Item of the Day: Burke's Speeches at Bristol (1774)
Biographical, Literary, and Political Anecdotes, of Several of the Most Eminent Persons of The Present Age. Never before Printed. With an Appendix: consisting of original, explanatory, and Scarce Papers. By the Author of Anecdotes of the Late Earl of Chatham. Historiam, Omnium Secretorum Memoriam Dico. -- Cicero. In Three Volumes. Volume III.
Printed in London for T.N. Longman and L.B. Seeley, 1797.
Bristol, October 18, 1774.
The following is Mr. Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol, from the Hustings.
I am come hither to solicit in person, that favor which my friends have hitherto endeavoured to procure for me, by the most obliging, and to me the most honourable exertions.
I have so high an opinion of the great trust which you have to confer on this occasion, and by long experience, so just a diffidence in my abilities, to fill it in a manner inadequate even to my own ideas, that I should never have ventured of myself to intrude into that awful situation. But since I am called upon by the desire of several respectable fellow subjects, as I have done at other times, I give up my fears to their wishes. Whatever my other deficiencies may be, I do not know what it is to be wanting to my Friends.
I am not fond of attempting to raise public expectation by great promises. At this time there is much cause to consider and very little to presume. We seem to be approaching to a great crisis in our affairs, which calls for the whole wisdom of the wisest among us, without being able to assure ourselves, that any wisdom can preserve us from man and great inconveniences. You know I speak of our unhappy contest with America. I confess it is a matter on which I look down from a precipice. It is difficult in itself, and it is rendered more intricate by a great variety of plans of conduct. I do not mean to enter into them. I will not suspect a want of good intention in framing them. But however pure the intentions of their authors may have been, we all know that the event has been unfortunate. The means of recovering our affairs are not obvious. So many great questions of commerce, of finance, of constitution, and of policy, are involved in this American deliberation, that I dare engage for nothing, but that I shall give it, without any predilection to former opinions, or any sinister bias whatsoever, the honest and impartial consideration of which I am capable. The public has a full right to it; and this great city, a main pillar in the commercial interest of Great Britain, must totter on its base by the slightest mistake, with regard to our American measures. Thus much however, I think it not amiss to lay before you: That I am not, I hope, apt to take up or lay down my opinions lightly. I have held, and ever shall maintain to the best of my power, unimpaired and undiminished, the just, wise and necessary constitutional superiority of Great Britain. This is necessary for America, as well as for us. I never mean to depart from it. Whatever may be lost by it, I avow it. The forfeiture even of your favour, if by such a declaration I could forfeit it, though the first object of my ambition, never will make me disguise my sentiments on this subject.
But I have ever had a clear opinion, and have ever held a constant correspondent conduct, that this superiority is consistent with all the liberties a sober and spirited American ought to desire. I never mean to put any colonist, or any human creature, in a situation, not becoming a free-man. To reconcile British superiority with American liberty shall be my great object, as far as my little faculties extend. I am far from thinking that both, even yet, may not be preserved.
When I first devoted myself to the public service, I considered how I should render myself fit for it; and this I did by endeavouring to discover what it was, that gave this country the rank it holds in the world; I found that our prosperity and dignity arose principally, if not solely, from two sources; our constitution and our commerce. Both these I have spared no study to understand, and to endeavor to support.
The distinguishing part of our constitution is it s liberty. To preserve that liberty inviolate seems the particular duty and proper trust of a member of the House of Commons. But the liberty, the only liberty I mean, is a liberty connected with order: that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them. It inheres in good steady government, as in its substance and vital principle.
The other source of our power is commerce, of which you are so large a part, and which cannot exist, no more than your liberty, without a connection with many virtues. It has ever been a very particular and a very favourite object of my study in its Principles, and in its details. I think many here are acquainted with the truth of what I say. This I know, that I have ever had my house open, and my poor services ready for traders and manufacturers of every denomination. My favourite ambition is to have those services acknowledged. I now appear before you to make trial, whether my earnest endeavours have been so wholly oppressed by the weakness of my abilities, as to be rendered insignificant in the eyes of a great trading city; or whether you chuse to give a weight to humble abilities, for the sake of the honest exertions with which they are accompanied. This is my trial to-day. My industry is not on trial; of my industry I am sure, as far as my constitution of mind and body admitted.
When I was invited by many respectable merchants, freeholders, and freemen of this city, to offer them my services, I had just received the honour of an election at another place, at a very great distance from this. I immediately opened the matter to those of my worthy constituents, who were with me, and they unanimously advised me not to decline it; that they had elected me with a view to the public service; and that as great questions relative to our commerce and colonies were imminent, and in such matters I might derive authority and support from the representation of this great commercial city; they desired me therefore to set off without delay, very well persuaded that I never could forget my obligations to them, or to my friends for the choice they had made of me. From that time to this instant I have not slept, and if I should have the honour of being freely chosen by you, I hope I shall be as far from slumbering or sleeping when your service requires me to be awake, as I have been in coming to offer myself a candidate for your favour."