. Writings on Public Affairs; Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents

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

I. Edmund Burke

§ 4. Writings on Public Affairs; Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents

After a brief time as secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, then chief secretary for Ireland, Burke entered public life as member for Wendover (1765), to which he was presented by Lord Verney, the friend and fellow-speculator of Burke’s kinsman and namesake mentioned above. At the same time, he became secretary to Lord Rockingham, then in power and engaged in repealing Grenville’s unfortunate Stamp act. Thenceforth, through the life of that short administration and in the sixteen years of opposition which followed, Burke was the animating spirit of the Rockingham section of the whigs, the germ of the subsequent liberal party. The two chief causes for which he fought during these years were those of the freedom of the House of Commons against the designs of George III and the “king’s friends,” and of the American colonies against the claim of the home government to tax them directly. The writings in which Burke’s views in these conflicts are most fully preserved are Observations on a late publication entitled “The Present State of the Nation” (1769), Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), the speech On American Taxation (1774), that On moving his Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) and A Letter … to … [the] Sheriffs of … Bristol (1777). These, of course, are only those utterances which Burke thought fit to issue to the public. Of his innumerable speeches on these and other subjects, including the great speech against employing Indians in the war, we have only the scantiest records.

Two other topics interested Burke during these years: Ireland and India, and, as the American war drew to an end, they became his chief preoccupation. He had early reflected and written on the iniquity of the penal laws—though the draft which he prepared about 1760–5 was not issued till much later—and he supported and watched with sympathy the policy or revolution which emancipated Irish trade and secured the independence of the Irish parliament (1778–82). By reason of his support of Irish trade, he lost, in 1780, the representation of Bristol, which his opposition to the American war had gained for him in 1774; and Two Letters … to Gentlemen in the City of Bristol (1778), with the Speech at the Guildhall, in Bristol, previous to the late Election (1780), are the noble record of his courage, independence and wisdom in this hour of defeat. In the years following the outbreak of the French revolution, Burke advocated, with unabated ardour, the cause of catholics, his views being expressed, not in speeches, but in long letters to Sir Hercules Langrishe, Thomas Burgh, his son Richard Burke, Dr. Hussey and others.

In the government of our East Indian dominions, Burke was early interested. It is usual now to affirm dogmatically that he participated in the speculations of his brother Richard, his kinsman William and Lord Verney, in East India stock. It may be so, but is not proved; and Burke himself declared, in 1772, “I have never had any concern in the funds of the East India company, nor have taken any part whatsoever in its affairs, except when they came before me in the course of parliamentary proceedings.” During the attempts made by Lord North’s government to regulate the East India company, Burke was the warm supporter and diligent adviser of the company (1766–74). It was after 1780 that he became an active member of the committees which investigated the affairs of India, and, in consequence of what was revealed, the relentless foe of Warren Hastings and of the privileges and powers of the company. In the East India bill of 1783, he flung to the winds that fear of increasing the influence of the crown which had dictated his earlier support of the company, and proposed to transfer to parliament and the crown the whole administration and patronage of India. In 1785, he entered upon the attack upon Hastings which was to occupy him for ten years. In the same year, he delivered the famous Speech on the … Nabob of Arcot’s Private Debts. The articles of indictment against Hastings, with the speeches delivered by Burke, fill some six volumes of the collected works. With the speeches of 1783 and 1785, they are the record of his labours in this cause, in conducting which he exhibited at once all the vast range of his knowledge, the varied powers of his eloquence and the worst errors of taste and judgment of which his great and increasing sensibility of mind made him guilty in the years from 1780 onwards.

The last great cause in which Burke fought his usual splendid but losing battle was that of resistance to the French revolution and the philosophy and spirit of atheistical Jacobinism. Beginning with a speech on the army estimates (9 February, 1790), the crusade was continued with ever increasing indignation through the famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), A Letter … to a Member of the National Assembly (1791), An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), Thoughts on French Affairs (1791), Remarks on the Policy of the Allies (1793), A Letter … to a Noble Lord (1795) and Letters … on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France (1795–7). Burke died in 1797 with his last hopes for justice to Irish catholics shattered, and believing that his country was on the eve of a peace which could be no peace but; only a humiliating truce while the enemy made ready to pursue their destructive crusade.

These, in outline, are the campaigns of Burke. Whatever be now our judgment on the questions of a bygone age with which he was concerned, the importance of the principles to which his mind always gravitated, his preoccupation at every juncture with the fundamental issues of wise government, and the splendour of the eloquence in which he set forth these principles, an eloquence in which the wisdom of his thought and the felicity of his language and imagery seem inseparable from one another, an eloquence that is wisdom (not “seeming wisdom” as Hobbes defined eloquence), have made his speeches and pamphlets a source of perennial freshness and interest.

The first of the pamphlets on public affairs was a brief statement of what had been achieved by the Rockingham administration to restore order and good government at home and in the colonies. The Observations are a more detailed defence of that administration against the attack of an anonymous pamphlet, attributed to George Grenville. Grenville, in this pamphlet, defended his own government, which was responsible for the peace of Paris and the first proposal to tax the colonies, and criticised the repeal of the Stamp act. Both the peace and the resolution to tax America were the consequence, he argued, of the charges incurred by the great wars. Burke’s reply consists in showing that Grenville had underestimated the power of England and her expanding trade to support these increased charges, and especially had exaggerated the sufferings of this country when compared with those of France, the condition of whose lower classes, and the “straitness and distraction of whose finances,” seemed, to Burke, at this period, to forbode “some extraordinary convulsion … the effect of which on France, and even on all Europe, it is difficult to conjecture.” But much of the ground that is covered in this first controversial pamphlet was again traversed with a more confident step, with a wider outlook and a loftier eloquence, in the writings which followed it. Less hampered by the necessity of controverting an opponent, Burke addresses himself to the fundamental constitutional and imperial questions at issue in a spirit of elevated political wisdom.

The position which Burke adopts in Present Discontents (1770) is eloquent of the temper in which he ever approached questions affecting the constitution. The conflict which raged round Wilkes and the Middlesex election was, he saw clearly, a conflict between the crown and the constituencies, “the crown acting by an instrumental house of commons.” He admitted the ultimate authority of the people. “Although government certainly is an institution of divine authority, yet its forms, and the persons who administer it, all originate from the people.” But he shrank from the inference that, if government were emancipating itself from the control of the people, if the crown were threatening to deprive the House of Commons of its peculiar “virtue, spirit and essence,” namely, to be “the express image of the feelings of the nation,” it was because the constituencies themselves had ceased to represent the people. The proposals to enlarge the number of constituents, coupled, as they were, with the expedient of triennial parliaments, he always resisted. To Burke, a constitutional state was one in which, in some degree, a balance had been secured between the various powers which, in the state, represent the complex nature of man, and, in the British constitution, as it had taken shape in history; and especially with the revolution, he saw, if not an ideal, yet, the weak and imperfect nature of man considered, a wonderful balance of powers, aristocracy (the power which springs from man’s natural regard for inherited distinction and privilege) and property exerting in a healthy and not sinister fashion their natural and inevitable influence, while the popular will made itself felt directly and indirectly, by actual and by “virtual’ representation, as a controlling and, at times, an inspiring influence. He would not do anything to disturb this balance. “Our constitution stands on a nice equipoise with steep precipices and deep waters upon all sides of it. In removing it from a dangerous leaning towards one side there may be a risk of oversetting it on the other.” He would rather “by lessening the number add to the weight and independency of our voters.”

Unable, therefore, to acquiesce in the only practical means by which the people were to recover the control of parliament, and enforce loyalty to principle and party, Burke could only indicate the chief symptom of the disease, the disintegration of party, and elaborate a philosophic defence of party-government, which, since Bolingbroke, it had become the fashion, and was now the interest, of many to decry.

Characteristically, Burke defends party as an indispensable instrument of practicable statesmanship, and as an institution which has its roots in some of the profoundest and most beautiful instincts of the heart; for utility, but utility rooted—if one may so speak—in man’s moral constitution, is Burke’s court of appeal in all questions of practical politics. Bolingbroke’s condemnation of party as identical with faction, and his dream of a patriot king who should govern without reference to party, must have seemed to Burke the result of a view of human nature that was at once too cynical and too sanguine. Party-loyalty might degenerate into self-seeking factiousness, but, in its idea, party is “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”; and the feelings which cement a party are not purely selfish, but include and “bring into the service and conduct of the common-wealth” “the dispositions that are lovely in private life.” To be unable to act in loyal concert with others is to condemn ourselves to ineffectiveness, and “all virtue which is impracticable is spurious,” for “public life is a situation of power and energy: he trespasses against his duty who sleeps upon his watch, as well as he that goes over to the enemy.” “In the way which they call party,” he declared, when, at a later juncture, he was charged with factiousness, “I worship the constitution of your fathers; and I shall never blush for my political company.”

Though not one of the best, and certainly the most inconclusive, of all Burke’s political writings, Present Discontents reveals the chief characteristics of his thought and style—the tendency to go at once to the root of the matter, to illuminate facts by principles, and to clothe these in felicitous images and phrases which seem to shed a new light, to “pour resistless day,” on the moral and political constitution of man. In these things, Burke is without a rival. His aphorisms crowd upon one another and rise out of one another (as was noted by one who heard his first speech in the House of Commons) until the reader can hardly go forward, so many vistas of fresh thought are opened before him. And Burke’s political aphorisms are so pregnant that they distend the mind with the same sense of fulness with which Shakespeare’s lines affect the student of the passions and movements of the human heart.

But Burke’s oratory was not here illumined by the vision of a large concrete issue in which the future of an empire and the fate of peoples depended on the wisdom or unwisdom of the policy chosen and pursued. That came with the American controversy. It may be clear to the student of history that the causes of that conflict, and of the ultimate separation of the colonies from the mother country, lay deeper than in the schemes of taxation by which Grenville, Townshend and North precipitated matters. It is yet equally certain that, at a great juncture, English statesmanship was found wanting in the wisdom, imagination and sympathy requisite to solve the problem of governing a growing overseas empire. It was his gifts of sympathy and imagination, combined with a wise spirit of practicable statesmanship which distinguishes Burke among all who discussed the colonial question on one side or the other, and have caused his words to bear fruit in the long run, fruitless as, at the moment, they seemed to be.

Two or three principles underlie all that Burke said or wrote on the question. The first of these is that, in practical politics, the guiding star of statesmanship is expediency, not legal or abstract right. Our arguments on political questions may often be

  • “conclusive as to right, but the very reverse as to policy and practice.” “Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part and by no means the greatest part.” “The opinion of my having some abstract right in my favour would not put me much at my ease in passing sentence; unless I could be sure that there were no rights which in their exercise were not the most odious of all wrongs, and the most vexatious of all injustice.”
  • Such quotations could be multiplied. It is the principle which dictated the coupling of the Declaratory act with the repeal of the Stamp act in 1766, the assertion of a legal right which, in some conceivable emergency, it might be necessary to assert, but the general exercise of which was to be regulated by an entire regard for liberty and the spirit of the British constitution. When the word “expediency” is given its full moral significance, this principle may be said to be the foundation-stone of Burke’s political philosophy.

    The second position reiterated in these speeches is that, in the search for what is expedient and, therefore, right, the statesman must be guided by circumstances, of which the most important is the temper and character of the people for whom he is legislating. The statesman, like Bacon’s natural philosopher, rules by obeying. The principle is obvious, but its application requires sympathy and imagination, and George III, with his entire lack of both, was a better representative of the average Englishman than either Burke or Chatham. Burke’s imagination was filled with the greatness of the American people, the wild, irregular greatness of a people who had grown up to manhood nurtured by a “wise and salutary neglect.” “Nothing in history is parallel to it,” he declares in his earliest reply to Grenville. “All the reasonings about it that are likely to be at all solid must be drawn from its actual circumstances.” And such reasoning will include the all-important consideration that these people are Englishmen with the inherited tradition of political liberty and self-government. The magnificent paragraphs, in the speech On Conciliation, devoted to the Americans, their numbers, their enterprise, their spirit and the sources from which it is sustained, are not a purple patch of diffuse, descriptive oratory alone. Like the similar paragraphs on the peoples and civilisation of India, in a later speech, they are an appeal to the imagination of the speaker’s audience, that, realising the magnitude of the issue at stake, they may rise above a narrow legalism to the contemplation of what is greater even than America, namely an empire which shall include free peoples, and different civilisations.

    But, to discover what is expedient in the complexity of circumstances, which include the tempers of people, is no easy task, and, hence, Burke’s third principle, that our safest guide is experience. The past illumines the future, it may be but a few feet in advance, yet sufficiently to walk by.

  • Again and again and again revert to your own principles—leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself.… Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions born of our unhappy contest will die along with it.… Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Let this be your reason for binding their trade. Do not burthen them with taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are arguments for states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety.
  • Such are the principles which guided Burke in adumbrating in these speeches the lines to be followed in solving the problem the character and complexity of which he alone seems to have grasped, the problem of governing and maintaining the great empire which Chatham’s successful wars had called into existence,

  • of reconciling the strong presiding power that is so useful towards the conservation of a vast, disconnected, infinitely diversified empire, with that liberty and safety of the provinces, which they must enjoy (in opinion and practice at least) or they will not be provinces.
  • He was provided with no theoretical plan that would suit all circumstances, “the natives of Hindustan and those of Virginia alike, the Cutchery court and the grand jury of Salem.” His appeal was to the wisdom of experience, the spirit of the English constitution and the magnanimity of statesmen.