Warren M. Elofson, John A. Woods, and William B. Todd (eds), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 3: Party, Parliament, and the American War: 1774-1780
pg 97Speech on Restraining Bill6 March 1775
Source: London Evening Post, 11 March 1775
This report was reproduced in Parl. Reg. i. 295–8 and Parl. Hist. xviii. 389–92. A different report is in St James's Chronicle, 7 March, and London Chronicle, 9 March. Walpole gives an extensive report (Last Journals, i. 442–3). See also Simmons and Thomas, v. 500, 501, 505–7, 508.
On 10 February, Lord North renewed his campaign of coercion when he obtained leave to bring in a Bill to restrain the commerce of the four New England provinces and prohibit them from carrying on any fishery on the Banks of Newfoundland. On 6 March it was moved that the Bill be engrossed. Burke's speech marks a distinct change in his response to the American conflict. After delivering his standard warning about the harmful effects of the dispute with respect to British trade, he went on to make a long, highly charged, humanitarian appeal on behalf of the Americans. From this point on he would reverse the position he had taken during the election. He would express significantly less concern for the supremacy of Parliament and he would increasingly and openly champion the cause of the American colonies, their rights, and their liberties.
Mr. Burke then rose, and said, that he was afraid debate on this subject was to little purpose. When this Parliament, originally disengaged to any system, and free to choose among all, had, previous to any examination whatsoever, began by adopting the proceedings of the last; the whole line of our public conduct was then determined.
[Here the majority raised a great cry of approbation].1 He said the cry was natural, and the inference from what he had said just; that the road by penitence to amendment was, he knew, humiliating and difficult—and that most of mankind were disposed like Macbeth to think
- "I am in blood
- Stept in so far, that should I wade no more,
- Returning were as tedious as go o'er;"2
and thus they pass towards the further bank, be the channel ever so wide, or the flood ever so deep and rapid. That as this measure was in pg 98the same spirit, as all the former, he did not doubt but that it would be productive of the very same consequence.
This was in effect the Boston Port Bill, but upon infinitely a larger scale. That evil principles are prolific; this Boston Port Bill begot this New England Bill; that this New England Bill, will beget a Virginia Bill; that again, a Carolina Bill, and that will beget a Pennsylvania Bill; till one by one Parliament ruins all its colonies, and roots up all its commerce; until the statute book becomes nothing but a black and bloody roll of proscriptions, a frightful code of rigour and tyranny, a monstrous digest of acts of penalty, incapacity, and general attainder; and that open it where you will, you will find a title for destroying some trade, or ruining some province.
That the scheme of Parliament was new and unheard of in any civilized nation, "to preserve your authority by destroying your do-minions." It was rather the idea of hostility between independent states, where one, not being able to conquer another, thinks to reduce its strength gradually, by destroying its trade and cutting off its re-sources. That this mode was never used by princes towards their subjects in rebellion; the maxim in such cases always was to cut off the rebels but to spare the country, because its strength is the strength of the Sovereign himself. Here the principle was reversed, the force used against the rebels was trifling (though very expensive) but the trade, which was the wealth of the country, was to be destroyed.
He then entered into the difference of expence and loss between the two modes, and proved in detail, that these bills would, in all prob-ability, cost the nation more than the maintenance of an army of 40,000 men.
That when things are come to violence, he thought the sword much the most effectual, and though severe, not so unjust as these universal proscriptions, because it will fall only on those who resist. But this act confounds all kinds of people; all sexes, all ages in one common ruin. That nothing could be at once more foolish, more cruel, and more insulting, than to hold out, as a resource to the starving fishermen, ship-builders, and the infinite number of other mechanicks employed in trade and fishery, and ruined by this act, that after the plenty of the ocean, they may poke into the brooks, and rake in the puddles of their respective countries, and diet on what we consider as husks and draft for hogs.
It was, he said, foolish and insulting, because when you deprive a pg 99man of his trade and occupation, you deprive him of the means of his livelihood, if there were ever so much fish in the streams, or corn in the fields. That a shoemaker's livelihood goes, when the fisherman can no longer pay him for his shoes. He has no resource in other peoples plenty. How is he to get at horse-beans of Indian corn, or at the worst of food, for himself and his starving family? Then he shewed, that the ruin of the staple trade of a people involved it in the ruin of the whole community, and proved, by entering minutely into its nature and employment, that the British capital employed in the New England trade could not possibly be turned to the British fishery;1 and (treating very lightly the demonstration of Euclid) he shewed, that but one year's intermission of the course of the New England foreign trade, would be the certain loss of the whole debt now due to the English merchants.2
But the point of which he rested most, was this—The sentence was (in the mildest way) beggary, if not famine on four great provinces. The condition of their redemption was "when it should be made appear to the Governors, and the majority of the council in two of these provinces, that the laws would be obeyed." By what evidence (said he) is this to be made to appear? Who is to produce it? What facts are to be proved? What rule has the person who is to make it appear, to go by? What rule have the two Governors to determine so as to acquit them— in complying or in refusing, either to government here, or to the people there? You sentence (said he) to famine at least 300,000 people in two provinces, at the mere arbitrary will and pleasure of two men whom you do not know, for you do not know who will be Governors when this act takes place. And lest3 these two should risque an act of mercy, you add, as a controul to them, the majority of two councils whom you do not know, and one of them at present has no existence!4 And as to the other provinces (Connecticut and Rhode Island) the act has not left a man in these two provinces, who, by the exertion even of an arbitrary discretion, can relieve 200,000 people more, or any innocent or re-penting individual, let their behaviour be what it will. A Governor of pg 100another province, who can never regularly and officially know their true state, can alone be arbitrary in favour of justice.
This (said he) is because, in those two ill-starred1 provinces, the people chuse their Governor:2 But is that a crime in individuals which is the legal constitution of the country? If it be a bad one, England has given it to them, and has not taken even a step towards altering it.
On this point, of the unheard of power given to Governors, of starving so many hundreds of thousands at their mere pleasure, of which (he said) no history of real, and even no fabulous invention of fictitious tyranny, had ever furnished an example, he dwelt a long time, and placed it in an infinite variety of lights, and kindled into such warmth, that he was at length called to order. But he continued to repeat the strong terms, as he said, he had a right to give such epithets to the bill as he pleased, until it has passed the House. If that should be the case, he would then be silent, because it would be against order to speak of it as it deserved; and against prudence to offend a body of men who had so much power, and would shew, by passing that bill, how harsh an use they were disposed to make of it.
He said, however, he was convinced, by the whole tenour of the debate, as well as his private conversation, that most of those who should vote for this bill had never read it; that what they did was not out of malice, but out of respect to the opinions of others, who, by presenting them such a bill, shewed how little they deserved this unlimited confidence. He said, that if any were in that situation, he hoped they would have the benefit of the prayer made for those who alone had done an act worse than this, "Forgive them, they know not what they do".3
The speech, of which many heads of argument, and many illustra-tions, are of necessity wholly omitted, lasted above an hour, and it was thought that he never spoke with so much power and animation.