Edmund Burke (1729–97) was a member of British Parliament at the time of this speech. He was elected as the representative from Bristol in 1774. Prior to his election, Burke served as secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham (1730–82), a Whig member of the House of Commons elected in 1765. While the Whig party had many factions, the faction led by Rockingham (who twice served as prime minister) was known as the Rockingham Whigs. Burke served as the primary spokesperson of the group. It lobbied strongly against the taxing of American colonists and, later, the war against the colonies. Burke rose to prominence during the controversy with King George III (1738–1820) over whether the king or the Parliament was the head of the executive per the British constitution. Burke argued that even though certain actions taken by the king were technically not prohibited by the explicit text of the constitution, they violated the spirit of the document. The spirit of the document sought to ensure that the power for selecting government ministers should rest with the people and not directly with the king. Burke believed that although members of Parliament were representatives of their constituents, they should not just represent their particular special interests but should strive to act in the best interest of the nation as a whole. He saw Parliament as the ultimate representation of the interests of the public and sought to limit the power of the monarchy whenever he could.
Burke was closely involved with the ongoing conflict over taxation in the American colonies. His first speech on this topic in front of Parliament, “On American Taxation,” argued the need for compromise with the colonies. The speech was part of the debates surrounding the Intolerable Acts which were passed in 1774. These acts were a way to punish the American colonies for dumping British tea into the Boston Harbor in 1773 (known as the Boston Tea Party). In the 1774 speech Burke argues for the repeal of the tea tax and a real effort to make peace with the American colonies before it is too late.
The American Colonies
Hostilities between Great Britain and the American colonies were at a breaking point at the time of Burke’s speech. The following events had already occured:
- The first of a series of new taxes Great Britain levied on the American colonies was the Stamp Act of 1765. The act sought to require a tax on all paper documents. It was repealed in 1766 after widespread opposition from the colonies.
- The Stamp Act was followed by the Townshend Acts of 1767—a system of taxation on British imports. The taxation was so strongly resisted by colonists that British troops had to intervene and become permanent fixtures in Boston.
- These tensions between colonists and the British government resulted in what became known as The Boston Massacre of 1770. In this skirmish British troops fired on Boston colonists, killing five people.
- Perhaps the most significant and infamous event leading up to Burke’s speech was the Boston Tea Party of 1773. In response to the Tea Act, which taxed British tea, American colonists threw 92,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor.
- Parliament passed the Coercive Acts of 1774—a series of laws designed to punish the colonists for the Tea Party. These acts included a provision replacing the colonial council with a British one, and a provision known as the Quartering Act that forced colonists to pay to feed and house British troops in unoccupied structures in their towns.
Burke makes this speech before Parliament within this environment of great tension and rising hostilities in the American colonies.
Burke begins his speech with an explanation of how it is urgent and vital that the issue of conflict with the colonies be quickly addressed. He explains that he is quite confident in his appeal and hopeful that those listening will accept it because it is quite reasonable. Peace is his ultimate proposition, though his notion of peace is nuanced. For Burke peace with the colonies doesn’t mean the ultimate resolution of war or the peace that comes from negotiations or direct governmental actions. It is a “simple peace” that would result from a true ability to understand and respect the perspectives of others. This peace comes not through force but through genuine feelings of loyalty and allegiance that subjects of any government operating justly would have.
Rights as British Citizens
Burke explains that the American colonies are part of the British empire, and its residents are British citizens. As such they should be afforded the same rights as any other British citizen. Such rights are guaranteed under the British Constitution. If such rights are preserved, then the residents of the colonies will see themselves as full members of the empire and remain loyal to it. Burke believes the problem is that the colonies have become something separate and aren’t fully afforded the rights they deserve. Representation in the government of the empire and a share in its decision-making are the most important rights the colonies are being denied. Yet the colonies are being taxed mercilessly, which ultimately will not generate the revenue the nation needs if the colonies are lost in exchange.
The Wealth of a Nation
After arguing that the residents of the colonies are British citizens, Burke explains that it is not taxation that has built the British Empire and its armies but rather the loyalty of its subjects. This is the true strength of the nation and the very thing that is soon to dissipate under the current conditions in the colonies. Without this loyalty, Burke argues, the nation and the British empire would be nothing.
Critics and the Path Forward
In the final part of his speech, Burke addresses his critics, “those vulgar and mechanical politicians who have no place among us.” He explains that such men, who value revenue over human freedom, have no right place in the discussion and should be ignored.
The only path forward, in Burke’s mind, is to work toward happiness for all British citizens, both those living on the island and those residing in the colonies. Colonists must not be hampered in their quest for prosperity through prohibitive taxation but rather encouraged to continue to grow their wealth, because that wealth ultimately benefits the whole of the British empire.
Appeal to Reason
Burke’s speech is delivered during the period of European history generally referred to as the enlightenment or the “Age of Reason.” This movement, popular throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, maintained that use of human intellect and reason could improve the human condition to a state of greater happiness. Enlightenment politicians like Burke were influenced by such notions. Throughout his appeal, Burke strives to make clear that a course of action that maintains good relations with the colonies is a reasonable and logical strategy. Not maintaining such relations could lead to a major loss of both economic and human capital.
Burke doesn’t attempt to appeal to the emotions of his fellow countrymen. Instead he capitalizes on his listeners’ clear understanding of just how much the colonies mean and their understanding of the rights afforded all citizens in the British constitution. These are reasonable considerations that Parliament cannot easily ignore.
God and British Empire
Burke does not see Christianity as contrary to reason but rather a complement to it. Toward the end of his speech, he uses the Latin Sursum corda, which literally translates to “Lift up your hearts.”
Burke reminds listeners that this is good advice in all things and that Parliament should allow their Christian hearts to be open to the innate desires of the American colonists, which mirror the innate desires of all British citizens and include the quest for freedom and self-determination. In Burke’s opinion, God has called the British empire specifically toward forward progress and toward the triumph of civilization over barbarism. After all, this is what allowed the British colonists to be so successful in the Americas in the first place.
Legitimacy of Government
Though Burke is a strong believer in the value of the constitution, he sees the spirit of the law as outweighing the letter of the law. As such he makes the argument in his address that it is the human element that gives the British Parliament (and all of British government) its powers. While written policies exist they are not—as a separate entity—what makes government. It is the spirit of the law as exemplified by the “mighty mass” of British citizens that gives the government its right to govern. Without this spirit and the accompanying will of the people, government becomes only archaic words on paper.
Other Versions of the Speech
Edmund Burke’s parliamentary speeches tended to be quite long. In fact his 1774 speech on American taxation was more than twenty pages long and required him to take a break because he began to lose his voice! This 1775 speech was also quite verbose. The original version is available here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5655/5655-h/5655-h.htm. The primary difference between this unabridged version and the common excerpted version is the inclusion of more specific supporting points and details to further bolster Burke’s argument. Most notably Burke includes significant discussion of the great value of the American colonies in terms of global trade and references relevant statistical information. He also goes into some detail about the way that the colonists, because of their remoteness from the mother country, have developed a “fierce spirit of liberty” that Parliament must strive to understand. In this full version Burke also presents a thorough outline of the grievances of the American colonists, most notably taxation without parliamentary representation.
Below are excerpts from the first fifth of the speech. The speech is public domain. All 24,000 words are available at Project Gutenberg
In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and as an ardent is always a jealous affection, your colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest from them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane, what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth; and this from a great variety of powerful causes; which, to understand the true temper of their minds, and the direction which this spirit takes, it will not be amiss to lay open somewhat more largely.
First, the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness. It happened, you know, Sir, that the great contests for freedom in this country were from the earliest times chiefly upon the question of taxing. Most of the contests in the ancient commonwealths turned primarily on the right of election of magistrates; or on the balance among the several orders of the state. The question of money was not with them so immediate. But in England it was otherwise. On this point of taxes the ablest pens, and most eloquent tongues, have been exercised; the greatest spirits have acted and suffered. In order to give the fullest satisfaction concerning the importance of this point, it was not only necessary for those who in argument defended the excellence of the English constitution, to insist on this privilege of granting money as a dry point of fact, and to prove, that the right had been acknowledged in ancient parchments, and blind usages, to reside in a certain body called a House of Commons. They went much farther; they attempted to prove, and they succeeded, that in theory it ought to be so, from the particular nature of a House of Commons, as an immediate representative of the people; whether the old records had delivered this oracle or not. They took infinite pains to inculcate, as a fundamental principle, that in all monarchies the people must in effect themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. The colonies draw from you, as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe, or might be endangered, in twenty other particulars, without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound. I do not say whether they were right or wrong in applying your general arguments to their own case. It is not easy indeed to make a monopoly of theorems and corollaries. The fact is, that they did thus apply those general arguments; and your mode of governing them, whether through lenity or indolence, through wisdom or mistake, confirmed them in the imagination, that they, as well as you, had an interest in these common principles.
They were further confirmed in this pleasing error by the form of their provincial legislative assemblies. Their governments are popular in a high degree; some are merely popular; in all, the popular representative is the most weighty; and this share of the people in their ordinary government never fails to inspire them with lofty sentiments, and with a strong aversion from whatever tends to deprive them of their chief importance.
If anything were wanting to this necessary operation of the form of government, religion would have given it a complete effect. Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it. I do not think, Sir, that the reason of this averseness in the dissenting churches, from all that looks like absolute government, is so much to be sought in their religious tenets, as in their history. Every one knows that the Roman Catholic religion is at least coeval with most of the governments where it prevails; that it has generally gone hand in hand with them, and received great favour and every kind of support from authority. The Church of England too was formed from her cradle under the nursing care of regular government. But the dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.
Sir, I can perceive by their manner, that some gentlemen object to the latitude of this description; because in the southern colonies the Church of England forms a large body, and has a regular establishment. It is certainly true. There is, however, a circumstance attending these colonies, which, in my opinion, fully counterbalances this difference, and makes the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty than in those to the northward. It is, that in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty, than those to the northward. Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic ancestors; such in our days were the Poles; and such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.
Permit me, Sir, to add another circumstance in our colonies, which contributes no mean part towards the growth and effect of this untractable spirit. I mean their education. In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavour to obtain some smattering in that science. I have been told by an eminent bookseller, that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those on the law exported to the plantations. The colonists have now fallen into the way of printing them for their own use. I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentaries in America as in England. General Gage marks out this disposition very particularly in a letter on your table. He states, that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law; and that in Boston they have been enabled, by successful chicane, wholly to evade many parts of one of your capital penal constitutions. The smartness of debate will say, that this knowledge ought to teach them more clearly the rights of legislature, their obligations to obedience, and the penalties of rebellion. All this is mighty well. But my honourable and learned friend on the floor, who condescends to mark what I say for animadversion, will disdain that ground. He has heard, as well as I, that when great honours and great emoluments do not win over this knowledge to the service of the state, it is a formidable adversary to government. If the spirit be not tamed and broken by these happy methods, it is stubborn and litigious. Abeunt studia in mores. This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.
The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies is hardly less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid deep in the natural constitution of things. Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government. Seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution; and the want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system. You have, indeed, winged ministers of vengeance, who carry your bolts in their pounces to the remotest verge of the sea. But there a power steps in, that limits the arrogance of raging passions and furious elements, and says, “So far shalt thou go, and no farther.” Who are you, that should fret and rage, and bite the chains of nature?—Nothing worse happens to you than does to all nations who have extensive empire; and it happens in all the forms into which empire can be thrown. In large bodies, the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern Egypt, and Arabia, and Curdistan, as he governs Thrace; nor has he the same dominion in Crimea and Algiers, which he has at Brusa and Smyrna. Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster. The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigour of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders. Spain, in her provinces, is, perhaps, not so well obeyed as you are in yours. She complies too; she submits; she watches times. This is the immutable condition, the eternal law, of extensive and detached empire.
Then, Sir, from these six capital sources; of descent; of form of government; of religion in the northern provinces; of manners in the southern; of education; of the remoteness of situation from the first mover of government; from all these causes a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up. It has grown with the growth of the people in your colonies, and increased with the increase of their wealth; a spirit, that unhappily meeting with an exercise of power in England, which, however lawful, is not reconcilable to any ideas of liberty, much less with theirs, has kindled this flame that is ready to consume us.
I do not mean to commend either the spirit in this excess, or the moral causes which produce it. Perhaps a more smooth and accommodating spirit of freedom in them would be more acceptable to us. Perhaps ideas of liberty might be desired, more reconcilable with an arbitrary and boundless authority. Perhaps we might wish the colonists to be persuaded, that their liberty is more secure when held in trust for them by us (as their guardians during a perpetual minority) than with any part of it in their own hands. The question is, not whether their spirit deserves praise or blame, but—what, in the name of God, shall we do with it? You have before you the object, such as it is, with all its glories, with all its imperfections on its head. You see the magnitude; the importance; the temper; the habits; the disorders. By all these considerations we are strongly urged to determine something concerning it. We are called upon to fix some rule and line for our future conduct, which may give a little stability to our politics, and prevent the return of such unhappy deliberations as the present. Every such return will bring the matter before us in a still more untractable form. For, what astonishing and incredible things have we not seen already! What monsters have not been generated from this unnatural contention! Whilst every principle of authority and resistance has been pushed, upon both sides, as far as it would go, there is nothing so solid and certain, either in reasoning or in practice, that has not been shaken. Until very lately, all authority in America seemed to be nothing but an emanation from yours. Even the popular part of the colony constitution derived all its activity, and its first vital movement, from the pleasure of the crown. We thought, Sir, that the utmost which the discontented colonists could do, was to disturb authority; we never dreamt they could of themselves supply it; knowing in general what an operose business it is to establish a government absolutely new. But having, for our purposes in this contention, resolved, that none but an obedient assembly should sit; the humours of the people there, finding all passage through the legal channel stopped, with great violence broke out another way. Some provinces have tried their experiment, as we have tried ours; and theirs has succeeded. They have formed a government sufficient for its purposes, without the bustle of a revolution, or the troublesome formality of an election. Evident necessity, and tacit consent, have done the business in an instant. So well they have done it, that Lord Dunmore (the account is among the fragments on your table) tells you, that the new institution is infinitely better obeyed than the ancient government ever was in its most fortunate periods. Obedience is what makes government, and not the names by which it is called; not the name of governor, as formerly, or committee, as at present. This new government has originated directly from the people; and was not transmitted through any of the ordinary artificial media of a positive constitution. It was not a manufacture ready formed, and transmitted to them in that condition from England. The evil arising from hence is this; that the colonists having once found the possibility of enjoying the advantages of order in the midst of a struggle for liberty, such struggles will not henceforward seem so terrible to the settled and sober part of mankind as they had appeared before the trial.
Pursuing the same plan of punishing by the denial of the exercise of government to still greater lengths, we wholly abrogated the ancient government of Massachusetts. We were confident that the first feeling, if not the very prospect of anarchy, would instantly enforce a complete submission. The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable. A vast province has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigour, for near a twelvemonth, without governor, without public council, without judges, without executive magistrates. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture? Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be; or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles, which entirely overrule those we had considered as omnipotent. I am much against any further experiments, which tend to put to the proof any more of these allowed opinions, which contribute so much to the public tranquillity. In effect, we suffer as much at home by this loosening of all ties, and this concussion of all established opinions, as we do abroad. For, in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavouring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself; and we never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles, or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors have shed their blood.