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Burke’s Livery’

In response to:

Who Was Edmund Burke? from the December 3, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Alan Ryan, in his (mostly generous) review of my book The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke [NYR, December 3, 1992] quotes the following passage, in which I refer to the two most influential works of Sir Lewis Namier:

” ‘It would be possible, I suppose, to read both books [The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III and England in the Age of the American Revolution] without noticing that Burke is the prime target. The references to him are few; that is part of the strategy. The vigorous historian—and Namier radiates vigour—does not take Burke seriously, and lets this be known en passant‘.”

On this Ryan comments:

This comes awfully close to the paranoid school of interpretation, where argument from silence can be turned to any end you like.”

If indeed my argument were entirely or even mainly from silence, that would indeed be “awfully close to the paranoid school.” But my main complaint about Namier concerns what he does have to say about Burke: the concentrated venom of his few and brief asides. I quote a number of examples. The most succinct and efficient is contained in England in the Age of the American Revolution. It consists of just ten words: “the man whose livery [Burke] happened to have taken.” That verdict qualifies the surrounding silence. We are to infer that Namier doesn’t have much to say about Burke because Burke isn’t worth writing about. Why devote space, in a serious book, to a mere lackey? And the few other references to Burke carry the same implication.

The “livery” theory concerning Burke is demonstrably untenable. The demonstration is contained in the ten-volume Cambridge and Chicago edition of Burke’s Correspondence (mostly published since Namier’s death in 1960). The Correspondence shows Burke as telling the men whose livery he happened to be wearing what they ought to do, far more often than any of them told him what he ought to do.

Citing the publication dates of some Namierite works, from 1930 to 1955, Ryan implies that the Namierite interpretation of Burke can be of little interest or importance to students of Burke today. I think this underestimates the authority, even if slowly waning, of Namier and his school over historiography, especially British historiography of the late eighteenth century.

Not many historians have given words, based on their names, to the English language. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary has “Namierean,” “Namierite,” “Namierize.” The illustrative quotations are themselves clearly from Namierite sources. For example: “The Namierite revolution in historical method…destroyed a long accepted view of the nature of political parties in the eighteenth century.” Also: Essentially, Namierization meant a rigorous substitution of accurate detail for the generalizations which had contented older historians.

The Namierization of Edmund Burke inverted that definition: it substituted slanted generalizations for accurate detail.

The reductivist approach to Edmund Burke, initiated by Namier, is still not without influence, at least in British historiography. Consider the Introduction to Volume VIII, The French Revolution: 1790–1794 of the Clarendon Press Edition of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Volume VIII was published in 1989. Its Introduction is, from beginning to end, an effort to return Burke to the insignificance to which Namier and his friends had sought to confine him. So if Burke’s greatness is to be seen clearly, his biographer has the duty of demolishing an accumulation of disfiguring Namierite rubbish around him dating from the second to the eighth decade of the twentieth century, although with fortunately a diminishing frequency of deposit, from around 1970.

Working on Burke, and contemplating his prodigious commitment to the four great causes of his life, I did experience indignation at the impudent “livery” version of his role. Indignation may, at a distance, sometimes resemble paranoia but the two are not the same.

Conor Cruise O’Brien
Dublin, Ireland

Alan Ryan replies:

I am not greatly at odds with Dr. O’Brien, and will be brief about what separates us. I know no evidence that would force Dr. O’Brien to yield to my view that the extremer forms of Namierism are too passé to be worth his shot, and leave it to his readers to decide between us. I am equally happy to leave Dr. Mitchell, the editor of Volume VIII of Burke’s Correspondence, to accept or repudiate the Namierite label as he chooses—though I shall be surprised if he accepts it. As to arguments from silence, I mean only that the general absence from Namier’s work of explicit discussion of Burke is hardly evidence that Burke is Namier’s main target. He is certainly a casualty of Namier’s methods, but that’s a different and a smaller matter. Two other correspondents have set me straight on other matters: Professor Jeffrey Seward of Pacific University points out that de Maistre read Burke with pleasure, and drew on Burke’s Reflections in his own Considerations on France. I cannot now think why I was convinced of the opposite given the visibility of the evidence. Professor George McElroy of Roosevelt University complains that I mangled Goldsmith’s “And to party gave up what was meant for mankind” in paraphrasing it, changed Lord North’s title—First Lord of the Treasury—to Secretary of the Treasury, and should have called Burke’s first employer “Single speech Hamilton.” I am happy to acknowledge these slips and grateful for the information that “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom” is already to be seen in Washington, carved on the base of Burke’s statue.

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