The Prime And Vigour Of His Life

The final volume of Burke’s writings proves we are living in a golden age of Burke scholarship

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Edmund Burke: A man for all centuries

This is the final volume in the nine-volume Clarendon edition of the writings and speeches of Edmund Burke. When this edition — ample, yet by no means complete — of Burke was planned in the 1970s, the decision was taken to divide the material in a way both chronological and thematic. The sequence of volumes follows a broadly chronological path, so the first volume was devoted to “The Early Writings”, while Volume IX brought together those writings on Ireland and the French Revolution which had occupied Burke during the last three years of his life, from 1794 to 1797. But because Burke did not turn tidily from one subject to another, in the volumes devoted to the years of his intellectual maturity — years when, as he would put it in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, “he was in the prime and vigour of his life; when the powers of his understanding, according to their standard, were at the best; his memory exercised; his judgment formed; and his reading, much fresher in the recollection, and much readier in the application, than now it is” — the thematic principle was allowed to prevail over the chronological.

The British constitution; relations with the American colonies and the policy of commercial empire; the governance of India; relations between Britain and Ireland; the nature and significance of the French Revolution — these were the master-themes of Burke’s maturity, and he tended to deal with two or more of them at the same time. However, in the Clarendon edition Burke’s major writings on these important topics have been sifted into separate volumes. But some apparently lesser speeches and writings were left over, and they have been swept together into this last volume.

So this volume might look like a ragbag of remnants, but the unexpected advantage of it is that here we find Burke commenting, often brilliantly, on virtually all the major political and moral topics which exercised his maturity. More so than any other single volume in this edition, then, here the reader can take the measure of Burke’s range as a thinker.

This volume contains two wonderful highlights. The first is the speech made by Burke on May 6, 1791, when he and Fox quarrelled spectacularly in the House of Commons in the course of the debate on the Quebec Bill, and the Whigs as a result were split as a party. This was the most dramatic moment of Burke’s parliamentary career, and it has to be said that he does not emerge from it with unspotted laurels. He had been outraged by what he took to be Fox’s attacks on the consistency of his political conduct, and he was determined to show that in vehemently opposing and denouncing the French Revolution he had been impelled towards no apostasy. But he engineered the parliamentary occasion in a cold-blooded way, and coolly manipulated the emotional Fox, who ended the evening in tears while Burke apparently maintained an icy fury throughout. It was an episode that should have qualified, if not dispelled, the myth that Burke was always an orator out of control, his speeches nothing more than a whirl of words.

The second highlight is the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, the pamphlet Burke wrote in the summer of 1791 to defend his conviction that the line he was taking over the French Revolution was in the true spirit of Whiggism, while the line taken by Fox and many other so-called Whigs — the “New Whigs” of his title — was a betrayal of their common political inheritance. Some of Burke’s friends found this pamphlet tepid in comparison with the Reflections on the Revolution in France. His disciple French Laurence thought it “a shade or so less rhetorically brilliant” than the Reflections. Horace Walpole regretted the absence of the “wit, similes, metaphors and allusions and eccentricities” of the earlier work. More sober than the Reflections the Appeal certainly is. But it is nevertheless an invaluable summary of the essence of Whiggism, from the hand of one incomparably qualified to deliver it, whether judged on the score of native intellectual power or on that of situation and advantage of experience. Those who wish to know what Whiggism was in the 18th century must read Burke’s Appeal.

As always when reading Burke, one is occasionally startled by penetrating formulations of nuggets of political and moral wisdom; and on this score this volume is no disappointment. How salutary it is, in these days of ever more frequent referendums on constitutional issues, to read: “Neither the few nor the many have a right to act merely by their will, in any matter connected with duty, trust, engagement, or obligation.” How the heart is lifted after another day of being nudged and badgered and harried in one’s private life by government and its ever more intrusive “advice” to read: “Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.” How pleasing to read this defence of monarchy, penned in the midst of the Regency debates of the late 1780s, but still devastating against the mushroom republicans of our own generation: “Great-Britain is governed by an hereditary Monarchy; it was so by the written and by the unwritten law; it was so by the very essence of our excellent, our at present matchless Constitution, and God forbid it should ever be otherwise. It was our own inheritance — it was our strong barrier, our strong rampart against the ambition of mankind! . . . it sheltered the subject from the tyranny of illegal tribunals, bloody proscriptions, and all the long train of evils attendant upon the distractions of ill-guided and unprincipled Republicks.”

The annotation in this final volume is more thorough and more helpful than was always the case with its predecessors, and P.J. Marshall’s lucid, balanced introduction distills a lifetime of study and reflection on Burke. We are living through a golden age of Burke scholarship, with notable contributions from David Bromwich and Richard Bourke, as well as a spirited biographical essay from Jesse Norman. The completion of the Clarendon edition should encourage yet further work on this great thinker, whose unflagging efforts to co-ordinate politics and morality continue to have a relevance to our present discontents.