The recent death of Conor Cruise O’Brien brought to mind one of his greatest works, the life and times of Edmund Burke in his book The Great Melody. Edmund Burke was one of the greatest minds of the 18th century. There were many resemblances between his life and that of his greatest biographer O’Brien two hundred years later. Both were born in Ireland of mixed religious parentage and both left the country to seek a role on a bigger stage. But both found that Ireland had never left them and it preoccupied both their careers.
Burke was a statesman, political thinker, orator and an ardent campaigner. He was central to the great debates about liberty, empire, and the great American and French revolutions that dominated political thought in the latter half of the 18th century. Though raised in a wealthy Protestant family, he had much Catholic heritage. His Co Cork mother Mary Nagle never truly renounced her Catholic faith and his attorney father Richard Burke was a reluctant convert to the ascendency religion in order to escape the tyranny of the Penal Laws which made life intolerably difficult for Irish Catholics.
Burke’s earliest schooling was in a Catholic hedge school near the Nagle homestead in the Blackwater Valley. Aged 12, he was transferred to a Quaker school and eventually attended Trinity College Dublin where he graduated with a BA. Richard Burke wanted his son to follow him into the legal profession and young Edmund was enrolled at London’s Middle Temple to study law. Little is known of Burke’s life in the six years after he left Dublin. However by 1757 he had published his first two books and got married to Jane Nugent, daughter of an Irish Catholic physician. Edmund and Jane had two boys, only one of which, Richard, survived into adulthood.
By the early 1760s, Burke was beginning to lay the foundations of his political career. In 1765 he found a life-lasting patron Charles Watson-Wentworth, better known as the Marquess of Rockingham. At the time Rockingham was the leader of a section of Whigs and was about form a government which would last a year. Burke himself was elected to parliament for the rotten borough of Wendover and quickly attracted attention with a brilliant maiden speech in January 1766. However the first Rockingham administration was unstable and fell later that year. Burke would loyally remain with his patron in opposition for 16 years.
In 1774 he was elected for the proper seat of Bristol, then a thriving port and the country’s second city behind London. As the decade progressed, Britain became involved in a debilitating war against France and the rebellious colonies in America. Burke risked the wrath of his constituents by supporting a proposal to import Irish goods and abolish duties. But Bristol’s merchants wished to maintain a protected trade and refused to support him in the 1780 election. His mainly Protestant electorate were also unimpressed by his support for the repeal of some of the penal laws two years previously.
Burke was an early sympathiser to the demands of the American colonialists. He admired their energy, audacity, ingenuity and hardihood; qualities he celebrated in many major speeches. Yet he didn’t immediately want to see them leave the union. His dilemma was that he abhorred slavery and therefore was not prepared to see the Southern colonies represented at Westminster. He opposed coercive taxation measures and could see that war was inevitable which would have only one result: an independent American state. Even “our victories there,” he prophesised, “can only complete our ruin”.
However, Britain under the influence of King George III was reluctant to compromise with the rebels. With the nation in crisis, George was anxious for Rockingham to form another government. But with Burke manipulating in the background, Rockingham would not consent unless the King dropped his royal veto on American independence. George refused to do so until 1782. By then Burke was back in parliament in Rockingham’s pocket borough of Malton. It was Burke who devised the unambiguous words by which Rockingham would regain power: “The King must not give a veto to the independence of America.” George eventually caved in, and with it royal power was diminished: Britain had made the transition to constitutional monarchy.
Burke’s obsession with India was even longer than that of America. For 30 years until his death, he denounced the abuses and corruptions of the all-ruling East India Company. From 1782 onward, he insisted it be brought under the control of parliament and argued for the impeachment of the company’s most senior officer Warren Hastings. Hastings was the defacto ruler of British India and extracted collective extortion from the natives on behalf of the Company. However he was undone by the testimony of a functionary Philip Francis. Francis alerted Burke to Hastings activities and he (Burke) set up a parliamentary investigation of India.
After Rockingham formed government, Burke began to direct Indian policy. The Company had powerful friends including the King who brought down the second Rockingham administration and asked William Pitt the Younger (then aged 24) to form a government. Yet Burke continued to expose Company rackets in parliament and he left Pitt with no option but to impeach Hastings. His trial would last seven years and he was eventually acquitted, but Burke had his victory: the Company was brought under the control of parliament.
Burke’s greatest fame (or infamy depending on political view) is for his strong views about the French Revolution. His early feelings were ambiguous: “The spirit is impossible not to admire; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner”. But his view quickly hardened against it. In 1790 he prophesised that the national assembly would not last and the mob would someday hang the king. That year he published his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” where he said the revolution would be obliged to be “purified by fire and blood”. The September Massacres, the Terror, and the royal executions would prove Burke right. He also foresaw Napoleon when he said that power would be seized by a “popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery”.
The book came under fierce attack by supporters of the revolution who were quick to pen their responses. These included Mary Wollstonecraft “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” and Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. Burke ignored these and continued to work on his parliamentary colleagues to condemn the events in France. He made peace with Pitt and George III who were also against the revolution. Burke was also alarmed by the spread of Jacobin ideas to his native Ireland as the 1790s progressed. He did not live to see unsuccessful rebellion which spread there in 1798. He died a year earlier at home on 9 July 1797 with his wife Jane by his side. He was 68. He was survived by the wealth of great writings and speeches which rank among the masterpieces of English eloquence.