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  20

COPY OF A LETTER TO Mess. ******* ****** and Co. Bristol.


IT gives me the most sensible con∣cern to find, that my vote on the resolutions relative to the trade of Ireland, has not been fortunate enough to meet with your approbation. I have explained at large the grounds of my conduct on that occasion in my letters to the Merchants Hall: but my very sincere regard and esteem for you will not permit me to let the matter pass without an explanation, which is par∣ticular to yourselves, and which, I hope, will prove satisfactory to you.

Page  21You tell me, that the conduct of your late member is not much wondered at; but you seem to be at a loss to account for mine; and you lament, that I have taken so decided a part against my con∣stituents.

This is rather an heavy imputation. Does it then really appear to you, that the propositions, to which you refer, are, on the face of them, so manifestly wrong, and so certainly injurious to the trade and manufactures of Great Bri∣tain, and particularly to yours, that no man could think of proposing, or sup∣porting them, except from resentment to you, or from some other oblique mo∣tive? If you suppose your late mem∣ber, or if you suppose me, to act upon other reasons than we choose to avow, to what do you attribute the conduct of the other members, who in the begin∣ning almost unanimously adopted those Page  22 resolutions? To what do you attribute the strong part taken by the ministers, and along with the ministers, by seve∣ral of their most declared opponents? This does not indicate a ministerial jobb; a party design; or a provincial or local purpose. It is therefore not so absolutely clear, that the measure is wrong, or likely to be injurious to the true interests of any place, or any per∣son.

The reason, gentlemen, for taking this step, at this time, is but too obvious and too urgent. I cannot imagine, that you forget the great war, which has been carried on with so little success (and, as I thought, with so little policy) in America; or that you are not aware of the other great wars which are im∣pending. Ireland has been called upon to repel the attacks of enemies of no small power, brought upon her by coun∣cils, Page  23 in which she has had no share. The very purpose and declared object of that original war, which has brought other wars, and other enemies on Ire∣land, was not very flattering to her dig∣nity, her interest, or to the very prin∣ciple of her liberty. Yet she submitted patiently to the evils she suffered from an attempt to subdue to your obedience, countries whose very commerce was not open to her. America was to be con∣quered, in order that Ireland should not trade thither; whilst the miserable trade which she is permitted to carry on to other places has been torn to pieces in the struggle. In this situation, are we neither to suffer her to have any real in∣terest in our quarrel, or to be flattered with the hope of any future means of bearing the burthens which she is to incurr in defending herself against ene∣mies which we have brought upon her?

Page  24I cannot set my face against such ar∣guments. Is it quite fair to suppose, that I have no other motive for yield∣ing to them, but a desire of acting against my constituents? It is for you, and for your interest, as a dear, che∣rished, and respected part of a valuable whole, that I have taken my share in this question. You do not, you cannot suffer by it. If honesty be true policy with regard to the transient interest of individuals, it is much more certainly so with regard to the permanent inte∣rests of communities. I know, that it is but too natural for us to see our own certain ruin, in the possible prosperity of other people. It is hard to persuade us, that every thing which is got by another is not taken from ourselves. But it is fit, that we should get the better of these suggestions, which come from what is not the best and soundest Page  25 part of our nature, and that we should form to ourselves a way of thinking, more ra∣tional, more just, and more religious. Trade is not a limited thing; as if the objects of mutual demand and con∣sumption, could not stretch beyond the bounds of our jealousies. God has given the earth to the children of men, and he has undoubtedly, in giving it to them, given them what is abundantly sufficient for all their exigencies; not a scanty, but a most liberal provision for them all. The Author of our nature has written it strongly in that nature, and has promulgated the same law in his written word, that man shall eat his bread by his labour; and I am per∣suaded, that no man, and no combina∣tion of men, for their own ideas of their particular profit, can, without great impiety, undertake to say, that he shall not do so; that they have no Page  26 sort of right, either to prevent the la∣bour, or to withhold the bread. Ire∣land having received no compensation, directly or indirectly, for any restraints on their trade, ought not, in justice or common honesty, be made subject to such restraints. I do not mean to im∣peach the right of the parliament of Great Britain, to make laws for the trade of Ireland. I only speak of what laws it is right for Parliament to make.

It is nothing to an oppressed people, to say that in part they are protected at our charge. The military force which shall be kept up in order to cramp the na∣tural faculties of a people, and to pre∣vent their arrival to their utmost pros∣perity, is the instrument of their servi∣tude not the means of their protection. To protect men, is to forward, and not to restrain their improvement. Else, what is it more, than to avow to them, Page  27 and to the world, that you guard them from others, only to make them a prey to yourself. This fundamental nature of protection does not belong to free, but to all governments; and is as valid in Turkey as in Great Britain. No go∣vernment ought to own that it exists for the purpose of checking the prosperity of its people, or that there is such a principle involved in its policy.

Under the impression of these senti∣ments, (and not as wanting every at∣tention to my constituents, which af∣fection and gratitude could inspire,) I voted for these bills which give you so much trouble. I voted for them, not as doing complete justice to Ireland, but as being something less unjust than the general prohibition which has hi∣therto prevailed. I hear some discourse, as if in one or two paltry duties on mate∣rials, Ireland had a preference; and that Page  28 those who set themselves against this act of scanty justice, assert that they are only contending for an equality. What equality? Do they forget, that the whole woollen manufacture of Ire∣land, the most extensive and profitable of any, and the natural staple of that kingdom, has been in a manner so de∣stroyed by restrictive laws of ours, and (at our persuasion, and on our pro∣mises) by restrictive laws of their own, that in a few years, it is probable, they will not be able to wear a coat of their own fabric. Is this equality? Do gentlemen forget, that the understood faith upon which they were persuaded to such an unnatural act, has not been kept; but a linen-manufacture has been set up, and highly encouraged, against them? Is this equality? Do they for∣get the state of the trade of Ireland in beer, so great an article of consumption, Page  29 and which now stands in so mischievous a position with regard to their revenue, their manufacture, and their agricul∣ture? Do they find any equality in all this? Yet if the least step is taken to∣wards doing them common justice in the lightest articles for the most limited markets, a cry is raised, as if we were going to be ruined by partiality to Ire∣land.

Gentlemen, I know that the defi∣ciency in these arguments is made up (not by you, but by others) by the usual resource on such occasions, the confi∣dence in military force, and superior power. But that ground of confidence, which at no time was perfectly just, or the avowal of it tolerably decent, is at this time very unseasonable. Late ex∣perience has shewn, that it cannot be altogether relied upon; and many, if not all our present difficulties, have Page  30 arisen from putting our trust in what may very possibly fail; and if it should fail, leaves those who are hurt by such a reliance, without pity. Whereas ho∣nesty and justice, reason and equity, go a very great way in securing prosperity to those who use them; and in case of failure, secure the best retreat, and the most honourable consolations.

It is very unfortunate, that we should consider those as rivals, whom we ought to regard as fellow-labourers in a com∣mon cause. Ireland has never made a single step in its progress towards prospe∣rity, by which you have not had a share, and perhaps the greatest share, in the benefit. That progress has been chief∣ly owing to her own natural advantages, and her own efforts, which, after a long time, and by slow degrees, have prevailed in some measure over the mis∣chievous systems which have been ad∣opted. Page  31 Far enough she is still from having arrived even at an ordinary state of perfection; and if our jealousies were to be converted into politics, as syste∣matically as some would have them, the trade of Ireland would vanish out of the system of commerce. But, believe me, if Ireland is beneficial to you, it is so not from the parts in which it is re∣strained, but from those in which it is left free, though not left unrivalled. The greater its freedom, the greater must be your advantage. If you should lose in one way, you will gain in twenty.

Whilst I remain under this unalter∣able and powerful conviction, you will not wonder at the decided part I take. It is my custom so to do, when I see my way clearly before me; and when I know, that I am not misled by any pas∣sion, or any personal interest; which in this case, I am very sure, I am not. I Page  32 find that disagreeable things are circu∣lated among my constituents; and I wish my sentiments, which form my justification, may be equally general with the circulation against me. I have the honour to be, with the greatest re∣gard and esteem,


Your most obedient and humble servant, E. B.

Westminster, May 2, 1778.

I send the bills.