Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

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.* 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 cominenced in Westminster Hall, in the presence of almost all that was august and imposing in the empire. The

Mill's History of British India.

[ocr errors]

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 elo. quence, each time occupying about four hours. In April of 1789 (to which period the 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. All 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 Hall with anathemas of superhuman eloquence.” Mr. Burke never spoke with such transcendent effect as on this memorable occasion. The description of the enormities of DEBI SING, one of the worst agents of Indian tyranny, excited a thrill of ungovernable horror and suppressed mutters of execration through the whole assembly, while many of the female part of the audience fainted. Even the sternness of Lord Thurlow was for a moment melted, and he observed, in reference to the effect of the speech, “their lordships all knew the effect upon the auditors, many of whom had not to that moment, and, perhaps, never would, recover from the shock it had occasioned.” The following is the testimony of a political opponent. “Never were the powers of that wonderful man displayed to such advantage as on this occasion; and he astonished even those who were most intimately acquainted with him, by the vast extent of his reading, the variety of his resources, the minuteness of his information, and the lucid order in which he arranged the whole for the support of his object, and to make a deep impression on the minds of his hearers.” Of these speeches no adequate report was taken at the time. Mr. Burke, however, fully intended to publish them in one great work, for which he had made considerable preparations before his death. On his death-bed he commissioned his friends Dr, Lawrence and the Bishop of Rochester to superintend the publication of all that seemed in a state fit for the press. The task was not completed for twenty-eight years after Mr. Burke's death.

It is true these speeches, as published, betray in many parts the want of the last touches of the great master; yet, imperfect as they are, they are most splendid performances. They could not, of course, be included in this edition. This, however, contains all besides, whether published in Burke's life-time or posthumous.

Mr. Burke scarcely relaxed his efforts in parliament during even the most agitating periods of the impeachment. He took an active part in the debates on the extension of the power of the governor-general of India, the constitution of the government of Canada, and several other questions. It is to his honour, too, that he ever exerted himself to procure the abolition of the slave-trade, a measure by this time openly taken up by Mr. Wilberforce.

Another fierce battle in the ranks of opposition was now at hand. In the autumn of 1788 the alarming state of the king's health forced the Regency question on the attention of parliament. Mr. Pitt persisted in finding a regent, as every one knows, some where else than in the Prince of Wales. Against all the strange legal fictions by which the prime minister prosecuted his ambitious project, Burke poured out, night after night, in one ceaseless flood,—wit, sarcasm, argument, and ridicule. The rapid improvement of the king's health at the end of February 1789, rendered it unnecessary to pursue this unhappy topic further. On this, as on some other occasions, Mr. Burke has been severely blamed for intemperate language; and it must be confessed not unjustly.

We now come to the closing scene of Mr. Burke's political life. From 1789, the period at which the French Revolution broke out, scarcely a moment's peace awaited him.

On the causes of the French Revolution, its history, or the character it assumed, it is not necessary here to enter. We shall even postpone to a subsequent page all remarks on the consistency or inconsistency, the correctness or incorrectness, of Mr. Burke's opinions on the subject. Such observations will be introduced with greater propriety when we speak of his character as a statesman. We are at present only concerned with his history.

It is well known that the commencement of the French Revolution was hailed in England by the sanguine and the ardent with shouts of triumph and exultation. Nor was this to be wondered at. The great drama opened with some most imposing and auspicious scenes, and gave but faint indications of the terrific catastrophe in which the curtain was to fall. Had it been conducted with any measure of prudence, with any regard whatever to the great principles which should regulate all extensive changes, which ought to determine both

their extent and their rapidity, it would have justified the rapture which it at first inspired. Splendid indeed was its dawning ; so well calculated was it to operate on sanguine temperaments, none can be surprised that thousands should have hailed it as the first rising of the orb of freedom. Nay, had any one pretended to foretell at the very commencement of the Revolution, and before its character had more unequivocally displayed itself, all the horrors which should crowd into its brief history, not only would he not have been believed, but he would not have deserved to be believed. He would have acted, not the part of a profound statesman, but of a political empiric, since, however his predictions might have coincided with the event, he could not, at that period, have rested them on data sufficiently certain and extensive. All that could be expected of a profound political philosopher at that early stage,-of one like Burke, whose experience was the result of long observation--was that he should not sympathize with the ardour of admiring ignorance; that he should patiently wait for some further evidence to warrant a deliberate judgment, and reserve his contempt or his homage till the gradual evolution of the plot should disengage it from some of its early intricacies. This was most precisely the conduct of Mr. Burke. It is on record, and we shall immediately adduce the proof of it, that while others were in a phrensy of rapture and exultation, and were ready, with that plenary faith which is the certain mark of ignorance, to interpret those fiery signs which were tracking the heavens as the most auspicious of omens, he was contemplating them with a curiosity more nearly allied to awe than admiration,-wrapped in a gaze of philosophic doubt and wonder. The following letter, written on the ninth of August 1789, only a week or two after the storming of the Bastile, will fully justify the representation just made.

a

As to us here, our thoughts of every thing at home are suspended by our astonishment at the wonderful spectacle which is exhibited in a neighbouring and rival country. What spectators, and what actors! England gazing with astonishment at a French struggle for liberty, and not knowing whether to blame or to applaud.

“ The thing, indeed, though I thought I saw something like it in progress for several years, has still somewhat in it paradoxical and mysterious. The spirit it is impossible not to admire ; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner. It is true, that this may be no more than a sudden explosion; if so, no indication can be taken from it; but if it should be character, rather than accident, then that people are not fit for liberty, and must have a strong hand, like that of their former masters, to coerce them.

“Men must have a certain fund of natural moderation to qualify them for freedom, else it becomes noxious to themselves, and a perfect nuisance to every body else. What will be the event, it is hard, I think, still to say. To form a solid constitution requires wisdom as well as spirit; and whether the French have wise heads among them, or if they possess such, whether they have authority equal to their wisdom, is yet to be seen. In the mean time the progress of this whole affair is one of the most curious matters of speculation that ever was exhibited."

In the mean time, as he saw that, whether for good or for evil, the Revolution must lead to stupendous consequences, he, as usual, opened wide his capacious mind to every source of information. Numerous correspondents at Paris were constantly transmitting to him, at his particular desire, every important fact, whether of a public or of a 'private nature. Amongst these were Monsieur Dupont, M. de Menonville, and other Frenchmen ; Thomas Paine, Mr. Christie, Anacharsis Clootz, and foreigners of less note. To M. de Menonville, as the Revolution proceeded, he conveyed, in some beautiful letters, his gradually increasing persuasion, that it was fast developing a character decidedly unfavourable to any thing like rational freedom; that it was not merely marked with incidental extravagances, but was animated with a spirit of reckless and boundless change, which must issue in the most disastrous consequences. It was Burke's great merit that he saw these tendencies at an earlier period and with greater clearness than others.

But though Burke's opinions were gradually becoming daily more and more adverse to the Revolution, it was not he who first introduced the subject into the British parliament. On the contrary, having heard that Mr. Fox had expressed his decided approbation of the Revolution, (a circumstance at which Burke did not hesitate to indicate his surprise,) he resolved not to intrude his opinions on the house, unless circumstances should most imperatively demand it. This resolution could not long be kept. The subject was itself too exciting ; and it necessarily came across too many subjects of discussion to permit its being long kept out of parliament.

In the beginning of February 1790, Mr. Fox took occasion, in the debates on the army estimates, to give unequivocal utterance to his admiration of the Revolution, and was most lavish in praise of those very points which were considered in England precisely of the most dubious character. These sentiments met with very strong censure from several persons, but from none more than from Mr. Burke, who no longer hesitated to reprobate the whole Revolution in the strongest language. At an earlier stage, Mr. Pitt had been surprised into the expression of feelings somewhat favourable to its progress; he now, however, renounced all sympathy with it, and expressed the highest admiration of Mr. Burke's speech. The fact that Mr. Pitt's opinions had been rather in favour of than against the Revolution, coupled with the fact that Mr. Burke's speech contained not the shadow of a compliment to the minister, ought to be a sufficient vindication of Burke from the absurd charge that his alleged revolution of sentiment was a revolution of interest. Mr. Fox's reply to Mr. Burke was calm; it indicated scarcely a trace of those feelings which this unhappy difference of opinion was soon to exasperate into the fiercest animosity. On the contrary, it was full of compliment. It contained the memorable acknowledgment, that “ he had gained more by the conversation of Mr. Burke, than by all other men and books put together;" and it even acknowledged that his speech on this very occasion," with the exception of a few observations, was one of the wisest and most brilliant flights of oratory ever delivered in that house."

But it was fated that even that first evening of discussion should not pass away in peace. The feelings which perhaps nothing could have repressed long, were fanned into a premature blaze by the breath of Mr. Sheridan. That gentleman, in his ardent admiration of the French Revolution, hesitated not to charge Mr. Burke with treachery, not only to his party, but to universal freedom, and with having slandered and belied the French nation. At these insinuations, or rather, undisguised charges, Mr. Burke naturally fired; and after administering severe rebuke, declared that he and Mr. Sheridan were now separated in politics for ever. As this rupture menaced the stability of the party of which these two celebrated men were such distinguished supporters, a meeting was procured between them by some of their friends, at Burlington House, for the purpose of attempting a reconciliation. The discussion lasted for five hours; but led, as too often happens in such cases, to results the very opposite to those intended. It exasperated a serious difference into inveterate enmity.

The discussion on the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, was the next occasion of difference with his old friends. It is well known that he had once been one of the most strenuous advocates of that repeal, and even at this time declared, that had it been proposed a few years sooner he should have voted for it. He now affirmed, that in his opinion there were such indications of a violent spirit on the part of the dissenters, as rendered the repeal inexpedient. By these views he said he had been actuated when the question was brought forward in 1787, and 1789. On these occasions, as he had not been able to vote for the repeal, he had contented himself with not voting against it. At the present time he contended, that in his opinion he saw sufficient reason to go a step further. The motion was lost by the immense majority of 189.-Of this vote it is impossible to attempt any vindication. It was a serious error of judgment. It was one of the many instances, in which his

[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinuar »