POLITICS IN THE AGE OF REVOLUTION, 1715-1848
Part 1: The Papers of Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, from Sheffield Archives and Northamptonshire Record Office
Samples of Burke's Letters
The following samples are transcripts of a handful of Burke’s in-letters in which the original spelling, punctuation and use of capital letters has been retained.
Bk P 1/595 – General Charles Lee writing to Edmund Burke from Annapolis 16 Dec 1774
‘You are by this time as well acquainted with the public proceedings and resolves of this Continent as myself, I shall therefore not trouble you with em; but some account of their dispositions in general may not be unwelcome to you; and on this subject I deserve some credit, for in my last letter I predicted what they would do, and things have fallen out according to my predictions. I will now therefore venture to predict that unless the Boston bill (and I may add the Quebec) are repeal’d, the Empire of Great Britain is no more. I have now run through almost the whole Colonies from the North to the South; I have convers’d with evry order of men, from the first estated Gentlemen to the poorest Planters, and cannot express my astonishment at the unanimous ardent spirit reigning through the whole. They are determined to sacrifice evry thing, their property, their wives, children and blood rather than cede a little of what they conceive to be their rights. The tyranny exercised over Boston indeed seems to be resented by the other Colonies in a greater degree than by the Bostonians themselves. I cannot help being persuaded that those Men who first urg’d the Ministry to this accursed fatal step have from a wicked shame of acknowledging their misrepresentation continued still to keep ‘em in the dark. They first assured ‘em of the practicability of the scheme, that the Bostonians would, on the first appearance of an army and fleet, be frightened into a submission; that their cause would not be considered as the common cause, and now when They see their error, They cannot muster up honesty or courage to confess it – this, I am confident, is the case. Hutchinson and his associates; and there is the strongest appearance that my quondam[?] friend Gage holds the same dangerous course. It is somewhat strange but it is true, that this Gentleman should reside so many years in America, and yet be as ignorant of the disposition of the people of America as he is of those in the moon; Indeed He took all possible means of shutting up the avenues of truth; at New York He never conversed as I can find, with any but place and contract hunters, the staff Officers, and his own family – and when He was sent to Boston with express orders to inform himself of the cause of the disturbances, He apply’d himself to the very men (and to those only) from whom these disturbances were said to flow. He shut himself up immediately in Castle William with Barnard, Hutchinson and Sewel, under their inspection, and according to their dictates after three days labour He put the finishing hand to a narration of the state of the Province, by which the Ministry were to regulate their conduct – it was dispatch’d to England and has produc’d most delightful fruits. Had He condescended often to the representations of the town at large, these pernicious measures had perhaps never been adopted – in fact evry circumstance relating to N. England, as it appears to me, has been stated quite the reverse of the truth – not only the principles and deportment of the People, but their qualifications and capacity for war have been misrepresented – modesty, temperance and the most inflexible firmness have united in them – I may judge of the former from my own eyes and senses, and of the latter I have the greatest reason to be convinced from the best authority. I was very well acquainted at Boston with a Physician of exceeding good sense and the greatest candor – He assured me that the last act of almost evry father of a family whom he had attended was to convene his sons about his death bed and charge ‘em on his blessing never to desert the common cause of their Country whatever distress they might encounter, and as these People are most truly religious, and remarkable for filial piety, there can be no doubt but that the injunctions of their dying Parents must add a considerable quantity of fuel to the fires of enthusiasm already lighted up in their breasts by the hand of Tyranny – but what I think is a sufficient proof of the spirit and principles of these People, is the offer which They made to the Congress to abandon their Towns and never set foot within their native walls but with the reestablishment of their liberties; such instances of virtue and magnanimity are, I know, scarcely credible in your rotten Island; it is too bright a strain for their enervated eyes to gaze at – as to their capacity for war, the want of attention to certain circumstances has led the regular Officers who serv’d in America into a very great mistake on this head – their Troops were ill constituted; economy They had none, They neither knew how to cook their provisions, nor keep themselves clean – They were consequently much subject to camp disorders, and in their sickness (the same care not being taken of them as the regulars) They were apt to be dispirited – They were only enlisted for six months, were therefore always new to the service, whereas the Regulars, being kept always on foot grew more knowing and economical evry day – I say, without attending[?] to these circumstances, and without reflecting how much Themselves would have been in the same circumstances, the regulars attributed to a difference of materials in their men what in fact ought to have been attributed solely to ignorance of method, and boldly asserted the people of N. England to be unfit for war – They shut their eyes to all the evidences of the reverse, their promptness to action, their superiority in marching, and address in the use of all military instruments, but above all their ardour and zeal for the service – there is one more circumstance, which We Gentlemen in red never chose to remember, viz, that in all our defeats and disgraces, particularly in those upon the Ohio, the Provincials never led the flight but were the last to leave the field. But be these things as They will, if I have any judgement the People of N. England are at this day more calculated to form irresistible conquering Armies than any People on the face of the globe even the appearance of their individuals is totally chang’d since I first knew ‘em – formerly They had a slouching slovenly air; now evry Peasant has his air smartly dress’d, is erect and soldier-like in his air and gait – this change struck me very much in passing through the Provinces of Massachusets and Connecticut; It must be attributed to the military spirit which they breath[e] and their companies of Cadets form’d in all the Towns of any considerable size. I have been present at the reviews of several of these Companies, and was amaz’d at the exactness and rapidity of their manoeuvres – I shall say nothing of the formidable numbers of light Infrantry (undoubtedly the best in the World) which their back Provinces can produce – in short, Sir, it is my persuasion that shou’d the People of England be infatuated enough to suffer their misrulers to proceed in their measures, this Country may scorch her fingers, but they themselves will perish in the flames – this small Province of Maryland has already resolv’d to train and discipline about six thousand men, inclosed I send you the resolves of their convention – Pennsylvania is going to arm, but I am not yet informed of their numbers, but they will be very great – But I have still hopes that the People at home will open their eyes before it is too late and not suffer the resentment of a hellish Junta? To weight down eternal justice the interest and honour of the nation if not its existence. I shall now trouble you with a few words respecting myself – I find it asserted in a paragraph of an English paper that a certain Officer (meaning me) had been busy in dissuading the People of Boston from submitting to the acts. It is giving me great importance to suppose that I have influence sufficient to urge or restrain so vast a community in affairs of the dearest moment the same paragraph adds that I had offer’d to put myself at their head, but I hope it will not be believed that I was capable of such temerity and vanity, to think myself qualify’d for the most important charge that ever was commited to mortal man is the last stage of presumption – nor do I think the Americans would or ought to confide in a man (let his qualifications be ever so great0 who has no property amongst them – it is true I most devoutly wish ‘em success in the glorious struggle, that I have expressed my wishes both in writing and viva voce – but my errand to Boston was mere curiosity to see a People in so singular circumstances, and I had likewise an ambition of being acquainted with some of their leading men, with them only I associated during my stay at Boston – our ingenious Gentlemen in the Camp therefore very naturally concluded that my design was to put myself at their head – I suppose you must [have] heard of the Indian war carried on by the Governor of Virginia at the instigation of two Murderers on the frontier and in spite of the declamations of the whole Continent against the injustice of it – it was an impious black piece of work, worse if possible than the affair of St Vincents – I most heartily wish you joy; if it can give you any, of your election, at least it gives credit to your electors; I direct this letter to Sir Joshua Reynold[s] as I cannot be certain where you live – adieu, Dr Sir, live and prosper
and believe me to be most sincerely
Bk P 1/2679 – Unknown author to Edmund Burke from Whitehall, 15 Aug 1792
‘I scarcely know how to begin or how to describe to you all the horrors which have taken place in Paris, which the arrival of Mr Morley the Messenger has made us acquainted with. That I may not be accused of exaggeration, I shall send you nearly a Transcript of Lord Gower’s dispatches, which are a literal Transcript of the French News Papers.
The decree of the acquittal of Monsieur De la Fayette had occasioned great discontent & fermentation amongst the People. During the Night of Thursday the Bells rung & the Drums beat thro’ out the City, & the Troops marched towards the Palace; in their way they met with a Patrole composed of Aristocrates in the Uniform of the National Guard, to the number of twenty six of whom they immediately put to death. At about half past Nine the Parisians demanded admission to the Palace, & were refused by the Swiss guards. The King, Queen, & Royal Family, fled to the National Assembly, but as by the Constitution they could not deliberate in his Christian Majesty’s presence, they were first of all put to the Bar & from thence conveyed to a Box prepared for the News Paper Writers, & have remained there ever since. In the mean time the Parisians forced the Palace Gates, & the firing began between them & the Swiss Guards. About eleven O’Clock the people got possession of the Palace, when all who were within it were indiscriminately murdered. The exact number of the Dead is not known, but computed at 1,500. The Assembly have voted the King’s suspension. – Thus far Lord Gower – Mr Morley has just been giving me an account of some details he was witness of. The People have destroyed all the furniture in the Palace of which they made a Bonfire to burn part of the Dead bodies, & it does appear that great Numbers of Gentlemen & others who had assembled round the King’s person, perished. The Swiss made a most gallant defence – several times their Musquetry cleared the two sides of the River & the Carousel, but the Artillery & great Cannon which was brought from the Pont Neuf, rendered the place untenable. Mr Morley says, that the numbers of dead must much exceed the number mentioned by Lord Gower, for besides the numerous Servants, there were 800 Swiss in the Palace & those who went to defend the King’s person. Not a shot from the Palce but did execution, & 8 & 10 of the people often fell together! It appears that only 110 Swiss remain alive. Mr Morley adds that, not a house in Paris, but is seeking for a Brother, a Husband or a Son. They were carting away the dead & wounded all Friday, Saturday & Sunday, during which the people were finding out fresh Victims, & when there remained no more real objects of Hatred or Caprice, they fell upon the Swiss Porters at the doors of the Hotels & hanged up such as they could lay their hands on. When the King saw himself at the Bar of the Assembly – He wept bitterly – All the refreshment the Royal Family received for the first day, was a few biscuits & a little wine, & their beds the floor & some Benches. They are to be conveyed to the Luxembourg – the Assembly has ordered it to be previously examined, if there is no means of Escape. They have named Ministers of their own. Sent a Commission to the Army with power to Command it – Imprison and suspend the Generals. Have ordered a Convention to meet the 20th of September to determine the fate of the King & the form of Government – Have abolished the Civil List, & have left to the Convention to fix on what provision should be made for the support of the Royal Family. It should seem that several of the Deputies who voted for Monsieur De la Fayette have perished. You will see probably in the Opposition Papers what the French Jacobins have got & repeated from their old Story of the Bastille, that the Swiss Guards invited them into the Court Yard, & there fired upon them, but Morley assures me, there is not the least truth in it, not only from what he was an Eye-Witness of, but from what he heard from those who were forward in forcing the Palace Gates. – Adieu –
P.S. Morley adds, that the people got drunk with the wine they found in the Thuilleries – They broke the bottles over their wounded Victims & stamped the pieces into their bodies, & that of this he was an Eye witness. Whitehall 15th August
The Murders still continue. The Messenger left Paris Saturday Night at 12 O’Clock. They stopped the Mail & all Letters & were employed when he came away in taking up all those who had written against these transactions. The Messenger left Paris Sunday Night Twelve O’Clock;.’
Bk P1/2680P- The same Unknown author to Edmund Burke, 16 Aug 1792
‘….I now sit down to tell you, tho’ hastily & of course briefly, a few particulars which I have picked up from our Messenger who brought Lord Gower’s Dispatchs which are probably in a great degree authentic, as he speaks of the things he saw, & as he is naturally a quiet steady Man, whose faculties & imagination are both limited as to remove from him the suspicion of embellishment.
He told me that the Guard at the Thuilleries, on the Morning of Friday last, consisted of at least 1,500 men; of whom 800 were Swiss Soldiers, & the remaining 700 were Gentlemen & other persons of consideration, who had assembled there, under the appearance of Guards, to defend their Sovereign at a moment when they had reason to believe him in imminent peril. The whole of this Number, after bravely defending themselves & killing many of their Enemies, were at length put to death. The name of one only, M De Clermont Tonnerre, was known; & perhaps it may be forever impossible to identify the remainder, as the mob, after the slaughter was over, took pains to disfigure their faces, by roasting them in the fires they had made in the Thuilleries Gardens with the wood they had torn from the Apartments of the Chateau. The Messenger saw hundreds of them lying in the fires, with Uniform Coats on, but with embroidered Waistcoats, laced Shirts, & other tokens of superior rank. When the Mob at length broke into the Palace, they Massacred indiscriminately, without distinction of age or Sex, every person they found there. There chiefly consisted of the Royal Attendants; of whom, I understand, only four Women escaped, by the strange miracle of meeting with one or two compassionate persons, who conducted them to the prison of the Abbey. This Exploit was not compleated on the part of the Mob without a very great loss. By the fire from the chateau, & the effect of their own cannon, which were discharged with wanton malevolence in every direction, not less than 4,000 are supposed to have been killed in less than 4 Hours; & the Messenger assured me that, in the course of his walks about town, he saw at least Six or Seven thousand dead bodies lying in the Streets, some of which were carrying away by their friends, tho’ the greater part remained more than 48 Hours after the bloody business was over. One would have thought, so rich a feast of Slaughter might have satisfied the keenest appetite. The Parisians however, like Messalina, may be tired, but cannot be satiated by their favourite pursuit. On Saturday, various detachments paraded the Streets, forcing their way into every house where a Swiss was known to reside. As soon as any were discovered, they were brought out, & their heads were cut off at the doors. Nor were those of this Nation who, by being within the walls of Paris, fell under the appearance of suspicion, the ony victims on this dreadful occasion. On Sunday Morning it was remembered, that an hundred of the Swiss Guards had been detached a few days before, for the purpose of protecting the Harvest in the neighbourhood of Paris. A large Mob, well armed, went immediately in search of them. As the Messenger was pursuing his journey on Sunday night, he was alarmed by hearing repeated discharges of Musquetry; and, on enquiring what was going forward, he was told the Parisians had driven the Swiss into a wood, where they had surrounded them, & were then in the act of killing them. In the midst of these horrors (of which I have not told you any thing that has yet appeared in Print) the King & his Family were permitted to remain in a small Room adjoining to the Hall of the Assembly, without beds, & without food. They passed the Friday & Saturday nights on the bare benches, which were ranged along the walls; and after fasting for more than twelve hours, they were at length indebted to the charity of a poor Doorkeeper, for the slender sustenance of a few Biscuits & a glass of Wine. .. This Morning we have received some Newspapers from Paris of Sunday last, which certainly do not represent things unfavourably for the present ruling powers, as an immediate act of their new authority was to suppress every paper which was supposed to be in opposition to the Jacobine interest. From these channels we learn, that the Swiss Officers, who had been saved from the immediate fury of the people on Friday were to be tried the next day for high Treason. It is reasonable to suppose that their execution must have followed. The populace had besieged and taken the Chateau of Meudon, where a great number of persons had taken refuge; all of these were indiscriminately slaughtered. And, to crown all, the people of Orleans have forced their way into the prisons, - where innumerable State Prisoners were confined, and have massacred them all…’
Bk P1/126 – David Garrick to Edmund Burke, 30 Sep 66
‘I was in hopes of having an opportunity to shew You, how much I regard & Esteem You by the Care I would have taken, (as Manager), of the comedy You put into my hands – but I should be very undeserving of Yr friendship if I did not open my Mind to you with the greatest frankness & Sincerity –
If I am in the least a judge of these matters, I pronounce the Play absolutely unfit for the Stage. It is weak in the three great requisites of F. drama viz. Fable, Character & Dialogue. I hope You will excuse my plain manner of expressing myself – and tho’ I may appear in a disagreeable light to the Author, I will venture to prophesy that he will not think so hardly of Me, if he will please to appeal to real judges, & sincere friends for their opinion…’
BkP1/592- Merchants at Bristol to Edmund Burke, (a8 Dec 74)
‘It having been the usual Custom of the Merchants of this Town to apply to the Society of Merchant Adventurers on any matters of Commerce which concern the Trade of the Port, we, as American Merchants interested in the importation of Grain from thence, requested the favour of the Master of the Society to call a common Hall for the purpose of addressing you on that Subject, which we conceived highly important not only to this City but to the Kingdom in general; but that Gentleman not having complied with our request, we are under the necessity of making an application to you, on the Subject of Indian Corn. .. This grain was sometimes part permitted to be imported free of duty, at which period considerable Importations were made which were productive of great advantages and brought it into general use; chiefly for the purposes of feeding Hogs, though now through the scarcity of other Grain it is become a necessary Article, and the want of it will be severely felt in the Kingdom. When the late Act of Parliament passed it was we apprehend omitted through Inattention, so that it stands now subject to the general Duty on non enumerated Articles of 25 … the value which is so discouraging a Circumstance that it almost amounts to a Prohibition. Many considerable Importations were this year made, which have been attended with great Losses. We therefore request the favour of your advice, whether a Mitigation of these Duties could not be procured. We submit it to your opinion, whether, as Indian Corn is nearly half the value of American Wheat, it should not be subject to half the duty, and be put under the same Regulations, and the Importations governed by the average Prices of Wheat upon the general Principles of the Corn Act …’