In Morley’s biography of Burke, there is a nicely painted scene depicting Burke at the height of his power and madness. It was shortly after the execution of Louis XVI. Morley, we think wrongly, claims that Pitt was wrongfooted by the execution, since the public mood turned belligerant in France. This is part of the larger version, in which Burke had finally succeeded in stirring up reaction in England to the point of violence. This is Morley’s account:
“It would be a great mistake to say that Pitt ever lost his head, but he lost his feet. The momentary passion of the nation forced him outof the pacific path in which he would have chosen to stay. Burkehad become the greatest power in the country, and was in closercommunication with the ministers than any one out of office. He wentonce about this time with Windham and Elliot to inform Pitt as to theuneasiness of the public about the slackness of our naval and militarypreparation. "Burke," says one of the party, "gave Pitt a littlepolitical instruction in a very respectful and cordial way, but withthe authority of an old and most informed statesman; and although nobody ever takes the whole of Burke's advice, yet he often, or always rather, furnishes very important and useful matter, some part of which sticks and does good. Pitt took it all very patiently and cordially."
It was in the December of 1792 that Burke had enacted that famous bitof melodrama out of place known as the Dagger Scene. The Governmenthad brought in an Alien Bill, imposing certain pains and restrictionson foreigners coming to this country. Fox denounced it as a concessionto foolish alarms, and was followed by Burke, who began to storm asusual against murderous atheists. Then without due preparation hebegan to fumble in his bosom, suddenly drew out a dagger, and with anextravagant gesture threw it on the floor of the House, crying thatthis was what they had to expect from their alliance with France. Thestroke missed its mark, and there was a general inclination to titter,until Burke, collecting himself for an effort, called upon them with avehemence to which his listeners could not choose but respond, to keepFrench principles from their heads, and French daggers from their hearts; to preserve all their blandishments in life, and all their consolations in death; all the blessings of time, and all the hopes ofeternity. All this was not prepared long beforehand, for it seems thatthe dagger had only been shown to Burke on his way to the House as onethat had been sent to Birmingham to be a pattern for a large order.Whether prepared or unprepared, the scene was one from which we gladlyavert our eyes.”
In LI’s opinion, the wars against France were the first modern wars. And as such, Burke forged the ideology of reaction that links external war indissolubly with the domestic politics of class warfare. But of course this is merely one strand in the nexus, since warfare, so linked, can also change the social order in favor of that same spirit of equality Burke saw as the devil’s hand in the world. Burke, in his last years, is like the character in the Pushkin story, The Queen of Hearts, who stakes everything on gaining a magic knowledge of cards and succeeds up the point that the queen of hearts starts winking at him – another man driven mad by a queen.
Since the war in Iraq is of the type of these ideological wars, and since the cruel spirit of it has turned on all parties to the war, I think Burke’s warmongering is of more than historical interest. Although the collected intellects of all the D.C. eggheads and their hack journalist tools does not equal one Burke, still, his legacy lives in their hubris. The dagger trick (from which Morley reels, reminding us that he was Gladstone’s friend andthe man who hammered out the liberal policy on Ireland. Morley obviously thinks the cheap theatrics, here, are evidences of the spot of Irishness Burke could never rid himself of) is both miserable and potent. Its metamorphoses down the ages have brought us Joseph McCarthy’s list of 51 communists in the state department and Cheney’s image of a nuclear weaponed Saddam. The revolution has its dancing around the pole of liberty, the reaction has its dagger. To each its own drama.
In the letters on the regicide peace – what a title – Burke invents the rhetoric of the Cold War and the new World War IV war on whatever long before it was wheeled into place by anti-communist liberals and former America Firsters. This passage, dumbed down, could be tomorrows Washington Post editorial about continuing the Middle Eastern crusade:
“I am sure you cannot forget with how much uneasiness we heard in conversation the language of more than one gentleman at the opening of this contest, “that he was willing to try the war for a year or two, and if it did not succeed, then to vote for peace.” As if war was a matter of experiment! As if you could take it up or lay it down as an idle frolick! As if the dire goddess that presides over it, with her murderous spear in her hand, and her gorgon at her breast, was a coquette to be flirted with! We ought with reverence to approach that tremendous divinity, that loves courage, but commands counsel. War never leaves, where it found a nation. It is never to be entered into without a mature deliberation; not a deliberation lengthened out into a perplexing indecision, but a deliberation leading to a sure and fixed judgment. When so taken up, it is not to be abandoned without reason as valid, as fully and as extensively considered. Peace may be made as unadvisedly as war. Nothing is so rash as fear; and the counsels of pusillanimity very rarely put off, whilst they are always sure to aggravate, the evils from which they would fly.”
The last sentence is pure cornpone Churchillianism, much in favor on the right. And then there is Burke’s notion of perpetual war on the evil of atheistic, communistic governments. He compares the war on Revolutionary France, in which England was the obvious aggressor, to the minuet wars conducted against Louis XIV:
“If a war to prevent Louis the Fourteenth from imposing his religion was just, a war to prevent the murderers of Louis the Sixteenth from imposing their irreligion upon us is just; a war to prevent the operation of a system, which makes life without dignity, and death without hope, is a just war.
If to preserve political independence and civil freedom to nations, was a just ground of war; a war to preserve national independence, property, liberty, life, and honour, from certain universal havock, is a war just, necessary, manly, pious; and we are bound to persevere in it by every principle, divine and human, as long as the system which menaces them all, and all equally, has an existence in the world.
You, who have looked at this matter with as fair and impartial an eye as can be united with a feeling heart, you will not think it an hardy assertion, when I affirm, that it were far better to be conquered by any other nation, than to have this faction for a neighbour. Before I felt myself authorised to say this, I considered the state of all the countries in Europe for these last three hundred years, which have been obliged to submit to a foreign law. In most of those I found the condition of the annexed countries even better, certainly not worse, than the lot of those which were the patrimony of the conquerour. They wanted some blessings; but they were free from many very great evils. They were rich and tranquil. Such was Artois, Flanders, Lorrain, Alsatia, under the old Government of France. Such was Silesia under the King of Prussia. They who are to live in the vicinity of this new fabrick, are to prepare to live in perpetual conspiracies and seditions; and to end at last in being conquered, if not to her dominion, to her resemblance. But when we talk of conquest by other nations, it is only to put a case. This is the only power in Europe by which it is possible we should be conquered. To live under the continual dread of such immeasurable evils is itself a grievous calamity. To live without the dread of them is to turn the danger into the disaster. The influence of such a France is equal to a war; it’s example, more wasting than an hostile irruption. The hostility with any other power is separable and accidental; this power, by the very condition of it’s existence, by it’s very essential constitution, is in a state of hostility with us, and with all civilized people.”
This is madness. Yeats loved that about Burke, and it does move our admiration too. On the other hand, the legacy of this rhetoric is a terrible one. Burke’s apocalyptic strain has never been quite at home in Britain, but it found a home in the New World.
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