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

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Speech on North's Conciliatory Bill23 February 1778

Source: General Advertiser, 25 February 1778

This report is also in London Chronicle, 26 February. It is repeated in Parl. Reg. viii. 392–3 and Parl. Hist. xix. 778–9. There is an alternative report in the Gazetteer of 26 February and in Westminster Journal, 28 February. There is at Sheffield a MS. (Bk 6.96) which appears to be a draft for this speech. It is not refined enough for transcription.

On 17 February Lord North introduced a plan of conciliation with America. This change of approach was the result of two circumstances—the recent loss at Saratoga and rumours 'that a treaty of alliance and guarantee [had been] … signed between France and America'.1 North's plan was to renounce the power to tax America and to appoint a commission to negotiate a settlement of other differences. Commissioners were to be appointed under a Bill, presented to the Commons on 19 February, which received the Royal Assent on 11 March.2 The Commission was headed by Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle,3 who accepted his appointment on 22 February.4 Burke spoke on 23 February on a motion to instruct the Committee of the Whole House to make provision for nominating the commissioners.

Mr. Burke said, that the present was a question of men; that the measure was decided upon, which was to give a full power to dispose of all the legislative acts, and all the legislative powers of Parliament, so far as they concerned America.

That there never had been such a trust delegated to men, and that therefore nothing ever was more important than the proper choice of them;—that if Ministers had hitherto shown, in any one instance, that pg 368they had formed a right judgement on men, he would admit, that they ought to be trusted with the nomination of men upon this occasion.

Next to honesty (which he would not dispute with the Ministers) the ground of confidence in men was founded on two things;—that they were incapable of deceiving others; and were alike incapable of being deceived themselves.

That the Ministers had been publicly charged in that House, by those who had all along supported their measures, with having deceived them;—and their justification had been, that they were themselves deceived in every particular relating to America.

Now, take it which way you please, whether they were deceivers, as their friends assert, or deceived, as themselves alledge, they are not fit, on either ground to be trusted;—and they, who had judged so ill of the men they had credited, in all their information concerning America, would not judge better in the choice of the men whom they nominated to get rid of the fatal consequences of that ill information.

That their constant defence, with regard to the ill success of their army in America, was the incapacity, error, or neglect of the Generals they had appointed;—that though he did not believe this was the cause, yet, on their own confession, they had made a wrong judgement of the persons they had employed; and if they were so unhappy in their choice of Generals, they would not prove more fortunate in their choice of negotiators.

He apprehended, that no good could come of any negotiation what-soever intrusted to their hands;—that the affair was not too little to be undertaken by Parliament itself. If parliamentary rights must be negotiated upon, it was fit to be done by a Committee of the two Houses of Parliament.

In order to settle India affairs, a Committee of the House had sat in Leaden hall-street;1 they might as well sit in America, the object is more important, if the distance be greater;—that he saw the drift of the whole;—[t]he Ministers thought to pay their court, by extending the prerogative, in proportion as they had lessened the empire;—and that this war (which was pretended to be made to prevent the King's having a revenue in America independent of Parliament, and to assert the power of the House of Commons, to tax all the British dominions) pg 369now terminated in a surrender of our right of taxation, and of all our other parliamentary rights to the Crown.

The motion was rejected without a division.

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Editor’s Note
1 General Evening Post, 19 February 1778.
Editor’s Note
2 18 Geo. III, c. 13.
Editor’s Note
3 (1748–1825).
Editor’s Note
4 Historical Manuscripts Commission, Carlisle MSS., p. 322.
Editor’s Note
1 Where the headquarters of the East India Company were. The Secret Committee of 1772 met there.
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