Burke Dispassionately Considered

By Russell Kirk

Carl B. Cone, Burke and the Nature of Politics: The Age of the French Revolution, Lexington (University of Kentucky Press), 1964, 527 pages, $9. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV (July 1778–June 1782), ed. John A. Woods, Chicago (University of Chicago Press), 1963, 475 pages, $12.

Possibly because of the great range of Burke’s talents, no thorough and satisfactory biography of Edmund Burke was published in the 167 years after his death. Yet Burke’s reputation, as political philosopher and perhaps as man of letters, never stood higher than it does today. The systematic publication of his correspondence, under the general editorship of Dr. Thomas Copeland, now approaches completion. And the second half of a two-volume political biography by Dr. Carl B. Cone now has appeared—a thorough and impartial study, certain to remain for some years the best account of the greatest of English political thinkers, who also was the most powerful of English rhetoricians.

Although not remarkable for either original insights or liveliness, Mr. Cone’s two volumes are sound, dispassionate, and the product of many years of study. The Age of the French Revolution is superior to Cone’s first volume, The Age of the American Revolution, published eight years earlier—although that, too, was a good piece of scholarship. A sore blow to the zealous disciples of Sir Lewis Namier (bent, like their master, upon demolishing Burke’s repute as an honest political leader and his repute as a man of ideas), Burke and the Nature of Politics is too solid an accomplishment for anyone to disagree reasonably with Professor Cone on questions of fact; and, temperately and scientifically, Cone reaffirms the greatness of Burke—as man, as politician, as rhetorician.

Nearly all important letters and documents concerning Burke soon will be easily available to the serious reader. The searching analytical studies of Peter Stanlis, Ross Hoffman, Francis Canavan, and three or four other scholars were published while Cone’s work was in progress, and have been properly integrated into his biography. So although many aspects of Burke’s career and writing still need examination, the Cone study is completed at a fortunate time, and the concluding volumes of the Correspondence will put an end to much naïve misinterpretation of Burke.—even among folk who ought to know better.

An especial merit of this second volume is Cone’s careful examination of Burke’s attitude and action in Indian affairs, and his prosecution of Warren Hastings. This immensely complex and controversial subject, Burke’s previous biographers uneasily scurried over. But Cone has peered into the bewildering mine of the East India Company’s archives, and has weighed all serious studies and opinions on these questions. It is improbable that Cone’s assessment of the facts will be overruled by later historians, though room remains for argument over the details of Hastings’s Indian policies, and the influence of Burke’s indictment upon British colonial policy thereafter.

On April 25, 1782, Edmund Burke wrote to his friend Will Burke that Indian Reformation was proceeding prosperously; India, he thought, soon would be freed “from the wicked Usurpation of Mr. Hastings.” Two years later, Pitt’s India Act—though by no means what Burke and his friends desired—did dislodge Hastings and improve the administration of India; in February, 1786, Burke commenced proceedings in the House of Commons for Hastings’s impeachment. The debate over impeachment in the Commons, and the trial in the House of Lords, consumed Burke until the day before his retirement from the House of Commons, in 1794. As Cone says, the impeachment by the Commons was Burke’s greatest political triumph; Hastings’s acquittal by the Lords, Burke’s most dismaying failure, at least in Burke’s own opinion.

It is Dr. Cone’s considered judgment that Burke acted on principle in his prosecution of Hastings, and not, except incidentally, from partisan advantage or personal motives. “He opposed arbitrary government on principle; to legalize it for India was to repudiate the lessons of English history. . . . Burke hated tyranny in any form. The people of India as much as the English people deserved security against arbitrary power. Burke knew that his arguments had little appeal. But they demonstrated that his attack upon Hastings . . . was directed against excessive concentration of power, which, if misused, meant abuse of the trust under which Britain held her imperial authority.”

Philip Francis and William Burke, though they furnished their friend with information against Hastings, were only contributory to Burke’s passionate prosecution of the master of India. Burke’s assessment of Hastings’s character was substantially accurate, Cone concludes, and the evidence of Hastings’s wrong-doing was sufficient. Burke knew well enough that this cause could bring him only pain and trouble; it would drag him “through a nasty, mean, distressing business that exposed him to abuse, monopolized his time, required arduous labor, and promised no personal reward even if he achieved his purposes.”

Nor was Burke turned by prejudice and partisanship from his early view that the East India Company should be free of governmental interference to his later conviction that the British government must regulate the Company strictly. It was deeper acquaintance with Indian affairs, rather, that led Burke to his conclusion that “the chartered rights of men” ranked higher than the East India Company charter. And practically, he found that a commercial corporation was incapable of performing the political function of administering justice. “The difference between him and all others,” Mr. Cone writes, “who were concerned in the business of India and Hastings was measured by his deeper passion and his greater ability to desire intensely the well-being of humanity.”

Burke was justified in pressing the impeachment of Hastings, Dr. Cone argues. Although the Rockingham Whigs were a minority in the House of Commons, and although the power of Hastings and his friends was great, the Governor-General was impeached—and rightfully so. “Burke thought it his duty to expose the nature of British administration in India in the hope that men might learn to act under the compulsion of morality as well as positive law.”

In effect, Hastings’s defence rested upon “necessities of state”—though Hastings himself did not take precisely that ground. Burke declared that the magistrate and the soldier cannot be exempted from the natural law by claims of necessity. “Burke’s impeachment of Hastings was one of his great causes. It does credit to his memory; it was a considerable part of his life; it was a major historical event. If his efforts ended in failure, he was not ashamed, nor had he any reason to be.”

And yet, Mr. Cone continues, quite as the Commons were right in impeaching Hastings, so the Lords were right in acquitting him. In an interesting exercise, Mr. Cone asks his reader to put himself in the place of a judicious peer in Westminster Hall, in 1794. Granted perfect objectivity, “If one reads the eleven volumes of the minutes of evidence and decides on that evidence alone, one must vote as the majority did, for the acquittal of Warren Hastings.”

For though Hastings had violated the natural law and the “chartered rights of men” in India, he had not sufficiently offended against English statute and common law. “A sympathetic peer would commiserate with Burke in the impossibility of the task he had set for himself. While all men, informed by their consciences, admit the existence of right, they find it difficult not to soften the absoluteness of the concept by appeals to utility and expediency.”

Mr. Cone doubts whether Burke’s denunciation of Hastings and his methods did much to improve British colonial and imperial policy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. True, this topic requires more painstaking study than it has received to the present. Yet this reviewer suspects that Professor Cone underestimates the subtle influence of Burke upon the mind of the educated Englishman. It was not necessary to employ the volumes of Burke on Indian matters as a kind of crib, or to make Burke’s sentiments formal guidelines for viceroys and secretaries of state for India. Rather, Burke’s eloquence, taught in every public school, impressed upon the boys who would become colonial officers and members of Parliament some part of Burke’s sense of duty and consecration in the civil social order—with reference especially to India and empire.

As Augustine Birrell’s essay on Burke is the best brief commentary, so Cone’s two volumes are the best detailed study ever available. We probably never will know much more about Burke’s private life; in that, he was reticent, and he was too busy with party correspondence to write letters of an informal character. But books about Burke’s imagination, his literary powers, and his influence will continue to be written. In time, there may emerge a biography as detailed and penetrating as Moneypenny’s and Buckle’s Disraeli. From Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, more can be learnt than from any other writers of the modern era. Mr. Cone’s painstaking examination of Burke’s political career is of high value; yet somehow Burke transcends party struggles and the questions of his hour; and, though suspicious from first to last of abstract doctrine and theoretic dogma, Burke will endure not for what he did, but for what he perceived.