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THOUGHTS ON THE PRESENT DISCONTENTS
THE TWO SPEECHES ON AMERICA
WITH ADDITIONS AND CORRECTIONS
M DCCC LXXXIII
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An accomplished critic' has observed, with much truth, that the only specimen of Burke is all that he wrote,' because every product of his pen contains additional proofs of his power. Those who wish to understand the nature and importance of his multifarious labours should make the acquaintance of his writings in the mass, and master them singly in detail. It has long been understood that he who gives his nights and days to this task will acquire a knowledge of the principles of general politics, of the limitations which modify those principles in our own national policy, of the questions with which that policy deals, and of the secret of applying the English tongue to their illustration, which cannot be acquired in any other way. In the prosecution of this task the student' will learn the practical importance of the maxim laid down in the Preface to a previous volume of this series, that all study, to be useful, must be pursued in a spirit of deference. He will find it necessary to exert an unusual degree of patience, and to acquire the habit of continually suspending his own judgment. He will find himself in contact with much that seems dry and uninviting. It may therefore be well to caution him at the outset, that Burke, like all writers of the first class, will not repay a prejudiced or a superficial perusal. He gains upon us, not altogether by the inherent interest of what he presents to us, but very much by the skill and force with which he presents it, and these qualities do not immediately strike the mental eye in all their fulness. The reader must meet his author half-way; he must contribute something more than a bare receptivity. It has been well said of Paradise Lost, that while few general readers are attracted by the subject, and fewer read it through, or often enough to discern the art with which it is written, every one who has once mastered it recurs to it with never-failing delight. There could
not be a finer definition of a classical author, and it exactly L describes Burke.
The details of Burke's biography, and the general lessons of the period in which he played his part, must be sought from other sources. As a party politician he seems to stand too near to our own times to permit of our regarding him fairly and comprehensively. Why this should be so, in a case separated by a whole century from the present generation, it is difficult to see; but sufficient evidence of the fact may be gathered from the writings of party men down to our own day. Political parties will always divide civilised nations, and no Englishman can altogether dismiss the party relations of any celebrated politician. Liberals will always be disposed to forget the originality, the consistency, and the humanity of Burke's views in the fact that he refused, at an important crisis, to sacrifice them in the mass to the opinion of a leader of far less wisdom and experience, though of more influence, than himself, and thereby broke up his party; while Conservatives will always see in him a determined Whig, a zealous advocate of religious liberty, and an audacious reformer. The coalition of 1782, in which he took an active part, is not one of the most creditable incidents in our political annals, and he shared fully in the bitter and ungenerous hostility with which his party treated its Whig rivals 2. His party services do not form the most memorable parts of his career. The Observations on a late state of the Nation, and the ‘Present Discontents, for instance, only served to widen the breach between the Rockinghams and the other sections of the Whigs, without gaining them
1 The coalition should be judged, not by the better standard of political morality which dates its prevalence from the younger Pitt, but by that of the early part of the century, to which it properly belongs. The fruits of a long and honourable opposition were far more prodigally cast away, by the selfishness of a few, on the occasion of the fall of Walpole, and that by the hands of such men as Pulteney and Carteret.
? See the remark on Lord Chatham, post, p.lv. Burke, in a letter to a private friend, calls Lord Shelburne, who was Chatham's lieutenant and the link between the elder and the younger Pitt, 'weak, wicked, stupid, false, and hypocritical,' in one breath, and exults in having at length demolished' and destroyed ’ him. Time has placed things in another light. Chatham and Shelburne founded the modern school of independent statesmen.
any additional strength in the court or in the popular party. His best efforts, if we except his advocacy of the cause of American liberty, are outside the policy of his party. Whiggism had small sympathy with religious freedom for Ireland, with humane and rational government in India, with the abolition of Slavery, or with the denunciation of its own caricature in the first French Republic. We must therefore regard Burke in a light different from that of party statesmanship.
The first question that is suggested on finding the political writings of an eminent party leader ranked among literary classics, is—What marks distinguish these writings from the common mass of political ephemera ? Why should their author be remembered in respect of them, whilst more than one of those who equalled or exceeded him in contemporary reputation survives indeed as a great name, but in regard of permanent influence has passed away as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but for a day'? By the virtue of what elements was a value communicated to them, extending, in the eyes of contemporaries, far beyond that of the arguments they enforced, the expedients they favoured, and the present effect they produced; and in the eyes of posterity, equally far beyond their worth as part of the annals of party, and as materials for general history? It is an insufficient answer to such questions to say that Burke was a politician and something more, in the sense in which we should say the same, for instance, of Sheridan. The personal triumphs of Sheridan may indeed be said to exceed, in the mass, those of any genius on record, not excepting Pericles himself. To speak all the day, with overpowering effect, in Westminster Hall—to go in succession to the theatres, and see in each a masterpiece of his own, played by the first of actors—at night, to repeat in Parliament the feat of the morning-in all these, constantly to have the eyes of a nation upon him, and the plaudits of a nation in his ears—this seems like the realisation of as wild a dream as ever flattered the ignorance of young ambition. The triumphs of Burke were of another kind. From the first he astonished: but he never attained the art of carrying a Parliamentary audience with him. He was too severe to persuade, and too bold to convince, a body to most of whom his philosophy was a stumblingblock and his statesmanship foolishness. In his latter years he commanded so little attention that the wits of the House