Page images

There are but three ways of proceeding relative to this stubborn spirit. These are to change that spirit . to prosecute it ... to comply with it.

It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.

Freedom, not servitude, is the cure of anarchy.
Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom.

These few quotations serve to show the universality of Burke's speech, and the permanence of the problems with which he dealt. Conciliation with the Colonies is an historical document in the best sense, in the sense that historical study shall seek in the past the explanation and solution of the problems of the present.



EDMUND BURKE was born in Dublin, Ireland, in January, 1729. His father was an attorney with a fair practice, and looked forward to the same profession for his son. The boy received his education first in a private school; then in Trinity College, Dublin, where he took the bachelor's degree in his nineteenth year; and last of all, in the Middle Temple, London. His studies gained him at the time no special academic honors, and never brought him to the actual practice of the law; yet in them, and especially in the wide and profound reading which accompanied them, was laid the foundation of his future greatness.

Burke's first public venture was in literature. In 1756 appeared his Vindication of Natural Society a clever bit of irony and his Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, an essay which at once attracted attention both in England and upon the Continent. Meantime, however, he had discovered the true bent of his genius, and was diligently studying the governmental problems of England. The first fruit of this study appeared in 1757, in his Account of English Settlements in America. From about this time also dates his long friendship with Dr. Johnson and the members of his famous Literary Club.

His political career began in 1765, when he became private secretary to Lord Rockingham, the head of the new Whig Ministry. A little later he was returned to Parliament as member for Wendover, taking his seat in time to distinguish himself in the debates which preceded the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. His career in Parliament lasted without break from this time until 1794, when, broken in health and spirits, he withdrew from public life. His death occurred not long after, in 1797.

A passion for order and a passion for justice, some one has said, were the master-motives of Burke's thought and life. Both these passions led him directly into that field of human activity where they find their noblest play, the field of practical government. During his lifetime three mighty questions successively confronted the government of England: (1) How shall a great nation deal with colonies of its own proud blood and free traditions ? (2) How shall such a nation treat subject provinces of alien race and temper? (3) How shall it meet the fierce spirit of change and revolution at its very doors? They were the questions of America, of India, and of France. Into their discussion Burke threw himself with all the ardor and force of his great nature. In his utterance upon the first of these questions Burke was undoubtedly at his best. He brought to it a fresher, truer insight, a judgment more sane, a temper more serene and genial, than he was able to command later, after years spent in unavailing struggle and bitter conflict. Furthermore, this question raised no schism within himself. His passion for the established order and his passion for justice both led him to the same conclusion.

When the American Colonies were forever lost, Burke turned his attention to the government of England's East Indian possessions. A series of brilliant speeches in Parliament led up to his crowning effort upon this subject, the speech at the trial of Warren Hastings, in 1787. Burke's grasp of facts is now more masterful, and his oratory more splendid than ever; but the noble effect is somewhat marred by a shrillness of tone, and excitement of personal feeling, and a fierceness of invective from which his earlier utterances were free.

In 1789 came the crash of the French Revolution. Burke's horror at the overthrow of long-established order was so great as to leave no room for calm consideration of justice as between oppressor and oppressed. With fiercer and fiercer outcry from this time onward he urged England to espouse the cause of the old tyranny, and to put down the Revolution.


GOVERNMENT. The English speeches contained in this volume make frequent reference to a structure of government and to forms and usages unlike those with which we are familiar in the United States. Information upon these subjects is absolutely necessary to an intelligent reading of these speeches, and yet it is not always readily accessible. It has therefore been thought best to embody in succinct statement the peculiar features of the English Constitution, government, and procedure touched upon in the speeches, and incidentally to point out the pitfalls which lurk under the guise of terms and expressions similar in form to our own, but different in content and meaning. It should be noted that the point of view in the following sketch is that of the present status in England. Historical differences within the period covered will be noticed as they occur in the speeches themselves.


When a new organization of government was adopted and put upon trial in the United States in 1789, the special features of that organization were set forth in a well-known document, which, by a natural transfer of meaning, took the name of the order and organization which it described; that is, the Constitution of the United States of America. Ever since that time the extraordinary interest centering in this document has, in the usage of American speakers and writers, tended steadily to shift the meaning of the word Constitution to this narrower base; that is, from the actual order and organization of government to the document in which that order is officially described and promulgated. This limitation of meaning is by no means prevalent outside the realm of American politics; and the young American student should be specially cautioned against interpreting in any such narrow sense the frequent reference made by Englishmen to the British Constitution. England has no written Constitution; nor, under the circumstances, could she well have one.

Her government is the outcome of ages of experiment and struggle; of incessant re-adjustment of conflicting powers and interests; sometimes of sharp and decisive action, more frequently of insensible but irresistible drifting upon the current of national tendency. Questions of constitutionality, therefore, are settled in England, not by appeal to a state-paper like ours, since none exists, but by appeal to unchallenged usage, to precedents not reversed, or to legislation not repealed, wherever these are to be found in the

centuries between Magna Charta and the present time. Even in cases where we find citation of what is claimed to be the very language of the Constitution, we are not to understand anything more than that the language is that of some document of acknowledged authority in determining usage; as, for example, an Act of Parliament. And the English Constitution is altered, not through the formality of an amendment voted upon by the people, but by embodying the innovation directly in legislative act subject, of course, to prompt ratification or rejection by the people in their next return of members to Parliament. To Englishmen, then, the Constitution means primarily the established order of government, whether this be (1) with reference to its organization, its actual structure, and the relation of its parts; or (2) with reference to usage, precedent, and law; or (3) with reference to its genius and spirit. In the first sense the word is often loosely synonymous with our use of the word government; but for this last word English usage has developed a special meaning (see below), which excludes it in certain connections. Examples of these several uses of the word may be found on p. 50, 1. 15; and p. 42, 1. 25.


In England the executive power, as of old, is vested nominally in the Crown, but really in the Cabinet, or Ministry, with which body the sovereign is associated, both as its honorary head and as a permanent councilor; influential indeed, but without vote, responsibility, or place in its sessions. Whenever a decisive change of party or of policy becomes apparent in the votes of the House of Commons, the old Cabinet resigns, and a new one is formed to put the new policy into operation. Theoretically the King is free to choose whom he will to become Prime Minister and form the new Cabinet; but practically the choice is limited to a single person, the acknowledged leader of the party which has become uppermost in the Commons. The Prime Minister selects his colleagues from among the ablest men of his party and its allies in both Houses, a significant feature of the scheme being the fact that the Ministers are actually members of Parliament, are present at its sessions, and play a most important part in its deliberations.

« PreviousContinue »