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French Laurence and the Legacy of Edmund Burke

The artist Joseph Farington recorded the death of Edmund Burke rather monochromatically in his diary: “He died of an atrophy and suffered little pain,—He had spit blood and wasted away. Dr. Lawrence [sic] only was at Beaconsfield at the time of his death—He was sensible to the last,—and was read to three hours before his death, saw his end approaching three days before.”

It is not surprising that French Laurence was the figure mentioned at Burke’s deathbed: Laurence, for all his obscurity today, might reasonably be considered to have been Burke’s closest and most intimate political disciple, within and outside parliament. Laurence first worked with Burke himself as one of the assisting counsel for the Managers at the trial of Warren Hastings, (the others being William Scott, Arthur Piggott, Burke’s younger brother Richard, and Sylvester Douglas). Of this group, he was the figure entrusted with the greatest responsibility, as can be seen in a letter that Burke penned to Henry Dundas, then home secretary, in 1792: “I beg leave to inform you,” Burke wrote, “that Dr. Laurence, the most efficient of our Counsel, . . . with an assiduity, a penetration, and a knowledge of the subject, unparalleled, superintends every part of the detail of this business, and assists each manager as he takes his part . . .”

Out of this political and juridical alliance, the friendship between Laurence and Burke grew increasingly intimate during the 1790s, a fact reflected in the frequency and depth of their personal communications by the time of Burke’s death, in 1797. We find, in the volumes of published correspondence, that Burke addressed at least sixteen letters to Laurence in the last five months of his life, discussing matters from the disposition of his private papers to the growing crisis in Ireland, and received twenty-five in reply. A letter from the previous year contains a charge that shows just how much trust and confidence Burke had come to place in Laurence—the task of justifying to posterity the failed impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings. “[L]et me now beg to call to your recollection,” Burke wrote Laurence in July 1796,

the solemn charge and trust I gave you on my departure from the public stage. I fancy I must make you the sole operator, in a work, in which, even if I were enabled to undertake it you must have been ever the assistance on which alone I could rely. Let not this cruel, daring, unexampled act of public corruption, guilt, and meanness go down—to a posterity, perhaps as careless as the present race, without its due animadversion, which will be best found in its own acts and monuments. Let my endeavours to save the nation from that shame and guilt, be my monument; the only one I will ever have . . . I blame myself exceedingly for not having employed the last year in this work and beg forgiveness of God for such a neglect . . . But you are made to continue all that is good of me; and to augment it with the various resources of a mind fertile in virtues, and cultivated with every sort of talent, and of knowledge.

Who, then, was French Laurence, and how successfully did he discharge his obligations to Burke on the latter’s death?

Laurence was born in 1757, in Bath, England, the son of Richard Laurence, a watchmaker and former sheriff of that city, and Elizabeth, née French, a clothier’s daughter. He was educated at Winchester College, where the headmaster, Joseph Warton, developed a very high opinion of his academic and artistic abilities, and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1777. By that time, he had already achieved some literary success, composing a poem, Ode on the Spirits of Shakespeare, that was set to music by the young English composer Thomas Linley and performed to general acclaim in Drury Lane, London, on March 20, 1776.

From Oxford, French Laurence proceeded to the Inner Temple in London, and, like his grandfather (who had been an attorney of the Court of Common Pleas), to a career in law. In this profession he proved highly successful, receiving the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford in 1787, entering Doctors’ Commons that November as ecclesiastical and admiralty counsel, and becoming a judge of the Court of Admiralty and of the Cinque Ports.

Although his close personal relationship with Edmund Burke undoubtedly developed through his work on the impeachment of Hastings, Laurence had probably come to Burke’s attention in the early 1780s through his authorship of pamphlets in support of Charles James Fox and the Whig party, a job he appears to have taken up at the instigation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Frequenting similar literary circles as Burke (he,too, became a close friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds), Laurence also contributed pieces to the popular contemporary satire, the Rolliad, and to the Probationary Odesand the Political Eclogues. Although his name was put forward for election to “The Club” in two consecutive years in the early 1790s, he was blackballed by Boswell, who wrote to Edmond Malone, on February 10, 1791, “On Tuesday (February 8) we had a Club of eleven; . . . Burke made great interest for his drum major, Laurence, and, would you believe it, had not Courtenay and I been there he would have been chosen.” Only in 1802 was Laurence finally admitted to this distinguished group, and two years later he became a member of Brooks’s, the same London club to which Burke had belonged, and a social centre for Whig politicians such as Fox and Sheridan.

Laurence retained many of his literary interests while moving rapidly up the ladder of legal preferment. He appears to have taken over many of the editorial responsibilities for the Annual Register after 1792, and was later one of Cobbett’s financial backers in the establishment of the Political Register. While he held the positions of Regius Professor of Civil Law in the University of Oxford, and Chancellor of the Diocese of Oxford, he also harbored political ambitions of his own, and was elected to parliament in 1796 (the same year as the Regius Professorship) as representative for Peterborough, through the patronage of Earl Fitzwilliam and the lobbying of Burke himself. It is likely that Burke now saw Laurence as a worthy substitute for the role left vacant by the death, in 1794, of Burke’s son (and Laurence’s contemporary at Oxford), Richard Burke Jr.

Laurence’s preoccupations, connections and contributions in parliament, where he remained a member up to his death in 1809, may give us valuable clues to the self-identity of the Burke disciples, and also provide some means of judging their influence and success.

In some ways, Burke’s anti-Jacobin writings form the least contentious aspect of his legacy, although, within a short period of his death, the uncompromising stance of his “Letters on a Regicide Peace” (the third of which, in particular, Laurence influenced through his editing) had become outdated by the rise of Napoleon. All the same, the Burkean rump in parliament, which included Fitzwilliam, William Windham and William Elliot in addition to Laurence, took predictably strong positions over what they saw as the foolhardy compromises of the Peace of Amiens (1802)—those in the Commons leading their attack on the government from the same bench where Burke had sat after his break with Fox in 1791. After Pitt the Younger left office, in 1801, it was dissatisfaction with the treaty that initially formed the background against which a loosely structured Grenvillite connection formed, opposing the administration of Pitt’s successor, Henry Addington (1801-1804); but the resumption of war with France, in May 1803, meant that the focus of contentions shifted to areas in which Burke’s legacy was rather more ambiguous.

There was, for example, the intractable problem of Ireland and Catholic emancipation. Burke had professed to the end of his life his aims of “the peace of Ireland, its consolidation with this kingdom, and a direction of our common force against our common enemy”; but in his closing years, the “common enemy” had become common indeed, with the threat of increasing cooperation between Catholics and Protestant Dissenters under the banner of an Irish Jacobinism. Faced with this, even Burke appears to have felt it necessary to water down his commitment to further Catholic relief, considering that the situation could well be inflamed by “late ungracious and forced concession.” Indeed, he could not support French Laurence’s scheme, developed in 1796, to put pressure on the king to swing behind further relief for the Irish Catholics. Mahoney states dryly that Burke seems in his final months only to have retained his commitment to preserving the privileges and rights of absentee landlords (such as Fitzwilliam), and that this “revealed how thoroughly English in his thinking he had become.” It may also indicate how detached from Irish politics he was in his later years.

In any event, Burke’s opinions provided no clear direction for his followers. While some of his colleagues, in the wake of the great Irish rebellion of 1798, prudently restricted themselves to arguing that the Union between Britain and Ireland that followed should not itself preclude further concessions to the Catholic population, Laurence argued that Burke had become convinced that developments since 1782 had rendered a union between the two countries impossible. His continuing commitment to Catholic relief, then, after Burke’s death, was less measured than that of Pitt and Grenville, and must have reduced his chances of further political patronage. George III, of course, was vehemently opposed to Catholic Emancipation on principle—as he had made clear to Pitt in 1801—and so, until George himself became incapacitated in 1810, petitions in favour of further concessions to Irish Catholics could only serve the mischievous purpose of exacerbating parliamentary differences: they could not form the basis of an effective, unifying bid for power.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect of Burke’s legacy in the decade following his death—and not necessarily for the intended reason—was the use of impeachment as an arm of political policy. During the short period of Pitt’s second administration (1804-6), a number of veterans from the Hastings trial, including Paul Benfield, William Windham and Laurence himself, were involved in campaigns to impeach two powerful political figures. One intended victim was Henry Dundas, elevated to the peerage as Viscount Melville in 1782, and a close friend of William Pitt. Dundas was charged with embezzlement and financial corruption in his position as Treasurer of the Navy, an office he had received from Burke’s great enemy Lord Shelburne. It is possible that Laurence and his friends had not forgotten Dundas’s failure to support Burke in the early days of the impeachment proceedings, (while Dundas was, himself, a campaigner against corrupt practices within the East India Company, he had described Warren Hastings in one speech as “the saviour of India”). Dundas’s own schemes for reforming the government of India, drawn up largely during Shelburne’s administration, had also provided a basis for Pitt the Younger’s India Bill of 1784, which may have jarred with Burkeans in the light of Burke’s and Fox’s own ill-fated India Bill of the previous year. The other intended victim was the marquis of Wellesley, shortly returned from India, where he had served as governor general from 1797-1805. He was accused, in terms that strongly echoed the Hastings charges, of financial irregularities and the immoral waging of warfare against native princes.

It is likely that French Laurence saw the main purpose of his efforts here as justifying the mechanism of impeachment in an historical, judicial, and moral context. Although Melville’s prosecutors had adapted their approach in the light of lessons learned during the Hastings affair, this was, in a sense, the closest Laurence could come to settling that sombre charge that Burke had placed upon him. He was well qualified for the task. It is reasonable to conclude from the sources that the main burden of the legal work had rested upon him, and his knowledge of the history, and experience of the technicalities, of the impeachment process was probably unrivalled in parliament after 1796. During his time as Burke’s legal adviser, for example, he had been required to draw up a refutation of the claim made by Hastings’s counsel that, as a new parliament had been elected since the impeachment had been ordered by the Commons, the trial had no legal standing and should be abandoned. There is an intriguing document, a draft of 186 leaves of manuscript in the collection of Laurence papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, entitled, “A List of the Cases and Authorities . . . briefly showing their dates, the modes of prosecution and their continuance whether from Parliament to Parliament or from Session to Session.” These illustrations go back to the reign of Edward II, and the draft is copiously annotated by French Laurence. (There is also, in the same collection, an amusing indication of the scale of the task that Laurence had had to face in attempting to shape Burke’s vigorous indictments into sharper and more legalistic form—a fifteen page document with the heading, “Second Defence. The Real state of the facts contained in the fourth Article of Mr. Burke’s charge, divested of all the extraneous Matter in which they are enveloped, may be comprised in the following plain recital.”)

This Burkean legacy, too, had only qualified success. The recourse to impeachment brought its proponents, including Laurence, no particular practical benefits and, in Laurence’s case, certainly further hindered his career prospects. Only Dundas’s case came to trial. The prosecution attempt failed, and Dundas was acquitted in a matter of weeks, despite evidence that suggested the strong basis of the prosecution case. Indeed, Dundas’s supporters may well have encouraged him to accept impeachment as a safer option than facing possible criminal charges. The moral standing of the procedure was easily undermined by the apparent partisanship of the contending parties, and the evident probability that key figures in the prosecution were motivated primarily by personal vendetta. It is true that Dundas (like Hastings) never regained political status after his trial, but neither did the impeachment process itself: his impeachment trial proved to be the last ever held in Great Britain.

A study of French Laurence’s life and political career offers up a number of clues as to why the disciples of Burke had so little practical, political effect in propounding the great man’s legacy.

Laurence himself had crucial weaknesses as a politician. He lacked the charisma or rhetorical force of a Burke, speaking, as Henry,Lord Brougham, put it, “with the dust of many libraries upon him.” In this respect, ironically, he did find himself a widely acknowledged successor to his patron—he inherited the famous “dinner-bell” soubriquet that had been used on Burke earlier. At the same time, Laurence’s personal closeness to Burke meant that his actions could always be construed as extensions in time of Burke’s personal animosities and feuds. Continuing the spirit of Burke’s highly principled campaigns against venality and corruption must also have infuriated potential political patrons and rendered the disciple, like the teacher, a difficult “party” man. Although he was associated (with William Elliot—“Burke’s James and John,” in the words of James J. Sack) with the small Fitzwilliam following, which was itself attached loosely to the Grenvillites, Laurence’s contributions to the impeachment campaigns, as we have seen, put him on bad terms with Pitt and annoyed Grenville. The result was that Laurence was thwarted in any attempt to achieve high office. In 1806, Windham failed to secure for him a seat on the Admiralty Board, and failed also in all subsequent attempts to find him office. Consequently, Laurence never acquired the practical political weight to make much difference.

Such personal frustrations reflect a wider problem facing the Burkeans. They lacked a leader who could marshall them into an effective group in parliament, and, with the exception, for a short time, of Windham (who had been secretary at war in Pitt’s first administration, and who held office again in 1806-7) they had no figure in power who could lever them into significant offices or make an effective mark in the chamber. Grenville was not up to the task of leading a diverse and unruly connection of politicians, as he often confessed himself, and affiliations within parliament were notoriously fluid in the years after 1801 anyway. When Grenville’s short-lived “Ministry of All the Talents” collapsed over Catholic relief in 1807, the tiny group of Burkeans was really left “high and dry.” Grenville’s successor, the duke of Portland, though himself very well disposed to the legacy of Burke (and a patron of Laurence in the 1790s), was, by this time, too old and weak to provide effective leadership.

On a personal and literary level, Laurence had a little more success in carrying out his charge from Burke. Besides the sombre, intimate responsibilities of being assistant to the executrix of Burke’s will (that is, Jane Burke), and trustee of Burke’s estate (including the recently established school at Penn for the children of French émigrés), Laurence, together with Walker King, had been entrusted with all Burke’s papers. They did manage to see through the press the first eight volumes of Burke’s collected works before Laurence’s death in 1809. The India apology, however, was never written, nor did Laurence ever start the biography of Burke that he would have been so well placed to write. Walker King, who had been appointed bishop of Rochester in 1809, brought out a further eight volumes of Burke’s works, but he, too, never got round to penning a biography of his mentor and friend.

Not the least significant factor in determining the limits of Burke’s immediate legacy was the untimely death of the two most active disciples. In 1807, after Windham had been returned at the election of that year fora pocket borough of Lord Fitzwilliam’s, Laurence had written to the latter that this connection represented “an union of all who remained more immediately representing the sentiments of Lord Rockingham and Mr. Burke.” Two years later, on February 26, 1809, Laurence died of consumption while visiting his brother at Eltham, near London. He was fifty-one years old. Within two years, Windham, too, was dead, at the age of sixty.

The Parliamentary Debates for March 6, 1809, records that Laurence’s colleague Samuel Whitbread paid the following tribute to him: “‘Now that Dr. Laurence is no more, I trust I shall be excused for paying this humble tribute to the memory of his exalted talents and unbounded knowledge, and I am certain, that, whatever might have been their past differences, the right hon. gentlemen opposite will concur with me as to his merits, and admit, that, however distinguished the individuals who remain, either in his particular department, or in the more extended branches of the legal profession, this house and the country have, in Dr. Laurence, lost a vast fund of knowledge, an exemplary instance of public and private virtue, and a larger portion of pure principles, and political integrity, than perhaps have ever been united in any one individual.’ (Hear!

The drum had fallen silent.

This article is from Reflections, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2002), and was first published accompanying Vol. 42, No. 2 of The University Bookman.