The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5

Author: Augustine Birrell


The Distinction of Burke*

Burke was brought up in the Protestant faith of his father, and was never in any real danger of deviating from it; but I can not doubt that his regard for his Catholic fellow subjects, his fierce repudiation of the infamies of the penal code whose horrors he did something to mitigate—his respect for antiquity, and his historic sense, were all quickened by the fact that a tenderly loved and loving mother belonged through life and in death to an ancient and an outraged faith.

Burke came to London with a cultivated curiosity, and in no spirit of desperate determination to make his fortune. That the study of the law interested him can not be doubted, for everything interested him, and particularly the stage. Like the sensible Irishman he was, he lost his heart to Peg Woffington on the first opportunity. He was fond of roaming about the country, during, it is to be hoped, vacation time only, and is to be found writing the most cheerful letters to his friends in Ireland (all of whom are persuaded that he is going some day to be somebody, tho sorely puzzled to surmise what thing or when, so pleasantly does he take life), from all sorts of out-of-the-way country places, where he lodges with quaint old landladies who wonder maternally why he never gets drunk, and generally mistake him for an author until he pays his bill.

When in town he frequented debating societies in Fleet Street and Covent Garden, andmade his first speeches; for which purpose he would, unlike some debaters, devote studious hours to getting up the subjects to be discussed. There is good reason to believe that it was in this manner his attention was first directed to India. He was at all times a great talker, and, Doctor Johnson’s dictum notwithstanding, a good listener. He was endlessly interested in everything—in the state of the crops, in the last play, in the details of all trades, the rhythm of all poems, the plots of all novels, and indeed in the course of every manufacture. And so for six years he went up and down, to and fro, gathering information, imparting knowledge, and preparing himself, tho he knew not for what.

But great as were Burke’s literary powers, and passionate as was his fondness for letters and for literary society, he never seems to have felt that the main burden of his life lay in that direction. He looked to the public service, and this tho he always believed that the pen of a great writer was a more powerful and glorious weapon than any to be found in the armory of politics.

It is satisfactory to notice how from the very first Burke’s intellectual preeminence, character, and aims were clearly admitted and most cheerfully recognized by his political and social superiors; and in the long correspondence in which he engaged with most of them, there is not a trace to be found, on one side or the other, of anything approaching to either patronage orservility. Burke advises them, exhorts them, expostulates with them, condemns their aristocratic languor, fans their feeble flames, drafts their motions, dictates their protests, visits their houses, and generally supplies them with facts, figures, poetry, and romance.

To all this they submit with much humility. The Duke of Richmond once indeed ventured to hint to Burke, with exceeding delicacy, that he (the Duke) had a small private estate to attend to as well as public affairs; but the validity of the excuse was not admitted. The part Burke played for the next fifteen years with relation to the Rockingham party reminds me of the functions I have observed performed in lazy families by a soberly clad and eminently respectable person who pays them domiciliary visits, and, having admission everywhere, goes about mysteriously from room to room, winding up all the clocks. This is what Burke did for the Rockingham party—he kept it going.

But fortunately for us, Burke was not content with private adjuration, or even public speech. His literary instincts, his dominating desire to persuade everybody that he, Edmund Burke, was absolutely in the right, and every one of his opponents hopelessly wrong, made him turn to the pamphlet as a propaganda, and in his hands—

"The thing became a trumpet whence he blew
Soul-animating strains."

So accustomed are we to regard Burke’s pamphlets as specimens of our noblest literature, and to see them printed in comfortable volumes, that we are apt to forget that in their origin they were but the children of the pavement, the publications of the hour.

I have now rather more than kept my word so far as Burke’s preparliamentary life is concerned, and will proceed to mention some of the circumstances that may serve to account for the fact, that when the Rockingham party came into power for the second time in 1782, Burke, who was their life and soul, was only rewarded with a minor office.1

First, then, it must be recorded sorrowfully of Burke that he was always desperately in debt, and in this country no politician under the rank of a baronet can ever safely be in debt. Burke’s finances are, and always have been marvels and mysteries; but one thing must be said of them—that the malignity of his enemies, both Tory enemies and Radical enemies, has never succeeded in formulating any charge of dishonesty against him that has not been at once completely pulverized, and shown on the facts to be impossible.

Burke’s purchase of the estate at Beaconsfield in 1768, only two years after he entered Parliament, consisting as it did of a good house and 1,600 acres of land, has puzzled a greatmany good men—much more than it ever did Edmund Burke. But how did he get the money? After an Irish fashion—by not getting it at all.

Two-thirds of the purchase-money remained on mortgage, and the balance he borrowed; or, as he puts it, "With all I could collect of my own, and by the aid of my friends, I have established a root in the country." That is how Burke bought Beaconsfield, where he lived till his end came; whither he always hastened when his sensitive mind was tortured by the thought of how badly men governed the world; where he entertained all sorts and conditions of men—Quakers, Brahmins (for whose ancient rites he provided suitable accommodation in a greenhouse), nobles and abbs flying from revolutionary France, poets, painters, and peers, no one of whom ever long remained a stranger to his charm.

Farming, if it is to pay, is a pursuit of small economies; and Burke was far too Asiatic, tropical, and splendid to have anything to do with small economies. His expenditure, like his rhetoric, was in the "grand style." He belongs to Charles Lamb’s great race, "the men who borrow." But indeed it was not so much that Burke borrowed as that men lent.

Right-feeling men did not wait to be asked. Doctor Brocklesby, that good physician, whose name breathes like a benediction through the pages of the biographies of the best men of his time, who soothed Doctor Johnson’s last melancholyhours, and for whose supposed heterodoxy the dying man displayed so tender a solicitude, wrote to Burke in the strain of a timid suitor proposing for the hand of a proud heiress, to know whether Burke would be so good as to accept 1,000l. at once, instead of waiting for the writer’s death. Burke felt no hesitation in obliging so old a friend.

Garrick, who, tho fond of money, was as generous-hearted a fellow as ever brought down a house, lent Burke 1,000l. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had been reckoned stingy, by his will left Burke 2,000l., and forgave him another 2,000l. which he had lent him. The Marquis of Rockingham, by his will, directed all Burke’s bonds held by him to be canceled. They amounted to 30,000l. Burke’s patrimonial estate was sold by him for 4,000l.; and I have seen it stated that he had received altogether from family sources as much as 20,000l.

And yet he was always poor, and was glad at the last to accept pensions from the Crown in order that he might not leave his wife a beggar. This good lady survived her illustrious husband twelve years, and seemed, as his widow, to have some success in paying his bills, for at her death all remaining demands were found to be discharged.

Had Burke been a moralist of the caliber of Charles James Fox, he might have amassed a fortune large enough to keep up half a dozen Beaconsfields, by simply doing what all hispredecessors in the office he held, including Fox’s own father, the truly infamous first Lord Holland, had done—namely, by retaining for his own use the interest on all balances of the public money from time to time in his hands as paymaster of the forces. But Burke carried his passion for good government into actual practise, and, cutting down the emoluments of his office to a salary (a high one, no doubt), effected a saving to the country of some 25,000l. a year, every farthing of which might have gone without remark into his own pocket.

Burke had no vices save of style and temper; nor was any of his expenditure a profligate squandering of money. It all went in giving employment or disseminating kindness. He sent the painter Barry to study art in Italy. He saved the poet Crabbe from starvation and despair, and thus secured to the country one who owns the unrivaled distinction of having been the favorite poet of the three greatest intellectual factors of the age (scientific men excepted)—Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Cardinal Newman.

Yet so distorted are men’s views that the odious and antisocial excesses of Fox at the gambling-table are visited with a blame usually wreathed in smiles, whilst the financial irregularities of a noble and pure-minded man are thought fit matter for the fiercest censure or the most lordly contempt.

Next to Burke’s debts, some of his companionsand intimates did him harm and injured his consequence. His brother Richard, whose brogue we are given to understand was simply appalling, was a good-for-nothing, with a dilapidated reputation. Then there was another Mr. Burke, who was no relation, but none the less was always about, and to whom it was not safe to lend money. Burke’s son, too, whose death he mourned so pathetically, seems to have been a failure, and is described by a candid friend as a nauseating person. To have a decent following is important in politics.

It now only remains for me, drawing upon my stock of assurance, to essay the analysis of the essential elements of Burke’s mental character, and I therefore at once proceed to say that it was Burke’s peculiarity and his glory to apply the imagination of a poet of the first order to the facts and the business of life. Arnold says of Sophocles—

"He saw life steadily and saw it whole."

Substitute for the word "life" the words "organized society," and you get a peep into Burke’s mind.

There was a catholicity about his gaze. He knew how the whole world lived. Everything contributed to this: his vast desultory reading; his education, neither wholly academical nor entirely professional; his long years of apprenticeship in the service of knowledge; his wanderingsup and down the country; his vast conversational powers; his enormous correspondence with all sorts of people; his unfailing interest in all pursuits, trades, manufactures,—all helped to keep before him, like motes dancing in a sunbeam, the huge organism of modern society, which requires for its existence and for its development the maintenance of credit and of order.

Burke’s imagination led him to look out over the whole land; the legislator devising new laws, the judge expounding and enforcing old ones, the merchant despatching his goods and extending his credit, the banker advancing the money of his customers upon the credit of the merchant, the frugal man slowly accumulating the store which is to support him in old age, the ancient institutions of Church and University with their seemly provisions for sound learning and true religion, the parson in his pulpit, the poet pondering his rhymes, the farmer eyeing his crops, the painter covering his canvases, the player educating the feelings.

Burke saw all this with the fancy of a poet, and dwelt on it with the eye of a lover. But love is the parent of fear, and none knew better than Burke how thin is the lava layer between the costly fabric of society and the volcanic heats and destroying flames of anarchy. He trembled for the fair frame of all established things, and to his horror saw men, instead of covering the thin surface with the concrete,digging in it for abstractions, and asking fundamental questions about the origin of society, and why one man should be born rich and another poor.

Burke was no prating optimist: it was his very knowledge how much could be said against society that quickened his fears for it. There is no shallower criticism than that which accuses Burke in his later years of apostasy from so-called Liberal opinions. Burke was all his life through a passionate maintainer of the established order of things, and a ferocious hater of abstractions and metaphysical politics.

The same ideas that explode like bombs through his diatribes against the French Revolution are to be found shining with a mild effulgence in the comparative calm of his earlier writings. I have often been struck with a resemblance, which I hope is not wholly fanciful, between the attitude of Burke’s mind toward government and that of Cardinal Newman toward religion.

Both these great men belong, by virtue of their imaginations, to the poetic order, and they both are to be found dwelling with amazing eloquence, detail, and wealth of illustration on the varied elements of society. Both seem as they write to have one hand on the pulse of the world, and to be forever alive to the throb of its action; and Burke, as he regarded humanity swarming like bees into and out of their hives of industry, asked himself the question, How are these men tobe saved from anarchy? whilst Newman puts to himself the question, How are these men to be saved from atheism? Both saw the perils of free inquiry divorced from practical affairs.

If either of these great men has been guilty of intellectual excesses, those of Burke may be attributed to his dread of anarchy, those of Newman to his dread of atheism. Neither of them was prepared to rest content with a scientific frontier, an imaginary line. So much did they dread their enemy, so alive were they to the terrible strength of some of his positions, that they could not agree to dispense with the protection afforded by the huge mountains of prejudice and the ancient rivers of custom. The sincerity of either man can only be doubted by the bigot and the fool.

But Burke, apart from his fears, had a constitutional love for old things, simply because they were old. Anything mankind had ever worshiped, or venerated, or obeyed, was dear to him. I have already referred to his providing his Brahmins with a greenhouse for the purpose of their rites, which he watched from outside with great interest. One can not fancy Cardinal Newman peeping through a window to see men worshiping false tho ancient gods. Warren Hastings’s high-handed dealings with the temples and time-honored if scandalous customs of the Hindus filled Burke with horror. So, too, he respected Quakers, Presbyterians,Independents, Baptists, and all those whom he called Constitutional Dissenters.

He has a fine passage somewhere about rust; for with all his passion for good government he dearly loved a little rust. In this phase of character he reminds one not a little of another great writer—whose death literature has still reason to deplore George Eliot; who, in her love for old hedge-rows and barns and crumbling moss-grown walls, was a writer after Burke’s own heart, whose novels he would have sat up all night to devour; for did he not deny with warmth Gibbon’s statement that he had read all five volumes of "Evelina" in a day? "The thing is impossible," cried Burke; "they took me three days, doing nothing else." Now, "Evelina" is a good novel, but "Silas Marner" is a better.

Wordsworth has been called the High Priest of Nature. Burke may be called the High Priest of Order—a lover of settled ways, of justice, peace, and security. His writings are a storehouse of wisdom, not the cheap shrewdness of the mere man of the world, but the noble, animating wisdom of one who has the poet’s heart as well as the statesman’s brain.

Nobody is fit to govern this country who has not drunk deep at the springs of Burke. "Have you read your Burke?" is at least as sensible a question to put to a parliamentary candidate, as to ask him whether he is a total abstainer ora desperate drunkard. Something there may be about Burke to regret, and more to dispute; but that he loved justice and hated iniquity is certain, as also it is that for the most part he dwelt in the paths of purity, humanity, and good sense. May we be found adhering to them!

* From a lecture delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. Printed here by kind permission of Mr. Birrell.

1 Burke in this ministry was paymaster-general and privy councillor.

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The British Empire, 1865-1906

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Chicago: Augustine Birrell, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 132–145. Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024,

MLA: Birrell, Augustine. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 132–145. Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Birrell, A, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.132–145. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from