Dodsley gave him £100 for each annual volume, and the sum was welcome enough, for towards the end of 1756 Burke had married. His wife was the daughter of a Dr Nugent, a physician at Bath. She is always spoken of by his friends as a mild, reasonable and obliging person, whose amiability and gentle sense did much to soothe the too nervous and excitable temperament of her husband. She had been brought up, there is good reason to believe, as a Catholic, and she was probably a member of that communion at the time of her marriage. Dr Nugent eventually took up his residence with his son-in-law in London, and became a popular member of that famous group of men of letters and artists whom Boswell has made so familiar and so dear to all later generations. Burke, however, had no intention of being dependent. His consciousness of his own powers animated him with a most justifiable ambition, if ever there was one, to play a part in the conduct of national affairs. Friends shared this ambition on his behalf; one of these was Lord Charlemont. He introduced Burke to William Gerard Hamilton (1759), now only remembered by the nickname "single-speech," derived from the circumstance of his having made a single brilliant speech in the House of Commons, which was followed by years of almost unbroken silence.
Hamilton was by no means devoid of sense and acuteness, but in character he was one of the most despicable men then alive. There is not a word too many nor too strong in the description of him by one of Burke's friends, as "a sullen, vain, proud, selfish, cankered-hearted, envious reptile." The reptile's connexion, however, was for a time of considerable use to Burke. When he was made Irish secretary, Burke accompanied him to Dublin, and there learnt Oxenstiern's eternal lesson, that awaits all who penetrate behind the scenes of government, quam parva sapientia mundus regitur.
The penal laws against the Catholics, the iniquitous restrictions on Irish trade and industry, the selfish factiousness of the parliament, the jobbery and corruption of administration, the absenteeism of the landlords, and all the other too familiar elements of that mischievous and fatal system, were then in full force. As was shown afterwards, they made an impression upon Burke that was never effaced. So much iniquity and so much disorder may well have struck deep on one whose two chief political sentiments were a passion for order and a passion for justice. He may have anticipated with something of remorse the reflection of a modern historian, that the absenteeism of her landlords has been less of a curse to Ireland than the absenteeism of her men of genius. At least he was never an absentee in heart. He always took the interest of an ardent patriot in his unfortunate country; and, as we shall see, made more than one weighty sacrifice on behalf of the principles which he deemed to be bound up with her welfare.
When Hamilton retired from his post, Burke accompanied him back to London, with a pension of £300 a year on the Irish Establishment. This modest allowance he hardly enjoyed for more than a single year. His patron having discovered the value of so laborious and powerful a subaltern, wished to bind Burke permanently to his service. Burke declined to sell himself into final bondage of this kind. When Hamilton continued to press his odious pretensions they quarrelled (1765), and Burke threw up his pension. He soon received a more important piece of preferment than any which he could ever have procured through Hamilton.
The accession of George III. to the throne in 1760 had been followed by the disgrace of Pitt, the dismissal of Newcastle, and the rise of Bute. These events marked the resolution of the court to change the political system which had been created by the Revolution of 1688. That system placed the government of the country in the hands of a territorial oligarchy, composed of a few families of large possessions, fairly enlightened principles, and shrewd political sense. It had been preserved by the existence of a Pretender. The two first kings of the house of Hanover could only keep the crown on their own heads by conciliating the Revolution families and accepting Revolution principles. By 1760 all peril to the dynasty was at an end. George III., or those about him, insisted on substituting for the aristocratic division of political power a substantial concentration of it in the hands of the sovereign. The ministers were no longer to be the members of a great party, acting together in pursuance of a common policy accepted by them all as a united body; they were to become nominees of the court, each holding himself answerable not to his colleagues but to the king, separately, individually and by department.
George III. had before his eyes the government of his cousin the great Frederick; but not every one can bend the bow of Ulysses, and, apart from difference of personal capacity and historic tradition, he forgot that a territorial and commercial aristocracy cannot be dealt with in the spirit of the barrack and the drill-ground. But he made the attempt, and resistance to that attempt supplies the keynote to the first twenty-five years of Burke's political life.
Along with the change in system went high-handed and absolutist tendencies in policy. The first stage of the new experiment was very short. Bute, in a panic at the storm of unpopularity that menaced him, resigned in 1763. George Grenville and the less enlightened section of the Whigs took his place. They proceeded to tax the American colonists, to interpose vexatiously against their trade, to threaten the liberty of the subject at home by general warrants, and to stifle the liberty of public discussion by prosecutions of the press. Their arbitrary methods disgusted the nation, and the personal arrogance of the ministers at last disgusted the king. The system received a temporary check. Grenville fell, and the king was forced to deliver himself into the hands of the orthodox section of the Whigs. The marquess of Rockingham (July 10, 1765) became prime minister, and he was induced to make Burke his private secretary. Before Burke had begun his duties, an incident occurred which illustrates the character of the two men.