which may possibly cure, but are much more likely to destroy.

It is not surprising that so halting a policy should have given deep displeasure to very many, perhaps to most, of those whose only common bond was the loose and negative sentiment of antipathy to the court, the ministry, and the too servile majority of the House of Commons. The Constitutional Society was furious. Lord Chatham wrote to Lord Rockingham that the work in which these doctrines first appeared must do much mischief to the common

But Burke's view of the constitution was a part of his belief with which he never paltered, and on which he surrendered his judgment to no man.

“Our constitution,” in his opinion, “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." This image was ever before his mind. It occurs again in the last sentence of that great protest against all change and movement, when he describes himself as one who, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise. When we think of the odious misgovernment in England which the constitution permitted, between the time when Burke wrote and the passing of Lord Sidmouth's Six Acts fifty years later, we may be inclined to class such a constitution among the most inadequate and mischievous political arrangements that

any free country has ever had to endure. Yet it was this which Burke declared that he looked upon with filial

1 Present Discontents. Reflections on the French Revolution,


“Never will I cut it in pieces, and put it into the kettle of any magician, in order to boil it with the puddle of their compounds into youth and vigour; on the contrary, I will drive away such pretenders; I will nurse its venerable age, and with lenient arts extend a parent's breath.”

He was filled with the spirit, and he borrowed the arguments, which have always marked the champion of faith and authority against the impious assault of reason or innovation. The constitution was sacred to him as the voice of the Church and the oracles of her saints are sacred to the faithful. Study it, he cried, until you know how to admire it, and if you cannot know and admire, rather believe that you are dull, than that the rest of the world has been imposed upon. We ought to understand it according to our measure, and to venerate where we are not able presently to comprehend. Well has Burke been called the Bossuet of politics.

Although, however, Burke's unflinching reverence for the constitution, and his reluctance to lay a finger upon it, may now seem clearly excessive, as it did to Chatham and his son, who were great men in the right, or to Beckford and Sawbridge, who were very little men in the right, we can only be just to him by comparing his ideas with those which were dominant throughout an evil reign. While he opposed more frequent parliaments, he still upheld the doctrine that "to govern according to the sense, and agreeably to the interests, of the people is a great and glorious object of government.” While he declared himself against the addition of a hundred knights of the shire, he in the very same breath protested that, though the people might be deceived in their choice of an object, he “could scarcely conceive any choice they could make, to be so very mischievous as the existence of any human force capable of resisting it.” To us this may seem very mild and commonplace doctrine, but it was not commonplace in an age when Anglican divines — men like Archbishop Markham, Dr. Nowell, or Dr. Porteous-had revived the base precepts of passive obedience and non-resistance, and when such a man as Lord Mansfield encouraged them. And these were the kind of foundations which Burke had been laying, while Fox was yet a Tory, while Sheridan was writing farces, and while Grey was a schoolboy.

It is, however, almost demonstrably certain that the vindication of the supremacy of popular interests over all other considerations would have been bootless toil, and that the great constitutional struggle from 1760 to 1783 would have ended otherwise than it did, but for the failure of the war against the insurgent colonies, and the final establishment of American Independence. It was this portentous transaction which finally routed the arbitrary and despotic pretensions of the House of Commons over the people, and which put an end to the hopes entertained by the sovereign of making his personal will supreme in the Chambers. Fox might well talk of an early Loyalist victory in the war, as the terrible news from Long Island. The struggle which began unsuccessfully at Brentford in Middlesex, was continued at Boston in Massachusetts. The

scene had changed, but the conflicting principles were the 7 same. The war of Independence was virtually a second

English civil war. The ruin of the American cause would have been also the ruin of the constitutional cause in England; and a patriotic Englishman may revere the memory of Patrick Henry and George Washington not less justly than the patriotic American. Burke's attitude in this great contest is that part of his history about the majestic and noble wisdom of which there can be least dispute.

* To the Chairman of the Buckinghamshire Meeting, 1780.




The war with the American colonies was preceded by an interval of stupor. The violent ferment which had been stirred in the nation by the affairs of Wilkes and the Middlesex election was followed, as Burke said, by as remarkable a deadness and vapidity. In 1770 the distracted ministry of the Duke of Grafton came to an end, and was succeeded by that of Lord North. The King had at last triumphed. He had secured an administration of which the fundamental principle was that the sovereign was to be the virtual head of it, and the real director of its counsels. Lord North's government lasted for twelve years, and its career is for ever associated with one of the most momentous chapters in the history of the English nation and of free institutions.

Through this long and eventful period, Burke's was as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He had become important enough for the ministry to think it worth while to take pains to discredit him. They busily encouraged the report that he was Junius, or a close ally to Junius. This was one of the minor vexations of Burke's middle life. Even bis friends continued to torment him for incessant disclaimers. Burke's lofty pride made him slow to deal positively with what he scorned as a malicious and

to say

unworthy imputation. To such a friend as Johnson he did not, as we have seen, disdain to volunteer a denial, but Charles Townshend was forced to write more than one importunate letter before he could extract from Burke the definite sentence (Nov. 24, 1771): “I now give you my word and honour that I am not the author of Junius, and that I know not the author of that paper, and I do authorize you so.” Nor was this the only kind of annoyance to which he was subjected. His rising fame kindled the candour of the friends of his youth. With proverbial good - nature, they admonished him that he did not bear instruction; that he showed such arrogance as in a man of his condition was intolerable; that he snapped furiously at his parliamentary foes, like a wolf who had broken into the fold; that his speeches were useless declamations; and that he disgraced the House by the scurrilities of the bear-garden. These sharp chastenings of friendship Burke endured with the perfect self-command, not of the cold and indifferent egotist, but of one who had trained himself not to expect too much from men. He possessed the true solace for all private chagrins in the activity and the fervour of his public interests.

In 1772 the affairs of the East India Company, and its relations with the Government, had fallen into disorder. The Opposition, though powerless in the Houses of Parliament, were often able to thwart the views of the ministry in the imperial board-room in Leadenhall Street. The Duke of Richmond was as zealous and as active in his opposition to Lord North in the business of the East Indies as he was in the business of the country at Westminster. A proposal was made to Burke to go out to India at the head of a commission of three supervisors, with authority to examine the concerns of every department, and full

« ForrigeFortsett »