Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

known as the Coalition Ministry - Burke is reinstated Paymaster of the Forces; Fox becomes a Secretary of State, and — who is that fat, good-natured, little man who sits as Fox's colleague and under whom the mighty Burke is now content to serve ? We rub our eyes : surely it is not the much berated Lord North ? Yes, it is indeed Lord North. Politics has at times made strange bed-fellows, but never did administrationblanket cover a more ill-sorted couple than this.

“ O, dumb be passion's stormy rage

When he who might
Have lighted up and led his age,

Falls back in night.”

The life of the Coalition Ministry was short. They fell (December, 1783) attempting to carry a muchneeded bill (the work of Burke and Fox) for reforming the government of India. The House of Commons, it is true, supported them by a large majority; but the Lords, encouraged by the back-stairs support of the King, ventured to reject the bill by a majority of nineteen. Fox was dismissed, and the younger Pitt was made Prime Minister; Burke went out with his friend, and never again filled an executive office.

If we ask how it came to pass that the first orator and best-informed politician of his age never attained to a position for which the brains of a Melbourne and a Rosebery have been found sufficient the answer will be five-fold. 1. Burke was poor, and worse than poor,he was always in debt. “Give a dog a bad name and hang him

we say, with more force than elegance, and

Burke's reputation doubtless suffered from the common opinion embodied in this homely proverb. 2. In an old society like that of England, where birth and family connections count for much, Burke was severely handicapped by several highly undesirable relatives — a cousin, a brother, a son — who clung to the skirts of the aspiring prophet, and dragged him back as he stood there, with one foot on the step of the fiery chariot that was to whirl him up to the heaven of cabinet responsibility. 3. With increasing years certain infirmities of will and temper grew upon Burke, and more than once overmastered that coolness and rationality of judgment that must be the compass of the successful politician. 4. Burke's mother and wife were Roman Catholics : the discriminations which English law then enforced against members of that church, these he detested and opposed as heartily as he did the English attempts to tax the Colonies and to plunder the natives of India. This liberal attitude gained him no favor in the eyes of a nation that allowed no Roman Catholic to sit in Parliament until thirty-two years after Burke's death, and that as late as 1870 taxed Roman Catholics to support a Protestant church in Ireland. 5. Burke was an Irishman. I have seldom seen an English book where this is referred to as a reason for Burke's never having been made a Cabinet minister; but to a foreigner who studies the English attitude towards Ireland, this reason seems as potent, perhaps, as any.

or

To the question of the English rule ath misrule - in India, Burke had devoted many years of study.

His moral indignation was roused at what seemed to him the wanton destruction, by Clive and Hastings, of a venerable order of society that had by no means outlived its usefulness. This indignation bore fruit in two magnificent speeches: On the Nabob of Arcot's Debts (1785), and The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (1788), the last mentioned best known, perhaps, by that fragment which Macaulay has extracted to set in the frame of his gorgeous rhetoric. Hastings' trial (begun in 1786) dragged on for eight years, and he was finally acquitted, but the moral victory remained with Burke. Writing in 1840, Macaulay said:

1

· During a long course of years, the English rulers of India, surrounded by allies and enemies whom no engagement could bind, have generally acted with sincerity and uprightness ; and the event has proved that sincerity and uprightness are wisdom.

No fastness, however strong by art or nature, gives to its inmates a security like that enjoyed by the chief who, passing through the territories of powerful and deadly enemies, is armed with the British guarantee.'

The shadows of the Indian mutiny fall athwart this delightful picture and dim its colors considerably, yet the outlines remain true, and are doubtless, on the whole, representative of the facts. The credit of preparing the canvas for these outlines must ever be given to Burke.

No biography of Burke, however brief, can omit all mention of the famous Literary Club of which he was a member. Boswell, writing in 1792, mentions the follow

1 Essay on Lord Clive.

2 Life of Johnson, chapter xvi.

ing (among others) as having belonged to it: Reynolds, Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Adam Smith, Bishop Percy, Fox, Sheridan, Gibbon, Sir William Jones, Windham, and last (but not, in his own eyes, least) Boswell. In this assemblage of notables, Burke had no superior in conversational powers, and no equal in breadth and depth of general information. Johnson's two sayings about him have been often quoted, but will bear quoting again as imperishable tributes from one great man to another. “ Burke is such a man that, if you met him for the first time in the street, where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner that, when you parted, you would say, “This is an extraordinary man." Upon another occasion, when the doctor was ill, some one happened to mention Burke's name. That fellow calls forth all my powers," said the prostrate sage;

were I to see Burke now, it would kill me." Let us also hear Goldsmith on Burke. Goldsmith at the Club, awkward and shy, twinkled the feeblest star in that splendid constellation ; Goldsmith at home inspired by a goose-quill and a tallow-dip) has thrown a light on Burke's character such as the wit of neither Johnson nor of Burke himself could have emitted :

“ Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such,

We scarcely can praise it or blame it too much;
Who, born for the universe, narrowed his mind,
And to party gave up what was meant for mankind;
Though fraught with all learning, yet straining his throat
To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote;

Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing while they thought of dining:
Though equal to all things, for all things unfit;
Too nice for a statesman, too proud for a wit;
For a patriot, too cool; for a drudge, disobedient;
And too fond of the right to pursue the expedient.1

There is no doubt that Burke was by temperament and early conviction a Conservative, and that the experiences of his political life had deepened and strengthened this conservatism. It is easy, therefore, to understand the distrust with which he watched the beginnings of the revolutionary movement in France; it is less easy to understand — and impossible to forgive — the vindictive and frenzied violence with which he opposed the development of that movement. In the Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), Burke's horror at the unconstitutional proceedings of the French Assembly blinded him to the terrible evils and abuses which made such proceedings necessary, necessary, if France were not to die, strangled by the bandit-clutch of her monarchy, her aristocracy (alas, poor word!), and her clergy. Burke saw the old order changing and giving place to new; this new order the democratic seemed to him no better than a foundation of sand whereon to rear the temple of society. He doubtless thought, therefore, that he was doing God service when he called upon the English to wage a war of extermination and revenge upon France, or, to use his own words, “I speak it emphatically and with a desire that it should

1 Goldsmith's Retaliation, 29-42.

« ForrigeFortsett »