The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Volume IV:
Party, Parliament, and the Dividing of the Whigs, 1780–1794
edited by p. j. marshall and donald bryant
oxford, 608 pages, $200
In May 1791, six months after Edmund Burke touched off a pamphlet war with Reflections on the Revolution in France, a series of parliamentary debates revealed fissures within his own Whig Party. They would only grow wider. Even after 1792, when the abolition of the monarchy and the September massacres had demonstrated the radicalization of the Revolution, Whig leaders continued to support its principles. For his part, Burke demanded that his party repudiate the Revolution root and branch. In 1794, the Whigs splintered, eradicating hopes of a parliamentary majority for four decades. Burke was exiled from his party, and he returned the favor. In An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (August 1791), reprinted in this final volume of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, he retorted with a bitter allusion: When Diogenes the Cynic was told that “his townsmen had condemned him to be banished from Sinope, he answered coolly, ‘And I condemn them to live in Sinope.’”
Burke’s split with the Whigs was an ironic outcome for his longstanding effort to make party government respectable. Burke had provided the classic defense of party rule twenty years earlier in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. When it appeared, most Britons considered parties as little more than disloyal factions, subverting the king in the name of special interests. Burke disagreed. It was folly to think the executive could govern a free people justly through handpicked individuals. The king needed what we would recognize as “an administration,” whose members could represent the people to the executive while putting a brake on executive power. This administration had to establish its representative authority by winning a majority in the House of Commons, which in turn had to result from its members’ adherence to principles that distinguished them from other candidates. Parties were thus essential for free, modern governments, even if we honor them more in the breach than the observance.
By requiring party leadership to emerge from connections and friendships developed over time, Burke wrote, an effective party system hinders the rise of demagogues. As he reflects later in the Appeal, party loyalty requires its members to guard and regulate their conduct. “We shall do enough,” he writes elsewhere, “if we form ourselves . . . so to be patriots, as not to forget we are gentlemen.” Burke’s “gentleman” is characterized by integrity, deference, and loyalty. Those are the leaders who can embody his famous definition of party: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”
These arguments may seem more applicable to a parliamentary system than a federal one. Still, until the campaigns of Trump and Sanders, most leading presidential candidates from the two parties have demonstrated considerable party loyalty. And rare has been the candidate, like Trump, who has shown open contempt for his party’s principles.
It was over the idea of historic constitutionalism that Burke finally broke with the Whigs. Without at all denying the universal moral order, Burke explained his principles by showing their embodiment in constitutional history. “The ‘program’ of a party is found in its history,” as Harvey Mansfield put it in his 1965 analysis of Burke, Statesmanship and Party Government. Burke believed that the “Old Whigs”—the men who founded his party at the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 and after—were distinguished by their constitutional commitment to a “mixed government” that balanced social forces. He saw the party’s role as defending the constitutional balance arising from the British mixture of popular, aristocratic, and royal elements in politics. Appropriately, the final word in Burke’s Reflections was “equipoise.”
In the months after the publication of his famous criticisms of revolutionary France, Burke came to believe that his Whig leader, Charles James Fox, was too sympathetic to the republican rhetoric that had overtaken France. Ominously, it was gaining popularity in Britain. Younger Whigs like Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Charles Grey actually seemed to think that the abstract, republican theories of Thomas Paine could provide a solid basis for government.
This volume follows Burke’s public split with Fox as it unfolds, starting in slow motion and coming to a dramatic head during the debates of May 1791. Fox condemned “every one of the doctrines that [the Reflections] contained,” but still believed that he could maintain his political and personal alliance with Burke. Burke refused. “Fly from the French constitution,” he warned. At this point, Fox whispered that “there was no loss of friends,” to which Burke replied, “Yes, there was a loss of friends . . . he had done his duty at the price of his friend—their friendship was at an end.” After Burke’s break with Fox, friends like the novelist Fanny Burney were reluctant even to express agreement with Burke. Political discussion “gives immediately to his face the expression of a man who is going to defend himself from murderers,” she lamented.
This volume also includes Burke’s “Speech on Economical Reform Bill” (1781), which played a key role in limiting the crown’s ability to create and fund political jobs—another brake on executive power that we now take for granted. It has two short speeches against the slave trade, which contain generous praise for William Wilberforce, a Tory ally in this matter. His speeches on America (after 1781) include a threat to impeach Lord North should he continue the war with the United States after the October 1781 defeat at Yorktown. The other major theme in this volume, religious toleration, shows the complexity of Burke’s thought: He favors an end to the penal laws against Irish Catholics in 1791, but isn’t willing to lift restrictions (rarely enforced) on Unitarians in 1792, alleging their leaders’ animosity to the constitution.
The complete set of Burke’s Writings and Speeches, which this volume concludes, is emphatically a scholarly work—in its textual apparatus, its thematic arrangement, and its $2,725 price tag. It is also a scholarly triumph. The story begins in 1948, when Burke’s papers were opened to the public, making a dependable edition of his writings possible. Starting with Burke’s correspondence, Thomas Copeland headed up a “Burke factory” at the Sheffield City Library, where Burke’s patron, the Earl Fitzwilliam, had placed the largest part of his papers. As the ten-volume Correspondence was coming to completion in the late 1970s, Copeland set his sights on a definitive edition of Burke’s writings and speeches. This set is dedicated to his memory. In this final volume, Peter Marshall, the foremost interpreter of Burke’s writings on India, pays generous tribute to his predecessors—the general editor Paul Langford, his co-editor Donald Bryant, and Copeland himself, all of whom have passed away. His greatest tribute is the vast textual expertise of the book itself. It is a meticulous collation of texts—newspaper accounts, published writings, and Burke’s papers and manuscripts—presented in a readable fashion with headnotes that inform the reader of the issue at hand and Burke’s prior involvement in it.
This forty-year project has not been directed by scholars who self-identify as conservative. That’s all to the good. In the 1770s, Oliver Goldsmith lamented that Burke, though “born for the universe, narrowed his mind, / And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.” Two centuries later, I think we can say that Goldsmith was wrong. These volumes will help mankind see how Burke’s universal appeal arose from his insights into the circumstances, histories, and, yes, the party to which he once belonged.
Daniel Ritchie is professor of English at Bethel University.