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myself without supporting with the smallest degree of credit or effect the cause you wished me to undertake. I should have lost the only thing which can make such abilities as mine of any use to the world now or hereafter: I mean that authority which is derived from an opinion that a member speaks the language of truth and sincerity, and that he is not ready to take up or lay down a great political system for the convenience of an hour, that he is in Parliament to support his opinion of the public good, and does not form his opinion in order to get into Parliament, or to continue in it.” 1 These eloquent words fell on deaf
Burke was never forgiven for his liberality, and in the election of 1780 he was forced to seek a new constituency.
It was during his six years as member for Bristol that, in the contest over America, Burke rose to his full height as a statesman. Through all the confusion and tangle of the government's temporary shifts and expedients, he steadily urged the necessity of a consistent policy based on the character of the Americans and the permanent relations which should exist between England and her colonies. He was almost alone among the speech-makers of that decade of debate in always going below the superficial considerations of the moment, - a desire for more revenue, irritation at the obstinacy of the colonists, greed of power,
to the fundamental fact that in the long run restraint and violence defeat themselves. Though most members of Parliament seemed incurably ignorant of America and incapable of understanding her point of view, Burke was always well-informed and sympathetic. Indeed, his sympathy, which had led the province of New York to employ him as its London agent, drew upon him many attacks. “I
1 Two Letters to Gentlemen in Bristol, Works, II, 257. 2 See 4 18, note.
3 This incident is fully discussed by Calvin Stebbins in a paper read before the American Antiquarian Society, Oct. 21, 1893, and published in the Proceedings of that body.
am charged with being an American,” he wrote to the sheriffs of Bristol. “If warm affection toward those over whom I claim any share of authority be a crime, I am guilty of this charge.' Certainly he could plead guilty of doing more than any other Englishman to enlighten his countrymen about America. In addition to many minor speeches scattered through the Parliamentary History, he made three great contributions to the subject: the Speech on American Taxation, April 19, 1774 ; the Speech on Conciliation, March 22, 1775 ; and the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, April 3, 1777. In the first he argued that the Tea Duty was of no use to England for revenue ; that it only served to irritate the Americans; and that by winning the loyalty of the colonists England could get more than she could ever take by force. In the second speech Burke maintained that affairs had come to such a pass that England must conciliate, and that the only way was by yielding. In the Letter he reviewed the struggle, and in the light of results justified his own position. Of the three pieces that on Conciliation is the best. Not even when dealing with India does Burke excel this in grasp of details, in lucid presentation of a large mass of facts and opinions, and in ripened political wisdom. He virtually summed up everything said on America since he had entered Parliament; he refuted every opposing argument worth serious consideration ; and he put every favorable argument in its most convincing form. Then, too, he saw what so many failed to see, that the real cause of the contest lay deeper than the casual orders of a governor or the retaliation of a mob, and that America, in resisting the encroachments of royal prerogative, was fighting a battle for the liberties of Englishmen at home. Thus, with the utmost breadth of view, with an elevation of style which he never surpassed, and with a temperance of expression which he perhaps never again attained, he enunciated principles which are as true for America to-day as
1 Works, II, 222,
they were for England in 1775 : that since laws do not work in a vacuum, they should not be based upon abstract theory, but upon experience and policy ;' that the first duty of a statesman is, therefore, to study the character and circumstances of the people whom he governs ;' that it is impossible to treat a nation as a criminal, I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people, 3 — and that the surest conquests are those of peace.
Though Burke could not win over Parliament to his views on America, yet in 1780 he had better fortune in securing economies in government expenditure. He saw the people staggering under the debt from the American war, and agitating for a general reform of Parliament and curtailment of the royal prerogative. Such changes, however, he regarded as too radical. The fault, he argued, was not with the constituencies, but with the representatives, whom the king had bribed with sinecure offices. He proposed, therefore, to abolish some offices, to consolidate others, and to readjust salaries. In this plan he gave further evidence of his grasp of details, for he comprehended in his scheme of reorganization the vast machine of the whole civil service and a art of the military Burke's triumph in this undertaking was the more striking, because so many members of Parliament were directly or indirectly interested in retaining the old abuses. Doubtless he would never have succeeded had he not in every step been consistently conservative, reluctant to touch so much as the semblance of a vested right. “I would never suffer any man,
” he said, “to suffer from errors that naturally have grown out of the abusive constitution of those offices which I propose to regulate. If I cannot reform with equity, I will not reform at all.” 4
1 See 37 23–37, and 7 14 and the note on that line.
One of the offices which Burke had reformed, that of Paymaster of the Forces, he himself occupied in 1782. At that time the North ministry yielded to the Whigs, who were temporarily united under Lord Rockingham, Charles James Fox and Lord Shelburne. Burke, to whom, as we have seen, the party was so deeply indebted, did not get a cabinet place, but only the third-rate position mentioned above. At this exclusion he seems to have been bitterly mortified, for thirteen years later he wrote : 6. There were few indeed that did not at that time acknowledge ... that no man in the kingdom better deserved an honorable provision should be made for him." I But in spite of his deserts he never received any official post except this, which he held for only a little while. This neglect was due to several causes : he came of an obscure family ; he was needy and improvident; he was suspected of complicity in the dubious transactions of Richard and of William Burke; he had many enemies in public life; he was too proud to push his claims; and, as he grew old, he so far lost control of his temper that he became a troublesome colleague. For these reasons the leading statesman of the day was compelled to stand aside while his inferiors snatched the prizes won by his toil.
The Whigs were scarcely in their seats, when Lord Rockingham died and Lord Shelburne became head of the administration. At once Fox and Burke refused to work with him, and by joining their old enemy, Lord North, in what is known as the Coalition, they broke up the Whig party. In this proceeding Burke is accused of deserting his principles for purely personal motives. Certainly his behavior is hard to defend, for he attacked Shelburne with unparalleled asperity; and, when the Coalition overthrew Shelburne, Burke resumed for a few months the office of Paymaster.
However much his motives or his discretion in regard to most measures of the Coalition may be questioned, yet surely he
1 Letter to a Noble Lord, Works, V, 184.
merits the highest praise for his strenuous advocacy of reform in the government of India. That unhappy country was then in the hands of the East India Company, whose system was corrupt and cruel beyond description, — as Burke puts the case, unequalled by “all the acts and monuments of peculation, the consolidated corruption of ages, the patterns of exemplary plunder in the heroic times of Roman iniquity.” 1 Burke knew what he was talking about, knew better than any man in England, for he had been a member of select committees upon Indian affairs, and he had drawn two of the most important reports. He is also supposed to have framed the East India bill commonly known as Fox's. At any rate he defended it ? in a speech which, as a whole, ranks but little below his best, and which, in spite of some extravagance and some outbursts of temper, perhaps pardonable, contains several passages in his finest style. It is interesting to compare this plea for India with his plea for America. In both he displays the same conservatism, the same distrust of mere theories, and the same intense hatred of all schemes of government which rest upon brute force and rob the people of their happiness and freedom. In beginning his discussion of India he said : “ I feel an insuperable reluctance to giving my hand to destroy any established institution of government, upon a theory, however plausible it may be." 3 He then proved that his charges against the East India Company were in no sense theoretical. With brilliant description and an overwhelming abundance of evidence he set forth the results. of a tyranny which, as he said, disgraced England and destroyed a large part of the human species. He could not, however, contend against the potent influence of the plunder wrung from India ; and thus, notwithstanding his passionate appeals, the bill was defeated, and the Coalition, which supported it, was driven from office.
i Speech on the Nabob of Arcot's Debts, Works, III, 49.
4 Ibid., 536.