The Great Melody: a thematic biography and commented anthology of Edmund Burke.Conor Cruise O’Brien (1:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Catholic Emancipation, Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Reviews, Volume 1

Experimentation in historical writing and methodology in order to make it accessible and meaningful to a general readership is once again fashionable. The virtues of narration, imaginative reconstruction based partly on intuition, and the linking of disconnected developments over long periods of time are being tried and tested in order to create a more popular form of history. Irish historical scholarship has been unaffected by this trend. This may be due to the richness of unexplored archives, the lingering influence of traditional historians, or the high level of general interest that makes experimentation unnecessary. Whatever the reasons, careful analysis and the secure footnote reign supreme.

In The Great Melody, a ‘thematic biography’ of Edmund Burke, Dr O’Brien has imbibed the spirit of the new approaches to history. This is apparent in his argument that Burke has been systematically denigrated by Sir Lewis Namier and his disciples (‘the Namierites’), who dominated the study of eighteenth-century English politics from c.1920-70. Its excessive concern for material explanations of political conduct reduced Burke to little more than an Irish adventurer whose ideas had only a transitory impact on high politics. O’Brien finds this interpretation untenable and, having dealt the ‘Namierites’ some hefty blows, offers an alternative interpretation. Instead of being an adventurer, Burke’s career was dominated by an empathy with Catholic Ireland derived from his parents and an ‘Irish layer’ in his psyche. It was this ‘Irish layer’ which when aroused provided the central theme of his career and ‘The Great Melody’ – a passionate and consistent support for the causes of those who were the victims and opponents of arbitrary power.

O’Brien argues that Burke was often a prime mover rather than a minor actor in the events of his own time. He is therefore portrayed as the mentor rather than adviser to Rockingham and Fox. It was he who was the inspiration for the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1793 and who ensured that Maynooth was given a semi-independent form of control at its establishment in 1795. In the cases of India and America, it was once again Burke who kept principle at the top of the Whig agenda. It was he who was responsible for ensuring that they would not accept office in 1782 without an undertaking from the King that they could negotiate the independence of the American colonies; and it was he, who having been largely responsible for bringing Hastings’ misdeeds in India to the attention of the public, who was the author of the Whigs’ ill-fated India bill of 1783 – usually, and incorrectly, ascribed to Fox. However, Burke’s greatest influence was yet to come – in the concluding pages, O’Brien considers Reflections on the French Revolution and British war policy. Here he suggests that it was Burke who convinced a section of Pitt’s cabinet that it was engaged in a war of principles – a section that the pragmatic Pitt, in his preference for a negotiated settlement with the French, decided to weaken by sacking Fitzwilliam (another Burke protégé) as Irish viceroy in 1795.

The composition, content and method of the book also have elements of novelty. A substantial number of pages are devoted to long quotations from Burke’s writings, presumably to enhance the richness of the ‘melody’ that O’Brien is bringing to life. The content is certainly thematic, concentrating almost wholly on Ireland, America, India and the French Revolution, and therefore omitting any consideration of at least one other cause with which he is normally associated in English historiography – the reduction in the influence of Monarchy and the executive in the legislature. This is presumably because O’Brien feels that the essence of Burke is to be found in his chosen themes. Finally with regard to the method, much is made of the value of intuitive guesswork either to explain why Burke fell silent on a subject or to draw conclusions when the evidence is inconclusive.

I have detailed the substance of the argument and the methodology because Burke is important and O’Brien’s attack on the ‘Namierites’ is simply not based on a sufficiently rigorous examination of the species and the precise contexts in which their judgements on Burke are set. Take one example – the formation of the Whig ministry in March 1782. O’Brien claims that Ian Christie ignores the real differences between the Whigs and the King over American independence and accuses them of being motivated solely by the prospects of power. The point is made, however, by conflating the evidence from two different stages of the controversy (1780 and 1782). O’Brien takes no account of Christie’s plausible point that as a majority in the Commons had agreed by that date that some form of independence should be conceded, a struggle for power took precedence over the reasons for obtaining it in the minds of the Whigs. In fact O’Brien’s attacks on the ‘Namierites’ is at odds with his belated acknowledgement of the fairness of John Brooke’s biography of Burke in The History of Parliament which could be regarded as the last word from Namier’s immediate followers. Neither is there any reference to Frank O’Gorman’s The Rise of Party in England (1975), an established authority on the Whigs and Burke.

In the case of Burke, too many of the claims for him remain unproven or are asserted rather than argued. For example, the key-stone of the whole interpretation – that Burke’s father was a Catholic who converted to Protestantism – is highly plausible but still not proven. As for his influence on policy, the evidence for it being as substantial as O’Brien frequently claims is rarely more than partial or circumstantial. Thus there is no firm evidence for regarding Burke as the major contributor to the British Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and his role in the making of the Irish Catholic Relief Act of 1793 is unduly inflated by failing to take into account the full range of discussions in Dublin and London that led to it. On the other hand, Burke’s correspondence does suggest a role in the detail of the Irish Act on the same subject of 1778. Furthermore, although we are told that the India Bill of 1783 was entirely Burke’s ‘both in concept and execution’, no consideration is given to the evidence which suggests a more modest role. This suggests that a certain amount of caution about Burke’s role would be appropriate.

In other cases, where virtually no evidence is available, O’Brien’s intuition is certainly ingenious and thought-provoking. His suggestions that Burke’s general silence on the Volunteers was due to his hostility to a strengthened and more independent Protestant ascendancy and that his attack on Dr. Price in the Reflections may have been inspired by his linking of the latter’s brand of radicalism with anti-Catholicism fall into that category. On the other hand, some suggestions strain credulity. In this category, I would place O’Brien’s argument that Pitt’s ulterior motive for recalling Fitzwilliam to England was to preclude the Portland Whigs from frustrating his hopes of a peace. As far as I know, there is not a shred of evidence to support such a claim.

And yet for all the flaws in method, O’Brien’s thesis leaves a powerful impression: it does provide a central purpose to a career which otherwise appears to be driven by events. But perhaps that is where the danger lies. After all, linear biography smacks of Whig history. Burke, I am sure, would have approved.

Peter Jupp


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