Page images
PDF
EPUB

election, on my side, my respect, regard, and duty to them is not at all lessened. I owe the gentleman who compose it my most humble service in every thing. I hope that, whenever any of them were pleased to command me, they found me perfectly equal in my obedience. But flattery and friendship are very different things; and to mislead is not to serve them. I cannot purchase the favour of any man by concealing from him what I think his ruin. By the favour of my fellow-citizens, I am the representative of an honest, well-ordered, virtuous city,+ of a people who preserve more of the original English simplicity and purity of manners than perhaps any other. You possess among you several men and magistrates of large and cultivated understandings, fit for any employment in any sphere. I do, to the best of my power, act so as to make myself worthy of so honourable a choice. If I were ready, on any call of my own vanity or interest, or to answer any election purpose, to forsake principles (whatever they are) which I had formed at a mature age, on full reflection, and which had been confirmed by long experience, I should forfeit the only thing which makes you pardon so many errors and imperfections in me. Not that I think it fit for any one to rely too much on his own understanding, or to be filled with a presumption not becoming a Christian man in his own personal stability and rectitude. I hope I am far from that vain confidence which almost always fails in trial. I know my weakness in all respects, as much at least as any enemy I have ; and I attempt to take security against it. The only method which has ever been found effectual to preserve any man against the corruption of nature and example is an habit of life and communication of counsels with the most virtuous and public-spirited men of the age you live in. Such a society cannot be kept without advantage, or deserted without shame. For this rule of conduct I may be called in reproach a party man; but I am little affected with such aspersions. In the way which they call party I worship the Constitution of your fathers; and I shall never blush for my political company. All reverence to honour, all idea of what it is, will be lost out of the world, before it can be imputed as a fault to any man, that he has been closely connected with those incomparable persons, living and dead, with whom for eleven years I have constantly thought and acted. If I have wandered out of the paths of rectitude into those of interested faction, it was in company with the Saviles, the Dowdeswells, the Wentworths, the IBentincks; * with the Lenoxes, the Man

9 Bentinck was the family name of the Duke of Portland, then one of the

chesters, the Keppels, the Saunderses; with the temperate, permanent, hereditary virtue of the whole House of Cavendish:1 names among which some have extended your fame and empire in arms, and all have fought the battle of your liberties in fields not less glorious. These, and many more like these, grafting public principles on private honour, have redeemed the present age, and would have adorned the most splendid period in your history. Where could any man, conscious of his own inability to act alone, and willing to act as he ought to do, have arranged himself better? If any one thinks this kind of society to be taken up as the best method of gratifying low personal pride or ambitious interest, he is mistaken, and knows nothing of the world. Preferring this connection, I do not mean to detract in the slightest degree from others. There are some of those whom I admire at something of a greater distance, with whom I lave had the happiness also perfectly to agree, in almost all the particulars in which I have differed with some successive administrations; and they are such as it never can be reputable to any government to reckon among its enemies. I hope there are none of you corrupted with the doctrine taught by wicked men for the worst purposes, and received by the malignant credulity of envy aud ignorance, which is, that the men who act upon the public stage are all alike, all equally corrupt, all influenced by no other views than the sordid lure of salary and pension. The thing I know by experience to be false. Never expecting to find perfection in men, and not looking for Divine attributes in created beings, in my commerce with my contemporaries I have found much human virtue. I have seen not a little public spirit, a real subordination of interest to duty, and a decent and regulated sensibility to honest fame and reputation. The age unquestionably produces (whether in a greater or less number than former times I know not) daring profligates and insidious hypocrites. What then? Am I not to avail myself of whatever good is to be found in the

leading Whig peers. Charles Watson Wentworth, Marquess of IRockingham, was the leading Whig peer. When the Whigs came into power, sirst in 1765, and again in 1782, he was called to the post of Prime Minister. William Dowdeswell was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first Itockingham administration. A man of no pretension or show, but of great ability and worth, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Burke all through those years of struggle, till his death in 1776.

1 Cavendish was, as it still is, the family name of the Duke of Devonshire. Lord John Cavendish, lorother of the Duke, was one of the leading Whigs in the IIouse of Commons. IHe was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the second IRockingham administration, and was one of Durke's warmest and staunchest lyersonal friends.

world, because of the mixture of evil that will always be in it? The smallness of the quantity in currency only heightens the value. They who raise suspicions on the good on account of the behaviour of ill men are of the party of the latter. The common cant is no justification for taking this party. I have been deceived, they say, by Titius and Maevius; I have been the dupe of this pretender or of that mountebank; and I can trust appearances no longer. But my credulity and want of discernment cannot, as I conceive, amount to a fair presumption against any man’s integrity. A conscientious person would rather doubt his own judgment than condemn his species. IIe would say, “I have observed without attention, or judged upon erroneous maxims ; I trusted to profession, when I ought to have attended to conduct.” Such a man will grow wise, not malignant, by his acquaintance with the world. Dut he that accuses all mankind of corruption ought to remember that he is sure to convict only one. In truth, I should much rather admit those whom at any time I have disrelished the most to be patterns of perfection than seek a consolation to my own unworthiness in a general communion of depravity with all about me. That this ill-natured doctrine should be preached by the missionaries of a Court I do not wonder. It answers their purpose. But that it should be heard among those who pretend to be strong asserters of liberty is not only surprising, but hardly natural. This moral levelling is a servile principle. It leads to practical passive obedience far better than all the doctrines which the pliant accommodation of theology to power has ever produced. It cuts up by the roots, not only all idea of forcible resistance, but even of civil opposition. It disposes men to an abject submission, not by opinion, which may be shaken by argument or altered by passion, but by the strong ties of public and private interest. For, if all men who act in a public situation are equally selfish, corrupt, and venal, what reason can be given for desiring any sort of change, which, besides the evils which must attend all changes, can be productive of no possible advantage? The active men in the State are true samples of the mass. If they are universally depraved, the commonwealth itself is not sound. We may annuse ourselves with talking as much as we please of the virtue of middle or humble life; that is, we may place our confidence in the virtue of those who have never been tried. Iłut if the persons who are continually emerging out of that spliere be no better than those whom birth has placed above it, what hopes are there in the remainder of the body which is to furnish the perpetual succession of the State 2 All who llave ever written on government are unani

mous, that among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot long exist. And indeed how is it possible, when those who are to make the laws, to guard, to enforce, or to obey them, are, by a tacit confederacy of manners, indisposed to the spirit of all generous and noble institutions? I am aware that the age is not what we all wish. But I am sure that the only means of checking its precipitate degeneracy ..is heartily to concur with whatever is the best in our time, and to have some more correct standard of judging what that best is than the transient and uncertain favour of a Court. If once we are able to find, and can prevail on ourselves to strengthen an union of such men, whatever accidentally becomes indisposed to ill-exercised power, even by the ordinary operation of human passions must join with that society, and cannot long be joined without in some degree assimilating to it. Virtue will catch as well as vice by contact; and the public stock of honest, manly principle will daily accumulate. We are not too nicely to scrutinize motives as long as action is irreproachable. It is enough (and for a worthy man perhaps too much ) to deal out its infamy to convicted guilt and declared apostasy. This, Gentlemen, has been from the beginning the rule of my conduct; and I mean to continue it, as long as such a body as I have described can by any possibility be kept together: for I should think it the most dreadful of all offences, not only towards the present generation, but to all the future, if I were to do any thing which could make the minutest breach in this great conservatory of free principles. Those who perhaps have the same intentions, but are separated by some little political animosities, will, I hope, discern at last how little conducive it is to any rational purpose to lower its reputation. For my part, Gentlemen, from much experience, from no little thinking, and from comparing a great variety of things, I am thoroughly persuaded that the last hope of preserving the spirit of the English Constitution, or of reuniting the dissipated members of the English race upon a common plan of tranquillity and liberty, does entirely depend on their firm and lasting union, and above all on their keeping themselves from that despair which is so very apt to fall on those whom a violence of character and a mixture of ambitious views do not support through a long, painful, and unsuccessful struggle. There never, Gentlemen, was a period in which the steadfastness of some men has been put to so sore a trial. It is not very difficult for well-formed minds to abandon their interest; but the separation of fame and virtue is a harsh divorce. Liberty is in danger of being made unpopular to Englishmen. Contending for an imaginary power, we begin to acquire the spirit of domination, and to lose the relish of honest equality. The principles of our forefathers become suspected to us, because we see them animating the present opposition of our children. The faults which grow out of the luxuriance of freedom appear much more shocking to us than the base vices which are generated from the rankness of servitude. Accordingly the least resistance to power appears more inexcusable in our eyes than the greatest abuses of authority. All dread of a standing military force is looked upon as a superstitious panic. All shame of calling in foreigners and savages in a civil contest is worn off. We grow indifferent to the consequences inevitable to ourselves from the plan of ruling half the empire by a mercenary sword. We are taught to believe that a desire of domineering over our countrymen is love to our country, that those who hate civil war abet rebellion, and that the amiable and conciliatory virtues of lenity, moderation, and tenderness to the privileges of those who depend on this kingdom are a sort of treason to the State. It is impossible that we should remain long in a situation which breeds such notions and dispositions without some great alteration in the national character. Those ingenuous and feeling minds who are so fortified against all other things, and so unarmed to whatever approaches in the shape of disgrace, finding these principles, which they considered as sure means of honour, to be grown into disrepute, will retire disheartened and disgusted. Those of a more robust make, the bold, able, ambitious men, who pay some of their court to power through the people, and substitute the voice of transient opinion in the place of true glory, will give-in to the general mode; and those superior understandings which ought to correct vulgar prejudice will confirm and aggravate its errors. Many things have been long operating towards a gradual change in our principles; but this American war has done more in a very few years than all the other causes could have effected in a century. It is therefore not on its own separate account, but because of its attendant circumstances, that I consider its continuance, or its ending in any way but that of an honourable and liberal accommodation, as the greatest evil which can befall us. For that reason I have troubled you with this long letter. For that reason I entreat you, again and again, neither to be persuaded, shamed, or frighted out of the principles that have hitherto led so many of you to abhor the war, its cause, and its consequences. Let us not be amongst the first who renounce the maxims of our forefathers. I have the honour to be, Gentlemen, Your most obedient and faithful humble servant, EDMUND BURKE. BEACONSFIELD, April 3, 1777.

« PreviousContinue »