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He was now much in the society of literary men, and was doing a considerable amount of writing. In 1759 he began to gather material for the "Annual Register," a sort of chronicle of events, to which he contributed for thirty years. Burke went to Ireland in 1761 in the employ of William Gerard Hamilton, where he stayed two years. Not content to abandon his own pursuits, however, as Hamilton wished him to do, he broke with that selfish politician and returned to London, literature, and his literary friends.
Burke was by this time widely known as a writer on political and economic subjects, and when the new Whig ministry was formed, 1765, he was made private secretary to Lord Rockingham, Prime Minister. In the same year he was elected to Parliament. Within a little more than a month he was speaking on the theme that makes him doubly important to us, the American Colonies. In the change of ministry that occurred the next year Burke gave up possible office to remain with his party, and threw himself into the struggle to prevent the King, George the Third, from exercising absolute power. England was in a turmoil; Parliament had expelled a member, Wilkes, and though he was repeatedly reëlected, had refused to allow him to sit. This and similar encroachments on constitutional rights Burke warmly denounced, embodying the gist of his speeches in a pamphlet, “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents," "one of the monumental pieces of political literature.”
The cause for which Burke and his fellow Whigs were fighting, a government of reason and constitutional right, was indeed the same in many ways as that for which the American Colonies were soon to fight. When Burke spoke for reason in the Government's treatment of America he did battle on both sides of the Atlantic, and the
victory at Yorktown was a mighty stroke for popular • rights in England.
In 1770 Lord North became Prime Minister, and the crucial period began. Two years later Burke could have
gone to India on an important commission, but he declined, probably because his heart was so deeply concerned in affairs at home. In 1774 he was elected to the new Parliament from Bristol, the second city in England and the chief centre for American trade. It was at about this time that he delivered his three great speeches on America, the Speech on American Taxation (April 19, 1774), a few months before his election, the Speech for Conciliation with America (March 22, 1775), a few months after taking his seat, and the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the Affairs of America (April 3, 1777). Thirty years ago John Morley said of them: "It is no exaggeration to say that they compose the most perfect manual in our literature, or in any literature, for one who approaches the study of public affairs, whether for knowledge or for practice. If ever in the fulness of time ... Burke becomes one of the halfdozen names of established and universal currency in education and in common books ... it will be the mastery, the elevation, the wisdom, of these far-shining discourses in which the world will in an especial degree recognize the combination of sovereign gifts with beneficent uses.” Many of the great principles then laid down by Burke, though they seem fairly truisms to us to-day, were at that time new principles, the first cogent utterance of great political and economic philosophy.
Burke failed of reëlection from Bristol when at the height of his career as an economic reformer. He had several years before declared that a representative should use his own judgment, even though it be against the wishes of his constituents. In accord with this belief he voted in 1780 to relieve Irish commerce of some grievous restrictions, a measure regarded with disfavor by the merchants of Bristol. They defeated him for reëlection. He was immediately elected from Malton. In 1782 the failure of the American war threw Lord North's ministry out of office, and Lord Rockingham was called to form a new cabinet. Burke's friends were now in power, and as the greatest statesman of the day he might have expected a high office. He was given only that of Paymaster, a position of comparatively small importance, the pay of which had been reduced by Burke's economical reforms. Though he was undoubtedly disappointed, he discharged faithfully the duties his party had given him.
Within three months Rockingham died, and the Whig party split into two violent factions, Lord Shelborne, Prime Minister, on one side, Burke and Fox on the other. Shelborne's administration fell in 1783, and was followed by the Coalition ministry, a union of Whig and Tory, in which Burke again became Paymaster. Burke's action at this time is inexplainable. He probably had much to do with destroying the prestige of his own party, and with bringing to naught the good which his former efforts seemed to promise. At the end of the year the Coalition fell, the Whigs were ruined, and Burke was almost violently out of harmony with both enemies and friends.
By 1785 Burke's ceaseless energy had brought him around to active attention to the affairs of India, which he had long felt insufferable. Warren Hastings, Governor-General, returned from India at this time, and Burke saw an opportunity not only to strike a blow at a great political evil, but also at the party in power. He had already shown mastery of the affairs of India; in his Speech on the Nabob of Arcot's Debts he made this knowledge more surprisingly clear and complete, and showed the deplorable state of affairs in that quarter. His next step was to lay the blame for these conditions on Hastings, and in 1786 he prepared papers for his impeachment. The trial began in 1788 and lasted until 1795. In the opening of the trial Burke made his greatest speech, the Impeachment of Warren Hastings. Hastings was acquitted, but the trial revealed so much rottenness in Indian affairs that it resulted in permanent reform.
Defeated in the greatest effort of his life, hounded by his numerous enemies, and unappreciated by his own party, Burke was now to be separated from his Whig friends and to gain renown where before he had inspired hatred. In 1773 he had visited France and had learned all he could of French affairs, and from that time watched with uneasiness the tendencies toward revolt in that country. In the early events of the Revolution, events heralded all over the world as great advances toward liberty, Burke saw lawlessness, the breaking down of established order, violent uprooting of the growth of centuries. He saw in the beginning the bloody end to which it must lead, and at once set the full tide of his passion and eloquence against the flood of destruction. In 1790 he published his “Reflections on the Revolution in France," a defense of established order, political and religious, that pleased all the nobility of Europe, and brought about a temporary reaction of feeling in England. His later utterances on the subject became more and more bitter, as affairs became worse in France, until at the end passion lends too much color to the reason.
Burke's later years were full of bitterness. His temper became unbearable, his friends were repulsed. In 1792 he wrote a "Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe,” in which he urged for Ireland a policy such as he had desired for America, "a singular interlude of calm and solid reasoning in the midst of a fiery whirlwind of intense passion." Two years later his only son died, Burke resigned from Parliament on a pension of £2,500, and died in 1797.
The one great principle for which Burke strove throughout his career, established order, reverence for constituted authority, serves to render consistent a life that otherwise might seem almost capricious in its associations. In his own time he was criticised for what seemed conflicting positions on great political questions, but viewed in the total his course shows him to have been constant in his high devotion to the principle in which he believed. His temper was one to make him enemies rather than friends. His great knowledge, his enthusiasms, and his passions made him often intolerant,-toward the end of his life inexcusably bitter. Yet even in the stormy field of political life he had as constant friends some of the greatest men of his day, and among men of letters he was one of the great group that included Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Gibbon and Reynolds, in which varied coterie he was held in great affection.
Early in his career, when hard pressed for money, he sent an ambitious artist to study on the Continent, and all through his life he gave evidence of his warm sympathy for suffering human kind, whether it be the whole of the hordes of India, or the obscure dependent friend. Whatever may have been his shortcomings, we cannot fail to admire him as one of the greatest statesmen England has produced, to feel some affection for the man whose warm sympathies and generous impulses were as wide as the wrongs of mankind.