P. J. Marshall, Donald C. Bryant, and William B. Todd (eds), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 4: Party, Parliament, and the Dividing of the Whigs: 1780–1794

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Hints of a Treaty with America[ante 20 March 1782]

Source: MS. at Sheffield, Bk. 27. 219.

This memorandum, consisting of three pages in Burke's hand and endorsed by him 'Hints of a Treaty with America', cannot be dated with any precision. It was clearly written in the closing stages of Lord North's administration.

The Rockingham party had resolutely opposed the American War. But, as this memorandum shows, their ideas on what the connection between Britain and America might be after the war were entirely unrealistic. They were sure that America could not be coerced into remaining within the empire, but assumed that, when what they regarded as a genuinely Whig administration took office, Americans would voluntarily accept the restoration of close constitutional and economic links with Britain. Such a view was deeply flawed. Americans were by now suspicious of all British politicians; the opponents of North did not enjoy their confidence. George Washington considered that no British politician had 'An idea of American independence on its true principles … ; but an idea of reconnecting us with the British nation, by dissolving our connection with France is too prevalent'.4 Americans wished to restore full commercial access to the British empire but in other respects they had no desire whatsoever to be reconnected.

That this Empire unhappily divided into two adverse parts at present, it is the Interest and ought to be the wish of both to reunite.

That it is the permanent interest of both, to prevent either part from weakness, or fear, or jealousy, or any other Cause from being ever dependent, more or less upon France.

That the Connection between England and America is natural; from all the Sources of connexion; that of France with either is not so.

pg 129It had been desireable, that the original connexion should never have been interrupted; and that they had mutually respected, without having actually tried each others strength.

Each party feels the other; we that America is not to be conquerd. They that England is not a power to be provoked with impunity; and without bringing infinite calamities upon the country with which she is 〈engaged〉.

The knowledge of our mutual power of serving, and of hurting each other, becomes a ground for a rational and permanent connexion.

That our old affections may be revived and endeavours ought to be mutually used for that purpose.

That there [are] a great Number; and among that number very considerable people, who have always had the most cordial regards for America; and on that account have sufferd a total proscription from Court and no slight temporary unpopularity from the nation.1

That these people, commonly called the Whiggs, have ever been favourable to the universal freedom of the Empire; and have desired the subordination of any part no further than has appeard to them necessary to that perfect Union of the whole which is and has been at all times their first and dearest Object.

If that union, now unhappily broken by measures in which these persons have not had the smallest share, can be restored by that party, which they do and have opposed, forgetful of every other consideration, they will give them, an honest support, in any plans that may be mutually agreed upon between the Ministry and the Congress of America. This mode of Treaty they conceive to be attended with one capital advantage; that the Enemies of America are in power here; and have therefore the means of proposing such terms of accommodation as they can immediately execute.

But if America should be so irritated in the present instant or so doubtful of a perfect security in future, from a reconcilement patched up on Necessity, then they ought to look to some other people here; if they wish to make or preserve any Terms with England.

On what footing, or on what concessions, Ministry mean to treat is not known. Both The position, and the Terms, on which the Whiggs will treat, (If they should be found in a condition to treat at all) are perfectly known at least in the principal Terms.

pg 130〈Vizt.〉 They are not inclined for the present to controvert the independency of America as a situation. She is de facto independent, and there is attendant on so great a misfortune one advantage that she is in a posture in which she can treat and in which there is no dispute that her stipulations are perfectly obligatory. This is the publicly declared opinion of the D of R1 in the House of Lords and of Mr. Fox and Mr. B. in the House of Commons.2 But the Whiggs wish to treat on that footing; not to continue a separation, but to reproduce a connexion suitable to the Nature and circumstances of things.

As to the Terms, if many of us were to settle them, the negotiation would be very short. The Terms would be just what America, no longer irritated, should think best for her own advantage. Because we are very clear that such would not differ essentially from those which Great Britain for her own sake ought to desire.

But America, if she really wishes a reunion with England, must consult the Credit of her friends in their own Country. If they should make what is called a bad peace; they will be for ever disgraced and will lose that authority, which is necessary to preserve them as a strong bond of connexion between the two countries.

Therefore it would be advisable that Am[erica] should yield something to us—such as, first a recognition of the Sovereignty of the King; for this Country being essentially Monarchical, there is no other way of uniting its members, but under the Supremacy of the Crown.

2nd. Some marked preference which might be more than returnd in Trade, and as near as Circumstances can permit, to the Act of Navigation.3 This Act is much the favourite of people here, and would not be so pg 131disadvantageous to America as it is commonly thought. But this would admit of many improvements.1

4. Some sort of contingent of men, Ships, Money &c. in case of foreign Wars. This would reconcile the minds of people here to the separation. Perfect satisfaction would be given, as to any or all of the acts of Parliament, whether enacting or declaratory. At present they are suspended and the authority of the Crown and Parliament suffer a sort of discontinuance. So that what is to be done with regard to the 〈operation〉 of these acts, must arise rather from the New Treaty, than from the Obligation of the antient Laws. The Business of Taxation would not admit the least dispute. An amicable Spirit would soon settle every thing.

In a word this is the Spirit in which the body of the Whiggs would treat. But if any others can treat in a more successful manner they have their best Wishes; being far more anxious for this union at any rate than for any personal or party advantage.

The peace was eventually to be made by Lord Shelburne. Although he was as strongly committed to some form of 'reunion' with America as were Burke and his allies, he could not persuade the Americans to make what British opinion would regard as any significant response. Burke criticized the treaty for 'making the most important concessions on our part, without the smallest balance or equipoise to support that reciprocity'.2 His sense that the Americans had frustrated his expectations of them and possibly also a feeling of their ingratitude for all the efforts made on their behalf by the opposition, probably contributed to Burke's apparently low opinion of the republic in its early years, at least until the enacting of the Constitution.3 On his first visit to Britain in 1783, John Adams4 reported that 'Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke have quite as little good will towards America as my Lord North or my Lord Mansfield'.5 Closer acquaintance with both men as American ambassador in London from 1785 to 1788 did not make him alter his opinion.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
4 J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 39 vols., Washington, DC, 1931–44, xxiv. 228.
Editor’s Note
1 'That if America is determined to preserve an absolute independency at all Events: and [make] it the conclusion as well as the beginning of any Treaty, it will certainly be somewhat' deleted.
Editor’s Note
1 Charles Lennox (1735–1806), 3rd Duke of Richmond.
Editor’s Note
2 From 1778 the Rockinghams had abandoned their commitment to British sovereignty over America as expressed in the Declaratory Act of 1766 (6 Geo. III, c. 12). On 14 December 1778 Burke had stated that 'the Independency of America' was no longer 'a matter of choice, … it was now become a matter of necessity'; Parliament should recognize this (vol. iii. 394). For similar statements by Richmond and Fox, see Parl. Hist., xix. 842, 1082–3. Yet, as Burke's memorandum showed, the Rockinghams continued to make a clear distinction between accepting America's practical independence, as a basis from which negotiations must be conducted, and any formal recognition of independence as permanent and irrevocable, which they hoped to avoid.
Editor’s Note
3 At the end of the war, Burke was reported on a number of occasions to have advocated the complete dismantling of the Navigation Act. On 2 May 1782, for instance, he said that the act 'ought to be wholly repealed; for though it had once been deemed the support of our trade and of our navy, the state of affairs all over Europe was so altered, that at present it produced for us nothing but inconveniences' (Parl. Reg., vii. 106). Another version of this speech recorded him as urging 'a total repeal of the Navigation Act' as 'a preparatory step to a Peace with America' (Morning Chronicle, 3 May 1782). See also comment on 4 April 1781 in debate on Portuguese trade (St James's Chronicle, 3–5 Apr. 1781). But he seems, as here, to have settled on substantial modification of the act, especially towards America, rather than repeal.
Editor’s Note
1 '3rd a kind of Final appeal to Judicature here' deleted.
Editor’s Note
2 See below, p. 160.
Editor’s Note
4 (1735–1826).
Editor’s Note
5 R. J. Taylor et al., eds., The Papers of John Adams, Cambridge, Mass, 1977–, x. 423. Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, had strongly supported coercive policies towards America.
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