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P51 75 MAIN
EDMUND BURKE distinguished himself in literature, in statesmanship, and in the virtues of his private life. On the first and last of these phases of eminence too little emphasis has been placed by his biographers and critics. His eloquence, his brilliant career, and almost superhuman labors for thirty years in the House of Commons in a most critical period of the British Empire have richly earned for him a place with Demosthenes and Cicero. He deserves, however, equal fame for his consummate mastery of language, and for the wisdom and virtue of an upright life. A brief introduction and a few specimens of his work do feeble credit to the genius of Burke; yet the reader who gives faithful attention to only one or two of those great masterpieces of literary eloquence will soon find himself thinking, if not repeating the words of Lord Townshend: “Good God! What a man is this ! how could he acquire such transcendent powers!”
Burke was a thoroughly moral man possessing the strength and elevation of mind that distinguish genius, the learning and wisdom of a philosopher, the habits and instincts of a scholar, the ambition and skill of an aspiring author, a deep reverence and appreciation for religion and the things of the spirit, a marvelous power and command of eloquence, and untiring zeal and fervent enthusiasm for the triumph of right, and yet withal, utterly oblivious of self-aggrandizement and personal advantage-such a man, too rare anywhere, is a miracle
in politics, a wonder which appears above the horizon not more than once in a century. Convinced that in the affairs of state, even more than elsewhere, belong the greatest and best of men, we hesitate to accept the following statement by Hazlitt regarding Burke's proper sphere in life: “The truth is that he was out of his place in the House of Commons; he was eminently qualified to shine as a man of genius, as the instructor of mankind, as the brightest luminary of his age: but he had nothing in common with that motley "crew of knights, citizens, and burgesses. He could not be said to be ‘native and endued unto that element.' He was above it; and never appeared like himself, but when, forgetful of the idle clamours of party, and of the little views of little men, he appealed to his country, and the enlightened judgment of mankind.” We grant that he was for the most part above his associates, and remember the power of his pen in shaping popular thought in England against the French Revolution, but was a man ever more needed in the place he occupied than was Burke?—the firmest anchor of the English ship of state in some of the severest storms she ever weathered. It is extremely doubtful whether elsewhere he could have served mankind to better advantage than he did in the House of Commons, for although he seldom attained entirely what he sought and advocated, no one can know the disasters he prevented, and the illimitable forces for good which he set in motion.
"'Nitor in adversum,' he wrote, “is the motto for a man like me. I possessed not one of the qualities, nor cultivated one of the arts, that recommend me to the favour and protection of the great. I was not made for a minion or a tool. As little did I follow the trade of winning the hearts, by imposing on the understandings, of the people. At every of my progress in life (for in every step was I traversed and opposed), and at
every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise no rank, no toleration, even for me. I had no arts but manly arts. On them I have stood, and, please God, to the last gasp will I stand.” Into these lines from his immortal pro vita sua, The Letter to a Noble Lord, which the fierce old fighter at bay hurled in defiance at his enemies, he packed much essential truth concerning himself. He remains to-day a commanding figure on the great tragic stage of life, the hero of a good fight against insurmountable obstacles; with his tragic flaws, to be sure, but also with a wealth of confidence, perserverance, hidden strength and regal dignity that render him imposing in his intense sufferings for country and humanity. Burke's life was
one of struggle. From obscure parentage and ancestry about which we know little he fought his way to power and greatness, and became in reality the foremost statesman of Europe. His success was obtained neither by chance nor by the arts of flattery and political chicane. With genius he combined an indefatigible will, a tireless industry and patience.
It is impossible satisfactorily to review in brief a life inseparably interwoven with the destinies of nations, and charged with the problems of mankind. To attempt such in the case of Burke is folly wide the mark, for after he entered Parliament in 1765, his biography becomes a chapter of universal history, and he, a citizen of the world. Carlyle reminds us that the heroic in human affairs is “a large topic, indeed, an illimitable one, wide as Universal History itself"; that "Universal History, history of what a man has accomplished in the world,
is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here”; and that “great men taken up in any way are profitable company.” With these reflections as an apology we may venture to tarry with Burke for a brief time.
Genius moves in a mysterious way to its wonders, and the fortunes of the great seem often the playthings of chance. Burke's father, a solicitor of good repute, wished his son to become a barrister, and sacrificed much to attain his wish. Yet that son, in spite of much faithful study of law, was never admitted to the bar, set his heart on winning fame in literature, and eventually found his life work in politics. Reared, as were his brothers, Garret and Richard, in the Protestant faith of his father, he, nevertheless, learned and never forgot a generous respect and toleration for Catholicism, the religion of his uncles, of his sister, Juliana, and of his broad-minded mother. For Abraham Shackleton, his humble Quaker schoolmaster, he retained “a true honour and affection, acknowledging obligations which he neither could nor wished to shake off,” incurred during his two years in school at Ballitore, "where," as he said, "I received the education that, if I am anything, has made me so." From this humble and virtuous teacher Burke, no doubt, learned plain living and high thinking, and acquired a tender enduring reverence for "homely goodness, simple purity, and all the pieties of life.”
His friend, Richard Shackleton, the son of his old schoolmaster, has left us a most interesting account of Burke at this period: “Edmund was a lad of most promising genius; of an inquisitive and speculative cast of mind. This was improved in him by a constitutional indisposition that prevented him from suffering by those secessions from study which are the consequence of puerile diversions. He read much while a boy, and ac