« ForrigeFortsett »
descriptions, treasurers--two to hold a purse and one to play with a stick-were all to be swept away. A sweep of the scythe that must surely have rejoiced those whose one desire was to make clear work. With the grand and solemn delays of the Pay Office he dealt with exceptional vigour, as though foreseeing the day when he would in his own person experience the pleasures of reduced and commuted perquisities. It was not customary to audit the accounts of this office until, as Burke put it, the grand and sure paymaster, death, had called the accountants to another exchequer. Meantime the balances were fructifying, not in the pockets of the people, but in the pockets of the paymasters. There was a certain Board of Trade and plantations which especially called forth Burke's ire. Whether it was distinguished by all the powers to hamper British trade which some modern boards are possessed of, history does not say. But luckily for the interest of the then trading community, the Board certainly lacked the necessary energy or even the desire to do so. “ We want no instructions from Boards of Trade or from any other Board,” is, I feel sure, a sentiment of Burke's that will find a hearty response from many a wearied victim of red tape to-day, just as it did in the good old days of King George. This Board, like certain modern Boards, had both its original formation and its continued existence in a job. It was, as Burke described it, a sort of temperate bed of influence—a gently ripening hothouse, where eight members of Parliament received £1000 a year in order to mature at a proper season a claim to £2000 for doing even less. While with abuses such as these Burke dealt with no sparing hand, he was still in accordance with his fundamental principles, scrupulous in respect of precedent and vested rights. “If,” he says, “I cannot reform with equity, I will not reform at all.” Having met all reasonable demands, he is then prepared to meet all unreasonable ones by the unvarying and weighty formula—“The public is poor.” When, finally, he had finished his mighty scheme, and expounded it to the smallest detail, he met the usual charge of impractibility with one of those inferences which he drew so copiously, not from the arena of politics, but from the great world of men and things. “Oh no, sir, no, those things which are impracticable are not desirable. There is nothing in the world really beneficial that does not lie within the reach of an informed understanding and a well-directed pursuit. There is nothing that God has judged good for us that he has not given us the means to accomplish, both in the natural and moral world. If we cry like children for the moon, like children we must cry on.”
It may be well here to indicate Burke's general attitude upon ecclesiastical questions in so far as they touch the State. He was extremely clear upon the point that no State would or should permit any man to preach what doctrines he liked while deriving the benefit of her prestige and the tithe levied in her name for his benefit. Hence he absolutely refused the plea of certain clergymen and others who requested to be relieved of subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles. His zeal for an established religion was conditional upon its being a religion having specific doctrines and regulated ordinances. Behind this, of course, lay that fundamental principle, which in him presupposed the sanctions of religion as the necessary court of appeal against the excesses of both crown and people. But he insists that toleration is a part of religion. He was prepared to extend it to all sections except that through which he conceived the most horrid and cruel blow was offered to civil society-namely, atheism. Properly to understand Burke it is as well to remember that these words were spoken in 1773, long before the practical fruits of such teaching as that of Voltaire, Diderot, and Holbach had helped to mature the French Revolution. To Dissenters then we find him, with an occasional lapse, offering the same free and liberal toleration which he invariably advocated on behalf of Roman Catholics. But he could not bear to think that one who attached no importance to religion whatever should escape or evade subscription, while the conscientious Dissenter must perforce wince under the lash. “The weakness of your law,” he says, "suffered those great dangerous animals to escape, whilst you have nets that entangle the poor fluttering silken wings of a tender conscience.” In that memorable speech previous to his election at Bristol, to which I have already alluded, he vowed to God he would sooner bring himself to put a man to immediate death for opinions he disliked, and so to get rid of the man and his opinions at once, than to fret him with a feverish being tainted with the jail distemper of a contagious servitude. Burke was ever alive to the necessity of conforming à government to the capacity of the governed. He was prepared to go even further, and humour the follies of a thoughtless generation. But when called upon to please the persecuting elements in human nature he drew the line; “I would not only consult the interests of the people, but would cheerfully gratify their humours, but I never will consent to act the tyrant for their amusement."
When the French Revolution took Europe by surprise, Burke acted in strict conformity with these well-grounded ideas. His line of thought was exactly on a par with that which he followed during the great questions of America and India. He had long before stoutly expressed his ideas in regard to the distempers of democracy, just as he had, with equal independence, expressed them in regard to the tyrannical whims of a monarch. “ When we know that the opinions of even the greatest multitudes are a standard of rectitude, I shall think myself obliged,” he said, “to make those opinions the masters of my conscience, but if it may be doubted whether omnipotence itself is competent to alter the essential constitution of right and wrong, sure I am that such things as they and I are possessed of no such power.” Burke saw his two great master principlesfirst, that of an unalterable moral order transcending human law; and, secondly, that of a continuous growth as the essential basis of a community-absolutely set at nought by the French people. It is, therefore, no matter for surprise that he expressed himself with the same vigour in regard to their conduct which he had previously displayed upon questions no less vital. It made no sort of difference to Burke that in America it was the English king and Lord North who played the tyrant, and that in India it was a chartered company, while in France it was the Parisian clubs, Commune, and sections. Enough for him that he saw institutions of time-honoured growth levelled to the ground, the essence of social order and morality dissolved from day to day; even the monotheistic ideal-the sacred link which with Burke knitted all up into one harmonious system--shattered to its foundations. In Burke's eyes, and, to use the picturesque language of Bunyan, the image of Shaddai was defaced, and there was set up in its stead the horrid and formidable image of Diabolus.
If, however, Burke's vigour was no less upon the question of the revolution in France than it had been in regard to America and India, it must be freely admitted that there was a difference in the method. There is a want of that wonderfully persuasive appeal to reason which half converts even the most prejudiced by its temperance. It is perhaps hardly to be expected that when a man is practically waging war with pen and ink, he should be as moderate, as luminous, and as forcible as when he is merely attempting to convert those who are not beyond conversion. Face to face with an attack upon all that he held most dear in the very roots of his moral and spiritual being, Burke failed to retain to a certain extent that judicious mastery of himself which makes his speeches upon India, and still more upon America, such a fascinating study. The French people brought to the solution of grave political and social problems the temper and methods of idealism. The ideal from their point of view could only be satisfactorily planted upon the ruins of existing institutions. History proved their method conclusively wrong, and Burke's earlier criticisms were abundantly justified. The immolation of property and privilege, the secularisation of the church, the formation of a paper constitution, the enforcement of a paper currency, were each and all made the subject of scathing invectives, and dispassionate observers can now clearly see that these were fatal steps which hurled down to irremediable ruin all that promised best in the French revolutionary outbreak. Burke was so perturbed by the advent of anarchical principles that our revolution of 1641, which he had formerly regarded with abhorrence, now seemed comparatively beneficent. “Those disturbers," he says, speaking of Cromwell and his compeers, “were not so much like men usurping power as asserting their natural place in society. The hand that, like a destroying angel, smote the country, communicated to it the force and energy under which it suffered.” Beside those mighty exemplars of revolutionary virtue, the quacks and pedants of the French revolutionary era appeared in Burke's ideas to merit nothing but derision and condem