The six years that followed the great rout of the orthodox Whigs were years of repose for the country, but it was now that Burke engaged in the most laborious and formidable enterprise of his life, the impeachment of Warren Hastings for high crimes and misdemeanours in his government of India. His interest in that country was of old date. It arose partly from the fact of William Burke's residence there, partly from his friendship with Philip Francis, but most of all, we suspect, from the effect which he observed Indian influence to have in demoralizing the House of Commons. "Take my advice for once in your life," Francis wrote to Shee; "lay aside 40,000 rupees for a seat in parliament: in this country that alone makes all the difference between somebody and nobody." The relations, moreover, between the East India Company and the government were of the most important kind, and occupied Burke's closest attention from the beginning of the American war down to his own India Bill and that of Pitt and Dundas. In February 1785 he delivered one of the most famous of all his speeches, that on the nabob of Arcot's debts.
The real point of this superb declamation was Burke's conviction that ministers supported the claims of the fraudulent creditors in order to secure the corrupt advantages of a sinister parliamentary interest. His proceedings against Hastings had a deeper spring. The story of Hastings's crimes, as Macaulay says, made the blood of Burke boil in his veins. He had a native abhorrence of cruelty, of injustice, of disorder, of oppression, of tyranny, and all these things in all their degrees marked Hastings's course in India. They were, moreover, concentrated in individual cases, which exercised Burke's passionate imagination to its profoundest depths, and raised it to such a glow of fiery intensity as has never been rivalled in our history. For it endured for fourteen years, and was just as burning and as terrible when Hastings was acquitted in 1795, as in the select committee of 1781 when Hastings's enormities were first revealed. "If I were to call for a reward," wrote Burke, "it would be for the services in which for fourteen years, without intermission, I showed the most industry and had the least success, I mean in the affairs of India; they are those on which I value myself the most; most for the importance; most for the labour; most for the judgment; most for constancy and perseverance in the pursuit." Sheridan's speech in the House of Commons upon the charge relative to the begums of Oude probably excelled anything that Burke achieved, as a dazzling performance abounding in the most surprising literary and rhetorical effects.
But neither Sheridan nor Fox was capable of that sustained and overflowing indignation at outraged justice and oppressed humanity, that consuming moral fire, which burst forth again and again from the chief manager of the impeachment, with such scorching might as drove even the cool and intrepid Hastings beyond all self-control, and made him cry out with protests and exclamations like a criminal writhing under the scourge. Burke, no doubt, in the course of that unparalleled trial showed some prejudice; made some minor overstatements of his case; used many intemperances; and suffered himself to be provoked into expressions of heat and impatience by the cabals of the defendant and his party, and the intolerable incompetence of the tribunal. It is one of the inscrutable perplexities of human affairs, that in the logic of practical life, in order to reach conclusions that cover enough for truth, we are constantly driven to premises that cover too much, and that in order to secure their right weight to justice and reason good men are forced to fling the two-edged sword of passion into the same scale.
But these excuses were mere trifles, and well deserve to be forgiven, when we think that though the offender was in form acquitted, yet Burke succeeded in these fourteen years of laborious effort in laying the foundations once for all of a moral, just, philanthropic and responsible public opinion in England with reference to India, and in doing so performed perhaps the most magnificent service that any statesman has ever had it in his power to render to humanity.
Burke's first decisive step against Hastings was a motion for papers in the spring of 1786; the thanks of the House of Commons to the managers of the impeachment were voted in the summer of 1794. But in those eight years some of the most astonishing events in history had changed the political face of Europe. Burke was more than sixty years old when the states-general met at Versailles in the spring of 1789. He had taken a prominent part on the side of freedom in the revolution which stripped England of her empire in the West. He had taken a prominent part on the side of justice, humanity and order in dealing with the revolution which had brought to England new empire in the East. The same vehement passion for freedom, justice, humanity and order was roused in him at a very early stage of the third great revolution in his history - the revolution which overthrew the old monarchy in France. From the first Burke looked on the events of 1789 with doubt and misgiving. He had been in France in 1773, where he had not only the famous vision of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, "glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour and joy," but had also supped and discussed with some of the destroyers, the encyclopaedists, "the sophisters, economists and calculators." His first speech on his return to England was a warning (March 17, 1773) that the props of good government were beginning to fail under the systematic attacks of unbelievers, and that principles were being propagated that would not leave to civil society any stability.
The apprehension never died out in his mind; and when he knew that the principles and abstractions, the un-English dialect and destructive dialectic, of his former acquaintances were predominant in the National Assembly, his suspicion that the movement would end in disastrous miscarriage waxed into certainty.