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Burke, Edmundlocked

  • Paul Langford

Edmund Burke (1729/3030–1797)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1767–9

private collection; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

Burke, Edmund (1729/30–1797), politician and author, was born in Dublin. His date of birth is not certain. 1 January 1729, according to the Julian calendar in force at the time, has generally been accepted but it is possible that the year was 1730. His mother, Mary (c.1702–1770), came from an impoverished but genteel Roman Catholic family, the Nagles of co. Cork. His father, Richard (d. 1761), was an attorney and represented the other Ireland, of prosperous, professional, protestant Dublin. It has been suggested that Richard was himself a convert and that the knowledge of his apostasy permanently afflicted his son with a sense of familial guilt. There was in any case no danger of the young Burke's being denied a knowledge of his Catholic roots. Portions of his childhood were spent away from the unhealthy air of Dublin with his mother's family in the Blackwater valley. His sister Juliana was brought up and remained a Roman Catholic.

Education and early writings

In 1741 Burke was sent, with his elder brother Garrett and his younger brother Richard Burke, to a very different environment, a Quaker school at Ballitore run by Abraham Shackleton. It provided him with a rigorous academic training and further exposure to the diversity of the Christian faith. Perhaps too, it gave him an alternative father figure in Abraham Shackleton. Richard Burke senior had a reputation for integrity and dependability; human warmth seems to have been beyond him. In 1744 Edmund returned to the parental home so that he could attend Trinity College by way of preparation for the law. There are indications that he found the formulaic curriculum tedious, and was at best a moderately conscientious student. On the other hand he read voraciously outside the syllabus, tried his hand as a poet, founded a debating club whose minutes reveal signs of his rhetorical skill, and contributed to a review periodical, The Reformer. In 1748 he graduated. What he did thereafter is unclear. It was a time when the populist Charles Lucas was making Irish politics more than usually turbulent. Scholars have enlisted the young Burke both for and against Lucas, but the evidence remains inconclusive.

In 1750 Burke set off for London and the Middle Temple, where he had been entered since 1747, with the intention of acquiring the training necessary to qualify for the Irish bar. He showed little taste for the law, and developed a lasting dislike for the narrowness of those who practised it. His health was not good, perhaps providing him with reasons for not studying too earnestly and also for discovering the English and Welsh countryside during summer breaks. An early companion at work and play was another young Irishman, William Burke, whom Burke treated as a remote kinsman and whose fortunes were subsequently inseparable from his.

In 1756 he made his first widely noticed appearance in print. A Vindication of Natural Society was a riposte to the writings of Lord Bolingbroke, published posthumously three years before. Their somewhat dated deism provided a convenient target for orthodox pens. Burke shared the revulsion but adopted an ironic mode of attack. Posing as a supporter of Bolingbroke's rational reductionism he argued that it could be employed as well in matters of government as of religion. 'The Professors of Artificial Law have always walked hand in hand with the Professors of Artificial Theology.' The history of civilized society was one of tyranny and slaughter. 'Dreams of Society' and 'Visions of Religion' should be abandoned together and we should 'vindicate ourselves into perfect Liberty' (Writings and Speeches, 1.173, 183). The Vindication was an artful work of demolition, but its reasonable tone carried such conviction that its satirical intent was easily lost from sight. In retrospect the work locates the author in an intellectual tradition that leads back to Berkeley and Swift. It also contains much that anticipates his later denunciations of the ‘natural rights’ school. But he plainly learned from its ambiguous reception. Irony was always to be a Burkean weapon, especially in his last years when it acquired an impressive savagery. But in future it was to be harnessed to a transparent argumentative purpose.

There followed in 1757 a work which earned Burke a less equivocal fame. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful shared the preoccupation of the time with the linkage between human psychology and cultural phenomena, in this instance aesthetic taste. It argued that the instinct for self-preservation was associated with apprehensions of pain and danger and thereby with a sense of the sublime. Instinctive sociability, by contrast, was associated with pleasure and a sense of beauty. On these simple foundations Burke erected a plausible account of various aspects of human sensibility, and obtained an appreciative audience which lasted well into the early nineteenth century. In Britain his doctrine of the sublime fuelled growing interest in the pictorial and literary appeal of landscape. His work also attracted attention on the continent. Kant described Burke as 'the foremost author' in 'the empirical exposition of aesthetic judgments' (Writings and Speeches, 1.187–8). His enduring achievement was to have tackled a difficult subject in a fashion accessible to any educated reader.

Philosophy was not the only discipline in which Burke sought to wear learning lightly but usefully. In 1757 he contributed to a joint publication with William Burke, An Account of the European Settlements in America. At a time when Britain and France were on the verge of their first great war for empire this caught a tide of interest not only in the commercial consequence of the West Indian and American colonies, but also in the history of their settlement and the manners of their native peoples. As a compilation of contemporary knowledge mixed with some telling appeals to British self-interest it was well received and continued to be read by subsequent generations. In more personal terms it should be placed alongside Edmund's thoughts of emigration to the New World at this time, William's success in obtaining a post in the administration of the French island of Guadeloupe when it was captured in 1759, and Richard Burke's appointment as collector of customs in Grenada in 1763.

Much of the Account was essentially history. There was seemingly more to come from Edmund's pen. In 1757 he contracted with his friend and publisher Robert Dodsley for a one-volume history of England from the time of the Romans. The manuscript was to be delivered by Christmas 1758, but Burke never got beyond Magna Carta. The portions of the text that he did draft were later published in his complete works as An Essay towards an Abridgment of English History. Its most striking feature is perhaps Burke's emphasis on the spirit of English customs as distinct from the letter of English law. From the conquest to the reign of John he discerned a fluctuation between freedom and servitude which finally, under a notably weak king, culminated in 'the grand revolution in favour of liberty' (Writings and Speeches, 1.550–51). The argument fits well with another and presumably related fragment, also published posthumously by his editors, as An Essay towards an History of the Laws of England. This remains interesting for its robust avowal of a tory position, to the effect that modern English law owed more to the Norman conquest than to the ancient Anglo-Saxon inheritance. But Burke denied what for tories was the principal advantage of this position, rejecting the notion that such a derivation would have made 'all our national rights and liberties' dependent on the will of the post-conquest monarchy (ibid., 1.324).

Posterity may regret that Burke did not complete his English history. Lord Acton thought that if he had persisted with it he 'would have been the first of our historians' (Chapman, 3). It was recognizably in the new philosophical style that marked the eighteenth century's self-conscious break with antiquarianism, and revealed its author's preference of rational conjectures to improbable relations. Burke believed that history as it had been handed down from the ancients was a poor instructor by comparison with contemporary discovery. As he later told another historian of the Americas, William Robertson, 'now the Great Map of Mankind is unrolld at once; and there is no state or Gradation of barbarism, and no mode of refinement which we have not at the same instant under our View' (Correspondence, 3.351).

Part of Burke's difficulty with the history was that he was also engaged on another literary venture for the same publisher. In 1758 he became editor of a new periodical, the Annual Register, until at least the mid-1760s writing much of what it contained himself. At £100 per volume his remuneration provided him with a powerful motive to ensure that publication took place on time. The matter also suited the experimental and wide-ranging nature of his intellectual interests. Like some other periodicals—the Gentleman's Magazine and London Magazine, for example—it contained a mixture of news and commentary designed to bring the general reader up to date with all kinds of expertise and learning. But unlike those, publication by the year rather than the month gave a more reflective tone to the discussion. Burke's ‘characters’, book reviews, selections of poems, and articles on new developments in science, all displayed his catholic taste and enlarged learning. But more than anything it was his survey of each year's history that made the Annual Register so successful. It quickly became the standard reference work of contemporary events.

By this time, as he approached thirty, Burke had acquired a family. On 12 March 1757 he had married Jane Mary Nugent (1734–1812), daughter of a Catholic physician who had treated him at Bath. His son Richard was born in February 1758. Another son, Christopher, died in infancy. The household also included Burke's father-in-law, Christopher Nugent, and at various times his brother Richard and his lifelong friend William Burke. The financial foundations of this little clan were to say the least unstable. Burke's writings brought in some funds, but hardly sufficient. If his legal ambitions had ever amounted to much they had long since evaporated, and with them his father's advances. Acquiring solid expectations meant employing his connections.

One of these yielded a significant opening. In 1759 Burke became private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a young MP of some promise who had ministerial office at the Board of Trade. In 1761 Hamilton was promoted to the office of chief secretary in Ireland, and made Burke his private secretary in this office. Their initial residence in Dublin coincided with an outbreak of Catholic peasant disturbances that was savagely repressed. The judicial murders of the Munster circuit appalled Burke. He was also dismayed by what he regarded as malicious attempts to implicate some of his Nagle relatives in subversive activities. At about this time he composed a piece on the treatment of Irish Catholics that was sufficiently strident to fit perfectly the debates of the 1790s and 1800s. It was eventually published by his editors as Tract on the Popery Laws in time to serve a contemporary purpose.

In 1763 Hamilton obtained further preferment: the chancellorship of the exchequer of Ireland. Burke accepted matching promotion in the form of a pension of £300 per annum, despite concern that it might place him in too personal a dependence on Hamilton. Soon afterwards Hamilton's star waned. In 1764 he had to resign his chief secretaryship, having alienated his superiors by his mismanagement. Burke himself grew restless as his aide. The past decade had seen him established as a substantial figure in the metropolitan culture. His network of relationships already included many notables of the age: Samuel Johnson, Arthur Murphy, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, and Mrs Montagu. These were all to be lifelong friendships. In 1763 he became something of a patron himself when he met the Irish painter James Barry, who was sent to the continent at the expense of the Burkes. In 1764 too he was a founder member of the celebrated Club established by Reynolds and Johnson at the Turk's Head in Soho. His sense of his own merit must have become increasingly difficult to contain within a relationship that bound him to a lesser man. At the end of the year he and Hamilton quarrelled irretrievably, moving Burke to resign his pension. Throughout his life he combined intense loyalty to his friends with a prickly sensitivity where his perceived independence was concerned. Hamilton never succeeded in managing this combination. Had he been better at it Burke's future might have been very different.

A new identity

Among the contacts that Edmund and William made at this time were two members of the whig opposition: William Fitzherbert and Lord John Cavendish. When a new ministry was formed in July 1765 they secured employment for both. William became under-secretary of state to Henry Conway, Edmund private secretary to the prime minister, Lord Rockingham. 'This little gleam of prosperity' as Edmund called it, was nearly doused at the outset. The old duke of Newcastle, who had his own candidate for the post, accused Edmund of being 'by birth and education a Papist, and a Jacobite' (Charlemont MSS, 2.281–2). If the charge had come from anyone but his meddling senior Rockingham might have taken notice of it. Instead he confirmed his new secretary in office. In December a further foothold was secured. Thanks to William's influence with a Buckinghamshire landowner, Lord Verney, Edmund was elected to the Commons for the borough of Wendover, taking his seat on 14 January 1766.

For a man with political ambitions, this was an advanced age at which to enter parliament. The moment was, however, propitiously dramatic for making an entrance. The American colonies were in uproar following the imposition of Grenville's stamp tax. British trade was imperilled by a retaliatory embargo on imports. Burke's first speeches were delivered on the ministry's answer to this crisis, a judicious mixture of firmness and concession which repealed the Stamp Act while asserting the mother country's sovereignty in the Declaratory Act. He made an immediate impression. From the outset the penetration and profundity that were to be his hallmarks as a parliamentary performer were evident, and in his early speeches on America it is possible to discern the outlines of a mature imperial doctrine. What also counted for much was his skill in co-ordinating a campaign by merchants and manufacturers to convince a reluctant Commons of the wisdom of the government's policy. The experience confirmed his belief in the importance of ‘out of doors’ politics and provided him with valuable insight into its management.

Rockingham's ministry lasted only a year. The inexperience of its leaders, their suspicion of the king's inner core of courtiers, and the dominating and disruptive influence of William Pitt in the Commons deprived it of stability. When the king replaced Rockingham with Pitt himself in July 1766 Burke had ample opportunity to throw in his lot with his successors and would not have been blamed if he had done so. But he did not waver in his fidelity. Later in life he claimed that he made a visit to his native Ireland at this time to avoid the negotiations that would certainly have resulted in an offer of office. In part this may have been because he did not share in the adulation of Pitt. He had met him only once, in spring 1766, to discuss commercial policy, and had quickly recognized his intellectual shallowness, finding only a 'few rusty prejudices' (Correspondence, 1.251–2). The gulf between the two traditions of old whiggism widened. Burke, whatever he had been before, was now firmly and forever a Rockingham whig.

Burke's personal relationship with Rockingham, which ended only with the latter's death and is commemorated in an unfinished but evocative portrait by Reynolds, was not without difficulties. Burke had neither the wealth nor inherited status to aspire to equality or independence. As private secretary to a prime minister he had been remunerated by the crown. In opposition he received a salary from Rockingham, issued diplomatically in the form of loans which were to be cancelled in Rockingham's will. From 1771 to 1776 he was also employed by the provincial assembly of New York as its agent on a salary of £500 per annum. Beyond that his earnings were meagre.

It could certainly not be said that Burke's motives were mercenary. Lord North's offer in 1772 of a place on a commission to be sent to Bengal, generous to the extent that it could easily have been made to a ministerial placeman, less altruistic in the sense that it would have removed a formidable opposition speaker from the Commons, was rejected. Burke was never to enjoy financial security by making his career in politics. Moreover, acting as a great magnate's man of business could at times be unpalatable. 'This method of going hither and thither, and agitating things personally, when it is not done in chief, Lowers the Estimation of whoever is engaged in such Transactions', he wrote to his master in January 1773 (Correspondence, 2.408). There is a story of his arriving at Rockingham's house hot from the House of Commons and remaining in his sedan chair for a while in the hall in order to emphasize that he was not at anyone's beck and call (J. Taylor, Records of my Life, 2 vols., 1832, 2.190). Burke has been accused of subservience to the aristocratic leaders of his party. A letter to the duke of Richmond of November 1772 is often quoted:

You people of great families and hereditary Trusts and fortunes are not like such as I am, who whatever we may be by the Rapidity of our growth and of the fruit we bear, flatter ourselves that while we creep on the Ground we belly into melons that are exquisite for size and flavour, yet still we are but annual plants that perish with our Season and leave no sort of Traces behind us.

Correspondence, 2.377

This was one of Burke's numerous attempts to get the easily distracted leaders of his party to fulfil their duties. It did not in reality imply an undervaluing of himself. Indeed, it was Burke's sensitivity and fear of being patronized that made him somewhat detached from his supposed betters. He rarely joined in the country house visits that were employed for a mixture of business and pleasure, though frequently invited to do so. He boasted of never paying court to 'those that are called great'. On one occasion in the Commons, provoked by an attack on his origins by a tory country gentleman, he 'took to himself the appellation of a Novus Homo' and 'expatiated upon the Impropriety and danger of discouraging new Men' (ibid., 2.127–8).

When Burke sought to establish his own social identity it rather resembled that of the small propertied gentleman than the aristocratic hanger-on. There is evidence that as early as 1763 he involved himself in a farming venture at Theobald's Park in Middlesex, although the property was not his own but that of an Irish family whom he sought to assist. The experience, which made him the victim of sheep stealing and involved him in unpleasant litigation, did not put him off a more personal and extended commitment to rural life. In 1765 he inherited from his brother Garrett a small estate at Clogher in co. Cork, which he managed through his Nagle relatives and retained until 1790. He was soon to add to it in England. On 1 May 1768 he wrote to his friend Shackleton 'I have made a push with all I could collect of my own, and the aid of my friends to cast a little root in this Country' (Correspondence, 1.351). His new estate, once the home of the poet Edmund Waller, was Gregories, near Beaconsfield. By July 1768 his letters to Rockingham were featuring the state of the clover crop and the threat of rain to the harvest, alongside news of politics. His new home was close enough to London for frequent access, and provided him with an absorbing occupation as an agricultural improver capable of exchanging tips with Arthur Young. With his Irish friend Charles O'Hara his correspondence indeed came to suggest an equivalence in his 'pursuits, both in politics and farming' (Hoffman, 403). Gregories also satisfied something of his craving to be accepted as a country gentleman, though he never warmed to the society of the Buckinghamshire squires among whom he now dwelled.

The purchase price was £20,000. Most of it was borrowed, some from unidentified lenders who almost certainly included William Burke, and through him Lord Verney. Unfortunately, when the market for East India stock collapsed in 1769, both William and Verney were ruined, with consequences which inevitably affected Edmund. Thanks to further borrowing, some of it from his friends, Burke and Gregories survived. Verney later accused his protégés of sharp practice in respect of these transactions, though nothing has been found directly to implicate Edmund himself. Even at the time there was unfavourable publicity about the financial affairs of the Burkes. William's involvement in East India speculations was well known. Richard Burke's part in some equally questionable dealings in the West Indies was to make matters worse. In the ministerial press the ‘Hibernian orator’ was exposed to unpleasant innuendo. The faint but distinct whiff of scandal, if only by association, still hangs over this phase of Burke's career.

The man of business

Despite the financial crises and nervous strain that he endured during these years Burke threw himself into furthering his new cause. This was in some respects a thankless task, for Rockingham's leadership of his party was often perplexingly negative. Yet government during the late 1760s offered an inviting target. Pitt's physical and mental collapse left his cabinet colleagues to lurch from one crisis to another. In North America there was renewed controversy when regulatory duties imposed in 1767 were interpreted by the colonies as an infringement of their assumed right to tax themselves. The near bankruptcy of the East India Company moved parliament to take a controversial interest in the management of Britain's burgeoning Indian empire. Before long the disruptive activities of John Wilkes and his Middlesex electors also provided numerous openings for opposition. As Rockingham's man of business Burke ranked below more senior representatives of the party in the Commons, the former chancellor of the exchequer, William Dowdeswell, and Rockingham's Yorkshire comrade-in-arms, Sir George Savile. None the less much of the execution and not a little of the initiative came from Burke himself. By 1769 he had made himself indispensable.

Burke acquired credit with his new friends by his parliamentary performances. He quickly became the outstanding speaker in the Commons, the path cleared for him by Pitt's departure to the Lords in 1766 and Townshend's death in 1767. His only rivals in the parliament of 1768, to which he was re-elected for Wendover, were a past prime minister, George Grenville, and a future prime minister, Lord North. Neither could match his range of learning and rhetorical power. The magnetism of Burke's parliamentary presence and the majestic language that he seemed able to summon up without effort are well attested. Inside the house his growing authority was hard to challenge; outside, ridicule was resorted to. Burke suffered much on account of his Irish origins. In the press he was Edmund Bonny Clabber, the 'goose turned swan by the inspiring streams of the Liffey and the Shannon' (Mahoney, 30). Yet even hostile publicity raised his standing and by 1770 he was figuring in the prints as the British Cicero. This was not altogether inappropriate for an Irishman at Westminster. Cicero after all had been to his Roman enemies a civis inquilinus on account of his birth at Arpinum.

Many of Burke's auditors were overwhelmed by the richness of his discourse, though his gift for striking image and elaborate metaphor also made some of them suspicious of the substance. Yet his reputation owed as much to command of the debating style of the Commons as to high-flown oratory. His wit and humour (he was perhaps over-addicted to puns) were a more important part of his debating success than later accounts of his speeches would suggest. If sublime was a word much employed by those who heard him, there was often an earthiness about his language that disconcerted some. With back-bench MPs who valued solid reasoning more than sentiment Burke's attention to detail was tellingly effective. His training as a lawyer also stood him in good stead in an assembly that included many who practised the law and more who were familiar with its modes of argument. Burke's later reputation as the flowery orator who could make men weep but rarely obtained their votes obscures the tactical mastery that he displayed in these early years of his career when governments of the day were virtually guaranteed a parliamentary majority by the court and Treasury party. As his surviving manuscripts reveal, many of his performances were carefully prepared, but his debating skills went beyond set speeches. He customarily spoke late in debate in order to meet the full range of arguments put by opponents. It was this resourcefulness that was so impressive to seasoned debaters.

Burke was no less resourceful in print. He contributed a number of political articles to the newspaper press, probably more than can now be identified. He also published a succession of party tracts. A Short Account of a Late Short Administration, which appeared after Rockingham's dismissal in 1766, was a neat little essay purporting to describe 'plain facts; of a clear and public nature; neither extended by elaborate reasoning, nor heightened by the colouring of eloquence'. The facts chosen were naturally those most favourable to the reputation of the former ministers. Most interesting in retrospect is his emphasis on their alliance with commercial and manufacturing interests.

Burke's second major piece, of 1769, Observations on a Late State of the Nation, was written in response to a pamphlet penned by the Grenvillite William Knox, and reflected Burke's belief that the main obstacle to Rockingham's return to power was the respect that Grenville's record at the Treasury commanded. The argument was sufficiently weighty to challenge the prevailing view and to suggest that in the event of a vacancy in government the Rockingham party commanded fiscal expertise adequate to the task. Whether it was worth the undertaking must seem with hindsight doubtful. The question was not whether Rockingham or Grenville was better qualified to lead the country but whether either stood any chance of doing so. When the ministry did indeed collapse in January 1770 the king's chosen prime minister, Lord North, quickly restored order and morale by his amiable and persuasive style of management.

The timing of Burke's next political tract in May 1770, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, was unfortunate in that the discontents described, principally those awakened by Wilkes, appeared to be subsiding. Fortunately, even at the time, the Thoughts were seen as transcending immediate concerns. They were penned self-consciously as 'the political Creed of our party', notwithstanding the doubts of some senior members of the party, who thought pamphlet warfare of this kind undignified and provocative (Correspondence, 2.136; Writings and Speeches, 2.246–7). Yet the tone could hardly be described as intemperate. Amid the ferocious polemics of the 1760s the Thoughts stood out as a beacon of calm, and, for many, conclusive reasoning about the political woes that beset Britain. Compared with the brutal invective of Junius, whom many contemporaries incorrectly identified with Burke, it was sedate and measured. Even its victims considered it 'gentlemanlike' (Correspondence, 2.139). The emphasis on the relationship between theory and practice also lent an air of statesmanship to what might otherwise look like mischief-making:

It is the business of the speculative philosopher to mark the proper ends of Government. It is the business of the politician, who is the philosopher in action, to find out proper means towards those ends, and to employ them with effect.

Writings and Speeches, 2.318

The argument, though hostile to the crown, displayed no personal animus against George III or even against Lord Bute. None the less, in identifying the growth of a court party which subverted the integrity of successive ministries, Burke developed a theme that passed into the mainstream of whig thought and informed much historical analysis well into the twentieth century. Modern historiography has preferred to treat it as at best propaganda and at worst downright invention, 'the most elaborate and famous of opposition fictions' (R. Sedgwick, Letters from George III to Lord Bute, 1939, xviii). Yet Burke and his friends were not alone in subscribing to the thesis of secret influence. And whatever its partiality it provided generations of whigs with a doctrine that sustained them in a long and hard-fought war against executive power.

Burke's early success did not imply slavish adherence to his party. In 1767, when a cynical opposition appeal to voters forced government to reduce the land tax, he refused to cast his vote. There were matters of deep principle on which his opinions were quite remote from those of his friends. In 1772, though he supported dissenting ministers and schoolteachers who sought exemption from subscription to the established church he staunchly defended that church when it was threatened from within by unitarian clergy who wished to reform the Anglican creed. On that occasion he found himself voting alongside high tories against his whig colleagues.

Moreover Burke's general stance suggested rather the resigned patriotism of the old tory country party than the ruthless efficiency of whig power-mongers. In this he early captured something of the flavour of a party that was increasingly shorn of its natural courtiers. Casting his lot with the Rockinghams, Burke had a shrewd sense of the unlikelihood of preferment. As early as December 1766 he remarked that he saw a return to power

at the End of a very long Visto. The View is dim and remote; and we do nothing in the world to bring it nearer, or to make it more certain. This disposition, which is become the principle of our party, I confess, from constitution and opinion, I like.

Correspondence, 2.285

Nor did he care for opposition for its own sake, though he lives in history as a remorseless harrier of governments and a formative influence on the development of party politics. He observed in October 1772 at a low point in whig fortunes:

there is no dignity in carrying on a teizing and vexatious sort of debate, without any other Effect, than fretting Ministers now and then, and keeping honest Gentlemen from their dinners; while we make triffling and ineffectual Divisions in the house, and the Nation quietly acquiesces in those measures which we agitate with so much eagerness.

ibid., 2.352

Yet Burke remained a tireless speaker and campaigner. Between his parliamentary début in 1766 and the dissolution of 1774 he spoke in more than 200 debates. His pronouncements covered an enormous range of issues. In constitutional questions he from the beginning opposed parliamentary reform of the kind that Wilkite radicals advocated, including triennial parliaments and secret ballots. 'If no remedy can be found in the dispositions of capital people, in the Temper, spirit, (and docility too) of the Lower, and in the thorough union of both—nothing can be done by any alterations in forms' (Correspondence, 2.150). On the other hand he helped organize the petitioning movement which protested against the government's effective disenfranchisement of Wilkes's electors. He also advocated measures to limit the influence of the crown, including Savile's bill in 1768 to curb the legal inalienability of royal property, and Grenville's Controverted Elections Act of 1770. He favoured Dowdeswell's Jury Bill of 1771 which would have given juries the determination of seditious libel cases and supported the successful campaign of 1771 to force the House of Commons to concede the practice if not the principle of public reporting of its debates.

Some of his most interesting interventions on domestic issues found Burke enunciating doctrines in advance of contemporary opinion. In debates of the early 1770s he advocated freeing the grain trade several years before the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. The act of 1772 repealing ancient legislation against free dealing in corn was passed at Burke's instigation. In 1774, in a passionate outburst against the poor laws, he denounced 'the amazingly mischievous tendency of them: their principle is nothing but slavery' (Writings and Speeches, 2.403). In imperial questions he repeatedly returned to the principle underlying the Rockingham policy of 1766 that, while parliament had a right to legislate for colonies and to tax them, it should in practice leave them free to run their own affairs while enriching the empire with their trade. In the East India crises of 1767 and 1773 he opposed growing state intervention in the East India Company as he opposed its meddling in the government of the American colonies. So far as India was concerned this stance was in later years to be considerably modified. Meanwhile, from the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, it was the west rather than the east that was increasingly to command his attention.

MP for Bristol

Events at Boston harbour precipitated the third and final crisis of Anglo-American relations. Earlier, in 1766 and 1770, it had been possible for government to make concessions without appearing to surrender to colonial blackmail. In 1774 there was a widely held view that the time had come to respond more vigorously. For the Rockingham party, which had always sought to distance itself from the wilder American claims, it would have been difficult to oppose a policy of carefully graduated coercion. Instead North, urged on by a bellicose cabinet and a surge of back-bench opinion, responded with draconian legislation punishing the port of Boston and remodelling the Massachusetts constitution. This hardened opinion on both sides of the Atlantic and led eventually to war. For Rockingham's friends the way was open to present themselves as the statesmanlike defenders of America's liberty and Britain's true interest.

Burke was the standard-bearer on this march into the annals of whig liberal imperialism. Without him it is hard to see how the Rockingham party could have survived as a coherent parliamentary force. Dowdeswell, its Commons leader, died in 1775. Lord John Cavendish, his nominal successor, was reluctant to put his parliamentary duties before his fox-hunting. A number of fair-weather friends deserted to a ministry that went from strength to strength and secured a substantial majority at the general election of 1774. The only important new recruit to the opposition, Charles James Fox, was tarnished by his earlier commitment to court policies, and for some years was accounted an unpredictable ally rather than a firm friend by the Rockingham whigs.

Burke's personal position was also strengthened by his election for the empire's second city, Bristol, in 1774. The invitation to stand there was timely, for he could not expect that his bankrupt patron Verney would renew his nomination for Wendover. Rockingham found a seat in his own pocket borough of Malton, but the call to Bristol came just as Burke was about to be elected there. The long-standing tory interest at Bristol was in some disarray, and whigs were short of a convincing candidate to run alongside Henry Cruger, an American-born merchant of radical views and little political experience. Richard Champion, the porcelain manufacturer, acted as campaign manager. He presented Burke to his friends as 'indisputably the first literary Character in the Kingdom' and 'a perfect Master of its commercial Interests' (Correspondence, 3.46). The new MP was elected with startling ease and at little expense to himself.

It could not be said that Burke was overwhelmed by a sense of dependence on his new constituents. A topic that featured in the election campaign, raised by Cruger himself, was the Wilkite demand for constituency instructions binding on MPs. Burke delivered what he called his 'poor sentiments on that subject' attacking any form of dictation which conflicted with the MP's duty to the public at large (Writings and Speeches, 3.68). Later, in 1791, he wrote:

He was the first man who, on the hustings, at a popular election, rejected the authority of instructions from constituents; or who, in any place has argued so fully against it. Perhaps the discredit in which that doctrine of compulsive instructions under our constitution is since fallen, may be due, in a great degree, to his opposing himself to it in that manner, and on that occasion.

ibid., 4.33

Certainly his statement has generally been cited as the classic account of the nature of parliamentary accountability, often by those who have lacked the temerity to follow Burke and recommend it to electors from the hustings.

Burke's imperial thinking at this time is encapsulated in his two great American speeches. 'Taxation', which had been delivered on 19 April 1774, was not published until January 1775. 'Conciliation' was delivered on 22 March 1775 and published in May. In each he argued that the benefits of Anglo-American co-operation far outweighed any conceivable advantages to be derived from an insistence on the right to tax America. His own measures would have been the repeal of offending legislation, an abandonment of all attempts at taxation, and a return to what he took to be the benign mildness of whig government of the colonies. This made no appeal to a Commons bent on forcing to an issue the question of Britain's authority to tax. But Burke's exposition marked out important ground. His concept of empire was one of communities bound in partnership. Americans were Englishmen by another name, imbued with a strong sense of their ancient inheritance. 'An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth, to argue another Englishman into slavery' (Writings and Speeches, 3.130). For partners to dwell on rights rather than responsibilities was disastrous. On the face of it the Rockingham party's support for the Declaratory Act in 1766 seemed to contradict him. But Burke refused to be trapped into a commitment to taxation. In the British constitution there were numerous rights which it would have been folly to enforce. He thought it logically absurd to revoke what was a mere declaration, not an enactment, but as the war years passed he made it increasingly plain that he would not oppose such a repeal.

Burke was exasperated by those who persisted in thinking of constitutional principles rather than prudent practice. To his friend Charles O'Hara, who had read his 'Conciliation', he wrote:

How could you imagine that I had in my thoughts any thing of the Theoretical seperation of a power of Taxing from Legislation. I have no opinion about it. These things depend on conventions real or understood, upon practice, accident, the humour or Genius of those who Govern or are governd, and may be, as they are, modified to infinity … I never ask what Government may do in Theory, except Theory be the Object; When one talks of Practice they must act according to circumstances.

Correspondence, 3.181–2

The American speeches mattered not only for their content but for their dissemination in printed form. It was not unknown for MPs to publish their own speeches, and by 1774 the public was becoming used to regular, if unreliable, newspaper reports of proceedings in parliament. But the care which Burke lavished on extended publication, from his own notes and from those of others in the Commons, was novel. Perhaps his strong Irish accent and the burden it imposed on parliamentary reporters lent urgency to this task. He was careful, however, not to be seen publicizing himself too openly. As Richard Burke told Champion when forwarding copies of Taxation,

tho our Edmund must avow, what he cannot deny, that the Speech is his; yet he does not count it gracefull to be the publisher. You will therefore know nothing of this; and to whomsoever you give them, you will give them as from yourself, and by no means as from him.

Correspondence, 3.93–4

None the less Burke was the first parliamentarian to appeal to an extra-parliamentary audience in this way, and thereby the first politician to acquire not only a British but a European audience.

In 1775 American and British arms clashed. 'Blood has been shed', wrote Burke. 'The sluice is opend—Where, when, or how it will be stopped God only knows' (Correspondence, 3.160). As the breach widened opposition to the crown became increasingly difficult. Ridicule was perhaps the most effective weapon in these circumstances and Burke its most resourceful exponent. He denounced the government's convoluted definition of rebellion, based on the Boston Tea Party, as the drowning of tea 'like a puppy dog' (Writings and Speeches, 3.83). When North offered the colonies a formula for self-taxation that was mystifying in its imprecision Burke compared him with 'Nebuchadnezzar, who having forgot a dream of his, ordered the assemblies of his wise men, on pain of death, not only to interpret his dream, but to tell him what his dream was' (ibid., 3.88). When all else failed it was easy to raise a laugh at the minister's propensity to fall asleep in his place on the Treasury bench. 'Government is not dead, it only sleepeth', he declared on one occasion (ibid., 3.426). North was the most good-humoured of premiers, and there developed between the two a relationship in which the exchange of pleasantries often seemed to take precedence over the requirements of partisan hostilities.

In 1776 events threatened to reduce the parliamentary opposition to complete nullity. The American Declaration of Independence alienated moderate opinion in Britain. Military successes in New York and Pennsylvania brought the prospect of a decisive victory over the colonies and unleashed the full force of patriotic sentiment at home, appalling Burke by its implicit toryism. Both in private and in public he argued that the English national character itself was being transformed by an ugly outbreak of authoritarianism.

Full-scale war forced the Rockingham party to consider new tactics. Its answer was to cease participating in parliamentary debate about America. Secession of this kind was a rare but not unprecedented resort, simultaneously a recognition that opposition was pointless and a demonstration of disgust with government's conduct of affairs. The hidden undercurrent was the implied possibility of an appeal to opinion beyond parliament. Burke saw secession as a formidable weapon and sought to maximize its effect. He devised his 'Address to the king', to be presented by leading peers in the hope that it would provoke extreme measures. 'The Court may select three or four of the distinguished among you for the Victims; and therefore nothing is more remote from the Tendency of the proposed act, than any Idea of retirement or repose'. He was aware that his plan involved martyrdom for others rather than himself:

as from my want of importance, I can be personally little subject to the most trying part of the consequences, it is as little my desire to urge others to dangers, in which I am myself to have so inconsiderable a share.

Correspondence, 3.312–13

Rockingham and his colleagues showed little enthusiasm for the role in which Burke had cast them. The secession achieved nothing. It was not wholeheartedly observed even by close friends. Moreover Burke found himself under attack from his Bristol constituents for failing in his duty as an opposition MP to oppose. His self-defence, published in April 1777 as A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, is memorable for its withering dismissal of any notion that the war could yield profit to Britain, but less convincing in vindicating the policy of secession. Matters were made worse by the radical peer, Lord Abingdon, whose riposte to the Letter demonstrated a lamentable want of unity among the opponents of government.

When the party resumed its place at Westminster, Burke moved to a bitter critique of the inhuman nature of the war. He lashed the government for portraying this as an honourable contest against natural enemies, especially when it enlisted the Anglican church in its cause. Of the annual fast services held to solemnize the cause he wrote 'Till our Churches are purified from this abominable service, I shall consider them, not as the temples of the Almighty, but the synagogues of Satan' (Writings and Speeches, 3.256). Ethnic distinctions featured largely in his rhetoric. The enemy were 'the American English', 'our English Brethren in the Colonies'. No opportunity was lost to highlight the irony of a German-descended king employing 'the hireling sword of German boors and vassals' to deprive British colonists of their English liberties. When the captured Fort Washington was renamed in honour of its captors Burke admitted: 'I have not yet learned to delight in finding Fort Kniphausen in the heart of the British dominions' (ibid., 300–01). In much of this there was nicely calculated rhetoric. There was also authentic horror. In a private letter of September 1775, after it had been reported that the government was negotiating with Catherine II to hire Russian troops, he wrote 'I am on thorns. I cannot at my Ease see Russian Barbarism let loose to waste the most beautiful object that ever appeared upon this Globe' (Correspondence, 3.219).

Russian troops did not in the event find themselves fighting for the British right to tax America, but other supposed barbarians did. Burke's oratorical onslaught on the war makers culminated in his denunciation of the use of Indian irregulars by the king's forces on 6 February 1778. Horace Walpole called it 'the chef-d'oeuvre of Burke's orations' (H. Walpole, Last Journals, ed. A. F. Stewart, 1910, 2.104). It relied on his most characteristic skills, capturing the attention and delight of the house by a sustained battery of good-humoured wit against the Treasury bench that had ministers themselves in convulsions, and suddenly turning with dramatic effect to the savagery of war:

the Indians of America had no titles, sine-cure places, lucrative governments, pensions, or red ribbons, to bestow on those who signalized themselves in the field; their rewards were generally received in human scalps, in human flesh, and the gratifications arising from torturing, mangling, scalping, and sometimes eating their captives in war.

Writings and Speeches, 3.356

The speech, like some of his later writings, also included an excursion on the theme of abused and outraged womanhood, in his painful account of the suffering of Jane McCrea, the young woman slain and scalped by Britain's Indian allies. There were, of course, those among North's supporters, such as the diplomat James Harris, for whom all such performances were mock tragedy, more plausible at Drury Lane. But parliamentary rhetoric was in its nature theatrical, and the more so in an age when the intended audience included readers as well as hearers. On the continent indeed Burke was compared admiringly with Europe's most celebrated actor, le Kain. The self-conscious theatricality of Burke's writings during the grand tragedy of the revolutionary 1790s is often noticed. It was but a short step from much of his parliamentary declaiming. He apparently intended to publish the Indian speech in full, but what would have been an astonishing triptych of American orations, 'Taxation', 'Conciliation', and 'Savagery', remained incomplete.

In the real war Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in 1777 apparently vindicated North's opponents, confirming what they had often said (without altogether believing it themselves), that the war would not easily be won, and forcing North to concede the principle of taxation which had given rise to the conflict. But the effect was the reverse in that Saratoga drew France and eventually Spain into hostilities, turning a war of colonial repression into a war of survival against Britain's historic enemies. The resulting tide of loyalism, not least in Burke's own constituency, put the opposition in the awkward position of perpetually having to explain that while they opposed hostilities in America they supported them elsewhere.

The reformer

On the other hand military escalation soon produced strains that presented alternative opportunities for critics of government. The conflict with America had set Irishmen pondering their own relationship with Westminster. As the war grew more serious it offered them the opportunity to resort to arms—nominally in defence of the realm against its enemies, but increasingly with the implied threat of action against the British themselves. Initial demands were to free Irish overseas trade from the shackles which English commercial hegemony had long imposed. In 1780 North gave way, aware that the independence increasingly certain in America might soon be practical politics in Ireland. Burke supported the resulting legislation but thereby offended his Bristol constituents, who saw Ireland's freedom to trade as their own slavery. In response he made one of his clearest statements about the underlying reasons for his dislike of protectionism.

The Author of our Nature has written it strongly in that Nature, and has promulgated the same Law in his written Word, that Man shall eat his Bread by his Labour; and I am persuaded, that no man, and no combination of Men, for their own Ideas of their particular profit, can, without great impiety, undertake to say, that he shall not do so; that they have no sort of right, either to prevent the Labour, or to withhold the Bread. Ireland having received no compensation, directly or indirectly, for any restraints on their Trade, ought not, in Justice or common honesty, be made subject to such restraints.

Correspondence, 3.442

By this time the spirit of independence was abroad in England itself. The apparent feebleness of an overstretched navy brought pressure to bear on government. In January 1779, when a supporter of Rockingham'sAdmiral Keppel—was triumphantly cleared of alleged incompetence in an inconclusive naval action off Ushant, there were riots in London recalling the patriotic mobs instigated by Wilkes. Keppel's defence at his court martial owed much to the hand of Burke, who was presented with Reynolds's portrait of the naval hero in gratitude.

The strains of war and the approach of a general election brought much lamentation on the parlous plight of a country which just twenty years before had been basking in the annus mirabilis of the Seven Years' War. Even friends of government believed that waste and inefficiency must surely explain the squandering of resources in a woefully unsuccessful war. More radical critics directly charged the crown with misusing the taxes it was voted to subvert the independence of parliament and the vigour of the war effort. The 'influence of the crown' was much exaggerated and misunderstood, but provided a convenient slogan and scapegoat for most parties.

Financial administration had never been Burke's favourite subject. As he remarked himself, 'I am not naturally an oeconomist' (Writings and Speeches, 3.473). In the mid-1770s he had pleaded for generous funding both of Sir William Chambers's Somerset House and the British Museum in opposition to Treasury penny-pinching. 'When the public money is spent on public works, the public spend it on themselves; they enjoy those works when elegant and magnificent; they pride themselves on the glory of their country possessing such' (ibid., 3.170).

None the less, more than anyone else Burke gave coherence and practicality to the campaign for economical reform. As in 1770 when the Thoughts on the Present Discontents had enraged the Wilkites he flatly opposed the more extreme demands. Triennial elections he roundly dismissed: 'Triennial Corruption, Triennial Drunkenness, triennial idleness, triennial fury, society dissolved, industry interrupted ruind' (Writings and Speeches, 3.596). But he warmed to the cause of administrative reform, bringing historical understanding and analytical rigour to a complex subject. Some of his targets were massed in the undergrowth of the crown's ancient administration, for example in the semi-autonomous fiefs of Wales, Lancaster, Chester, and Cornwall, which made England, as he observed, not so much a unified monarchy as a pentarchy. Others, such as his proposal to do away with the secretaryship of state for the colonies, were central to the governing process. Above all his determination to bring the crown's civil list under parliamentary control encroached on the royal prerogative and earned him the personal animosity of the king. Some of Burke's speeches rather unnecessarily went out of their way to condemn a supposedly reviving high tory monarchism. 'The King was only a trustee for the public. Property and subjects existed before Kings were elected' (ibid., 3.555).

During the parliamentary session of 1779–80 independent opinion in the House of Commons was sufficiently stirred to offer support. Eventually, when North conceded the establishment of a public accounts commission, Burke's bill was defeated by the narrowest of margins. For the moment, economical reform was dead, but it was not buried, and when the Rockingham whigs returned to power in 1782 it was resurrected as the centrepiece of their domestic legislation. In the nineteenth century Burke came to be seen as a pioneer in the cause of Gladstonian economy. In the twentieth century judgements emphasized the conservatism of his approach. Perhaps an appraisal more sensitive to the context in which Burke wrote and planned might grant that his carefully considered plan did indeed, as he put it, constitute 'radical, Systematick Oeconomy' (Correspondence, 4.219).

One of the less predictable effects of the war was the relief it brought to Roman Catholics. Awareness that Catholics might provide a valuable source of recruits gave impulse to the growing distaste for discrimination on account of creed. The result was the passage, in 1778, in both England and Ireland, of laws granting freedom of worship and education together with certain basic legal rights, including the ownership of landed property. Burke was much involved in the campaigning of the Catholic community and in the resulting negotiations with government. 'You are now beginning to have a Country', he told an Irish friend in August 1778 (Correspondence, 4.15). At the same time he was not behindhand in supporting additional relief for dissenting ministers and schoolmasters, in the process delivering a revealing remark about the nature of legal restraints:

I think of Government as I do of every thing else made for the good of mankind—like their Cloaths made to fit them, not those who go by abstract rules to have their altitude taken by a quadrant and their solid content calculated by their cubick feet and inches.

Writings and Speeches, 3.432–3

More problematically he also sought to promote the Catholic cause in Scotland. Burke's exchanges with leading Scottish churchmen include some statements of his own position that have much interest in retrospect. He denied that he could ever be the 'Zealot of any National Church' and revealed that he considered the divisions of the Christian church as rather 'made for convenience and order, than Seperations, from a diversity of Nature, or from irreconcilable contradiction in principles'. He was infuriated by the bitterness of the Scottish opponents of Catholicism. 'I could not prevail on myself to bestow on the Synagogue, the Mosque or the Pagoda, the language which your Pulpits lavish upon a great part of the Christian world' (Correspondence, 4.85).

It transpired that these sentiments were controversial in England as well as Scotland. In June 1780 a protest movement led by the Scottish nobleman Lord George Gordon culminated in riots which threatened to reduce London to ashes. As a prominent supporter of Catholic relief Burke was particularly exposed. The crisis brought his characteristic courage and compassion to the fore. Having sent his wife and his papers to safety he dismissed the troops provided by government for his defence, and faced down the mob with sword in hand. 'He's a gentleman, make way for him', they shouted (Correspondence, 4.246). When order was restored he refused to join with those, including friends, who sought to appease popular opinion by a partial repeal of the offending legislation. Yet he had no stomach for the bloodbath of official vengeance that threatened the rioters. Seeing the prisoners at their trial he remarked 'The scene in Surrey would have affected the hardest heart that ever was in an human breast'. To Lord North he begged for at least 'a few lives less than first intended to be saved' as something that he would 'sincerely set down as a personal obligation'. But perhaps the abiding impression was of the champions of the people having to be protected by the crown. 'Saville House, Rockingham House—Devonshire House to be turned into Garrisons! Oh tempora!' (ibid., 4.257–8, 247).

The general election of 1780 found Burke at the height of his public reputation yet deprived him of his seat. It was not only the commercial concessions to Ireland that had lost him friends in Bristol. Catholic relief caused a backlash there as it did elsewhere. Burke's detestation of the slave trade, though expressed with caution, did not go down well in one of the great slaving ports of the empire. It incidentally yielded his unpublished 'Sketch of a negro code', which was later, in the 1790s, to play some part in the framing of slave trade legislation. There were other sources of irritation at Bristol. In 1777 Burke had supported the establishment of a theatre at Birmingham, observing that the question was not whether the English labourer was likely to be tempted to leave his workplace but rather 'shall he go to the Play or some Blacksmith's Entertainment?' (Writings and Speeches, 3.287). When Birmingham opponents urged their friends in Bristol to put pressure on Burke he withdrew his support, but the memory rankled with some of his constituents. Worse still, in 1780 he had supported Lord Beauchamp's bill for the relief of insolvent debtors, a measure guaranteed to arouse the ire of a mercantile community.

There was also Burke's failure to cultivate his constituency. He did not deny this, merely asserting that where the public interests of Bristol were concerned his record of assiduousness was unimpeachable. But courting what he called the 'private regards of the Citizens' had been beyond him. 'The Business of Parliament occupies me for a great part of the year; and the effects of it afterwards make a residence at home necessary both to my health and my family affairs' (Correspondence, 4.219). Both his whig fellow member Henry Cruger and his tory opponents had the advantage in this respect.

On all these matters Burke defended himself with spirit. In private he did not, however, blame his downfall on them. In 1774 he had been the beneficiary of a freakish political situation at Bristol which left the local tories in turmoil and the local whigs unprepared. Circumstances had been ideal for the intrusion of a national figure at a time of national crisis. In 1780 the situation was quite different. Loyalist opinion had been strengthened by a reaction in favour of a government beset on all sides by ancient as well as modern enemies. A bitter contested election was inevitable and Burke lacked the resources to fight one. That his withdrawal was wise was confirmed by Cruger's humiliation at the poll.

Though this reverse was predictable it none the less dealt Burke a severe blow. Rockingham eventually found him a seat at Malton, not without difficulty. In the meantime he considered leaving public life altogether. His personal credibility was at stake. It was ironic, as he reflected, that as the proposer of the most popular of causes before the general election, economical reform, he had been voted out by the kingdom's second city. Returning to parliament for a close borough and engaging again in such a cause would look like 'a piece of Buffoonery' (Correspondence, 4.302). He also revealed in private his doubts about the political maturity and integrity of the electorate in great cities such as Bristol. 'If I had followd the humours of this town, which are called opinions, I should have been more frequently wrong, than even if I had been guided by the Court' (ibid., 4.274). The wound to his self-esteem was not superficial. In his manuscript notes for one of his first speeches in the new parliament he described himself as having been 'outlawed by the whole nation' (Writings and Speeches, vol. 4, February 1781). Not that his propensity for embracing unpopular humanitarian causes had been in any way inhibited. During the preceding parliament, in 1776, he had angered the landed interest by his campaign to make local ratepayers foot the bill for the plundering of vessels wrecked at sea by coastal communities. He had also joined critics of capital punishments to denounce 'the Butchery which we call justice' (Correspondence, 3.252–3). Most audaciously of all he had in 1780 challenged contemporary prejudice by taking up the case of a man convicted of sodomy who, condemned to stand in the stocks, was there killed by a mob.

Committeeman and minister

One of Burke's duties in the new parliament was to sit on a select committee to consider the activities of the Calcutta supreme court established by North's Regulating Act of 1773. He quickly became the dominating presence on it and was instrumental in extending its brief to cover a range of Indian issues in 1782. On the eleven reports compiled by the committee he had extensive influence, in some instances amounting to authorship. One of these, the Ninth Report, was destined to become essential reading for the nineteenth-century student of India. It also announced a position which had evolved in unexpected directions from his stance on Indian matters during his early years in parliament. Then he had opposed interference in the affairs of the East India Company. Through Verney and William Burke he had been complicit in the defensive manoeuvres of the proprietors of the company. He had viewed with equanimity even those by-products of Indian empire that caused so much disquiet in other quarters. In 1773 he remarked that on seeing the parks and great houses of company servants who had returned from India enriched and 'rising with unequal'd grandeur, I think there is something of a divine providence in it' (Writings and Speeches, 5.2).

This posture changed markedly. One of the catalysts was William Burke's appointment as agent of the raja of Tanjore, whose lands had been seized by the company and its ally, the nawab of Arcot. Moreover, the governor of Madras, who had sought to restore Tanjore to its owner, was Lord Pigot, a follower of Rockingham. When Pigot was deposed by his Madras enemies Burke's friends were quick to demand retribution. In a powerful oration in May 1777 Burke sought, not very fairly, to associate the ministry with these objectionable activities in India:

Some people are great Lovers of uniformity—They are not satisfied with a rebellion in the West. They must have one in the East: They are not satisfied with losing one Empire—they must lose another—Lord North will weep that he has not more worlds to lose.

Writings and Speeches, 40

Pigot died before he could be reinstated and the Tanjore question became part of an ever more complex web of intrigue at Madras. It had an impact on Burke, as his contribution to a tract published in 1779 by William Burke, Policy of Making Conquests for the Mahometans, reveals. The Tanjore business planted in his own mind a somewhat idealized picture of an Indian polity in its pre-colonial state. Tanjore was the Garden of Eden before an English-engineered fall. It had seemingly been a small independent state with a prosperous economy, a pious Hindu prince and a reputation for paternalistic government. This is not to say that Burke seriously considered the possibility of restoring Indian rule. He had too strong a sense of the forces released by Western expansion to suppose that any power could turn the clock back. Nor was he naïve enough to suppose that the East India Company was the only engine of change. Above all he never lost his faith in the energizing effects of European commerce. So he increasingly turned his mind to the means by which the company should be reformed and Indians provided with a share in its future prosperity.

Tanjore also gave Burke a new perspective on events elsewhere in India. At Calcutta the governor-general of British India had watched the proceedings at Madras with growing concern. Warren Hastings had no personal interest in the faction fighting there but the threatening aspect of both native and international politics made any dissensions in the English camp more worrying. His support for Pigot's enemies was a pragmatic manoeuvre in favour of the stronger party, and was designed to restore order in a territory likely to be in the forefront of a war with either Mysore or the French. He thereby became an enemy of the Burkes. By the same logic his own adversary on the council at Calcutta, Philip Francis, became their friend. Francis was to prove a highly partisan source of support and information. Burke himself insisted that he had not felt anything but 'a manifest partiality' for Hastings until much later, when his membership of the select committee had brought him a close acquaintance with the recent history of Bengal, but it is hard to believe that there was no connection at all in his mind between Tanjore and Calcutta (Writings and Speeches, 5.25).

Burke's early thinking as a member of the select committee revealed him rejecting the assumption that judicial and other institutions in India should be transplants from Britain. He saw an analogy with the crisis in the west. 'We must now be guided as we ought to have been with respect to America, by studying the genius, the temper, and the manners of the people, and adapting to them the laws that we establish' (Writings and Speeches, 5.140). But as his researches continued he moved from general predisposition to detailed analysis of what had gone wrong in India. The ninth report of the committee in June 1783 demonstrated the economic consequences of permitting merchants to become conquerors and governors. Throughout the reports there ran a critique of other consequences, especially of the abuse of power by those who found themselves exercising authority on the ground. The last, eleventh report, examined the taking of bribes by British officials, including the governor-general himself. This theme was the richest of all those he illuminated in the breadth of its consequences, linking corruption in England with vice in India. Its underlying force derived from his profound disgust at the activities of a whole class of Britons whom fate had entrusted with responsibility for many millions of oriental subjects. This is not to say that he necessarily blamed them as individuals. 'There is nothing in the boys we send to India worse than the boys whom we are whipping at school, or that we see trailing a pike, or bending over a desk at home'. None the less this was an invasion that brought no benefits to those invaded, only misery.

Animated with all the avarice of age, and all the impetuousity of youth, they roll in one after another; wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting.

Even the Tartars had incidentally carried with them some advantages to those they conquered. The commercial conquest of the English had created no arts, no architecture, no charity, no education, no monuments to their own superiority. 'Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain, to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by any thing better than the ouran-outang or the tiger' (ibid., 5.402–3).

Later reformers were to address this bleak diagnosis of the ills of imperial rule. When they did so, evolving a new form of Indian governance, they sometimes looked back to Burke as the pioneer of their cause. Yet Burke seems not to have viewed his role in this light. Rather he saw himself as a scourge of rottenness in the English state as it comported itself in India. Reform was indeed about institutional regeneration, to the forms of which Burke gave much thought. But it was even more about the extirpation of vice, a benevolent British parliament uniting in a moral and social community with remote and alien cultures. Such aspirations, it has been remarked, 'belonged to the world of Cicero and perhaps of the great debates set off by the Spanish conquest of Indian peoples. They were already beginning to look irrelevant to the British empire of the 1790s' (P. J. Marshall, introduction to Writings and Speeches, 6.36).

Even in Burke's terms it might be thought that there was something unfair about identifying Hastings as the supreme villain and victim in this cause. For he too was one of that class of young men who had set out for India fresh from boarding-school largely unprepared for the duties they must undertake. Moreover Burke's cosmology did not generally allow for the identification of any one human being as uniquely or comprehensively evil, though his more extravagant language sometimes gave the impression that it did. On the other hand if there had to be a sacrificial victim Hastings certainly lacked an obvious rival for the honour. As Burke's researches took him deeper into recent events in India he encountered him at every turn. And the same logic of imperial crisis and war that had driven Hastings to questionable expedients exposed him the more to censure. The situation that made Hastings for himself and for many others the saviour of British India made him for Burke a kind of Antichrist, the pattern of everything that was unjustifiable in British rule. It is ironic that Hastings placed such emphasis on the practical necessity of the measures he took, for Burke saw pragmatism as central to what he called the 'science of government'. But although he considered morality itself a subject for discriminating analysis he did not hold that moral goods as such could be sacrificed in the cause of pragmatism. He was perhaps fortunate that he was rarely placed in a public position where such choices had to be made.

Burke's growing investment in knowledge of India did not distract him from other business. In the 1781 session he unsuccessfully renewed his motions in favour of economical reform, and launched a forceful attack on the increasingly desperate fiscal measures to which North was reduced (comparing him unfavourably with Louis XVI's finance minister, Necker). He also returned to a favourite theme of the preceding parliament: the cruelty of war. Admiral Sir George Rodney's capture of the Dutch island of St Eustatius was followed by confiscation of the effects of its merchants. Burke denounced this as 'a cruelty unheard of in Europe for many years, and such as he would venture to proclaim was a most unjustifiable, outrageous, and unprincipled violation of the laws of nations'. In one passage of this speech he dwelt on the uprooting of the island's Jewish community.

From the east to the west, from one end of the world to the other, they are scattered and connected; the links of communication in the mercantile chain; or to borrow a phrase from electricity, the conductors by which credit was transmitted through the world. Their abandoned state, and their defenceless situation calls most forcibly for the protection of civilized nations.

This was no casual political manoeuvre. For Burke the St Eustatius affair raised deep questions of international law and morality which he was to revisit during the ideological battles of the 1790s (Writings and Speeches, vol. 4, 14 May 1781).

America remained centre stage in parliament. It was Burke's later view that in the last years of the war of independence the opposition's harrying of North caused the collapse of his support in the Commons. Historians argue rather that the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 destroyed British sovereignty in America and North's government together. Yet it was the loss of some of his key independent supporters that forced North to resign, and these men were peculiarly open to persuasion by debate. In any event in March 1782 Rockingham's friends returned to power for the first time in sixteen years. Burke was installed as paymaster-general of the army, without a seat in the cabinet. His exclusion is generally attributed to his lowly social origins but may equally have resulted from his friends' sense of his uncompromising independence of mind and behaviour.

The ministry was brought to a premature end by the death of Rockingham himself on 1 July. For Burke the months in office were none the less important in that they enabled him finally to carry a number of those economical reforms which he had championed since 1779. His protestations of loyalty to the crown verged on the excessive in the circumstances. In the Commons on 15 April 1782, for example, he declared:

This was one of the blessed effects of a change of Administration; that mist which was raised between the Prince and his people was now cleared away—he now saw with his own eyes, and felt with his own heart.

The Gazetteer, 16 April 1782

The truth was that Burke's insistence on a parliamentary regulation of the civil list made it harder than ever for George III to warm to the whigs.

It was not only in England that the Rockingham ministry brought about constitutional change. In a major revision of Anglo-Irish relationships it repealed the legislation which effectively subordinated the Dublin parliament to Westminster and the British privy council. For Burke this was not the straightforward triumph of reason that his colleagues considered it. His sympathy with the plight of Irish Catholics had never taken the form of seeking greater independence for Ireland. In 1773 he had strenuously opposed proposals for a tax on absentee landlords which would have had the effect of penalizing those, like his own leader, who influenced the politics of both countries while residing almost wholly only in one. In 1782 his support for the new settlement was at best lukewarm. Empowering the protestant minority in Ireland would not necessarily strengthen the ties that bound it to Britain, nor, for all the liberal intentions of Fox's friends in Dublin, would it necessarily improve the lot of the Catholic majority.

Rockingham's death was a devastating blow, removing the one political and personal connection that, when all else failed, could command Burke's allegiance. Whether Rockingham could have prevented those subsequent excesses which gave even close friends cause for concern is debatable, for Burke had increasingly set his own course, especially where Indian affairs were concerned, and it is hard to believe that any human agency would have diverted him. In the short run, in any case, he remained a staunch supporter of Rockingham's political heirs, led by Fox. The successor to Rockingham's estates, the Earl Fitzwilliam, had a particular lien on Burke, as the owner of the borough for which he sat in parliament. Only shortly before Rockingham's death, in March 1782, Burke had been elected a member of Brooks's, the sanctum sanctorum of whig sociability.

Rockingham's death occasioned the definitive split between those whigs who had once followed Pitt (later earl of Chatham), now led by the earl of Shelburne, and those who remained loyal to Fox. Shelburne was much preferred by the king, but the peace that his ministry was compelled to negotiate was hugely unpopular. The easy line of attack was to concentrate on the concessions made, especially in North America, where the independence of the new United States was granted on terms more generous than those required by the military and diplomatic context. Burke's contribution was to seek recognition that the peace of 1783 was no mere diplomatic conjuncture but a redrawing of international realities. In a manuscript draft of this time he wrote,

A great revolution has happened. A revolution, made not by chopping and changing of power in existing States; but by appearance of a new State among Mankind of a new species in a new part of the Earth. It has made as great a change in all the relations and ballances and gravitations of power as the appearance of a New planet would in the System of our Solar World.

Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments, Sheff. Arch., 6.165

In February 1783 Shelburne fell, partly because his ministry failed to carry independent opinion, but more because of the alliance contracted between the Foxite whigs and their former enemies, North's followers. In the resulting coalition Burke resumed the office of paymaster-general, expecting that he would complete the reform of his office and transform the paymastership from a notorious source of corruption to an efficient instrument of government. This ambition was hampered by his defence of two of his senior officials, John Powell and Charles Bembridge, who had been removed from office by Shelburne on suspicion of serious misdemeanours, and whom Burke restored on his own authority. He insisted that the two must be treated as innocent until proven guilty and also that the reforms which he had introduced could not be carried through without the benefit of their professional experience. The Commons gave him a rough time. In a speech that strongly conveyed his own discomfiture, he described in comical terms his roasting by the 'bons rotisseurs' of the opposition and dismissed Caesar's wife as a lady with whom he had no acquaintance. For once Burke's wit failed of its effect, and tempers rose. Burke ended by apologizing to the house for his warmth. Powell committed suicide and Bembridge was duly convicted. The episode may have reflected Burke's generosity of spirit. It did not enhance his reputation for sound judgement.

Burke's reforming zeal in the pay office did not inhibit him from playing a larger role in the ministry's activities. The framing of the East India measures that ultimately brought the FoxNorth coalition down, though often described as Fox's, were in reality largely Burke's. One was a prescription for the better government of Britain's Indian possessions, drawing on Burke's select committee experience. The other offered a radical alternative to the supervision of those possessions from Britain, proposing two new statutory commissions, one for the direction of the company's commercial affairs, the other to take over its political functions. This latter was controversial, for it entrusted the places of power to Foxite whigs and appeared to entrench them in a position from which the crown would be unable to dislodge them. Burke's principal remarks on the subject, delivered on 1 December 1783 and subsequently published by Burke himself, vigorously defended the principle and justified the bill 'as destroying a tyranny that exists to the disgrace of this nation' (Writings and Speeches, 5.451). But to many it looked like a hypocritical attempt by the whigs to lay hold of the Indian patronage that they had so resisted in the hands of others. The king used his friends in the Lords to defeat the bill, dismissed his ministers and placed the young William Pitt in office. Three months later, in March 1784, a general election was held which overwhelmingly registered a popular verdict on the side of the crown.

Inquisitor and prosecutor

As the personal nominee of Fitzwilliam, Burke retained his seat for Malton notwithstanding the electoral debacle. None the less he regarded it as a political landmark of fearful significance. He wrote in June 1784:

I consider the House of Commons as something worse than extinguishd. We have been labouring for near twenty years to make it independent; and as soon as we had accomplishd what we had in View, we found that its independence led to its destruction. The people did not like our work; and they joind the Court to pull it down. The demolition is very complete.

And a little late, perhaps influenced by an impudently daring burglary of Gregories, he remarked, 'Lord! how they will rail at the abominable degeneracy of the age in the reign of George the fifth' (Correspondence, 5.154, 169).

Burke constructed an analysis of the ills that must flow from the crown's victory and presented it to the new parliament in a formal 'Representation to the king'. He identified a ministerial plot to create a double Commons (recalling the double cabinet of the Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents), one sitting at Westminster, the other consisting of a court party that led popular opinion into all kinds of errors. Overall his conclusion was that the events of 1784 had turned the clock back a century, undoing what had been achieved in spirit if not in form by the revolution of 1688. The parallel was reinforced by the commercial vigour of each period and the blindness it induced in its beneficiaries. 'The Nation is rich; and Trade flourishes as it did at the End of Charles the Seconds reign; and as then people say little of any thing else' (Correspondence, 5.296).

In summer 1784 Burke's language suggested a degree of agitation unusual even by his standards. In parliament his friends were embarrassed and less than wholehearted supporters of his activities. Something akin to madness was hinted at. The new Commons was not only dominated by government supporters but contained a high proportion of new members, many of them young and irreverent. Their noisy refusal to listen to Burke somewhat nonplussed him for the first time in his parliamentary career. He was reduced to deploring their bad manners or criticizing their youth.

For the resulting frustration there had to be an outlet. Hastings was the unfortunate recipient of this energy. This is not to say that there was any want of logic in the vigour with which Burke renewed his assault on the governor-general. In his programme for Indian reform an exemplary inquisitorial prosecution had always seemed highly desirable. The entanglement of Indian questions in the constitutional crisis that had brought down the FoxNorth coalition made its remedial value all the more evident.

The winding up of parliament's involvement in the tortuous affairs of the nawab of Arcot, whose debts to the men who had brought down Pigot and the raja of Tanjore were now to be underwritten by the British taxpayer, provided Burke with an opportunity to signal his intentions. His devastating speech of 28 February 1785 in which he linked the guilty parties both with Hastings and with the corruption that had supposedly triumphed in the election of 1784 was not so much a diversion as a preparation for the greater task ahead. A significant link was also provided through Pitt's refusal to assist by providing official papers on the subject:

Here, in the very moment of the conversion of a department of British government into an Indian mystery, and in the very act in which the change commences, a corrupt, private interest is set up in direct opposition to the necessities of the nation.

Writings and Speeches, 6.491

The speech was published. Viewed in Burke's Victorian heyday as a model of majestic prose, it came to be seen by some as the finest of all his writings.

Early in the next session Burke determined on a formal impeachment as the means of prosecuting Hastings. Impeachment was a parliamentary proceeding requiring a decision to lay charges by the Commons followed by a trial before the Lords. It had the advantage of keeping the matter clear of the crown's courts. Prosecuting Hastings for offences committed at such a distance would in any case have been difficult by ordinary process. Through winter 1785–6 Burke laboured on the preparation of materials; on 4 April 1786 he laid the articles of charge before the Commons. At this stage he did not expect success. His bleak view of the abyss into which parliament had descended in 1784 took for granted a wellnigh invincible nexus of corrupt interests uniting crown, company, and Calcutta. His mood was grimly self-vindicatory. He saw himself in ancient mould, 'the noble character of an accuser in Rome'. He strenuously denied, however, that he was actuated by malice.

Not all the various occurrences of the last five years, neither five changes of administration, nor the retirement of summer, not the occupation of winter, neither his public nor his private avocations, nor the snow which in that period had so plentifully showered on his head, had been able to cool that anger, which he acknowledged to feel as a public man, but which, as a private individual, he had never felt one moment.

Writings and Speeches, 6.104, 106

In May 1786 Hastings appeared in person before the Commons and did his own cause much damage, partly through the incoherence and inaccuracy of his defence, but more by his insistence that there was no case to answer. An admission that at times the interests of the empire had driven him to exceptional but justifiable measures might have earned him much sympathy. Instead his seeming arrogance squandered that which he already possessed. Even so, the prospects were not encouraging for his opponents. The first charge, concerning Hastings's treatment of the Rohilla tribes of Oudh early in his governorship, failed on 2 June by 119 votes to 67. The second charge concerned Chet Singh, the ruler of Benares, who had found himself wedged between Hastings and his Maratha enemies at a moment of extreme peril for the British. His expropriation and dethronement were considered by Burke as clear instances of the mentality that he had first glimpsed in the sufferings of the raja of Tanjore. Fox himself laid the case before the Commons on 13 June; it was approved by 119 votes to 79. The support of Pitt, who was perhaps not averse to encouraging the opposition to focus on matters that did not implicate his own administration, was material.

Whatever the cause, not only was the effect heartening for Burke himself, but his political tactics changed markedly. Instead of being the tireless opponent of a supposedly degenerate court, he now looked for every opportunity to co-operate with Pitt and his minister for Indian affairs, Henry Dundas. To the latter on 26 March 1787, he wrote 'if ever there was a common National Cause totally separated from Party it is this' (Correspondence, 5.314). He also partially revised his view of the constitutional gravity of what had happened in 1784. Parliament, he remarked in July 1787, 'has prosecuted the very delinquent which it was (very near expressly) chosen to protect and exalt. In other things this Parliament is faithful to the principles of its institution. In this respect it has certainly failed' (ibid., 5.341).

Thus encouraged, Burke expected a speedy conclusion, predicting to Adam Smith in December 1786 that 'This Session will finally dispose of the affair' (Correspondence, 5.296). In fact proceedings were not completed until April 1795. It took two full sessions to secure Commons agreement on the charges, and the trial before the Lords did not begin until 13 February 1788. The first stages of the impeachment itself turned into a grand state occasion which attracted extraordinary interest but did not promote the gravity that Burke sought. The great orations that introduced each of the major charges, including his own four-day peroration at the commencement, were indeed hailed as feats of rhetoric worthy of the classical models that the orators certainly had in mind. Yet the atmosphere of high drama that prevailed was not to be taken for endorsement of their case. Indeed the highly wrought appeals to sensibility in which Burke indulged himself came close to serious misrepresentation of the facts. His emotive allegations of torture by agents of Hastings, in particular, were in some instances based on questionable sources later used against him.

There was also the question of the rules by which Hastings was to be prosecuted. From the outset Burke saw the danger presented by a trial in England before English authorities, presided over by a lord chancellor, Edward, Lord Thurlow, who was known for his judicial conservatism and predisposition in favour of his former school colleague, the defendant. Burke considered impeachment a matter solely for parliament and preferably one that dealt in terms of equity rather than precedent or 'municipal maxims', such as the common lawyers produced. 'You are not bound by any rules whatever except those of natural, immutable and substantial justice', he told the Lords (Writings and Speeches, 7.276). The judges who counselled the Lords usually rejected Burke's interpretations and made a conviction increasingly unlikely.

None the less Burke continued the fight. Nor while doing so did he entirely neglect other concerns. On two major questions of economic regulation he demonstrated that he was by no means an unqualified supporter of free trade. He opposed Pitt's commercial propositions for Ireland, to which Burke paid his last visit in 1786, on the grounds that the financial burdens which they incidentally imposed were oppressive. He also joined in the opposition's attack on Pitt's commercial treaty with France, though he accepted that Britain could outdo France in the manufacture of marketable goods. The driving force of Britain's commercial supremacy, he rather contentiously argued, was the huge infrastructure for capital accumulation created by the national debt and its associated government establishments.

It was by keeping it dammed up from France, that this general partnership, within the nation subsisted. The moment we admit France, she will immediately begin to insinuate herself into the partnership, and, in the end, come in for a share of the capital.

The World, 22 Feb 1787

During the mid-1780s Burke's stock recovered from the low point it had registered in the aftermath of the election of 1784. In 1788–9 however, his reputation sank once more when he fiercely supported the Foxite line during the regency crisis. The breakdown of the king in November 1788 found the whigs arguing for his son's hereditary right to exercise the powers of the crown in full. Burke's own views were among the more extreme, taking it for granted that the ministers of a king evidently insane lost all official status and must give way at once to the nominees of his heir. Not that he was an uncritical supporter of the prince regent. His own recommendation was that the prince's sexual adventures should come to an end. 'No Prince appears settled unless he puts himself into the situation of the Father of a Family' (Correspondence, 5.444–5). Burke achieved the rare feat of alienating royal father and royal son at the same time.

One way and another his friends were not pleased. In the projected whig ministry that was to follow the prince's taking of power Burke was to be offered the paymastership once more, notwithstanding claims that he might have had to the chancellorship of the exchequer. Even in Indian matters he was to be awarded at best a place on the Indian Board of Control while Fox himself took the lead. In the event the king's recovery exploded all such castles in Spain. Burke was well aware of his increasing isolation, and exasperated by its causes. Fox's 'tone of calm reasoning' implied a gentlemanly exchange of views with Pitt prior to a coalition. Burke considered it both mistaken tactics and betrayal of the party (Correspondence, 5.438).

There were other signs of strain. In May 1789 the dissenters pressed their case for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, a cause that Burke had supported in the past, notably in 1773. On this occasion he absented himself, citing illness as his excuse, though in 1790 he explained that he had evaded the issue because he had been unable to make up his mind. The fact was that for several years Burke had entertained doubts about dissent as it was developing in the 1780s. One thing that rankled was its leaders' desertion of the whigs in the constitutional crisis of 1784, something which seems to have offended Burke more than Fox. But increasingly he was also disturbed by what he took to be the impious and seditious dogmas of a new strain of ‘rational’ or Unitarian dissent. At the same time, in May 1789, he came under severe criticism for words that he had used at the impeachment, accusing Hastings directly of the judicial murder of one of his native enemies in Bengal, Nandakumar. The Commons contented themselves with censuring Burke and allowed the prosecution to continue. But Fox would have been happy to settle for its abandonment. Burke was becoming more and more of an embarrassment.

The prophet

All this preceded the sensational events of the summer of 1789 in France. To Lord Charlemont on 9 August Burke wrote of 'the wonderful Spectacle which is exhibited in a Neighbouring and rival Country—what Spectators and what actors! England gazing in astonishment at a French struggle for Liberty and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud' (Correspondence, 5.10). Very soon Burke himself knew whether to blame or applaud. By late September 1789 France was 'a Country where the people, along with their political servitude, have thrown off the Yoke of Laws and morals' (ibid., 5.25). By November they had made a 'Revolution but not a Reformation' (ibid., 5.46). This rapid process of alienation contrasted strikingly with the enthusiasm that marked the reaction of his whig friends to events in France. It is possible to imagine a Rockingham holding this tension in check. Fox venerated Burke, but he was no Rockingham.

In February 1790 Burke publicly revealed what a gulf now separated him from his friends. The occasion was a routine debate on the army estimates, which he used to raise the issue of the French Revolution as a threat to European security. He could have let the moment pass, but chose not to do so. Lest there remain any misunderstanding he published his own version of the speech. The French were a people whose 'character knew no medium' between despotism and anarchy. Their declaration of the ‘rights of man’ was 'a sort of institute and digest of anarchy … in such a pedantic abuse of elementary principles as would have disgraced boys at school'. He was himself 'no enemy to reformation' but 'any thing which unnecessarily tore to pieces the contexture of the state' was guaranteed not to establish reform but to make it more necessary. Fox pronounced himself hurt by this outburst but sought to mollify Burke. By contrast, Fox's ally, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, went out of his way to condemn his remarks, leading Burke instantly to announce their separation. Pitt naturally took the opportunity to pour oil on these flames.

This was on 9 February. Three weeks later, on 2 March, there took place a further motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which found Burke clashing openly with Fox, the mover. He did not deny that the sacramental test was a repugnant tool of policy but objected to a wholesale repeal that would expose the state to subversion by republicans and atheists.

By this time there was already in existence a draft of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, written formally as a public reply to a young Frenchman, Charles Depont, who had earlier met Burke in England and now sought to convince him of the moderation of the revolution. In reality it was an attack on those radical dissenters, such as Richard Price, who sought to stimulate radical change in England. Burke's whig friends were in many instances dismayed. Francis, who was shown the draft, lectured him on the extravagance of his language and the incorrectness of his prose, and also warned him of his folly. 'The mischief you are going to do yourself is, to my apprehension, palpable. It is visible. It will be audible. I snuff it in the wind. I taste it already' (Correspondence, 6.85–7). Francis chided Burke for what was to be one of the most famous passages in the Reflections, that in which Burke rhapsodized about the queen, whom he had seen himself in France in 1773 as dauphiness. Francis dismissed it as foppery. It was also to occasion a much quoted remark in Tom Paine's response to the Reflections, the Rights of Man, when Paine observed that Burke 'pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird'.

The Reflections began with a frontal assault on the sermon that Price had preached on 4 November 1789 at the second anniversary meeting of the Revolution Society. Price had argued that the revolution of 1688 had asserted the fundamental and wide-ranging rights of the people of England over their governors. Burke insisted that it had been no more than a constitutional adjustment, securing an ancient inheritance against a tyrannical monarch. The revolutionaries of France had recently been offered a similar opportunity to restore their constitution by well-tempered reform. Instead 'you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had every thing to begin anew' (Writings and Speeches, 8.86).

The destruction thereby unleashed on monarchy, aristocracy, and church, much of which had yet to occur when Burke was writing (but which he foretold with notable percipience), followed naturally from this spirit of supposedly rational but in reality mindless innovation. At the root of the evil was a doctrine of natural rights that entrusted the so-called representatives of the people, in the case of France newly elected from the third estate, a class lacking any of the qualifications to reshape its country's future, with unlimited power. It was this same doctrine that Price and his comrades were now advocating for application in their own country.

Against it Burke set out his own statement of contrary values: of inherited manners that conferred honour and utility on institutions that might seem otherwise outmoded, of religious beliefs that were deeply ingrained in any civil society worthy of the name, of prescriptive customs and institutions, including property itself, that required protection against untried and arbitrary ideas of rationality. He also conducted a critique of what had been done in France in 1789 and 1790, 'especially the puerile and pedantic system, which they call a constitution', its devastating impact on the fabric of French society, government, and religion, its utter invalidity as a template for use in Britain (Writings and Speeches, 8.263). He ended by proclaiming the virtues of Britain's own constitution, and the happiness it brought 'owing in a great measure to what we have left standing in our several reviews and reformations, as well as to what we have altered or superadded' (ibid., 292).

Published in November 1790, the Reflections generated enormous interest and numerous replies. To the most celebrated, that of Paine himself, Burke did not deign to respond. In a sense Burke never did argue systematically against Paine's doctrines; he simply dismissed them as based on a false premiss—that it was possible to derive practical rights and duties from a wholly artificial notion of nature. His own conception of natural rights that could be built upon in civil society was restricted to those which conveyed an entitlement to justice and the fruits of one's labours. Equality of property or equality in the 'management of the state' he considered an infantile fantasy. His own position depended crucially on rights that were prescriptive, judgements that derived from the inherited reason of the ages, and a deep scepticism about the wisdom of the human mind when released from reliance on faith in a spiritual creator. Of one Enlightenment Burke was manifestly a child, but much of what was in retrospect to pass under that heading he did not so much confute as treat as below contempt. He also had a low opinion of his adversary in this case. He wrote in July 1791 that Paine:

is utterly incapable of comprehending his subject. He has not even a moderate portion of learning of any kind. He has learnd the instrumental part of literature, a style, and a method of disposing his ideas, without having ever made a previous preparation of Study or thinking—for the use of it.

Correspondence, 6.303

For his part Paine was genuinely shocked by what he saw as the treachery of one whose reforming activities he had once admired, and with whom he claimed somewhat exaggeratedly to have been 'in some intimacy' (Lock, Burke's ‘Reflections’, 158).

It is remarkable in retrospect that Burke remained nominally a member of Fox's party for so long. Each avoided provoking the other in parliament, where a personal rift was bound to be damaging. They also collaborated to the extent that was necessary to sustain the impeachment proceedings against Hastings into the new parliament that commenced in November 1790. But Burke's own political evolution was no longer in doubt. On 3 February 1791 he crossed something of a Rubicon by attending a royal levee. Face to face with George III and in a subsequent correspondence with the king's son, the duke of Clarence, he received the royal thanks for supporting 'the cause of the Gentlemen' (Correspondence, 6.238–9).

On 15 April 1791 Fox praised the revolution in the Commons in terms that Burke could not ignore, though a hostile house prevented him from replying at once. There followed a private meeting in which Fox sought to dissuade Burke from a response. But the Quebec Bill, which altered the constitution imposed on Canada in 1774 and made possible some rather contrived debate about the desirability or otherwise of French and English models of government, offered an opportunity which Burke would not resist. In a series of fraught confrontations the two drew apart, notwithstanding attempts at mediation by friends. On 6 May Fox charged Burke with inconsistency in having previously supported the American rebels and numerous reforming causes, while Burke accused Fox of stage-managing his friends' hostile manoeuvres against him. At the height of this emotional exchange Burke pronounced their friendship at an end. Fox, tears and all, urged him to reconsider, but made matters worse by expressly condemning Burke's Reflections. There remained one further debate, on 11 May, when this historic rupture was revisited, but the outcome was no different. Pitt was left rejoicing and the two most influential whigs of their day were forever divided.

Burke's separation from his party is frequently portrayed as a personal and political tragedy. If so it was a remarkably liberating one, opening a period of intense activity and creativity, not least with his pen. His Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, published with his consent in Paris in April 1791, included a devastating onslaught on the philosopher hero of the revolution, Rousseau, whose preposterous egomania Burke well recalled from the time when Rousseau had visited England in 1766. It prophesied too the utter humiliation of the king and queen and the effective ruin of the French monarchy.

With the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, published in August 1791, Burke turned again to party politics, and item by item responded to Fox's remarks on 6 May. Convincing though it might be as a systematic rebuttal of charges which Burke regarded as highly offensive, its initial effect was to alienate moderate whigs, led by the duke of Portland. It was not abuse of former colleagues, however justified, that would bring them over. Only Fitzwilliam of the old Rockingham whigs remained unequivocally (and then not very publicly) his friend.

By now Burke enjoyed something of the stature of an international statesman. After approaches by leading French émigrés he sent his son Richard to the exiles' base at Koblenz in August 1791, corresponded with members of the French royal family and sought to instil energy into those who pressed the great powers of Europe to make war on revolutionary France. These were inherently futile activities, given the divisions of the émigrés themselves and the understandable caution of continental governments. Another mission on which Richard was dispatched, to Dublin, promised only a little better. Richard became the paid agent of the Catholic Committee in Ireland, dedicated to improving upon the relief obtained for Catholics during the American war. His father's own contribution, in January 1792, was a tract in the form of a letter to an old protestant friend, Sir Hercules Langrishe, arguing for fully fledged Catholic enfranchisement. Richard's was to become enmeshed in the far from eirenic deliberations of the Catholic Committee. Both used their persuasive powers on Pitt, Dundas, and ministers in Dublin, though to limited effect.

With the onset of the French revolutionary wars Burke flung himself into supporting the allied powers and advocating Britain's joining them as soon as possible. 'The Duke of Brunswick is as much fighting the Battle of the Crown of England as the Duke of Cumberland did at Culloden', he wrote (Correspondence, 8.177). The September massacres brought Burke to fever pitch and led him to give up any pretence of remaining within the whig camp. Henceforth he was an open supporter of Pitt's government. His search for evidence of subversion and sedition at home became almost obsessive. In a debate on the Aliens Bill on 28 December 1792 he produced a dagger, which he melodramatically flung on the floor of the house, as evidence of the manufacture of weapons of revolution in Britain.

War between Britain and France in January 1793 confirmed Burke's reputation as a prophet but distanced him further from his former friends as he worked to bring over the more moderate of them to government. 'Party ought to be made for politicks; not politicks for Party purposes' (Correspondence, 7.318). In September 1793 he directed to the duke of Portland his 'Observations on the conduct of the minority', the most direct attack on Fox to date. Portland's initial response was discouraging but the final breach in the whig party for which Burke had worked unremittingly was not long delayed. By January 1794 the Portland whigs had given up any hope of persuading Fox to join in a patriotic union against the French republic. In July they took office in Pitt's administration.

By this time another of Burke's long-standing concerns, the impeachment of Warren Hastings, was reaching resolution. His 'Speech in reply' to the defence, spread across nine days between 28 May and 16 June 1794, ranged widely over the matter that had now occupied nine years of parliamentary time and culminated in a direct comparison between Hastings and the Jacobins in France. He warned the Lords of their close resemblance to the parlement of Paris on the eve of the French Revolution:

My Lords, your house yet stands. It stands as a great edifice, but let me say that it stands in the midst of ruins, in the midst of ruins that have been made by the greatest moral earthquake that ever has convulsed and shattered this globe of ours.

Writings and Speeches, 7.692–3

Failing to convict Hastings was to invite the Jacobins in England to slaughter the aristocracy of England as they had already slaughtered the aristocracy of France. On 20 June Burke received the thanks of the Commons for his long service as a prosecutor and immediately resigned his parliamentary seat. Judgment was not pronounced until April 1795 but the outcome was not eagerly awaited. The Lords found for Hastings on every charge.

By that time Burke had suffered a personal tragedy. When he retired from the Commons, Richard took his seat at Malton. It is hard to believe that Burke was unaware of the reservations that even his friends entertained about his heir. Richard's arrogance and assertiveness had made many enemies, but his father seems to have expected that the opportunity to shine in parliament, which he entered at much the age he had himself been first elected, would allow his talents to have their full effect. This was not to be. Shortly after his election Richard fell ill. The family moved to provide him with country air in South Kensington but he died within days, on 2 August 1794. The grief of the parents was almost uncontrollable. It did not weaken Burke's commitment to politics, but it must surely have sharpened the intensity of his emotion on behalf of the public in the years that remained to him. From the time of Richard's death he considered himself 'marked by the hand of God' (Correspondence, 8.90). In Wolfe Tone's Life there is an anecdote relating Paine's belief that Burke's grief was in reality occasioned by his powerlessness before the arguments of the Rights of Man. Tone remarked: 'Paine has no children!' (O'Brien, 572).

Final years

In Burke's last years his diverse anxieties came together in what seemed a unified mosaic of evil:

I think I can hardly overrate the malignity of the principles of Protestant ascendancy, as they affect Ireland; or of Indianism, as they affect these countries, and as they affect Asia; or of Jacobinism, as they affect all Europe, and the state of human society itself.

Correspondence, 8.254

The exoneration of Hastings was a predictable blow but the evident failure of the war with France was more disappointing. For some the installation of the Directory in Paris might have taken the edge off the social radicalism of the revolution, but for Burke one regicide was much like another and merely heightened the horrors of any conceivable peace with a republican regime. In Ireland, where Fitzwilliam was installed as lord lieutenant and liberal whig rule promised the possibility of reform, disaster struck in the form of a premature demand for Catholic admission to parliament. Fitzwilliam supported it, thereby provoking Pitt to remove him from office. Burke had never regarded the concession of Catholic parliamentary emancipation as of much significance in itself, unless the property franchise were lowered. But such a public humiliation for the whig supporters of government was disturbing. And the crisis left Ireland on a course for polarization that would result in the rising of 1798.

During his last years Burke's financial difficulties intensified. As an MP, his legal immunity had rendered his debts embarrassing but not disabling. Leaving the Commons exposed him to the full force of the law. On the other hand, by joining government he was well placed to secure the rewards which a lifetime of public service might justify. Originally he seems to have envisaged a peerage as well as a pension, the former with a view to his son's future prospects, the latter in order to satisfy his creditors and provide his wife with financial security. His friends expected the title to be Beaconsfield, anticipating Disraeli's ennoblement. It is not clear that Pitt ever endorsed the suggestion of a peerage. He may have considered that Burke's support in parliament would be far from an unmixed blessing. After Richard's death the peerage became a secondary consideration and negotiations focused on the financial arrangements. These were complicated but eventually secured Burke's objectives.

They also gave rise to controversy. Burke as a pensioner was exposed to some ridicule. Contrary to a popular impression, he had never opposed pensions nor indeed had he objected to the use of sinecures as a form of public reward. It was their employment for purposes of political bribery that had attracted his ire. Even so his own acceptance of a pension exposed him to the charge of sacrificing his convictions to his comfort, a ludicrous suggestion to anyone who knew him well but one that sprang readily to the lips of Fox's friends. Two of these, the duke of Bedford and the earl of Lauderdale, raised the matter in the House of Lords. The result, in February 1796, was Burke's Letter to a Noble Lord, a scorching exposure of the self-serving history of the house of Bedford and of the naïvety and folly of its current representative. It was the rebuke of an 'old man with very young pensions' to a 'young man with very old pensions', and gave Burke a magnificent opportunity to picture the likely fate of this revolutionary duke if England experienced the political upheaval he apparently recommended (Writings and Speeches, 9.165).

At the same time Burke was writing what became his last piece on political economy. 'Thoughts and details on scarcity', drafted for several correspondents, including the prime minister, was his response to the famine conditions which occurred in 1795. Published after his death they revealed his continuing commitment to the market. They also included a definition of what lay within the purview of government, in sharp contradistinction to Paine's vision of a state dedicated to social welfare. The religious establishment, the judiciary, military forces, and those legal entities that it created for specific purposes must be its prime concerns. Statesmen should know the difference between 'what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate' (ibid., 9.144).

Burke's pen was also employed in criticizing the government which he now supported. Pitt had never seen the war as an ideological crusade against France but rather as a matter of national interest. After three years of warfare that showed signs of hurting Britain more than France he displayed increasing interest in the possibility of a negotiated peace. Burke's Two Letters on a Regicide Peace, published in October 1796, was directed against what its author regarded as signs of dangerous appeasement on the part of government. The letters included one of Burke's most interesting expositions of the history of his own century, emphasizing how far Britain's interests and those of Europe as a whole coincided. They also hammered home the unique character of the French threat, based ultimately on the 'systematick unsociability of this new-invented species of republick', a barbarous form of polity which could not co-exist with a civilized order. The enemy was not the familiar one in the history of Anglo-French warfare. 'It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations: it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France' (Writings and Speeches, 9.257, 267). There were two other letters on this theme: one published without authority in October 1797, soon after Burke's death; the last, which had actually been drafted before the others but was overtaken by events, not until 1812. Readers who found the Burke of the 1790s exasperating found these pieces the most exasperating of all. But this was in large measure a matter of language and tone. There is nothing in them inconsistent with his earlier position, and as a matter of historical fact when Europe was restored to something resembling a lasting peace, the government of France was once more in the hands of the Bourbon dynasty on whose restoration Burke had so unfashionably insisted.

Burke died at Gregories on 9 July 1797 after a prolonged illness. For more than a year he had been aware that his stomach was 'irrecoverably ruind' (Correspondence, 10.76–7). In the interim there had been visits to Bath and an acceptance that he had not long to live. He died at a time of dire national crisis, never railing at his own or his country's fate, but depressed by the darkening horizon. He was buried alongside his son and brother at Beaconsfield on 15 July. His wife survived him by nearly fifteen years. His estate was sold shortly before her death. His home burnt down soon afterwards, in 1813.

Personal legacy

The Burke of the 1790s was not readily recognizable to those who knew the Burke of earlier days. Some thought him close to breakdown. Images of age and mortality occurred with growing frequency in his speeches and writings during the late 1780s and the 1790s. But this rhetoric of declining powers was misleading, for his energy was undiminished until the very last months of his life. Moreover, the intellectual turmoil that he experienced combined with much personal anguish to lift him on to a new plane of emotional intensity. He has been memorably described as living at this time in 'a kind of mental thunderstorm' (A. P. Thornton, The Habit of Authority, 1966, 78).

In these years, too, Burke was addressing audiences that no other single figure of the age commanded, either in Britain or elsewhere. Oliver Goldsmith had said famously of his friend that he had given up to party what was meant for mankind but Goldsmith did not live to see Burke during these last years when he cast party off without compunction or even much regret. All his life he had sought to address the public and nobody could doubt how directly he was now in touch with it. William Hazlitt remarked that he seemed 'to have a fuller possession of his faculties in addressing the public, than in addressing the House of Commons' (W. Hazlitt, The Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, 1930–34, 21 vols., 7.302). Hazlitt underrated Burke's earlier mastery of parliamentary debate but clearly grasped that he had taken flight to previously unexplored regions of personal experience and public discourse.

There were disadvantages. The Burke who reached readily for hyperbole, whose rhapsodies revealed to more literal-minded men such as Pitt 'much to admire, and nothing to agree with', was much in evidence at this time (Ayling, 260). His prose was never uncontrolled but in younger days it had certainly been more restrained. Nineteenth-century admirers often preferred his earlier work, though that was in part because liberal whigs were discomforted by the uses to which his later writings had been put. But it was also because they were appalled by the words he coined, the metaphors he constructed and the tasteless rhetoric he relished, 'as though he strained against the limits of language itself, as if he had abandoned all care for propriety in a desperate effort to shock his readers' (Chapman, 236).

Manners were at stake, too. The generation growing up at this time was increasingly bred to a code of decorum and self-restraint. Burke represented an older tradition and never did regard temper as something that must be kept perpetually under control. On one occasion, the young whig reformer Charles Grey spoke in a parliamentary debate with a vehemence that led him to remark to his neighbour Burke, '“I hope I have not shown much temper.” “Temper!” replied Mr. Burke, “temper, sir, is the state of mind suited to the occasion!”' (E. Hodder, The Life of Shaftesbury, 3 vols., 3.160–61). It seems likely that Burke's displays of passion were indeed more carefully regulated than its victims assumed. Political duels were a feature of the late eighteenth century but Burke came close to one only once—in December 1777, when an exchange with the attorney-general, Alexander Wedderburn, took him to the brink of a challenge. News of a peaceable resolution resulted in a heartfelt note from the normally unemotional Rockingham.

My dear BurkeMy heart is at easeEver yoursMost affectionately

It is remarkable not that Burke quarrelled but that those with whom he quarrelled were so few. In 1791 he boasted in the Commons 'that he had sat six and twenty years in that House, and had never called any man to order in his life' (Writings and Speeches, vol. 4).

Throughout his life Burke's personal magnetism was an acknowledged, even overpowering force. He always commanded the admiration of many of his own and older generations, and when he grew old acquired a considerable younger following that was not only inspired by his prophetic wisdom but touched by his personal warmth. Burke had no Boswell and there is hardly any systematic record of his casual wit and wisdom, aside from some jottings by friends such as the whig hostess Frances Crewe. Boswell did indeed seek to capture Burke's conversation but rarely succeeded. Contrasting Burke with Johnson, Coleridge thought the latter's 'bow-wow' manner might have made him the easier to record.

Burke, like all men of genius who love to talk at all, was very discursive and continuous, hence he is not reported; he seldom said the sharp short things that Johnson almost always did, which produce a more decided effect at the moment, and which are so much more easy to carry off.

Copeland, 13

Whatever the truth of this, the engaging nature of Burke's personality is widely attested. This was true as much in a family setting as elsewhere. Independent onlookers tended to think of Burke's kin, the two Richards and William, as a millstone around his neck. But in their company as a group most found pleasure and almost all found Burke himself and his wife, Jane, truly delightful. Elsewhere those who met him for the first time were charmed by his infectious bonhomie. The organist Richard Stevens was startled on meeting him at a Royal Academy dinner in 1789 'by the Fun, frisk, and Anecdote of Mr. Burke's conversation: I never heard anything so animated or captivating in my life; and, perhaps, I never shall: we laughed immoderately for nearly (two) hours at his eccentric and witty conversation' (R. Stevens, Recollections of R. J. S. Stevens, ed. M. Argent, 1992, 67). Much of Burke's life, more than would be obvious from his public pronouncements, was filled with laughter. His potential for biting sarcasm is not in doubt where the printed word was concerned, but in conversation his badinage was always good-humoured. If he was criticized it was usually for the crudeness of his humour. Significantly Johnson, who crossed swords with Burke without ever falling out with him, was extravagant in his praise of his wisdom but not of his wit. And it was conceded by his friends that Burke could also be a little overbearing in conversation.

As a young man Burke had struck Horace Walpole, at first meeting, as somewhat affected and pompous, with more than a tinge of authorial self-importance. It is not an impression confirmed by others, then or later. As a politician Burke denied any literary pretensions and confined himself to the role of patron, in some cases with notable results. It was he who discovered the poet George Crabbe in 1781 and shepherded him to social acceptance, professional advancement, and literary success. Of Fanny Burney he was a formidable early champion. Throughout his life he was bombarded by budding authors whose works he customarily treated with kindly but candid criticism. He seems never to have acquired the habit of commenting on them without having read them.

Perhaps the older Burke was sterner and less tolerant than he had once been. There was a certain ruthlessness that grated with some even of his admirers. The obsessive hunt of Warren Hastings left friends trailing despairingly in his wake or abandoning the chase altogether. Burke's refusal to recognize any good at all in Hastings, though they shared an interest in Hindu culture and its preservation, was hard to defend. The unequivocal and unforgiving break with Fox seemed to come oddly from a man who had on occasion got himself into trouble on behalf of some rather dubious friends or even acquaintances. On his deathbed Burke refused to see Fox. The most chilling feature of the refusal was Burke's insistence that what was at issue was the way it would be publicly perceived: 'that his principles remain the same … and that these principles can be enforced only by the general persuasion of his sincerity' (Prior, 2.397). Gillray's savage portrayal of Burke as the grand detector of conspiracies, unconsciously mimicking those prosecutors of enemies of the state that flourished in the republic of virtue, seemed to fit rather well with this increasingly evident streak of harshness.

Yet Burke's humanity remained manifest. He had always been prone to over-fierce self-vindication when threatened and equally prone to over-generous allowance when not. And in his acute sensitivity to the sufferings of those less fortunate than himself nothing ever hardened him. Pictures treasured by those who knew or heard of him were of Burke personally preparing pills at the dispensary for the poor that he instituted at Beaconsfield, or Burke minutely regulating the school for the sons of French refugees that he established at Penn, or Burke providing a greenhouse for the preparation of food by two visiting Brahmans, or Burke as ever bestowing money that he could ill afford on those who sought his charity. Humanity was indeed the core of his politics as of everything else, and certainly not less so during the last years, even if it seemed to acquire a harder edge. Then indeed Burke saw with a fearful clarity what seemed to him the ultimate obscenity of a creed, the ‘rights of man’, that degraded humanity while professing to serve it. A favourite phrase employed of Jacobinism, ‘the cannibal philosophy’, encapsulated this vision not simply because there were examples of cannibalism in the French Revolution, eagerly sought out by Burke, but because this was taken to be a kind of substitute religion that fed on slaughter and destruction. What linked this nightmare vision with the politics of his entire lifetime was his systematic critique of the abuse of power. Faced by unchallengeable evidence of what human nature was capable when those in power were unrestrained by humanity, Burke was indeed merciless.

Burke's personal dreams for himself and his kin came to nothing. The Burke family did not take root among the gentlemen of England. His sons and his brothers predeceased him. If he had sought fortune in material terms, he certainly did not achieve it, leaving sufficient only to sustain his widow. He cannot be said to have died loaded with honours. He had taken pleasure in his election as lord rector of Glasgow University in 1783 and used it to acquaint himself with Scotland. Trinity College, Dublin, had honoured him in 1790. Oxford refused to do so at the same time; when later it changed its mind Burke declined to be propitiated but eventually compromised by permitting his son to be awarded a degree. By his own desire, the honour of a Westminster Abbey burial was turned down.

Irishmen of minor gentry or professional background were conventionally portrayed in England as fortune-hunters and Burke sometimes among them. In his case it was a particularly absurd charge, for at all the critical points in his career he had turned his back on promotion for its own sake. None the less the adversities of the 1790s sorely tried him, and he was thrown back on his belief in an omnipotent God. That belief has sometimes been found puzzling. There is little in the surviving sources about Burke's life as a worshipper. He lacked the kind of studied introspectiveness that might yield insights into the nature of his devotions or even his beliefs. Moreover he seemed uneasy with the dogmas that sustain most believers, and sometimes spoke and wrote as if religious creeds were primarily matters of political convenience. If fervour were needed to defend them it was fervour on behalf of a sane society. Yet there is no doubting Burke's commitment. For many of his generation the deity of the early Enlightenment was little more than a stage prop in a rationally ordered existence. For Burke it was an intense and all-pervading spiritual reality.

Burke lived on in the extraordinary public impact that he achieved in his later years through several generations of men and women, especially those prominent in public life who, like Canning, hung onto his words as 'the manual of my politics' (G. Canning, Some Official Correspondence of George Canning, ed. E. J. Stapleton, 2 vols., 1887, 1.23). Beyond that it is his writings that have kept him in the mainstream of the Western political and intellectual tradition. They were ably edited by two of his followers, Walker King and French Laurence, who had assisted him with the Annual Register, the impeachment, and other concerns. Publication commenced in Burke's own lifetime, in 1795, and concluded many years later in 1827. A number of Burke's less finished writings and drafts appeared alongside those which were a recognized part of his canon. This edition has since been reprinted and cannibalized in numerous versions and employed for all kinds of purposes. It will be fully supplanted only when the Clarendon edition of Writings and Speeches—which draws heavily on Burke's personal archive among the papers of the Fitzwilliam family, and also on close study of his parliamentary speeches as reported in the contemporary press—is completed. Publication of this edition in ten volumes began in 1981.

The uses to which Burke's writings have been put indeed indicate the richness of his thought and the many-sidedness of his talent. To Victorians especially, he appeared 'to be in the political what Shakespeare was in the moral world' (H. Reeve, ed., The Greville Memoirs, 3rd edn, 3 vols., 1875, 3.209). He defied party political classification and remained a source of inspiration as well as argument to generations of Conservatives and Liberals. Matthew Arnold attributed this to Burke's unique capacity to marry the mind of the thinker to the actions of a politician. 'His greatness is that he lived in a world which neither English Liberalism nor English Toryism is apt to enter;—the world of ideas, not the world of catchwords and party habits' (Ritchie, 27).

Hazlitt and Leslie Stephen considered Burke the greatest prose writer in the English language. His impact on Romantic and organic trains of thought was marked not only in Britain where it was transmitted through the Lake poets, but in Germany, where his followers included some of the most influential in this genre, Justin Möser, Adam Müller, Novalis. His remarkable ability to bring historical imagination to bear on all kinds of contemporary and controversial questions fired the enthusiasm of generations of historically minded Victorians. As Macaulay memorably put it, 'he had, in the highest degree, that noble faculty whereby man is able to live in the past and in the future, in the distant and in the unreal' (T. B. Macaulay, Warren Hastings, in Critical and Historical Essays, 3 vols., 1843, 3.433).

Burke continued to be read and admired throughout the twentieth century, though some historians were more dismissive of his talents than any of the preceding century had been. Sir Lewis Namier, who regarded the whig creed and the whig version of history as nothing more than covers for aristocratic self-interest, thought Burke the most pernicious exponent of each. Such scepticism was rarer beyond Britain and purely British affairs. Both world wars in different ways revived interest in his defence of civilized values against the beast within and without. The search for an international order brought recognition of his faith in an overriding principle of natural justice by men of widely differing opinions. A. V. Dicey saw in his defiance of Jacobin France a template for application to Bolshevik Russia. Harold Laski wrestled with his ideas and came to have a profound respect for them. The turbulent politics of the second half of the twentieth century reinforced the appeal of Burke's invocation of prescriptive practices, values, and institutions. In the hands of American admirers such as Peter Stanlis and Russell Kirk—who glimpsed in Burke a direct link to ancient Christian, indeed Catholic natural law tradition—his thought became almost as potent a weapon in the cold war against communism as it had been nearly two hundred years before in the wars of the French Revolution.

On the whole, what is most striking about Burke's influence is its variety. Quite different positions have been supported by Burkean wisdom, and proponents of new ones continue to find vindication in citing it. No other member of parliament in the country that invented the parliamentary tradition has exerted such influence over such a diverse and enduring audience. His legacy extends beyond the community of scholars, and beyond the shores of his own and his adopted country. No single tradition or party has succeeded in monopolizing it.


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  • Bodl. Oxf., library catalogue
  • Bristol RO, letters
  • CUL, letters
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp. and papers
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • NL Ire., corresp. and papers
  • Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments, corresp.
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Grenville, Add. MS 69038
  • BL, corresp. with first earl of Liverpool, Add. MSS 38191, 38227, 38308, 38310, 38404
  • BL, corresp. with William Windham, Add. MS 37843
  • BL OIOC, letters to Sir Philip Francis, MS Eur. F 6
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Macartney
  • CKS, letters to William Pitt
  • Devon RO, corresp. with Lord Sidmouth
  • Herts. ALS, corresp. with William Baker
  • N. Yorks. CRO, corresp. with Christopher Wyvill
  • NL Ire., corresp. with Charles O'Hara
  • NL Scot., letters to Henry Dundas
  • NL Scot., Minto MSS
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Charles O'Hare
  • Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam MSS, corresp. and papers
  • Royal Irish Acad., corresp. with Lord Charlemont
  • Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments, Rockingham MSS
  • Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments, corresp. with Lord Fitzwilliam
  • U. Nott. L., Portland MSS
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. with James Boswell
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  • Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Richard Shackleton, etc.
  • letters to William Pitt, PRO 30/8/118/1/86–111


  • J. Reynolds, double portrait, unfinished sketch, 1766–8 (with Lord Rockingham), FM Cam.
  • J. Reynolds, portrait, 1767–9, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • J. Jones, mezzotint, pubd 1770 (after G. Romney), BM, NPG
  • J. Watson, mezzotint, pubd 1770 (after J. Reynolds, 1767–9), BM, NPG
  • J. Barry, oils, 1771, NG Ire.; copy, NPG
  • studio of Reynolds, oils, 1771, NPG
  • J. Reynolds, oils, exh. RA 1774, Scot. NPG; on loan to NG Ire.
  • J. Sayers, etchings, pubd 1782–96, BM, NPG
  • T. R. Poole, wax medallion, 1791, NPG
  • J. Opie, oils, 1792, Knole, Kent
  • J. Hoppner, oils, 1795–1801, TCD
  • H. Kingsbury, mezzotint, pubd 1798, BM, NPG
  • S. W. Reynolds, mezzotint, pubd 1820 (after J. Reynolds), BM, NPG
  • J. Barry, group portrait, oils (The Society for the Encouragement of the Arts), RSA
  • J. Gillray, caricature, BM, NPG
  • J. Hickey, bust, BM
  • T. Hickey, double portrait, oils (with Charles James Fox), NG Ire.
  • W. Holl, stipple (after unknown artist), NPG
  • J. Jones, engraving (after G. Romney, 1776), repro. in W. Bellenden, De stato libri tres (1787)
  • J. Nixon, caricature, Palace of Westminster, London
  • J. Reynolds, oils, Scot. NPG
  • J. Sayers, caricature, BM, NPG
  • bust, TCD
  • plaster medallion (after W. Tassie), Scot. NPG
  • plaster medallion (after Wedgwood medallion by J. C. Lochée), Scot. NPG
H. Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis & others, 48 vols. (1937–83)
Historical Journal
English Historical Review
Historical Manuscripts Commission