He had the style of his subjects; the amplitude, the weightiness, the laboriousness, the sense, the high flight, the grandeur, proper to a man dealing with imperial themes, with the fortunes of great societies, with the sacredness of law, the freedom of nations, the justice of rulers. Burke will always be read with delight and edification, because in the midst of discussions on the local and the accidental, he scatters apophthegms that take us into the regions of lasting wisdom. In the midst of the torrent of his most strenuous and passionate deliverances, he suddenly rises aloof from his immediate subject, and in all tranquillity reminds us of some permanent relation of things, some enduring truth of human life or human society. We do not hear the organ tones of Milton, for faith and freedom had other notes in the 18th century. There is none of the complacent and wise-browed sagacity of Bacon, for Burke's were days of personal strife and fire and civil division. We are not exhilarated by the cheerfulness, the polish, the fine manners of Bolingbroke, for Burke had an anxious conscience, and was earnest and intent that the good should triumph.
And yet Burke is among the greatest of those who have wrought marvels in the prose of our English tongue.
Not all the transactions in which Burke was a combatant could furnish an imperial theme. We need not tell over again the story of Wilkes and the Middlesex election. The Rockingham ministry had been succeeded by a composite government, of which it was intended that Pitt, now made Lord Chatham and privy seal, should be the real chief. Chatham's health and mind fell into disorder almost immediately after the ministry had been formed. The duke of Grafton was its nominal head, but party ties had been broken, the political connexions of the ministers were dissolved, and, in truth, the king was now at last a king indeed, who not only reigned but governed. The revival of high doctrines of prerogative in the crown was accompanied by a revival of high doctrines of privilege in the House of Commons, and the ministry was so smitten with weakness and confusion as to be unable to resist the current of arbitrary policy, and not many of them were even willing to resist it. The unconstitutional prosecution of Wilkes was followed by the fatal recourse to new plans for raising taxes in the American colonies. These two points made the rallying ground of the new Whig opposition.
Burke helped to smooth matters for a practical union between the Rockingham party and the powerful triumvirate, composed of Chatham, whose understanding had recovered from its late disorder, and of his brothers-in-law, Lord Temple and George Grenville. He was active in urging petitions from the freeholders of the counties, protesting against the unconstitutional invasion of the right of election. And he added a durable masterpiece to political literature in a pamphlet which he called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770). The immediate object of this excellent piece was to hold up the court scheme of weak, divided and dependent administrations in the light of its real purpose and design; to describe the distempers which had been engendered in parliament by the growth of royal influence and the faction of the king's friends; to show that the newly formed Whig party had combined for truly public ends, and was no mere family knot like the Grenvilles and the Bedfords; and, finally, to press for the hearty concurrence both of public men and of the nation at large in combining against "a faction ruling by the private instructions of a court against the general sense of the people." The pamphlet was disliked by Chatham on the one hand, on no reasonable grounds that we can discover; it was denounced by the extreme popular party of the Bill of Rights, on the other hand, for its moderation and conservatism.
In truth, there is as strong a vein of conservative feeling in the pamphlet of 1770 as in the more resplendent pamphlet of 1790. "Our constitution," he said, "stands on a nice equipoise, with steep precipices and deep waters upon all sides of it. In removing it from a dangerous leaning towards one side, there may be a risk of oversetting it on the other. Every project of a material change in a government so complicated as ours is a matter full of difficulties; in which a considerate man will not be too ready to decide, a prudent man too ready to undertake, or an honest man too ready to promise." Neither now nor ever had Burke any other real conception of a polity for England than government by the territorial aristocracy in the interests of the nation at large, and especially in the interests of commerce, to the vital importance of which in our economy he was always keenly and wisely alive. The policy of George III., and the support which it found among men who were weary of Whig factions, disturbed this scheme, and therefore Burke denounced both the court policy and the court party with all his heart and all his strength.
Eloquence and good sense, however, were impotent in the face of such forces as were at this time arrayed against a government at once strong and liberal. The court was confident that a union between Chatham and the Rockinghams was impossible. The union was in fact hindered by the waywardness and the absurd pretences of Chatham, and the want of force in Lord Rockingham. In the nation at large, the late violent ferment had been followed by as remarkable a deadness and vapidity, and Burke himself had to admit a year or two later that any remarkable robbery at Hounslow Heath would make more conversation than all the disturbances of America. The duke of Grafton went out, and Lord North became the head of a government, which lasted twelve years (1770-1782), and brought about more than all the disasters that Burke had foretold as the inevitable issue of the royal policy. For the first six years of this lamentable period Burke was actively employed in stimulating, informing and guiding the patrician chiefs of his party. "Indeed, Burke," said the duke of Richmond, "you have more merit than any man in keeping us together." They were well-meaning and patriotic men, but it was not always easy to get them to prefer politics to fox-hunting. When he reached his lodgings at night after a day in the city or a skirmish in the House of Commons, Burke used to find a note from the duke of Richmond or the marquess of Rockingham, praying him to draw a protest to be entered on the Journals of the Lords, and in fact he drew all the principal protests of his party between 1767 and 1782. The accession of Charles James Fox to the Whig party, which took place at this time, and was so important an event in its history, was mainly due to the teaching and influence of Burke. In the House of Commons his industry was almost excessive.