Edmund Burke by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

I was not, like His Grace of Bedford, swaddled and rocked and dandled into a legislator; “nitor in adversum” is the motto for a man like me. I possessed not one of the qualities, nor cultivated one of the arts, that recommend men to the favor 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 step of my progress in life, for in every step I was 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 honor 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.

—Edmund Burke

In the “American Encyclopedia,” a work I cheerfully recommend, will be found a statement to the effect that Edmund Burke was one of the fifteen children of his parents. Aside from the natural curiosity to know what became of the fourteen, the matter is of small moment, and that its truth or falsity should divide men is most absurd.

Of this, however, we know: the parents of Burke were plain people, rescued from oblivion only through the excellence of this one son. The father was a lawyer, and fees being scarce, he became chief clerk for another barrister, and so lived his life and did his work.

When Edmund Burke was born at Dublin in the year Seventeen Hundred Twenty-nine, that famous city was at its flood-tide of prosperity. It was a metropolis of commerce, art, wit, oratory and literary culture. The one name that looms large to us out of that time is that of Dean Swift, but then there were dozens just as great as he–so-said.

Edmund must have been a bright, fine, attractive boy, for we hear that certain friends of his parents combined with his father and they bent themselves to the task of sending the lad to Trinity College. Before this, however, he had spent some time at a private school kept by one Abraham Shackleton, an Englishman and a member of the Society of Friends. Shackleton was a rare, sweet soul and a most excellent teacher, endowed with a grave, tranquil nature, constant and austere. Between his son Richard and young Mr. Burke there sprang up a close and affectionate friendship which neither time nor circumstance was able to dim.

Now, the elder Burke was a lawyer, but not a great lawyer.

What more natural, therefore, than that the boy Edmund should follow in his father’s footsteps and reap the fame and high honors which an unkind Fate had withheld from his worthy parent?

There was another boy destined for fame at Trinity College while Burke was there, but they did not get acquainted then. Some years later they met in London, though, and talked it over.

In countenance these two young men had a certain marked resemblance. Reynolds painted pictures of both Burke and Goldsmith, and when I looked at these portraits this morning, side by side, I said, “Sir Joshua hadn’t quite got the Burke out of his brush before he painted the Goldsmith.” Burke is Goldsmith grown big.

Each had a weak chin, which was redeemed by the fine, full forehead and brilliant eye.

In face and features, taken as a whole, Burke had a countenance of surpassing beauty. Note the full sensuous lips, the clear, steady, lustrous, beaming eye, the splendid head! There is nothing small, selfish, mean or trifling about the man–he is open, frank, sympathetic, gentle, generous and wise.

He is a manly man.

No wonder that even the staid and chilly Hannah More loved him; and little Miss Burney worshiped at his shrine even in spite of “his friendship for those detested rebels, the Americans; and the other grievous sin of persecuting that good man, Warren Hastings.”

Goldsmith was small in stature, apologetic in manner, hesitating, and at times there was a lisp in speech, which might have been an artistic and carefully acquired adjunct of wit, but it was not. Burke was commanding in stature, dignified, suave, and in speech direct, copious and elegant. Goldsmith overworked the minor key, but Burke merely suggests that it had not been omitted.

At college young Burke did not prove a brilliant student–his intellect and aptitude it seems were a modest mouse-color that escaped attention.

His reading was desultory and pretty general, with spasms of passion for this study or that, this author or the other. And he has remarked, most regretfully, that these passions were all short-lived, none lasting more than six weeks.

It is a splendid sign to find a youth with a passion for any branch of work, or study, or for any author. No matter how brief the love, it adds a ring of growth to character; and if you have loved a book once it is easy to go back to it. In all these varying moods of likes and dislikes, Burke was gathering up material for use in after-years.

But his teachers did not regard it so, neither did his father.

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He got through college after a five-years’ course, aged twenty, by the grace of his tutors. He knew everything except what was in the curriculum.

Tall, handsome, with hair black as the raven’s wing, and eyes that looked away off into space, dreamy and unconcerned, was Edmund Burke at twenty.

His father was a business lawyer, with a sharp nose for technicalities, quirks and quillets, but the son studied law as a literary curiosity. Occasionally there were quick chidings, answered with irony needlessly calm: then the good wife and mother would intervene with her tears, and the result was that Burke the elder would withdraw to the open air to cool his coppers. Be it known that no man can stand out against his wife and son when they in love combine.

Finally it was proposed that Edmund go to London and take a course of Law at the Middle Temple. The plan was accepted with ill-concealed alacrity. Father and son parted with relief, but the good-by between mother and son tore the hearts of both–they were parting forever, and Something told them so.

It evidently was the intention of Burke the elder, who was a clear-headed, practical person, competent in all petty plans, that if the son settled down to law and got his “call,” then he would be summoned back to Dublin and put in a way to achieve distinction. But if the young man still pursued his desultory reading and scribbling on irrelevant themes, why then the remittances were to be withdrawn and Edmund Burke, being twenty-one years of age, could sink or swim. Burke pater would wash his hands in innocency, having fully complied with all legal requirements, and God knows that is all any man can do–there!

* * * * *

In London town since time began, no embryo Coke ever rapped at the bar for admittance–lawyers are “summoned” just as clergymen are “called,” while other men find a job. In England this pretty little illusion of receiving a “call” to practise law still obtains.

Burke never received the call, for the reason that he failed to fit himself for it. He read everything but law-books. He might have assisted a young man by the name of Blackstone in compiling his “Commentaries,” as their lodgings were not far apart, but he did not. They met occasionally, and when they did they always discussed Spenser or Milton, and waxed warm over Shakespeare.

Burke gave Old Father Antic the Law as lavish a letter of recommendation as the Legal Profession ever received, and he gave it for the very natural reason that he had no use for the Law himself.

The remittances from Dublin were always small, but they grew smaller, less frequent and finally ceased. It was sink or swim–and the young man simply paddled to keep afloat upon the tide of the times.

He dawdled at Dodsley’s, visited with the callers and browsed among the books. There was only one thing the young man liked better to do than read, and that was to talk. Once he had read a volume nearly through, when Dodsley up and sold it to a customer–“a rather ungentlemanly trick to play on an honest man,” says Burke.

It was at Dodsley’s that he first met his countryman Goldsmith, also Garrick, Boswell and Johnson. It was then that Johnson received that lasting impression of Burke, of whom he said, “Sir, if you met Edmund Burke under a gateway, where you had taken shelter for five minutes to escape a shower, you would be so impressed by his conversation that you would say, ‘This is a most extraordinary man.’”

If one knows how, or has to, he can live in a large city at a small expense. For nine years Burke’s London life is a tale of a garret, with the details almost lost in the fog. Of this time, in after-years, he seldom spoke, not because he was ashamed of all the straits and shifts he had to endure, but because he was endowed with that fine dignity of mind which does not dwell on hardships gone and troubles past, but rather fixes itself on blessings now at hand and other blessings yet to come. Then, better still, there came a time when work and important business filled every moment of the fast-flying hours. And so he himself once said, “The sure cure for all private griefs is a hearty interest in public affairs.”

The best searchlight through the mist of those early days comes to us through Burke’s letters to his friend Richard, the son of his old Quaker teacher. Shackleton had the insight to perceive his friend was no common man, and so preserved every scrap of Burke’s writing that came his way.

About that time there seems to have been a sort of meteoric shower of chipmunk magazines, following in the luminous pathway of the “Spectator” and the “Tatler.” Burke was passing through his poetic period, and supplied various stanzas of alleged poetry to these magazines for a modest consideration. For one poem he received eighteen pence, as tearfully told by Shackleton, but we have Hawkins for it that this was a trifle more than the poem was worth.

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Of this poetry we know little, happily, but glimpses of it are seen in the Shackleton letters; for instance, when he asks his friend’s criticism of such lines as these:

“The nymphs that haunt the dusky wood,
Which hangs recumbent o’er the crystal flood.”

He speaks of his delight in ambient sunsets, when gilded oceans, ghostly ships, and the dull, dark city vanish for the night. Of course, such things never happen except in books, but the practise of writing about them is a fine drill, in that it enables the writer to get a grasp on his vocabulary. Poetry is for the poet.

And if Burke wrote poetry in bed, having to remain there in the daytime, while his landlady was doing up his single ruffled shirt for an evening party, whose business was it?

When he was invited out to dinner he did the meal such justice that he needed nothing the following day; and the welcome discovery was also made that fasting produced an exaltation of the “spiritual essence that was extremely favorable to writing good poetry.”

Burke had wit, and what Johnson called a “mighty affluence of conversation”; so his presence was welcome at the Turk’s Head. Burke and Johnson were so thoroughly well matched as talkers that they respected each other’s prowess and never with each other clinched in wordy warfare. Johnson was an arch Tory, Burke the leader of the Whigs; but Ursa was wise enough to say, “I’ll talk with him on any subject but politics.” This led Goldsmith to remark, “Doctor Johnson browbeats us little men, but makes quick peace with those he can not down.” Then there were debating societies, from one of which he resigned because the limit of a speech was seven minutes; but finally the time was extended to fifteen minutes in order to get the Irish orator back.

During these nine years, once referred to by Burke as the “Dark Ages,” he had four occupations: book-browsing at Dodsley’s, debating in the clubs, attending the theater on tickets probably supplied by Garrick, who had taken a great fancy to him, and his writing.

No writing man could wish a better environment than this: the friction of mind with strong men, books and the drama stirred his emotions to the printing-point.

Burke’s personality made a swirl in the social sea that brought the best straight to him.

One of the writers that Burke most admired was Bolingbroke, that man of masterly mind and mighty tread. His paragraphs move like a phalanx, and in every sentence there is an argument. No man in England influenced his time more than Bolingbroke. He was the inspirer of writers. Burke devoured Bolingbroke, and when he took up his pen, wrote with the same magnificent, stately minuet step. Finally he was full of the essence of Bolingbroke to the point of saturation, and then he began to criticize him. Had Bolingbroke been alive Burke would have quarreled with him–they were so much alike. As it was, Burke contented himself by writing a book after the style of Bolingbroke, carrying the great man’s arguments one step further with intent to show their fallacy. The paraphrase is always a complement, and is never well done except by a man who loves the original and is a bit jealous of him.

If Burke began his “Vindication of Natural Society,” with intent to produce a burlesque, he missed his aim, and came very near convincing himself of the truth of his proposition. And in fact, the book was hailed by the rationalists as a vindication of Rousseau’s philosophy.

Burke was a conservative rationalist, which is something like an altruistic pessimist. In the society of rationalists Burke was a conservative, and when with the conservatives he was a rationalist. That he was absolutely honest and sincere there is not a particle of doubt, and we will have to leave it to the psychologists to tell us why men hate the thing they love.

“The Vindication of Natural Society” is a great book, and the fact that in the second edition Burke had to explain that it was an ironical paraphrase does not convince us it was. The things prophesied have come about and the morning stars still sing together. Wise men are more and more learning by inclining their hearts toward Nature. Not only is this true in pedagogics, but in law, medicine and theology as well. Dogma has less place now in religion than ever before; many deeply religious men eschew the creed entirely; and in all pulpits may be heard that the sublime truths of simple honesty and kindness are quite enough basis for a useful career. That is good which serves. Religions are many and diverse, but reason and goodness are one.

Burke’s attempt to prove that without “revealed religion” mankind would sit in eternal darkness makes us think of the fable of the man who planted potatoes, hoed them, and finally harvested the crop. Every day while this man toiled, there was another man who sat on the fence, chewed a straw and looked on. And the author of the story says that if it were not for the Bible, no one would have ever known to whom the potatoes belonged.

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Burke wrote and talked as all good men do, just to clear the matter up in his own mind. Our wisest moves are accidents. Burke’s first book was of a sort so striking that both sides claimed it. Men stopped other men on the street and asked if they had read the “Vindication”; at the coffeehouses they wrangled and jangled over it; and all the time Dodsley smiled and rubbed his hands in glee.

Burke soon blossomed out in clean ruffled shirt every morning, and shortly moved to a suite of rooms, where before he had received his mail and his friends at a coffeehouse.

Then came William Burke, a distant cousin, and together they tramped off through rural England, loitering along flowering hedgerows, and stopping at quaint inns, where the villagers made guesses as to whether the two were gentlemen out for a lark, smugglers or Jesuits in disguise.

One of these trips took our friends to Bath, and there we hear they were lodged at the house of a Doctor Nugent, an excellent and scholarly man. William Burke went back to London and left Edmund at Bath deep in the pursuit of the Sublime. Doctor Nugent had a daughter, aged twenty, beautiful, gentle and gracious. The reader can guess the rest.

That Burke’s wife was a most amiable and excellent woman there is no doubt. She loved her lord, believed in him and had no other gods before him. But that she influenced his career directly or through antithesis, there is no trace. Her health was too frail to follow him–his stride was terrific–so she remained at home, and after every success he came back and told her of it, and rested his great, shaggy head in her lap.

Only one child was born to them, and this boy closely resembled his mother in intellect and physique. This son passed out early in life, and so with Edmund died the name.

* * * * *

The next book Burke launched was the one we know best, “On the Sublime.” The original bore the terrifying title, “A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas Concerning the Sublime and Beautiful.” This book consists of one hundred seventeen chapters, each chapter dealing with some special phase of the subject.

It is the most searching and complete analysis of an abstract theme of which I know. It sums the subject up like an essay by Herbert Spencer, and disposes of the case once and forever. It is so learned that only a sophomore could have written it, and we quite forgive the author when we are told that it was composed when he was nineteen.

The book proved Burke’s power to follow an idea to its lair, and its launching also launched the author upon the full tide of polite society. Goldsmith said, “We will lose him now,” but Burke still stuck by his coffeehouse companions and used them as a pontoon to bridge the gulf ‘twixt Bohemia and Piccadilly.

In the meantime he had written a book for Dodsley on “English Settlements in North America,” and this did Burke more good than any one else, as it caused him to focus his inquiring mind on the New World. After this man began to write on a subject, his intellect became luminous on the theme, and it was his forevermore.

At routs and fetes and four-o’-clocks, Burke was sought as an authority on America. He had never been there–he had but promised himself that he would go–for a sick wife held him back. In the meantime he had seen every man of worth who had been to America, and had sucked the orange dry. Macaulay gives the idea when he describes Burke’s speech at the Warren Hastings trial. Burke had never been to India; Macaulay had, but that is nothing.

Says Macaulay:

When Burke spoke, the burning sun, the strange vegetation of the palm and cocoa-tree, the rice-field, the tank, the huge trees, older than the Mogul Empire, under which the village crowds assemble, the thatched roof of the peasant’s hut, the rich tracery of the mosque where the Imam prays with his face to Mecca, the drums, the banners and gaudy idols, the devotee swinging in the air, the graceful maiden with the pitcher on her head, descending the steps to the riverside, the black faces, the long beards, the yellow streaks of sect, the turbans and the flowing robes, the spears and silver maces, the elephants with their canopies of state, the gorgeous palanquin of the prince, and the close litter of the noble lady–all these things were to him as familiar as the subjects which lay on the road between Beaconsfield and Saint James Street. All India was present to the eye of his mind, from the halls where suitors laid gold and perfumes at the feet of the sovereign, to the wild moor where the gipsy camp was pitched; from the bazar, humming like a beehive with the crowd of buyers and sellers, to the jungle where the lonely courier shakes his bunch of iron rings to scare away the hyenas. He had just as lively an idea of the insurrection at Benares as of Lord George Gordon’s riots, and of the execution of Numcomar as of Doctor Dodd. Oppression in Bengal was to him the same thing as oppression in the streets of London.

The wide encompassing quality of Burke’s mind made him a man among men. Just how much he lent his power in those early days to assist those in high places who needed him, we do not know. Such services were sacred to him–done in friendship and in confidence, and held as steadfast as a good lawyer holds the secrets of his client.

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No doubt, though, that the one speech which gave glory and a nickname to Single-Speech Hamilton was written by Burke. It was wise, witty and profound–and never again did Hamilton do a thing that rose above the dull and deadly mediocre.

It was a rival of Burke’s who said, “He is the only man since Cicero who is a great orator, and who can write as well as he can talk.”

That Burke wrote the lectures of Sir Joshua Reynolds is now pretty generally believed; in fact, that he received the goodly sum of four thousand pounds for writing these lectures has been proved to the satisfaction of a jury. Burke never said he wrote the Reynolds lectures, and Sir Joshua left it to his valet to deny it. But read the lectures now and you will see the stately step of Bolingbroke, and the insight, wit and gravity of the man who said: “Mr. Speaker, I rise to a question of privilege. If it is the pleasure of the House that all the heaviest folios known to us should be here read aloud, I am in honor bound to graciously submit, but only this I ask, that proceedings shall be suspended long enough for me to send home for my nightcap.”

* * * * *

Presently Burke graduated from doing hack-work for William Gerard Hamilton to the position of his private secretary–Hamilton had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and so highly did he prize Burke’s services that he had the Government vote him a pension of three hundred pounds a year. This was the first settled income Burke had ever received, and he was then well past thirty years of age. But though he was in sore straits financially, when he perceived that the intent of the income was to bind him into the exclusive service of his patron, he resigned his office and refused the pension.

Without knowing how wisely he was acting, Burke, by declining the pension and affronting Lord Hamilton, had done the very thing that it was most expedient to do.

When Hamilton could not buy his man, he foolishly sought to crush him, and this brought Burke for the first time into the white light of publicity.

I suppose it is fully understood that the nobility of England are not necessarily either cultured or well-read. Literature to most of the titled gentry is a blank, my lord–it is so now and always has been so. Burke’s brilliant books were not sufficient to make him famous except among the Elect Few; but the episode with Lord Hamilton set the gossips by the ears, and all who had never read Burke’s books now pretended they had.

Burke was a national character–such a man merely needs to be known to be wanted–strong men are always needed. The House of Commons opened its doors to him–several boroughs competing with each other for the favor of being represented by him.

A political break-up with opportunity came along, and we find the Marquis of Rockingham made Premier, and Edmund Burke his secretary. It was Fitzherbert who recommended Burke to Rockingham, and Fitzherbert is immortal for this and for the fact that Johnson used him to point a moral. Said Doctor Johnson: “A man is popular more through negative qualities than positive ones. Fitzherbert is the most acceptable man in London because he never overpowers any one by the superiority of his talents, makes no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seems always ready to listen, does not oblige you to hear much from him, and never opposes what you say.”

With Rockingham and Burke it was a case of the tail wagging the dog, but Burke and Rockingham understood each other, and always remained firm friends.

I believe it was John J. Ingalls who said America had never elected but one first-class man for President, and he was chosen only because he was unknown.

Rockingham could neither make a speech nor write a readable article; but he was kindly disposed, honest and intelligent and had a gracious and winning presence. He lives in history today chiefly because Edmund Burke was associated with him.

Burke was too big a man for Premier–such men have to be kept in subjection–the popular will is wise. Men like Burke make enemies–common folks can not follow them in their flight, and in their presence we feel “like a farmer in the presence of a sleight-of-hand man.”

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To have life, and life in abundance, is the prayer of every strong and valiant soul. But men are forever running away from life–getting into “positions,” monasteries, communities, and now and again cutting the cable of existence by suicide. The man who commits suicide usually leaves a letter giving a reason–almost any reason is sufficient–he was looking for a reason and when he thought he had found it, he seized upon it.

Life to Edmund Burke was the gracious gift of the gods, and he was grateful for it. He ripened slowly. Arrested development never caught him–all the days of his life his mind was expanding and reaching out, touching every phase of human existence. Nothing was foreign to him; nothing that related to human existence was small or insignificant. When the home-thrust was made that Ireland had not suffered more through the absenteeism of her landlords than through the absenteeism of her men of genius, Burke made the reply that Ireland needed friends in the House of Commons more than at home.

Burke loved Ireland to the last, and his fine loyalty for her people doubtless cost him a seat in the Cabinet. In moments of passion his tongue took on a touch of the old sod, which gave Fox an opportunity of introducing a swell bull, “Burke’s brogue is worth going miles to see.” And once when Burke was speaking of America he referred to the wondrous forests “where the hand of man had never trod,” Fox arose to a point of order. And this was a good deal easier on the part of Fox than to try to meet his man in serious debate.

Burke’s was not the primrose path of dalliance. He fought his way inch by inch. Often it was a dozen to one against him. In one speech he said: “The minister comes down in state attended by beasts clean and unclean. He opens his budget and edifies us with a speech–one-half the house goes away. A second gentleman gets up and another half goes, and a third gentleman launches a speech that rids the house of another half.”

A loud laugh here came in, and Burke stopped and said he was most happy if a small dehorned Irish bull of his could put the House in such good humor, and went on with his speech. Soon, however, there were cries of “Shame!” from the Tories, who thought Burke was speaking disrespectfully of the King.

Burke paused and said: “Mr. Speaker, I have not spoken of the King except in high esteem–I prize my head too well for that. But I do not think it necessary that I should bow down to his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox nor his ass”–and he fixed his intrepid gaze upon the chief offender.

Nature’s best use for genius is to make other men think; to stir things up so sedimentation does not take place; to break the ankylosis of self-complacency; and start the stream of public opinion running so it will purify itself.

Burke was an agitator–not a leader. He had the great gift of exaggeration, without which no man can be a great orator. He painted the picture large, and put the matter in a way that compelled attention. For thirty years he was a most prominent figure in English politics–no great measure could be passed without counting on him. His influence held dishonesty in check, and made oppression pause.

History is usually written from one of three points of view–political, literary or economic. Macaulay stands for the first, Taine the second, Buckle the third. Each writer considers his subject supreme. When we speak of the history of a country we usually refer to its statesmen.

Politicians live the lives of moths as compared with the lasting influence of commerce that feeds, houses and clothes, says Buckle.

Rulers govern, but it is literature that enlightens, says Taine.

Literature and commerce are made possible only through the wisdom of statesmen, says Macaulay.

Edmund Burke’s business was statecraft; his play was letters; but he lives for us through letters.

He had two sets of ardent friends: his political associates, and that other little group of literary cronies made up of Johnson, Goldsmith, Boswell, Reynolds and Garrick.

With these his soul was free–his sense of sublimity then found wings: the vocabulary of Johnson, the purling poetry of Goldsmith, the grace of Garrick’s mimicry, the miracle of Reynolds’ pencil and brush–these ministered to his hungry heart.

They were forms of expression.

All life is an expression of spirit.

Burke’s life was dedicated to expression.

He expressed through speech, personal presence and written words. Who ever expressed in this way so well? And–stay!–who ever had so much that was worth while to express?

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