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BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL
INTRODUCTION TO THE WORKS
RIGHT HONOURABLE EDMUND BURKE.
It is the peculiar infelicity of great politicians, that they have to tarry a much longer time than other celebrated men for the full harvest of their fame. Not that posterity will ultimately pronounce less justly on their merits than on those of others; but in the very nature of things a fair adjudication cannot take place so soon. The merits of those who have achieved a reputation in any of the departments of physical science, have only to contend with the prejudices of the past, or, at most, of the present; with the prejudices of those who despise even truth, if truth come not in the guise of antiquity, or of those, who having long committed themselves to an hypothesis, are now ashamed to abandon it. The young,
, however, growing up with no theories to maintain, and no prejudices to conquer, will become the certain proselytes of an improved philosophy; and thus a single generation often witnesses the complete demolition of certain venerable errors, propagated and believed through a long succession of ages. Harvey observed, not less justly than wittily, that he never knew a man above forty, who could be got to believe in his theory of the circulation of the blood : he might have added, with equal truth, that there was scarcely any man under that age, who could not be got to believe in it. Far different is it with the merits of great politicians. They have to contend with the prejudices not only of the past and of the present, but of the future. Their principles, even when just, are founded on inductions necessarily far less conclusive than those of the natural philosopher. Neither can the erperiments (so to speak) on which they found their reasonings be repeated at their pleasure; they recur (and then in connexion with a perplexing combination of new circumstances) at long intervals; they depend on the slow revolutions of ages.
Nor is this all; the limitations of the human understanding are not the only or the most formidable obstacles to the exercise of the judgment, when it attempts to form an estimate of the merits of a great politician. Our passions, as already intimated, still more effeqtually conspire against us. Political parties may be almost said never to die; or, at all events, the lapse of many ages is necessary to their complete extinction. The principles and tendencies of those parties still live, though the forms and modifications in which they are exhibited change with the spirit of the times. They suffer metenpsychosis rather than utter dissolution.
Thus two opposite parties, however nearly they may approach one another, will be disposed to palliate the errors and to over-estimate the merits of their respective political ancestors, or, at all events, will view them with very different degrees of admiration or abhorrence; as different, indeed, as the existing tendencies of the parties.
To form a perfectly dispassionate opinion, therefore, of any celebrated statesman, we must stand at a very remote distance in point of time from the scene of his actions. This will be made at once apparent, by appealing to the feelings of which each is conscious in reading any particular period of history; say of English history. We can judge with almost perfect calmness of the actors in all the great events which preceded the Reformation; not the faintest passion is stirred within us; the last spark has expired in the embers. After that great epoch, the interest we feel, though still comparatively languid, begins to operate on our judgment. On particular questions we not only form different opinions, but express those opinions warmly, though still it may be without rancour or animosity. As we descend down the stream of ages, and arrive at the successive eras of the Civil Wars, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Revolution, the inveteracy of party spirit comes gradually into full play, according to the varying complexion of our political sentiments, till we are almost incapacitated for a sober judgment. The past still exists in the present.
If events, comparatively so remote, can exercise such an influence over us, how can it be otherwise in contemplating those with which the name of Edmund Burke is identified, and in which he acted a part so conspicuous ? Their proximity to us in point of time—their magnitude—and their overwhelming influence on the present state of almost all civilized nations, alike tend to move us. Indeed the whole surface of Europe still bears the visible marks of those events. The wind has not yet quite subsided—the sea is still furrowedthough the fury of the storm has spent itself.
The difficulties hitherto stated would be felt, more or less, in attempting to form a correct estimate of the merits of any politician who lived in the same age with Burke. There are other difficulties, however, in estimating his merits, arising from the peculiarities of his own character. His was a mind too independent to adopt implicitly the views of any party, and, as the inevitable consequence, he provoked, at one period or other, the hostility of all; for even from those parties with which he most nearly symbolized, he often differed on most important questions. Many of his opinions were to be found in the creeds of all parties; most of them in some ; but all of them in none.
The difficulty of correctly estimating his character, has been still further increased by the violence with which his merits have been maintained and disputed. The spirit of panegyric and the spirit of slander have both done their utmost upon him. He has excited all the extremes of feeling, from the most idolatrous enthusiasm to the most rancorous malice.
Still it must be confessed that men are now in a far better situation for doing him justice than his contemporaries could be, and that every day is further diminishing the difficulties of the task. What opinion a remote posterity may form of his political merits, many will think it presumptuous to predict; yet we feel convinced that when time shall have emancipated future generations from the already rusting bonds of prejudice, the character of Burke as a political philosopher (whatever deductions may be made on the score of human infirmity and passion will rise still higher and higher. The richer, for delay, will be the long reversion of his fame.
The preceding observations will show that the present attempt to estimate the character of Burke is not undertaken in a blind ignorance of the difficulties of the task. The writer can only promise that he will endeavour to maintain an unbiassed judgment.
The following Essay will consist of three parts : I. A rapid sketch of Mr. Burke's life. II. An analysis of his character. III. Some brief observations on his principal writings.
EDMUND BURKE, one of the greatest men, not to say the greatest, in an age unusually fertile in genius, was born in Dublin in 1730. He was descended from a respectable family; a family which, considering it was not of patrician rank, might almost be termed ancient. Of such matters, however, the reader will excuse a more particular mention. Edmund Burke was one of the few who could dispense with pedigrees and heralds; he was ennobled by genius. His works form his best emblazonry.
His father resided in Dublin, was an attorney by profession, and in extensive practice. His mother's maiden name was Nagle, of a respectable family residing near Castletown Roche. Edmund was one of a very numerous family; all of whom died in childhood, except four ;-himself, two brothers, whose names were Garrett and Richard, and a sister named Julia. Garrett became a respectable attorney. Richard, following his brother's fortunes in London, obtained no mean reputation as a politician and a lawyer. Both possessed much of the brilliance of mind which so eminently distinguished Edmund: they died unmarried.
The father's extensive practice enabled him, if not to accumulate wealth, yet to provide no despicable competence for his family. Prior, in his life of Burke, declares that he has abundant authority for saying that Edmund received " at one time or another not less than £20,000 ! from his family."
As a tendency to consumption betrayed itself in his early years, his parents kept him at home longer than is usual. The same reason at length induced them to send him away from Dublin (the air of which was thought injurious) to Castletown Roche. Here he was put to school, and spent several years, (some say five,) under the discipline of a village schoolmaster. This spot was ever after sacred in the eyes of Burke ; as, indeed, almost any place must necessarily be, which is sanctified by all the associations of a happy childhood. Near this spot were the ruins of Spenser's Castle, a circumstance which in afterlife tended powerfully to confirm Mr. Burke's early attachment. From Castletown Roche he was removed to Dublin ; but did not stay long there, as his health further declined: his father was therefore resolved that the whole period of his boyhood should be spent in the country. The academy of Ballitore, a village in the county of Kildare, about thirty miles south of Dublin, being then in considerable repute, Edmund was sent there. It was conducted by Abraham Shackleton. - Young Burke was at this time in his twelfth year.
With the son of the master, Richard Shackleton, who afterwards became master himself, Edmund formed a most endeared friendship; it lasted through the whole of life,-neither chilled by time nor weakened by distance, nor even by the immeasurable interval, in point of station and pursuits, which Burke's genius and fame soon placed between them. Affectionate correspondence and mutual visits marked the whole course of it, till Mr. Shackleton's death, which took place in 1792. This sets Burke's character in a very amiable point of view. Boyish intimacies, the result generally of accident rather than knowledge of character, are seldom lasting : not so with this. Through the whole of his illustrious career, his early and humble friend found Burke still the same. The applauses of the senate, the still more flattering admiration of all that was splendid in the world of literature, could not diminish his relish for the society of the friend of his childhood.
From Mr. Shackleton most of the information, at best scanty, which has reached the world respecting the peculiarities of Mr. Burke's early years, was obtained. At school, it is said, he displayed little of that splendour and originality of genius for which he was afterwards so eminently distinguished; indeed some of his peculiarities were such as are generally supposed to be dissociated from lofty intellect. A patient assiduity, a tena
a cious memory, and an unrivalled facility of acquisition,--these appear, in his early years, to have been his chief attributes of mind. It was, perhaps, well for his future fame that his more splendid faculties did thus veil themselves; he was saved, probably, from that indolence which is so often connected with a brilliant and precocious intellect. He was thus permitted to spend the whole of his earliest years in the acquisition of knowledge ; in the accumulation of those copious materials which were to feed, for so many years, the fierce and prodigal blaze of his genius.
His social habits at this period were such as marked him more or less through life : he was rather fond of solitude, though of a warm and affectionate disposition ; good tempered, yet somewhat irritable; and always, not merely willing, but delighted, to impart what he knew. This was his great characteristic in after-years. He was fond of communicating knowledge. This was from no pedantic vanity; he could not help it; it was the mere exuberance of a mind full to overflowing. He was also early distinguished by a noble independence of mind, and an abhorrence of every species of oppression. At the close of his stay at Ballitore, his imagination began to develope itself. His first efforts at composition were (as is so often the case) in verse. They consisted of a translation of the 30th Idyllium of Theocritus, and several scenes of a play, which are now lost.
In 1744 he quitted Ballitore, and, at the early age of fifteen, entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a pensioner. To his tutor, Dr. Pelissier, a man of little talent and as little knowledge, Burke owed nothing but the sage advice, that multifarious reading would be more advantageous to him than a sedulous attention to any particular pursuit; advice, which the excursiveness of Burke's mind rendered perfectly unnecessary. He passed through the usual routine of University education with credit, but nothing
He was still in his chrysalis state ; though just on the eve of his splendid transformation. Dr. Ireland, an unexceptionable witness, tells us that he was “ known as a young man of superior, but unpretending talents; and more anxious to acquire knowledge than to display it.” In 1746 he was elected scholar of the house, an honour which, as it could be obtained only by considerable proficiency in the classics, is at least a creditabl testimony to his industry and attainments, if not to his genius. He commenced A. B. 1747, and proceeded A. M. 1751, in his twenty-first year. Tradition says, (and the character of his mind and his subsequent writings and pursuits afford strong confirmation of it,) that his most cherished studies were history, political and moral philosophy, polite literature, and metaphysics: the last formed an object of study, chiefly for the sake of the mental discipline they afforded, and were pursued only so far as they subserved this end. Some of his critical estimates of the comparative value of authors were not a little singular. He admired Plutarch beyond almost any other writer, preferred Euripides to Sophocles, and maintained the superiority of the Æneid to the Iliad. The opinions which great men have formed of the productions of kindred genius, are far from being always sound. Their concurrent opinion is, indeed, infallible ; but the admiration felt by celebrated individuals for particular works, is often the result merely of some accidental circumstances in their early history, or may be traced to some peculiarities of idiosyncrasy; it is, therefore, very frequently unsound. In the instances above mentioned, however Burke may have contradicted the judgment of universal criticism, he was at least true to the tastes and habitudes of his own mind. The philosophy of human nature, whether exhibited in the history of communities or in the peculiarities of individual character, was his favourite study: this accounts for his intense admiration of Plutarch, and his preference of Euripides to Sophocles. As to his preference of Virgil to Homer, can we wonder at it in a mind so highly distinguished by its elegance, possessed of a taste so polished, and so exquisitely alive to the more refined beauties of composition?
While at College, he composed a translation of the conclusion of the second Georgic of Virgil : this fragment still remains. The reader will, perhaps, be gratified by an extract or two.
It shows poetical talent of no mean order.
“ Happy the man, who, versed in Nature's laws,
Black and relentless fate he tramples on,
Now winter's frozen hand benumbs the plain,
Nor less than these, wait his domestic life,
Such manners made the ancient Sabines bold,
During his residence in the University he was in the habit of attending the meetings of the " Historical Society," then first established. It consisted of the students of Trinity College; it was kept up with considerable spirit, and numbered amongst its members many who afterwards ranked amongst the most celebrated men of Ireland. Burke commenced political writer while at the University, at the early age of nineteen. His first attempt was at the refutation of a too ambitious apothecary, named Dr. Charles Lucas; a