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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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pg 277Address to the Colonists[January 1777]

Source: Works (1792–1827) v. 141–52

This Address to the Colonists was printed in Works and associated with Burke's letter to Rockingham of 6 January 1777 and the Address to the King. No additional information appears to be available about the date or circumstances of its composition.

Professor Ross Hoffman has suggested that this 'Address to the British Colonists in North America' may have been written when Burke was thinking of going to Paris to see Benjamin Franklin.1 Whatever the case, the document demonstrates Burke's efforts to convince the colonists that a harmonious relationship with the mother country can indeed be for their own ultimate good particularly in the form of military protection from enemies outside the empire and from civil war within. The address also helps to document the Rockinghams' acceptance of the moderate reform ideology, which would eventually culminate in their celebrated 'economical reform' campaign. It is the first public declaration by Burke and the party that some sort of modification might well be necessary in order to adapt the constitution to the needs of an increasingly diffuse and complex empire as it spreads across the face of the earth. If we have 'outgrown the limits of a Constitution made for a contracted object,' it proclaims, 'we ought to bless God, who has furnished us with this noble occasion for displaying our skill and beneficence in enlarging the scale of rational happiness, and of making the politick generosity of this Kingdom as extensive, as its fortune.'2

The very dangerous crisis, into which the British Empire is brought, as it accounts for, so it justifies, the unusual step we take in addressing ourselves to you.

The distempers of the State are grown to such a degree of violence and malignity, as to render all ordinary remedies vain and frivolous. In such a deplorable situation, an adherence to the common forms of business appears to us, rather as an apology to cover a supine neglect of duty, than the means of performing it in a manner adequate to the exigency that presses upon us. The common means we have already tried, and tried to no purpose. As our last resource, we turn ourselves to you. We address you merely in our private capacity; vested with no other authority, than what will naturally attend those, in whose declara-pg 278tions of benevolence you have no reason to apprehend any mixture of dissimulation or design.

We have this title to your attention: we call upon it in a moment of the utmost importance to us all. We find, with infinite concern, that arguments are used to persuade you of the necessity of separating yourselves from your antient connection with your parent Country, grounded on a supposition, that a general principle of alienation and enmity to you had pervaded the whole of this Kingdom; and that there does no longer subsist between you and us any common and kindred principles, upon which we can possibly unite, consistently with those ideas of Liberty, in which you have justly placed your whole happiness.

If this fact were true, the inference drawn from it would be irresistible. But nothing is less founded. We admit, indeed, that violent addresses have been procured, with uncommon pains, by wicked and designing men, purporting to be the genuine voice of the whole people of England; that they have been published by authority here; and made known to you by proclamations;1 in order by despair and resentment incurably to poison your minds against the origins of your race, and to render all cordial reconciliation between us utterly impracticable. The same wicked men, for the same bad purposes, have so far surprised the justice of Parliament, as to cut off all communication betwixt us, except what is to go in their own fallacious and hostile channel.

But we conjure you by the invaluable pledges, which have hitherto united, and which we trust will hereafter lastingly unite us, that you do not suffer yourselves to be persuaded, or provoked into an opinion, that you are at war with this Nation. Do not think, that the whole, or even the uninfluenced majority of Englishmen in this Island, are enemies to their own blood on the American Continent. Much delusion has been practised; much corrupt influence treacherously employed. But still a large, and we trust the largest and soundest part of this Kingdom, perseveres in the most perfect unity of sentiments, principles, and affections, with you. It spreads out a large and liberal platform of common Liberty, upon which we may all unite for ever. It abhors the hostilities, which have been carried on against you, as much as you, who feel the cruel effect of them. It has disclaimed in the pg 279most solemn manner, at the foot of the Throne itself, the addresses, which tended to irritate your Sovereign against his Colonies. We are persuaded, that even many of those, who unadvisedly have put their hands to such intemperate and inflammatory addresses, have not at all apprehended to what such proceedings naturally lead; and would sooner die, than afford them the least countenance, if they were sensible of their fatal effects on the Union and Liberty of the Empire.

For ourselves, we faithfully assure you, that we have ever con-sidered you as rational creatures; as free agents; as men willing to pursue, and able to discern, your own true interest. We have wished to continue united with you, in order, that a people of one origin and one character should be directed to the rational objects of Government by joint Counsels, and protected in them by a common force. Other subordination in you we require none. We have never pressed that argument of general union to the extinction of your local, natural, and just privileges. Sensible of what is due both to the dignity and weak-ness of Man, we have never wished to place over you any Government, over which, in great fundamental points, you should have no sort of check or control in your own hands; or which should be repugnant to your situation, principles, and character.

No circumstances of fortune, you may be assured, will ever induce us to form, or tolerate any such design. If the disposition of Providence (which we deprecate) should even prostrate you at our feet, broken in power and in spirit, it would be our duty and inclination to revive, by every practicable means, that free energy of mind, which a fortune unsuitable to your virtue had damped and dejected; and to put you voluntarily in possession of those very privileges, which you had in vain attempted to assert by arms. For we solemnly declare, that although we should look upon a separation from you as an heavy calamity, (and the heavier because we know you must have your full share in it,) yet we had much rather see you totally independent of this Crown and Kingdom, than joined to it by so unnatural a conjunction, as that of Freedom with Servitude:—a conjunction, which if it were at all practicable, could not fail, in the end, of being more mischievous to the peace, prosperity, greatness, and power of this Nation, than beneficial, by any enlargement of the bounds of nominal empire.

But because, Brethren, these professions are general, and such as even enemies may make, when they reserve to themselves the pg 280construction of what Servitude and what Liberty are, we inform you, that we adopt your own standard of the blessing of free Government. We are of opinion, that you ought to enjoy the sole and exclusive right of freely granting, and applying to the support of your Administration, what God has freely granted as a reward to your industry. And we do not confine this immunity from exterior coercion, in this great point, solely to what regards your local Establishment, but also to what may be thought proper for the maintenance of the whole Empire. In this resource we cheerfully trust and acquiesce; satisfied by evident reason, that no other expectation of revenue can possibly be given by freemen; and knowing from an experience, uniform both on yours and on our side of the Ocean, that such an expectation has never yet been dis-appointed. We know of no road to your coffers, but through your affections.

To manifest our sentiments the more clearly to you and to the world on this subject; we declare our opinion, that if no revenue at all, which however we are far from supposing, were to be obtained from you to this Kingdom, yet as long as it is our happiness to be joined with you in the bonds of fraternal charity and freedom, with an open and flowing commerce between us, one principle of enmity and friendship pervad-ing, and one right of War and Peace directing the strength of the whole Empire, we are likely to be, at least, as powerful as any nation, or as any combination of nations, which in the course of human events may be formed against us. We are sensible that a very large proportion of the wealth and power of every Empire, must necessarily be thrown upon the presiding State. We are sensible that such a State ever has borne, and ever must bear the greatest part, and sometimes the whole, of the public expences: and we think her well indemnified for that (rather apparent than real) inequality of charge, in the dignity and preeminence she enjoys, and in the superior opulence, which after all charges defrayed, must necessarily remain at the center of affairs. Of this principle we are not without evidence in our remembrance (not yet effaced) of the glorious and happy days of this Empire. We are, therefore, incapable of that prevaricating style, by which, when taxes without your consent, are to be extorted from you, this Nation is represented as in the lowest state of impoverishment and public dis-tress; but when we are called upon to oppress you by force of arms, it is painted as scarcely feeling its impositions, abounding with wealth, and inexhaustible in its resources.

pg 281We also reason and feel, as you do, on the invasion of your Charters. Because the Charters comprehend the essential forms, by which you enjoy your liberties, we regard them as most sacred, and by no means to be taken away or altered without process, without examination, and without hearing, as they have lately been. We even think, that they ought by no means to be altered at all, but at the desire of the greater part of the people, who live under them. We cannot look upon men as delinquents in the mass; much less are we desirous of lording over our Brethren, insulting their honest pride, and wantonly overturning establishments, judged to be just and convenient by the public wisdom of this Nation at their institution; and which long and inveterate use has taught you to look up to with affection and reverence. As we disapproved of the proceedings with regard to the forms of your Constitution, so we are equally tender of every leading principle of free Government. We never could think with approbation of putting the military power out of the coercion of the civil justice in the country where it acts.1

We disclaim also any sort of share in that other measure, which has been used to alienate your affections from this Country, namely, the introduction of foreign mercenaries.2 We saw their employment with shame and regret, especially in numbers so far exceeding the English forces, as in effect to constitute vassals, who have no sense of freedom, and strangers, who have no common interest or feelings, as the arbiters of our unhappy domestic quarrel.

We likewise saw with shame the African slaves, who had been sold to you on public faith, and under the sanction of Acts of Parliament, to be your servants and your guards, employed to cut the throats of their masters.3

You will not, we trust, believe, that born in a civilized country, formed to gentle manners, trained in a merciful religion, and living in enlightened and polished times, where even foreign hostility is softened from its original sternness, we could have thought of letting loose upon you, our late beloved Brethren, these fierce tribes of Savages and Cannibals, in whom the traces of human nature are pg 282effaced by ignorance and barbarity. We rather wished to have joined with you, in bringing gradually that unhappy part of mankind into civility, order, piety, and virtuous discipline, than to have confirmed their evil habits, and encreased their natural ferocity, by fleshing them in the slaughter of you, whom our wiser and better ancestors had sent into the Wilderness, with the express view of introducing, along with our holy religion, its humane and charitable manners. We do not hold that all things are lawful in war. We should think, that every barbarity, in fine, in wasting, in murders, in tortures, and other cruelties too horrible and too full of turpitude for Christian mouths to utter or ears to hear, if done at our instigation (by those, who, we know, will make war thus if they make it at all) to be, to all intents and purposes, as if done by ourselves. We clear ourselves to you our Brethren, to the present age and to future generations, to our King and our Country, and to Europe, which, as a spectator, beholds this tragic scene, of every part or share in adding this last and worst of evils to the inevitable mischiefs of a Civil War.

We do not call you Rebels and Traitors. We do not call for the vengeance of the Crown against you. We do not know how to qualify millions of our Countrymen, contending, with one heart, for an ad-mission to privileges, which we have ever thought our own happiness and honour, by odious and unworthy names. On the contrary, we highly revere the principles, on which you act, though we lament some of their effects. Armed as you are, we embrace you as our friends, and as our brethren, by the best and dearest ties of relation.

We view the establishment of the English Colonies on principles of Liberty, as that which is to render this Kingdom venerable to future ages. In comparison of this, we regard all the victories and conquests of our warlike ancestors, or of our own times, as barbarous, vulgar distinctions, in which many nations, whom we look upon with little respect or value, have equalled, if not far exceeded us. This is the peculiar and appropriated glory of England. Those, who have and who hold to that foundation of common Liberty, whether on this or on your side of the Ocean, we consider as the true and the only true Englishmen. Those, who depart from it, whether there or here, are attainted, corrupted in blood, and wholly fallen from their original rank and value. They are the real rebels to the fair constitution and just supremacy of England.

We exhort you, therefore, to cleave for ever to those principles, as pg 283being the true bond of union in this Empire; and to shew, by a manly perseverance, that the sentiments of honour and the rights of mankind are not held by the uncertain events of war, as you have hitherto shewn a glorious and affecting example to the world, that they are not dependant on the ordinary conveniences and satisfactions of life.

Knowing no other arguments to be used to men of liberal minds, it is upon these very principles, and these alone, we hope and trust, that no flattering and no alarming circumstances shall permit you to listen to the seductions of those, who would alienate you from your dependance on the Crown and Parliament of this Kingdom. That very Liberty, which you so justly prize above all things, originated here; and it may be very doubtful, whether without being constantly fed from the original fountain it can be at all perpetuated or preserved in its native purity and perfection. Untried forms of Government may, to unstable minds, recommend themselves even by their novelty. But you will do well to remember, that England has been great and happy under the present limited Monarchy (subsisting in more or less vigour and purity) for several hundred years. None but England can communicate to you the benefits of such a Constitution. We apprehend you are not now, nor for ages are likely to be capable of that form of Constitution in an independent State. Besides, let us suggest to you our apprehensions, that your present union (in which we rejoice, and which we wish long to subsist) cannot always subsist without the authority and weight of this great and long respected Body, to equipoise, and to preserve you amongst yourselves in a just and fair equality. It may not even be impossible, that a long course of war with the Administration of this Country, may be but a prelude to a series of wars and conten-tions among yourselves, to end, at length (as such scenes have too often ended) in a species of humiliating repose, which nothing but the preceding calamities would reconcile to the dispirited few, who survived them. We allow, that even this evil is worth the risque to men of honour, when rational Liberty is at stake, as in the present case we confess and lament that it is. But if ever a real security, by Parliament, is given against the terror or the abuse of unlimited power, and after such security given you should persevere in resistance, we leave you to consider, whether the risque is not incurred without an object; or incurred for an object infinitely diminished, by such concessions, in its importance and value.

As to other points of discussion, when these grand fundamentals pg 284of your Grants and charters are once settled and ratified by clear Parliamentary authority, as the ground for peace and forgiveness on our side, and for a manly and liberal obedience on yours, treaty and a spirit of reconciliation will easily and securely adjust whatever may remain. Of this we give you our word, that so far as we are at present concerned, and if by any event we should become more concerned hereafter, you may rest assured, upon the pledges of honour not forfeited, faith not violated, and uniformity of character and profession not yet broken, we at least, on these grounds, will never fail you.

Respecting your wisdom, and valuing your safety, we do not call upon you to trust your existence to your enemies. We do not advise you to an unconditional submission. With satisfaction we assure you, that almost all, in both Houses (however unhappily they have been deluded, so as not to give any immediate effect to their opinion) disclaim that idea. You can have no friends, in whom you cannot rationally confide. But Parliament is your friend from the moment, in which, removing its confidence from those, who have constantly deceived its good intentions, it adopts the sentiments of those, who have made sacrifices (inferior indeed to yours) but have, however, sacrificed enough to demonstrate the sincerity of their regard and value for your liberty and prosperity.

Arguments may be used to weaken your confidence in that publick security; because from some unpleasant appearances, there is a sus-picion, that Parliament itself is somewhat fallen from its independent spirit. How far this supposition may be founded in fact, we are un-willing to determine. But we are well assured, from experience, that even if all were true, that is contended for, and in the extent too, in which it is argued, yet as long as the solid and well disposed forms of this Constitution remain, there ever is within Parliament itself a power of renovating its principles, and effecting a self-reformation, which no other plan of Government has ever contained. This Constitution has therefore admitted innumerable improvements, either for the correc-tion of the original scheme, or for removing corruptions, or for bring-ing its principles better to suit those changes, which have successively happened in the circumstances of the nation, or in the manners of the people.

We feel, that the growth of the Colonies is such a change of circumstances; and that our present dispute is an exigency as pressing, as any which ever demanded a revision of our Government. Public pg 285troubles have often called upon this Country to look into its Constitu-tion. It has ever been bettered by such a revision. If our happy and luxuriant encrease of dominion, and our diffused population, has outgrown the limits of a Constitution made for a contracted object, we ought to bless God, who has furnished us with this noble occasion for displaying our skill and beneficence in enlarging the scale of rational happiness, and of making the politick generosity of this Kingdom as extensive, as its fortune. If we set about this great work on both sides, with the same conciliatory turn of mind, we may now, as in former times, owe even to our mutual mistakes, contentions and animosities, the lasting concord, freedom, happiness, and glory of this Empire.

Gentlemen, the distance between us, with other obstructions, has caused much misrepresentation of our mutual sentiments. We, there-fore, to obviate them as well as we are able, take this method of assuring you of our thorough detestation of the whole War; and par-ticularly the mercenary and savage War, carried on or attempted against you; our thorough abhorrence of all addresses adverse to you, whether public or private; our assurances of an invariable affection towards you; our constant regard to your privileges and Liberties; and our opinion of the solid security you ought to enjoy for them, under the paternal care and nurture of a protecting Parliament.

Though many of us have earnestly wished, that the authority of that august and venerable body, so necessary in many respects to the union of the whole, should be rather limited by its own equity and discretion, than by any bounds described by positive laws and public compacts; and though we felt the extreme difficulty, by any theoretical limitations, of qualifying that authority, so as to preserve one part and deny another; and though you (as we gratefully acknowledge) had acquiesced most cheerfully under that prudent reserve of the Constitution, at that happy moment, when neither you nor we apprehended a further return of the exercise of invidious powers, we are now as fully persuaded, as you can be, by the malice, inconstancy, and perverse inquietude of many men, and by the incessant endeavours of an arbitrary faction, now too powerful, that our common necessities do require a full explanation and ratified security for your liberties and our quiet.

Although His Majesty's condescension in committing the direction of his affairs into the hands of the known friends of his family, and of the liberties of all his People, would, we admit, be a great means of giving repose to your minds, as it must give infinite facility to pg 286reconciliation, yet we assure you, that we think, with such a security, as we recommend, adopted from necessity and not choice even by the unhappy authors and instruments of the public misfortunes, that the terms of reconciliation, if once accepted by Parliament, would not be broken. We also pledge ourselves to you, that we should give even to those unhappy persons an hearty support in effectuating the peace of the Empire; and every opposition in an attempt to cast it again into disorder.

When that happy hour shall arrive, let us in all affection recommend to you the wisdom of continuing, as in former times, or even in a more ample measure, the support of your Government, and even to give to your Administration some degree of reciprocal interest in your freedom. We earnestly wish you not to furnish your Enemies here or elsewhere, with any sort of pretexts for reviving quarrels, by too reserved and severe or penurious an exercise of those sacred rights, which no pretended abuse in the exercise ought to impair, nor, by overstraining the principles of freedom, to make them less compatible with those haughty sentiments in others, which the very same prin-ciples may be apt to breed in minds not tempered with the utmost equity and justice.

The well wishers of the liberty and union of this Empire salute you, and recommend you most heartily to the Divine protection.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 Corr. iii. 310–11; R. J. S. Hoffman, The Marquess: A Study of Lord Rockingham 1730–1782, New York, 1973, p. 340.
Editor’s Note
2 Below, p. 285.
Editor’s Note
1 Presumably, Burke is referring in particular to 'A Proclamation by the King for the Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition', 23 August 1775. See Documents of American History, ed. H. S. Commager, 2nd edn., New York, 1942, p. 96.
Editor’s Note
1 Burke is referring here to the Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice in Massachusetts Bay (14 Geo. III, c.39). It gave the Governor of the American colonies the right to send at his discretion, military and other officials to another colony or to Britain to be tried for indictable offences.
Editor’s Note
2 See Burke's speech of 29 February 1776 on the German treaties, above, p. 221.
Editor’s Note
3 See Burke's petition of [1775] on the use of Indians, above, pp. 179–81.
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