Page images
PDF
EPUB

EDMUND BURKE (1730-1797)

THE SHAKESPEARE OF ENGLISH ORATORS

S the United States possessed, in the days of the great slavery A and revenue agitation, three orators of the finest powers, Webster, Clay and Calhoun, so England was graced, in the exciting days of the American War, with three orators of similar brilliancy, Chatham, Burke and Fox. Greatest among these, in certain of the most important elements of oratory, was Burke. He had not the impetuous and splendid eloquence of Chatham, nor the remarkable skill in debate of Fox, but in learning, in the power of clothing great thoughts in the most appropriate words, and of producing speeches which are even more interesting and effective when read than they were when delivered, he far surpassed them both. Macaulay speaks of him as, “In aptitude of comprehension and richness of imagination, superior to every orator, ancient or modern.”

Edmund Burke, while of Norman descent, was of Irish birth, his native place being the city of Dublin. Entering Parliament in 1766, he at once took an active part in the discussion on American affairs, and continued it throughout the subsequent war, joining Chatham in his eloquent support of the cause of the colonists. He was especially distinguished for his thorough mastery of American affairs and his intelligent foresight of the probable result of the attempt to force taxation on the colonists.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of his career was that devoted to affairs in India, the oppression and cruelty of Warren Hastings and other East India officials having filled his soul with the deepest indignation. The prosecution of Warren Hastings, the most remarkable of English trials, was due to his denunciations, and his utmost powers of intellect were exerted in the effort to bring retribution upon

EDMUND BURKE 477

the culprit, during the nearly ten years over which the case extended. Burke's final work as an orator was his fervid opposition to the Revolution in France, whose results he foresaw with what has been called “the most magnificent political prophecy ever given to the world.” He lived long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled.

THE IMPEACHMENT OF WARREN HASTINGS

[Rarely has any orator had a greater effect upon an audience than that of Burke in the speech in which he depicted the cruelties inflicted upon the victims of the irresponsible Governor-General of India. Hastings himself afterward said of it: “For half an hour I looked upon the orator in a reverie of wonder, and actually thought myself the most culpable man in the world.” This speech is far too long for our space, and we confine our selection to Burke's vigorous impeachment of the great culprit.]

In the name of the Commons of England, I charge all this villainy upon Warren Hastings, in this last moment of my application to you.

My Lords, what is it that we want here to a great act of national justice? Do we want a cause, my Lords 2 You have the cause of oppressed princes, of undone women of the first rank, of desolated provinces, and of wasted kingdoms.

Do you want a criminal, my Lords? When was there so much iniquity ever laid to the charge of any one 2 No, my Lords, you must not look to punish any other such delinquent from India. Warren Hastings has not left substance enough in India to nourish such another delinquent.

My Lords, is it a prosecutor you want? You have before you the Commons of Great Britain as prosecutors, and I believe, my Lords, that the sun, in his beneficent progress round the world, does not behold a more glorious sight than that of men, separated from a remote people by the material bonds and barriers of nature, united by the bond of a social and moral community—all the Commons of England resenting, as their own, the indignities and the cruelties that are offered to the people of India.

Do we want a tribunal 2 My Lords, no example of antiquity, nothing in the modern world, nothing in the range of human indignation, can supply us with a tribunal like this. My Lords, here we see virtually, in the mind's eye, that sacred majesty of the Crown, under whose authority you sit and whose power you exercise.

We have here all the branches of the royal family, in a situation between majesty and subjection, between the sovereign and the subject— offering a pledge, in that situation, for the support of the rights of the Crown and the liberties of the people, both of which extremities they touch.

478 - EDMUND BURKE

My Lords, we have a great hereditary peerage here; those who have their own honor, the honor of their ancestors, and of their posterity, to guard, and who will justify, as they always have justified, that provision in the Constitution by which justice is made an hereditary office. My Lords, we have here a new nobility, who have risen, and exalted themselves by various merits, by great civil and military services, which have extended the fame of this country from the rising to the setting sun. My Lords, you have here, also, the lights of our religion; you have the bishops of England. My Lords, you have that true image of the primitive Church in its ancient form, in its ancient ordinances, purified from the superstitions and the vices which a long succession of ages will bring upon the best institutions. My Lords, these are the securities which we have in all the constituent parts of the body of this House. We know them, we reckon, we rest upon them, and commit safely the interests of India and of humanity into your hands. Therefore, it is with confidence, that, ordered by the Commons, I impeach Warren Hastings, Esquire, of high crimes and misde111e3nOrs. I impeach him in the name of the Commons of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled, whose parliamentary trust he has betrayed. I impeach him in the name of all the Commons of Great Britain, whose national character he has dishonored. I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights, and liberties he has subverted, whose property he has destroyed, whose country he has laid waste and desolate. I impeach him in the name, and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life. My Lords, at this awful close, in the name of the Commons, and surrounded by them, I attest the retiring. I attest the advancing, generations, between which, as a link in the great chain of eternal order, we stand. We call this nation, and call this world, to witness, that the Commons have shrunk from no labor ; that we have been guilty of no prevarication, that we have made no compromise with crime, that we have not feared any odium whatsoever in the long warfare which we have carried on with the crimes, with the vices, with the exorbitant wealth, with the enormous and overpowering influence of Eastern corruption.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]

My Lords, it has pleased Providence to place us in such a state that we appear every to be moment upon the verge of some great mutations. There is one thing, and one thing only, which defies all mutation ; that which existed before the world, and will survive the fabric of the world itselfI mean justice; that justice which, emanating from the Divinity, has a place in the breast of every one of us, given us for our guide with regard to ourselves and with regard to others; and which will stand, after this globe is burned to ashes, our advocate or our accuser, before the great Judge, when He comes to call upon us for the tenor of a well-spent life. My Lords, the Commons will share in every fate with your Lordships; there is nothing sinister which can happen to you, in which we shall not be involved ; and, if it should so happen, that we shall be subjected to some of those frightful changes which we have seen ; if it should happen that your Lordships, stripped of all the decorous distinctions of human society, should, by hands at once base and cruel, be led to those scaffolds and machines of murder upon which great kings and glorious queens have shed their blood, amidst the prelates, amidst the nobles, amidst the magistrates who supported their thrones, may you in those moments feel that consolation which I am persuaded they felt in the critical moments of their dreadful agony | My Lords, there is a consolation, and a great consolation it is, which often happens to oppressed virtue and fallen dignity; it often happens that the very oppressors and persecutors themselves are forced to bear testimony in its favor. The Parliament of Paris had an origin very, very similar to that of the great Court before which I stand ; the Parliament of Paris continued to have a great resemblance to it in its Constitution, even to its fall; the Parliament of Paris, my Lords,-wAs ; it is gone ! It has passed away; it has vanished like a dream | It fell pierced by the sword of the Compte de Mirabeau. And yet that man, at the time of his inflicting the death-wound of that Parliament, produced at once the shortest and the grandest funeral oration that ever was or could be made upon the departure of a great Court of magistracy. When he pronounced the death sentence upon that Parliament, and inflicted the mortal wound, he declared that his motives for doing it were merely political, and that their hands were as pure as those of justice itself, which they administered—a great and glorious exit, my Lords, of a great and glorious body My Lords, if you must fall, may you so fall ! But if you stand, and I trust you will, together with the fortunes of this ancient monarchy, together with the ancient laws and liberties of this great and illustrious kingdom, may you stand as unimpeached in honor as in power; may you stand, not as a substitute for virtue, but as an ornament of virtue, as a

480 EDMUND BURKE

security for virtue; may you stand long, and long stand the terror of tyrants; may you stand the refuge of afflicted nations; may you stand a sacred temple, for the perpetual residence of an inviolable justice

MARIE ANTOINETTE

[Burke had seen the Queen of France in 1772, while still Dauphiness, and a vision of youth and beauty. After her cruel fate, he gave the following memorable description of the unhappy victim, in tones of the deepest emotional earnestness.]

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. O, what a sudden revolution 1 and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall ! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom ; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. 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 | The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

« PreviousContinue »