« AnteriorContinuar »
had no greater share in the matter than Mr. Fox. The fact is, the mutual dislike of all the parties would have rendered a vigorous policy utterly impracticable; there could have been no confidence, and consequently no unity.
No sooner had the parliament assembled, than Mr. Burke again assumed his ancient place on the benches of opposition, and poured out a torrent of ridicule and invective on the king's speech. On one or two of these occasions, Mr. Pitt, who had been chancellor of the exchequer, was provoked into a somewhat ludicrous display of petulant indignation. In the autumn, Lord Shelburne found out his mistake. At length, conscious of his weakness, he despatched the chancellor of the exchequer to endeavour to negociate a coalition with Mr. Fox. This was the last interview these celebrated men ever had. As Mr. Fox would hear of nothing while Lord Shelburne still remained premier, it was totally unsuccessful. Acting on this resolution, he supported Lord North, who still mustered a considerable party around his banner, and the junction of the two effected the overthrow of the ministry. Mr. Fox immediately took their place, forming, with Lord North, that ill-fated thing called The Coalition. Thus Mr. Burke once more became pay-master. He has been often severely blamed for the part he took in this affair; especially as he had so long and so often denounced the policy of Lord North. This censure is not without reason, though it must be admitted that he was placed in a very difficult situation. He was probably induced to yield by the unanimous solicitations of his party, and perhaps hoped by this union to prevent a recurrence of that disastrous policy, which he had so often and so eloquently condemned.
In May he opposed Mr. Pitt's motion for parliamentary reform in a speech, some few passages of which appear in his works. It led to some severe debating between him and Pitt.
When parliament broke up, the ministry spent the recess principally in framing the famous “ India Bill,” on which Mr. Fox had resolved to suspend his fortunes. In the details of this measure Mr. Burke is well known to have taken a very active share. He knew incomparably more on the subject than any other member of the ministry. But though he must have given important assistance in the details, it may be doubted whether the general principles of the measure were at all to his taste; the whole bill bore none of the marks of his cautious and practical policy.
That some important measure had already long been demanded by the state of India was indisputable. The gross misgovernment of that great empire had again and again roused the indignation of parliament. Whether this measure was precisely the one that was needed was another question ; that it was not prudently framed can hardly admit of a doubt. Its chief features were as follows: it consigned the government of India to certain commissioners; these commissioners were to be chosen by the legislature: it struck out, at one stroke, the charter of the company : it attempted no adjustment of the great interests which had already sprung up, and which it would so seriously affect: it offered no compromise--no compensation : in a word, its details presented little of that caution and practical wisdom, which, both for the sake of those who propose it and those who may be affected by it, should distinguish every measure, embracing such magnitude and complication of interests, and provoking such a weight of opposition. These were the real objections to which this bill was liable. Those, however, on which the inveteracy of hostile faction fixed, were of a very different nature, and indeed were so utterly absurd, that nothing but the violence of party could have invented or the credulity of party believed them. The bill was represented as a crafty design upon the king's prerogative! This objection to it, absurd as it was, answered its purpose at the time; for kings are generally ready enough to favour those who profess a vigilant jealousy for their power, and to discredit those who only appear to be indifferent to it.
It was on the first of December that Burke delivered that celebrated speech which, in his works, goes under the name of the “ Speech on Mr. Fox's India Bill.” His chief argu
ment in defence of a measure of such immense magnitude and daring innovation, was the alleged necessity of the case.
The bill passed" the house of commons;” but the king, absurdly terrified about his prerogative, exerted all his secret influence to procure its defeat in the lords. It was accordingly rejected; ministers summarily dismissed from office; while the youthful but ambitious Pitt succeeded to the premiership. A strange and fearful struggle now ensued between the royal will, which had fixed on Mr. Pitt, and the house of commons who were as determined on thwarting it. It was one of those great emergencies, which show that even the happy balance which is generally maintained in the several parts of our constitution, is no infallible security against the infinite combinations of political events.
In these debates, Mr. Burke took a less active part than might have been expected. He always affirmed however that Mr. Pitt's ambition had out-travelled his integrity, and “that he had not obtained his power by fair means.”
This hard-fought political struggle was maintained by the minister with a cool courage and perseverance almost incredible. Constantly disgraced and out-voted, he still kept his ground; till after numberless defeats his pertinacity was rewarded with success. The opposition majority, which had once been fifty-four, was at length broken down to one. At this critical moment Mr. Pitt advised the daring measure of dissolving parliament. The advice was adopted, and it is well known, with signal success; no less than 160 members of the old parliament being thrown out.
Mr. Burke was again returned for Malton, but the elements of his political power were in great measure gone. Both he and Mr. Fox met only strange faces, and received nothing more than the cold reception which strangers generally give. Mr. Fox, however, won back part of his lost influence much sooner than Burke. The former was master of all the persuasive arts of conciliation so necessary in the management of a popular audience ; the latter took no pains to soften an obnoxious declaration, or conciliate an exasperated opponent. This, of course, increased still more the ill-will of the house, till the hostility of that honourable assembly manifested itself in a manner not very creditable. No sooner did Burke rise to speak than the house resounded with coughing and other equally agreeable noises. So systematic and so persevering were these attempts to put him down, that they often disconcerted, and once or twice absolutely silenced him. On one occasion he parenthetically remarked, “ that he could train a pack of hounds to yelp with more melody and equal comprehension.” After making every allowance for the injudicious frequency and the enormous length of his speeches, such opposition to such a man was in the last degree disgraceful to the assembly which could indulge in it.
An amusing anecdote, illustrative both of the character of the opposition that was manifested, and the want of temper and coolness on his part to meet it, may be related here. He had just risen, on one occasion, with a formidable roll of papers in his hand, when a country gentleman had the impudence to get up and express a modest hope that the honourable member did not mean to read" that large bundle of papers, and bore them with a long speech into the bargain.”--Burke was silent; but it was the silence not of contempt, but indignation. He rushed out of the house unable to utter a syllable. “Never before," said Sir George Selwyn in relating the story, “never before did I see the fable realized, -A lion
, put to flight by the braying of an ass."
His first effort in the new parliament was in moving an address to the king on the late dissolution. But the minister was now secured by his new conscripts, and only deigned to reply by his majorities. Nay, the latter parts of Burke's speech were even received with laughter; yet it contained, in the opinion of Mr. Fox,“ enough to make the fame of many men." On this occasion he pointed out many of the deficiencies of Mr. Pitt's India Bill. According to Sir John Malcolm, events abundantly justified Mr. Burke's representations.
In the month of April the University of Glasgow elected him Lord Rector; and repeated
the honour in the following November. He was installed amidst a splendid assemblage of all the principal literati of the North. About this period he paid his last visit to Dr. Johnson, then on his death-bed. On this occasion, the Doctor paid a most touching tribute to the conversational powers of his friend.--" I fear,” said Burke," the presence of strangers is oppressive to you.” “No, sir,” was the reply, “it is not so: and I must be in a wretched condition indeed, when your company would not be a delight to me.”
The session of 1785 found Mr. Burke still foremost in the forlorn hope of opposition. He resisted with spirit the ministerial proposals for a sinking fund, as well as those respecting Ireland. When Mr. Pitt ventured, during this session, to drop some hints on the necessity of reform in the representation, Mr. Burke very fairly asked him, how he, of all men, could imagine that the people were unfairly represented ;-he, who owed his whole influence to the existing system? When speaking on the minister's bill for regulating public offices, stigmatized by Sheridan as a “rat-catching measure,” Burke contrasted, in a most extraordinary manner, the scrupulous and ostentatious economy which was affected at home, with the spendthrift prodigality which characterized his Indian policy. “The minister,” said he," was desirous to draw a resource out of the crumbs dropped from the trenchers of penury. He was rasping from the marrowless bones of skeleton establishments an empirical alimentary powder, to diet into a similitude of health the languishing chimeras of fraudulent reformation. But while parliament looked with anxiety at his desperate and laborious trifling, while they were apprehensive that he would break his back with stooping to pick up chaff and straws, he recovers himself at an elastic bound; and with a broadcast swing of his arm, he squandered over his Indian field a sum far greater than the amount of all these establishments added together.”
India was now, indeed, the scene which was to occupy, for many years, Burke's untiring eloquence. As though he anticipated this, he was incessantly engaged in making himself more intimately acquainted with its whole condition.
On the twenty-eighth of February, he delivered his celebrated speech on the Nabob of Arcot's debts. These debts it was proposed by the ministry to carry to the account of the people of England; debts which Burke contended were absolutely fictitious, the result of a most complicated series of intrigues on the part of the company's agents, entered into purely for their own aggrandizement. The merits of this speech will be estimated here. after; we may here remark, that it displayed in every part the most wonderful familiarity with our Indian affairs, and opened to the light of day all its darkest recesses of intrigue. All this, however, was but a prelude and preparation for those more gigantic efforts, which he afterwards made to expose to the people of England the whole system of our Eastern tyranny, and to obtain, if possible, a severe but salutary exercise of retributive justice. In pursuance of this design he moved, in 1786, for the prosecution of Governor-General Hastings.
The mere embarking on such an enterprise was itself an indication of invincible energy of mind, and wonderful confidence in his own powers. An ordinary man would as soon have adventured on the labours of Hercules. The difficulties of the task are obvious. The scene of the alleged crimes was thousands of miles distant, rendering it, of course, proportionably difficult either to excite, in behalf of the oppressed, popular sympathy at home, or to procure evidence against the guilty from abroad. In addition to this, India, however ill-governed, had been the source of enormous riches to this country,--and men never like to pry too curiously into profitable abuses. Further, the object of the impeachment was a man of vast and splendid fortune; was favoured with the oblique, but scarcely on that account less powerful, support of royalty, and was intrenched in an almost impregnable fortress of patronage and influence. If guilty, he had been at least successful ; and successful crime, we all know, will often excite more sympathy than baffled virtue. The dazzled multitude are, in such cases, incapacitated for judging impartially ; all the loathsome deformities of guilt disappear under the cosmetics which fortune can apply. Yet in spite of all these obstacles Mr. Burke entered fearlessly upon this almost desperate enterprise. By his persevering eloquence he gradually won over the nation to his views, and even forced the minister, who had previously betrayed partiality for the accused, to maintain a rigid neutrality. The motives which actuated him were of course questioned. By some it was even insinuated, that, perceiving the ordinary avenues to fame and power shut against him, he had resolved on opening one for himself, and now sought upon the mighty field of our Indian empire an adequate theatre for the display of his ambitious eloquence. To those, however, who have carefully investigated the whole history of this grand impeachment, no motives will appear powerful and enduring enough to sustain any one under the fatigues of such years of unremitted toil repaid by unremitted slander, but a love of justice and an abhorrence of oppression. Owing to a variety of causes, but to nothing more than to the sheer weariness of the national mind, occasioned by the length of the trial, he failed in convicting the accused; and since Hastings was acquitted, he must be entitled to be considered legally innocent. All, however, except those who were interested in his acquittal in some way or other, are morally convinced that his guilt was great. Posterity, we are persuaded, will confirm this judgment, and, indeed, impartial history has already deliberately recorded it.* Whether he was guilty to the extent Burke believed is another question.
It is observable, however, that he escaped chiefly by an artful application and overstrained use of the technicalities and forms of law. He was impeached on grand principles of national justice, and he was saved by a dexterous use of quibbles and punctilios. That must ever be questionable innocence which escapes condemnation only by a flaw in the indictment. The firmest conviction of his guilt remained on Mr. Burke's mind to the end of life.
The conduct of the India House itself, who had the best means of information, and who were undoubtedly much interested in the reputation of their agent, is one of the strongest presumptions against Hastings. It was not till after the impeachment had been menaced that they thought proper to defend him, and even then only partially and hesitatingly. Strong dissatisfaction with his proceedings had been often expressed by the court of directors, and his recall determined on. Yet these measures of the directors were always defeated by the court of proprietors. Now as the latter were not in a situation to form so correct a judgment on Hastings's conduct, though they could quite as fully appreciate the gain it brought them, it became pretty generally understood that the judgment of the one, given as it was against interest, was a fair indication of the governor's merits ; that of the other, as evidently dictated by interest, a tribute of their admiration of his policy. Indeed this was the only rational way to account for this mystery of contradictory proceedings. In 1785 Hastings voluntarily repaired to England, when the company just completed the circle of their inconsistencies by voting their thanks for his long and meritorious services !
The conduct of the trial was committed, by the House of Commons, to a body of managers, the chief of whom were Burke, Fox, and Sheridan. The first of these was of course the animating soul of all. His assiduity in collecting information was as great as his skill in arranging and employing it; and, indeed, his efforts throughout the whole trial were almost superhuman. For many weeks together he divided his whole time between Westminster Hall and the House of Commons, staying frequently from nine in the morning till seven in the evening, and even till a later hour.
In the session 1786, he declared his intention to proceed by impeachment. In April he delivered in the charges ; in the course of the session he opened the principal of them, and obtained Mr. Pitt's assent to all. With this conduct of the minister, the friends of Hastings were not a little chagrined, and did not hesitate to declare that they had been encouraged to hope he would support them. A committee of impeachment was then formed, and, after some preparatory steps in the session of 1787-8, the trial commenced in Westminster Hall, in the presence of almost all that was august and imposing in the empire. The introductory matter occupied two days, after which Mr. Burke commenced his celebrated opening speech. For four successive days did he renew the tempest of invective and eloquence, each time occupying about four hours. In April of 1789 (to which period the ,
* Mill's History of British India.
( proceedings were postponed, on account of the king's health and the absence of the judges) he delivered another powerful speech on the 6th charge. As a new parliament reassembled in 1790, it now became a question whether the impeachment had not terminated with the dissolution. After much debate, in which Mr. Pitt displayed great candour as well as great power of argument, the point was decided in the negative. But fresh causes of delay sprang up, all aggravated by the diminution of interest in the fickle public. In a word, owing to one cause and another, the trial lingered through the enormous term of seven years, that is, till 1795, when, after another powerful display of eloquence in the “Reply," which was little, if at all, inferior to the opening speech, the prisoner was acquitted. Each party of course accused the other of being the cause of the delay. It does not appear, however, to have been fairly attributable to the managers : they had an obvious interest in pushing forward the trial with all diligence. They knew that public feeling on such a subject could not long be maintained; that therefore despatch would be wisdom : the other party knew the fact equally well, and that their policy was as obviously delay; not to mention, that by prolonging the trial to such an extraordinary period, they would give it somewhat of the appearance of persecution. Mr. Burke was often accused of pursuing Hastings with a sort of vindictive ferocity, and with employing unfair invective to produce an impression of guilt ; yet Mr. Pitt's declaration in the course of the proceedings was repeated and explicit, that “ Mr. Burke had conducted the charge with every degree of fairness, openness, and candour.” He has also been censured for the intemperate and violent language he employed in these speeches. On oratorical grounds, indeed, this was decidedly wrong. Even if borne out by truth, such language gave his charges an appearance, at least, of exaggeration; nothing could have justified it but such evidence as the circumstances of the case precluded the possibility of furnishing. Had he attempted less, probably he would have obtained more. He appeared to take for granted, that every one was as well acquainted with the subject as himself; he forgot that his own mind had been gradually wrought up to its present heat of passion by the long studies of years, and that what was sober statement and cold truth to him, might appear eminently improbable to others. Yet it was admitted by many of his opponents, that if Mr Burke believed his charges true, (and it was also admitted that none was so likely to form a correct opinion of the matter as Mr. Burke,) scarcely any violence of language was to be wondered at. There is a remarkable admission of this, contained in one of Cowper’s letters. It has never, so far as we know, been referred to; yet as coming from one at such an immeasurable distance from political strife, from one whose very nature was gentleness, and who, above all, felt no inconsiderable sympathy with Hastings himself, is not unworthy of the reader's notice.
The labours of Mr. Burke in this cause were of a more arduous description than in any other, and, in his opinion, of greater value; an opinion which perhaps an impartial posterity will confirm. Thus, he writes in his letter to the Duke of Bedford,“ Were I to call for a reward, (which I have never done,) it should be for those (exertions) in which for fourteen years, without intermission, I have showed the most industry, and had the least success; I mean in the affairs of India. They are those on which I value myself the most; most for the importance; most for the labour; most for the judgment; most for constancy and perseverance in the pursuit. Others may value them most for the intention. In that surely they are not mistaken.”
Never was so much eloquence poured out in one flood as on this occasion. ANI the greatest orators of an age famed for its oratory, exerted themselves to the utmost. Burke, Fox, Sheridan, Windham, followed each other in apparently endless succession, and, to use the striking language of Mr. Erskine, “ shook the walls of Westminster