Page images


comprehensive intellect could not possibly set up its rest in so circumscribed a field. During that period, however, he was any thing but idle. llis prodigions mental hunger kept foraging far and wide in miscellaneous reading: besides, he spent much time in travelling about the country, conversing variously and minutely with English life, face to face, and storing his mind with first-hand knowledge in all matters of trade, commerce, and manufactures.

All this was highly displeasing to Burke's father, whose heart was set upon having his son bred to the law. As he now either stopped the supplies or dealt them grudgingly and sparely, Burke began to turn his thoughts to literature for the means of living. He had already made acquaintance with some of the wits of London; and all through his life he cultivated habitudes more or less with that class of men ; though the unhappy foibles so common among them never found any thing, apparently, in his nature to stick upon. It is said that at this time he was a frequent, not to say constant, attendant at the Drury-Lane theatre; and it is certain that with David Garrick, the great actor of the time, he formed a friendship which continued till the death of Garrick.

A few years before, Lord Bolingbroke had died, leaving some of his boldest deistical and freethinking speculations in manuscript. In the Spring of 1754, these were ushered before the public with a grand flourish of trumpets,

as something that was going to change the intellectual and moral face of the world. They had their brief turn of popularity; the literary fashion-mongers of the hour being all agog with them. Whatever may have been thought of the author's philosophy, he was generally held to have beaten all former writers in the use of English: even Lord Chesterfield and William Pitt concurred with the rest in pronouncing his style inimitable. Burke was not at all taken with the Bolingbroke furor; he disliked him exceedingly both as a thinker and as a man : in fact, Bolingbroke might almost be described as, in philosophy and politics, his “pet aversion.' Accordingly, his first literary performance was a philosophic satire on his lordship's posthumous lucubrations, which appeared in 1756, with the title, “ A Vindication of Natural Society; or, a View of the Miseries and Evils arising to Mankind from every species of Artificial Society; in a Letter to Lord, by a late Noble Writer.” This was meant as a reductio ad absurdum of the Bolingbroke philosophy, by showing that the same principles and the same mode of reasoning, which Bolingbroke had used against revealed Religion, would hold equally good against all civilized society among mankind. But the irony was so well concealed, and the imitation of Bolingbroke's style so perfect, that the pamphlet was generally ascribed at once to his lordship’s pen.

Burke's next literary undertaking was his treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful, published a few months after the forecited work. This at once placed him high among the leading authors of the time: Hume praised it; Johnson thought it a model of philosophical criticism. A second edition was soon called for, and came out considerably enlarged and improved, with an excellent Preface added, and also a Discourse on Taste. The work is indeed written with great ability and elegance, and in a style of philosophic calmness well suited to the theme. But the whole subject is discussed on the low, mechanical notions then prevalent, and the theory of it has long been justly discarded as monstrous and absurd : it simply drags the entire body of poetry down into an earthy region where the soul of poetry cannot possibly live.

At this period, we have an episode in Burke's life, which is highly interesting, as illustrating his native generosity of disposition. A gifted and heroic young Armenian, named Joseph Emin, who had been in Calcutta, and had there gathered some knowledge of the English language and character, made his appearance in London, with his heart full of noble and patriotic aspirations for the political regeneration of his native land. He. was burning with desire to learn the arts and ways of European civilization, and thus qualify himself for the great designs he was meditating in behalf of his beloved Armenia. Burke, while walking one day in St. James' Park with a gentleman who already knew Emin, accidentally met him and was introduced to him. His penetrating eve at once saw the genius of the man, and his big warm heart was equally prompt to sympathize with the man's heroic aspirations. The story is much too long for any thing more than a passing glance at it here : suffice it to say, that Burke, then in the ardour of youthful genius, earnestly espoused the stranger's cause, and, though poor himself, offered to share his last guinea with the brave Armenian. He found some employment for him on liberal terms, lent him books, opened his doors to him, gave him advice, and did all he could to further his plans.

Early in 1757, Burke was married to Mary Jane Nugent, danghter to Christopher Nugent, M.D., of Bath, who afterwards removed to London. Dr. Nugent was himself also a native of Ireland; and the marriage proved eminently happy in every respect: nothing, indeed, can well be conceived more noble and beautiful than the great statesman's wedded life; for in his home Burke was one of the loveliest of men, whilst his wife also was one of the loveliest of women, She was not, we are told, what is called a regular beauty ; but was ever sweet and gentle in her disposition, and inexpressibly graceful and winning in her manners. Stern men of the world spoke of her as all that was amiable among women, and the most discriminating of her own sex gave her similar praise. As her sole ambition was to make her husband happy in his home, she was so quiet and retiring in her ways, that few of his friends had any acquaintance with her, except those who habitually visited at his house. Ever soothing his natural irritability, standing by his side in hours of despondency, cheering him in poverty, nursing him in sickness, consoling him in sorrow, such was her way of showing “how divine a thing a woman may be made.”

With this new responsibility on his hands, Burke now had enough to do; for he was receiving but little from his father, and Dr. Nugent, though in heart and will all that a good father-in-law could

be, was by no means rich. His next literary work was An Account of the European Settlements in America, published in the Spring of 1757, and again, with improvements, in 1758. This was soon followed by his Essay towards an Abridgment of English History

In 1758, while Pitt, as Prime Minister, was carrying all before him, and was touching every fibre of old England into resurgent life, Burke set on foot the Annual Register. This was meant to embrace a review of the history, politics, and literature of each year. The first volume, published in 1759, gave a complete history of the war, then in progress, from its beginning to the close of 1758. The undertaking was entirely successful. The Annual Register soon became, and still remains, a standard authority as a political, military, and literary chronicle of the time. At first, Burke, it is said, did all the writing for it; and he continued to do the better part of it for many years, till his time and strength were all drawn off to more important labours. He himself, however, reaped no great pecuniary advantage from it, receiving only £100 for each volume.

În the Spring of 1761, the Earl of Halifax went to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant, with William Gerard Hamilton, commonly called Single-speech Hamilton, for his Chief Secretary. Burke had for some time been on terms of intimacy with Hamilton; and he now attended him to Ireland, in what capacity is not altogether clear, but probably as a sort of confidential adviser. This was the first that Burke had to do with public affairs. While he was in Dublin with Hamilton, his father died. He was now in a position to do something for the relief of his oppressed native land, and he

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]

made the best use of his opportunities to that end. Hamilton retained his office till 1764, when he was dismissed, and Burke returned with him to England. Meanwhile Hamilton had secured for himself a very lucrative sinecure as Superintendent of the Irish finances, which he held for twenty years. He also procured a pension of £300 a-year from the Irish treasury for his confidential friend. Burke kept up his connection with Hamilton some time longer, till at length Hamilton's patronage became so oppressive, that he separated from him in disgust, and even refused the pension.

Burke was now thirty-seven years old, and, though holding no recognized official place, had served a sort of apprenticeship in public life. Still he had no means of support but what the Annual Register brought him, with such help as Dr. Nugent could afford. Some years before, his older brother, Garret, had inherited a farm in Ireland from a maternal relative. In April, 1765, he died unmarried, and the inheritance fell to Edmund as the next in succession. The estate is said to have been worth about £6000. Meanwhile the Crown and Parliament had got under full headway in that fatal course of legislation which was to end in the loss of the American Colonies. Burke watched all these misdoings with the keenest scrutiny, and was free and outspoken in condemnation of them. At length, in the Summer of 1765, the Grenville government broke down utterly, and the Marquess of Rockingham was called to the helm. The new Whig Ministry was formed early in July; and a few days afterward Burke became acquainted with the Marquess, and was soon selected by him for his private secretary. Thus began a very noble friendship, both political and personal, which continued, without a moment of coldness, till the death of Rockingham.

On the 26th of December, 1765, Burke was elected member of Parliament for Wendover. This was a small, close borough, under the influence of Lord Verney. William Burke, a kinsman of Edmund's, though in what degree is unknown, was to have had the election ; but he cheerfully

withdrew in favour of his great relative, and his patron, Lord Verney, • readily consented to the change, and had William returned for another

constituency that was also under his influence. On the 14th of January, Burke took his seat in the House among the supporters of the Ministry. Fourteen days later, he made his first speech, and was at once so far master of the situation as to hold the close attention of the great Pitt, who highly commended the effort. The question was on receiving a petition from the American Colonies. Even some of the Ministers opposed the reception on the ground of its being subversive of the authority of the House; but Burke justly urged that the offering of such a petition was itself an acknowledgment of the House's jurisdiction. On the 3d of February, he spoke again, with still greater success, filling the House with wonder and astonishment. This was in favour of what is called the Declaratory Act, which affirmed the unlimited power of the Crown and Parliament over the Colonies, – a doctrine always maintained by Burke, against Pitt and a few other members. The Rockingham policy was, to affirm in full the imperial power of Great Britain, and then repeal all the offensive Acts and redress all the actual grievances under which the Colonies were suffering. On the 21st of February, the question of repealing the Stamp Act came up, when he spoke the third time, and again won the applause of the. House by the originality and freshness of his arguments and his style of putting them. He had already sprung up, as at one bound, to the highest rank of parliamentary orators. And from this time onwards, though, from his thorough mastery of every subject that came before the House, and from his overflowing fulness of thought, he probably spoke too often, it is certain that no man ever held that stormy audience more completely in his hand. It has indeed been often said that his speaking served as a dinnerbell to the House; but this saying arose at a later time, when a large majority of the members were naturally impatient of hearing such clear and


cogent reasons against the course they had made up their minds to pursue. But, great as was his eloquence, his wisdom was greater. With the auroral splendours of his genius were ever mingled words of prophetic insight; and the final result of those disastrous years only approved how truly it had been his lot to “prophesy to ears that would not hear.”.

The Rockingham Ministry continued in power till the end of July, 1766. Though their policy was fast healing all the troubles brought on by previous misgovernment, it was so distasteful to the King, the Court, and especially to Chatham, that they were forced to resign, thus breaking off in the midst of their good work. Then followed the piebald administration of Chatham, when the worst features of the former policy were fatally revived. This Ministry soon broke down, and gave place to the long administration of Lord North, during most of which Burke kept up a resolute but ineffectual struggle against the wrong-headedness of the government.

Meanwhile he purchased an estate called Gregories, comprising about six hundred acres of good land, lying near the town of Beaconsfield, and some twenty-four miles from London. The mansion, which was something of a palace in size and appearance, he fitted up in a style of modest splendour, not unsuited to the high circles, social, literary, and political, in which he moved. Here he settled down with his family, in the Spring of 1768, to engage in his favourite pursuit of agriculture; his dearest wish having long been to take permanent root in English soil, and become the founder of a family. This was henceforth his country home, and a beautiful home it was too; here he spent so much of his time as could be spared from his parliamentary duties, which he never neglected; here all his domestic happiness, all his private joys were centred.

As the doors of Parliament were then closed against the public, and no reporters were admitted, of course Burke could not from his seat in the House reach the ear of the nation at large. For this purpose he had recourse to the pen. A Mr. Knox, acting as the mouth-piece of Grenville, had put forth a pamphlet entitled The Present State of the Nation, endeavouring to show that the country was going to rack and ruin from the abandonment of the Grenville policy. The work would have passed out of all remembrance long ago, but for an elaborate reply which Burke set forth in 1769, under the title of Observations on a Late Publication, &c. This was such a piece of political writing as England had never before seen; full of profound and comprehensive statesmanship, displaying a thorough knowledge of every subject that came within its range, and anticipating many of the most important conclusions which Adam Smith published soine seven years later in his great work on the Wealth of Nations. This was followed, in 1770, by a still greater work entitled Thoughts on the Cuuse of the Present Discontents, which, though dealing with an occasional question, abounds in matter of universal application, and is among our best textbooks of statesmanship for all times.

Of Burke's many labours in Parliament, not the least memorable was in connection with a long and hard struggle for the freedom of the Press. The reasons were growing stronger every day why the proceedings of the two Houses should be freely laid before the public; but the House of Commons insisted on treating such publication as a breach of privilege, and went to waging an ill-timed war on certain printers. Burke took the lead in this contest; which was finally brought to a close in 1771 by an indirect but effectual assertion of the Liberty of the Press as the daily chronicler of public events, including the debates in Parliament. Thus he bore a leading part in giving birth to what is aptly called the Fourth Estate. After the measure was carried, Burke, foreseeing the vast consequences to flow from it, uttered the remark, “Posterity will bless the pertinacity of that day.”

Burke had been twice elected member for Wendover through the influence of Lord Verney. But when, in 1774, the time came for a third election, Lord Verney's affairs were so deeply embarrassed, that he had to seek out some men of wealth for the seats in his gift. Thereupon Lord Rockingham placed his own borough of Malton at Burke's disposal. Just as the election was over, a deputation came on from Bristol, earnestly requesting him to be one of the candidates for that city. As all his friends agreed it were much better he should be one of the two representatives for that large and influential constituency, he posted off at once to attend the canvass there, and was elected.

All through these years, the American tion held perhaps the foremost place in the parliamentary debates. Though it was almost hopeless to struggle against the course of the Ministry, Burke kept up his championship of the Colonies. Two of his great speeches in this behalf

, that on American Taxation, and that on Conciliation with America, delivered April 19, 1774, and March 22, 1775, were carefully written out and published by himself. Of his many other speeches on the subject, only a few notes and fragments have been preserved, and room cannot here be spared for comment on them. One of them, however, it would be hardly right to pass over. On the 6th of February, 1778, he made a motion for papers touching the employment of the Indians in the war, and spoke upwards of three hours in support of the motion. One of his strongest points was in reply to the assertion that the Colonists were ready to employ them. He urged that, if the Americans used the Indians as allies, they could only set them upon the King's disciplined troops,who were able to defend themselves ; while to employ them against the Colonists, was abandoning unprotected women and children to the cruelties of the war-whoop and the scalping-knife, wherever those savages pursued their career. The galleries of the House were closed that day, and no trustworthy report of the speech was made; but all who heard it agreed that it surpassed any of his previous efforts; and Sir George Savile, a most competent judge, pronounced it the noblest triumph of eloquence within human inemory: At Burke's Judicrous parody on Burgoyne's proclamation to the Indians, even Lord North himself was almost bursting with laughter; while, in the more pathetic parts, tears like those which rolled down the iron cheeks of Pluto suffused the grim features of Colonel Barré, who, in his military career, had himself experienced the horrors of Indian warfare. He urged Burke to publish the speech, and declared that, if this were done, he would go himself and nail it up on every church-door in the kingdom beside the royal Proclamation for a general fast on the 27th of the month. And Governor Johnstone congratulated the Ministry on having had the galleries closed that day, lest the public feelings should have been wrought up to such a pitch as might have been fatal to the lives of the Ministers.

On the final triumph of the American cause in 1782, the Ministry of Lord North came to an end, and the Marquess of Rockingham was again called to the office of Prime Minister. Burke then became Paymaster of the Forces, but had no seat in the Cabinet. Up to that time, the Paymaster, besides inis regular salary, had had the use of the money appropriated to the military service. This gave him a very large income, sometimes not less than £40,000 a-year. In accordance with a plan which he had himself proposed some iwo years before, Burke now insisted on a total reform in his department, accepting only the regular salary, the use of the money to go to the service of the State. But the death of Rockingham on the 30th of June following put an end to the Ministry. The very day before the Marquess died, he had a codicil added to his will, expressly cancelling every paper that might be found containing an acknowledgment of debt due to him froin his “admirable friend Edmund Burke.” How far his bounty to Burke had extended, is not precisely known; but it is supposed to have reached the sum of about £30,000.

Perhaps I should here remark that the people of Bristol became dissatis.

[merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »