Imagens da página

to the nature of these early principles. He hated the party in which his friend had found himself by accident, and confirmed himself by consideration; and he charged Burke with selling himself, and acting contrarily to his convictions. We know what his genuine principles were !' said this honest Tory, who had been one of Burke's intimates long before he became the instrument of great men-'We are sure that he acts from interest ?!' But there were finer threads in reasoning than entered into the web of Dr. Johnson's political philosophy. It is certain that Burke never thought he was deserting any principle of his own, in joining the Rockinghams. He had an old and most respectable connexion to support, and a new and disreputable one to oppose; and his party were at the time devoted to opposing certain most impolitic innovations. Burke's conservatism was brought out to the full in fighting their battles.

Hazlitt has observed a remarkable anticipation of the political method of Burke in a speech of the Earl of Egmont, a nobleman of remarkable originality and capacity who had been the head of opposition to Dodington in the court of Leicester House. Without exalting him to the place of Burke's master, we may agree with Hazlitt that the following passage contains the germ of Burke's general reasoning on politics :

Sir, it is not common sense, but downright madness, to follow general principles in this wild manner, without limitation or reserve; and give me leave to say one thing, which I hope will be long remembered and well thought upon by those who hear me, that those gentlemen who plume themselves upon their open and extensive understanding, are in fact the men of the narrowest principles in the kingdom. For what is a narrow mind ? it is a mind that sees any proposition in one single contracted point of view, unable to complicate any subject with the circumstances and considerations that are, or may, or ought to be, combined with it. And pray, what is that understanding that looks upon naturalization only in this general view, that naturalization is an increase of the people, and an increase of the people is the riches of the nation ? Never admitting the least reflection, what the people are you let in upon us; how in the present bad regulation

1 Boswell, Life of Johnson, p. 509, ed. Croker.

2 Speech on the Jews' Naturalization Bill, 1750. Eloquence of the British Senate, i. 521. Lord Egmont published in 1742 a capital pamphlet called • Faction Detected. On his character and abilities see Walpole's Memoirs of George III, vol. i.

of our police, they are to be employed or maintained; how their principles, opinions, or practice may influence the religion or politicks of the State, or what operation their admission may have upon the peace and tranquillity of the country; is not such a genius equally contemptible and narrow with that of the poorest mortal upon earth, who grovels for his whole life within the verge of the opposite extreme?'

'In this speech,' says Hazlitt, we find the first denunciation of the intrusion of abstract theorems and metaphysical generalities into the science of politics. It is certain, however, that something very like it is to be found in the ‘Politics' of Aristotle. It is not difficult to trace this anti-theoretical and conservative method in the works before us, written whilst Burke was labouring on the Whig side. In the following volume, containing the 'Reflections on the French Revolution, it will be found to be the burden of every page.

We have already remarked that the system denounced in the Present Discontents, and the aggressions on America, were intended as Reforms. Never did the spirit of conservatism appear more plainly than in the two famous Speeches contained in the present volume, which he composed, delivered, and wrote out for the press on two important occasions in the debates before the war actually broke out. But it is plain enough in the ‘Present Discontents. Many historical allusions are introduced, all bearing on unsalutary innovation, and alterations to the prejudice of our constitution 1. It is not easy to say what may have been Burke's real opinion on the constitution as exhibited at the time when this pamphlet was written. Bentham's memorable ‘Fragment on Government' was as yet unwritten, though probably not unmeditated. The view of Montesquieu, Blackstone, and De Lolme was not yet treated, as it came to be treated in the succeeding generation, as a plausible romance. But the false picture of a supposed Saxon constitution was constantly held up to view by reformers, in contrast with that which subsisted. This picture Burke treated with the slight regard it deserved 2. Yet we find in the pamphlet no indication of a jealous attachment on his part to the forms of the control' which 'the higher people and the lower' are jointly to exercise 3. On the contrary, the House of Peers is treated as a form of popular representation“ : 'the people

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

by their representatives and grandees.' The 'great peers' are included in a mass with the leading landed gentlemen, the opulent merchants, and the substantial yeomanry,' as the natural strength of the kingdom, which is to be roused into exertion against the court faction. The climax of this popular theory is reached at p. 52, where he maintains King and Lords to be representatives of and trustees for the people, as well as the Commons, and the whole scheme of government to 'originate with the People. This seems like the Whig doctrine of the Revolution with deductions. But these are themselves historical. It is well known that every title in the House of Lords was anciently, if not elective, intended to represent local interests. The Lords represented themselves, and those who stood in the relation of homage to them. The Knights of the Shires and Burgesses represented themselves, and those freemen who, being in homage with no man, would otherwise have had no voice in the national deliberations. When Edward III demanded an aid in the fourteenth year of his reign, an answer was made by the Prelates, Earls, and Barons, for themselves and for all their tenants, and the Knights of the Shires, for themselves and for the Commons of the land. Similarly, Burke's theory of the constitution is in its real elements simply the King and the People. The People deliberating and making laws, and the King controlling by his negative; the King deliberating and making choice of ministers, and the People having the control of their negative by refusing to support them. In all this there is a remarkable likeness to Harrington's views on the proper place of a nobility and gentry in a popular government, and of the resolution of politics into dividing and choosing,' like the two girls with the apple. There is also a remarkable tendency to transcend all narrow views as to 'fixed forms in a mixed government. There is no sign whatever of a disposition to regard King, Lords, and Commons as making up a precious and complete mosaic, preserved by a magical balance, which it would be perilous to disturb, much less to regard any fixed forms as the normal and final state of man.

It is here that Burke's conservatism enters into the question. Here, he says in effect, I lay before you the established rights of the nation; and here, too, is the system by which these rights have always been carried into effect. That system has been

p. 39.

deranged by an interested and wicked faction, and we claim to have it restored; because it is not only the best possible, but the only possible system by which these rights can be secured. If it were answered that representation, as it then existed, was a miserable farce, and that the peers really governed the country by their control of elections, Burke's answer was that the system, if not theoretically perfect, was good in working, and had acquired its title by prescription. Possession, he said in one of his writings, passed with him for title. This was in a particular case; but where interests were large, and meddling with them would be hazardous, it became his general maxim. "The old building stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then indeed it may come down upon our heads, all together, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the fall thereof' (1769). "No man examines into the defects of his title to his paternal estate, or to his established government' (1777). The Whig oligarchy, according to this convenient theory, had an established title to govern the kingdom. And rotten and incongruous as was the parliamentary system through which alone their influence could be maintained, none was to disturb it. Hence a conspicuous difference between the theory and the practice contemplated in Burke's pamphlet. . A Ministry accountable to Parliament, and a Parliament accountable to the People, are plausible demands, and they are demands which a happier generation has realised. But the consequences of a considerable majority for a single Whig minister, as in the palmy days of Walpole, were a ministry accountable to no one, and a parliament forced on the people whether they liked it or no. A true family likeness subsisted between Whiggism and the domination of the King's friends, and hence the deadly struggle which ensued between them. Radical reform, as between the two, was as far off as ever, and the Whig opposed it with the most bitterness. The King's man had something to hope, under any circumstances, for his master's influence was permanent and indefinite. A slight concussion might destroy that of his rival, and hence the strongholds of Whiggism were guarded with great jealousy and vigilance. The Whig, in short, was a true Conservative.

The cry for radical reform is usually supported by some plausible general maxim. Conservatism is averse from the employment of abstract principles in political reasoning, and in general to what metaphysicians call the philosophical method. “ Das Christenthum ist keine Philosophie,' wrote a metaphysical theologian, at the end of his wearisome efforts to square religion with abstract principles.

Die Politik ist keine Philosophie,' is the summary of Burke. It is a matter of observation and of practice, and its laws are those of individual human nature enlarged. Abstract principles, like most things, have their use and their abuse: and the confusion of these has been a main difficulty to the thinking world. To the use of them we owe all our systems, and the effect of our systenis, of religion, of law, and of education. All great changes for the better have been produced by engrafting upon the growing understanding of mankind, not bare statements of facts, but generalisations based on facts past and present, and proceeding transitively to other facts present and future. But while these principles in their use have been to civilisation as the dew and the rain, in their abuse they have been a mildew and a pestilence. What they have nourished they have the power to corrupt and to destroy. As an instance of an abstract principle often misapplied, let us take that which asserts the cheapest government to be the best. Burke, though he knew something of Economical Reform, was not of opinion that the statesman's business consisted mainly in reducing the expenses of government to a minimum. The way in which this question stood in his mind connected with others is lucidly explained by Hazlitt, in the following extract, which will furnish a clue to an important section of Burke's political theory:

"He did not agree with some writers, that that mode of government is necessarily the best which is the cheapest. He saw in the construction of society other principles at work, and other capabilities of fulfilling the desires and perfecting the nature of man, besides those of securing the equal enjoyment of the means of animal life, and doing this at as little expense as possible. He thought that the wants and happiness of man were not to be provided for as we provide for those of a herd of cattle, merely by attending to their physical necessities. He thought more nobly of his fellows. He knew that man had his affections, and passions, and powers of imagination, as well as hunger and thirst, and the sense of heat and cold. He took his idea of political society from the pattern of private life, wishing, as he himself

« AnteriorContinuar »