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EDMUND BURKE was born in 1729. He was the son of an attorney of Dublin. His mother was a Roman Catholic, but he was brought up in the Protestant faith of his father. He was sent to a Quaker school, and at the age of fourteen entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied a variety of subjects with diligence and enthusiasm, though in a-somewhat desultory fashion. Of the Latin authors with whom he made himself familiar, he gave especial attention to Cicero. He graduated in 1748, and in 1750 was sent by his father
London to study law. Little is known of his early life in England. After a few years, he abandoned his legal studies, which had never interested him, and devoted himself to literature and politics.
When he was twenty-eight, he married the daughter of his physician, Dr. Nugent. His wife had been a Catholic, but at her marriage accepted her husband's religion. At this time Burke's health was poor and his income was very small. For his services as editor of the Annual Register, he received only £100 a year. He became the private secretary of William Gerard Hamilton, through whose influence he received a pension, but when he quarreled with Hamilton, soon after, he refused to accept it.
When Rockingham became Prime Minister in 1765, he made Burke his private secretary. From this time Burke exercised great influence in the councils of the Whig Party. He was provided with a seat in the House of Commons, as a representative of the Borough of Wendover, and on January 27, 1766, made his first speech in that body, on the question of receiving a petition from the colonies against the Stamp Act. He at once took his place as a speaker of the first rank. Physically he was large and powerful, with a commanding voice. Although he spoke with an Irish accent, and his gestures were awkward, he was soon recognized as one of the greatest orators who ever addressed the House.
During the Grafton Ministry, he was the life of the opposition to the action of the Government against Wilkes. In his Thoughts on the Present Discontents, he attributed the popular unrest to the policy of the Administration. He objected to the secret sessions of Parliament, and urged the necessity of party loyalty as a check upon the influence of the court. His spirit of loyalty to his party caused him, in 1772, to refuse an offer of the directors of the East India Company to send him to India at the head of a commission to reform the administration of the company.
In 1773, he visited Paris, where he met several of the leaders of French thought who were already busily engaged in arousing that discontent with the old régime which developed into the French Revolution. On this visit, he saw Marie Antoinette, whose sad fate in later years called forth his profoundest sympathy.
In 1774, Burke became representative for Bristol. In that year his party secured a strong recruit in the person of Charles James Fox, who definitely joined the opposition to Lord North. Fox at once became a firm friend and ally of Burke, and joined with him in opposing the Penal Acts of 1774. During the consideration by Parliament of American affairs in the spring of that year, Burke delivered his great Speech on American Taxation.
The interests of the colonies now engrossed his attention. Since 1771, he had been the agent of the Colony of New York, and no man in England better understood the attitude of the Americans. He devoted himself with untiring zeal to the task of convincing Parliament that its colonial policy would end in disaster. In this effort, he delivered his Speech on Conciliation, on March 22, 1775. In 1777, he defended his attitude on American questions in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol.
Burke had no sympathy with those who sought to lessen the influence of the Crown by changing the system of representation, for he feared that such a change would destroy the equipoise of the constitution. He believed that the administration could better be reformed by abolishing the sinecures and pensions, through which the Crown exercised its influence over the members of Parliament. For this
purpose, he introduced a bill for economical reform, which, however, was defeated by Lord North.
No member of Parliament was more devoted to the welfare of Ireland than was Burke. His well-known sympathy for the Irish Catholics, and his efforts to secure larger privileges for the trade of Ireland, gave rise to a report that he was secretly a Jesuit. This suspicion was encouraged by his enemies and caused him considerable embarrassment. Because of his views on these questions, Burke lost his seat at Bristol in 1780, but Rockingham had him returned for Malton.
When the Rockingham Ministry came into power upon the fall of Lord North in 1782, Burke became Paymaster of the Forces, but was not given a place in the Cabinet. The unwillingness of the Whigs to admit Burke to high office was due in part to his lack of social position, and in part to his irascible temper. While in office he succeeded in carrying through Parliament some of his proposals for economical reform. In the regulation of his own office he made important changes which saved large sums to the nation. He actively supported the removal of the restrictions on the Irish Parliament which prevented that body from having legislative independence.
When Rockingham died, on the 1st of July, 1782, Burke and Fox, being averse to serving under Shelburne, retired from office. When that minister was overthrown in 1783 by a coalition of the followers of Fox and North which came into power, Burke again took his old office of Paymaster. He had long been interested in the affairs of India. He drafted the East India Bill, which provided for the better government of India, and delivered a strong speech in its support. Though this bill passed the House of Commons, it was defeated in the House of Lords through the personal efforts of the King. The ministry was short-lived, and Burke was soon again in opposition. At this period, his influence in the House of Commons was at its lowest ebb. His inconsistency in taking office under Lord North, whom for so many years he had bitterly attacked, was resented. He was often rudely interrupted by the withdrawal of members while he was speaking. On one occasion he was even censured by the House for the use of violent language.
With Fox and Sheridan, he attacked Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, and had the satisfaction of securing his impeachment by the House of Commons. The famous trial, which began on the 13th of February, 1788, was continued at intervals for seven years. It called forth Burke's greatest efforts. In his reply to the defense, he spoke for nine days, with such eloquence that he received the thanks of the House. His efforts were, however, useless, for Hastings was acquitted.
Meanwhile, the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 filled Burke with alarm. Fox, on the other hand, declared the taking of the Bastille to be the greatest and best event in the history of the world. On November 1, 1790, Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution. The effect of the publication was extraordinary. It checked the sympathy in England for the Revolution and created a strong sentiment of hostility against the French. It divided the Whigs by bringing about a rupture between Fox and Burke, and strengthened the power of Pitt. Soon after Burke broke with his party, he published his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Both at home and abroad his influence was at its highest point. He was consulted by the French royalists and devoted himself to their cause. He urged upon Pitt the necessity of making war upon the new French Republic. With the outbreak of hostilities his
popularity increased. He retired from Parliament in 1794, and busied himself on his estate at Beaconsfield and in the establishment of a school for the children of the French refugees. He had a severe illness in July, 1796, from which he never recovered. He died Sunday morning, July 9, 1797, and was buried in the parish church at Beaconsfield.