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Thoughts on the Present Discontents, by Edmund Burke

Transcribed from the 1886 Cassell & Company edition by David Price, email [email protected] and proofing by David, Terry L. Jeffress, Edgar A. Howard.

THOUGHTS ON THE PRESENT DISCONTENTS, AND SPEECHES

by EDMUND BURKE.

CASSELL & COMPANY, Limited:london, paris, new york & melbourne. 1886.

Contents

Introduction Thoughts on the Present Discontents Speech on the Middlesex Election. Speech on the Powers of Juries in Prosecutions for Libels. Speech on a Bill for Shortening the Duration of Parliaments Speech on Reform of Representation in the House of Commons

INTRODUCTION

Edmund Burke was born at Dublin on the first of January, 1730.  His father was an attorney, who had fifteen children, of whom all but four died in their youth.  Edmund, the second son, being of delicate health in his childhood, was taught at home and at his grandfather’s house in the country before he was sent with his two brothers Garrett and Richard to a school at Ballitore, under Abraham Shackleton, a member of the Society of Friends.  For nearly forty years afterwards Burke paid an annual visit to Ballitore.

In 1744, after leaving school, Burke entered Trinity College, Dublin.  He graduated B.A. in 1748; M.A., 1751.  In 1750 he came to London, to the Middle Temple.  In 1756 Burke became known as a writer, by two pieces.  One was a pamphlet called “A Vindication of Natural Society.”  This was an ironical piece, reducing to absurdity those theories of the excellence of uncivilised humanity which were gathering strength in France, and had been favoured in the philosophical works of Bolingbroke, then lately published.  Burke’s other work published in 1756, was his “Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful.”

At this time Burke’s health broke down.  He was cared for in the house of a kindly physician, Dr. Nugent, and the result was that in the spring of 1757 he married Dr. Nugent’s daughter.  In the following year Burke made Samuel Johnson’s acquaintance, and acquaintance ripened fast into close friendship.  In 1758, also, a son was born; and, as a way of adding to his income, Burke suggested the plan of “The Annual Register.”

In 1761 Burke became private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, who was then appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland.  In April, 1763, Burke’s services were recognised by a pension of £300 a year; but he threw this up in April, 1765, when he found that his services were considered to have been not only recognised, but also bought.  On the 10th of July in that year (1765) Lord Rockingham became Premier, and a week later Burke, through the good offices of an admiring friend who had come to know him in the newly-founded Turk’s Head Club, became Rockingham’s private secretary.  He was now the mainstay, if not the inspirer, of Rockingham’s policy of pacific compromise in the vexed questions between England and the American colonies.  Burke’s elder brother, who had lately succeeded to his father’s property, died also in 1765, and Burke sold the estate in Cork for £4,000.

Having become private secretary to Lord Rockingham, Burke entered Parliament as member for Wendover, and promptly took his place among the leading speakers in the House.

On the 30th of July, 1766, the Rockingham Ministry went out, and Burke wrote a defence of its policy in “A Short Account of a late Short Administration.”  In 1768 Burke bought for £23,000 an estate called Gregories or Butler’s Court, about a mile from Beaconsfield.  He called it by the more territorial name of Beaconsfield, and made it his home.  Burke’s endeavours to stay the policy that was driving the American colonies to revolution, caused the State of New York, in 1771, to nominate him as its agent.  About May, 1769, Edmund Burke began the pamphlet here given, Thoughts on the Present Discontents.  It was published in 1770, and four editions of it were issued before the end of the year.  It was directed chiefly against Court influence, that had first been used successfully against the Rockingham Ministry.  Allegiance to Rockingham caused Burke to write the pamphlet, but he based his argument upon essentials of his own faith as a statesman.  It was the beginning of the larger utterance of his political mind.

Court influence was strengthened in those days by the large number of newly-rich men, who bought their way into the House of Commons for personal reasons and could easily be attached to the King’s party.  In a population of 8,000,000 there were then but 160,000 electors, mostly nominal.  The great land-owners generally held the counties.  When two great houses disputed the county of York, the election lasted fourteen days, and the costs, chiefly in bribery, were said to have reached three hundred thousand pounds.  Many seats in Parliament were regarded as hereditary possessions, which could be let at rental, or to which the nominations could be sold.  Town corporations often let, to the highest bidders, seats in Parliament, for the benefit of the town funds.  The election of John Wilkes for Middlesex, in 1768, was taken as a triumph of the people.  The King and his ministers then brought the House of Commons into conflict with the freeholders of Westminster.  Discontent became active and general.  “Junius” began, in his letters, to attack boldly the King’s friends, and into the midst of the discontent was thrown a message from the Crown asking for half a million, to make good a shortcoming in the Civil List.  Men asked in vain what had been done with the lost money.  Confusion at home was increased by the great conflict with the American colonies; discontents, ever present, were colonial as well as home.  In such a time Burke endeavoured to show by what pilotage he would have men weather the storm.

H. M.

THOUGHTS ON THE PRESENT DISCONTENTS

It is an undertaking of some degree of delicacy to examine into the cause of public disorders.  If a man happens not to succeed in such an inquiry, he will be thought weak and visionary; if he touches the true grievance, there is a danger that he may come near to persons of weight and consequence, who will rather be exasperated at the discovery of their errors than thankful for the occasion of correcting them.  If he should be obliged to blame the favourites of the people, he will be considered as the tool of power; if he censures those in power, he will be looked on as an instrument of faction.  But in all exertions of duty something is to be hazarded.  In cases of tumult and disorder, our law has invested every man, in some sort, with the authority of a magistrate.  When the affairs of the nation are distracted, private people are, by the spirit of that law, justified in stepping a little out of their ordinary sphere.  They enjoy a privilege of somewhat more dignity and effect than that of idle lamentation over the calamities of their country.  They may look into them narrowly; they may reason upon them liberally; and if they should be so fortunate as to discover the true source of the mischief, and to suggest any probable method of removing it, though they may displease the rulers for the day, they are certainly of service to the cause of Government.  Government is deeply interested in everything which, even through the medium of some temporary uneasiness, may tend finally to compose the minds of the subjects, and to conciliate their affections.  I have nothing to do here with the abstract value of the voice of the people.  But as long as reputation, the most precious possession of every individual, and as long as opinion, the great support of the State, depend entirely upon that voice, it can never be considered as a thing of little consequence either to individuals or to Government.  Nations are not primarily ruled by laws; less by violence.  Whatever original energy may be supposed either in force or regulation, the operation of both is, in truth, merely instrumental.  Nations are governed by the same methods, and on the same principles, by which an individual without authority is often able to govern those who are his equals or his superiors, by a knowledge of their temper, and by a judicious management of it; I mean, when public affairs are steadily and quietly conducted: not when Government is nothing but a continued scuffle between the magistrate and the multitude, in which sometimes the one and sometimes the other is uppermost—in which they alternately yield and prevail, in a series of contemptible victories and scandalous submissions.  The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought therefore to be the first study of a statesman.  And the knowledge of this temper it is by no means impossible for him to attain, if he has not an interest in being ignorant of what it is his duty to learn.

To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greater part of mankind—indeed, the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar.  Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterises the general infirmity of human nature from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.

* * * * *

Nobody, I believe, will consider it merely as the language of spleen or disappointment, if I say that there is something particularly alarming in the present conjuncture.  There is hardly a man, in or out of power, who holds any other language.  That Government is at once dreaded and contemned; that the laws are despoiled of all their respected and salutary terrors; that their inaction is a subject of ridicule, and their exertion of abhorrence; that rank, and office, and title, and all the solemn plausibilities of the world, have lost their reverence and effect; that our foreign politics are as much deranged as our domestic economy; that our dependencies are slackened in their affection, and loosened from their obedience; that we know neither how to yield nor how to enforce; that hardly anything above or below, abroad or at home, is sound and entire; but that disconnection and confusion, in offices, in parties, in families, in Parliament, in the nation, prevail beyond the disorders of any former time: these are facts universally admitted and lamented.

This state of things is the more extraordinary, because the great parties which formerly divided and agitated the kingdom are known to be in a manner entirely dissolved.  No great external calamity has visited the nation; no pestilence or famine.  We do not labour at present under any scheme of taxation new or oppressive in the quantity or in the mode.  Nor are we engaged in unsuccessful war, in which our misfortunes might easily pervert our judgment, and our minds, sore from the loss of national glory, might feel every blow of fortune as a crime in Government.

* * * * *

It is impossible that the cause of this strange distemper should not sometimes become a subject of discourse.  It is a compliment due, and which I willingly pay, to those who administer our affairs, to take notice in the first place of their speculation.  Our Ministers are of opinion that the increase of our trade and manufactures, that our growth by colonisation and by conquest, have concurred to accumulate immense wealth in the hands of some individuals; and this again being dispersed amongst the people, has rendered them universally proud, ferocious, and ungovernable; that the insolence of some from their enormous wealth, and the boldness of others from a guilty poverty, have rendered them capable of the most atrocious attempts; so that they have trampled upon all subordination, and violently borne down the unarmed laws of a free Government—barriers too feeble against the fury of a populace so fierce and licentious as ours.  They contend that no adequate provocation has been given for so spreading a discontent, our affairs having been conducted throughout with remarkable temper and consummate wisdom.  The wicked industry of some libellers, joined to the intrigues of a few disappointed politicians, have, in their opinion, been able to produce this unnatural ferment in the nation.

Nothing indeed can be more unnatural than the present convulsions of this country, if the above account be a true one.  I confess I shall assent to it with great reluctance, and only on the compulsion of the clearest and firmest proofs; because their account resolves itself into this short but discouraging proposition, “That we have a very good Ministry, but that we are a very bad people;” that we set ourselves to bite the hand that feeds us; that with a malignant insanity we oppose the measures, and ungratefully vilify the persons, of those whose sole object is our own peace and prosperity.  If a few puny libellers, acting under a knot of factious politicians, without virtue, parts, or character (such they are constantly represented by these gentlemen), are sufficient to excite this disturbance, very perverse must be the disposition of that people amongst whom such a disturbance can be excited by such means.  It is besides no small aggravation of the public misfortune that the disease, on this hypothesis, appears to be without remedy.  If the wealth of the nation be the cause of its turbulence, I imagine it is not proposed to introduce poverty as a constable to keep the peace.  If our dominions abroad are the roots which feed all this rank luxuriance of sedition, it is not intended to cut them off in order to famish the fruit.  If our liberty has enfeebled the executive power, there is no design, I hope, to call in the aid of despotism to fill up the deficiencies of law.  Whatever may be intended, these things are not yet professed.  We seem therefore to be driven to absolute despair, for we have no other materials to work upon but those out of which God has been pleased to form the inhabitants of this island.  If these be radically and essentially vicious, all that can be said is that those men are very unhappy to whose fortune or duty it falls to administer the affairs of this untoward people.  I hear it indeed sometimes asserted that a steady perseverance in the present measures, and a rigorous punishment of those who oppose them, will in course of time infallibly put an end to these disorders.  But this, in my opinion, is said without much observation of our present disposition, and without any knowledge at all of the general nature of mankind.  If the matter of which this nation is composed be so very fermentable as these gentlemen describe it, leaven never will be wanting to work it up, as long as discontent, revenge, and ambition have existence in the world.  Particular punishments are the cure for accidental distempers in the State; they inflame rather than allay those heats which arise from the settled mismanagement of the Government, or from a natural ill disposition in the people.  It is of the utmost moment not to make mistakes in the use of strong measures, and firmness is then only a virtue when it accompanies the most perfect wisdom.  In truth, inconstancy is a sort of natural corrective of folly and ignorance.

I am not one of those who think that the people are never in the wrong.  They have been so, frequently and outrageously, both in other countries and in this.  But I do say that in all disputes between them and their rulers the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.  Experience may perhaps justify me in going further.  When popular discontents have been very prevalent, it may well be affirmed and supported that there has been generally something found amiss in the constitution or in the conduct of Government.  The people have no interest in disorder.  When they do wrong, it is their error, and not their crime.  But with the governing part of the State it is far otherwise.  They certainly may act ill by design, as well as by mistake.  “Les révolutions qui arrivent dans les grands états ne sont point un effect du hasard, ni du caprice des peuples.  Rien ne révolte les grands d’un royaume comme un Gouvernoment foible et dérangé.  Pour la populace, ce n’est jamais par envie d’attaquer qu’elle se soulève, mais par impatience de souffrir.”  These are the words of a great man, of a Minister of State, and a zealous assertor of Monarchy.  They are applied to the system of favouritism which was adopted by Henry the Third of France, and to the dreadful consequences it produced.  What he says of revolutions is equally true of all great disturbances.  If this presumption in favour of the subjects against the trustees of power be not the more probable, I am sure it is the more comfortable speculation, because it is more easy to change an Administration than to reform a people.

* * * * *

Upon a supposition, therefore, that, in the opening of the cause, the presumptions stand equally balanced between the parties, there seems sufficient ground to entitle any person to a fair hearing who attempts some other scheme besides that easy one which is fashionable in some fashionable companies, to account for the present discontents.  It is not to be argued that we endure no grievance, because our grievances are not of the same sort with those under which we laboured formerly—not precisely those which we bore from the Tudors, or vindicated on the Stuarts.  A great change has taken place in the affairs of this country.  For in the silent lapse of events as material alterations have been insensibly brought about in the policy and character of governments and nations as those which have been marked by the tumult of public revolutions.

It is very rare indeed for men to be wrong in their feelings concerning public misconduct; as rare to be right in their speculation upon the cause of it.  I have constantly observed that the generality of people are fifty years, at least, behindhand in their politics.  There are but very few who are capable of comparing and digesting what passes before their eyes at different times and occasions, so as to form the whole into a distinct system.  But in books everything is settled for them, without the exertion of any considerable diligence or sagacity.  For which reason men are wise with but little reflection, and good with little self-denial, in the business of all times except their own.  We are very uncorrupt and tolerably enlightened judges of the transactions of past ages; where no passions deceive, and where the whole train of circumstances, from the trifling cause to the tragical event, is set in an orderly series before us.  Few are the partisans of departed tyranny; and to be a Whig on the business of a hundred years ago is very consistent with every advantage of present servility.  This retrospective wisdom and historical patriotism are things of wonderful convenience, and serve admirably to reconcile the old quarrel between speculation and practice.  Many a stern republican, after gorging himself with a full feast of admiration of the Grecian commonwealths and of our true Saxon constitution, and discharging all the splendid bile of his virtuous indignation on King John and King James, sits down perfectly satisfied to the coarsest work and homeliest job of the day he lives in.  I believe there was no professed admirer of Henry the Eighth among the instruments of the last King James; nor in the court of Henry the Eighth was there, I dare say, to be found a single advocate for the favourites of Richard the Second.

No complaisance to our Court, or to our age, can make me believe nature to be so changed but that public liberty will be among us, as among our ancestors, obnoxious to some person or other, and that opportunities will be furnished for attempting, at least, some alteration to the prejudice of our constitution.  These attempts will naturally vary in their mode, according to times and circumstances.  For ambition, though it has ever the same general views, has not at all times the same means, nor the same particular objects.  A great deal of the furniture of ancient tyranny is worn to rags; the rest is entirely out of fashion.  Besides, there are few statesmen so very clumsy and awkward in their business as to fall into the identical snare which has proved fatal to their predecessors.  When an arbitrary imposition is attempted upon the subject, undoubtedly it will not bear on its forehead the name of Ship-money.  There is no danger that an extension of the Forest laws should be the chosen mode of oppression in this age.  And when we hear any instance of ministerial rapacity to the prejudice of the rights of private life, it will certainly not be the exaction of two hundred pullets, from a woman of fashion, for leave to lie with her own husband.

Every age has its own manners, and its politics dependent upon them; and the same attempts will not be made against a constitution fully formed and matured, that were used to destroy it in the cradle, or to resist its growth during its infancy.

Against the being of Parliament, I am satisfied, no designs have ever been entertained since the Revolution.  Every one must perceive that it is strongly the interest of the Court to have some second cause interposed between the Ministers and the people.  The gentlemen of the House of Commons have an interest equally strong in sustaining the part of that intermediate cause.  However they may hire out the usufruct of their voices, they never will part with the fee and inheritance.  Accordingly those who have been of the most known devotion to the will and pleasure of a Court, have at the same time been most forward in asserting a high authority in the House of Commons.  When they knew who were to use that authority, and how it was to be employed, they thought it never could be carried too far.  It must be always the wish of an unconstitutional statesman, that a House of Commons who are entirely dependent upon him, should have every right of the people entirely dependent upon their pleasure.  It was soon discovered that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.

The power of the Crown, almost dead and rotten as Prerogative, has grown up anew, with much more strength, and far less odium, under the name of Influence.  An influence which operated without noise and without violence; an influence which converted the very antagonist into the instrument of power; which contained in itself a perpetual principle of growth and renovation; and which the distresses and the prosperity of the country equally tended to augment, was an admirable substitute for a prerogative that, being only the offspring of antiquated prejudices, had moulded in its original stamina irresistible principles of decay and dissolution.  The ignorance of the people is a bottom but for a temporary system; the interest of active men in the State is a foundation perpetual and infallible.  However, some circumstances, arising, it must be confessed, in a great degree from accident, prevented the effects of this influence for a long time from breaking out in a manner capable of exciting any serious apprehensions.  Although Government was strong and flourished exceedingly, the Court had drawn far less advantage than one would imagine from this great source of power.

* * * * *

At the Revolution, the Crown, deprived, for the ends of the Revolution itself, of many prerogatives, was found too weak to struggle against all the difficulties which pressed so new and unsettled a Government.  The Court was obliged therefore to delegate a part of its powers to men of such interest as could support, and of such fidelity as would adhere to, its establishment.  Such men were able to draw in a greater number to a concurrence in the common defence.  This connection, necessary at first, continued long after convenient; and properly conducted might indeed, in all situations, be a useful instrument of Government.  At the same time, through the intervention of men of popular weight and character, the people possessed a security for their just proportion of importance in the State.  But as the title to the Crown grew stronger by long possession, and by the constant increase of its influence, these helps have of late seemed to certain persons no better than incumbrances.  The powerful managers for Government were not sufficiently submissive to the pleasure of the possessors of immediate and personal favour, sometimes from a confidence in their own strength, natural and acquired; sometimes from a fear of offending their friends, and weakening that lead in the country, which gave them a consideration independent of the Court.  Men acted as if the Court could receive, as well as confer, an obligation.  The influence of Government, thus divided in appearance between the Court and the leaders of parties, became in many cases an accession rather to the popular than to the royal scale; and some part of that influence, which would otherwise have been possessed as in a sort of mortmain and unalienable domain, returned again to the great ocean from whence it arose, and circulated among the people.  This method therefore of governing by men of great natural interest or great acquired consideration, was viewed in a very invidious light by the true lovers of absolute monarchy.  It is the nature of despotism to abhor power held by any means but its own momentary pleasure; and to annihilate all intermediate situations between boundless strength on its own part, and total debility on the part of the people.

To get rid of all this intermediate and independent importance, and to secure to the Court the unlimited and uncontrolled use of its own vast influence, under the sole direction of its own private favour, has for some years past been the great object of policy.  If this were compassed, the influence of the Crown must of course produce all the effects which the most sanguine partisans of the Court could possibly desire.  Government might then be carried on without any concurrence on the part of the people; without any attention to the dignity of the greater, or to the affections of the lower sorts.  A new project was therefore devised by a certain set of intriguing men, totally different from the system of Administration which had prevailed since the accession of the House of Brunswick.  This project, I have heard, was first conceived by some persons in the Court of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

The earliest attempt in the execution of this design was to set up for Minister a person, in rank indeed respectable, and very ample in fortune; but who, to the moment of this vast and sudden elevation, was little known or considered in the kingdom.  To him the whole nation was to yield an immediate and implicit submission.  But whether it was from want of firmness to bear up against the first opposition, or that things were not yet fully ripened, or that this method was not found the most eligible, that idea was soon abandoned.  The instrumental part of the project was a little altered, to accommodate it to the time, and to bring things more gradually and more surely to the one great end proposed.

The first part of the reformed plan was to draw a line which should separate the Court from the Ministry