Friday, 18 July 2014

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse

The Great Melody – a thematic Biography of Edmund Burke. Conor Cruise O’Brien. Sinclair Stevenson, London, 1992. pp lxxv+692. Illustrated.

This review was written on June 2nd 2011

I found myself at a loose end after publishing my first book on Amazon, My challenge to ageing. It was then that I picked up this book in my library. I had been given it by Mark Hederman in 1992 but did not read it until 2011. It is a long book, heavy going and at first unlikely to be finished because of a long and tedious introduction of 75 pages dealing with the  different attitudes of his many biographers to Burke’s significance as politician, orator and patriot. One wonders at times whether the function of historians is to add new knowledge to their subject or simply to contribute ad nauseam to the cyclical admixture of revisionism. However, I persisted to the end as I became more interested in Burke, his role in the late 18th century in England and his sympathetic attitude to Irish aspirations, the country where he was born.

The 75 pages of the introduction deal with the author’s reasons for attempting the biography. He reviews the works of the many other authors who preceded him on Edmund Burke and of the changing opinions which prevailed during the last two hundred years about Burke’s role in English history. It is clear from these early pages that O’Brien ranks Burke as a dominant political figure in England during the latter half of the 18th century but he underlines a long period during the middle of the 20th century when many historians were dismissive of Burke’s importance as a leading figure during his time.  This long introduction was heavy going and adds little to one’s interest in the subject of the biography.

The book is described as a thematic biography because it deals with four separate and major themes during Burke’s career as a public figure in England. These are his public statements about Ireland, the American Revolution, the French revolution and the British occupation of India.

Stature of Burke at Trinity College, Dublin c. 1870
Burke was born in Ireland, almost certainly Dublin, in 1729. His father, Richard Burke, came from a Catholic family from limerick but he converted to the established Church of Ireland in 1722 so that he could qualify and practise as a barrister. His wife, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic and hailed from Co. Cork where her family were moderate land owners and had an extended influence in their area. She remained a Catholic despite her husband’s conversion. For about 5 years Edmund lived in the Catholic ambience of his mother’s family, the Nagles, in Co. Cork and his time there left him with a permanent attachment to the Catholics of Ireland even though he espoused his father’s newly acquired attachment to the Established Church of Ireland. Edmund left Dublin after he had qualified with high honours at Trinity and went to London where his first seven years or so has left little record of his activities there.

He joined the Whigs when he entered politics and was subsequently elected to Parliament. He soon made his mark as an orator and as a member of the Whig party although his history proved that he was a loner in terms of Anglo-Irish relations and in international affairs. He, like the Whigs during King George 111 reign, was concerned about the political power of the Monarch. During his earlier years in Parliament he and his party were responsible for a diminution in the power and influence of the King. Burke retained his interest in Ireland and while he was reticent about his Catholic background, he had a lifetime interest in the wellbeing of the Irish Catholic majority and he advocated their admission to full citisinship in Ireland and the United Kingdom and would have supported the existing Dublin Parliament of the late 18th Century which was abolished by the Act of Union of 1801. He undoubtedly played a large part during his thirty years in Westminster in achieving the abolition of most of the penal laws imposed on Catholics in Ireland. His enemies in Westminster spoke disparagingly of him as being a Catholic, as being under Catholic influence and as being a Jesuit. 

He was heavily involved in the American Revolution and in the ultimate loss of the American colonies. He was opposed to the early attempts by the King and the administration to impose the Stamp Duty and other forms of taxation on the Americans. He finally realised that it was no longer practical for the United Kingdom to maintain control of the rapidly expanding American states and was opposed to Britain’s military attempts to subdue the American forces.

Probably much of the greatest part of his endeavours were devoted to opposing the French revolution and here he was opposed by most of his colleagues in Westminster. He believed that from the fall of the Bastille France was being influenced by a mob which was out to destroy the fabric of France and of its monarchy and its Catholic ethos, and that their intentions were to carry the French revolution to the other countries of Europe through its military intentions and propaganda. Much of his many prognostications about the effects of the revolution were realised. His prolonged opposition to the French revolution was perhaps his single most sustained role in parliament and was a major source of the opposition to him by his many colleagues.

His involvement in India rested on his criticism of corruption in the East India Company’s administration. He emerges in this area as  a relatively lonely figure opposing the Establishment, as indeed can be said about his public attitude to Ireland and its problems. He married Jane Nugent, the daughter of a Catholic physician in Dublin. She remained a Catholic all her life and the union lasted forty years and proved to be a happy one.

See this later note on Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson:  

Thomas Jefferson believed that all men are equal. His life was contemporaneous with the writings of Paine in his Rights of Man and Jefferson’s whole political life was based on its self-evident truth. Paine himself in his famous book and in his prolonged stay in America greatly influenced the progress of the revolution there and the concept of the equality of all. 

Having read the above biography of Edmund Burke I was aware of how rational Burke was in his approach to the American Revolution and how his views conflicted with the bellicose George 111, the Tories and other British politicians.  It would be interesting to know how closely Burke and Jefferson’s views were about these two signal revolutionary events of history.

See blog review of Thomas Jefferson. 

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