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ELH 68.2 (2001) 397-418

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A Prosecutor and a Gentleman: Edmund Burke's Idiom of Impeachment

Elizabeth D. Samet

But we are in general, Sir, so little acquainted with Indian details, the instruments of oppression under which the people suffer are so hard to be understood, and even the very names of the sufferers are so uncouth and strange to our ears, that it is very difficult for our sympathy to fix upon these objects. I am sure that some of us have come down stairs from the committee-room with impressions on our minds which to us were the inevitable results of our discoveries, yet, if we should venture to express ourselves in the proper language of our sentiments to other gentlemen not at all prepared to enter into the cause of them, nothing could appear more harsh and dissonant, more violent and unaccountable, than our language and behavior.

--Edmund Burke, "Speech on Mr. Fox's East India Bill" (1783)

Having made a career of defending criminals, Cicero "entered the arena as a prosecutor" for the first time in 70 BCE in the extortion trial of Gaius Verres, former governor of Sicily. Cicero drew attention, in his second Verrine Oration, to the uncompromising idiom in which he saw fit to deliver his accusations: "I will speak with some little boldness," he promised, "for I have now no fear of being thought to have spoken more like a prosecutor" than like a gentleman. 1 Various commentators have noted the ways in which Edmund Burke modeled his political career on that of Cicero. In 1794, at the parliamentary impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors of Warren Hastings, former governor-general of Bengal and enforcer of the East India Company's colonial will, on the ninth and final day of his closing arguments, Burke directly invoked the Verrine Orations as "a monument by which it might be seen what course a great public accuser in a great public cause ought to pursue." 2 Throughout the trial, which spanned the better part of a decade--indeed, throughout his entire political career--Burke, too, spoke "with some little boldness."

Although personal fortunes were still to be had in the Eastern trade in the late 1770s and early 1780s, the East India Company had incurred [End Page 397] tremendous debts during its suppression of a series of Indian revolts. Specifically, it was Warren Hastings's attempt to raise capital from various Indian princes through an ongoing campaign of bribery and extortion that finally prompted the large-scale parliamentary intervention that led to his recall in 1785. 3 The House of Commons voted in favor of impeachment the following year, and, with Burke, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and others managing the prosecution on the Commons' behalf, the case was brought before the House of Lords in 1788. 4 After their initial and somewhat surprising success, however, the prosecutors were soon stymied. Nevertheless, the trial lingered on, despite what Sara Suleri calls the generally acknowledged "inevitability of Hastings's acquittal," until 1795. 5

Parliament had not conducted an impeachment in 40 years when the Commons moved against Hastings in 1786. P. J. Marshall observes that the "revival of a process after" so long an interval "left room for two sharply conflicting conceptions of the methods by which the case ought to be tried." While the Lords insisted that the presentation of evidence in the trial adhere to the strict requirements of the common law, the managers of the prosecution argued that they should be allowed to proceed according to the looser parameters of parliamentary precedent. Marshall suggests that the Lords' "decision in favour of the common law played a major part in securing Hastings's acquittal." 6 Undaunted by the ruling, however, Burke refused to revise the Articles of Charge. He confided to his friend, Irish M. P. Thomas Burgh:

I am not greatly affected. . . . [I]f they give us, what I think they cannot refuse, Westminster hall for the place of Trial, the Lords will not dare in the face of England...


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