BURKE, Edmund (1729-97), of Beaconsfield, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



23 Dec. 1765 - 1774
1774 - 1780
7 Dec. 1780 - 24 June 1794

Family and Education

b. 12 Jan. 1729, 2nd surv. s. of Richard Burke, Dublin attorney, by Mary, da. of Peter Nagle of Ballyduff, co. Cork.  educ. Ballitore sch. 1741-4; Trinity, Dublin 1744-50; M. Temple 1750.  m. 12 Mar. 1757, Jane, da. of Christopher Nugent, physician, 2s., both d.v.p.

Offices Held

Private sec. to first lord of the Treasury July 1765-July 1766; P.C. 30 Mar. 1782; paymaster gen. Mar.-July 1782, Apr.-Dec. 1783.


Burke came of a middle-class Irish family, spent the best years of his life closely associated with English aristocrats, and ended as the political oracle of conservative Europe. In his early youth he imbibed a Catholic atmosphere without accepting Catholic doctrine, and his view of society was hierarchical and authoritarian. Yet as a young man he had known the life of the common people of Ireland, and one of the noblest traits in his character was his repeated defence of those who were too weak to defend themselves. Outstanding in the 18th century House of Commons for intellect, oratory, and drive, he lacked the ability either to lead or to conciliate men and never exerted an influence commensurate with his greatness. His career as a practical politician was a failure; as a political theorist he was for posterity.

Little is known of Burke’s parents. His mother suffered from what Burke called ‘a cruel nervous disorder’,1 and his relations with his father were not happy. A boyhood friend, William Dennis, wrote in 1747:2

My dear friend Burke leads a very unhappy life from his father’s temper, and what is worse there is no prospect of bettering it. He must not stir out at night by any means, and if he stays at home there is some new subject for abuse. There is but one bright spirit in the family, and they’d willingly destroy it ... Care, I believe, wears as many shapes as there are men, but that is the most intolerable which proceeds from want of liberty. This is my friend’s case, who told me this morning he wants that jewel of life, ‘peace of mind’, and his trouble was so great that he often forms desperate resolutions.

Little trace of this unhappiness appears in the early letters Burke wrote to his school friend Richard Shackleton. He tried to hide his family life from even his closest friends; and later in England resented almost with frenzy any criticism of his dubious relatives. The unity of the family, which he had not known in boyhood, became an article of his adult creed.

In 1750 Burke crossed to England to study law at the Middle Temple. With what dreams did he come? For a brief period in 1748 he had published a series of essays in the manner of The Spectator, and on 24 Dec. 1747 had written to Shackleton about their common friend, Dennis:

Don’t you think had he money to bear his charges but ’twere his best course to go to London? I am told that a man who writes can’t possibly miss there of getting some bread, and possibly good. I heard the other day of a gentleman who maintained himself in the study of the law by writing pamphlets in favour of the ministry.

The study of the law did not attract him; he had an unconscious resistance to his father’s plans for him, and never became a lawyer. In 1755 he had the idea of applying for a post in the colonies, but dropped it when his father objected. In a fragment of a letter to his father, dated 11 Mar. 1755, he wrote: ‘I shall be ready ... to go to Ireland when you think proper, and the end for which you desire I should go can be answered.’ But a little later he told Joseph Emin that he was ‘a runaway son from a father’,3 and in 1757 described his ‘manner of life’ as ‘chequered with various designs’.4

Marriage and parenthood marked Burke’s independence from his father; the publication in 1756 of the Vindication of Natural Society and the Sublime and the Beautiful made his name known in London literary circles and seemed to open out a career for him. Horace Walpole met him in 1761 and wrote that ‘he thinks there is nothing so charming as writers and to be one’.5 He lived in a close family circle with his father-in-law, his brother Richard, and his so-called ‘cousin’ William, whom he had known at least from his earliest days in England; and enjoyed in their society an ease and security he had never felt in his father’s home.

Like planets in their orbits, the Burkes lived their lives without colliding with each other, yet moved by a common force: Edmund the literary man, Richard the business man, and William the politician. In 1759 Richard and William went to seek their fortunes in the West Indies, and Edmund, without a secure and regular income, applied for the consulship at Madrid. In 1759 or 1760 he entered the service of William Gerard Hamilton in a secretarial capacity—‘a companion in your studies’, he later described himself to Hamilton.6 He seems to have received payment for his work, but probably in the form of occasional doles rather than a regular salary. In 1761 Hamilton went to Ireland as chief secretary to the lord lieutenant; Burke went with him, and in 1763 was granted a pension on the Irish establishment of £300 per annum.

William Burke came back to England in 1762, having lost his official position through the return of Guadeloupe to France. An intimate friend of Lord Verney and closely connected with Henry Fox and Lord Sandwich, he now looked forward to entering Parliament. Edmund still hoped for a literary career, despite the distractions of his work with Hamilton. In Ireland he had again become conscious of the depressed and persecuted position of the Catholics, had hoped to do something to relieve them, but had been disappointed by his chief’s timidity. Back in England after Hamilton’s dismissal in 1764, Burke was ill at ease and hoping for a change; early in 1765 he quarrelled violently with Hamilton and broke with him forever.

Necessity, not ambition, led him into politics, and his connexion with Rockingham began accidentally without either having much knowledge of the other. In July 1765, when the Rockingham Administration was being formed, William Fitzherbert recommended the Burkes to Lord John Cavendish, who in turn recommended them to Rockingham; and on 11 July Edmund wrote to his Irish friend, Charles O’Hara: ‘I have got an employment of a kind humble enough ... private secretary to Lord Rockingham, who has the reputation of a man of honour and with whom they say it is not difficult to live.’ And on 14 Oct. he wrote about the new ministers: ‘Newly, and almost as a stranger, I am come about these people.’

Returned to Parliament on Lord Verney’s interest at Wendover (William Burke waiving his pretensions to the seat), Edmund was an almost instantaneous success in the House. When Rockingham left office in July 1766 Burke lost his employment, but there was nothing to stop him from taking another under the Chatham Administration. Grafton thought him ‘the readiest man upon all points perhaps in the whole House ... and one on whom the thoroughest dependence may be given’, and wished to gain him for the new Administration.7 Thanks to William Burke’s speculations in East India stock, the Burkes were for the time being financially independent and had room to manœuvre. ‘This joint stroke of providence and friendship’, as Edmund described William's stock-jobbing, ‘certainly leaves one with some freedom of action, but the time holds out nothing to guide that freedom.’8 But in fact his decision had already been made. Hating Chatham, and already deeply attached to Rockingham, he replied to Conway's offer of employment:9

That if the place which should be offered should provein itself never so acceptable, I could take it only on condition that, in accepting it, and holding it, I must be understood to belong not to thye Administration but to those who were out; and that therefore if ever they should set up a standard, though spread for direct and personal opposition, I must be revocable into their party and join it.

When the East India inquiry came into the House of Commons, on 27 Nov. 1766, ‘our friend Burke rose first in opposition’, wrote Henry Flood;10 and henceforth the story of his political career is bound up with that of the Rockingham group.

‘I believe in any body of men in England I should have been in the minority’, said Burke in 1778. ‘I have always been in the minority.’11 The outstanding trait in Burke's character was his aggression: there was a terrible need in him to fight, to argue, and to oppose; and to that was added enormous persistence, courage, concentration, and energy. His political life is a series of negative crusades: against the American war, Warren Hastings, the French Revolution; and his reputation as a statesman rests on his wisdom in Opposition, not on his achievements in office. Driven by the impulse to oppose, he was unable to stop or relax; no cause was for him hopeless; he always held on to the bitter end. With many of the qualities required for leadership, he lacked the ability to sense the feeling of others and always tried to impose his own.

Why did he attach himself to Rockingham? In his speech on American taxation, 19 Apr. 1774, he said of Rockingham:

I did see in that noble person such sound principles, such an enlargement of mind, such clear and sagacious sense, and such unshaken fortitude, as have bound me, as well as others much better than me, by an inviolable attachment to him from that time forward.

This is wishful fantasy, rather than accurate appraisal of character. Rockingham's mind was commonplace and restricted, and wounded vanity rather than principle too often dictated his political conduct. Though ambitious, he lacked energy and vitality, and was perpetually anxious. Yet for Burke, Rockingham seemed at this time to possess every quality needed in a party leader.

Rockingham had a secure stake in the country and the right to share in its government through the possession of landed property not acquired but inherited—‘the unbought grace of life’. O’Hara once told Burke that ‘you ... suppose that every void you feel would be agreeably filled up by property’;12 and Burke himself wrote in 1792 that the Rockingham party was:13

A party, in its composition and in its principles, connected with the solid, permanent, long-possessed property of the country; a party which, by a temper derived from that species of property ... was attached to the ancient tried usages of the kingdom; a party therefore essentially constructed upon a ground plot of stability and independence.

Burke, emotional and hysterical by temperament, without a profession or a secure income, an adventurer without standing in England, found stability and independence through attachment to Rochkingham. Without shame or embarrassment he defended his position as a novus homo: ‘Abilities cannot be settled with your estate’, he told the House of Commons on 2 Apr. 1770.14 ‘... All the wise governments have encouraged rising merit ... we know not in what mountain of Scotland, what bog of Ireland, or what wild in America, that genius may now be rising who shall save this country.’ Yet ‘rising merit’ must seek to better itself ‘under the wings of established greatness’ (social, rather than intellectual or political). And in a well-known letter to the Duke of Richmond in November 1772, he wrote:

You people of great families and hereditary trusts and fortunes are not like such as I am, who, whatever we may be by the rapidity of our growth and of the fruit we bear ... yet still we are but annual plants that perish with our season and leave no sort of traces behind us.

Burke received financial assistance from Rockingham, and after his death from Fitwilliam, without feeling that he had in any way compromised his independence: their service was perfect freedom. Nor did Burke seek to assimilate himself to the society of his masters: he rarely visited their country houses, except for political consultations; shared few of their interests; and did not move in fashionable London society. His letters to them reveal a humility and obsequiousness which is no less unpleasant for being sincere. For them he sacrificed his material interests through sixteen long years of profitless opposition, and when his party at last came to power he failed to obtain any lasting advantage for himself or his family. The pension granted to him in 1794 compares unfavourably with the rewards received by others in comparable stations. In the fanous passage on Marie Antoinette in the Reflections on the French Revolution, Burke, lamenting the departure of the ‘age of chivalry’, perhaps unconsciously described his own relations with the Whig aristocrats:

Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

Burke's theory of party was uncorrelated to the practice of his age, when the King still played an active part in politics and Members of Parliament took pride in their independence. The Rockingham group was a clique, rather than a party, without roots in the nation, which as yet had hardly begun to think along party lines. Burke profoundly distrusted the people, and believed in the divine right of the aristocracy to govern. ‘All direction of public humour and opinion must originate in a few’, he wrote to Rockingham on 23 Aug. 1775; and to Richmond on 26 Sept.: ‘The people are not answerable for their present supine acquiescence ... God and nature never meant to think or to act without guidance or direction.’ Nor did he ever advocate the party system, which takes from the Crown the choice of the prime minister. In his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, published in 1770, Burke argued that since George III came to the throne an attempt had been made to govern unconstitutionally by means of a court cabal, ‘totally separate from and independent of ostensible Administration’, and a party of ‘King's friends’ in the House of Commons. Burke's distortions were the prodocts of a mind prone to project on tyo reality its unconscious wishes; and the cause of the present discontents came to little more than Rockingham's failure to retain his situation as first minister. Yet in all Burke's political writings, despite their propagandist purposes, there are generalizations on human conduct of lasting value.

America was the outstanding political problem during the first ten years of Burke's parliamentary career. ‘I do not look upon this as a common question’, he wrote soon after enetering Parliament; and again: ‘Surely, since this monarchy, a more material point never came under the consideration of Parliament.’15 Few in the House of Commons understood the consequence of the American problem: a remarkable example of Burke's political prescience.

The Rockinghams proposed to repeal the Stamp Act and yet affirm the right of Great Britain to legislate for the colonies ‘on all matters whatsoever’. Here was a source of difference with Pitt, who denied the right of the British Parliament to lay taxes upon America. Burke thought the right ‘clear beyond contradiction, as an absolute and speculative opinion’, but held that ‘the system of government with respect to the plantations effectually excludes taxation’.16 ‘The power of taxing in Parliament’, he said on 19 Apr. 1774, was ‘an instrument of empire’ not ‘a means of supply’. Only a hair's breadth divided him from Pitt—whether or not Great Britain had a right which both agreed she should never enforce—and Burke ‘hated the very sound’ of these metaphysical distinctions’.17 Yet he felt compelled to stand by the declaration of abstract right enunciated by the Rockingham Administration, and repeatedly declared his belief in the legislative supremacy of the British Parliament.

Again, it seems clear that Burke early recognized the implications of the Townshend duties. He said in Parliament on 8 Nov. 1768:18

With regard to my own conduct when this proposition was made to the House, I expressed the little opinion I had, and I shall prove a true prophet. I said that you would never see a shilling from America.

Yet when on 26 Jan. 1767 Townshend first declared his intention to raise a revenue from America, no follower of Rockingham rose to protest, nor did the party oppose the bill in its passage through the House. At that time Rockingham was hoping to form an administration which should include both Grenville, author of the Stamp Act, and Townshend, author of the Townshend duties; and as late as August 1768, when news of fresh disturbances in America reached England, Dowdeswell, leader of the Rockingham party in the Commons, argued that to repeal the duties would be ‘timidity, weakness, irresolution, and inconsistency’ and would give the Americans ‘a charter against being bound to any laws passed without their consent’.19 This was precisely North's case for retaining the tea duty in 1774, against which Burke argued in his celebrated  Speech on American Taxation. In short, while Burke saw earlier and clearer than most the significance of American taxation, he was unable to give a decisive lead to his party.

This was Burke's view of the relation between Great Britain and her colonies, as expressed in his speech of 19 Apr. 1774:

The Parliament of Great Britain sits at the head of her extensive empire in two capacities: one as the local legislature of this island, providing for all things at home, immediately, and by no other instrument than the executive power. The other, and I think her nobler capacity, is what I call her imperial character, in which, as from the throne of heaven, she superintends all the several inferior legislatures, and guides and controls them all, without annihilating any. As all these provincial legsilatures are only to co-ordinate with each other, they ought to be subordinate to her; else they can neither preserve mutual peace nor hope for mutual justice nor effectually afford mutual assistance. It is necessary to coerce the negligent, to restrain the violent, and to aid the weak and deficient by the over-ruling plenitude of her power.

He saw the British empire in terms of the family, with the parent exercising a benevolent authority over the children; and, perhaps influenced by an earlier, personal, conflict, believed the British Government to have been harsh and tyrannical when it should have been lenient and forbearing. ‘When any community is subordinately connected with another’, he wrote in 1777,20 ‘the great danger of the connexion is the extreme pride and self-complacency of the superior.’ Twice in 1775 (in March and November) he moved resolutions for conciliation with the colonies. On both occasions he found the origins of the conflict in taxation; and on the second occasion went further than he had ever gone before and proposed to renounce the right of parliamentary taxation, except for ‘duties and taxes for the regulation of trade and commerce’. But he would not renounce the Declaratory Act, the shiboleth of the Rockingham party:21

He had always wished to preserve the legislative power of this kingdom entire in everyhting, and that it was with great grief that he saw that even an odious and scarcely ever to be exercised part of it was to be abandoned ... the repeal of the Declaratory Act was a thing impossible, for it was nothing less than to make legislature accuse itself of uttering propositions that were false and making claims that were groundless ... the disgrace of an English Parliament could add nothing to the security of American liberty.

His conception of the British empire as an ‘aggregate of many states under one common head’ (wielding executive power, not a mere figurehead) came as near as was possible in the eighteenth century towards reconciling British authority with colonial autonomy. That the children should one day grow up and wish to throw off the authority of their parent was beyond Burke's understanding.

The American war tore Burke in two: he disliked American independence, yet could not relish the prospect of a British victory. Like most in Britain, he underestimated the ability of the Americans to resist and their urge towards independence. ‘I look upon it as next to impossible that the present temper and unanimity of America can be kept up,’ he wrote to Rockingham on 18 Sept. 1774. On 28 June 1775 he condemned the ‘apparent want of system shown by the congress in suffering the King's forces to possess themselves of New York’.

They seem to have forgot that they are in rebellion ... Their idea of a defensive war is quite ridiculous. Indeed, if this step of their's manifests a design of pacific measures, it is very happy and greatly to be applauded. But if it be the effect only of scrupulous timidity in the pursuit of violence, it is trifling and contradictory, and can hardly fail of bringing with it its own punishment. Whatever be done, God send us peace.

And on 11 Aug. 1776: ‘I do not know how to wish success to those whose victory is to separate us from a large and noble part of our empire. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression, and absurdity ... No good can come of any event in this war to any virtuous interest.’

In Ireland his sympathies were with the persecuted Roman Catholics, ‘reduced to beasts of burthen’,22 crying out for that elementary justice all subjects had a right to expect from their government, rather than with the Protestant Anglo-Irish who were striving to throw off the authority of the British Parliament. With Irish nationalism and its constitutional grievances he had no sympathy whatsoever. ‘I am sure the people ought to eat whether they have septennial Parliaments or not’, he wrote to O’Hara on 24 May 1766; and again on 20 Feb. 1768, after the Act had been changed into an octennial one:

The madness of the Government here which passed the Octennial Act is to be equalled only by the frenzy of your country which desired it and the tameness of this country which bore it. I consider that act as a virtual repeal of one of the the most essential parts of Poynings's law, and I think it will necessarily draw on a change in other parts ... However you have your day of joy and your drunken bout for the present.

‘Ireland cannot be separated one moment from England without losing every source of her present prosperity and even hope of her future’, he wrote towards the end of his life.23 Despite his sympathy with the Irish Catholics, he always counselled moderation. ‘I believe there are very few cases which will justify a revolt against the established Government of a country, let its constitution be what it will’, he wrote to French Laurence on 12 May 1797. He disliked talk about the rights of man, whether from Americans or Frenchmen, but was solicitous for the rights of property and established government.

Burke always hated inaction: he could not remain a detached passive spectator of events, even when he knew his efforts would come to naught. He was out to get things done, and would have scorned to be counted a mere political philosopher—one of the detested band of ‘metaphysicians’ and ‘speculators’. But Rockingham was listless: strong, decisive action was not in his character. Burke wrote to him on 24 Jan. 1775:

I cannot help continuing however with the deference I owe, and most cheerfully pay, to your Lordship's judgement, very strongly in opinion that a plan of inaction under our present circumstances is not at all in our power ... There are others in the world who will not be inactive because we are so ... The question then is whether your Lordship chooses to lead or be lead ... The only way to keep your Lordship in the public eye, and to keep you advantageously in it, must be to resolve to take the lead yourself.

On 4 Aug. 1775, when the news reached England of fighting in America, Burke wrote to Rockingham: ‘We are called to rouse ourselves, each in his post, by a sound of a trumpet almost as loud as that which must awaken the dead.’ He suggested that something should be done to stir up opinion in Yorkshire against the war. On 23 Aug. he tried again:

I shall ... make no apology for urging again and again how necessary it is for your Lordship and your great friends most seriously to take under immediate deliberation what you are to do in this crisis. Nothing like it has happened in your political life ... This is no timle for taking public business in its course and order, and only as a part in the scheme of life which comes and goes at its proper periods and is mixed in with other occupations and amusements.

On 14 Sept. he tried a third time, the ‘sound of a trumpet almost as loud at that which must awaken the dead’ having failed to waken Rockingham. He asked for

early and vigorous steps, particularly that of calling the whole body of your Lordship's friends together as soon as possible, that they may not be, as they always are at the beginning of a session, utterly undetermined what part to take.

To Richmond he wrote:

No regaular or sustained endeavours of any kind have been used to dispose the people to a better sense of their condition. Any election must be lost, any family interest in a county would melt away, if greater pains ... were not employed to carry on and support them than have ever been employed ... in this most important interest of the nation and of every individual in it.

On 24 Sept. Rockingham, having consulted some of his advisers at Wentworth, replied to these exhortations:

Upon the fullest discussion we could give to the matter in consideration it did not appear that anything essential could be done by me or by our friends in Parliament being immediately summoned to London ... Nothing but a degree of experience of the evils can bring about a right judgement in the public at large.

Burke immediately submitted, and wrote to Rockingham on 1 Oct.:

Nothing more than your Lordship's final determination was required to satisfy my mind most perfectly on the prudence and propriety of the plan to which you adhere. I should have throroughly acquiesced in it, although it were not confirmed, as it has been, by the joint opinion of the friends you consulted. I am sure I have a most unreserved deference to their judgement in all things.

On 8 Oct. 1777 he opened himself to Charles Fox about his leaders. ‘A great deal of activity and enterprise can scarcely ever be expected from such men, unless some horrible calamity is just over their heads, or unless they suffer some gross personal insults from power.’ Rockingham, with a ‘shattered constitution’ and with an Opposition consisting of ‘fleeting’ and ‘discordant’ materials, had done better than Burke could have imagined. ‘To act with any people with the least degree of comfort ... we must contrive a little to assimilate their character.’ Still, the Rockinghams were ‘indifferently qualified for storming a citadel’. And to William Baker, a fellow Rockinghamite, on 12 Oct. 1777:

Alas, my dear friend, those whom you and I trust, have not that trust and confidence in themselves which their merits authorize and which the necessities of the country absolutely demand. Ill success, ill health, minds too delicate for the rough and toilsome business of our time, a want of the stimulus of ambition, a degeneracy of the nation which they are not lofty enough to despise nor skilful enough to cure, have all together I am afraid contributed very much to weaken the spring of characters whose fault it never was to be too elastic and too firmly braced.

‘We can do nothing essential unless the great change of sentiments arise int he public’, wrote Rockingham on 26 Oct. ‘I do most perfectly agree with your Lordship in every particular of your letter’, replied Burke on 5 Nov. ‘... To make our activity rational there must be some disposition in the minds of the many to co-operate, and something or other conspiring in the circumstances. None of these occur.’

In his letter to Fox of 8 Oct. 1777 Burke had complained of Rockingham's failure ‘to guide and direct the public opinion’. It was an old complaint. In 1769 he had urged Rockingham to use his influence in Yorkshire to procure a petition against the seating of Luttrell, but Rockingham would not move until he knew the sense of the county. ‘I would not give any handle in Yorkshire’, he wrote to Burke on 1 Sept. 1769, ‘for Yorkshiremen to say that my politics had led them beyond their intentions or that I had checked their well-founded ardour.’ Burke wanted the Whig magnates to use the influence given them by their property and welath to further their political aims and to create public opinion. ‘The public discontents’, he wrote to Rockingham on 24 Jan. 1775, ‘... never did, do, or will ripen to any purpose unless they are matured by proper means.’ Between 1774 and 1780 he tried to build up at Bristol a Rockingham party, opposed both to the supporters of Administration and to the radicals; but found it very hard going and was forced to abandon the attempt.24 Burke was an Irishman and there was much both Catholic and feudal in his thought; he never really understood the Protestant and individualistic nature of English society. He never realised the essential independence of the English freeholder: that political ties were based on tradition rather than principle, and that no landlord, whatever his acreage, could mobilize his tenants for political action like a feudal lord his retainers. Rockingham, firmly rooted in English soil, was far wiser: he knew that his influence in Yorkshire came less from his property than from his always appearing to follow the bent of county opinion. He could assume the lead in a movement which had started spontaneously, but he could not stir up opinion himself.

Contrary to all Burke had ever said, public opinion was roused to action independently of the political leaders. The movement which began in Yorkshire in December 1779, and soon spread to other parts of the country, aimed at a reduction of Government expenditure through the suppression of unnecessary places and pensions. In 1780 it grew much wider in scope, and called for shorter Parliaments and parliamentary reform. Rockingham hastened to put himself at its head, to direct and channel it. Burke's economical reform bill, introduced on 11 Feb. 1780 with one of its his finest speeches, was designed to reduce Government influence, ‘the perennial spring of all prodigality and of all disorder’, by a reformation of the King's household and of the holding of public accounts, and the abolition of a number of places tenable with a seat in the House of Commons. It was hoped to divert attention from parliamentary reform, which both Burke and Rockingham disliked; and it won the Rockinghams more support than they had ever previously received. North's administration was twice defeated in committee, but eventually forced the bill's withdrawal. Economical reform henceforth became one of the main planks in the Rockingham platform; and in March 1782, when North resigned, the King was forced to accept it as a condition of Rockingham's taking office.

On the formation of the Rockingham ministry, Burke was appointed paymaster general with a salary of £4,000 per annum. At the same time he reformed the office: the cash balances, hitherto invested by the paymaster for his personal profit, were henceforth to be paid into the Treasury. His son was appointed deputy paymaster at £500 per annum; his brother secretary to the Treasury at £3,000 per annum; and a place in India under the pay office was created for William. Nor was this all: a sinecure for life was to be given young Richard, as a sinecure income for himself and his mother. In a hasty memorandum for Rockingham, written before the ministry had taken office, Burke wrote:

You need stipulate nothing for me except for my poor lad—even the office itself may keep cold and lie by for another time if arrangement should at all require it. I can readily consent to lie by, but having second rate pretensions, not to be put below others in that line.

No further explanation seems needed for his non-inclusion in the Cabinet.

In April Burke wrote to William:

Oh! my dearest, oldest, best friend, you are far off indeed! May God of his infinite mercy preserve you. Your enemies, your cruel and unprovoked persecutors, are on the ground, suffering the punishment not of their villainy towars you, but of their other crimes, which are innumerable. I think the reign of Sulivan is over, the reign of Hastings is over ... Resolutions will pass after the holidays to secure the Rajah of Tanjore and to limit the Nabob. Much good will happen. Indeed, my dear friend, your honest and humane labours have not been useless.

But while old enmities were remembered, old friendships were forgot. Poor Lord Verney was on the edge of bankruptcy. Verney had helped to finance William's speculations in India stock; had brought William and Edmund into Parliament gratis; and Edmund had written of him in 1779:25 ‘If ever I have been able to attempt anythingin a public way ... it is wholly owing to him.’ Burke's brother, who never sat in Parliament, was given an office the duties of which he could hardly discharge without a seat in the House; yet Verney, who had been faithful to Rockingham for sixteen years, was given nothing.

Nor was Burke alone in forgetting past services. His son never received the ‘something considerable’ in the way of a sinecure which Burke had asked for him. Shelburne secured large pensions for Barré and Dunning; but Rockingham did nothing for Burke except cancel the debts which Burke owed him. It was a bitter disappointment, and provoked Burke into a foolish act. Shortly after Rockingham's death, he sent a proposal to Sir Edward Walpole, through his brother Horace, that Walpole should resign to Burke's son the valuable sinecure of clerk of the pells while retaining the profits for the rest of his life. Walpole was over 70 and not expected to live long; still, there was no reason why he should oblige Burke, a man unknown to him.26 This ‘frantic’ proposal, as Horace Walpole described it, came to nothing; how desperate must Burke have been to have even considered it.

Everything seemed to go wrong for Burke at this time, just when he seemed on the threshold of great achievements. Although his reform legislation passed the House with little difficulty, there were also serious political setbacks.

As long ago as 1769 Burke had laid down the conditions on which the Rockingham party should accept office.27 Other parties were not proscribed, but the Cabinet was to be united in its opinions; and ‘the great strongholds of Government’ were to be held be reliable followers of Rockingham. In a letter to Rockingham of 22 Mar. 1782, Burke repeated this advice: ‘I trust and hope that your Lordship will not let one, even but one branch of the state—neither army, navy, finance, Church, law, or anything else—out of your own hands or those which you can entirely rely on.’ But Rockingham was in no position to make such demands. He could not prevent Thurlow, lord chancellor in the North ministry, from retaining his office; and the King accorded Shelburne, whom Burke disliked more than any other man, equal authority with Rockingham as first minister. But it was a culpable blunder on Rockingham's part to have allowed Shelburne to secure for his friend Dunning a seat in the Cabinet. The Cabinet of which Rockingham was the ostensible head was far from united; the two secretaries of state, in charge of peace negotiations, were each pursuing a separate policy; and on the immediate practical issue of the recognition of American independence, Dunning's inclusion in the Cabinet had put the Rockingham group in a minority.

There are signs that at this time the delicate balance of Burke's mind was disturbed. Sheridan, a political ally, thus reported his speech against Pitt's motion on parliamentary reform (7 May 1782):28

Burke acquitted himself with the most magnanimous indiscretion, attacked W. Pitt in a scream of passion, and swore Parliament was and always had been precisely what it ought to be, and that all people who thought of reforming it wanted to overturn the constitution.

Horace Walpole wrote of him in his journal, under the date of 1 July 1782:29

The enthusiasm of his luxuriant imagination presented every measure to him in the most vivid colours. In truth, it had been suspected for above a year that his intellects and sensations had mutually overheated each other: his behaviour in the ensuing year did not remove the supposition.

Boswell told Johnson in May 1783 that Burke had been represented ‘as actually mad’; to which Johnson replied: ‘If a man will appear extravagant as he does, and cry, can he wonder that he is represented as mad?’30 Rockingham's brief tenure of office had demonstrated his political inadequacy, but his death was a terrible and unexpected blow for Burke. The depth of his emotional reaction may be judged from his violent denunciation of Shelburne, in his resignation speech of 9 July:31

He called heaven and earth to witness, so help him God, that he verily believed the present ministry would be fifty times worse than that of the noble lord who lately had been reprobated and removed [North] ... If Lord Shelburne be not a Catiline or a Borgia in morals, it must not be ascribed to anything but his understanding.

Here, then, is a further reason why Burke never achieved the Cabinet.

During the Coalition Burke's insensitivity to outside opinion was a source of weakness to the Government. His reinstatement of two pay office clerks, Powell and Bembridge, who had been dismissed by his predecessor for embezzlement, raised a storm in the House. On 2 May 1783, ‘rising in a violent fit of passion’ to reply to James Martin, who had described Burke's action as ‘a gross and daring insult to the public’, he was pulled down by Sheridan, ‘lest his heat should betray him into some intemperate  expressions that might offend the House’.32 On 19 May, after apologising for ‘the warmth he felt when this business was last before the House’, he explained his reasons: Powell and Bembridge had been of great service, a criminal prosecution had been commenced against them, and until they were proved guilty he must presume their innocence. But he had failed to appreciate the temper of the House, extremely sensitive to any suggestion of corruption in Government officials; and Bembridge's conviction and Powell's suicide seemed to put Burke in the wrong. Again, in drafting the East India bill, he never sensed the indignation which was aroused by the attempt to take away patronage from both Company and Crown, and which did Fox so much harm with public opinion. Years later, Lord John Townshend recollected that that the bill had been ‘really unpopular’, and was made so by ‘Burke's ungovernable temper’.33 Nor was it a good bill from an administrative point of view. ‘Burke's attempt to increase the governor general's subordination to a body sitting in England shows how little he understood the problems of Administration—the checking of abuses, not the government of a sub-continent, was what he still had chiefly in mind.’34

Ever since Rockingham had taken office, the punishment of those accused of corruption in India had been uppermost in Burke's mind. His strong aggressive instincts, sharpened by public and private disappointments, needed an enemy against which they could concentrate. Always inclined to compassionate the unfortunate, he became convinced that Hastings was the great source of misrule in India and that one striking example of retribution would deter other potential offenders. ‘Impeachment’, he had written in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, ‘that great guardian of the purity of the constitution, is in danger of being lost even to the idea of it.’ With this in mind he listened eagerly to the accusations of Francis against Hastings: always a bad judge of character, Burke failed to allow for Francis’s malice and hostility to the governor general. In Burke's disordered mind, Hastings appeared as a monster of iniquity, without one redeeming feature; he listened eagerly to any complaint against him; and the vehemence with which he prosecuted the impeachment gives some idea of the depth of his emotions. His violent language and intemperate charges alienated independent men and convinced his own party that he was a political liability. Nor did the impeachment achieve its effect: before Hastings had appeared at the bar of the Lords, Dundas and Cornwallis had begun the task of giving British India decent government.

Did Burke ever regret the part he had played in the impeachment of Hastings? Towards the end of his life he commissioned he friend French Laurence to write an account of the impeachment which would justify the part he had taken. On 10 Feb. 1797 only a few months before his death, he reminded Laurence of this:

I am as conscious as any person can be of the little value of the good or evil of opinion of mankind to the part of me that shall remain, but I believe it is of some moment not to leave the fame of an evil example, of the expenditure of fourteen years labour, and of not less ... than near £300,000. This is a terrible example, and it is not acquittance at all to a public man who, with all the means of undeceiving himself if he was wrong, had thus with such incredible pains both of himself and others persevered in the persecution of innocence and merit. It is, I say, no excuse at all to urge in his apology that he had enthusiastic good intentions ... I have not even the other very bad excuse of acting from personal resentment or from the sense of private injury, never having received any; nor can I plead ignorance, no man ever having taken more pains to be informed. Therefore I say, Remember.

His crusade against the American war, against the influence of the Crown, against the French Revolution, required no apologia; there he felt sure he had been right. Only the on the prosecution of Hastings did he feel the need for justification.

Burke was the first person to appreciate the significance of the French Revolution and to apply it to English conditions. On 27 Sept. 1789 he wrote to Windham that the French ‘along with their political servitude’ had thrown off ‘the yoke of laws and morals’. On 9 Feb. 1790 he said in the House:35

In France a cruel, blind, and ferocious democracy had carried all before them; their conduct marked with the most savage and unfeeling barbarity, had manifested no other system than a determination to destoy all order, subvert all arrangement, and reduce every rank and description of men to one common level.

Turning to Fox, he added: ‘There were men in this kingdom ... who favoured the wild theories of the times.’ Fox managed to sooth him; but Sheridan attacked his view of the Revolution, and Burke declared their political separation. The split in the Whig party had begun.

Burke had England in mind when he wrote the Reflections: ‘solicitous chiefly for the peace of my own country’, he declared, and the full title of the book is Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the proceedings of certain societies in London. ‘You seem in everything to have strayed out of the high road of nature’ he wrote. ‘The property of France does not govern it’; and in the Letters on a Regicide he defined Jacobinism as ‘the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property’. If England, following the French example, were not to be governed by property, what would become of the principles Burke had proclaimed under Rockingham? Burke's Reflections is really his apologia for his devotion to Rockingham, and he spent the last years of his life fighting to make the world safe for future Rockinghams to rule.

Burke died 9 July 1797.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Burke to Shackleton, 12 July 1746; to O’Hara, 30 Oct. 1762.
  • 2. Copeland, Corresp. i. 66.
  • 3. Ibid. 121.
  • 4. Burke to Shackleton, 10 Aug. 1757.
  • 5. Walpole to Montagu, 22 July 1761.
  • 6. Burke to Hamilton, March 1763.
  • 7. Chatham Corresp. iii. 110-11.
  • 8. Burke to O'Hara, 21 Oct. 1766.
  • 9. Burke to O'Hara, post 11 Nov. 1766.
  • 10. Chatham Corresp. iii. 144.
  • 11. Boswell, Johnson, iii. 235.
  • 12. O'Hara to Burke, 10 Aug. 1762.
  • 13. Burke to William Weddell, 31 Jan. 1792.
  • 14. Sutherland, Corresp. ii. 128-9.
  • 15. Burke to O'Hara, 31 Dec. 1765.
  • 16. Speech on the Declaratory Act, 3 Feb. 1766, Ryder's 'Debates'.
  • 17. Speech on American Taxation.
  • 18. Cavendish's 'Debates', Egerton 215, ff. 110-18.
  • 19. Dowdeswell to Rockingham, 14 Aug. 1768, Dowdeswell mss.
  • 20. Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol.
  • 21. Almon, iii. 170-86.
  • 22. Burke to Fox, 8 Oct. 1777.
  • 23. Burke to Laurence, 12 May 1797.
  • 24. For Burke's relations with his constituency see BRISTOL constituency.
  • 25. Burke to Portland, 24 Sept. 1779.
  • 26. Burke to Horace Walpole, 7 July 1782, with copy of proposals; Richard Burke to Walpole, 7 July 1782; Walpole's notes of conversation with Richard Burke, in the possession of W.S. Lewis; Last Jnls. ii. 454.
  • 27. Observations on a late 'State of the Nation'.
  • 28. Fox Corresp. ii. 322.
  • 29. Last Jnls. ii. 453
  • 30. Boswell, Private Pprs. xv. 234.
  • 31. Debrett, vii. 312-15.
  • 32. Ibid. ix. 681.
  • 33. Fox Corresp. ii. 27.
  • 34. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 401.
  • 35. Stockdale, xix. 61-69.