Edmund Burke - Vol. 2

Edmund Burke - Vol. 2

Edmund Burke - Vol. 2

Edmund Burke - Vol. 2

Synopsis

This is the second and concluding volume of a biography of Edmund Burke (1730-97), a key figure in eighteenth-century British and Irish politics and intellectual life. Covering the most interesting years of his life (1784-97), its leading themes are India and the French Revolution. Burke was largely responsible for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, former Governor-General of Bengal. The lengthy (145-day) trial of Hastings (which lasted from 1788 to 1795) is recognized as a landmark episode in the history of Britain's relationship with India. Lock provides the first day-by-day account of the entire trial, highlighting some of the many disputes about evidence as well as the great set speeches by Burke and others. In 1790, Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, the earliest sustained attack on the principles of the Revolution. Continuously in print ever since, the Reflections remains the most widely read and quoted book about the Revolution. The Reflectionswas followed by a series of anti-revolutionary writings, as Burke maintained his crusade against the Revolution to the end of his life. In addition to these leading themes, the biography examines many other topics in its coverage of Burke's busy and varied life: his parliamentary career; his family, friendships, and philanthropy; and his often difficult and obsessive personality. There are more than thirty illustrations, including many contemporary caricatures that convey how Burke was perceived by an often hostile and uncomprehending public. Controversial in his time, Burke is now regarded as one of the greatest of orators in the English language, as well as one of the most influential political philosophers in the Western tradition.

Excerpt

‘Nature does not make such a Man once in a Century.’ This tribute to Burke was paid by Elizabeth Montagu in 1780, during the Gordon Riots, when she heard that his life was in danger from the mob. Had Burke indeed fallen victim to the rioters, her remark would have seemed no more than the pardonable hyperbole of a friend. Burke would have been remembered as the author of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), and as a distinguished parliamentary speaker, but hardly as deserving Montagu’s accolade. When Burke died in 1797, William Godwin was correcting the sheets of the third edition of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. No book could be more antithetical to everything that Burke represented and championed. Even so, Godwin (whose judgement, unlike Montagu’s, cannot be discounted as emanating from personal regard) inserted a footnote to celebrate Burke as ‘the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of the earth’, possessed of ‘the noblest faculties’ (though Godwin thought he had misapplied them) ‘that have yet been exhibited to the observation of the world’.

In 1784, when this volume begins, Montagu’s comment would have appeared a grotesque overestimate of a discredited politician, for Burke’s reputation had fallen since 1780. Over the next three years, however, he worked intensely and unremittingly to achieve one of his greatest triumphs: persuading the House of Commons to impeach Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal. Then, in the winter of 1788–9, during the Regency Crisis precipitated by the king’s illness, Burke lost most of the respect that he had thus recovered. Yet within little more than a year, thanks to the outbreak of the French Revolution, of which he was one of the first and most vocal antagonists, his stature began again to rise. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) remains the most enduring book about one of the most significant events in modern history, and has achieved the status of a classic of political thought. When the Revolution became violent and tyrannical, disappointing its early admirers, Burke’s warnings came to seem prophetic. Nor did his anti-revolutionary efforts stop with the Reflections. With his usual energy, he began a campaign to promote a counter-revolution, a commitment that ended only with his life. When he died in 1797, no one was more completely identified with the counter-revolutionary cause. Yet Godwin could pay him a tribute more extravagant even than Montagu’s. A measure of Burke’s greatness is his capacity to elicit such praise and admiration from opponents.

Dominated by Burke’s two great causes or crusades, the impeachment of Hastings and the struggle to maintain an anti-revolutionary spirit in Britain . . .

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