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
Speech on American Trade Bill7 March 1783
Source: Parl. Reg., ix. 441–3.
The version of Burke's speech in Parl. Reg., later reproduced in Parl. Hist., xxiii. 611–14, is a compilation of two newspaper reports: most of it was drawn from the Morning Herald, 8 March 1783 with passages added from the Morning Chronicle, 8 March 1783.
That the newly independent America and Britain should commit themselves to trade as freely as possible with one another had been for Lord Shelburne a fundamental principle of any peace settlement. The American peace negotiators had made it clear that in principle they shared such an objective. Permitting an independent country to trade freely with Britain and its empire would, however, require extensive amendment by Parliament of the commercial regulations known as the Navigation Acts. In October 1782 the British Cabinet decided to postpone putting such complex and controversial issues before Parliament until the rest of the treaty had been concluded. A bill was then drafted for 'the Provisional Establishment and Regulation of Trade and Intercourse between the Subjects of Great Britain and those of the United States of North America'. The bill was intended to make pg 163temporary concessions to Americans, who otherwise would be 'as Aliens, liable to various commercial Restrictions and also to various Duties and Customs', which had not applied to them before the Revolution. Their ships would be allowed into British ports on the same footing as those of 'other Independant Sovereign States' and their produce would only be required to pay the same duties as British subjects paid on their produce. Furthermore, American produce could be carried in American ships into the remaining British colonies, where it would pay the same duties as were charged on British goods imported on British ships.1 In the House of Commons the bill was entrusted to William Pitt, as Shelburne's Chancellor of the Exchequer. By the time a Committee of the Whole House began to consider the bill on 7 March, it was becoming clear both that the Shelburne government could not survive the adverse votes on the peace and that the bill was extremely contentious. The weakening of the Navigation Acts to the apparent benefit of American shipping, above all giving it access to the British West Indies, was being widely condemned. Burke took part in the debate, at first making some jibes against Shelburne's peace, but then offering a significant contribution to the developing controversies specifically about the nature of Britain's future trade with America and about wider issues of commercial policy. In general, Burke believed that concessions should be made to the Americans. What was generally regarded as the most effective pamphlet on the side of a liberal policy towards them2 was written by Burke's long-standing friend and fervent admirer, Richard Champion.3 To at least one contemporary it seemed to be 'Burke's disguised'.4
Mr. Burke laid at the door of Ministers all the mischiefs that were apprehended, and might arise from the bill; they were to be all ascribed to their neglect; and it was astonishing indeed, that in the course of seven months negociation with the American Commissioners at Paris, not one commercial regulation to form an intercourse between the two countries, had ever been so much as talked of.5 The interregnum which had now actually shewn itself, he feared had taken place many months ago, at least there had been, it was obvious, an interregnum of all attention to duty, and all regard for the first and most important interests of the country, when the provisional treaty was negociated at Paris. To that interregnum, he verily and in his conscience believed, were owing the difficulties the House laboured under at that moment. Had not his Majesty's Ministers been guilty of the fatal neglect of not preparing and providing an article for the future regulation of this commerce of this country and America, when they negotiated the treaty with America, the House would not then have felt itself embarrassed as it did, how to proceed with the present bill. Mr. Burke said, that when he had heard that Mr. Oswald was sent over to Paris as a pg 164negociator,1 he took it for granted, it was to negociate a commercial treaty. He could not possibly conceive that when the noble Lord at the head of administration,2 had the most experienced geographer in the world at hand,3 that he would have pitched upon a merchant to negociate a geographical treaty. That noble Lord, instead of applying to those persons, who could have given him some information about the fisheries, Mr. Holdsworth4 (member for Dartmouth) and Mr. Brett,5 had sent merchants into the woods,6 who could give him no assistance. The two negociators7 having passed seven months without having done any thing for the commerce of the country, put him in mind of the two Irishmen, one of whom being asked what he was doing, answered—nothing; and of the other having been asked the same question, replied I am helping him; so that it looked like cross-reading (alluding to Mr. Whitford's propensity and talents)8 to see men's talents, which nature designed for one line of business, employed in another for which nature had not qualified them. This surely was singular conduct in Ministers: but this was not all; for the provisional treaty, such as it was, was signed on the 23rd of November, and yet no plan, no system of commercial intercourse had since been formed; but in the month of March a crude and undigested bill is brought to Parliament without any previous communication with the Americans. However, such as it was, considering the necessity of the times, he would support the principle of the bill, though he disliked the clauses. Mr Burke displayed a great deal of humour in comparing this country and America to a man and a woman courting; he said, the present bill was somewhat like a courtship, if any were to take place between him and a lady, where the natural order of things would be reversed, and the lady would have much to give, he little or nothing to return. So, in the instance of the bill before the House, Great Britain was extremely fond in her wooing, and in her love-fit was ready to give largely; whereas, to his knowledge, America had nothing to give in return. A right honourable member, who had displayed pg 165an uncommon degree of commercial knowledge,1 was afraid that we should lose our manufactures, by the emigration of our artificers, and the exportation of our working tools; as to the latter it was really not worth mentioning; it was one of the puerilities of our laws to forbid the export of manufacturing tools; but this was a farce; we might as well try to prevent the making of hay in America, by forbidding the exportation of scythes. As to the emigration of artificers, he did not think it possible to prevent it: nor indeed would it be very wise to attempt to prevent it; but still he saw little danger from this of our losing our manufactures; it was very well known, that before the war, 8000 persons used to emigrate in a year from the north of Ireland to America, and yet there never was a linen manufacture set up there; the reason was obvious; these persons betook themselves immediately to agriculture, and the grazing of cattle. The cheapness of land, and above all the idleness which necessarily attended upon this cheapness, and which was the greatest and principal boon that America held out to emigrants, naturally prevented men from thinking of manufactures; and while there was an immense extent of territory, of nearly 900,000 square miles, to attract the attention of the inhabitants to agriculture, we had no reason to apprehend, that they would be able for a very long time indeed, to rival us in manufactures. As to the provision trade, the American had it always, for they supplied the islands for years with provisions;2 the loss of the sugar trade would indeed be a heavy loss, and perhaps it must be lost one time or other, but he did not apprehend that loss was near at hand.3 As to Russia, he did not think that she could have any right to be offended. She had a right, indeed, to be treated as the most favored nation of any in existence at the time the treaty was made; but the case of America was a new case; it was a nation sui generis; and therefore was an exception to the treaty, and consequently might be treated better than Russia, without any breach of treaty.4 Ireland might be said to be an independent kingdom, and yet no nation had ever expressed a jealousy at pg 166her ships being more favored in this country than any other. With regard to Ireland herself, he had not a doubt but that she would readily adopt any commercial regulation that England might, in this instance, be under the necessity of making.1 The principle that he wished to lay down, with respect to America would be, not to treat her subjects as aliens; he would rather still treat them as fellow-subjects, as far as he could;2 and establish his regulations rather by an improvement of the old commercial system, than by the introduction of a new one. By the old laws, it was necessary that the American ships should be registered, and bring their certificates with them; now he would have all the prohibitory acts, and all those relative to the registering, repealed, and leave the American vessels in every respect as they were before, in point of trade.3
Edmund Jenings,4 an American by birth who lived in Britain, reported a conversation in which Burke spoke at length about the bill and, after losing his temper, as he was prone to do at this time, made some robust comments about Anglo-American relations. Jenings began by observing:
that I thought the American Trade Bill, which was to come that day before the House, was not likely to Answer any good purpose, for that it was not founded on Equallity & reciprocity; on which he broke out with so much warmth in Justification of it, that would have surprized me, if I had not been informed He was the father of it. . . .5
He told me, the Object of the Bill was to treat Americans not as foreigners, and that was a favor done them. That He thought it could be confered better by the Medium of Parliament, which might certainly repeal its Laws, without causing any just alarm to other Nations; that a Treaty which might give any Extraordinary Advantages to the united States, would violate those which now existed with the Northern Nations, that however he imagined that this Mode would not now be adopted but that a Treaty would be entered into.
He considered the Bill in admitting the Produce of America into England free of Duty, as conferring such a favor & Boon as no Country besides enjoyed, that G. B. taxed the plank and Masts of Norway.
That the Prohibition of American Manufactures into Great Britain was of no Consequence as America had none.
That Parliament did not object to the Admission of real American Manufactures, but was fearful, that under Color thereof, those of other Countries would be brought hither and that it was Impossible to detect the Abuse.
pg 167That if Americans objected to this regulation it showed disposition to Hostility.
That Great Britain could do, As she had done without America.
That she was not yet a conquered Country and ought not to be treated with Insolence, that America ought not to be insolent, to take warnings from the situation of G. B. that Americans who talked of Privileges, were so.
He was very fond of this language and applied the word insolent to every argument used against his Bill. . . .
This is the first time, I have had a free Conversation with this noted Man, if I may form an Opinion of Him from it, He seems to me to have but little Judgement with a most Peremptory Manner.1
Once the Fox-North Coalition was firmly in power, the much-amended bill was abandoned. Ministers announced that direct negotiations were to be opened with the Americans for a commercial treaty. Before these negotiations could make any progress, however, Britain unilaterally imposed a settlement that Americans regarded as highly unfavourable to them. By a proclamation of 2 July 1783, American ships were to be excluded from British colonies, including the much-prized trade from the mainland to the West Indies. This decision was taken by the Coalition in the face of the known desire of Fox and Burke for generous trade concessions. On this point it would seem that they were out-manoeuvred by Lord North and his associates. The proclamation rendered pointless further negotiations with the Americans.