« PreviousContinue »
impression would be naturally more powerful on Burke, than many of the actors in that great drama, from the eminence of his station in the trial, from his deep conviction of its justice, and not less from the natural force and ardour of his own imagination, The recorded effects of his eloquence on his audience, on his antagonists, nay, on the accused himself, almost justify the tales of the marvellous effects of the art in remoter ages. To apply the critical rules of the present day to the exertions of speakers on such subjects; to judge them by the standard of times so inferior in the motives of personal excitement, and perhaps in the interest of political success generally, is in a double point of view: unfair and illogical.
That the discussions themselves in parliament were improved and exalted by Burke, there can be no difficulty in believing. The character of his eloquence is essentially original, and deties imitation. It leaves the impression, not uncommon in works of the highest cast of genius, of bordering on the defects and the vices, which lead to certain failure. Its effect was heightened by his great personal influence, by the unspotted integrity of his private life. In no orator of the times shall we find a more constant or more correct application of general principles, a more sustained tone of philosophy, or a knowledge on all the brauches of human inquiry, so general and yet so practical. If, indeed, we were called upon to state some peculiar, mark of distinction between his speeches and those of his most successful contemporaries, we should be inclined to say, that he always appears to have in view some higher object of attainment than the immediate success of the exertion; that he is possessed by some, abstract notion of excellence, of which the too ardent pursuit frequently leaves him for the moment defeated by his more astute and less excursive adversaries. This justified the good-humoured sarcasm of his friend Goldsmith;
Too deep for his hearers, he went on refining,
And thought of convincing, when they thought of dining.' But this, at the same time, marked him as an orator in the loftiest sense of the term--the 'heir to immortality.' We shall not pretend to institute a comparison between Burke and his great competitors, not only because we cannot pretend to any novelty on the subject, but because there are not in truth materials to form an accurate and fair judgment. It is sometimes forgotten, that for ten of the most vigorous and most active years of his political career, when he was the undisputed leader of the most considerable body of the opposition, we have, with the exception of his own occasional reports, nothing but most meagre, scanty and partial records on: which to ground any opinion. If, however, the recorded effect
of his speeches, the panegyrics of adverse as of friendly parties, are to be taken as evidence of his excellence in discussion, we should be inclined to deny the justice of the common opinion wbich denies to Burke the more limited merit of a debater. For, in reference to the parliament of England, the continued and permanent success of any speaker is conclusive evidence of his possession of this talent; and that without the aid of rank, of connexions, or of wealth, Burke so long maintained the station of leader of a great party in the House of Commons, is a simple fact that appears to us to remove all doubt on the question. The false notion which prevails is principally, we cannot doubt, to be ascribed to the reports of his orations, which Burke himself has bequeathed to posterity, and to which all men unite in referring as the most finished models of English eloquence. For admirable as these are, and remarkably free from the ordinary coldness and formality of reported speeches, they unquestionably have, and from their very nature must have, more of the air of studied compositions, of disquisitions in short, than belongs of right to the winged words' of the busy senate. To conclude, however, from their elaborate and artificial structure, that this was the only manner of the orator, the only test of his capacity, would not be less unfair, than to decide that a general, deeply versed in the science of war, was thereby rendered incapable of success in a real contest. But whatever may be the true estimate of Burke's merit as a debater, or even as an orator in the more extended sense, we claim for him a merit in its nature more exalted, in its effects more permanent. By his reforms he raised the character, and increased the constitutional influence of parliament; by his eloquence he enlarged the sphere, and improved the quality of its discussions; and in his example he has left to Englishmen the most impressive instance on record, of surpassing fame, honour, and influence, strictly and solely acquired by parliamentary exertion and public service-this last too almost entirely un-official.
To our imperfect notice of some of the benefits, not less durable than numerous, which Burke achieved for the civil liberties, the national welfare of his country, we cannot neglect to add --and to rank in the highest degree—the marked and still living influence of his writings,--an influence derived not only from the personal character, and the earnest and impressive language of the writer, but from the gradual and conclusive testimony of events. If we supposed their value to be confined to the refutation of the doctrines, and the exposure of the tendency of the French Revolution, we should underrate the matter most unjustly.
Great and useful as may be this merit, the works of Burke would possess, if entirely stripped of it, undoubted claims to the gratitude
of Englishmen. The honesty of his alarms at the danger of the contagion of French doctrines, and of jacobinical anarchy, has been, and will continue to be, questioned; but it can scarcely be disputed that, in pursuing his purpose of denouncing the influence of revolutionary France, he did profoundly examine the true principles of the British constitution, and explain its genuine excellence with a force of argument and a wealth of illustration of which our preceding political literature had exhibited no example. He made it an object of affection and of reverence on the bigher grounds of reason and of philosophy; and by displaying in the strongest light the value of the possession, he rendered the possible loss of it a more active and more general cause of apprehension. It might be true, however paradoxical, that in exposing the crimes and the excesses of another nation in the pursuit of the very advantages which Englishmen actually enjoyed, he had conferred no benefit on Englishmen; but to have diffused a more perfect understanding of our own system, in its details as in its general principles, more enlarged yet more practical views of its real spiritabove all to have contirmed the national feeling of its superiority over specious theories and metaphysical dreams—this was a national service not limited to that crisis of revolutionary phrenzy, but splendid in the highest degree, and lasting as the existence of the English Constitution itself. Henceforth it was as easy to disprove the existence of that constitution, as its value; and in the merit of having rooted this principle of national faith and personal devotion more firmly in the hearts of his countrymen, Burke stands alone and far above all competition.
It is now a truism to assert, that to this unshaken attachment to her established institutions, rather than to the resources of finance, of armies and of navies, England was mainly indebted for her success, and therefore for her present station and her present security. This was the vital source of her triumph; that salient living principle of energy in the public mind of England, which, as Burke expressed it with his latest breath, left him no fears for the result. This alone can explain the constant and enduring spirit of the people throughout the alarms and privations of a contest, of which his prescience, and his alone, had not ill calculated the duration. Even among those who had direct influence on the management of the national resources, there were, we may believe, in the course of the long and dreary contest, moments enough of doubt, if not despondency. What then but this living and universal principle, this national instinct of elasticity, admitting no compromise and limited to no time, could have unfailingly encouraged the timid, confirmed the wavering, repressed the malevolent? To the constitution of England, of whose advantages he
VOL. XXXIV. NO, LXVIII.
was in himself no mean illustration, Burke thus nobly and effectually discharged the debt of grateful genius.
But the beneficial influence of his writings is not confined to their political effect: they inculcate a tone of manly morality, as distant from any rigid and puritanical austerity, as it is from the heartless levity, the profligate selfishness of the revolutionary school. No professed writer on ethics has supplied rules of conduct or principles of action, better adapted to the various conditions and exigencies of life. Their uniform tendency is to inspire the active and social spirit becoming the citizens of a free nation; to connect more closely the interests of the individual with those of his country, to render the motives to integrity and patriotism as attractive as they are powerful. His maxims have all the force without the pomp of Johnson. An intimate experience of the true springs of human actions gives to them the truth and the animation of real life. Let them be compared with the political Essays of Lord Bolingbroke, who, forgotten as a philosopher, still maintains his station as a model of political writing. Burke commenced his literary career by proving that he could expose and refute Bolingbroke's flimsy doctrines, while he could surpass the beauty of his composition; and he concluded it by a vindication of civil society, which has most powerfully contributed to set at rest the questions agitated by an unsound and a mischievous philosophy.
The principal and the most popular censures of Burke's writings, whether in point of literary taste, or of political doctrine, may be comprised in the word eraggeration. We cannot refrain from suggesting some few reflections on this criticism. That they are guilty of an occasional diffuseness, manifestly not the result of any barrenness or any languor of ideas, but of an intense anxiety to impress his own opinions on the reason and the passions of mankind, we most willingly admit. It would also be absurd to deny, that his metaphors are sometimes harsh and strained to a degree not entirely excused by their forcible illustration of his meaning; or that his propositions themselves are sometimes carried to a faulty extreme in taste and in reasoning. But does all this, in truth, amount to more than a superfluous proof, that iu ardour of temperament, the heartfelt and zealous attachment to a favourite cause may overcome the severer rules of the judgment ? No author has explained more clearly or more rationally than Burke himself, the principles of taste which he may too frequently be accused of violating. Nay, if we examine what are more strictly his literary works—the Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautifulthe Vindication of Natural Society--the Introduction to the History of England-or even his earlier political writings, we shall admit them to be free from these defects in sentiment and in composition. They have less of rhetorical amplification, are more simple in the language, more temperate in description and in statement, though not less powerful in argument, than his later productions. What then is the cause of this difference, which it were idle to attribute to chance, or to any depravation of taste?
Assuming the honesty of his motives, and without this concession it is useless to reason on the subject, we must be sensible that it was the main object of Burke to excite the fears, and to stimulate the energies of that class in society, whom the security of possession and the habit of inaction render the least susceptible of such impressions. No calm and languid description, no reasoning coldly correct,' could effect this purpose-could convince them either of his sincerity and zeal, or of their own danger. It is unnatural as well as unwise to employ the same language and the same tone of feeling in order to rescue a person from some great and imminent peril, which would be adequate to a situation of common and trifling risk. But over and above this reason in the very nature of the particular case, it is vain to expect that an author or an orator in attacking any system, to the vices and the dangers of which he is acutely sensible, should not often in appearance, and at times in reality, be guilty of some exaggeration. We may observe, that individuals whose sincerity and whose taste are equally remote from suspicion, fall continually into this practice, and scarcely admit that it requires any defence. The language of an opposition in parliament, whatever may be their tenets, must be more deeply coloured, more impassioned and bordering on the extreme, than that of government, or, in other words, of the defensive party :' Hanc veniam petimusque damusque vicissim.' Nor should it be forgotten that, in the system of principles which Burke laboured to expose and to defeat, all was exaggeration. The principles of freedom, the doctrines of metaphysics—the jealousy of property, of rank, of priestly influence, were all carried to the most extravagant degree. We are not contending that this justified the employment of the same weapons by the adversary of the whole system; but it would obviously have been unwise if not impossible to attempt such a contest with nothing more than the moderate resources of opposition to definite evil.
To assert in general terms that these writings, aided by the personal example of the man, constituted a most effectual defence of the religion, the civil institutions, and the very frame of society in England, conveys no distinct notion of Burke's peculiar merit. Many statesmen and many writers may justly share with him in such glory. The greatest service which he effected for England and for the world was, in our opinion, the exposure and the refutation of