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Edmund Burke: A man for all centuries

This is the final volume in the nine-volume Clarendon edition of the writings and speeches of Edmund Burke. When this edition — ample, yet by no means complete — of Burke was planned in the 1970s, the decision was taken to divide the material in a way both chronological and thematic. The sequence of volumes follows a broadly chronological path, so the first volume was devoted to “The Early Writings”, while Volume IX brought together those writings on Ireland and the French Revolution which had occupied Burke during the last three years of his life, from 1794 to 1797. But because Burke did not turn tidily from one subject to another, in the volumes devoted to the years of his intellectual maturity — years when, as he would put it in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, “he was in the prime and vigour of his life; when the powers of his understanding, according to their standard, were at the best; his memory exercised; his judgment formed; and his reading, much fresher in the recollection, and much readier in the application, than now it is” — the thematic principle was allowed to prevail over the chronological.

The British constitution; relations with the American colonies and the policy of commercial empire; the governance of India; relations between Britain and Ireland; the nature and significance of the French Revolution — these were the master-themes of Burke’s maturity, and he tended to deal with two or more of them at the same time. However, in the Clarendon edition Burke’s major writings on these important topics have been sifted into separate volumes. But some apparently lesser speeches and writings were left over, and they have been swept together into this last volume.

So this volume might look like a ragbag of remnants, but the unexpected advantage of it is that here we find Burke commenting, often brilliantly, on virtually all the major political and moral topics which exercised his maturity. More so than any other single volume in this edition, then, here the reader can take the measure of Burke’s range as a thinker.

This volume contains two wonderful highlights. The first is the speech made by Burke on May 6, 1791, when he and Fox quarrelled spectacularly in the House of Commons in the course of the debate on the Quebec Bill, and the Whigs as a result were split as a party. This was the most dramatic moment of Burke’s parliamentary career, and it has to be said that he does not emerge from it with unspotted laurels. He had been outraged by what he took to be Fox’s attacks on the consistency of his political conduct, and he was determined to show that in vehemently opposing and denouncing the French Revolution he had been impelled towards no apostasy. But he engineered the parliamentary occasion in a cold-blooded way, and coolly manipulated the emotional Fox, who ended the evening in tears while Burke apparently maintained an icy fury throughout. It was an episode that should have qualified, if not dispelled, the myth that Burke was always an orator out of control, his speeches nothing more than a whirl of words.

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