A Magazine of Wisdom

Linda Colley

  • Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature by Nicholas Robinson
    Yale, 214 pp, £30.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 300 06801 8
  • The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Vol. III: Party, Parliament and the American War 1774-80 edited by Warren Elofson and John Woods
    Oxford, 713 pp, £75.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 19 822414 1
  • Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire by Frederick Whelan
    Pittsburgh, 384 pp, £39.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 8229 3927 4

Edmund Burke is easily the most significant intellectual in politics these islands ever produced. Infinitely more profound and productive than his nearest 18th-century equivalent, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, he was also far more prominent in national politics over a much longer span than John Milton or the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury in the 17th century, J.S. Mill in the 19th century, and Bertrand Russell this century. Nominated MP for Wendover in 1765, after becoming private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham who was then briefly prime minister, he remained in the Commons until 1794, three years before his death. For most of that time he was a leading opposition spokesman, ideologue and tactician.

Burke’s extraordinary combination of high, speculative intellect and protracted involvement in political life at the centre poses a challenge to those seeking to understand his ideas. As Conor Cruise O’Brien complained in the most recent major biography, some of the Namierites who dominated 18th-century English historical scholarship from the Thirties to the Sixties were inclined to dwell on what they saw as the tension between these two facets of Burke. They revelled in his inconsistencies, pointed out (correctly) that some of his famous set-pieces – like the Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) – partook at times more of partisan polemic than accurate analysis, and demonstrated (again, correctly) that however wonderfully Burke’s speeches might read in retrospect, they could perplex or simply weary their immediate electoral and Parliamentary auditors. None of this was very surprising. But those who read Sir Lewis Namier and his disciples without also reading Burke were sometimes left with the impression that he had been a contorted, noisy figure whose reputation badly needed cutting down to size.

The revival in serious Burke studies in recent decades owes something to changing historiographical fashions but more to two massive publishing enterprises. Between 1958 and 1978, Cambridge University and the University of Chicago Presses combined to publish a definitive, ten-volume edition of Burke’s correspondence, supervised by the late Thomas Copeland. And since 1981, the Clarendon Press has been publishing Burke’s writings and speeches under the overall editorship of Paul Langford, the first systematically new edition since that compiled between 1792 and 1827. No one reading these genuinely engrossing volumes can doubt the calibre of Burke’s mind, the power of his language, or the enduring pungency of his political comment. Yet despite these serried ranks of massive, immaculately annotated volumes – or even because of them – there is a risk of Burke being approached, not too seriously, but too single-mindedly. The extreme Namierite view that Burke was little more than a skilful Rockinghamite hack is rightly defunct. But we should never forget that he was a driven, political animal as well as a philosopher.

In a Parliamentary career of almost forty years, Burke spoke and wrote an enormous amount. Between 1766 and 1780, he is known to have addressed the Commons over six hundred times. Indeed, in this latest volume of the collected speeches and writings, Warren Elofson calculates that Burke spoke more than any other Parliamentarian between 1774 and 1776 except Lord North, the Prime Minister. It follows that some of the extreme ingenuity which has been expended on trying to reconstruct a coherent Burkeian line over time (in particular, efforts to reconcile the violence of his language against the French Revolution with his position in the 1770s and earlier) is likely to be misplaced. He spoke and wrote too much, too often, over too long a time, often under extreme pressure. He was constrained, too, by personal tensions and insecurities, and by the small political world in which he had to operate. So those current political groupings which appeal to Burke to endorse their own position almost invariably do violence to his actual variety and contradictions. There is the conservatives’ Burke, stern exponent, in Philippe Raynaud’s words, of those ‘limits which the limited nature of man sets to political action’. There is the liberals’ Burke, staunch critic of religious intolerance, the slave trade and capital punishment. There is even, among those who do not read him, Burke the anti-colonial freedom fighter, hammer of British imperialism in Ireland, America and India. All these are tributes to Burke’s posthumous status as a ‘magazine of wisdom’, as Gladstone put it. They are not Burke.

One of the strengths of Nicholas Robinson’s highly original and attractive survey is that it conveys the controversial, fallible man rather than the icon, the way that Burke struck irreverent observers in his own time, over time. The British Museum possesses 293 satires of Burke drawn between 1778 and 1797, and yet more are in the Library of Congress and the Lewis Walpole Library. For these two decades, he was the sixth most caricatured individual in Britain; and only three other politicians, William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox and North, featured in prints more. Yet, as Robinson points out, before 1778 visual representations of Burke were rare: and this is suggestive. In retrospect, Burke’s speeches in the 1760s and early 1770s, warning of deteriorating British relations with the American colonies, seem vitally important and wonderfully prescient. The cartoonists’ neglect of him at this time, however, shows that for many contemporary Britons American issues simply did not loom all that large. In this earlier period and as he often complained, Burke was the extraordinary spokesman of a small, uneven Parliamentary opposition possessed of markedly limited public appeal.

Only when Britain was palpably losing the American war, and Rockinghamite arguments for peace and moderate reform consequently resonated, did the cartoonists think it worth their while to devise set ways of representing Burke. They fixed on his spectacles (as in Gillray’s brilliant Smelling out a Rat of 1790), thereby conveying his intellectual pursuits and manic, glassy gaze, while also implying that his vision was defective. And they returned frequently to his genteel poverty. Sometimes even his skeleton protrudes through the gaps in his clothes. But more commonly, as in The Political Banditti of 1786, he is Don Quixote tilting at latter-day windmills, rusting armour not quite concealing a bare, exposed foot or stringy buttock. This was partly a reference to Burke’s real economic straits. The payments on his estate at Beaconsfield, a crucial part of his ambition to be at one with the Whig hereditary élite and not just its apologist, were falling ever more in arrears. But were these emblems of impecuniousness also a way of jibing at Burke’s Irishness?

Robinson argues that Burke was frequently a victim of English anti-intellectualism and occasionally of racism. Both claims are valid. Yet what is striking about the cartoons reproduced here is how few refer specifically to their subject’s nationality. One of these is on the cover: a Jesuitical Burke eats potatoes out of a chamberpot, a legless, headless Christ crucified balances on a whiskey keg. Yet this kind of precise, visual counterpart to John Wilkes’s typically xenophobic rant about Burke stinking of ‘whiskey and potatoes’ is rare. What was common was the anti-Catholicism. Burke’s vulnerability on this score was extreme. His mother and wife were Catholic. So, possibly, was his father before converting so that he could practise law. And Burke’s own resentment of Ireland’s discriminatory Penal Laws was overt. Yet, even allowing for all this, the many representations of Burke as a Jesuit should not be read as invariably and incontestably anti-Irish. At one level, these were hits at his perceived intellectual arrogance and sophistry. Moreover, just as the caricaturists portrayed not only Burke but other – English – opposition leaders as impoverished creatures in ragged clothes (Fox especially), by the same token, prominent and controversial Englishmen (including George III) also came in for being represented in this period as crypto-Catholics or intriguing priests. By now, a majority of the British political classes favoured relaxing intolerance against Catholics, something which was profoundly unpopular among the Protestant masses. Jesuitical costume in later Georgian satires could consequently be an expression more than anything else of the artist’s desire to stir things up.

This is just one of the ways in which the issue of Burke’s Irishness needs problematising. As with those real-life Phineas Finns whom Roy Foster discusses in his essay ‘Marginal Men and Micks on the Make’, it is possible to argue that what was remarkable about Burke was less his angry devotion to Ireland, or the discrimination he suffered on account of this, than the degree to which he embraced England and was embraced in return. In 1768, he distinguished the ‘national temperaments’ of the Scots, Welsh, Irish and American Creoles ‘from that of the native genuine English’, but he often applied this last label to himself. Nor was he above indulging in anti-Irish humour, partly to pique his overwhelmingly English audience, but also because he felt comfortable doing so, as when telling the Commons in 1780 of ‘the poor Irishman who said two people were doing nothing, and so he sent a third to help them.’ And he practised, with more conviction even than the generality of the political class, a narcissistic worship of the English constitution. Like his political disciple, Henry Grattan, Burke took it for granted that the ‘day-star of the English constitution’, as he phrased it, was simply too bright and beneficent for Ireland ever to seek entire escape from its rays. He was even unhappy about the purely legislative independence which Grattan’s Protestant nationalists struggled to achieve in 1782.

Burke’s position in this regard resembled that of many of his more prosperous Irish Catholic countrymen, who were committed in this period to preserving, even enhancing links with London as the only way of reining in their country’s Protestant Ascendancy. But it also stemmed from his perspective on empire in general. There is an enormous, even surprising amount to be learnt on this score from a scrupulous reading of Elofson and Woods’s edition of the speeches and writings of 1774-80, side by side with the preceding volume, edited by Paul Langford and issued in 1981. Both reinforce in some respects our conventional image of Burke as the sagacious friend of American liberties. There is the sharp ability to cut through ministerial waffle about the colonists being as virtually represented at Westminster as English settlements were which lacked MPs: ‘Are gentlemen really serious when they propose this?’ His background in the garrisoned island which was Ireland makes him acutely aware, as most English MPs were not, of how the British military presence in the colonies after 1763 will stiffen resistance: ‘Reflect how you are to govern a people, who think they ought to be free, and think they are not.’ And, as successive generations of imperial reformers would do, he urges Westminster to look beyond colonial ‘outrages’ to what prompts them: ‘We look very improperly upon North America if we consider their disturbances only, and entirely neglect their grievances.’

Yet none of this constituted anti-imperialism. The early Burke could be enchanted by Britain’s global aggression. French Canadians, he gloated in 1769, ‘were compelled to submit; they were subdued by English valour’. And when General Clive himself warned that expansion in Bengal should not be pushed too far, Burke took him up: ‘If we make war shall we not conquer? If we conquer, shall we not keep?’ Accompanying this was a sense of England’s providential, even after a fashion racial, destiny, which at times seems almost to prefigure the likes of Sir John Seeley. ‘I cannot regret that other Englands should arise in other regions,’ he told the Commons in 1774. For out of this expansion of England, rightly pursued, would come an extension of liberty. But not of liberty from the ‘mother country’: ‘Whenever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you’ (1775).

The American colonists were to be supported, then, not because they were rebelling against England or against empire. Rather, as Burke saw it, because London was failing to treat them sufficiently as trueborn Englishmen and consequently as heirs to certain inalienable rights. It followed that Burke was profoundly opposed to the North Administration’s efforts to broaden Britain’s power base in North America by extending limited concessions to groups other than its white, Protestant colonists. Like many opposition MPs, he was unhappy at the Quebec Act’s concessions to French Canadians: ‘He would be willing to give a Canadian every indulgence in his power, but not grant the indulgence at the expense of the English.’ But it is the violence of his language at Britain’s recruitment of blacks and Indians against the American rebels which shocks, perfectly consistent though it is with his particular veneration of an imagined English constitution. In the context of whites overwhelmingly of English descent struggling for their native liberties, those not white who threatened this struggle seemed to Burke ‘fierce tribes of savages and cannibals’. How was ‘the ferocity of a wild African to judge of the law and liberty of England?’ As for those Native Americans who allied themselves with the British Army, they were ‘banditti’, ‘barbarians’, remnants of a savage past with no place in what America should be: ‘there was no occasion for holding any political connection with them as nations.’

How do we reconcile these outbursts, which struck even his admirers as excessive, with Burke’s abolitionism or his well-known campaign against British injustices in India? There are strains. As I have already argued, Burke’s expressed views were not always consistent. Nor was his intellect always incompatible with rabid emotionalism. But the strains are rather less than the lurid language cited above suggests. Even when he attacked those blacks and Indians who aided London against its American colonists, he was careful to stress that he was not prompted by considerations of skin colour. He never wavered in his belief that slavery and the slave trade were evils, though his equal commitment to the sanctity of property made him critical of London’s self-interested incitement of Southern slave rebellion. Moreover, in regard to India as to America, Burke took the fact of British imperium absolutely for granted: ‘there we are placed by the Sovereign Disposer.’ As Frederick Whelan remarks, what concerned him in both territories was not the legitimacy of British rule, but its quality.

Whelan’s book is valuable both for its intelligent and unillusioned treatment of Burke’s take on Indian issues, and for the way it pinpoints connections between his imperial analysis and the content of his political thought in general. He argues, for instance, that Burke’s decade-long campaign to impeach Warren Hastings for oppression and rapacity in Britain’s Indian possessions was not, at least in its genesis, an obsessive, tactical error. Burke had no great hopes of Hastings being found guilty. But he believed, correctly, that his campaign would enhance the political class’s awareness of Indian affairs. And he hoped, with much less success, that this specific assault might serve to revive impeachment as a Parliamentary device which could be levelled against future abuses of power. Whelan also makes clear throughout one obvious way in which Burke’s approaches to India and America diverged. Confronted with territories which were manifestly not settlement colonies, he felt no compulsion to insist on prioritising English ways, English political ideologies. Massive research (by the standards of the time) convinced him that existing Indian law codes were workable and worthy of respect. And, like other Britons by this stage, he was able to free himself from the long-established Western belief that Asian states were historically and intrinsically despotic.

This does not mean that he viewed the geographical space called India only in its own terms. Whelan hints throughout how much Burke’s perceptions of its political and social hierarchies borrowed from his own experience and values. His anger at Hastings’s displacement of the zamindars as revenue collectors in Bengal stemmed in part from his association of this group with his own islands’ landed gentry, and consequent assumption that they must be the fittest instruments of local government. Moreover, at least some of the energy with which he pursued the excesses of the East India Company stemmed from his sense that as financiers and traders, transients with no fixed stake in the land, its members were ipso facto more prone to corruption, narrowness of vision and irresponsibility. One should not push this too far. In 1783 he told the Commons, with regard to Fox’s India Bill, that he had ‘known merchants with the sentiments and the abilities of great statesmen’, and on another occasion urged that business techniques might beneficially be imported into government. But he never lost his sense that traders were rightly a state’s auxiliaries – any state’s – not proper instruments of government.

Already, then, in the reforming Burke of the 1780s one sees outlined the Burke of the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Those who seek to explain the social conservatism of this text by arguing that Burke viewed traditional Whig landed power in Britain and Ireland as the precondition for commercial prosperity, need to ponder the fact that – as Whelan points out – he also celebrated India’s ancient families, who could only rarely be portrayed as proponents of economic growth. By the same token, his eulogy of Marie Antoinette was anticipated in the 1780s by his obsession with the wrongs done to the Begams of Oudh, widowed mother and grandmother of an Indian prince. Burke of course was no more indifferent to India’s masses than he was to those of lreland, Britain or France. But there was some truth in Paine’s accusation that he felt a particular, highly coloured solicitude for the high-ranking ‘victim expiring in shew’ rather than the ‘real prisoner of misery’.

The irony was that Burke himself would have been an obvious candidate for Revolutionary France’s National Assembly, one of those ‘new men of merit – political men of serviceable talent and limited means’ whom he indicted in the Reflections. But his entanglement with the Whig hierarchy and, I think, with his own political cult of England was too strong. He struggled and he ranted and he mocked, not least in his Letter to a Noble Lord without, however, wanting to break out. So the cartoonists drew him at the end in court dress, his earlier rags lost in the garb of the establishment. This, I suspect, was why Namier really hated Burke. A product of displaced Polish gentry as against Burke’s own Irish gentry background, a lapsed Jew in place of Burke the lapsed Catholic, a man disturbed and fearful of madness, a chronicler obsessed with England and its aristocracy, but never entirely fitting in. How could Namier look at Burke and fail to see something of himself?