Two letters from Mr. Burke to gentlemen in the city of Bristol: on the bills depending in parliament relative to the trade of Ireland.
Burke, Edmund, 1729-1797.
Page  [unnumbered]

TO SAMUEL SPAN, ESQ Master of the Society of Mer∣chants Adventurers of Bristol.


I AM honoured with your letter of the 13th, in answer to mine, which accompanied the resolutions of the House relative to the trade of Ireland.

You will be so good as to present my best respects to the Society, and to assure them, that it was altogether unnecessary to remind me of the interest of the con∣stituents. I have never regarded any thing else, since I had a seat in parlia∣ment. Having frequently and maturely considered that interest, and stated it Page  2 to myself in almost every point of view, I am persuaded, that, under the present circumstances, I cannot more effectually pursue it, than by giving all the sup∣port in my power to the propositions which I lately transmitted to the Hall.

The fault I find in the scheme is,— that it falls extremely short of that li∣berality in the commercial system, which, I trust, will one day be adopted. If I had not considered the present re∣solutions, merely as preparatory to bet∣ter things, and as a means of shewing experimentally, that justice to others is not always folly to ourselves, I should have contented myself with receiving them in a cold and silent acquiescence. Separately considered, they are matters of no very great importance. But they aim, however imperfectly, at a right principle. I submit to the restraint to appease prejudice: I accept the enlarge∣ment, Page  3 so far as it goes, as the result of reason and of sound policy.

We cannot be insensible of the cala∣mities which have been brought upon this nation by an obstinate adherence to narrow and restrictive plans of govern∣ment. I confess, I cannot prevail on myself to take them up, precisely at a time, when the most decisive experience has taught the rest of the world to lay them down. The propositions in ques∣tion did not originate from me, or from my particular friends. But when things are so right in themselves, I hold it my duty, not to enquire from what hands they come. I opposed the American measures upon the very same principle on which I support those that relate to Ireland. I was convinced, that the evils which have arisen from the adoption of the former, would be infinitely aggra∣vated by the rejection of the latter.

Page  4Perhaps Gentlemen are not yet fully aware of the situation of their country, and what its exigencies absolutely re∣quire. I find that we are still disposed to talk at our ease, and as if all things were to be regulated by our good plea∣sure. I should consider it as a fatal symptom, if, in our present distressed and adverse circumstances, we should persist in the errors which are natural only to prosperity. One cannot indeed sufficiently lament the continuance of that spirit of delusion, by which, for a long time past, we have thought fit to measure our necessities by our inclina∣tions. Moderation, prudence, and equi∣ty, are far more suitable to our condi∣tion, than loftiness, and confidence, and rigour. We are threatened by enemies of no small magnitude, whom, if we think fit, we may despise, as we have despised others; but they are enemies Page  5 who can only cease to be truly formi∣dable, by our entertaining a due respect for their power. Our danger will not be lessened by our shutting our eyes to it; nor will our force abroad be en∣creased by rendering ourselves feeble, and divided at home.

There is a dreadful schism in the Bri∣tish nation. Since we are not able to reunite the empire, it is our business to give all possible vigour and soundness to those parts of it which are still con∣tent to be governed by our councils. Sir, it is proper to inform you, that our measures must be healing. Such a degree of strength must be communicated to all the members of the state, as may enable them to defend themselves, and to co-operate in the defence of the whole. Their temper too must be ma∣naged, and their good affections culti∣vated. They may then be disposed to Page  6 bear the load with chearfulness, as a contribution towards what may be call∣ed with truth and propriety, and not by an empty form of words, a common cause. Too little dependence cannot be had, at this time of day, on names and prejudices. The eyes of mankind are opened; and communities must be held together by an evident and solid inte∣rest. God forbid, that our conduct should demonstrate to the world, that Great Britain can, in no instance what∣soever, be brought to a sense of rational and equitable policy, but by coercion and force of arms!

I wish you to recollect, with what powers of concession, relatively to com∣merce, as well as to legislation, his Majesty's Commissioners to the United Colonies have sailed from England with∣in this week. Whether these powers are sufficient for their purposes, it is not Page  7 now my business to examine. But we all know, that our resolutions in favour of Ireland are trifling and insignificant, when compared with the concessions to the Americans. At such a juncture, I would implore every man, who retains the least spark of regard to the yet re∣maining honour and security of this country, not to compel others to an imitation of their conduct; or by pas∣sion and violence, to force them to seek in the territories of the separation, that freedom, and those advantages, which they are not to look for whilst they re∣main under the wings of their ancient government.

After all, what are the matters we dispute with so much warmth? Do we in these resolutions bestow any thing upon Ireland? Not a shilling. We only consent to leave to them, in two or three instances, the use of the natu∣ral Page  8 faculties which God has given to them, and to all mankind. Is Ireland united to the crown of Great Britain for no other purpose, than that we should counteract the bounty of Provi∣dence in her favour? And in propor∣tion as that bounty has been liberal, that we are to regard it as an evil, which is to be met with in every sort of cor∣rective? To say that Ireland interferes with us, and therefore must be checked, is, in my opinion, a very mistaken, and a very dangerous principle. I must beg leave to repeat, what I took the liberty of suggesting to you in my last letter, that Ireland is a country, in the same climate, and of the same natural qua∣lities and productions, with this; and has consequently no other means of growing wealthy in herself, or, in other words, of being useful to us, but by doing the very same things which we Page  9 do, for the same purposes. I hope that in Great Britain we shall always pur∣sue, without exception, every means of prosperity; and of course, that Ireland will interfere with us in something or other; for either, in order to limit her, we must restrain ourselves, or we must fall into that shocking conclusion, that we are to keep our yet remaining de∣pendency, under a general and indis∣criminate restraint, for the mere pur∣pose of oppression. Indeed, Sir, Eng∣land and Ireland may flourish together. The world is large enough for us both. Let it be our care, not to make our∣selves too little for it.

I know it is said, that the people of Ireland do not pay the same taxes, and therefore ought not in equity to enjoy the same benefits with this. I had hopes, that the unhappy phantom of a compulsory equal taxation had haunted Page  10 us long enough. I do assure you, that until it is entirely banished from our imaginations, (where alone it has, or can have any existence,) we shall never cease to do ourselves the most substan∣tial injuries. To that argument of equal taxation, I can only say,—that Ireland pays as many taxes, as those who are the best judges of her powers, are of opinion she can bear. To bear more she must have more ability; and in the order of nature, the advantage must precede the charge. This disposi∣tion of things, being the law of God, neither you nor I can alter it. So that if you will have more help from Ireland, you must previously supply her with more means. I believe it will be found, that if men are suffered freely to cultivate their natural advantages, a vir∣tual equality of contribution will come in its own time, and will flow by an Page  11 easy descent, through its own proper and natural channels. An attempt to disturb that course, and to force nature, will only bring on universal discontent, distress and confusion.

You tell me, Sir, that you prefer an union with Ireland to the little regula∣tions which are proposed in Parliament. This union is a great question of state, to which, when it comes properly be∣fore me in my parliamentary capacity, I shall give an honest and unprejudiced consideration. However, it is a settled rule with me, to make the most of my actual situation; and not to refuse to do a proper thing, because there is some∣thing else more proper, which I am not able to do. This union is a business of difficulty; and on the principles of your letter, a business impracticable. Until it can be matured into a feasible and desirable scheme, I wish to have as Page  12 close an union of interest and affection with Ireland, as I can have; and that, I am sure, is a far better thing than any nominal union of government.

France, and indeed most extensive empires, which by various designs and fortunes have grown into one great mass, contain many Provinces that are very different from each other in pri∣vileges and modes of government; and they raise their supplies in different ways; in different proportions; and under dif∣ferent authorities; yet none of them are for this reason, curtailed of their natu∣ral rights; but they carry on trade and manufactures with perfect equality. In some way or other the true balance is found; and all of them are properly poised and harmonised. How much have you lost by the participation of Scotland in all your commerce? The external trade of England has more than doubled Page  13 since that period; and I believe your internal (which is the most advantage∣ous) has been augmented at least four∣fold. Such virtue there is in liberality of sentiment, that you have grown richer even by the partnership of poverty.

If you think, that this participation was a loss, commercially considered, but that it has been compensated by the share which Scotland has taken in defraying the public charge—I believe you have not very carefully looked at the public accounts. Ireland, Sir, pays a great deal more than Scotland; and is perhaps as much, and as effectually united to England as Scotland is. But if Scot∣land, instead of paying little, had paid nothing at all, we should be gainers, not losers by acquiring the hearty co-opera∣tion of an active intelligent people, to∣wards the increase of the common stock; instead of our being employed in watch∣ing Page  14 and counteracting them, and their being employed in watching and coun∣teracting us, with the peevish and chur∣lish jealousy of rivals and enemies on both sides.

I am sure, Sir, that the commercial experience of the merchants of Bristol, will soon disabuse them of the preju∣dice, that they can trade no longer, if countries more lightly taxed, are per∣mitted to deal in the same commodities at the same markets. You know, that in fact, you trade very largely where you are met by the goods of all nations. You even pay high duties, on the im∣port of your goods, and afterwards un∣dersell nations less taxed, at their own markets; and where goods of the same kind are not charged at all. If it were otherwise, you could trade very little. You know, that the price of all sorts of manufacture is not a great deal in∣hanced, Page  15 (except to the domestic con∣sumer) by any taxes paid in this country. This I might very easily prove.

The same consideration will relieve you from the apprehension you express, with relation to sugars, and the difference of the duties paid here and in Ireland. Those duties affect the interior consumer only; and for obvious reasons, rela∣tive to the interest of revenue itself, they must be proportioned to his ability of payment; but in all cases in which su∣gar can be an object of commerce, and therefore (in this view) of rivalship, you are sensible, that you are at least on a par with Ireland. As to your appre∣hensions concerning the more advan∣tageous situation of Ireland, for some branches of commerce, (for it is so but for some) I trust you will not find them more serious. Millford Haven, which is at your door, may serve to shew you, Page  16 that the mere advantage of ports is not the thing which shifts the seat of com∣merce from one part of the world to the other. If I thought you inclined to take up this matter on local con∣siderations, I should state to you, that I do not know any part of the king∣dom so well situated for an advantage∣ous commerce with Ireland as Bristol; and that none would be so likely to profit of its prosperity as our city. But your profit and theirs must concur. Beg∣gary and bankruptcy are not the cir∣cumstances which invite to an inter∣course with that or with any country; and I believe it will be found invariably true, that the superfluities of a rich na∣tion furnish a better object of trade than the necessities of a poor one. It is the interest of the commercial world that wealth should be found every where.

Page  17The true ground of fear, in my opi∣nion is this; that Ireland, from the vi∣tious system of its internal polity, will be a long time before it can derive any benefit from the liberty now granted, or from any thing else. But as I do not vote advantages, in hopes that they may not be enjoyed, I will not lay any stress upon this consideration. I rather wish, that the Parliament of Ireland may, in its own wisdom, remove these impedi∣ments, and put their country in a con∣dition to avail itself of its natural ad∣vantages. If they do not, the fault is with them, and not with us.

I have written this long letter, in or∣der to give all possible satisfaction to my constituents with regard to the part I have taken in this affair. It gave me inexpressible concern to find, that my conduct had been a cause of uneasiness to any of them. Next to my honour Page  18 and conscience, I have nothing so near and dear to me as their approbation. However, I had much rather run the risque of displeasing than of injuring them;—if I am driven to make such an option. You obligingly lament, that you are not to have me for your advo∣cate; but if I had been capable of act∣ing as an advocate in opposition to a plan so perfectly consonant to my known principles, and to the opinions I had publicly declared on an hundred occa∣sions, I should only disgrace myself, without supporting with the smallest degree of credit or effect, the cause you wished me to undertake. I should have lost the only thing which can make such abilities as mine of any use to the world now or hereafter; I mean that autho∣rity which is derived from an opinion, that a member speaks the language of truth and sincerity; and that he is not Page  19 ready to take up or lay down a great political system for the convenience of the hour; that he is in parliament to support his opinion of the public good, and does not form his opinion in order to get into parliament, or to continue in it. It is in a great measure for your sake, that I wish to preserve this cha∣racter. Without it, I am sure, I should be ill able to discharge, by any service, the smallest part of that debt of grati∣tude and affection, which I owe you for the great and honourable trust you have reposed in me. I am, with the highest regard and esteem,


Your most obedient And humble Servant, E. B.

Beaconsfield, 23d April, 1778.