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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reading the Riot Act About Burke

The following is from The House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century by P.D.G. Thomas (Oxford, 1971):

His{Hartley} rising always operated like a Dinner Bell. One day, that he had thus wearied out the Patience of his Audience, having nearly cleared out a very full House which was reduced from three hundred to about eighty persons, half asleep;  just at a time when he was expected to close, he unexpectedly moved that the Riot Act should be read, as a document necessary to elucidate, or to prove some of his foregoing assertions.  Burke, who sat close by him. . . laid hold of Hartley by the coat, "The Riot Act! my dear friend, the Riot Act!  To what purpose!  Don't you see that the mob is already completely dispersed?"(p221)

That Burke was a natural target for interruptions can be seen from Wraxall's pen-portrait of him in action:  'Burke constantly wore spectacles.  His enunciation was vehement, rapid, and never checked by any Embarrassment:  for his Ideas outran his Powers of Utterance, and he drew from an exhaustless Source.  But his Irish Accent, which was as strong as if he had never quitted the Banks of the Shannon, diminished to the Ear, the enchanting Effect of his Eloquence on the Mind.  The dazzling oratory of Edmund Burke, adorned with metaphors and similes, makes magnificent prose:  but it must often have been incomprehensible to a large part of his audience.  He spoke too long as well as too fast, and it was part of his practice to speak late in debates.  He lacked the personal or social stature to command respect.  His views were often predictable, and usually unpopular with the majority of members present.  Attempts to stop him were therefore frequent, and sometimes mentioned by Burke himself.  On 10 December 1770 he made this comment during his speech:  'I must address myself to some gentlemen, and I will do it with humility, that they have a disposition, when any gentleman gets up, they don't choose to hear speak, to endeavor the best they can, to drown him with noise, and clamour.  I never knew it was formed into a regular system till today.' Later in the same session Burke reported to Rockingham that on 13 February 1771 he had 'waited for the general reply, until after twelve;  a detachment of Macaronies endeavored to prevent me from speaking, but they did not succeed.'  During his speech Burke remarked, 'I am very glad that the House is full;  but there is another point not so easy to gain--a patient attendance, a very full and patient House.'  Even age and experience did not give Burke immunity from such treatment.  Carl Moritz noted this incident during a speech by him on 9 July 1782 in praise of the recently deceased Lord Rockingham:  'As he did not meet with sufficient attention, and heard much talking and many murmors, he said, with much vehemence and a sense of injured merit, "this is not treatment for so old a Member of Parliament as I am, and I will be heard!"  On which there was immediately a most profound silence.(p225-226).

Edmund Burke was not always popular with his contemporaries, and it is nearly certain that the superficial over at Fox News would have zero use for an Edmund Burke today.

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