The old duke of Newcastle, probably desiring a post for some nominee of his own, conveyed to the ear of the new minister various absurd rumours prejudicial to Burke, - that he was an Irish papist, that his real name was O'Bourke, that he had been a Jesuit, that he was an emissary from St Omer's. Lord Rockingham repeated these tales to Burke, who of course denied them with indignation. His chief declared himself satisfied, but Burke, from a feeling that the indispensable confidence between them was impaired, at once expressed a strong desire to resign his post. Lord Rockingham prevailed upon him to reconsider his resolve, and from that day until Lord Rockingham's death in 1782, their relations were those of the closest friendship and confidence.
The first Rockingham administration only lasted a year and a few days, ending in July 1766. The uprightness and good sense of its leaders did not compensate for the weakness of their political connexions. They were unable to stand against the coldness of the king, against the hostility of the powerful and selfish faction of Bedford Whigs, and, above all, against the towering predominance of William Pitt. That Pitt did not join them is one of the many fatal miscarriages of history, as it is one of the many serious reproaches to be made against that extraordinary man's chequered and uneven course. An alliance between Pitt and the Rockingham party was the surest guarantee of a wise and liberal policy towards the colonies. He went further than they did, in holding, like Lord Camden, the doctrine that taxation went with representation, and that therefore parliament had no right to tax the unrepresented colonists. The ministry asserted, what no competent jurist would now think of denying, that parliament is sovereign; but they went heartily with Pitt in pronouncing the exercise of the right of taxation in the case of the American colonists to be thoroughly impolitic and inexpedient. No practical difference, therefore, existed upon the important question of the hour.
But Pitt's prodigious egoism, stimulated by the mischievous counsels of men of the stamp of Lord Shelburne, prevented the fusion of the only two sections of the Whig party that were at once able, enlightened and disinterested enough to carry on the government efficiently, to check the arbitrary temper of the king, and to command the confidence of the nation. Such an opportunity did not return.
The ministerial policy towards the colonies was defended by Burke with splendid and unanswerable eloquence. He had been returned to the House of Commons for the pocket borough of Wendover, and his first speech (January 27, 1766) was felt to be the rising of a new light. For the space of a quarter of a century, from this time down to 1790, Burke was one of the chief guides and inspirers of a revived Whig party. The "age of small factions" was now succeeded by an age of great principles, and selfish ties of mere families and persons were transformed into a union resting on common conviction and patriotic aims. It was Burke who did more than any one else to give to the Opposition, under the first half of the reign of George III., this stamp of elevation and grandeur. Before leaving office the Rockingham government repealed the Stamp Act; confirmed the personal liberty of the subject by forcing on the House of Commons one resolution against general warrants, and another against the seizure of papers; and relieved private houses from the intrusion of officers of excise, by repealing the cider tax. Nothing so good was done in an English parliament for nearly twenty years to come.
George Grenville, whom the Rockinghams had displaced, and who was bitterly incensed at their formal reversal of his policy, printed a pamphlet to demonstrate his own wisdom and statesmanship. Burke replied in his Observations on a late Publication on the Present State of the Nation (1769), in which he showed for the first time that he had not only as much knowledge of commerce and finance, and as firm a hand, in dealing with figures as Grenville himself, but also a broad, general and luminous way of conceiving and treating politics, in which neither then nor since has he had any rival among English publicists.
It is one of the perplexing points in Burke's private history to know how he lived during these long years of parliamentary opposition. It is certainly not altogether mere impertinence to ask of a public man how he gets what he lives upon, for independence of spirit, which is so hard to the man who lays his head on the debtor's pillow, is the prime virtue in such men. Probity in money is assuredly one of the keys to character, though we must be very careful in ascertaining and proportioning all the circumstances. Now, in 1769, Burke bought an estate at Beaconsfield, in the county of Buckingham. It was about 600 acres in extent, was worth some £500 a year, and cost £22,000. People have been asking ever since how the penniless man of letters was able to raise so large a sum in the first instance, and how he was able to keep up a respectable establishment afterwards. The suspicions of those who are never sorry to disparage the great have been of various kinds. Burke was a gambler, they hint, in Indian stock, like his kinsmen Richard and William, and like Lord Verney, his political patron at Wendover. Perhaps again, his activity on behalf of Indian princes, like the raja of Tanjore, was not disinterested and did not go unrewarded.
The answer to all these calumnious innuendoes is to be found in documents and title-deeds of decisive authority, and is simple enough. It is, in short, this. Burke inherited a small property from his elder brother, which he realized. Lord Rockingham advanced him a certain sum (£6000). The remainder, amounting to no less than two-thirds of the purchase-money, was raised on mortgage, and was never paid off during Burke's life. The rest of the story is equally simple, but more painful. Burke made some sort of income out of his 600 acres; he was for a short time agent for New York, with a salary of £700; he continued to work at the Annual Register down to 1788. But, when all is told, he never made as much as he spent; and in spite of considerable assistance from Lord Rockingham, amounting it is sometimes said to as much as £30,000, Burke, like the younger Pitt, got every year deeper into debt. Pitt's debts were the result of a wasteful indifference to his private affairs. Burke, on the contrary, was assiduous and orderly, and had none of the vices of profusion. But he had that quality which Aristotle places high among the virtues - the noble mean of Magnificence, standing midway between the two extremes of vulgar ostentation and narrow pettiness.