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- Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America - 3/16 -

Assembly and Letters on a Regicide Peace.] were in a still more violent strain, and it is hard to think of them as coming from the author of the Speech on Conciliation.

Three years before his death, at the conclusion of the trial of Warren Hastings, Burke's last term in Parliament expired. He did not wish office again and withdrew to his estate. Through the influence of friends, and because of his eminent services, it was proposed to make him peer, with the title of Lord Beacons field. But the death of his son prevented, and a pension of twenty-five hundred pounds a year was given instead. It was a signal for his enemies, and during his last days he was busy with his reply. The "Letter to a Noble Lord," though written little more than a year before his death, is considered one of the most perfect of his papers. Saddened by the loss of his son, and broken in spirits, there is yet left him enough old-time energy and fire to answer his detractors. But his wonderful career was near its close. His last months were spent in writing about the French Revolution, and the third letter on a Regicide Peace--a fragment--was doubtless composed just before his death. On the 9th of July, 1797, he passed away. His friends claimed for him a place in Westminster, but his last wish was respected, and he was buried at Beaconsfield.


There is hardly a political tract or pamphlet of Burke's in which he does not state, in terms more or less clear, the fundamental principle in his theory of government. "Circumstances," he says in one place, "give, in reality, to every political principle, its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what renders every civil and political scheme beneficial or obnoxious to mankind." At another time he exclaims: "This is the true touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men; does it suit his nature in general, does it suit his nature as modified by his habits?" And again he extends his system to affairs outside the realm of politics. "All government," he declares, "indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter."

It is clear that Burke thought the State existed for the people, and not the people for the State. The doctrine is old to us, but it was not so in Burke's time, and it required courage to expound it. The great parties had forgotten the reason for their existence, and one of them had become hardened and blinded by that corruption which seems to follow long tenure of office. The affairs of India, Ireland, and America gave excellent opportunity for an exhibition of English statesmanship, but in each case the policy pursued was dictated, not by a clear perception of what was needed in these countries, but by narrow selfishness, not unmixed with dogmatism of the most challenging sort. The situation in India, as regards climate, character, and institutions, counted for little in the minds of those who were growing rich as agents of the East India Company. Much the same may be said of America and Ireland. The sense of Parliament, influenced by the king, was to use these parts of the British Empire in raising a revenue, and in strengthening party organization at home. In opposing this policy, Burke lost his seat as representative for Bristol, then the second city of England; spent fourteen of the best years of his life in conducting the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India; and, greatest of all, delivered his famous speeches on Taxation and Conciliation, in behalf of the American colonists.

Notwithstanding the distinctly modern tone of Burke's ideas, it would be wrong to think of him as a thoroughgoing reformer. He has been called the Great Conservative, and the title is appropriate. He would have shrunk from a purely republican form of government, such as our own, and it is, perhaps, a fact that he was suspicious of a government by the people. The trouble, as he saw it, lay with the representatives of the people. Upon them, as guardians of a trust, rested the responsibility of protecting those whom they were chosen to serve. While he bitterly opposed any measures involving radical change in the Constitution, he was no less ardent in denouncing political corruptions of all kinds whatsoever. In his Economical Reform he sought to curtail the enormous extravagance of the royal household, and to withdraw the means of wholesale bribery, which offices at the disposal of the king created. He did not believe that a more effective means than this lay in the proposed plan for a redistribution of seats in the House of Commons. In one place, he declared it might be well to lessen the number of voters, in order to add to their weight and independence; at another, he asks that the people be stimulated to a more careful scrutiny of the conduct of their representatives; and on every occasion he demands that the legislators give their support to those measures only which have for their object the good of the whole people.

It is obvious, however, that Burke's policy had grievous faults. His reverence for the past, and his respect for existing institutions as the heritage of the past, made him timid and overcautious in dealing with abuses. Although he stood with Pitt in defending the American colonies, he had no confidence in the thoroughgoing reforms which the great Commoner proposed. When the Stamp Act was repealed, Pitt would have gone even further. He would have acknowledged the absolute injustice of taxation without representation. Burke held tenaciously to the opposing theory, and warmly supported the Declaratory Act, which "asserted the supreme authority of Parliament over the colonies, in all cases whatsoever." His support of the bill for the repeal of the Stamp Act, as well as his plea for reconciliation, ten years later, were not prompted by a firm belief in the injustice of England's course. He expressly states, in both cases that to enforce measures so repugnant to the Americans, would be detrimental to the home government. It would result in confusion and disorder, and would bring, perhaps, in the end, open rebellion. All of his speeches on American affairs show his willingness to "barter and compromise" in order to avoid this, but nowhere is there a hint of fundamental error in the Constitution. This was sacred to him, and he resented to the last any proposition looking to an organic change in its structure. "The lines of morality," he declared, "are not like ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep, as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are made, not by the process of logic, but the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only first in rank of all the virtues, political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all."

The chief characteristics, then, of Burke's political philosophy are opposed to much that is fundamental in modern systems. His doctrine is better than that of George III, because it is more generous, and affords opportunity for superficial readjustment and adaptation. It is this last, or rather the proof it gives of his insight, that has secured Burke so high a place among English statesmen.


Addison. . . . 1672-1719 Steele . . . . 1672-1729 Defoe. . . . . 1661-1731 Swift. . . . . 1667-1745 Pope . . . . . 1688-1744 Richardson . . 1689-1761


Johnson . . . . 1709-1784 Goldsmith . . . 1728-1774 Fielding. . . . 1707-1754 Sterne. . . . . 1713-1768 Smollett. . . . 1721-1771 Gray. . . . . . 1716-1771 Boswell . . . . 1740-1795


It has become almost trite to speak of the breadth of Burke's sympathies. We should examine the statement, however, and understand its significance and see its justice. While he must always be regarded first as a statesman of one of the highest types, he had other interests than those directly suggested by his office, and in one of these, at least, he affords an interesting and profitable study.

To the student of literature Burke's name must always suggest that of Johnson and Goldsmith. It was eight years after Burke's first appearance as an author, that the famous Literary Club was formed. At first it was the intention to limit the club to a membership of nine, and for a time this was adhered to. The original members were Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, Reynolds, and Hawkins. Garrick, Pox, and Boswell came in later. Macaulay declares that the influence of the club was so great that its verdict made and unmade reputations; but the thing most interesting to us does not lie in the consideration of such literary dictatorship. To Boswell we owe a biography of Johnson which has immortalized its subject, and shed lustre upon all associated with him. The literary history of the last third of the eighteenth century, with Johnson as a central figure, is told nowhere else with such accuracy, or with better effect.

Although a Tory, Johnson was a great one, and his lasting friendship for Burke is an enduring evidence of his generosity and great-mindedness. For twenty years, and longer, they were eminent men in opposing parties, yet their mutual respect and admiration continued to the last. To Burke, Johnson was a writer of "eminent literary merit" and entitled to a pension "solely on that account." To Johnson, Burke was the greatest man of his age, wrong politically, to be sure, yet the only one "whose common conversation corresponded to the general fame which he had in the world"--the only one "who was ready, whatever subject was chosen, to meet you on your own ground." Here and there in the Life are allusions to Burke, and admirable estimates of his many-sided character.

Coming directly to an estimate of Burke from the purely literary point of view, it must be borne in mind that the greater part of his writings was prepared for an audience. Like Macaulay, his prevailing style suggests the speaker, and his methods throughout are suited to declamation and oratory. He lacks the ease and delicacy that we are accustomed to look for in the best prose writers, and occasionally one feels the justice of Johnson's stricture, that "he sometimes talked partly from ostentation", or of Hazlitt's criticism that he seemed to be "perpetually calling the speaker out to dance a minuet with him before he begins."

There may be passages here and there that warrant such censure. Burke is certainly ornate, and at times he is extremely self-conscious, but the dominant quality of his style, and the one which forever contradicts the idea of mere showiness, is passion. In his method of approaching a subject, he may be, and perhaps is, rather tedious, but when once he has come to the matter really in hand, he is no longer the rhetorician, dealing in fine phrases, but the great seer, clothing his thoughts in words suitable and becoming. The most magnificent passages in his writings--the Conciliation is rich in them--owe their charm and effectiveness to this emotional capacity. They were evidently written in moments of absolute abandonment to feeling--in moments when he was absorbed in the contemplation of some great truth, made luminous by his own unrivalled powers.

Closely allied to this intensity of passion, is a splendid imaginative quality. Few writers of English prose have such command of figurative expression. It must be said, however, that Burke was not entirely free from the faults which generally accompany an excessive use of figures. Like other great masters of a decorative style, he frequently becomes pompous and grandiloquent. His thought, too, is obscured, where we would expect great clearness of statement, accompanied by a dignified simplicity; and occasionally we feel that he forgets his subject in an anxious effort to make an impression. Though there are passages in his writings that justify such observations, they are few in number,

Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America - 3/16

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