National Biography No. I: Edmund Burke

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 18, October 27, 1832]

To the Editor of the Dublin Penny Journal

Sir,—In one of the early numbers of your Journal, an appeal was made to our countrymen for their support, on the ground of its being essentially an Irish publication. It appears to me, that the more decisively this principle is acted on, and carried into effect, the better entitled you will be to claim that support and patronage. Independently of this, your readers in England and elsewhere, will know they have before them a work especially devoted to the publication of matters relating to this country. In fact, I would have the Dublin Penny Journal peculiarly and exclusively Irish. I would have, as well the bodily substance of the work national as I would require it to be an essential requisite in every article to be admitted to its pages, that it should treat of some subject connected with Ireland, or, at the least, of some one that should be practically useful to such of our countrymen here at home, as are compelled by restricted finances to seek information from a cheap source, for whom, if I do not err, this little work is chiefly intended. To use the words, or at least the sentiment of a talented and patriotic countryman, a principle of evil has been in force in this country, for a series of years, against the encouragement or patronage of everything of home production, and nothing short of a strong counteracting principle can overcome it.

The best way to overcome this principle is, in my opinion, to try and enlist Irishmen at home in the cause of Irish production, and even as a beginning to go so low as a Penny Journal. It is better to rise than to fall; and if you can enlist their feelings, their exertions, and even their prejudices in your favour, you will render your country a real benefit, and convey to every part of our isle the blessings of intelligence.

It appears to me, that there is one class of subjects which as yet you have scarcely touched on; one that I should think peculiarly desirable, as furnishing strong and practical lessons of sound wisdom and morality; I mean the biography of celebrated men, of whom Ireland boasts to have given not a few to the world. If it were necessary to support my general proposition of the utility of biography we have the authority of Dr. Johnson in asserting, that "no study can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition."

I anticipate not a few objections, and some of them solid ones too, which may be offered to your giving sketches of the lives of eminent Irishmen: I shall not, however, go into them, for many reasons, one, a sufficient one, is, that it would take up too much time and space: suffice it to say, that the following outline of the life of Edmund Burke, which I send to you for your Journal, will, I should hope, be found free from all objections, that at present occur to me. That the life of this great man furnishes a powerful moral lesson cannot be denied. Gifted as he was with rare talents and a mind of amazing capacity, such as rarely fall to the lot of any of the human race; eminently successful in life, according to human notions of success, having raised himself by his own sole and unaided efforts to a loftier eminence than the most sanguine hopes of his early ambition could have looked forward, of an amiable turn of mind, and still more, in no small degree if we can credit the relation of his biographers, impressed with a deep sense of religion, he yet appears to have closed his career in this world an unhappy man, having discovered too late that he had wasted the energies of his mighty mind in the pursuit of worthless and illusory shadows. The following is but a meagre sketch of the life of a man, in private life, amiable and benevolent, in public, indefatigable, ardent, and abhorrent of injustice. He justly ranks as an orator with the first of modern times; and as a writer, whether we consider the splendour of his diction, the richness and variety of his imagery, or the boundless stores of knowledge which he displays, it must be confessed that there are few who equal, and none who transcend him.

I send you also a portrait, which has been considered a good likeness, and being, I believe, not a common one, you may, perhaps, think it worthy of being prefixed.

edmund burke was the second son of a solicitor of some eminence in Dublin, and was born on the first of January, 1730. His father, though descended from a family which once possessed a considerable property in Ireland, had but a very trifling patrimony, and derived the chief part of his income from his professional labours. Little is known of Burke's childhood, but that being of a delicate constitution, and consequently, unable to take the same degree of boyish exercise as his brothers, when they were at play he was constantly reclining on a sofa, reading. To this Richard Burke alluded, when, being found in a reverie shortly after an extraordinary display of powers in the house of commons by his brother, and questioned by a friend as to the cause, he replied, "I have been wondering how Ned has contrived to monopolise all the talent of one family; but then again, I remember when we were at play, he was always at work."

It is said that even at school, Burke early manifested unusual perseverance and industry of character, and at that early period showed marked symptoms of no ordinary rank of intellect. An inquisitive and speculative cast of mind was not among the least distinguishing of his peculiarities. He read much while a boy, and accumulated a great variety of knowledge; though he did not distinguish himself by any extraordinary application to the usual school studies. The old romances, Palmerin of England, and Don Belianis of Greece, were, as he himself once confessed in the house of commons, great favourites of his; by these probably was fostered the first germ of that strong feeling of hatred of any thing like injustice and oppression, and desire to espouse the cause of the weak and the oppressed, which formed so leading a characteristic of his future life, and the excess of which, excited by the perusal of the very same books, Cervantes has so happily caricatured. It does not appear that Burke obtained any academical honours either at school, or at the university of Dublin, where he was entered a student in 1744, save a scholarship that he obtained at the latter place, which proves that he then cultivated with some attention the Greek and Latin classics. The greater part of his time, however, was devoted to studies more congenial to his mind than the mere routine of his collegiate studies, and he engaged himself in laying up those stores of that knowledge, from which in after life he drew forth so abundantly, and so as to excite the unbounded astonishment of his rivals and contemporaries by its extent and variety. About this time he became a member of a literary club, or debating society, which it would seem, was the scene of his earliest oratorical efforts. Before he quitted college he is said to have made his first literary essay in reply to some of the democratic doctrines contained in the writings and speeches of the then celebrated Dr. Lucas.

Burke appears to have been destined from an early period for the Bar. In 1747, his name was entered as a student at the Middle Temple, though he did not begin to keep terms till 1750. The ambition of being distinguished in literature was one of his earliest, as it was one of his latest passions; and he at this time contributed various articles on lighter subjects to some of the leading periodicals, while he also gave the world some of the graver works on which the evidences of his early habits of extensive and various observation and deep reflection securely rest. His well known essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, at once established his character as a writer, and introduced him to the acquaintance of Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Goldsmith, and other eminent literary characters of the day. Whether he found the law as a profession, alien to his habits, his health incompetent to its persevering pursuit, or became weaned from it by that attachment to general literature, which has, in so many other instances of men of genius, proved irresistible, it is certain that his views soon changed; for, at the expiration of the usual time, he was not called to the bar. Continued application, however, to his favourite pursuits producing a fit of illness, he became an inmate of the family of Dr. Nugent, a physician, residing at Bath; an attachment to his daughter was the result, and shortly afterwards Burke was united to her.

In 1761, he went to Ireland with his friend Mr. William Gerard Hamilton, as chief secretary, who accompanied Lord Halifax, then lately appointed Lord Lieutenant. But a breach occurring between him and Mr. Hamilton, he returned soon to London.

His writings having introduced him to the notice of the Marquis of Rockingham, and that nobleman having on the dismissal of the Grenville administration, in 1765, been made prime minister, offered Mr. Burke the situation of private secretary to himself, with a seat in parliament, and he, accordingly, made his appearance in that great theatre as member for the borough of Wendover. The Rockingham administration, however, terminated in little more than a year, and Burke became an active member of the opposition, both as a senator, and as a writer to the new ministry under the Earl of Chatham.

American affairs began about this period very generally to excite the public attention. The ferment was increased by the affairs of Wilkes, and soon after by the publication of the celebrated letters of Junius. In the contests on these various subjects, Mr. Burke took a conspicuous share. In some pamphlets published about this time, he demonstrated the vast extent and particularity of his commercial and political knowledge, and with prodigious force of reasoning showed the injustice and impolicy of persisting in the plan of American taxation. On the motion for Wilkes's expulsion he made a masterly speech which displayed the most minute acquaintance with parliamentary history, and, upon many occasions in the House of commons, he attacked the Grafton administration with such force of eloquence and invective as to give rise to the opinion that he was the writer of Junius's letters.

The knowledge which Mr. Burke had, on various occasions, displayed, of the objects and principles of commerce, recommended him to the citizens of Bristol, who invited him to offer himself as a candidate for their city, in the parliament of 1774, and he was accordingly returned by a vast majority, and entirely at the expense of his electors. In the course, however, of the six years, during which he represented Bristol, he was so unfortunate as to offend the political and commercial, as well as the religious prejudices of many of his constituents, and, accordingly, at the election in 1780, he was obliged, after a short struggle, to decline the contest; on this occasion, he entered into a justification of his conduct in the celebrated speech which has long been recognized as one of the most splendid addresses to a popular assembly extant in the English language. At the commencement of 1782, the Marquis of Rockingham, having again been called on to take the reins of government, an administration was formed, of which that nobleman, as Premier, was the nominal, but Mr. Fox, the real head, while Mr. Burke filled the office of paymaster general, and took a seat at the council-board. The much-lamented death of the amiable, and talented premier, dissolved this ministry, after it had been in existence about a year; but after a short period, Mr. Burke again came into office as a member of the celebrated coalition ministry; which, however, becoming unpopular, was quickly forced to give way, and Mr. Pitt was elevated to the post of prime minister, in 1783.

From this period to the commencement of the French Revolution Mr. Burke's attention was chiefly directed to the affairs of India, and the well-known impeachment of Warren Hastings. These subjects called forth a variety and force of eloquence, an exertion of genius, and an extent of knowledge scarcely ever equalled; and the speeches delivered by him, in the various stages of that long protracted trial, must ever remain a standing monument of his transcendant powers.

We must pass rapidly over this most interesting period of his parliamentary career; and without touching on the active part he took in some most important questions, about this time. - But we cannot omit to mention his celebrated, "Reflections on the Revolution of France," which made its appearance at the end of 1790. This publication proved one of the remarkable events of the year, perhaps of the century; never did a political production excite so much attention, so much discussion, and ultimately such general conviction of the correctness of the writer's views, as to succeed in turning the stream of public opinion in the direction he wished, from the channel in which it had hitherto flowed.

But Mr. Burke's labours were now rapidly drawing to a close; during the session of 1792 he exerted himself less than on former occasions, being now, he said, a worn-out veteran in the service, desirous to retire. He however continued in Parliament till the middle of 1794.

At this time his mind was most distressingly agitated by the anticipation of that event which took place soon after, the death of his accomplished and only son , an event which communicated a morbid tinge to his naturally ardent temperament. This calamity seems to have coloured the medium through which he afterwards saw persons and objects. Amidst his pious ejaculations and sincere professions of resignation to the will of Heaven, a querulous infirmity hung about his mind to the last. With feelings thus harrowed, he had to struggle against all the vexations attendant upon straitened circumstances. For some months after the afflicting loss he had sustained, be was totally unable to take any interest in questions connected with public affairs; but as he became more composed, a return to the consideration of such, serving to prevent the continual intrusion of melancholy thoughts, became rather a relief than a labour. Some letters written by him soon after show him residing at his villa at Beaconsfield in comparative seclusion, and furnish striking pictures of a great mind reduced by the influence of sorrow to a state of the most painful despondency. At length his health began to sink, and finding the medical aid of his physicians of little avail in restoring it, he proceeded to Bath early in February 1797, for the benefit of the waters. To Beaconsfield, however, where he had enjoyed so many of the honours and comforts of life he returned to die; for there is something of satisfaction to the human heart in breathing our last, and in depositing our bones in the spot where we have spent the most honourable and useful part of our lives. "It is so far, at least" said he, just before quitting Bath, "on my way to the tomb, and I may as well travel it alive as dead,'' He died the 9th of July 1797, in his 68th year.