Ferdinand Mount at The London Review of Books:
‘You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.’ Dr Johnson’s remark on Edmund Burke, related in one of Hester Thrale’s anecdotes, is unforgettable. The greatest Tory of the 18th century takes off his hat and makes the lowest possible bow to the much younger Irish Whig (Burke’s dates are 1729-97, Johnson’s 1709-84). Johnson’s veneration started a fashion which lasted long after Burke’s death. By 1856, Karl Marx, who himself denounced Burke as a sycophant and ‘out-and-out vulgar bourgeois’, was also telling the readers of the New York Daily Tribune that he was ‘the man who is held by every party in England as the paragon of British statesmen’. Burke was revered by Tories and Liberals alike, if with rather different motives, not just for his torrential eloquence but as a politician who somehow transcended politics and as a philosopher who uniquely immersed himself in the world.
Then, quite suddenly, it all changed. For the next century or so, Burke was reviled with the same enthusiasm as he had been praised: he was a corrupt placeman, a party hack, a coward and a stick-in-the-mud, a reactionary mystagogue, his speeches and writings irredeemably tainted by his personal corruption and his superstitiousness.