On This Day -12.1.1729  Birth of Edmund Burke

 

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He may, or indeed he may not, have uttered the immortal phrase ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. He was a supporter of the American Revolution, and a horrified observer and opponent of the subsequent and extraordinarily bloody, French equivalent. He, and his father, were Anglican, although his mother and sister were Roman Catholic. In addition to which he was one of the greatest English statesmen of the eighteenth century. Except, as in many other instances, Edmund Burke was not English, but Irish.

He was born in Dublin in 1729, was educated at a Quaker school, and at Trinity College. In 1765 he was elected to the House of Commons for the constituency of Wendover, an infamous ‘pocket borough’ of barely one hundred voters, so-called because its representation—and it returned two MPs, not one—was in the pocket of Lord Fermanagh. By 1774, however, he had transferred to the constituency of Bristol where he actually had to fight genuine elections. But his advocacy of free trade with Ireland, and Catholic Emancipation, was not to the liking of the voters in the city at the centre of the British slave trade, and from 1780 onwards he was back in a pocket again, in the borough of Malton.

Burke quickly identified himself with the struggle of the American colonists, and the curtailment of the powers of the King at home. He also became part of a social circle that included the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the impecunious Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith, the actor-manager David Garrick, and the artist Joshua Reynolds.

Initially he kept his powder dry when it came to the French Revolution, but as the rule of the guillotine took hold he wrote of revolutionary France that ‘the elements which compose human society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of monsters [is] produced in the place of it’. In his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, Burke had a go, not only at the event itself but at its radical British supporters. He also made a few pounds in the process, as the pamphlet went on sale for five shillings, and sold almost twenty thousand copies.

Many have said that Burke’s finest hour was his very personal campaign to impeach the chief factotum of the infamous East India Company, Warren Hastings. Except that it was a bit more than an hour. Burke’s opening speech in the trial of Hastings took four days. His response to the defence case took a further nine days.  Hastings was accused of corruption as Governor General of India, and of having enriched himself during his tenure there. One previous high profile impeachment had been that of the great servant of King Charles 1 in Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford. Despite the fact that it failed to impeach, Parliament found a way to execute Stafford anyway. Not that anyone was suggesting that Hastings should face the chop.

The entire procedure, which was in part a political trial designed by the Whigs to embarrass the ruling Tories, began in 1788 and didn’t end until 1795. The whole thing cost Hastings £70,000—which, according to a Bank of England inflation calculator, would be worth £8.5 million today. It all sounds very Tribunal-ish, doesn’t it.

Burke is seen by many historians as the father of English conservatism, but his opposition to British imperialism in Ireland, and India, often meant that he fell foul of the leading Tories of his day. He had lots of enemies, many of whom exploited his Irishness, and the suspicion that he was really a Roman Catholic all along, against him. One contemporary cartoon has Burke peeling a potato while sitting beside a chamber-pot claimed to be a true relic of St. Peter.

Burke, by the way, is also credited with being the first to observe that ‘those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.’ And, indeed, a lot of people have done both, ignored history and repeated Burke’s famous axiom.

Edmund Burke, statesman, writer, orator and philosopher was born two hundred and eighty-nine years ago, on this day

 

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On This Day – 29 September 1732 The birth of Sir Henry Cavendish – the one man Hansard.

 

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Charles James Fox

 

Given the fact that today’s politicians complain bitterly that there is very little reporting of parliamentary proceedings, and that, if people choose to do so, they can catch elements of pretty much any parliamentary debate on radio, TV or the web, it is difficult to get one’s head around the fact that it is only relatively recently that it has been even legal to report the proceedings of the British House of Commons in newspapers.

Journalists who attempted to report on the deliberations of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ in the early 18th century, qualified as ‘strangers’, and could be removed from the House at the instigation of a member. This procedure, which still exists in modified form, was used in 1875 by the Irish MP Joseph Biggar, to have no less a personage than the Prince of Wales himself thrown out of the House. Biggar simply invoked the cry of ‘I spy strangers’ and everything came grinding to a halt until his future majesty was ejected.

In the eighteenth century, while it was actually legal to report the outcome of parliamentary deliberations, newspapers were not permitted to report the content of the debates themselves. Some editors and reporters were jailed for violating this parliamentary privilege. Newspapermen, in order to circumvent this passion for secrecy on the part of their betters, would record debates anyway, and then present them as thinly disguised fictional exchanges.

 

The same was true for the Irish Houses of Parliament, for much of their existence, prior to their disappearance in 1800. If you had the temerity to report on the musings of our elected representatives, you could be thrown in jail for contempt. Perhaps, if our great leaders of today were to threaten similar sanctions, they would find newspapers tripping over themselves to cover their compelling debates.

Which makes the achievement of Henry Cavendish of Lismore, Co. Waterford, all the more startling. He was a member of the aristocratic Irish family from which the Dukes of Devonshire are drawn. So he wasn’t in it for the money, because he didn’t lack for an estate or two.

Cavendish personally recorded 3,000,000 words of debate in the House of Commons in London from 1768-74. Without his furious note-taking the contributions to that parliament of the likes of Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox might have gone largely unrecorded.

However, Cavendish was not some freelance scribe chancing his arm, he was himself a member of parliament. The journal he kept was for private consumption only. However, had he not filled fifty notebooks, the record of that particular period, including important debates on North America, would have been rather more sketchy. Cavendish had done the same thing when he was an MP in the Irish House of Commons between 1776 and 1789. Using a shorthand system, developed by Thomas Gurney, Cavendish filled more than 15,000 pages in noting down the speeches of the House of Commons in London.

Cavendish served as a member of the Irish parliament for Lismore for three terms prior to the Act of Union. He also, somewhat bizarrely, was the member for the far distant Killybegs in Co. Donegal, for six years between 1791-97. His period as an English MP was spent as representative for one of the most notorious rotten boroughs in the British Commons, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. By the time of its abolition in the great reform act of 1832, it could only muster 24 electors, and had long been in the pocket of the Earls of Mount Edgecombe who could allocate the seat to whomever they wished.

While Cavendish didn’t exactly invent shorthand (though he is credited by some with the achievement) he made valuable use of the technique in an astonishing display of energy. The fact that he wasn’t expected to do much for his constituents, numbering in the dozens, gave him considerable freedom to indulge his hobby.

Sir Henry Cavendish, the one man Irish Hansard, was born one hundred and eighty-five years ago on this day.