Edmund Burke died 195 years ago, but he remains the most appealing of conservative writers—not least because it is unclear whether he is a conservative at all. He supported Catholic Emancipation in his native Ireland, he was revered in revolutionary America for his defense of the colonists’ rights, he was a ferocious critic of the Crown’s meddling in British politics, and an anticolonialist before his time. Isaac Kramnick’s interesting study, The Rage of Edmund Burke,* describes him as “an ambivalent conservative,” which is one way of putting it. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s new book reminds us that it is as plausible to regard him as essentially a liberal—pluralist and antitotalitarian, but neither reactionary nor authoritarian.

That is contestable, too. The Burke of 1790, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France urge the British not to emulate the French, is a good deal less authoritarian than the Burke of 1796, whose Letters on a Regicide Peace demand a Holy War abroad and repression in Britain to extirpate the revolutionary infection wherever it is found. The description of Burke’s deepest allegiances is more than a matter of taste; the difference between liberal hostility to revolutionary violence and the conservative or imperialist defense of the status quo has preoccupied American intellectuals for the past half century. The Burke of the Letters on a Regicide Peace was invoked by conservatives like Russell Kirk to argue in favor of “rolling back communism” in the 1950s and 1960s; while in 1969 Conor Cruise O’Brien challenged the idea that Burke would have welcomed US intervention in Vietnam and argued that Senator William Fulbright could “claim descent from Burke with just as much validity as the practitioners of counter-revolutionary containment.”

However they disagree about his lessons for the twentieth century, nobody has ever denied that Burke was a uniquely eloquent critic of schemes and projects for the wholesale remodeling of society sprung from the brains of philosophers, literary intellectuals, and dissenting clerics. His insistence that society is essentially organic and unamenable to rationalistic social engineering made him the founding father of the sociological tradition that condemns all forms of individualism as simplistic and inadequate. Indeed, an attachment to that organic vision unites one kind of conservative with radicals who find themselves more at home with Burke than with Jeremy Bentham or J.S. Mill. The alliance extends only to social analysis, of course. Radicals—Marx is a good example—deny Burke’s inference that since everything is organically connected with everything else we must proceed delicately and cautiously; they conclude that to change anything we must change everything.

But that is enough to explain why there were conservatives for whom Burke’s vision of society had no appeal. The French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre read him without enthusiasm. Burke’s Reflections claimed it was habitual allegiance and affection—what he called “prejudice”—that held society together and allowed government to exercise authority over willing subjects. It was prejudice that he feared the rationalists and revolutionaries would undermine. But de Maistre thought the basis of authority was the hangman, the figure he described as “the horror and the bond of human society,” who secured social order by a salutory terror. Between two such minds there could be no sympathy, whatever their shared detestation of the revolution.

Reflections on the Revolution in France remains the rhetorical masterpiece of counterrevolutionary writing, and in Conor Cruise O’Brien, Burke has found his proper interpreter—one who relishes the rhetoric without neglecting the underlying argument. One of the pleasures of reading The Great Melody is the chance to enjoy the rhetorical glories of the speeches and letters that O’Brien quotes lavishly and at length; but another is watching O’Brien’s own political intelligence working hard, and not always comfortably, in pursuit of the underlying thought.

“You could not stand for five minutes with that man [Burke] beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen.” Dr. Johnson’s famous tribute to Edmund Burke might, without absurdity, have been paid to the latest of Burke’s innumerable commentators and biographers. Conor Cruise O’Brien has inestimable advantages over his competitors in the field; he, too, has been a practicing politician, a diplomat, and a government minister, as well as a scholar and a distinguished journalist. Burke’s attacks on Britain’s treatment of her American and Indian colonies strike a particular chord with O’Brien, who served alongside Dag Hammarskjold during the Congo crisis in 1960–1961, and resigned in protest at the way France and Britain were, in his view, undermining the United Nations’ efforts to hold an independent Congo together. And Burke’s agonizing over his native Ireland strikes a particular chord in the heart of a man who served in the Eire government from 1973–1977, and found his liberal allegiances strained to breaking by the terrorism of the IRA.


Edmund Burke’s Irishness dominates his book, not least because Burke himself had to obscure his Irish origins and suppress his Irish sympathies to make his way in English politics, and O’Brien is naturally fascinated by the impact of this suppression and restraint on Burke’s visible political life.

Burke was born in Dublin in 1729. His mother, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic; by the time Edmund was born, his father was a member of the Established Church. It seems he had been a Catholic, too, but subscribed in 1722 for the sake of his career as an attorney. Catholics were excluded from the universities, from the learned professions, and from political life. In Ireland, where they formed the great majority of the population, they were governed by Penal Laws that threatened their right to hold property, and guaranteed that if they fell foul of the law they woud be at the mercy of a bigoted judge and a bigoted jury. It was not forty years since the Battle of the Boyne had secured Ireland for the Protestant William III and had driven the Catholic James II into exile. It was only fourteen years since the rising of James II’s followers in 1715, and still another sixteen until the Jacobite uprising in 1745. In neither case was the peace threatened in Ireland, but the frightened Ascendancy—the ruling Protestants—presumed Catholics guilty of treason until proved otherwise.

Burke was brought up a Protestant and attended Trinity College, Dublin; but as a child he was taught at a “hedge school”—an unrecognized Catholic school—conducted in the ruined castle of Monanimy in County Cork, and then at a Quaker school in Ballitore. Since his family on both sides were Catholics who could trace their ancestry to Norman Irish gentry, it is easy to imagine that Burke would have regarded the Protestant Ascendancy as an imposed and illegitimate regime of pure force, and would have regarded his father’s conversion with particular disgust. But we have no direct evidence; such sentiments would have destroyed the career that Burke made for himself in the tangled politics of mid-eighteenth-century England.

He arrived in London in 1750, and first attracted notice with two remarkable books. A Vindication of Natural Society was a parody of Bolingbroke’s attack on the artificiality of human society, and his Philosphical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful still repays reading by anyone interested in Burke’s political ideas—or in aesthetics generally. It was disliked by Tolstoy, which in these matters is a recommendation. These books appeared in 1756 and 1757; his political career began soon after, but almost accidentally. Burke was chronically short of money, and for a time combined literary work as editor of the Annual Register with the post of private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a politician known as “one speech Hamilton.” This was a dead end, but Burke had earlier applied to the government for appointment as consul at Madrid as a way of supporting himself. George III’s ministers must have regretted giving the post to somebody else—failure kept Burke in Britain, where he became one of their sharpest critics, in and out of Parliament.

Burke’s route into politics was conventional for a man of slender means. In 1765 he became the confidential secretary and adviser to the Marquess of Rockingham, the most talented and energetic of the Whig magnates of the day. That Rockingham was a Whig was not especially significant; government had been carried on for the past twenty years by coalitions that were uniformly Whig—committed to maintaining the government that emerged from the Revolution of 1688, and bent on excluding its opponents from political office and social influence. The central issue was how far political leaders trusted and cooperated with the King and his court. With the accession of George III in 1760, it was this issue that revived party politics, and gave life to the conflict between Whig and Tory. In choosing his patron, Burke chose his future: Rockingham was not a friend to George III, nor was George III to Rockingham. Until the French Revolution of 1789 led Burke to break with his Whig patrons and allies, he was no friend of the King, either.

When Burke began to serve him, Rockingham was first secretary of the treasury—the title of prime minister was not yet current. He secured Burke a seat in Parliament, at Wendover in Buckinghamshire, and Burke bought a small estate at nearby Beaconsfield. This was a premature token of his desire to join the landed gentry. He could not afford it, and it kept him on the brink of bankruptcy for the rest of his life. From Rockingham, Burke received a very great deal of money, a seat in Parliament, and a stage on which to exercise his talents of persuasion. Friends and enemies alike took it for granted that he would become a leading figure in the Rockingham faction.


What Rockingham got was advice, and the most persuasive voice and pen of the day. But his ministry was short-lived, and Burke spent the sixteen years after 1766 in opposition; Rockingham’s second ministry of 1782 was shorter still, and ended at his death. From 1770 to 1782, the government was in the hands of Lord North, a man whose ability to remain on good terms with George III was the most important of his political talents. His government was retrospectively described as Tory, but is better termed “Court Whig.” North was an efficient minister and an effective parliamentarian, but is best remembered as the minister who lost the American colonies, and along with his royal master provided the target of Burke’s rhetoric.

Although Burke campaigned strenuously against the British government’s policy of repression in America, much else provoked him. Burke had the traditional Whig suspicion of the Crown’s designs upon the liberties of the British people.

By the late 1760s, George III’s determination to take an active part in government had begun to create furious controversy. Burke’s first famous essay, “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” of 1770, enunciates the principle that “in all disputes between the people and its rulers, the presumption was at least upon a par in favour of the people.” Burke not only insisted that constitutional monarchs must be ruled by their parliaments, but set out the modern theory of party government, too. Until then, “party” was a synonym of faction, and primarily a pejorative term. After Burke’s redefinition of a party as a body of men united to promote the public interest on shared principles, political parties were recognized as essential to representative government.

His parliamentary career was not smooth. He was never given an office commensurate with his talents. He did not even have a safe seat in Parliament. Wendover had to be given up when the owner of the seat ran into financial difficulties, and Rockingham offered him the seat of Malton in Yorkshire at the election of 1774. On that occasion, the electors of Bristol also asked him to stand, which he duly did. It was to them that he addressed the Guildhall speech in which he gave his famous definition of a representative’s duty to his constituents: “He owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays you, not serves you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” They were not entirely persuaded, or perhaps they did not trust Burke’s judgment. In 1780, they turned him out in punishment for his votes in favor of freer trade and toleration in Ireland. Rockingham once again made Malton available, and Burke represented the seat until he left Parliament shortly before his death.

Burke’s parliamentary success was partial. He was known as a great man and a great orator. He was acknowledged as a powerful moral influence. But he was not a wholly successful “House of Commons man”—he was short-tempered, had little sense of humor, and delivered comprehensive treatises rather than succinct debating speeches. By the end of the American Revolution, his influence in the House was much reduced. The short-lived Rockingham government of 1782 did little to improve his standing even though it brought peace with the former colonies, and Burke as paymaster of the forces introduced “economical reforms” that placed the royal finances on an accountable basis and eliminated a good many sinecures. In 1783, he got another chance to exercise influence when the Duke of Portland presided over a ministry whose real leaders were the King’s loyal servant Lord North in coalition with the King’s avowed enemy and bitter critic, Charles James Fox. Fox greatly admired Burke, and readily declared himself “his pupil.” But Fox produced proposals for the reform of the government of India that were so unpopular in Parliament that they brought down the Fox-North coalition, and George III installed William Pitt the Younger in the post he would occupy for the rest of Burke’s lifetime. Burke was doomed to remain in opposition.

Even so, he possessed a surprising hold on colleagues unwilling to take him wholly seriously. In the mid-1780s he embarked on his second great campaign, against the governor general of British India, Warren Hastings. Hastings’s mistreatment of the Indian people—he was accused of both extortion and judicial murder—obsessed Burke for the best part of fourteen years. In spite of the skepticism which he initially faced, Burke persuaded the House of Commons to impeach Hastings, and himself managed the seven-year trial before the House of Lords that began in 1788 and ended in humiliation when Hastings was acquitted in 1795.

While the trial was in progress, Burke embarked on the last and greatest of his campaigns. This was his counterrevolutionary war against the French Revolution and its supporters in Britain. The campaign opened with his Reflections, and was continued on all fronts; he broke with Charles James Fox, and induced enough anti-revolutionary Whigs to desert their party to secure Pitt’s grip on power. He disappointed old friends, startled Americans who had greatly admired him when he supported their Revolution, and reached heights of invective in his Letter to a Noble Lord and his Letters on a Regicide Peace that were surprising even in an age when invective was a fine art.

In a sense, the fact that the Whigs remained out of office, and Britain remained at war meant that Burke died on the winning side. But in a deeper sense he did not. The years before his death in 1797 were grim. The death of his son Richard blasted his hopes of establishing his family among the landed gentry he had so faithfully served. The acquittal of Warren Hastings was predictable but devastating. His beloved Ireland was on the brink of the civil war that broke out in 1798. O’Brien gives a desperate picture of these years. Pitt’s government was pursuing the policy Burke wanted everywhere save in Ireland. To keep Pitt in office, Burke was prepared to sacrifice Ireland, and say nothing publicly about his detestation of the continued repression of the Irish, but at what psychological cost? Burke was a man who flourished in a battle in which he could fight without inhibition; on three great issues, he could do so—over America, India, and France. On the fourth, and arguably the issue closest to his heart, the best he could hope to do was a little unobtrusive good.


O’Brien is uniquely qualified to tackle Burke, but it has not been an easy task, and the book shows it. The Great Melody is a wonderful book—learned, passionate, nobly written, and true to the spirit of Burke even where they both seem wrong. It is also quirky, idiosyncratic, and obtrusively preoccupied with its author’s reactions to Burke. Often this adds to the interest, and mostly it is harmless, but sometimes the author’s identification with his subject is unnerving. In one footnote O’Brien describes his receipt of the gift of a copy of Burke’s Letter to a Noble Lord, inscribed “from the Author”: his “hair sat up,” he says, and he decided that its arrival in mid-composition was a “Message from the Master.” This is closer to New Age sentimentality than was to be expected from the author of To Katanga and Back.

Still, O’Brien’s struggles with Burke are surely fascinating. Twenty-four years ago, he edited Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and it was clear from the remarkable introduction he provided for that Penguin Classics edition that he had long been brooding on the connections between Burke’s ambivalent feelings about his native country and his hatred of Jacobin France. O’Brien saw that Burke’s hatred of the French Revolution was all the fiercer because Burke sympathized so deeply with the revolutionary impulse. One of the people he was fighting was himself, or rather the man he might easily have been. Burke may have thought that the social and political hierarchy, under favorable conditions, might mimic the universal hierarchy displayed in God’s government of his universe as a whole; but he also thought that if men of talent were to contribute to their society, they needed more than sermons on their duty to obey the powers that be.

They needed a legitimate outlet for their energy and vision. If they were forced to watch while their inferiors in talent and morality mistreated and oppressed their subjects, they could not help rebelling, as the Americans had done in 1776. The implication was plain; talented Irishmen ought not to sympathize with the French revolutionaries, but they inevitably would. And this was the fault of their English rulers more than a fault in their own Irish nature. The Irish situation was the reverse of the French. In France, incompetent, plebeian Jacobin revolutionaries had displaced an aristocratic ruling class, but the plebeian Protestant tyrants of Ireland were more Jacobin than those who resisted them. Burke’s sympathy for the oppressed Irish did not extend to the French upper-class intellectuals who had caused the trouble in France, and still less to their English supporters. They were vain, foolish, arrogant, and deeply mischievous. But radical Irishmen were another matter. O’Brien’s many admirers looked forward to a full-length treatment of these themes with some eagerness.

But, O’Brien says—“I got stuck.” He got stuck, he thinks, because he tried to write an orthodox biography, and lost Burke in the details of his parliamentary career. In fact, he had encountered an old problem. Burke’s campaign to turn British opinion against the French Revolution offers few problems of interpretation, and O’Brien had a relatively easy time writing about it. Burke said over and over again what he was against and why he was against it. He denounced the folly of innocent intellectuals who believed that society could be reconstructed according to the utopian schemes they had dreamed up in their study; he denounced the violence of the Parisian mob and their mistreatment of the king and queen. He anticipated that this violence would end in the murder of the royal family, and then in the mutual destruction of the revolutionaries themselves. He denied that society could be run as if it were a commercial operation. Society rested on prejudice, not reason. Prejudice was not irrational, but it was unreasoning. It allowed us to act before we calculated all the consequences. Philosophers might speculate about just why we have the duties we do, but it was prejudice that made us act. It could not be replaced by calculation.

The revolutionaries, in Burke’s view, were not simply incompetent social engineers. The more striking note in his attack was the thought that the Revolution was essentially irreligious. It was not only that the revolutionaries had robbed the Church, though they had; rather, they set themselves up in the Deity’s position. They arrogated to themselves a right of wholesale reconstruction that belonged to no mortal, and this was in an act of impiety, of hubris that would bring its own retribution with it. Rhetorically, Burke took pains to separate the French revolutionaries from the English revolutionaries of 1688. The Englishmen who had expelled James II had been engaged in a process of restoration not “innovation.” They did not believe in the right claimed by the English friends of the French Revolution, the right to hold their rulers accountable, to cashier them for misconduct, and to replace them if they were found wanting. When James II deserted the throne, Burke argued, they did not believe they were entitled to choose a new king; they looked for the Protestant successor to James II, and found William III. Burke was not hostile to reform—one of his most famous lines was “a nation without the means of its own reform is without the means of its own preservation”—but reform must be organic and restorative, and in a deep sense conservative.

The questions left dangling are not puzzles in interpreting the Reflections but ones we must answer for ourselves—whether Burke is too easy on the failings of the French ancien régime, whether he is selectively attentive to the violence of the revolutionaries while ignoring the violence of the society they overthrew, and whether he underestimated the benefits that the Revolution brought to the French. One might agree with Burke that the Revolution was an appallingly costly way of changing French society, while thinking that on balance it was a good thing. But concentrating on the Reflections minimizes difficulties of a purely interpretative kind.

Tackling Burke’s entire life poses very different problems. Burke fought Lord North for a dozen years and then served in a coalition under him; he spent twenty years as an ardent Whig and opponent of George III, and the next seven supporting the Tory administration of William Pitt against his own former allies. He was revered by Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whigs, but broke with him so completely over the French Revolution that he refused to see him even on his deathbed. What consistent principles could lie behind this? How could the Burke who defended the right of the American colonists to defend themselves against the British government complain when the French tried to defend themselves against their government; how could the Burke who led the impeachment of Warren Hastings for his mistreatment of Britain’s Indian subjects reject the right of the French citizenry to call their rulers to account; how could Burke spend years trying to teach George III the limits of royal authority and now defend absolute monarchy in France? His contemporaries and many nineteenth-century critics were deeply surprised at his reaction to the French Revolution—Jefferson and Michelet were only the leading voices in the chorus.

The temptation for historians is obvious. Burke was a professional politician in an age when preferment was the way to wealth. He was a man of humble origins who made his way in the world by making himself useful to the grandees who found him a seat in Parliament, gave him a pension, and kept him loyal by dangling before him a peerage and a civil list pension to establish his family in the landed gentry. What would be more plausible than that he said what his employers wished to hear and changed allegiances when profit lay in a new direction? It was famously complained that Burke “gave to Party what was meant for Man,” and many of his contemporaries were unfavorably impressed by his ability to turn the party contests of the eighteenth-century House of Commons into cosmic struggles between the forces of good (first, Rockingham, then Pitt) and evil (first, North, then Charles James Fox). Even friendly commentators note that Burke’s enemies said at the time that essays such as “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” just dressed up the interests of the Rockingham Whigs as high principle.

O’Brien will have none of this. He rightly argues that it took political genius to elaborate the modern theory of party government, and it took a courage that no hack would have displayed to risk his political career by reminding the electors of Bristol that he owed them his unbiased judgment of the good of the country, not slavish adherence to their every whim. Still, it has been difficult for O’Brien to discern the common thread in a career that surely did embrace a good many seeming contradictions.

In the end a couplet from Yeats turned out to hold the key. O’Brien had been haunted by the lines:

American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.

The “it”—says O’Brien—is the abuse of power wherever it rears its ugly head. Far from himself being an authoritarian, Burke spent his life fighting authoritarianism. The “great melody” on the other hand takes a lot of describing. O’Brien says that he himself was for a long time baffled by it, and even now it appears to be defined largely by gesturing at Burke’s great antipathies—to cruelty, extortion, contempt for religious sensibility, contempt for the sanctity of the family. It is in fact not an entirely successful organizing concept. We often lose sight of Burke in the thickets of an argument over whether some speech is or is not a part of the great melody; but Yeats never told us how to answer such questions, and it is not clear what we would learn if we did. O’Brien says the book’s title “should be understood primarily in a very broad sense, as implying the existence of profound inner harmony within Burke’s writings and speeches on the four themes.” Fair enough, but that concedes the objection.

O’Brien makes one decisive point. The great melody was not a plangent song of innocence betrayed and hopes gone awry. Elegiac conservatism was not Burke’s style. His bloody-minded defense of any cause which seriously aroused him angered his opponents, and frequently alarmed his friends. To take the most notable example, when he decided that Warren Hastings, the governor general of British India, had so debauched, despoiled, and tormented the helpless people under his authority that nothing but impeachment would demonstrate that English authority was exercised under the law and not in defiance of it, Burke devoted fourteen years to the attempt to disgrace Hastings and reform the government of India. The formal proceedings alone lasted seven years, from the time Hastings was impeached at the bar of the House of Lords on February 13, 1788, to his acquittal in 1795.

Not even Hastings’s acquittal, the end of Burke’s own career, and the proximity of his death lessened Burke’s ardor. He wrote, almost on his deathbed, to deny that he had been carried away: “you know that I am no enthusiast, but [according] to the powers that God has given me, a sober and reflecting man,” he wrote, and charged his correspondent, French Laurence, with doing what he could to undo the ill effects of Hastings’s acquittal. Burke may have misjudged the chances of a successful fight against the East India Company—many members of both houses of Parliament had too great a financial interest in maintaining the status quo—but he was entirely ready to ruin his own reputation, his health, and his parliamentary career for the sake of justice for India. One great melody was a battle hymn.

O’Brien’s positive aim is to show the essential consistency of Burke’s thinking on Ireland, America, India, and France, and this he does very persuasively. Concerning all four places, Burke argued for humanity, patience, and conciliation, and against an obstinate insistence on one’s rights; he never budged in his view of the qualities of a legitimate ruling class and the goals of good government. During the American Revolution, it was the British government that erred by refusing to be guided by tradition and good sense; in France, it was the revolutionaries who violated these precepts. King George and Lord North maddened the colonists by insisting on the abstract rights of the British government; the colonists talked of “natural right” themselves, but were really trying to restore a traditional relationship. The principles that approved American conduct condemned that of the French. By the same token, the British must govern Ireland and India by principles adjusted to the country, administered by rulers sensitive to the feelings of their subjects. The Protestant Ascendancy and Warren Hastings represented rapacity masquerading as firm government.

But much of the book is devoted to an enterprise where few readers will follow O’Brien. This is the rescue of Burke’s reputation from Sir Lewis Namier and his epigones, the English historians who have followed his view that the self-interest of small and constantly shifting factions, and not larger political principles, determined the course of eighteenth-century politics. The crimes of the Namierites, in O’Brien’s account, are multiple, but two stand out. They deny that Burke exercised much influence over the politics of the later eighteenth century, and they dislike Burke’s conduct toward his aristocratic leaders and patrons. The unlikelihood of a campaign against Namier striking a chord with O’Brien’s readers is suggested by the publication dates of the books complained of—Richard Pares’s King George III and the Politicians was published in 1953, John Brooke’s The Chatham Administrations in 1955, and Namier’s England in the Age of the American Revolution in 1930.

Burke’s name occurs rather rarely in the work of Namier and his disciples. O’Brien thinks appearances are deceptive. Burke was their main target, but such is their cunning you would never know it. “The attack is conducted with remarkable subtlety and economy, where Burke is concerned” says O’Brien of Namier in particular.

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 he is the prime target. The references to him are few; that is part of the strategy. The rigorous historian—and Namier radiates rigour—does not take Burke seriously, and lets this be known, en passant. There are just eight references to him in Structure.

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

Richard Pares’s offense was to sneer at Burke’s obsequiousness toward his aristocratic leaders. O’Brien is particularly incensed by his casual observation that “‘if we regard his social origins, we can only classify as an Irish adventurer the great Edmund Burke, the theorist and the high priest of snobbery, who had the grace to compare himself to a melon beside the ducal oaks, yet seems to have flattered himself, towards the end of his career, that such a melon might drop an acorn into the soil.”‘ This, says O’Brien, is “the most offensive observation on Edmund Burke that has ever been framed.” This is an incautious claim.

An Irish reader might resent talk of “Irish adventurers,” and anyone who knows how shattered Burke was by the death of his son might wish that Pares had written more delicately about Burke’s desire for a peerage. But O’Brien is surely wrong to try to shut out such questions by denouncing them as offensive. Burke’s theory of government rested on the idea that old, landed property was the only safe basis of political authority; Burke was, by that standard, a landless adventurer. Nobody has ever got to the bottom of Burke’s finances, but many of his contemporaries certainly thought he was engaged in the financial speculation that he officially deplored. They also knew how much he had been given by Rockingham, and the ill-natured among them took it for granted that he was a paid propagandist, hoping to slip into the gentry himself. It is an equally legitimate question whether Burke’s rhetorical contrast between his own humble standing in the world and that of the aristocrats he serves isn’t sickeningly obsequious—or insincere. Indeed, to find Burke interesting, we have to ask such questions. It is just because he was so much more able than the grandees he served that one wonders why he defended an aristocratic constitution against the meritocratic republic in which people like himself would have flourished.

Burke had a very strong sense of his own merits. O’Brien would have no time for a writer who did not. When the Duke of Bedford complained in the House of Lords against the size of the pension that Burke had been granted on leaving Parliament—1200 a year was a substantial sum, even if its main purpose was to ensure the comfort of his prospective widow—Burke had no qualms about fighting back. The duke was a tempting target; he was vastly rich, had no distinction other than his wealth, and was friendly to the French Revolution. “It would,” wrote Burke in his Letter to a Noble Lord,

not be more ridiculous for me to compare myself, in rank, in fortune, in splendid descent, in youth, strength, or figure, with the Duke of Bedford, than to make a parallel between his services and my attempts to be useful to my country. It would not be gross adulation, but uncivil irony, to say that he has any public merit of his own to keep alive the idea of the services by which his vast landed pensions were obtained. My merits, whatever they are, are original and personal; his are derivative.

There is a good deal more in the same vein; as O’Brien says, the Russell family were pensioners of the crown on the grandest possible scale, and the contrast between their vast wealth and Burke’s 1200 a year invited an extended satire. It has always seemed to me that Burke’s rage against Bedford owes more than O’Brien suggests to the death of his son Richard. Burke must have felt that he had spent a lifetime helping the aristocracy to govern better than they knew, and that his reward had been to see his son die before he could take the first step into that aristocracy himself.

The Letter to a Noble Lord offers another reason for not sharing O’Brien’s squeamishness about offensive characterizations of Burke’s character and allegiances. It is in the Letter that there occurs the wonderful passage of invective in which Burke describes the French revolutionaries whom Bedford admired as “Revolution harpies of France, sprung from Night and Hell, or from that chaotic Anarchy which generates equivocally ‘all monstrous, all prodigious things”‘ and where he goes on to denounce them as cuckoos who adulterously lay the eggs of dissension in every state. It ends with a memorable image:

These obscene harpies, who deck themselves in I know not what divine attributes, but who in reality are foul and ravening birds of prey, (both mothers and daughters,) flutter above our heads, and souse down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.

The politics of Burke’s world were conducted in more offensive terms than any we are familiar with today, and Burke himself would not have bothered to shelter behind O’Brien’s ideas about interpretative decorum.


O’Brien’s conviction that Burke exercised a much greater influence on the high politics of the day than conventional wisdom suggests will keep historians of eighteenth-century politics busy. He pitches Burke’s influence as high as Namier pitched it low, and even though Namier is nowadays out of fashion, it is hard to believe that such a wholesale reversal will be swallowed without demur. Happily, the correctness of these estimates of Burke’s influence is somewhat beside the point of the book. The Great Melody is a panegyric to Burke’s stature as a political moralist. This is why O’Brien insists that it is a “the-matic biography” rather than a simple narrative and chronology. It is a portrait of the hero as a campaigner against the abuse of power, and its plausibility would be little reduced if we found that Burke’s contemporaries were less impressed than we would wish. Indeed, on the issue closest to O’Brien’s heart, he acknowledges that Burke was largely unsuccessful. His picture of Burke’s Irish allegiances is touching and agonizing. Burke must have been under considerable psychological strain all his life, as he buried his Catholic origins the better to do some good for his native country without destroying his own career or inadvertently doing harm.

The malignancy of the Protestant Ascendancy was vastly greater than that of the members of the English Parliament, and this complicated Burke’s responses to Irish politics. What alterations in the British treatment of Ireland could have seriously improved the situation of the Catholic majority was hard to say. Free trade between England and Ireland would help everyone; Burke supported it. Abolishing the Penal Laws would do an even greater good, but all measures of Catholic Emancipation were fraught with danger; anti-Catholic riots and political crisis often followed even small measures of relief. O’Brien is surely right to stress the way Burke’s deep religious sensibilities were outraged by the dissimulation to which Catholics were reduced—“I vow to God I would sooner bring myself to put a man to immediate death for opinions at once, than to fret him with a feverish being, tainted with the jaildistemper of a contagious servitude,” said Burke, and he consistently voted for whatever measures of Catholic relief could be got through Parliament while insisting on his own bona fides as a Protestant. O’Brien suggests, very plausibly, that the uncontrollable anger of his comments on the Penal Laws owes much to his knowledge that both his and his father’s Protestantism were less than skin deep. Not that his caution did him much good; he was constantly caricatured as a Jesuit, and the electors of Bristol turned him out in 1780.

Home rule was not among his demands. Irish autonomy would expose Catholic Ireland to greater oppression by the Ascendancy; such a policy made sense only when the civil rights of all Irishmen were secure. But by the end of his life, events had overtaken him, as events have overtaken Irish reformers since. A Tory government dedicated to repression on the mainland was not likely to listen to pleas for reform in Ireland. Burke’s friend, Lord Fitzwilliam, might have done something as viceroy—O’Brien thinks his appointment in late 1794 was Pitt’s gift to Burke for his support—but he was undermined by the Protestant “Junto,” whose power he hoped to undo, and lasted only two months in Dublin before being dismissed. His “recall set a vicious spiral in motion, which would culminate in the Great Rebellion, three years later.” Burke died in 1797 before that final disaster erupted but not before he knew that it was inevitable.

On America and India, O’Brien’s treatment is a model of deft analysis. Over India, he rebuts the familiar charge that Burke attacked Hastings only as a way of revenging himself on George III for his role in the collapse of the Fox-North coalition, and he handles very deftly Burke’s complicated views on how India might be governed without cruelty, without corrupting British politics, and without tempting George III to use the riches of the Orient to subvert (an already much subverted) Parliament. As for Burke on America, there is little for O’Brien to do but give Burke his head. This he duly does, and the result is wholly felicitous. The debates on taxation in America, and on the subsequent prosecution of the war, called out some of Burke’s most quotable—and most quoted—aphorisms. There is surely space in some public building in Washington for the eloquent reminder that “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together,” even if his constant reminder that old and comfortable habits of association were worth a bushel of asserted rights is too politically incorrect to join it.

O’Brien deftly reminds us how far Burke was from endorsing a radical understanding of the American Revolution. Not for nothing was his great speech entitled “On Conciliation with the Colonies.” Only when it was clear beyond all dispute that the Revolutionary War must result in independence was Burke ready to support independence; earlier, he had always aimed at a restoration of the former relationship. Nor had he been willing to countenance such measures as the direct representation of the American colonies in the British Parliament; Parliament was well adapted to its role in handling the affairs of Britain, but if its numbers were augmented by strangers with different concerns, it would only do that job worse while doing nothing to improve the management of American affairs. American enthusiasts for Burke had to accept that he loved their cause but loathed their rhetoric. It was just because it was not a revolution to install the “rights of man” that he could support it; it was just because the colonists were not engaged in “innovation” or wholesale social reconstruction that he could approve their cause.

This is why Burke could consistently support the American Revolution while assailing the French Revolution. Nonetheless O’Brien sticks his neck out in siding so unabashedly with Burke’s understanding of France. As he says, even today this is a topic that divides otherwise close friends. In an epilogue he prints an exchange of letters with Isaiah Berlin, which was provoked by O’Brien’s review of Berlin’s recent collection of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. Berlin had called Burke a reactionary. O’Brien hoped to persuade him that Burke was not a reactionary but a pluralist liberal, and that his detestation of the Revolution was essentially right. Berlin partly concedes the first point and resists the second. So, I hope, will the rest of O’Brien’s readers. Indeed, I hope that O’Brien himself will have second thoughts. It is possible to agree that Burke was—until knocked off balance—a pluralist liberal, and still believe that on balance the Revolution was justified and Burke on balance wrong. Many nineteenth-century writers held just that combination of views.

O’Brien is impressed by the fact that Burke was so often right about the course that the Revolution would take. When Burke wrote his Reflections, France was a constitutional monarchy, scarcely anyone had been killed—though those who had been killed were dispatched with a disgusting, gleeful brutality that might turn anyone against the killers. But Burke predicted the murder of the king and queen, civil war, economic chaos, and military rule at the end of it. All this duly happened; O’Brien is so impressed that he describes Burke as “clairvoyant.”

The view that Burke was astonishingly right about the disasters yet to come goes along with the view that causes O’Brien to side with Burke’s hostility to the entire revolutionary enterprise. For although O’Brien begins The Great Melody by rejecting the American conservatives who treat Burke as an ally in their cold war anti-communism, he ends by himself treating Burke as the first great liberal and pluralist critic of totalitarianism. One can see the temptation. In France, particularly, Marxist historians treated the French Revolution as a precursor of the Bolshevik Revolution, and therefore treated the latter as a completion of its “bourgeois” predecessor. It is hard to resist the urge to retort that the second rendition was a disaster of which the former was a pale preshadowing—and thus that Burke deserves praise as a premature anti-Stalinist.

But the temptation should be resisted. Burke foresaw neither Stalinism nor even the latest stages of the Revolution. The French revolutionaries were as backward looking as forward looking, and so was Burke. Rousseau, whom Burke particularly loathed, lamented the contrast between the classical virtues of Sparta and Rome and the skepticism and individualism of the modern world. He was neither an enthusiast for revolution in the modern sense nor for anything a modern revolution might lead to. Burke’s belief that democratic republics inevitably collapsed into factional fighting and military despotism was as old as reflection on the collapse of the Roman republic and the rise of Caesar.

Moreover, when Burke discusses the contrast between the English Revolution of 1688 and the French Revolution of 1789, he omits the comparison that must have been uppermost in his mind. After the Civil War, the English had declared a republic and murdered their king. Burke cannot have been thinking of Stalin, but he might well have been thinking of Oliver Cromwell. It turned out, as writers from Hegel onward pointed out, that the attempt to return to the classical past had some very peculiar modern results, including a spur to industrialization and the spread of modern habits of efficiency. The British friends of French liberty on the other hand, thought that the French were belatedly engaged in implementing the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and Burke thought they were heading for 1649 when the Parliament was purged and the king executed. Burke was much more nearly right than they, since the Revolution turned out to be as bloody, or bloodier, than the English Civil War. But he was not gifted with second sight.

Nor is it plausible to suggest that all of Burke’s complaints against the Revolution are those of a pluralistic liberal. The argument for government by landed aristocracy surely is not; nor is Burke on Marie Antoinette:

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 just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.

Burke in calmer moments was all in favor of social mobility, free trade, and economic progress. Here he utters his famous lament about the end of the old order—“But the age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.” Certainly, a pluralistic liberal would have much to say against the Revolution, but on this passage he might also be tempted by Tom Paine’s remark that Burke “pities the plumage and forgets the dying bird.” O’Brien complains that this “succinctly dehumanises all the victims of the Revolution, by turning them into feathers,” but this is scarcely just to Paine—who was sentenced by the revolutionary authorities to death as a traitor after he voted against the execution of the king. In fact Paine was making a point that Burke himself had made when trying to reform the finances of the British monarchy. The French people paid a lot for Marie Antoinette and her gorgeousness, and in other situations Burke would have been quick to ask whether they got their money’s worth.

The world will continue to divide between the admirers of Burke and those who side with Paine. I am puzzled that O’Brien could have sat for many years as a Labour member of the Dail and served in a Labour cabinet while thinking so ill of Paine, the first English defender of a welfare state, and a decent liberal democrat. The liberal pluralist Burke would have had Paine hanged for sedition had he had the chance, while Paine never attacked Burke with anything worse than mild sarcasm. It is hard to describe as an unequivocal liberal a man who was so willing to destroy British liberties in order to preserve them.

When Burke defended the French ancien régime, he defended a state which punished blasphemy with breaking on the wheel, and sanctioned a censorship which was certainly inefficient enough to allow the Encyclopedists and their friends to flourish, but could be savage. Hume observed in his dry way that the French absolute monarchy came complete with “inquisitors and stakes and gibbets.” Nobody supposes that O’Brien actually admires the Catholic monopoly of religious life under the ancien régime or wants to defend the judicial murder of Jean Calas. Like anyone in his right mind, O’Brien prefers the secular liberal republic both to its theocratic predecessors and its revolutionary and totalitarian competitors. The disputable point is whether—granted the violence and the chaos, but granted also the subsequent history of France—we can really wish that the Revolution had never happened. The Great Melody provides a marvelous portrait of Burke, but it is, on this issue, politically quite resistible.

This Issue

December 3, 1992