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- Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America - 4/16 -
when compared with those which are really masterpieces of their kind.
Some great crisis, or threatening state of affairs, seems to furnish the necessary condition for the exercise of a great mind, and Burke is never so effective as when thoroughly aroused. His imagination needed the chastening which only a great moment or critical situation could give. Two of his greatest speeches--Conciliation, and Impeachment of Warren Hastings--were delivered under the restraining effect of such circumstances, and in each the figurative expression is subdued and not less beautiful in itself than, appropriate for the occasion.
Finally, it must be observed that no other writer of English prose has a better command of words. His ideas, as multifarious as they are, always find fitting expression. He does not grope for a term; it stands ready for his thought, and one feels that he had opportunity for choice. It is the exuberance of his fancy, already mentioned, coupled with this richness of vocabulary, that helped to make Burke a tiresome speaker. His mind was too comprehensive to allow any phase of his subject to pass without illumination. He followed where his subject led him, without any great attention to the patience of his audience. But he receives full credit when his speeches are read. It is then that his mastery of the subject and the splendid qualities of his style are apparent, and appreciated at their worth.
In conclusion, it is worth while observing that in the study of a great character, joined with an attempt to estimate it by conventional standards, something must always be left unsaid. Much may be learned of Burke by knowing his record as a partisan, more by a minute inspection of his style as a writer, but beyond all this is the moral tone or attitude of the man himself. To a student of Burke this is the greatest thing about him. It colored every line he wrote, and to it, more than anything else, is due the immense force of the man as a speaker and writer. It was this, more than Burke's great abilities, that justifies Dr. Johnson's famous eulogy: "He is not only the first man in the House of Commons, he is the first man everywhere."
A GROUP OF WRITERS COMING IMMEDIATELY AFTER BURKE
Wordsworth . . . . 1770-1850
Coleridge . . . . . 1772-1834
Byron . . . . . . . 1788-1824
Shelley . . . . . . 1792-1822
Keats . . . . . . . 1795-1821
Scott . . . . . . . 1771-1832
TOPICS FOR SPECIAL REPORTS
1. "Like Goldsmith, though in a different sphere, Burke belongs both to the old order and the new." Discuss that statement.
2. Burke and the Literary Club. (Boswell's Life of Johnson.)
3. Lives of Burke and Goldsmith. Contrast.
4. An interpretation of ten apothegms selected from the Speech on Conciliation.
5. A study of figures in the Speech on Conciliation.
6. A definition of the terms: "colloquialism" and "idiom" Instances of their use in the Speech on Conciliation.
1. Burke's Life. John Morley. English Men of Letters Series.
2. Burke. John Morley. An Historical Study.
3. Burke. John Morley. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
4. History of the English People. Green. Vol. IV., pp 193-271.
5 History of Civilization in England. Buckle. Vol I, pp. 326-338
6. The American Revolution. Fiske. Vol. I, Chaps. I., II.
7. Life of Johnson. Boswell. (Use the Index)
ON MOVING HIS RESOLUTIONS FOR CONCILIATION WITH THE COLONIES. HOUSE OF COMMONS, MARCH 22, 1775
I hope, Sir, that notwithstanding the austerity of the Chair, your good nature will incline you to some degree of indulgence towards human frailty. You will not think it unnatural that those who have an object depending, which strongly engages their hopes and fears, should be somewhat inclined to superstition. As I came into the House full of anxiety about the event of my motion, I found, to my infinite surprise, that the grand penal bill, [Footnote: 1] by which we had passed sentence on the trade and sustenance of America, is to be returned to us from the other House. I do confess I could not help looking on this event as a fortunate omen. I look upon it as a sort of providential favor, by which we are put once more in possession of our deliberative capacity upon a business so very questionable in its nature, so very uncertain in its issue. By the return of this bill, which seemed to have taken its flight forever, we are at this very instant nearly as free to choose a plan for our American Government as we were on the first day of the session. If, Sir, we incline to the side of conciliation, we are not at all embarrassed (unless we please to make ourselves so) by any incongruous mixture of coercion and restraint. We are therefore called upon, as it were by a superior warning voice, again to attend to America; to attend to the whole of it together; and to review the subject with an unusual degree of care and calmness.
Surely it is an awful subject, or there is none so on this side of the grave. When I first had the honor [Footnote: 2] of a seat in this House, the affairs of that continent pressed themselves upon us as the most important and most delicate object of Parliamentary attention. My little share in this great deliberation oppressed me. I found myself a partaker in a very high trust; and, having no sort of reason to rely on the strength of my natural abilities for the proper execution of that trust, I was obliged to take more than common pains to instruct myself in everything which relates to our Colonies. I was not less under the necessity of forming some fixed ideas concerning the general policy of the British Empire. Something of this sort seemed to be indispensable, in order, amidst so vast a fluctuation of passions and opinions, to concentre my thoughts, to ballast my conduct, to preserve me from being blown about by every wind of fashionable doctrine. I really did not think it safe or manly to have fresh principles to seek upon every fresh mail which should arrive from America.
At that period I had the fortune to find myself in perfect concurrence with a large majority in this House. Bowing under that high authority, and penetrated with the sharpness and strength of that early impression, I have continued ever since, without the least deviation, in my original sentiments. [Footnote: 3] Whether this be owing to an obstinate perseverance in error, or to a religious adherence to what appears to me truth, and reason, it is in your equity to judge.
Sir, Parliament having an enlarged view of objects, made, during this interval, more frequent changes in their sentiments and their conduct than could be justified in a particular person upon the contracted scale of private information. But though I do not hazard anything approaching to a censure on the motives of former Parliaments to all those alterations, one fact is undoubted-- that under them the state of America has been kept in continual agitation. [Footnote: 4] Everything administered as remedy to the public complaint, if it did not produce, was at least followed by, an heightening of the distemper; until, by a variety of experiments, that important country has been brought into her present situation--a situation which I will not miscall, which I dare not name, which I scarcely know how to comprehend in the terms of any description.
In this posture, Sir, things stood at the beginning of the session. About that time, a worthy member [Footnote: 5] of great Parliamentary experience, who, in the year 1766, filled the chair of the American committee with much ability, took me aside; and, lamenting the present aspect of our politics, told me things were come to such a pass that our former [Footnote: 6] methods of proceeding in the House would be no longer tolerated: that the public tribunal (never too indulgent to a long and unsuccessful opposition) would now scrutinize our conduct with unusual severity: that the very vicissitudes and shiftings of Ministerial measures, instead of convicting their authors of inconstancy and want of system, would be taken as an occasion of charging us with a predetermined discontent, which nothing could satisfy; whilst we accused every measure of vigor as cruel, and every proposal of lenity as weak and irresolute. The public, he said, would not have patience to see us play the game out with our adversaries; we must produce our hand. It would be expected that those who for many years had been active in such affairs should show that they had formed some clear and decided idea of the principles of Colony government; and were capable of drawing out something like a platform of the ground which might be laid for future and permanent tranquillity.
I felt the truth of what my honorable friend represented; but I felt my situation too. His application might have been made with far greater propriety to many other gentlemen. No man was indeed ever better disposed, or worse qualified, for such an undertaking than myself. Though I gave so far in to his opinion that I immediately threw my thoughts into a sort of Parliamentary form, I was by no means equally ready to produce them. It generally argues some degree of natural impotence of mind, or some want of knowledge of the world, to hazard plans of government except from a seat of authority. Propositions are made, not only ineffectually, but somewhat disreputably, when the minds of men are not properly disposed for their reception; and, for my part, I am not ambitious of ridicule--not absolutely a candidate for disgrace
Besides, Sir, to speak the plain truth, I have in general no very exalted opinion of the virtue of paper government; [Footnote: 7] nor of any politics in which the plan is to be wholly separated from the execution. But when I saw that anger and violence prevailed every day more and more, and that things were hastening towards an incurable alienation of our Colonies, I confess my caution gave way. I felt this as one of those few moments in which decorum yields to a higher duty. Public calamity is a mighty leveller; and there are occasions when any, even the slightest, chance of doing good must be laid hold on, even by the most inconsiderable person.
To restore order and repose to an empire so great and so distracted as ours, is, merely in the attempt, an undertaking that would ennoble the flights of the highest genius, and obtain pardon for the efforts of the meanest understanding. Struggling a good while with these thoughts, by degrees I felt myself more firm. I derived, at length, some confidence from what in other circumstances usually produces timidity. I grew less anxious, even from the idea of my own
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