He was taxed with speaking too often, and with being too forward. And he was mortified by a more serious charge than murmurs about superfluity of zeal. Men said and said again that he was Junius. His very proper unwillingness to stoop to deny an accusation, that would have been so disgraceful if it had been true, made ill-natured and silly people the more convinced that it was not wholly false. But whatever the London world may have thought of him, Burke's energy and devotion of character impressed the better minds in the country. In 1774 he received the great distinction of being chosen as one of its representatives by Bristol, then the second town in the kingdom.
In the events which ended in the emancipation of the American colonies from the monarchy, Burke's political genius shone with an effulgence that was worthy of the great affairs over which it shed so magnificent an illumination. His speeches are almost the one monument of the struggle on which a lover of English greatness can look back with pride and a sense of worthiness, such as a churchman feels when he reads Bossuet, or an Anglican when he turns over the pages of Taylor or of Hooker. Burke's attitude in these high transactions is really more impressive than Chatham's, because he was far less theatrical than Chatham; and while he was no less nobly passionate for freedom and justice, in his passion was fused the most strenuous political argumentation and sterling reason of state. On the other hand he was wholly free from that quality which he ascribed to Lord George Sackville, a man "apt to take a sort of undecided, equivocal, narrow ground, that evades the substantial merits of the question, and puts the whole upon some temporary, local, accidental or personal consideration." He rose to the full height of that great argument. Burke here and everywhere else displayed the rare art of filling his subject with generalities, and yet never intruding commonplaces.
No publicist who deals as largely in general propositions has ever been as free from truisms; no one has ever treated great themes with so much elevation, and yet been so wholly secured against the pitfalls of emptiness and the vague. And it is instructive to compare the foundation of all his pleas for the colonists with that on which they erected their own theoretic declaration of independence. The American leaders were impregnated with the metaphysical ideas of rights which had come to them from the rising revolutionary school in France. Burke no more adopted the doctrines of Jefferson in 1776 than he adopted the doctrines of Robespierre in 1793. He says nothing about men being born free and equal, and on the other hand he never denies the position of the court and the country at large, that the home legislature, being sovereign, had the right to tax the colonies. What he does say is that the exercise of such a right was not practicable; that if it were practicable, it was inexpedient; and that, even if this had not been inexpedient, yet, after the colonies had taken to arms, to crush their resistance by military force would not be more disastrous to them than it would be unfortunate for the ancient liberties of Great Britain. Into abstract discussion he would not enter. "Show the thing you contend for to be reason; show it to be common sense; show it to be the means of attaining some useful end." "The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy." There is no difference in social spirit and doctrine between his protests against the maxims of the English common people as to the colonists, and his protests against the maxims of the French common people as to the court and the nobles; and it is impossible to find a single principle either asserted or implied in the speeches on the American revolution which was afterwards repudiated in the writings on the revolution in France.
It is one of the signs of Burke's singular and varied eminence that hardly any two people agree precisely which of his works to mark as the masterpiece. Every speech or tract that he composed on a great subject becomes, as we read it, the rival of every other. But the Speech on Conciliation (1775) has, perhaps, been more universally admired than any of his other productions, partly because its maxims are of a simpler and less disputable kind than those which adorn the pieces on France, and partly because it is most strongly characterized by that deep ethical quality which is the prime secret of Burke's great style and literary mastery. In this speech, moreover, and in the only less powerful one of the preceding year upon American taxation, as well as in the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol in 1777, we see the all-important truth conspicuously illustrated that half of his eloquence always comes of the thoroughness with which he gets up his case. No eminent man has ever done more than Burke to justify the definition of genius as the consummation of the faculty of taking pains. Labour incessant and intense, if it was not the source, was at least an inseparable condition of his power.
And magnificent rhetorician though he was, his labour was given less to his diction than to the facts; his heart was less in the form than the matter. It is true that his manuscripts were blotted and smeared, and that he made so many alterations in the proofs that the printer found it worth while to have the whole set up in type afresh. But there is no polish in his style, as in that of Junius for example, though there is something a thousand times better than polish. "Why will you not allow yourself to be persuaded," said Francis after reading the Reflections, "that polish is material to preservation?" Burke always accepted the rebuke, and flung himself into vindication of the sense, substance and veracity of what he had written. His writing is magnificent, because he knew so much, thought so comprehensively, and felt so strongly.