- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007


By F.P. Lock

Oxford University Press, $142.40, 550 pages


The reputations of historical figures change over time, and not just as new evidence or ideas emerge. Writers seize upon figures for competing purposes and inscribe their own agendas. Biographers then face the challenge of scraping away the accreted perspectives to present their subject from his own day’s point of view.

F.P. Lock’s magisterial study of Edmund Burke meets that challenge exceptionally well. The entire biography reflects two decades of scholarship that sets Burke in context with a meticulous account of his life, and the final volume bears the title “Edmund Burke: Volume II, 1784-1797.”

Capturing Burke as a man and public figure presents difficulties, and authors claiming him as one of their own too often give a one-dimensional view that diminishes his real achievement. Burke never held high office and spent most of his career as an opposition politician and author. Nonetheless, only George III and the two great party leaders William Pitt and Charles James Fox appeared in more political caricatures than Burke. So what brought such fame? Besides noting the range of his knowledge, Mr. Lock points out how Burke’s eloquence merited Macaulay’s accolade as “the greatest man since Milton.”

Mr. Lock opens with Elizabeth Montague’s assessment from 1780 that “nature does not make such a man twice in a century,” but he notes how strange that view would have seemed in 1784, where the second volume begins. That year saw Burke out of office and on the verge of being eclipsed among the Rockingham Whigs by Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Some critics even thought he might retire from public life. The Regency Crisis in 1788 and 1789 marked the nadir of Burke’s standing, but the 1790s became the period of his greatest influence as intellectual leader of the counter-revolutionary cause. Even though his stance cost him old ties, the fact that adversaries like William Godwin paid tribute after his death reflects Burke’s greatness.

Tenacity and stubbornness expressed in Burke’s refusal to accept defeat revived a failing career. Mr. Lock gives insight on Burke’s personality, demonstrating how difficult a man he could be. Private letters along with public speeches show Burke determined to prove himself correct. On small matters, such insistence amounted to breaking a butterfly on the wheel.

Even with weightier things, contemporaries detected an element of overkill. Not for nothing did caricaturists seize up Don Quixote as a parallel, and many critics alleged madness behind the rhetoric. Burke’s character left no room for half measure; when provoked, he deployed formidable eloquence and knowledge like a hammer. A career in parliament taught Burke to think on his feet, and Mr. Lock devotes great attention to Burke’s rhetoric and style of argumentation. Burke’s versatile written style reflects experience with the spoken word.

Warren Hastings’ impeachment gave Burke a stage for talents that even those who opposed him grudgingly acknowledged. British leaders had struggled with governing India since the 1760s, and Burke had been deeply involved with Indian affairs. As Governor General of Bengal, Hastings exercised power in a turbulent situation with limited precedents for guidance and fewer constraints on his authority. Charges of acting beyond the law followed.

Having been persuaded that Hastings acted as a tyrant, Burke led the effort to impeach him in a prolonged campaign that lasted into 1795. The case itself matters less than the questions it raised. Mr. Lock presents a day-to-day account, the first since the 1790s, with close attention to speeches and the case Burke presented.

The trial demonstrated Burke’s expertise on India, and set forth a critique of arbitrary government as contrary to justice and natural law. Differences in custom or race could not justify oppression. While defending empire justly governed, Burke condemned exploitation in an extended argument that fits wider themes raised throughout his career. His determination not only brought the impeachment to trial but also ensured that it would be carried through to a conclusion.

By Hastings’ acquittal, events in France had overshadowed the case for almost everyone besides Burke. The French Revolution drew mixed responses, with some welcoming a new birth of liberty and others anticipating that a France distracted by internal problems could play little role in European politics.

Burke caught the drift of events in France more quickly than anyone and he anticipated the descent into anarchy and tyranny followed by despotism. The National Assembly already treated France as a blank page on which it could sketch plans as it pleased or even, Burke said, as a “country of conquest.” “Reflections on the Revolution in France” set forth Burke’s general view in 1790, sparking a torrent of pamphlets and commentary.

Events brought a revolution in Burke’s relationships. Ties with Fox had already been strained, but public confrontations in the House of Commons brought an open break. Burke stood alone, though he soon developed new ties with Pitt and other former adversaries including George III. As the pattern of events became clear, other Whigs joined Burke in breaking with Fox. Burke justified his position as the true defender of ordered liberty in further publications that form a coherent argument reaching beyond the crisis of the 1790s. By the outbreak of war in 1793 Burke had become the acknowledged spokesman for counterrevolutionary opinion.

Burke’s final years have a hint of tragedy. His son Richard, whom few besides a doting father liked, died in 1794. Estranged from old political connections, Burke never became quite accepted by the circle around Pitt. Above all, the failure to score a decisive victory raised the prospect of an accommodation with France. Neither Pitt nor the king took so hard a line as Burke, who argued forcefully against a “regicide peace.”

Tenacious to the last despite ill health and discomfort, Burke died before realizing how profoundly he affected events. Burke shaped an emerging British policy that achieved victory over France and help restore order to Europe. Indeed, he laid the intellectual foundations for a conservative internationalism that lasted into the 19th century. While most speeches and pamphlets interest only historians, Burke’s outlived their immediate context to retain interest today.

William Anthony Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”

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