‘Mr Burke will live,’ declared the Times two days after he had died, ‘as long as strength of imagination and beauty of language shall be respected by the world.’ By the time the Oxford edition of Burke’s Select Works came out in 1876 there was more for the world to respect. ‘Burke will always stand forth as a man whose political knowledge was complete,’ wrote the editor, E.J. Payne. ‘He was therefore, though a reformer, incapable of rash and inconsiderate action. The man who has arrived at a view of the whole plan of civil society, and taken in the mutual relations and dependencies of distant parts, is not in danger of being consumed by an irrational zeal for or against any established element in that society.’ A few years later, in his History of England in the 18th Century, W.E.H. Lecky found yet more to respect and admire:
No other politician or writer has thrown the light of so penetrating a genius on the nature and working of the British Constitution ... He had a peculiar gift of introducing into transient party conflicts observations drawn from the most profound knowledge of human nature ... there is perhaps no English prose writer since Bacon whose works are so thickly starred with thought. The time may come when they will be no longer read. The time will never come in which men would not grow the wiser by reading them.
It was Lewis Namier who began the work of demolition. In The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, published in 1928, he cited what he called ‘the literary afterthoughts of Edmund Burke and the latter-day Whigs’ as an example of the sort of source material that had led previous historians astray. Because Burke’s political knowledge was in fact far from complete, because his scant understanding of the working of the British Constitution prevented him from comprehending the political structure it had engendered, these historians, according to Namier, had been little the wiser for reading him. In his second book, England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930), Namier went on to question the value of the observations Burke introduced into transient party conflicts. ‘It seems extremely doubtful,’ he wrote, ‘whether Burke and his friends, if in power, would have succeeded in saving the First British Empire. Their ideas were no less hierarchical and authoritarian than those of George III and Lord North ... had Burke been in office during the American Revolution, we might merely have had to antedate his counter-revolutionary Toryism by some twenty years.’ This was a reference to Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London relative to that event (1790), in which Burke denounced all those who thought that revolution in France pointed up the need for reform in England. Namier went on to declare that previous historians had been wrong in thinking that Burke and his friends, the so-called Rockingham Whigs, were in direct line of descent from the Whigs of George II’s reign. He ended by saying that his next book, if ever written, would be on ‘The Rise of Party’.
Now, with a new Oxford edition of Burke’s writings and speeches nearing completion, and with more years between us and Namier’s pronouncements than between them and Lecky, Professor Lock gives us the first volume of what promises to be an important biography. By dividing his account of Burke’s life and work into two volumes and ending the first at the general election of 1784, Lock is able to set aside Namier’s retrospection. Instead of being told that what Burke did in the 1790s shows what he would have liked to do in the 1770s, we are able to assess his first 54 years on their merits without having ‘counter-revolutionary Toryism’ paraded before us like Scrooge’s ghost of Christmas yet to come.
The volume begins by suggesting that there were indeed 54 years, not 55 as has often been supposed: the evidence Lock produces points to January 1730, not January 1729, as Burke’s date of birth. As a child he felt more at home with his mother’s Catholic family in County Cork than with his Protestant father, a hidebound Dublin lawyer. At the age of II he was sent to Abraham Shackleton’s ‘classical academy’ at Ballitore in County Kildare, a Quaker school with a reputation for efficient teaching of the Latin and Greek classics. Shackleton’s influence, moral rather than intellectual according to Lock, was considerable. At Trinity College Dublin, where Burke studied from 1744 to 1748, he seems to have enjoyed his Latin and Greek, ‘despite the dull teaching and his own mediocre performance’, but he also enjoyed reading old chivalric romances and confessed himself ‘far gone in the poetical madness’. By the time he came to London in the spring of 1750, ostensibly to read law at his father’s behest, he wanted above all to be a poet.
Soon after his arrival in England he fell ill and went to take the waters at Bath. There he met his future father-in-law Christopher Nugent, an Irish Catholic with a French medical degree. The waters helped a little but Burke did not fully recover his health until the latter part of 1753, by which time he had completed his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In 1755, at the end of a legal training which had cost his father a thousand pounds, he decided not to be a lawyer. It was a gesture of defiance, a declaration of intent. From now on he would make his own way in the world.
His first published work, an anonymous satirical parody entitled A Vindication of Natural Society, appeared in May 1756. It was well received and its publisher Robert Dodsley offered 20 guineas for the copyright of the Philosophical Enquiry plus a further ten if it reached a third edition. The offer was accepted and the work was published in April 1757, six weeks after Burke married Nugent’s daughter Jane. He had also contracted to write a history of England which was to be finished by the end of 1758 and would bring in £300 in instalments. A less than vigilant proof-reader has allowed Lock’s text to give the proposed length of this work as ‘400,000 thousand words’, perhaps a little ambitious even for Burke. In April 1758, shortly after the birth of his son Richard, he agreed to compile and edit a new periodical to be called the Annual Register in return for a fee of £100 a year. A second son, Christopher, was born in December 1758 and it soon became apparent that Burke’s literary earnings would not suffice to pay the bills. ‘The consulship at Madrid has been vacant these eight months,’ Dr William Markham wrote to the Duchess of Queensbury in September 1759. ‘Mr Pitt is actually at a loss for a proper person to appoint to it. This has encouraged my friend to think of it.’ The friend was Burke, who ‘seems to have a most extensive knowledge, with extraordinary talents for business, and to want nothing but ground to stand upon to do his country very important services’.
‘Ground to stand upon’ meant influence and connection of the sort that enabled the tombstone of a certain Mrs Bates to record that ‘by means of her alliance with the illustrious family of Stanhope she had the merit to obtain for her husband and children twelve several appointments in Church and State.’ Mrs Burke had no such merit and her husband was not appointed to the consulship. When George III came to the throne in October 1760 there was talk of a new age, a new kind of politics in which family alliances would be less important, and the Annual Register rejoiced that the young King had ‘united all sects and all parties’. For the time being, however, the old ways prevailed and Burke had to do the best he could. He agreed to act as paid assistant and adviser to William Gerard Hamilton, chief secretary of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
In July 1761, shortly before he went to Dublin with Hamilton, Burke met Horace Walpole, who was later to become one of his fiercest critics. ‘He is a sensible man,’ Walpole remarked, ‘but has not worn off his authorism yet, and thinks there is nothing so charming as writers, and to be one.’ When Burke returned to London in the summer of 1762 he found himself caught in the cross-currents of politics. William Burke, his close friend and possibly a distant relative, was busy canvassing merchant interests in an attempt to whip up opposition to the peace treaty about to be signed with France and Spain. Edmund joined in, declaring that the treaty was ‘the most shameful that ever was made’, only to discover three weeks later that William was deep in new intrigues, directed this time towards drumming up support for the treaty in the House of Commons in the hope of being made a colonial governor after the war.
When the war was over, the Earl of Bute, who had been the young King’s tutor and was now his First Lord of the Treasury and his ‘dearest friend’, insisted on resigning. This meant that William did not get his governorship. However, Hamilton was able to obtain for Edmund a pension of £300 a year to be paid out of the Irish funds. William still had considerable influence and in 1764, after Hamilton had been dismissed by the new Lord Lieutenant, Edmund was encouraged to apply for a part-time job as agent for the newly conquered sugar islands. The application was unsuccessful but it worried Hamilton, who thought that because he had got Edmund his pension he had first call on his services. Edmund thought otherwise and the two men quarrelled. Early in 1765 they parted company, Edmund having apparently transferred his pension to Matthew Coulthurst, Hamilton’s lawyer. William meanwhile had learned that the King was tiring of Grenville, Bute’s successor as First Lord, and in July 1765, when the King’s uncle the Duke of Cumberland came up with an alternative – a ministry made up of the Marquis of Rockingham and his adherents – Edmund told his friend Charles O’Hara that ‘Will and I are down on their lists and I hope and believe will be attended to.’ They were. William was appointed under-secretary to Walpole’s friend Henry Seymour Conway, who became one of the King’s two Secretaries of State, and Edmund became private secretary to Rockingham, which he described as ‘employment of a kind humble enough but which may be worked into some sort of consideration, or at least advantage’.
As befits a biographer, Lock sees most of this through Edmund’s eyes. However, as Namier rightly pointed out, ‘William Burke preceded Edmund in English politics,’ and it is clear from the Burke correspondence that in June 1765, while Edmund was still pinning his hopes on an earlier approach to the unpredictable Charles Townshend, it was William who persuaded Lord John Cavendish to ‘mention us both as fit men to be employed to Lord Rockingham, who received it well’. Edmund got his foot on the ladder not because of his own integrity but because of the lack of integrity which William Burke shared with most politicians of the day. Whether Edmund also shared this is a matter for debate. His remarks about working the employment into a consideration or an advantage suggest that he did. They also suggest that Lock is perhaps being a little starry-eyed when he says that Edmund had ‘deliberately chosen the hard road of opposition rather than the smooth path that led to a sinecure’. In the summer of 1765 William Burke had to decide which of the contending factions was most likely to come to power and stay in power long enough to open up, both for him and for Edmund, the smooth path that led to a sinecure. He made what looked like the right decision and Edmund gladly went along with it.
When Cumberland died in October 1765 it began to look like the wrong decision. ‘The ministers from the hour of the Duke of Cumberland’s death wanted to approach Mr Pitt,’ the King told Bute. Rockingham sat in the Lords, which meant that coalition with Pitt could bring much needed strength in the Commons, but Pitt decided to form his own ministry and run it from the Lords as Earl of Chatham. Rockingham resigned but many of his supporters kept their places, among them Conway and William Burke. Conway offered to take Edmund in as well but was told he would only come in if he was ‘understood to belong not to the administration, but to those who were out’. This declaration of loyalty to Rockingham had the desired effect and the offer was withdrawn. When Parliament met ‘the main business of the session was to be the regulation of the East India Company,’ but first there was a debate on Grenville’s proposal to ‘subsidise food for the consumption of the poor’. Burke thought some would hesitate to oppose this for ‘fear of what Chatham’s attitude might be’ but he spoke against it himself: ‘Convinced of the necessity for a free market in food, he consistently opposed such specious initiatives.’
This is as much as Lock tells us of Burke’s political stance at the end of 1766. There is more to tell. Corn prices had risen and in many counties there were food riots which some in government believed threatened a general insurrection. At the end of September the Ministry decided to forbid the export of corn by means of an Order in Council instead of waiting for Parliamentary approval. When Parliament met in November the Rockinghams, along with other opposition groups, launched an attack on the Government for acting illegally. Horace Walpole was among those who regarded this as irresponsible and unprincipled, since it was clear that waiting for Parliament’s approval would have given unscrupulous landowners and their agents time to export and push up prices still further. Grenville joined in the attack and noted in his diary that before making his motion to give money to the poor he ‘spoke to arraign the illegality of the laying the embargo upon the exportation of corn’ and that ‘Mr Conway answered him in a very unsatisfactory manner.’
It was Conway’s role as Chatham’s spokesman in the Commons that brought Horace Walpole and Burke into confrontation. A week after the opening of Parliament, a meeting of the Rockingham Whigs, at which Burke was present, decided that four of those who had stayed on would now resign in the hope that this would prompt Conway to resign also, thus seriously weakening the Chatham Administration in the Commons. They used as their excuse Chatham’s removal of Lord Edgcumbe from his sinecure as Treasurer of the Household. Walpole was known to have considerable influence over Conway and so Burke, accompanied by Conway’s son-in-law the Duke of Richmond, urged him to use it to get Conway to resign. ‘The Duke of Richmond and Burke tried to persuade me that Mr Conway ought to break on Lord Edgcumbe,’ Walpole wrote, ‘as their friends would desert the party, if the party did not resent the ill-treatment of individuals.’ Walpole opposed the idea, saying that ‘to break on persons might be called faction’. If Conway wanted to help the Rockinghams bring down Chatham he must resign on an issue of principle, not because of Edgcumbe’s dismissal. These rival views of what was party and what was faction were to surface again a few years later.
Conway did not resign but William Burke did. He was buying East India stock on borrowed money, hoping to sell at a profit when an increased dividend was announced, and when Parliament turned its attention to the regulation of the East India Company he was soon in trouble. The Government brought in a Bill to limit the increase of dividend and William resigned in order to join Edmund in opposition. ‘Burke’s opposition to the Dividend Bill,’ Lock writes, ‘shows him at his worst, magniloquently endowing disreputable stock-market speculators with sacred property rights.’ The Dividend Bill went through but Chatham fell ill and by the time he resigned in October 1768 his Administration was near to collapse. His colleague the Duke of Grafton, already First Lord of the Treasury, had to keep things going as best he could.
Meanwhile Edmund, relying on the East India gamble, had agreed to buy Gregories, a country estate in Buckinghamshire. He took possession in April 1768 but did not have to make immediate payment because the vendor had not yet made out good title. By the time he did have to make payment, the market in East India stock had collapsed. The result, Lock concludes, was ‘lifelong financial insecurity’. His account of the purchase of Gregories is one of the strengths of his book, not only because of the clarity with which it details the transaction but also because it shows how Burke used the strength of his imagination in order to run away from his financial troubles: ‘For Burke, ideas and principles were more real than money. Concentration on politics could numb any consciousness of unpleasant transactions which he preferred to ignore.’
In the summer of 1769, with the bulk of the purchase price still to find, Burke decided to write a pamphlet which would expound and justify the ideas and principles of the Rockingham party by recalling the events of the past nine years. Many who had hoped George III would ‘unite all sects and all parties’ now believed he had done something very different. They had convinced themselves that the King’s mother, now Dowager Princess of Wales, had taken Bute as her lover and that his resignation had been a sham. In reality, they asserted, Bute and the Princess were still the powers behind the throne. This fantasy, stemming from gutter-press filth put out early in the reign by Pitt’s supporters in the City of London, was not the kind of thing to use as a basis for a party manifesto. Burke therefore adapted it, pointing his accusations not at Bute and the Princess but at ‘a new system of double cabinet’, whereby an inner cabal had encouraged the King to break the power of the Whig Lords by exploiting their divisions and inviting first one group and then another to form a ministry, dismissing each in its turn after its attempts to push the cabal’s policies through Parliament had discredited and weakened it. Having set out this theory Burke used it to show that only the Rockinghams had the measure of the new system. Their ideas and principles, and theirs alone, could and would bring it to an end. Now was the time for other opposition groups to come to the aid of the one party that had a chance of success. ‘When bad men combine,’ Burke concluded, ‘the good must associate.’
It was now clear that Grafton had had enough and the pamphlet was held back while the Whig grandees waited to see which of them the King would appoint as his successor. When the King appointed the comparatively unknown Lord North, Burke seemed vindicated. This must be the cabal at work again. North, it appeared, would last no longer than his predecessors. However, by the time the pamphlet was published in April 1770, under the title Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, it looked as though North was there to stay. The pamphlet was not well received. Rival opposition groups resented the arrogance of the Rockingham party and even within it some feared the pamphlet had made more enemies than friends. Horace Walpole poured scorn on it in his memoirs and Lock quotes him as saying that its insistence on men rather than measures was ‘incredible folly’. This harked back to the Edgcumbe affair. What the pamphlet said was that ‘the cant of Not men but measures’ was ‘a sort of charm, by which many people get loose from every honourable engagement’. Walpole could hardly fail to recognise the reference to Conway’s failure to honour his engagement to the Rockinghams in November 1766.
As well as the comment quoted above, Walpole gave a more damning account of Burke’s readiness to use real or imagined ‘honourable engagements’ for party purposes. In January 1770, when Grafton was on the point of resigning because he could not find a suitable Lord Chancellor, the King found him one in the person of Charles Yorke. Yorke had always wanted to be Lord Chancellor but because his elder brother Lord Hardwicke was associated with Rockingham the Whigs saw his acceptance of the post as a betrayal. When Yorke died three days later it was rumoured that he had committed suicide in despair and remorse. Walpole did not believe this story but by the time he wrote his memoirs he had decided to accept it and added in a footnote: ‘Very few days after the accident Mr Edmund Burke came to me in extreme perturbation, and complained bitterly of the King, who, he said, had forced Mr Yorke to disgrace himself. I concluded from his agitation that they wanted to disculpate Lord Hardwicke and Lord Rockingham of having given occasion to Mr Yorke’s despair.’ This reinforced what Walpole had said earlier about Burke, that he made effective opposition impossible by requiring ‘inviolable attachment to the Marquis of Rockingham, a weak, childish and ignorant man’.
Others went further. Sir William Bagot, of whom it was later said that ‘he wishes to be thought an unbiased independent man but his conduct in Parliament shows the contrary,’ told the Commons that Burke’s determination to cast into outer darkness all who did not have ‘inviolable attachment’ to the Marquis of Rockingham meant he was ‘fit to be secretary to an inquisition for burning heretics’. In spite of this image of religious intolerance Bagot was careful not to belittle Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry in which, as Lock tells us, he had ‘founded his theory on a theological belief’. On the contrary, said Bagot, he ‘admired beyond description his writings upon a subject so abstruse’. In reply Burke disclaimed any connection between his philosophy and his politics, saying that his concern had merely been to study ‘the commerce, the finances and constitution of his country’. Later, in the 1772-73 session, his conduct in Parliament seemed to suggest the contrary. Because the King’s speech at the beginning of the session had suggested that Parliament should take into consideration the distresses of the poor and the high price of corn Burke suggested that George III was about to follow the example of the King of Sweden, who had made use of an earlier dearth in order to distribute food to the poor and win support for a coup d’état which ended the power of the great lords. Parliament must tell the poor, Burke declared, that ‘we cannot alter the decrees of Providence, notwithstanding you have been told the contrary in a cajoling speech from the throne.’
A year later, with North still firmly in the saddle, Burke once again stated his case in the language of religion. In April 1774, in a speech on American taxation, he said that it was not the impious monarch but Parliament that shaped the destiny of the British Empire: ‘as from the throne of heaven, she superintends all the several inferior legislatures without annihilating any’. The right to superintend included the right to tax, asserted in a Declaratory Act which the Rockingham Administration had passed and which Burke still staunchly defended. In 1775 the published version of the speech was attacked from both sides, ministerial pamphleteers saying it made too many concessions to the Americans and radicals saying it made too few. Meanwhile, in September 1774, Walpole added a note to his memoirs saying of the Rockinghams that ‘the weakness and incorrigible ambition of their chief, the obstinacy of Lord John Cavendish, the want of judgment in Burke, their own too great delicacy, and the abandoned venality of the age, reduced them to be of no consequence, as will appear.’ Finally, in the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists produced the most telling of all contemporary comments on Burke’s rhetoric. Because the throne of heaven had failed in its duty, because Parliament had been unable or unwilling to stop George III dissolving colonial legislature, ‘the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise.’
In the Thoughts Burke had said that if Parliament failed in its duty the only remedy might be ‘the interposition of the body of the people itself’. All he meant by this, as Lock points out, was that electors should be asked to sign petitions demanding the dissolution of the present Parliament and the election of a new one. However, once the Americans had said that legislative powers were natural rights, that the throne of heaven could not annihilate them even if it wanted to, radicals on this side of the Atlantic were encouraged to say much the same. They insisted that until the electoral system was reformed, until legislative powers were exercised by the people at large, even if only indirectly, there could be no guarantee that the extinction of liberty in the colonies would not be followed by the extinction of liberty at home. Burke was bitterly opposed to electoral reform and he was able to come up with an alternative. He inveighed against the financing of the war against the colonists, saying it was contrived ‘in ways not fit to be avowed by ministry’, and in 1780 introduced Bills to reform Crown finances and limit the extent to which MPs could be corrupted. The Bills did not get through but in support of them Burke made some of his most successful and most belligerent speeches, pronouncing at one point that the King was merely ‘a trustee for the public, the servant, the creature of the people’. By the time the session was over many MPs were convinced that these proposals, which were described as ‘economical’ reforms, represented a safer and surer way of reforming Parliament than changes in the electoral system. When at last North resigned in March 1782 Rockingham was able to insist on the King’s acceptance of economical reform as a condition of his taking office.
In other respects Rockingham’s position was weaker. He was forced to share power with Shelburne, who was a great deal more acceptable to the King and a great deal less acceptable to Burke. Burke took office as Paymaster General and got some economical reform measures through, but he insisted on resigning after Rockingham’s death in July 1782. He became Paymaster again in April 1783, after the new leaders of the Rockingham party had joined with North to oust Shelburne and force themselves on the King, but in December the King used a defeat of his ministers in the Lords as an excuse to dismiss them and appoint William Pitt, Chatham’s younger son, who did not have a majority in the Commons. At first it seemed that Pitt’s position was untenable but when the King dissolved Parliament in March 1784 the electors rallied to him and the Government took well over a hundred seats from the opposition parties in the general election, ‘I consider the House of Commons as something worse than extinguished,’ Burke wrote sadly. ‘We have been labouring for near twenty years to make it independent; and as soon as we had accomplished what we had in View, we found that its independence led to its destruction. The people did not like our work, and they joined the court to pull it down.’
Horace Walpole seized his chance. Ten years earlier, when he had added his note about Burke having helped to make the Rockinghams of no consequence, he had ended his sentence with the words ‘as will appear’. So far Walpole had not managed to make it appear but now he would. He read through his account of the Thoughts, which said that the pamphlet made united opposition impossible because it failed to accuse Bute, because it ‘removed from the people’s attention an odious and ostensible object and presented them with nothing but a vague idea which it called double cabinet’. He then inserted a passage alleging that because the opposition was ‘disabled’ in this way it had been powerless to prevent the war against the American colonists or the subsequent triumph of Crown influence. This passage was accompanied by a footnote saying it had been added in July 1784.
The suggestion that Burke should have named Bute was puzzling. Walpole well knew that all the opposition factions had been in and out of office since Bute’s resignation and that any account of what he was supposed to have done since then would have led to even more recriminations as each group accused the others of having cuddled up to him. What made it still more puzzling was Walpole’s earlier assertion that Burke’s Observations on the State of the Nation, published in February 1769, had ‘abjured Lord Bute, a step the party two years after tried as injudiciously to recover when it was too late’. If Burke was responsible for the failure of the opposition, what exactly had he done wrong as far as Bute was concerned and what was it he should have done right?
In the 1930s, as Namier pondered his book on the rise of party, it was clear that these were only two of the many questions to which no answer was to be found in the version of Walpole’s memoirs published in 1845 and republished in 1894. Perhaps answers were to be found in Walpole’s manuscript, which was and still is in the possession of the Waldegrave family at Chewton Mendip in Somerset. Namier bought a copy of the four-volume 1894 edition in October 1931 and took it to Chewton Mendip in June 1932. ‘I corrected pp. 1-36 from the first text,’ he noted on a fly-leaf at the beginning of the first volume, ‘before I found there was a second text from which this is copied. Insertions I and II are in both texts. Chewton Mendip 28.6.32.’ Beneath this a second note reads: ‘Recorrected 31.7.32.’ Correction and recorrection meant putting back passages omitted by the 1845 and 1894 editors and noting differences between the two manuscript texts. By the time he had finished Namier had a mass of material which raised more questions than it answered.
This is not the place to list the questions or ask why Namier seems to have been strangely reluctant to have some of them answered. What matters here is the further annotation he made when he got the volumes home. This ignored everything which suggested that what Walpole said about Burke and the Rockinghams might have been vindictive or untrue. Instead it concentrated on Walpole’s reports of Commons debates, which were noted as being ‘remarkably accurate’. The reason for this became clear when The House of Commons 1754-90, Namier’s contribution to The History of Parliament, was published in 1964, four years after his death. Two sources were said to cover the whole of the 1761-68 Parliament, as opposed to those which covered aspects of it, and of these the first and foremost was the memoirs of Walpole. Namier changed course in 1932. The great work which had been promised in the preface to The Structure of Politics, the majestic sequence of books on Britain during the American Revolution, was set aside. Instead there was to be the recruiting of collaborators and a collective effort to gather biographical information about men who sat in the Commons between 1754 and 1790.
One day we may know whether Namier changed course because he took his copy of the memoirs to Chewton Mendip or whether he took his copy of the memoirs to Chewton Mendip because he had decided to change course. All we know at present is that instead of what Namier might have written about Burke we have the work of Frank O’Gorman, who began in 1967 by looking at the latter-day Burke in The Whig Party and the French Revolution and went on to take a wider view six years later in Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy before publishing The Rise of Party in England: The Rockingham Whigs 1760-82 in 1975. At each stage O’Gorman’s conclusions differed from those Namier might have drawn. Burke’s ideas about the French Revolution could not safely be projected backward, first, because they ‘need to be related to the political circumstances of the time if they are to be understood’ and, second, because Burke’s political philosophy in the years up to 1784 was essentially practical and pragmatic, ‘evolved in the press and on the floor of the House of Commons’. ‘For too long,’ concludes O’Gorman, ‘philosophical and political commentators have endowed Burke’s thought with grandiose explanations and sweeping theories which, far from making it intelligible, only serve to inject into discussions of his ideas meanings which Burke never intended to use and concepts which were unknown to him.’
Nevertheless grandiose explanations and sweeping theories are present, not just in the commentaries but in Burke’s writings. Lock singles out one of them for special mention. Early in this volume, after discussing the Philosophical Enquiry, he says that although Burke the politician triumphed over Burke the philosopher ‘no radical discontinuity separates the old politician from the young philosopher. The Enquiry amply demonstrates Burke’s early understanding of a truth he never forgot, the essentially emotive nature of the workings of the human mind.’ To show how Burke arrived at this truth Lock cites a passage in the seventh section of part three of the Enquiry. ‘Whenever the wisdom of our Creator intended that we should be affected with any thing,’ he makes Burke say, ‘he did not confine the execution of his design to the languid and precarious operation of our reason; but he endued it with powers and properties that prevent the understanding, and even the will, which seizing upon the senses and imagination is ready either to join with them, or to oppose them.’
Unless my copy of the Enquiry is badly flawed, what Burke actually wrote was that God ‘endued’ his design with ‘powers and properties that prevent the understanding, and even the will; which, seizing upon the senses and imagination, captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them, or to oppose them.’ Lock says that the understanding and even the will can seize upon the senses and imagination and decide what to do about the incursion of the powers and properties. The true Burke philosophy, the philosophy that Sir William Bagot admired beyond description, says that the powers and properties captivate the soul before the understanding can do anything about it. In July 1782, commenting on Burke’s hysterical opposition to electoral reform, Horace Walpole said that ‘the enthusiasm of his luxuriant imagination presented every measure to him in the most vivid colours. In truth, it had been suspected for above a year that his intellects and sensations had mutually overheated each other.’ Lock, commenting on the years from 1776 to 1779, says that repeatedly unsuccessful opposition had taken its toll and Burke was ‘living in the nightmare world of his own heated imagination’. In both cases neither God nor grandiose explanations had much to do with it. It was the strain of everyday party politics that had led Burke’s understanding to seize upon his senses and his imagination with unfortunate results.
This view was still current when Burke fell into serious disrepute in 1789. In May of that year a caricature appeared in London with the title Burke’s Two Consciences, showing him torn between his good conscience, robed like a muse and flourishing the Philosophical Enquiry, and a bad conscience under the guise of a leering Irish peasant woman with the Thoughts and other political pamphlets stuffed into her petticoats. The abstruse philosopher was in the clear. It was the party politician who was held up to derision because he had been wrong, disastrously wrong, about the madness of King George. He had told the House of Commons that the King was incurably insane, that ‘the Almighty had hurled him from his throne and plunged him into a condition which drew upon him the pity of the meanest peasant in his kingdom.’ This meant that the Prince of Wales, who seemed ready to bring Burke and his friends back to power, was Regent by divine right and not by Act of Parliament. Then the King recovered and it was Burke whose condition was deemed pitiable.
In July 1789, a few weeks after the appearance of the two consciences print, Burke was asked to prepare a revised edition of the Enquiry. He refused, saying that ‘the train of his thought had gone another way’ and that he was no longer fit for ‘such speculations’. Lock mentions the refusal but not the context in which it was made. He is therefore able to see it as understandable and not particularly significant. It does not shake his conviction that ‘no radical discontinuity’ separates the philosopher from the politician. However, in the summer of 1789 Burke had good reason to keep the two apart. The philosopher might find himself less admired if he was revisited, especially if what he had said about God’s ability to override and overawe the human intellect had to be adjusted to fit what the politician had said about God plunging the King into a condition which drew upon him the pity of the meanest peasant in his kingdom. What Marjorie Garber said last year in the LRB about sequels, that they sometimes have to undertake what Freud called ‘secondary revision’, a rearrangement of what we thought or imagined so that it fits what we now need to think and imagine, can equally well be said not only about revised editions but also about second volumes. When the whole sad story of the year 1789 has to be told, Lock may find himself having to do for Burke what Burke very sensibly decided not to do for himself at that time.
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