“History of the Life and Times of Edmund Burke” (by Thomas Macknight, 1858)
It would be difficult to say anything new of Burke as a statesman or as an orator, but there is still room for a faithful record of his personal character and history. Two bulky volumes devoted to a portion of his Life and Times, offer much that is superfluous, and may perhaps not present the individual portrait which is wanting. "Mr. Macknight is a laborious and useful writer, who, after condemning himself to the invidious task of composing a hostile life of a living politician, now revels in the opportunity of indulging a genuine biographical passion for a not unworthy object. If the annals of George III. had been buried in oblivion, instead of occupying innumerable letters, memoirs, essays, commentaries, and compilations—if Fox and Pitt, Grenville and Sheridan, had been unknown to fame—a Life of Burke might naturally have been extended into a contemporary History of England but the story of the American War, the Coalition, and the India Bill may be repeated too often. Within three or four years the Memoirs and Correspondence of Fox and the Grenville Papers have partially satisfied the popular curiosity which may be supposed to have concerned itself with the fate of the Rockingham party. It is much to be wished that biographers would assume in their readers some knowledge of the general facts of history; for it is impossible to study the siege of Troy from its commencement to the close, as often as the Cyclic poets think fit to celebrate the separate adventures of each associated chieftain. There was a time when every private bill for a canal or railway contained all the necessary provisions for purchases, works, capital, and administration; but the Legislature long since found it necessary to frame a few general enactments, which now regulate the common arrangements of all such undertakings. A Consolidation or History-Clauses Bill, to be incorporated in all biographies of the eighteenth century, would be a valuable boon to students of limited voracity. The Chinese themselves at last discovered that it was inconvenient to burn down the house as often as they had occasion to roast a pig.
It may be added that Burke, although he was in many respects superior to all his contemporaries, was not the central figure of the age. After furnishing the Rockingham Opposition with a policy through his speeches and pamphlets, he willingly acquiesced in the leadership of Fox; and when his later writings were laying the foundation of modern Liberal Conservatism, Pitt was the undisputed champion of authority and resistance. An intelligent Asiatic who attended a debate in the House of Commons about the close of the last century, said that the Minister appeared to him as a professor instructing his pupils. Burke was a far more learned teacher, and he was at all times ready to lecture, but he never found or commanded an equally docile audience. Mr. Macknight naturally exaggerates the supremacy of his hero with a zeal which betrays itself often in inflated language, and sometimes in useless resentment against the dulness and injustice which allowed him to occupy a subordinate position. The possession of power depends, however, on a combination of character and circumstances, and it may well happen that an orator “fraught with all learning" may be deficient in the art of governing men, or in that of persuading them to be governed.
Mr. Macknight's tendency to magniloquence displays itself on some occasions where, it is not excused by his biographical loyalty to his hero. Like many writers of the present day, he is ironical without humour, and familiar, abrupt, or excited where a level narrative would have expressed his meaning far more forcibly; but his most ambitious bursts of eloquence are reserved for o: of sweeping eulogy. The style of a forgotten pamphlet becomes, in his description, “this inimitable weapon, so bright and so powerful, and of which the rust of a century has not blunted the edge, forged in the true Vulcanian smithy and gleaming with an immortal radiance.” Hamilton, losing Burke's services—
‘struck a coward's blow, expecting that his slave would fall and beg for mercy at his feet. To his amazement the slave rose up in all the pride of insulted manhood and moral dignity, and as he towered above his oppressor flung the yellow shackle (i.e., a pension of £300 a year on the Irish establishment), in his face, thus preferring to the luxuries of a menial dependence, his freedom and the unpensioned desert. Yes! the slave was free. The Ariel had found within himself the power to effect his own emancipation, and feeling superior to the sordid elements he had escaped from, could now soar proudly to the highest heaven.’In other words, Burke left Hamilton, and soon after attached himself to Lord Rockingham—certainly a more desirable patron or Prospero. The deserted Single-speech Sycorax was—
‘as the slave in the triumphal procession, through a long series of years fated to behold in ignominious silence the illustrious progress of the man whom he had attempted to degrade and to dishonour. He saw him [perhaps this is an anticlimax] become the confidential Secretary of a high-minded statesman. He saw him enter the House of Commons. . . . . He saw him, &c. &c. He saw him, &c. &c. He saw him rise with unexampled rapidity to the first rank among the Parliamentary speakers of his time. He saw him advance from yictory to victory, until Europe and America were filled with his fame, and he became universally acknowledged to be the most richly gifted of politicians, the most eloquent of writers, and the most imaginative and comprehensive of orators that the world had ever seen. All this, and more than this, Hamilton had silently to see.’Hyperbolical phrases of this kind tend rather to provoke contradiction than to exalt the glory which they are intended to celebrate. The test of oratory is success with the audience immediately addressed; and when it is admitted that Burke was sometimes thought tedious, it is idle to reproach the House of Commons with the bad taste of its impatience. His knowledge of individual character was undoubtedly defective, so that he exercised comparatively little influence over his personal friends; but it may be doubted whether the powers of Fox or of Pitt, added to his own, would have enabled him to rise to the first rank in a party which never professed to class its members in the exact order of capacity or merit. Burke, deliberately associated himself with an aristocratic body, in the belief that the influence of rank and property furnished the best security for the maintenance of constitutional liberty. In the speech on Economical Reform, in the Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, and on many other occasions, he entered into the elaborate justification of his attachment to the party connexion which he had chosen:--
‘If [he said, in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol] I have wandered out of the paths of rectitude into those of interested faction, it was in company with the Saviles, the Dowdeswells, the Wentworths, the Bentincks—with the Lennoxes, the Manchesters, the Keppels, the Saunderses—with the temperate, permanent, hereditary virtue of the whole House of Cavendish—names among which some have extended your fame and empire in arms, and all have fought the battle of your liberty in fields not less glorious.’Burke was well aware that he had himself done more to serve the common cause than all the members of the great Whig families whom he vouches as sureties for his patriotism; but he also knew that, except as the adherent of a great aristocratic league, he would have found himself wholly powerless. When the struggle of fifteen years was at last rewarded by a passing success, it was not surprising that the Treasury was occupied by a Wentworth, the Admiralty by a Keppel, or that the Exchequer was dignified by the temperate, permanent, and hereditary virtue of Lord John Cavendish. The great orator who, at the Foreign Office and in the House of Commons, directed and inspired the whole Administration, was himself a nephew of the house of Lennox; and the gifted son of a Dublin attorney thought that he had no reason to complain because he was relegated to the inferior office of Paymaster of the Forces. The party had, rightly or wrongly, devoted all their energies to counteract the King in his supposed policy of aggrandizing the preroative. Burke himself had taught them that “Kings are naturally overs of low company—they are so elevated above the rest of mankind, that they must look upon all their subjects as on a level;" and he had recorded with complacency the observation that “men of condition naturally love to be about a court; and women of condition love it much more.” It would have been an inconsistency unworthy of the dignity and modesty of his character, if he had claimed in his own favour an exemption from the natural conditions of an aristocratic connexion and policy.
It was not surprising that the numerous enemies whom he provoked should designate their opponent as an Irish adventurer, or his personal circumstances might excite a reasonable suspicion when he had not yet disarmed calumny by a life of disinterested purity. In 1761, he had been willing, as a penniless man of letters, to follow the fortunes of Gerard Hamilton, then Secretary at Dublin. In 1768, without any ostensible accession of fortune, he purchased the not inconsiderable estate of Gregories, with a house which, according to his biographer, “was very pleasantly situated, and with its noble colonnades and graceful porticoes, its statuaries, paintings, gardens, conservatory, and pleasure grounds, all arranged with excellent taste, and carefully kept in order, had a most refined and even classical appearance.” Mr. Macknight mistranslates a well-known quotation when he represents, Johnson as simply admiring the splendours of Beaconsfield. Non equidem invideo, miror magis, was a natural remark from a visitor who had known the owner of the house in his humbler days. It would have been illiberal to grudge splendour and luxury to one who so well deserved them fit it was certainly a matter of wonder that they should have been so easily acquired. Mr. Macknight perhaps furnishes a sufficient explanation of Burke's comparative prosperity. His brother Richard and his kinsman William Burke had speculated largely and successfully in India Stock, and a part of their gains was certainly invested in the new purchase. At a later period, Lord Rockingham, who had already lent or given considerable sums for the same purpose, advanced the means of paying off the encumbrances held by the family, and at his death he discharged Burke by his will from all liabilities to his estate. The total amount of these benefactions was not less than £30,000, a sum which may have considerably exceeded the purchase money of Gregories. For three or four years Burke held, with questionable propriety, the agency for the Province of New York, with a salary of £500 a year. During his brief tenure of the Paymastership he received £400 a year, and in his old age his public services were scantily rewarded by the pension which occasioned his famous letter to the Duke of Bedford. His narrow means were rendered still more insufficient by a princely liberality, which resulted equally from his disposition and his principles. He advised his son, then entirely dependent on himself, always to give away something, however poor he might be, if only that he might not lose the habit of giving. His generous patronage of Crabbe, and of Barry the painter, proves his discrimination as well as his liberality. Mr. Macknight copies from a predecessor the pleasant story of his good nature in treating all the children at an Irish fair to a strolling theatrical exhibition:--‘This must be my own pleasure,” he said to a friend who offered to share the expense; “I shall perhaps never again have the opportunity of making at so small a cost so many human beings happy.”
Burke would have exercised a wider influence if he had lived in the days of full Parliamentary reports. His speeches are almost undistinguishable from his written compositions, and while his pamphlets might have been spoken with effect, the logical and elaborate arguments which he addressed to the House of Commons would have gained rather than lost by being read. It was not unnatural that he should take an active part in modifying or suspending the privileges of the House in favour of newspaper printers. Thus, in the singular language of his present biographer, “the foul spectre which darkness had engendered shrank away from that glorious Lucifer, son of the morning, the reporter in the gallery.” In those days, however, Parliament kept better hours, so that, even when Burke was speaking, the reporter seldom found himself, like the morning star, adorning the gallery at two or three o'clock in the morning. The faithful biographer naturally protests against Goldsmith's admiring satire on the orator:—
‘Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,It appears, in fact, that at the time to which the poet refers Burke was in the habit of speaking, not while his hearers were waiting for dinner, but at an hour still more unfavourable to patience and attention—when they had not only dined, but sat long after dinner. A House with a third of its members the better or the worse for wine, must certainly have furnished a troublesome audience to the most systematic and voluminous of speakers. It would not be difficult to show that Goldsmith's graceful criticism is in other respects unfounded. A man of genius, fraught with all statesmanlike learning, was better employed “straining his throat” to influence the House of Commons than in any other position or occupation which fortune could have offered; for what he gave to his party was then most directly applied to the service of mankind. The charge of unseasonable profundity and unintelligible refinement is perfectly inapplicable to an orator who never lapses into obscurity, enigma, or paradox. It is highly probable that Burke may have been too honest, too wise, and often too long for his hearers; but the strain which was imposed on their continuous endurance involved no effort of concentrated attention. His speeches are so full, so lucid, and so flowing, that they require no collateral study to render them interesting to readers in the present day who are only moderately, well informed. The famous exposition of his plan of Economical Reform, although the topic might even at the time have been thought dry and repulsive, may still amuse and interest a generation wholly indifferent to the obsolete jobbery of the eighteenth century. The ingenious devices of corruption were sufficiently ludicrous in themselves, although their assailant was certainly not a deep or subtle humorist. The failure of previous schemes of reform, “because the King's turnspit was a member of Parliament,” was the most effective of ready-made epigrams:—
And thought of convincing while they thought of dining.’
‘The King's domestic servants were all undone, his tradesmen remained unpaid and became bankrupt, because the turnspit of the King's kitchen was a member of Parliament. His Majesty's slumbers were interrupted, his pillow was stuffed with thorns, and his peace of mind entirely broken, because the King's turnspit was a member of Parliament. The judges were unpaid, the justice of the kingdom bent and gave way; the Foreign Ministers remained inactive and unprovided; the system of Europe was dissolved; the chain of our alliances broken; all the wheels of Government at home and abroad were stopped, because the King's turnspit was a member of Parliament.’Another passage from the same speech offers a good example of the plain idiomatic English which is the proper vehicle of contemptuous invective:—
‘The Province of Nova Scotia was the youngest and favourite child of the Board. Good God! what sums the nursing of that ill-thriven, hard-visaged, and ill-favoured brat has cost to this wittol nation! This colony has stood us in a sum of not less than seven hundred thousand pounds. To this day it has made no repayment. It does not even support those offices of expense, which are miscalled its Government; the whole of that job still lies upon the patient, callous shoulders of the people of England.’In language of this kind there is assuredly nothing too refined or too deep for the simplest hearer; but it may be admitted that Burke's oratory was unduly copious and didactic, and in his later years too elaborately gorgeous. The feelings and the reason are scarcely ever in full operation at the same moment. An elaborate demonstration, founded on an exhaustive collection of facts, must be addressed to a calm judgment inconsistent with the excitement which it is the function of eloquence to excite and to sustain.
Mr. Macknight has brought his narrative down to the death of Lord Rockingham, in 1780, including the brightest and happiest portion of his hero's career. The efforts of subsequent years were not less extraordinary, but they were frequently wasted and comparatively hopeless. The violent and one-sided prosecution of Hastings led to no satisfactory result; and even the protest against French Jacobinism, though it determined the course of English opinion for more than one generation, ultimately took the form of violent and exaggerated hostility to the inevitable progress of events. The veteran statesman at last became the dupe of unworthy French exiles, who played on his vanity and on his paternal affection by employing his son, in make-believe diplomacy, while they pretended to seek the father's advice in the hope of receiving his political support. The biographer will do wisely to approach the old age of Burke in a calmer and more critical frame of mind than that which has been applied to the efforts of his earlier manhood; yet some enthusiasm may be excused in an admirer who has long been engaged in the contemplation of an extraordinary intellect united with a blameless character. The greatest politician must sometimes be influenced by the illusions of the time, and it is easy to smile at the terror which the supposed projects of the Court excited in the minds of the Rockingham Whigs and of their illustrious partisan. The final triumph of the King in 1784 has not led to the consequences which contemporary patriots anticipated when they found that the political inheritance of the Duke of Newcastle had not devolved on Lord Rockingham; but if the policy which Burke shared with his party is obsolete, his larger and more distinctive political principles have become the rule of modern legislation and government. A sound political economist before Adam Smith, and a supporter of Catholic Emancipation when Plunket and O'Connell were in their infancy, Burke repeatedly protested against paper constitutions and abstract theories of policy long before the French Revolution inoculated the world with a spurious and morbid Liberalism. It is in his speeches and writings that foreigners may study to the best advantage the principles which, in their historical operation, bear the name of the English Constitution.
Saturday Review, April 10, 1858.