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The Irish Prophet

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Edmund burke once asked his friend, the actor and theatre manager David Garrick, why the audience would always titter when a group of Roman senators appeared on stage. That was easily explained, Garrick replied. The audience laughed because they recognized the faces hiding behind the worthy senatorial exteriors as belonging to the extras who played all the bit parts. “They knew that they were no other than the candlesnuffers, revolutionary scene shifters, second and third mob, prompter, clerks, executioners, who stand with their axe on their shoulders by the wheel, grinners in the pantomime, murderers in tragedies, who make ugly faces under black wigs — in short the very scum and refuse of the theatre.”

Similarly, Burke continues in his fourth Letter on a Regicide Peace from 1795, while the foreign dignitaries in Paris had been mightily impressed the previous year by all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the investiture of the Directorate — the short-lived five-man council that ruled France until Napoleon took over — the sans culottes in the gallery were laughing, because under the finery and fancy sashes, they recognized their follow revolutionaries, who only the year before had appeared in their true guise “with their daggers in their belts, and their pistols peeping out of their side pockets,” like the scoundrels that they were.

Instead of their high-sounding pronouncements, Burke argued, Britain should rather concentrate on the moral character of the men in charge. Those in the British government — including its head, William Pitt — who believed that the new French leadership might be more pragmatic than Robespierre and his gang were wrong; Britain was faced with a new kind of threat, “an armed doctrine,” which ignored national borders and was “inimical to all other governments.” Therefore, he warned, Britain had better prepare itself for “a long war.”

The argument, stressing the need to look upon men’s character and past actions rather than their rhetoric, is pure Burke, as is the lively expression. Though Burke’s life was almost wholly spent in opposition — his faction only held office in two short periods in 1765–1766, and again in 1782–1783 — the eminent Whig historian Macaulay rated him “the greatest man since Milton.” Burke’s close friend, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, in fact let produce an engraving from his portrait with a caption from Paradise Lost underneath, the lines where Abdiel, alone among the assembled angels, refuses to take part in Satan’s rebellion. The passage concludes: “And with retorted scorn his back he turn’d/On those proud tow’rs to swift destruction doom’d.”

Even people who did not agree with his views, like William Hazlitt, acknowledged his greatness. “It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposition party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” As a young radical at Cambridge, Coleridge would eagerly buy the latest Burke pamphlet and by evening could “repeat whole pages verbatim” to his fellow students, while Wordsworth in a late edition of The Prelude apologized for the silly bits on the French Revolution. “Genius of Burke! forgive the pen seduce d/By spurious wonders and too slow to tell.”

As a prophet, Burke ranks among the greatest intelligence analysts of all time, having accurately predicted how events would unfold, first in America and then, most notably, in France. He even forecast how things would end there, with a popular general taking over. The accuracy of his predictions becomes even more impressive when considering that his Reflections on the Revolution in France was written long before the September massacres and the Terror, when the Revolution showed its true colors.

Normally, intelligence analysis is associated with a cool, dispassionate brain. In this sense, Burke was an anomaly. His was the very opposite of a cool intellect; he was hot and passionate to such an extent that his style often is at variance with his message. Indeed, as the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft noted, “Reading your ‘Reflections’ warily over, it has continually struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist.”

According to Burke’s biographer F.P. Lock, whose great project is complete with the publication of the second volume, Burke was a brilliant but fierce-tempered man, given to verbal fireworks and political theatre, as on the famous occasion where he smuggled a dagger into Parliament, one of 3,000  allegedly ordered in Manchester by revolutionaries, and threw it on the floor of the House of Commons with a clatter: “This is what you are to gain by an alliance with France.”

This sort of emotional excess struck many of his contemporaries as un-English — in fact, as quintessentially  Irish. Thus, writes Lock, “one of the paradoxes of Burke’s career is the gap between his acknowledged eloquence admitted even by his firmest opponents and his habitual inability to persuade, ” and he quotes Boswell’s observation that “his oratory rather tended to distinguish himself than to assist his cause. There was amusement rather than persuasion.” Gibbon characterized Burke as “the most eloquent and rational madman I ever knew.”

With all the brilliance also went a certain self-righteousness, Lock argues, an inability to acknowledge that people who disagreed with him might do so from honest motives — which perhaps explains why he never achieved Cabinet rank. Burke typically describes himself as “being perfectly in the right.” Related to this was a predilection for conspiracy theories. After all, his views would surely prevail, were it not for the sinister forces that were thwarting him at every turn. Being in opposition only confirmed him in his convictions.

Predictably, caricaturists had a field day with him. Coming from Ireland, he was always suspected of being a closet Catholic, and James Gillray caricatured him as a mad monk or as an inmate in a lunatic asylum. Isaac Cruickshank did him as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, while Thomas Rowlandson drew him holding forth dementedly about India.

The other point raised against him by his opponents was a lack of consistency: How could the same man who fought George III’s attempts to control the House of Commons, and who opposed the British war on the American settlers and the East India Company’s methods in India, suddenly turn round and oppose the freedoms promised by the French revolution? As Thomas Jefferson put it: “The revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.”

To understand burke, it seems useful to take as a starting point a key passage from the Reflections describing the protean nature of evil: “Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigour of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad; it continues its ravages; whilst you are gibbeting the carcass, or demolishing the tomb. You are terrifying yourself with ghosts and apparitions, whilst your house is the haunt of robbers.”

Evil in all its shifting forms was what Burke fought, and rather than supporting any particular interpretation and quoting selectively, as is so often done with Burke, Lock seeks to present his views in their totality. The further challenge in writing about Burke is not to allow the person to drown in his hectic parliamentary schedule, which was why Conor Cruise O’Brien chose to write his book The Great Melody as a thematic biography. Lock has chosen the harder way, but he has left clear signposts throughout.

In Volume I, which came out a decade ago, Lock traced Burke’s emergence as a self-described “New Man.” Born in 1730 in Ireland, he was the son of a pedantic lawyer and a devoutly Catholic mother. After attending Trinity College, Dublin, he left the island at the age of 20, as Ireland was too small and confining for a young man intent on studying “the Great Map of Mankind.” He started reading law in London, but his father’s example had given him a profound distaste for the profession, and he became a writer and journalist instead, making a splash in 1757 with A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, his foray into what gives us pain and pleasure and his one nonpolitical work.

After having served six unrewarding years slaving away as assistant to William Gerald Hamilton, who became Chief Secretary for Ireland, Burke was installed as private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, the Whig leader, and through Rockingham took his seat in Parliament in 1766. Burke became a one-man idea factory for the Whigs, Rockingham himself being the idealistic and well-meaning sort, but also somewhat “indolent and supine,” as Burke described him.

As a Rockingham Whig, explains Lock, the preponderance of the landed gentry in the House of Commons was a given for Burke, the aristocracy forming a protective barrier both against the usurpations of the tyrant, as exemplified by Henry VIII, and against the anarchy of the rabble. In his view, no nation would survive with “all the middle parts being gone between the Sovereign and the Mob,” and he saw a stable society as an organic pyramid consisting of subtle gradations, “where the transitions all the way are almost imperceptible.”

This should not exclude a measure of mobility. Men of merit, new men like himself should be encouraged to participate, or else their talents could be turned to harm, as the French Revolution was to prove. But to ensure stability, a counterweight was needed: “Ability being a vigorous and active principle should be restrained by property, being sluggish, inert and timid.” Only those who owned a stake in society could be expected to legislate responsibly.

In the early part of his career, Burke saw the efforts of George III to bypass the House of Commons, in exerting what the king deemed his royal prerogative to appoint and dismiss governments at will, as the greatest threat to the constitution. After a period in the 1760s with constantly changing ministries, Burke published his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents in 1770, in which he argued that parliamentarians should decline appointments in governments which they did not control and, as Lock sees it, came close to reducing the king’s role to that of a constitutional monarch.

Burke further accused the king of seeking to undermine the constitution through the use of “a double cabinet” — a sinister group of court favorites he dubbed “the king’s friends” — an idea that was to become an obsession with Burke to the point where it lost all touch with reality. As Lock notes, though certainly stubborn, Farmer George was no Gustavus III, the Swedish king who in 1772 staged a coup d’état.

But as befits a party manifesto, the overall tone of the Thoughts remains calm and dignified. Against the corrupt system of patronage, Burke calls for men of integrity “to form and unite a party upon real and well founded principles” who would re-establish order in the country. “Party” he defines as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”

As Lock points out, though a step on the way, this does not amount to a party theory in the modern sense: “Burke had no ‘theory of party.’ Nor did he envisage anything approaching the party system that developed in nineteenth century Britain.” Turning an old slogan on its head, Burke believed in “Men, not measures,” that is, rather than a specific set of policies, what you needed were men of the right moral caliber, who could be depended on to come up with appropriate answers to the nation’s challenges. For Burke, notes Lock, there was really only one party of virtue, namely his own.

Accordingly, members of parliament should be guided by their own judgment, and not by popular demands. “Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member for Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.”

It can come as no surprise that with views like these Burke had little liking for the rough and tumble of eighteenth-century campaigning. He suffered from what Lock diagnoses as “a Coriolanus complex,” after Shakespeare’s proud Roman general whose open contempt for the Roman rabble got him banished; Burke found canvassing utterly demeaning and he showed a marked unwillingness to ask ministers for favors on behalf of his constituents.

This, and his support for free trade with Ireland, led to his losing the seat of Bristol, the country’s second most important city after London — which he had won in 1774 as a freely contested seat, and which he was proud to represent — and instead being given another pocket borough. But begging for votes was not Burke’s way.

Burke’s maiden speech in the House of Commons, which he delivered on January 12, 1766, was on America; in it he presented a merchants’ petition against the Stamp Act, which, in an attempt to make the defense of the American colonies self-financing, the previous ministry of George Grenville had imposed. The measure was killing trade with the colonials.

As records were not kept at this early stage, Lock notes, we do not know precisely what he said on this occasion, but urging repeal of the Stamp Act became a recurring topic of his. He argued in characteristic fashion that even if you have a right to do something, you should not necessarily exercise it, especially not when circumstances on the ground speak against it. The Rockingham administration repealed the Stamp Act shortly thereafter.

But the British persisted in their foolishness when, under the following administration, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townsend, in that nonchalant manner of his, imposed taxes on a number of items like tea, glass, and paper in 1767. Again, in the face of stiff American opposition these had to be repealed; all except for the one on tea, that is, with well known and disastrous consequences.

After the Boston Tea Party, instead of singling out the Bostonians for collective punishment, Burke urged concessions, arguing that the relationship between the colonies and the mother country should be one of shared benefits and of common rights: “My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. They are ties which, though light as air, are strong as links of iron. Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government — they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance.”

Any feeling that the Americans were treated differently from British subjects would be fatal to the cohesion of the empire. And he warned that, steeped as they were in the British legal tradition, the Americans were not going to roll over. Urging a show of magnanimity, he recommended that the government drop the tea duty and drop the penal acts. Thus, while both he and Tom Paine opposed coercion, notes Lock, Burke only accepted independence “most reluctantly as an accomplished fact.”

Reconciliation was not what George III and his ministers had in mind. To George, the Americans were rebellious children and needed to be punished as such. After Bunker Hill, still acutely conscious of Britain’s overextended lines of supply, Burke predicted catastrophe, even if the British might prove successful in the early skirmishes “The spirit of America is incredible. God knows they are very inferior in all human resources. But a remote and difficult country and such a spirit as now animates them may do strange things. Our victories can only complete our ruin,” he wrote his boss Rockingham.

Burke was now the leading voice against the war. But Burke would not be Burke without occasionally going berserk: When George III ordered church services in support of the war, according to the O’Brien book, he ranted, “Till our churches are purified from this abominable service, I shall consider them, not as temples of the almighty, but the synagogues of Satan.” If you want to make converts, this is scarcely the way to go about it. Lock supplies one or two more examples, noting that in such instances Dr. Johnson, who accused Burke of behaving like “a Lion who lashes himself into Fury with his own Tail,” had a point.

But Burke’s sarcasm in the House of Commons could be deadly, as when he attributed Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga to his threat to use Indians as auxiliaries against the colonists, particularly the hypocrisy of paying for scalps while admonishing the Indians to be sparing of women and children. Resorting to this kind of savagery, he argued, had only strengthened the colonials’ determination.

By this time, Lord North was making conciliatory noises, conceding the points Burke had recommended three years earlier; but now it was a question of too little and much too late, and the war rumbled on until the final British defeat at Yorktown. Even at this stage George III was for continuing the fight, but following Burke’s rule that no minister should accept responsibility in a government he does not control, Rockingham in 1782 made it a precondition for again assuming office that the king not veto American independence. After having threatened to abdicate, George caved in, thereby proving that in Britain, power rested in Parliament.

The other great colonial issue facing Britain at this time was India. As one of the trial managers in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal, whose trial takes up much of Volume Two, Burke played a leading role.

From a modest start in 1600 with a few trading posts on the coast, the East India Company had vastly expanded with Robert Clive’s victory over the Nawab of Bengal in the battle of Plassey and now controlled Bengal though puppet rule; but the company’s dealings had come under increasing scrutiny in London, with calls for government control.

At first Burke had opposed government interference in the affairs of the company on the traditional Whig grounds that such a move would only play into the hands of the King’s Friends; but based on persistent reports of extortion and torture coming out of India, Burke changed his mind. And over time he was to develop his grand theory of “Indianism,” his term for what he saw as the all-pervading influence on British politics of the huge wealth of returning company officers, the so-called Nabobs — another conspiracy theory which, in Lock’s words, became something of a “distorting lens” on his view of Indian affairs.

Bringing Hastings down thus became a crusade for Burke, with the impeachment proceedings dragging on for almost a decade. “We have brought before you the chief of the tribe, the head of the whole tribe of eastern offenders, a captain general of iniquity, under whom all the fraud, all the peculation, all the tyranny in India are embodied, disciplined, arrayed and paid,” Burke thundered in his opening speech.

With what Lock refers to as “lurid rodomontades,” Burke worked himself into a frenzy, and because of these outbursts, Hastings gained a lot of sympathy. What it felt to be on the receiving end of Burke’s emotional onslaught is vividly conveyed by Fanny Burney, who had met Burke earlier and liked him, but witnessing his performance in the House of Lords found him “a cruel prosecutor of an injured and innocent man.”

“The spirit of America is incredible,” Burke wrote. “God knows they are very inferior in all human resources. But a remote and difficult country and such a spirit as now animates them may do strange things.”

She describes the “wild and sudden flights” of Burke’s imagination, his “fluent, forcible and varied” language, his expert changes of pace, until “his own violence recovered me, by stigmatizing his assertions with personal ill will and designing illiberality. . . . Yet, at times I confess, with all that I felt, wished, and thought concerning Mr. Hastings, the whirlwind of his eloquence nearly drove me into his vortex.” No wonder, then, that one lady attending the trial fainted.

In keeping with Burke’s tendency to personify politics, Lock notes, he wanted Hasings’s trial turned into an indictment of a system, while the House of Lords leadership wanted it conducted more narrowly as a criminal trail, to be governed by lower court rules, whereby Hastings had to be proven personally culpable in the misdeeds he was charged with. To Burke, this constituted legal nitpicking. It also meant that there was no way he was going to prevail.

Burke does not get out of the trial with much credit. According to Lock, Hastings was precisely the kind of enlightened administrator with a great respect for Indian culture and customs that one would expect Burke to support, as they were very similar in outlook. Hastings was also an excellent commander-in-chief. Many of his contemporaries saw him as the man who single-handedly saved India for Britain with his victory over the French-supported Mahratta Confederacy, at a time when Britain was busy losing everywhere else. If winning had required raising money as best he could, so be it.

But such arguments were wasted on Burke, and in Lock’s view, “his loss of any sense of the importance of due process, or of the value of the law as an autonomous system designed to protect the innocent as well as convict the guilty” weighs heavily against him. In Burke’s mind, Hastings was guilty and that was that.

Burke’s compulsive pursuit of Hastings over so many years alienated many, especially since everybody, including Burke himself, knew he would not succeed. Lady Georgina, the Duchess of Devonshire, commented, “Sheridan [a leading Whig] who is heartily tired of the Hastings trial, and fearful of Burke’s impetuosity says that he wishes Hastings would run away and Burke after him.”

The impeachment trial ended on April 23, 1795 with Hastings’ acquittal, an outcome which Burke again chose to see as the result of conspiracy. According to Lock, his handling of the Hastings affair “illustrates one of the most alienating aspects of his character, his self-righteousness.”

In his view of India, which he never visited, Lock considers Burke too much of a universalist. Despite his stated concern for local customs and conditions, he too readily applied European modes of explanation to Indian social phenomena: India’s horrible caste system, for instance, in his eyes became just another manifestation of the normal human desire for hierarchy.

The long-term ramifications of his hounding of Hastings were profound, Lock points out: While advocating neither British withdrawal nor Indian self-determination, Burke sought to convince his audience that the Indians should not be treated as inferiors, and that crimes committed against them should be taken as seriously as crimes back in Britain, thus making India part “of their own moral universe.” Many have seen this as the first step towards the dissolution of British rule in India.

Of some of his notions of Indian society were too universalist, and his theory of “Indianism” a distortion, Burke was spot on with his predictions in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, despite the fact that he had only visited the country briefly in 1773 to secure French lessons for his son. But he read everything available and had a steady stream of informants visiting him in his home at Beaconsfield. Most notably, he knew how to tune out the surface noise and hone in on the underlying essentials.

Many Britons welcomed the French Revolution, among them Charles Fox, the easygoing dandy and inveterate gambler, who had taken over as party leader after Rockingham’s death in 1782 and who had allowed himself to be carried away by the ideals the revolutionaries espoused; he referred to it as “how much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world. And how much the best.”

From his reading, Burke knew what French mobs had been capable of in the past, once their passions were exited, the St. Bartholomew massacre providing a scary precedent. And just a few days after the storming of the Bastille, two Parisian officials had their heads cut off and put on pikes. Heads on pikes are always a bad portent. Burke’s intimations were only strengthened by the march on Versailles, where the queen’s bedroom was attacked and the royal family ignominiously transported back to Paris.

Burke himself had briefly experienced mob rule during the Gordon riots of 1780, when adherents of the Protestant fanatic Lord George Gordon attacked the houses of those who had voted for the Catholic Relief Act for Ireland, and Burke had been forced to remove his furniture, an incident he never forgot, according to Lock. His great fear now was that the French disease would spread to England though its British sympathizers.

The French Enlightenment philosophers bore a heavy responsibility in having paved the way for all this with their hatred of religion, their overweening faith in man’s rationality, and their fondness for abstract theory rather than past experience. Burke saw religion as the very foundation of society, and the revolution had confiscated church property and destroyed all manner of traditional hierarchies. Thus, Burke laid bare the rationalist madness of the revolutionaries, pouncing on “the geometrick folly” of their initial scheme to divide France into squares, ignoring local bonds and loyalties.

The social contract, he warned, could not just be cancelled like some trading contract on coffee, as it also involved past and future generations; the present generation therefore should not be allowed simply to follow its whims.

Again, Burke recommended taking a hard look at the people involved. As he warned Chames-Jean-Francois de Pont, the young gentleman referred to on the title page of the Reflections, “Never wholly separate in your mind the merits of any political question from the men who are concerned in it.” What Burke saw here was a bunch of restless lawyers “of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds” leading along hairdressers, tallow-chandlers, and “a handful of country clowns,” illiterates to boot. In the Assembly, he noted, there were not 50 men of property worth £100  a year, and hence there was nothing to keep its radicalism in check.

The views expressed in the Reflections led to Burke’s break with the Fox faction. The two had a great clash in the House of Commons. Fox, reminding Burke of his speeches on America, accused him of having reversed himself; Burke, in reply, proclaimed them friends no longer, reducing Fox to tears. Among those who approved of the Reflections was George III, whom Burke had fought tooth and nail earlier: “I know that there is no Man who calls himself a Gentleman that must not think himself obliged to you, for you have supported the cause of the Gentlemen.”

Picking up from Fox’s clue, Burke’s critics, including Thomas Paine, accused him of having gone from being a champion of Liberty to being a supporter of the reactionary ancien regime in France. A Gillray cartoon entitled “A Uniform Whig” shows him holding his Reflections, his left side in tatters, while the right side is spiffily dressed, with the clear implication that he had been bought off. Any such notion Lock dismisses out of hand: Burke’s acceptance of a pension came at a later stage.

Burke hit back with his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs of 1791, in which he set out to demonstrate that his views were entirely at one with his support for the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and in which he defined true Whiggism as “a rational and sober liberty upon the plan of our existing constitution,” a very different thing from the mindless uprooting in France. And as proof that he was not against reform per se, as long as it was gradual and organic, he cited his support for the revolution in Poland.

In his remaining years, he urged Britain to take a leading role in the fight against revolutionary France. William Pitt had first been unwilling to interfere in what he saw as France’s internal affairs, but when France declared war on England and Holland on February 1, 1793, this was moot. Yet Pitt still fought the war as a traditional war, rather than as a war against an ideology. Instead of marching on Paris, the center of evil, the allied army allowed itself to be sidetracked into besieging Dunkirk. And when Britain’s Prussian allies made peace with France in 1795, and the Pitt administration was putting out peace-feelers, Burke in his fury produced his Letters on a Regicide Peace.

In Burke’s view, though still the only man capable of saving Britain, Pitt had failed to provide the inspired leadership the contest required. In words aimed squarely at Pitt, he noted, “They never entered into the peculiar and distinctive character of the war. They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal.”

As for Pitt’s qualms about interfering in the internal affairs of another nation, Burke was rejecting the notion that those in charge of a country were entitled to act as they pleased on their own territory: “Men are never in a state of total independence of each other.” In Burke’s view, a messianic, expansionist regime like the French was simply incompatible with Britain’s national security.

Lock painstakingly demonstrates how Burke’s writing on the French Revolution grew out of his earlier writings. By 1789, the threat to Britain’s well-being no longer came from the king. It now came from the other end of the spectrum, the Parisian mob. Evil had transmigrated, to use Burke’s own term. And as the nature of the threat changed, so did Burke’s focus, but the principles of his arguments remained consistent throughout, making him a true conviction politician.

Perhaps Churchill put it best: “His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt court and parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watchwords of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the ideals of society and government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.”