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MR. BURKE'S SPEECH,
ON PRESENTING TO THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, (ON THE
MR. SPEAKER, I
RISE, in acquittal of my engagement to the house, in obedience to the strong and just requisitions of my constituents, and, I am persuaded, in conformity to the unanimous wishes of the whole nation, to submit to the wisdom of parliament, “ A plan of reform in the constitution of several parts of the publick economy.”
I have endeavoured, that this plan should include in its execution, a considerable reduction of improper expense; that, it should effect a conversion of unprofitable titles into a productive estate ; that, it should lead to, and indeed almost compel, a provident administration of such sums of publick money as must remain under discretionary trusts; that, it should render the incurring debts on the civil establishment (which must ultimately affect national strength and national credit) so very difficult, as to become next to impracticable.
But what, I confess, was uppermost with me, what I bent the whole force of my mind to, was the reduction of that corrupt influence, which is itself the perennial spring of all prodigality, and of all disorder; which loads us, more than millions of debt; which takes away vigour from our arms, wisdom from our councils, and every shadow of authority and credit from the most venerable parts of our constitution.
Sir, I assure you, very solemnly, and with a very clear conscience, that nothing in the world has led me to such an undertaking, but my zeal for the honour of this house, and the VOL. II.
settled, habitual, systematick affection I bear to the cause, and to the principles of government.
I enter perfectly into the nature and consequences of my attempt; and I advance to it with a tremour that shakes me to the inmost fibre of my frame. I feel, that I engage in a business, in itself most ungracious, totally wide of the course of prudent conduct; and I really think, the most completely adverse that can be imagined to the natural turn and teniper of my own mind. I know, that all parsimony is of a quality approaching to unkindness; and that (on some person or other) every reform must operate as a sort of punishment. Indeed the whole class of the severe and restrictive virtues, are at a market almost too high for humanity. What is worse, there are very few of those virtues which are not capable of being imitated, and even outdone in many of their most striking effects, by the worst of vices. Malignity and envy will carve much more deeply, and finish much more sharply, in the work of retrenchment, than frugality and providence. I do not, therefore, wonder, that gentlemen have kept away from such a task, as well from good-nature as from prudence. Private feeling might, indeed, be overborne by legislative reason; and a man of a long-sighted and a strong nerved humanity, might bring himself, not so much to consider from whom he takes a superfluous enjoyment, as for whom in the end he may preserve the absolute necessaries of life.
But it is much more easy to reconcile this measure to humanity, than to bring it to any agreement with prudence. I do not mean that little, selfish, pitiful, bastard thing, which sometimes goes by the name of a family in which it is not legitimate, and to which it is a disgrace ;-I mean even that publick and enlarged prudence, which, apprehensive of being disabled from rendering acceptable services to the world, withholds itself from those that are invidious. Gentlemen who are, with me, verging towards the decline of life, and are apt to form their ideas of kings from kings of former times, might dread the anger of a reigning prince ;-they who are more provident of the future, or by being young are more interested in it, might tremble at the resentment of the suc
cessor; they might see a long, dull, dreary, unvaried visto of despair and exclusion, for half a century, before them. This is no pleasant prospect at the outset of a political journey.
Besides this, Sir, the private enemies to be made in all attempts of this kind are innumerable; and their enmity will be the more bitter, and the more dangerous too, because a sense of dignity will oblige them to conceal the cause of their resentment. Very few men of great families and extensive connections, but will feel the smart of a cutting reform, in some close relation, some bosom friend, some pleasant acquaintance, some dear protected dependant. Emolument is taken from some; patronage from others; objects of pursuit from all. Men, forced into an involuntary independence, will abhor the authors of a blessing which in their eyes has so very near a resemblance to a curse. When officers are removed, and the offices remain, you may set the gratitude of some against the anger of others; you may oppose the friends you oblige against the enemies you provoke. But services of the present sort create no attachments. The individual good felt in a publick benefit, is comparatively so small, comes round through such an involved labyrinth of intricate and tedious revolutions; whilst a present personal detriment is so heavy, where it falls, and so instant in its operation, that the cold commendation of a publick advantage never was, and never will be, a match for the quick sensibility of a private loss : and you may depend upon it, Sir, that when many people have an interest in railing, sooner or later, they will bring a considerable degree of unpopularity upon any measure.
So that, for the present at least, the reformation will operate against the reformers; and revenge (as against them at the least) will produce all the effects of corruption.
This, Sir, is almost always the case, where the plan has complete success.
But how stands the matter in the mere attempt? Nothing, you know, is more common, than for men to wish, and call loudly too, for a reformation, who, when it arrives, do by no means like the severity of its aspect. Reformation is one of those pieces which must be put at some distance in order to please. Its greatest favourers love it
better in the abstract than in the substance. When any old prejudice of their own, or any interest that they value, is touched, they become scrupulous, they become captious, and every man has his separate exception. Some pluck out the black hairs, some the grey; one point must be given up to one; another point must be yielded to another ; nothing is suffered to prevail upon its own principle; the whole is so frittered down, and disjointed, that scarcely a trace of the original scheme remains! Thus, between the resistance of power, and the unsystematical process of popularity, the undertaker and the undertaking are both exposed, and the poor reformer is hissed off the stage, both by friends and foes.
Observe, Sir, that the apology for my undertaking (an apology, which, though long, is no longer than necessary) is not grounded on my want of the fullest sense of the difficult and invidious nature of the task I undertake. I risk odium if I succeed, and contempt if I fail. My excuse must rest in mine and your conviction of the absolute, urgent necessity there is, that something of the kind should be done. If there is any sacrifice to be made, either of estimation or of fortune, the smallest is the best. Commanders in chief are not to be put upon the forlorn hope. But, indeed it is necessary that the attempt should be made. It is necessary from our own political circumstances; it is necessary from the operations of the enemy; it is necessary from the demands of the people ; whose desires, when they do not militate with the stable and eternal rules of justice and reason (rules which are above us, and above them) ought to be as a law to a house of commons.
As to our circumstances, I do not mean to aggravate the difficulties of them, by the strength of any colouring whatsoever. On the contrary, I observe, and observe with pleasure, that our affairs rather wear a more promising aspect than they did on the opening of this session. We have had some leading successes. But those who rate them at the highest (higher a great deal indeed than I dare to do) are of opinion, that, upon the ground of such advantages, we cannot at this time hope to make any treaty of peace, which would not be
ruinous and completely disgraceful. In such an anxious state of things, if dawnings of success serve to animate our diligence, they are good; if they tend to increase our presumption, they are worse than defeats. The state of our affairs shall then be as promising as any one may choose to conceive it: it is, however, but promising. We must recollect, that with but half of our natural strength, we are at war against confederated powers, who have singly threatened us with ruin; we must recollect, that whilst we are left naked on one side, our other flank is uncovered by any alliance; that whilst we are weighing and balancing our successes against our losses, we are accumulating debt to the amount of at least fourteen millions in the year. That loss is certain.
I have no wish to deny, that our successes are as brilliant as any one chooses to make them; our resources too may,
be as unfathomable as they are represented. Indeed they are just whatever the people possess, and will submit to pay. Taxing is an easy business. Any projector can contrive new impositions ; any bungler can add to the old. But is it altogether wise to have no other bounds to your impositions, than the patience of those who are to bear them?
All I claim upon the subject of your resources is this, that they are not likely to be increased by wasting them.—I think I shall be permitted to assume, that a system of frugality will not lessen your riches, whatever they may be ;-I believe it will not be hotly disputed, that those resources which lie heavy on the subject, ought not to be objects of preference ; that they ought not to be the very first choice, to an honest representative of the people.
This is all, Sir, that I shall say upon our circumstances and our resources: I mean to say a little more on the operations of the enemy, because this matter seems to me very natural in our present deliberation. When I look to the other side of the water, I cannot help recollecting what Pyrrhus said on reconnoitring the Roman camp, “ These barbarians have nothing barbarous in their discipline.” When I look, as I have pretty carefully looked, into the proceedings of the French king, I am sorry to say it, I see nothing of the char