POLITICS IN THE AGE OF REVOLUTION, 1715-1848
Part 1: The Papers of Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, from Sheffield Archives and Northamptonshire Record Office
Conor Cruise O'Brien
Author of 'The Great Melody:
A thematic biography of
Edmund Burke' (Sinclair Stevenson, 1992)
This publication offers the whole of the Burke letters and papers from the Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments at Sheffield Archives. Interleaved in their correct sequence throughout this rich correspondence are copies of letters from other libraries scattered across the world, including over 700 items from Northamptonshire County Record Office.
It includes the voluminous quantities of in-letters scattered throughout the files, Burke's own rough notes for speeches, draft bills, and his memoranda concerning America, Indian affairs, Ireland and the Roman Catholic Question, English politics and the French Revolution.
This is a major source for the study of politics in the Age of Revolution particularly for the years 1760-1797, and will be of great interest to literary scholars, political scientists and a broad range of historians.
The correspondence, contained in 67 bound guard-books, is especially strong. There are nearly 3,000 original letters to and from Burke, including a notable exchange with the Gentleman of the Committee of Correspondence of New York, 1771-1775. Attention should be drawn to the large numbers of in-letters, most of which have never been published. Correspondents include:
Henry Addington, Joseph Banks, Francis Baring, Henry Bathurst, James Boswell, Major John Cartwright, George Crabbe, James Delancy, Henry Dundas, Charles James Fox, Benjamin Franklin, David Garrick, Charles Grey, Major Robert Hobart, Rev Dr Thomas Hussey, Sir Charles Jenkinson, Samuel Johnson, The Chevalier de la Bintinaye, Jean François de la Marche, Sir George MaCartney, Edmund Malone, Mrs Elizabeth Montague, Arthur Murphy, The New York Assembly, William Pitt, The 3rd Duke of Portland, Joshua Reynolds, The 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Admiral Rodney, R B Sheridan, Adam Smith, Thomas Townsend, William Wickham, and William Windham.
These correspondents were Burke’s eyes and ears throughout the empire and kept him abreast of political and social developments as they happened. For example, General Charles Lee writes from America on 16 December 1774:
‘…unless the Boston bill (and I may add the Quebec) are repeal’d, the Empire of Great Britain is no more. I have now run through almost the whole Colonies … and cannot express my astonishment at the unanimous ardent spirit reigning through the whole. They are determined to sacrifice evry thing, their property, their wives, children and blood rather than cede a little of what they conceive to be their rights. The tyranny exercised over Boston indeed seems to be resented by the other Colonies in a greater degree than by the Bostonians themselves …’
An unknown correspondent reports during the first days of the French Revolution:
‘I scarcely know how to begin or how to describe to you all the horrors which have taken place in Paris … The decree of the acquittal of Monsieur De la Fayette had occasioned great discontent & fermentation amongst the People. During the Night of Thursday the Bells run & the Drums beat thro’ out the City, & the Troops marched towards the Palace; in their way they met with a Patrole composed of Aristocrates in the Uniform of the National Guard, to the number of twenty six of whom they immediately put to death.’
Many of the letters are also extremely amusing such as a review from Garrick:
‘…of the Comedy You put into my hands – but I should be very undeserving of Yr friendship if I did not open my Mind to you with the greatest frankness & Sincerity … If I am in the least a judge of these Matters, I pronounce the Play absolutely unfit for the Stage. It is weak in the great requisites of .. drama viz. Fable, Character & Dialogue.’
The detailed list of the guard-books of letters provides a comprehensive, chronological listing of the correspondence, giving the date, author and addressee of each letter. This is a major tool for scholars which, combined with the manuscript letters, drafts and speeches, provide a rich source of study material for Burke’s personal and public life – his influences, his intimates and his high standing with colleagues and countrymen alike. The letters, written to and from such a pivotal political figure, have an eloquence and immediacy which transports the reader to this volatile and momentous age of revolution. As illustrations, the letters quoted above appear in full in the ‘Samples of Burke’s In-letters’, but readers are encouraged to discover their own gems.
Other significant elements include the letters and writings of the Burke family which are included in this collection. As Copeland and Smith have noted, ‘The Burke family was a kind of political committee active in Edmund’s affairs …’ – none more so than Edmund’s so-called ‘cousin’, William Burke, whose own notebooks are included together with his correspondence and that of Jane Burke, Richard Burke Senior, and Richard Burke Junior. Much of this has been excluded from printed editions.
There are eight boxes of loose manuscript material which, in particular, feature Burke's own subject files of notes and papers, including:
Notes and papers on Ireland and the Roman Catholic Question concerning those executed in 1766 in connection with the ‘Whiteboys’ activities; anti-Roman Catholic riots; the massacre in St George's Fields, 1769; Scotland, 1779; the Gordon Riots, 1780; Richard Burke as an agent for the Irish Catholics; notes from Pitt; petitions; charges against the Government of Lord Westmorland, 1791-1792 queries addressed to Burke; and his own notes.
Notes and papers on American Affairs, comprising eleven bundles of material, especially notes for speeches; papers relating to the Canada Bill, 1774; the exchange of prisoners, 1779; the Virginia Stamp Act and articles of impeachment against Lord North.
Notes and papers on Indian Affairs. In the late 1780s Burke exposed the evils and corruption of the Indian administration under Warren Hastings. Included are papers of the trial of Warren Hastings; Burke's notes for speeches, letters, resolutions and memoranda relating to the trial, 1784-1797.
Notes and papers on the French Revolution in Burke's hand, a narrative of events by a French emigré; translation of a letter to the foreign powers, 23 April 1791, by Abbé Thomas Maurice Royon; notes on French refugees and the Penn School; M Dupont's answer to Mr Burke (verses attributed to Lord Camelford); and drafts of letters to Lord Grenville and the Queen of France. Burke reacted swiftly to the French Revolution, much earlier than most of his compatriots, seeing in the new ideas a menace to British traditions. His Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) lost him the support of Fox. Burke spent the last four years of his life assisting French refugees.
Notes and papers on English Political Questions for Burke's speeches, including material on the Nullum Tempus Bill and Lowther case, 1768; John Wilkes and the Middlesex election; notes for proceedings at Keppel's trial in 1778; Economic Reform; proposed reforms 1779-1782; petitions; notes on the Corn Laws; the price of provisions; ministerial negotiations, 1767; and repeated condemnations of royal power.
As this is a complete edition of the Wentworth Woodhouse muniments, we also include Burke's manuscript speeches (including his notes and drafts), poetry and essays. His speeches are remarkable. As Hazlitt has commented ‘This is true eloquence; this is a man pouring out his mind on paper.’ Some of those featured are: On Window Tax, 1766; American Taxation, 1775; and On Economical Reform, 1779-80.
Burke's poems (some 9 items) and manuscripts for the works which have secured Burke a place in literary history (some 50 items) are also well represented. Autograph prose includes: Address to the King, 1797; The Catholic Claims Discussed, 1795; A Letter from a Distinguished English Commoner to a Peer in Ireland, 1782; A Letter in Vindication of His Conduct with Regard to the Affairs of Ireland, 1780 and Three Memorials on French Affairs, 1791, 1792 and 1793.
A series of Notebooks contain early writings on literary topics and philosophical questions, c1754-1760. These also include material by William Burke.
This project enables Burke's own letters and writings to be seen in a broader context and will be invaluable for all those interested in eighteenth century British politics, the American War of Independence, Ireland and the Roman Catholic Question, British Rule in India, and the French Revolution.
The Contents of Reels information also appears at the front of every reel of microfilm.
writing in 'The Sunday Times'
23 October 1988
Reader in History, University of Canterbury,
Christchurch, New Zealand