Imágenes de página

quence were, at least, as conspicuous as any of his other qualities. But as men are often apt to pride themselves most where they have least reason, and to affect just that character which they are least capable of sustaining, it can excite no surprise that Mr. Hartley should have sometimes favoured the house with some very lengthened specimens of his oratory. On the present occasion, having driven from the house the larger part of his audience, he suddenly asked that the Riot Act might be read for the purpose of illustrating some part of his argument. Burke had been long expecting in agony the conclusion of his harangne. It was beyond mortal patience to endure it longer. Suddenly starting up, he exclaimed, “ The Riot Act! my dear friend, the Riot Act! to what purpose ? don't you see that the mob is completely dispersed ?”

The session of 1776-7 set in with the most tempestuous debates. The address again called forth from Mr. Burke remarks which have been charged with unjustifiable violence. Their defence must be laid in the urgency of the occasion. At length finding all their efforts to oppose the insane obstinacy of ministers ineffectual, Lord Rockingham's party determined to absent themselves from parliament, and no longer endure the humiliation of seeing measures passed which they believed fraught with calamities to the country, and to which they could offer no availing resistance. Two addresses, one to the king and the other to the colonies, were drawn up in explanation of this conduct by Mr. Burke. These documents are inserted in his works.

This step has been often blamed, and with reason. It certainly is not justifiable, and nothing but the almost unprecedented exigencies of the situation could afford even a shadow of an apology for it. No circumstance, however, can fully excuse a member of parliament in abandoning his post, any more than the most terrific tempest could excuse a pilot for leaving the helm while the ship held together. When a statesman cannot frustrate a ruinous policy, he must endeavour to ameliorate it; and when he can neither prevent nor ameliorate, it is still his duty to protest against it. He must encourage future patriots in situations of trial and difficulty by an example of constancy and fortitude, and not furnish them, perhaps in less pressing circumstances, with a precedent for a pusillanimous abandonment of their duty Such thoughts as these appear to have operated on the minds of the seceders ; at all events, this unprecedented policy was not persisted in. While persisted in, however, it was to be defended ; and this called forth the eloquent letter to the " Sheriffs of Bristol.”

In this session, Mr. Burke attacked the ministry for that prodigal expenditure which was so rapidly swelling the amount of the civil list. But one of his happiest efforts was his speech on the debate respecting Lord Pigot's recall from Madras. “It excited,” we are

' told, such sudden and extraordinary bursts of approbation as were not warranted by the usual practice of the house.” This speech is remarkable as the first in which Burke hinted his suspicions of Hastings.

The session of 1778 was still more laborious than those which preceded it. All that can be attempted here is a bare enumeration of the chief points to which his ever active mind directed itself. On the 6th of February, he demanded certain papers relative to the employment of the Indians in the American war, and on that occasion poured forth, it is recorded, one of the most overpowering displays of eloquence. Unhappily not a shred of this celebrated speech remains. Of its surpassing excellence, however, some idea may be formed, from the fact that a very competent judge has said, “ that he who had not heard that speech had not witnessed the greatest triumph of eloquence within memory.” A very few days after this, Lord North, too late repenting of his folly, proposed a plan of conciliation almost wholly founded on the very scheme of Mr. Burke rejected three years before. But the opportune moment had gone by; America would no longer listen to it; she would no longer be a mere colony; absolute independence alone would satisfy her.

The attempt to remove certain heavy restrictions on the trade of Ireland, of course, met with the approbation and support of Burke. But the narrow spirit of Bristol, jealous for its

[ocr errors]

commercial interests, was alarmed. Burke, however, was resolved to preserve his independence, though at the expense of his popularity. He accordingly persisted in his course ; and as the consequence, his patriotism cost him much of the favour of his constituency. He defended his conduct in “ Two letters to Gentlemen of Bristol, on the Bills relative to the Trade of Ireland." These letters are full, not only of manly sentiments, sentiments such as it becomes an independent representative to maintain, but of the most enlarged and comprehensive commercial principles; principles which unfortunately were, at that time, far in the advance of the age. Nor was this the only point in which he gave umbrage to his constituents.

As narrow-minded in their general policy as they were selfish in their commerce, the people of Bristol could not sympathize with his support of Sir George Saville's bill for the relief of the Roman catholics. The loss of popularity, however, at Bristol, was counterbalanced by an accession of that most exchangeable commodity at Dublin, which, in a sudden paroxysm of gratitude and admiration, even proposed a statue to his honour. 7

At this period an occurrence took place, which displayed to great advantage Burke's constancy in friendship. Admiral Keppel had been guilty, it appears, of an indecisive action with the French fleet during the summer! For this he was summoned before a court-martial. Mr. Burke had long felt for him the most ardent friendship, and was now indefatigable in showing it. He attended him throughout the anxious scene of his trial at Portsmouth; cheered and encouraged him; and is even reported to have aided in preparing his defence.

A well-known piece of parliamentary wit, with which he amused the house about this time, deserves to be recorded. The catholics in Scotland having suffered from the violence of certain popular tumults, prayed for compensation. Mr. Burke was deputed to present the petition. Seeing Lord North asleep, (an indecorum of which that nobleman was frequently guilty,) just when he was tracing the outrages of the people to the indolence of government, he exclaimed, “ Behold what I have again and again said ; government, if not defunct, at least slumbers; brother Lazarus is not dead, only sleepeth.”

The political horizon at the commencement of 1779 wore a yet more tempestuous and threatening aspect than in the preceding year. America still in arms and Ireland nearly in rebellion, were almost equally subjects of alarm. It may be readily imagined that the embarrassments of ministers met with little mercy from Burke, who taunted them in the severest strain of irony with their unsuccessful attempts to subdue America, and told them that nothing but impotence prevented them from pursuing the same desolating policy with respect to Ireland.

Moved by the condition of the sister island, Lord North now tardily brought forward his plan of commercial relief. To this Burke gave a decided, but not very prompt, support ; not because he did not approve it, but because, in his opinion, the long delay had diminished the claims of gratitude, and rendered the measures of government rather the result of necessity than an expression of hearty good-will. Hence he was even slandered in Ireland as a cold friend to his country; an impression which was removed by his letter to Thomas Burgh, Esq. in which he explained the motives which had actuated him; and proved that he was offended not because government had conceded too much, but because it had not conceded enough.

But Mr. Burke was now to display his eloquence and his extensive knowledge of all our political interests in another splendid effort. Taxes had, of course, increased in proportion to the expenses of a costly and ruinous war, and the people at length became clamorous for reform. Mr. Burke undertook the arduous task of constructing a measure on this subject. His celebrated speech on “ Economical Reform" was the result.

On the 15th of December, he gave a simple and perspicuous account of the course he intended to adopt, and on the 11th of February explained and illustrated the plan itself in a


speech, which forms one of the most beautiful and astonishing productions of his great genius. The whole scheme was comprised in five bills, and embraced a compass and variety of objects which none but a mind of the most comprehensive order could have grappled with. No man but himself could have dealt with a subject so wide in its range, and so multifarious in its details, or wound his way through such a labyrinth and complication of perplexities. The real difficulty in all such cases is to do what Burke did—to combine a practical and efficient plan of reform with a due regard to all existing interests—to conciliate the past and the future--to pull down without reckless demolition, and to rebuild with a due adaptation of the new to the old. This it is which renders the work of a wise reform so arduous, which demands such consummate judgment in achieving it, and which must give to every measure that shall really effect it an intricate and anomalous appearance. This complication is the necessary result of the variety of designs which it is intended to subserve. There is, no doubt, a shorter, but not“ a more excellent way"—the summary method of entire demolition; this, it is true, is very simple; it requires little intellect and no judgment. But the mischief is, that the same short-sightedness which has been unable to estimate the magnitude of such changes, has been equally unable to anticipate half the purposes which the new fabrics ought to serve. They are constructed for simplicity-and it is found that in spite of ingenious theories, human society will, after all, be a very complicated thing. Burke's plan of economical reform was nothing of this kind : with the skill of a consummate politician, he grappled with the great problem, to produce as much practical good as possible with the least possible change, and to effect a really beneficial reform with little incidental evil.

The chief points it embraced were an abolition of all the inferior royal jurisdictions; of an immense number of useless offices in the royal household ; some of the civil departments of the mint and the ordnance; of the patent offices of the exchequer; the regulation of the army, navy, and pension pay-offices; and a new adjustment of the civil list. Of the innumerable testimonies to the extraordinary merit of this speech, few are more remarkable than that of Gibbon. “ Mr. Burke's Reform Bill,” says the historian," was framed with skill, introduced with eloquence, and supported by numbers. Never can I forget the delight with which that diffusive and ingenious orator was heard by all sides of the house, and even by those whose existence he proscribed.” That of Mr. Dunning is, to say the least, equally strong “ It must remain as a monument to be handed down to posterity of his uncommon zeal and unrivalled industry, astonishing abilities and invincible perseverance. He had undertaken a task big with labour and difficulty ; a task that embraced a variety of the most important objects, extensive and complicated; yet such were the eminent and unequalled abilities, so extraordinary the talents and ingenuity, and such the fortunate frame of the honourable gentleman's mind, his vast capacity and happy conception, that in his hands, what must have proved a vast heap of ponderous matter, composed of heterogeneous ingredients, discordant in their nature and opposite in principle, was so skilfully arranged as to become quite simple as to each respective part, dependent on each other; and the whole at the same time so judiciously combined, as to present nothing to almost any mind tolerably intelligent, to divide, puzzle, or distract it.”

Applause, however, was almost all he obtained; his project sharing the usual fate of opposition measures. The principal clauses were debated through the months of March, April, and May. In these debates the motion for abolishing the office of third secretary of state was lost by a majority of seven, but that for extinguishing the board of trade carried by a majority of eight. Shortly after, many of the clauses were rejected by large majorities.Other measures, more especially connected with the renewal of the East India charter, and the resolution of Mr. Dunning respecting the diminishing of the influence of the Crown, occupied Burke during the rest of the session.

After the melancholy riots stirred up by the fanatical Lord George Gordon, Mr Burke,

[ocr errors]

while urging condign punishment on the principal offenders, showed his humanity by exerting himself to procure pardon for some of the subordinate agents.

About the same time he drew up the heads of the plan for the abolition of the slave-trade. It is to be found in his works, and is creditable to his wisdom and his humanity. It was impracticable, however, to bring it forward at that time. This great achievement was reserved for WILBERFORCE.

In the autumn parliament was dissolved; and on repairing to Bristol, he found his constituents in no very propitious mood. Their prejudices, duly inflamed by the industry of his calumniators, had poisoned their minds against him. Resolved, however, that he would neither abandon the contest, if a reasonable prospect of success remained, nor persist in it merely for the sake of opposition, he called a meeting at the Guildhall on the 6th of September, to enable him to form an opinion of the issue of an election. On this occasion, he defended himself at great length from the charges which had been brought against him. The principal seemed to be that he had not visited the city so frequently as he ought, in other words, that he had not practised with sufficient assiduity the base and common artifices for gaining popular favour. No-he had preferred serving his constituents to flattering them. The other objections were to his votes on the Insolvent Debtors' Bill, the Irish Trade Act, and the measures of Relief to the Roman Catholics. On all these questions, Mr. Burke's conduct was an honour to him.

The whole speech breathes the spirit of manly independence and a sustaining consciousness of integrity. It is full of the most magnanimous sentiments ; sentiments such as

; it should be the ambition of every representative of the people to imbibe and act upon. While he boldly defends his conduct, and will not acknowledge himself in the wrong when he does not feel himself to be so, he is singularly temperate in his expressions. The spirit which pervades it is just what it ought to be ; he neither cringes to public opinion nor insults it. The attitude he assumed was such as became a man; neither that of servility nor defiance.- As the prospect of success in his estimation, was not such as justified a contest, he declined the election, carrying away with him the most honourable testimonies to his arduous services and his invincible integrity. The concluding sentences are well worth citing. “ ' But if I profess all this impolitick stubbornness, I may chance never to be elected into parliament.' It is certainly not pleasing to be put out of the publick service. But I wish to be a member of parliament, to have my share of doing good and resisting evil. It would therefore be absurd to renounce my objects, in order to obtain my seat. I deceive myself indeed most grossly, if I had not much rather pass the remainder of my life hidden in the recesses of the deepest obscurity, feeding my mind even with the visions and imaginations of such things, than to be placed on the most splendid throne of the universe, tantalized with a denial of the practice of all which can make the greatest situation any other than the greatest curse. Gentlemen, I have had my day. I can never sufficiently express my gratitude to you for having set me in a place, wherein I could lend the slightest help to great and laudable designs. If I have had my share, in any measure giving quiet to private property, and private conscience; if by my vote I have aided in securing to families the best possession, peace; if I have joined in reconciling kings to their subjects, and subjects to their prince; if I have assisted to loosen the foreign holdings of the citizen, and taught him to look for his protection to the laws of his country, and for his comfort to the good-will of his countrymen ;-if I have thus taken my part with the best of men in the best of their actions, I can shut the book ;-I might wish to read a page or two more—but this is enough for my measure.— I have not lived in vain.

“And now, Gentlemen, on this serious day, when I come, as it were, to make up my account with you, let me take to myself some degree of honest pride on the nature of the charges that are against me. I do not here stand before you accused of venality, or of neglect of duty. It is not said, that, in the long period of my service, I have, in a single

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

instance, sacrificed the slightest of your interests to my ambition, or to my fortune. It is not alleged, that to gratify any anger, or revenge of my own, or of my party, I have had a share in wronging or oppressing any description of men, or any one man in any description. No! the charges against me are all of one kind, that I have pushed the principles of general justice and benevolence too far; further than a cautious policy would warrant; and further than the opinions of many would go along with me.-In every accident which may happen through life-in pain, in sorrow, in depression, and distress- I will call to mind

, this accusation, and be comforted.

“Gentlemen, I submit the whole to your judgment. Mr. Mayor, I thank you for the trouble you have taken on this occasion : In your state of health, it is particularly obliging. If this company should think it advisable for me to withdraw, I shall respectfully retire ; if you think otherwise, I shall go directly to the Council-house, and to the Change, and, without a moment's delay, begin my canvass."

Thus dismissed from Bristol, he sought Malton once more ; and for this place he sat during the remainder of his parliamentary career.

In the session of 1780-81, Mr. Burke was principally engaged on the rupture with Holland; the East India company's affairs ; Mr. Fox's motion for an inquiry into the conduct of the war : not to mention others. In February his Reform Bill was again brought forward, when he once more, to the wonder of the house, adorned that (as was thought) exhausted subject with a profusion of new arguments and illustrations. In the debate on this subject Mr. Pitt, for the first time, addressed the house. In the same session he opposed Mr. Fox's motion for the repeal of the “Marriage Act."

In November 1781, he renewed his attacks on the ministry for their obstinate perseverance in the war.

One of his most brilliant efforts was in behalf of Mr. Lawrence, the American envoy to Holland, who having been captured on his voyage, had been sent to the Tower, He was exchanged for General Burgoyne. During the remainder of this session Burke was incessantly engaged with a vast multiplicity of business, more especially connected with the

It ended in March 1792 with the resignation of the ministry, and the Rockingham party once more entered office.

The province which fell to Burke was the paymastership of the forces, and a seat in the privy council. That he was not admitted into the cabinet has excited considerable surprise : yet why? Who does not know that politics afford innumerable illustrations of the truth, that the “race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” Party arrangements must often depend on far other things than talent and worth; rank and wealth will often outbid genius and knowledge.

The new ministry were received with suspicion and coldness by the king, and no wonder; kings cannot, any more than their subjects, feel cordially towards those who have long thwarted their wishes. Even if their counsel should be wholesome, it will still be nauseous. The most salutary medicines cannot be made palatable.—Burke proved in office the same ever active man that he had been in opposition. His “Reform Bill,” though curtailed some of its fair proportions, (sacrifices which he was compelled to make to propitiate the enmity of the lords,) passed both houses, while his own office was subjected to a thorough reform, a reform, however, not more extensive than judicious. It demanded moreover such sacrifices on his own part as rendered it doubtful which was most to be admired, the genius which could devise, or the disinterestedness which could effect it. Certain perquisites of his office, amounting nearly to £1000 a year, he magnanimously threw into the public treasury.

The ministry had hardly time to arrange their plans when Lord Rockingham suddenly died. Lord Shelburne, a man who, whatever his talents, had unhappily obtained an ill reputation, succeeding, several of the ministry, amongst whom was Burke, resigned. He has generally been blamed as the cause of this secession. He appears, however, to have


[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinuar »