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Sir, - I had the honor to receive your letter of the 17th of November
last, in which, with some exceptions, you are pleased to consider
favorably the letter I have written on the affairs of France. I shall
ever accept any mark of approbation attended with instruction with more
pleasure than general and unqualified praises. The latter can serve only
to flatter our vanity; the former, whilst it encourages us to proceed,
may help to improve us in our progress.

Some of the errors you point out to me in my printed letter are really
such. One only I find to be material. It is corrected in the edition
which I take the liberty of sending to you. As to the cavils which may
be made on some part of my remarks with regard to the _gradations_ in
your new Constitution, you observe justly that they do not affect the
substance of my objections. Whether there be a round more or less in the
ladder of representation by which your workmen ascend from their
parochial tyranny to their federal anarchy, when the whole scale is
false, appears to me of little or no importance.

I published my thoughts on that Constitution, that my countrymen might
be enabled to estimate the wisdom of the plans which were held out to
their imitation. I conceived that the true character of those plans
would be best collected from the committee appointed to prepare them. I
thought that the scheme of their building would be better comprehended
in the design of the architects than in the execution of the masons. It
was not worth my reader's while to occupy himself with the alterations
by which bungling practice corrects absurd theory. Such an investigation
would be endless: because every day's past experience of
impracticability has driven, and every day's future experience will
drive, those men to new devices as exceptionable as the old, and which
are no otherwise worthy of observation than as they give a daily proof
of the delusion of their promises and the falsehood of their
professions. Had I followed all these changes, my letter would have been
only a gazette of their wanderings, a journal of their march from error
to error, through a dry, dreary desert, unguided by the lights of
Heaven, or by the contrivance which wisdom has invented to supply their

I am unalterably persuaded that the attempt to oppress, degrade,
impoverish, confiscate, and extinguish the original gentlemen and landed
property of a whole nation cannot be justified under any form it may
assume. I am satisfied beyond a doubt, that the project of turning a
great empire into a vestry, or into a collection of vestries, and of
governing it in the spirit of a parochial administration, is senseless
and absurd, in any mode or with any qualifications. I can never be
convinced that the scheme of placing the highest powers of the state in
church-wardens and constables and other such officers, guided by the
prudence of litigious attorneys and Jew brokers, and set in action by
shameless women of the lowest condition, by keepers of hotels, taverns,
and brothels, by pert apprentices, by clerks, shop-boys, hair-dressers,
fiddlers, and dancers on the stage, (who, in such a commonwealth as
yours, will in future overbear, as already they have overborne, the
sober incapacity of dull, uninstructed men, of useful, but laborious
occupations,) can never be put into any shape that must not be both
disgraceful and destructive. The whole of this project, even if it were
what it pretends to be, and was not in reality the dominion, through
that disgraceful medium, of half a dozen, or perhaps fewer, intriguing
politicians, is so mean, so low-minded, so stupid a contrivance, in
point of wisdom, as well as so perfectly detestable for its wickedness,
that I must always consider the correctives which might make it in any
degree practicable to be so many new objections to it.

In that wretched state of things, some are afraid that the authors of
your miseries may be led to precipitate their further designs by the
hints they may receive from the very arguments used to expose the
absurdity of their system, to mark the incongruity of its parts, and its
inconsistency with their own principles, - and that your masters may be
led to render their schemes more consistent by rendering them more
mischievous. Excuse the liberty which your indulgence authorizes me to
take, when I observe to you that such apprehensions as these would
prevent all exertion of our faculties in this great cause of mankind.

A rash recourse to _force_ is not to be justified in a state of real
weakness. Such attempts bring on disgrace, and in their failure
discountenance and discourage more rational endeavors. But _reason_ is
to be hazarded, though it may be perverted by craft and sophistry; for
reason can suffer no loss nor shame, nor can it impede any useful plan
of future policy. In the unavoidable uncertainty as to the effect,
which attends on every measure of human prudence, nothing seems a surer
antidote to the poison of fraud than its detection. It is true, the
fraud may be swallowed after this discovery, and perhaps even swallowed
the more greedily for being a detected fraud. Men sometimes make a point
of honor not to be disabused; and they had rather fall into an hundred
errors than confess one. But, after all, when neither our principles nor
our dispositions, nor, perhaps, our talents, enable us to encounter
delusion with delusion, we must use our best reason to those that ought
to be reasonable creatures, and to take our chance for the event. We
cannot act on these anomalies in the minds of men. I do not conceive
that the persons who have contrived these things can be made much the
better or the worse for anything which can be said to them. _They_ are
reason-proof. Here and there, some men, who were at first carried away
by wild, good intentions, may be led, when their first fervors are
abated, to join in a sober survey of the schemes into which they had
been deluded. To those only (and I am sorry to say they are not likely
to make a large description) we apply with any hope. I may speak it upon
an assurance almost approaching to absolute knowledge, that nothing has
been done that has not been contrived from the beginning, even before
the States had assembled. _Nulla nova mihi res inopinave surgit._ They
are the same men and the same designs that they were from the first,
though varied in their appearance. It was the very same animal that at
first crawled about in the shape of a caterpillar that you now see rise
into the air and expand his wings to the sun.

Proceeding, therefore, as we are obliged to proceed, - that is, upon an
hypothesis that we address rational men, - can false political principles
be more effectually exposed than by demonstrating that they lead to
consequences directly inconsistent with and subversive of the
arrangements grounded upon them? If this kind of demonstration is not
permitted, the process of reasoning called _deductio ad absurdum_, which
even the severity of geometry does not reject, could not be employed at
all in legislative discussions. One of our strongest weapons against
folly acting with authority would be lost.

You know, Sir, that even the virtuous efforts of your patriots to
prevent the ruin of your country have had this very turn given to them.
It has been said here, and in France too, that the reigning usurpers
would not have carried their tyranny to such destructive lengths, if
they had not been stimulated and provoked to it by the acrimony of your
opposition. There is a dilemma to which every opposition to successful
iniquity must, in the nature of things, be liable. If you lie still, you
are considered as an accomplice in the measures in which you silently
acquiesce. If you resist, you are accused of provoking irritable power
to new excesses. The conduct of a losing party never appears right: at
least, it never can possess the only infallible criterion of wisdom to
vulgar judgments, - success.

The indulgence of a sort of undefined hope, an obscure confidence, that
some lurking remains of virtue, some degree of shame, might exist in the
breasts of the oppressors of France, has been among the causes which
have helped to bring on the common ruin of king and people. There is no
safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men,
and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief.
I well remember, at every epocha of this wonderful history, in every
scene of this tragic business, that, when your sophistic usurpers were
laying down mischievous principles, and even applying them in direct
resolutions, it was the fashion to say that they never intended to
execute those declarations in their rigor. This made men careless in
their opposition, and remiss in early precaution. By holding out this
fallacious hope, the impostors deluded sometimes one description of men,
and sometimes another, so that no means of resistance were provided
against them, when they came to execute in cruelty what they had planned
in fraud.

There are cases in which a man would be ashamed not to have been imposed
on. There is a confidence necessary to human intercourse, and without
which men are often more injured by their own suspicions than they would
be by the perfidy of others. But when men whom we _know_ to be wicked
impose upon us, we are something worse than dupes. When we know them,
their fair pretences become new motives for distrust. There is one case,
indeed, in which it would be madness not to give the fullest credit to
the most deceitful of men, - that is, when they make declarations of
hostility against us.

I find that some persons entertain other hopes, which I confess appear
more specious than those by which at first so many were deluded and
disarmed. They flatter themselves that the extreme misery brought upon
the people by their folly will at last open the eyes of the multitude,
if not of their leaders. Much the contrary, I fear. As to the leaders in
this system of imposture, - you know that cheats and deceivers never can
repent. The fraudulent have no resource but in fraud. They have no other
goods in their magazine. They have no virtue or wisdom in their minds,
to which, in a disappointment concerning the profitable effects of fraud
and cunning, they can retreat. The wearing out of an old serves only to
put them upon the invention of a new delusion. Unluckily, too, the
credulity of dupes is as inexhaustible as the invention of knaves. They
never give people possession; but they always keep them in hope. Your
state doctors do not so much as pretend that any good whatsoever has
hitherto been derived from their operations, or that the public has
prospered in any one instance under their management. The nation is
sick, very sick, by their medicines. But the charlatan tells them that
what is past cannot be helped; - they have taken the draught, and they
must wait its operation with patience; - that the first effects, indeed,
are unpleasant, but that the very sickness is a proof that the dose is
of no sluggish operation; - that sickness is inevitable in all
constitutional revolutions; - that the body must pass through pain to
ease; - that the prescriber is not an empiric who proceeds by vulgar
experience, but one who grounds his practice[1] on the sure rules of
art, which cannot possibly fail. You have read, Sir, the last manifesto,
or mountebank's bill, of the National Assembly. You see their
presumption in their promises is not lessened by all their failures in
the performance. Compare this last address of the Assembly and the
present state of your affairs with the early engagements of that body,
engagements which, not content with declaring, they solemnly deposed
upon oath, - swearing lustily, that, if they were supported, they would
make their country glorious and happy; and then judge whether those who
can write such things, or those who can bear to read them, are of
_themselves_ to be brought to any reasonable course of thought or

As to the people at large, when once these miserable sheep have broken
the fold, and have got themselves loose, not from the restraint, but
from the protection, of all the principles of natural authority and
legitimate subordination, they become the natural prey of impostors.
When they have once tasted of the flattery of knaves, they can no longer
endure reason, which appears to them only in the form of censure and
reproach. Great distress has never hitherto taught, and whilst the world
lasts it never will teach, wise lessons to any part of mankind. Men are
as much blinded by the extremes of misery as by the extremes of
prosperity. Desperate situations produce desperate councils and
desperate measures. The people of France, almost generally, have been
taught to look for other resources than those which can be derived from
order, frugality, and industry. They are generally armed; and they are
made to expect much from the use of arms. _Nihil non arrogant armis._
Besides this, the retrograde order of society has something flattering
to the dispositions of mankind. The life of adventurers, gamesters,
gypsies, beggars, and robbers is not unpleasant. It requires restraint
to keep men from falling into that habit. The shifting tides of fear
and hope, the flight and pursuit, the peril and escape, the alternate
famine and feast of the savage and the thief, after a time; render all
course of slow, steady, progressive, unvaried occupation, and the
prospect only of a limited mediocrity at the end of long labor, to the
last degree tame, languid, and insipid. Those who have been once
intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it,
even though but for one year, never can willingly abandon it. They may
be distressed in the midst of all their power; but they will never look
to anything but power for their relief. When did distress ever oblige a
prince to abdicate his authority? And what effect will it have upon
those who are made to believe themselves a people of princes?

The more active and stirring part of the lower orders having got
government and the distribution of plunder into their hands, they will
use its resources in each municipality to form a body of adherents.
These rulers and their adherents will be strong enough to overpower the
discontents of those who have not been able to assert their share of the
spoil. The unfortunate adventurers in the cheating lottery of plunder
will probably be the least sagacious or the most inactive and irresolute
of the gang. If, on disappointment, they should dare to stir, they will
soon be suppressed as rebels and mutineers by their brother rebels.
Scantily fed for a while with the offal of plunder, they will drop off
by degrees; they will be driven out of sight and out of thought; and
they will be left to perish obscurely, like rats, in holes and corners.

From the forced repentance of invalid mutineers and disbanded thieves
you can hope for no resource. Government itself, which ought to
constrain the more bold and dexterous of these robbers, is their
accomplice. Its arms, its treasures, its all are in their hands.
Judicature, which above all things should awe them, is their creature
and their instrument. Nothing seems to me to render your internal
situation more desperate than this one circumstance of the state of your
judicature. Many days are not passed since we have seen a set of men
brought forth by your rulers for a most critical function. Your rulers
brought forth a set of men, steaming from the sweat and drudgery, and
all black with the smoke and soot, of the forge of confiscation and
robbery, - _ardentis massæ fuligine lippos_, - a set of men brought forth
from the trade of hammering arms of proof, offensive and defensive, in
aid of the enterprises, and for the subsequent protection, of
housebreakers, murderers, traitors, and malefactors, - men, who had their
minds seasoned with theories perfectly conformable to their practice,
and who had always laughed at possession and prescription, and defied
all the fundamental maxims of jurisprudence. To the horror and
stupefaction of all the honest part of this nation, and indeed of all
nations who are spectators, we have seen, on the credit of those very
practices and principles, and to carry them further into effect, these
very men placed on the sacred seat of justice in the capital city of
your late kingdom. We see that in future you are to be destroyed with
more form and regularity. This is not peace: it is only the introduction
of a sort of discipline in their hostility. Their tyranny is complete in
their justice; and their _lanterne_ is not half so dreadful as their

One would think, that, out of common decency, they would have given you
men who had not been in the habit of trampling upon law and justice in
the Assembly, neutral men, or men apparently neutral, for judges, who
are to dispose of your lives and fortunes.

Cromwell, when he attempted to legalize his power, and to settle his
conquered country in a state of order, did not look for dispensers of
justice in the instruments of his usurpation. Quite the contrary. He
sought out, with great solicitude and selection, and even from the party
most opposite to his designs, men of weight and decorum of
character, - men unstained with the violence of the times, and with hands
not fouled with confiscation and sacrilege: for he chose an Hale for his
chief justice, though he absolutely refused to take his civic oaths, or
to make any acknowledgment whatsoever of the legality of his government.
Cromwell told this great lawyer, that, since he did not approve his
title, all he required of him was to administer, in a manner agreeable
to his pure sentiments and unspotted character, that justice without
which human society cannot subsist, - that it was not his particular
government, but civil order itself, which, as a judge, he wished him to
support. Cromwell knew how to separate the institutions expedient to his
usurpation from the administration of the public justice of his country.
For Cromwell was a man in whom ambition had not wholly suppressed, but
only suspended, the sentiments of religion, and the love (as far as it
could consist with his designs) of fair and honorable reputation.
Accordingly, we are indebted to this act of his for the preservation of
our laws, which some senseless assertors of the rights of men were then
on the point of entirely erasing, as relics of feudality and barbarism.
Besides, he gave, in the appointment of that man, to that age, and to
all posterity, the most brilliant example of sincere and fervent piety,
exact justice, and profound jurisprudence.[2] But these are not the
things in which your philosophic usurpers choose to follow Cromwell.

One would think, that, after an honest and necessary revolution, (if
they had a mind that theirs should pass for such,) your masters would
have imitated the virtuous policy of those who have been at the head of
revolutions of that glorious character. Burnet tells us, that nothing
tended to reconcile the English nation to the government of King William
so much as the care he took to fill the vacant bishoprics with men who
had attracted the public esteem by their learning, eloquence, and piety,
and above all, by their known moderation in the state. With you, in your
purifying revolution, whom have you chosen to regulate the Church? M.
Mirabeau is a fine speaker, and a fine writer, and a fine - a very fine
man; but, really, nothing gave more surprise to everybody here than to
find him the supreme head of your ecclesiastical affairs. The rest is of
course. Your Assembly addresses a manifesto to France, in which they
tell the people, with an insulting irony, that they have brought the
Church to its primitive condition. In one respect their declaration is
undoubtedly true: for they have brought it to a state of poverty and
persecution. What can be hoped for after this? Have not men, (if they
deserve the name,) under this new hope and head of the Church, been made
bishops for no other merit than having acted as instruments of atheists?
for no other merit than having thrown the children's bread to dogs? and,
in order to gorge the whole gang of usurers, peddlers, and itinerant
Jew discounters at the corners of streets, starved the poor of their
Christian flocks, and their own brother pastors? Have not such men been
made bishops to administer in temples in which (if the patriotic
donations have not already stripped them of their vessels) the
church-wardens ought to take security for the altar plate, and not so
much as to trust the chalice in their sacrilegious hands, so long as
Jews have assignats on ecclesiastic plunder, to exchange for the silver
stolen from churches?

I am told that the very sons of such Jew jobbers have been made bishops:
persons not to be suspected of any sort of _Christian_ superstition, fit
colleagues to the holy prelate of Autun, and bred at the feet of that
Gamaliel. We know who it was that drove the money-changers out of the
temple. We see, too, who it is that brings them in again. We have in
London very respectable persons of the Jewish nation, whom we will keep;
but we have of the same tribe others of a very different
description, - housebreakers, and receivers of stolen goods, and forgers
of paper currency, more than we can conveniently hang. These we can
spare to France, to fill the new episcopal thrones: men well versed in
swearing; and who will scruple no oath which the fertile genius of any
of your reformers can devise.

In matters so ridiculous it is hard to be grave. On a view of their
consequences, it is almost inhuman to treat them lightly. To what a
state of savage, stupid, servile insensibility must your people be
reduced, who can endure such proceedings in their Church, their state,
and their judicature, even for a moment! But the deluded people of
France are like other madmen, who, to a miracle, bear hunger, and
thirst, and cold, and confinement, and the chains and lash of their
keeper, whilst all the while they support themselves by the imagination
that they are generals of armies, prophets, kings, and emperors. As to a
change of mind in those men, who consider infamy as honor, degradation
as preferment, bondage to low tyrants as liberty, and the practical
scorn and contumely of their upstart masters as marks of respect and
homage, I look upon it as absolutely impracticable. These madmen, to be
cured, must first, like other madmen, be subdued. The sound part of the
community, which I believe to be large, but by no means the largest
part, has been taken by surprise, and is disjointed, terrified, and
disarmed. That sound part of the community must first be put into a
better condition, before it can do anything in the way of deliberation
or persuasion. This must be an act of power, as well as of wisdom: of
power in the hands of firm, determined patriots, who can distinguish the
misled from traitors, who will regulate the state (if such should be
their fortune) with a discriminating, manly, and provident mercy; men
who are purged of the surfeit and indigestion of systems, if ever they
have been admitted into the habit of their minds; men who will lay the
foundation of a real reform in effacing every vestige of that philosophy
which pretends to have made discoveries in the _Terra Australia_ of
morality; men who will fix the state upon these bases of morals and

Online LibraryEdmund BurkeThe Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. 04 (of 12) → online text (page 1 of 32)