History Gallery

Antique Prints Autographs Rare Books Connecticut Law
Maps Miscellaneous Newspapers & Magazines Historical Memorabilia Political
  World War I Posters   World War II Posters  

HOME       About Us




Excerpts from "A Letter From The Right Honourable
 Edmund Burke To A Noble Lord on the Attacks Made 
Upon Him And His Pension In The House of Lords by
 the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Lauderdale, Early
 in the present Sessions of Parliament." 1796
To have incurred the displeasure of the Duke of Orleans or the Duke of 
Bedford, to fall under the censure of Citizen Brissot or of his friend
the Earl of Lauderdale, I ought to consider as proofs, not the least 
satisfactory, that I have produced some part of the effect I proposed 
by my endeavors…. I have to thank the Bedfords and the Lauderdales for
having so faithfully and so fully acquitted towards me whatever arrear 
of debt was left undischarged by the Priestleys and the
I decline his Grace's jurisdiction as a judge. I challenge the Duke of 
Bedford as a juror to pass upon the value of my services. Whatever his
natural parts may be, I cannot recognize in his few and idle years the 
competence to judge of my long and laborious life. If I can help it, he 
shall not be on the inquest of my _quantum meruit_. Poor rich man! he 
can hardly know anything of public industry in its exertions, or can 
estimate its 
compensations when its work is done.
(Referring to the American Revolution) Happily, France was not then 
Jacobinized. Her hostility was at a good distance. We had a limb cut
off, but we preserved the body: we lost our colonies, but we kept our
The liberty they pursued was a liberty inseparable from order, from virtue,
from morals, and from religion,--and was neither hypocritically nor
fanatically followed. They did not wish that liberty, in itself one of
the first of blessings, should in its perversion become the greatest
curse which could fall upon mankind. To preserve the Constitution
entire, and practically equal to all the great ends of its formation,
not in one single part, but in all its parts, was to them the first object.
To innovate is not to reform. The French revolutionists complained of 
everything; they refused to reform anything; and they left nothing, no, 
nothing at all, unchanged. The consequences are before us,--not in remote
history, not in future prognostication: they are about us; they are upon 
us. They shake the public security; they menace private enjoyment. They 
dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel, 
they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue us to the country. 
Our business is interrupted, our repose is troubled, our pleasures are
saddened, our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is
rendered worse than ignorance, by the enormous evils of this dreadful 
It was, then, not my love, but my hatred to innovation, that produced my
plan of reform. Without troubling myself with the exactness of the
logical diagram, I considered them as things substantially opposite. It
was to prevent that evil, that I proposed the measures which his Grace
is pleased, and I am not sorry he is pleased, to recall to my
recollection. I had (what I hope that noble Duke will remember in all
his operations) a state to preserve, as well as a state to reform. I had
a people to gratify, but not to inflame or to mislead. I do not claim
half the credit for what I did as for what I prevented from being done.
In that situation of the public mind, I did not undertake, as was then
proposed, to new-model the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or
to change the authority under which any officer of the crown acted, who
was suffered at all to exist. Crown, lords, commons, judicial system,
system of administration, existed as they had existed before, and in the
mode and manner in which they had always existed. My measures were, what
I then truly stated them to the House to be, in their intent, healing and 
Had the economy of selection and proportion been at all times observed, 
we should not now have had an overgrown Duke of Bedford, to oppress the
industry of humble men, and to limit, by the standard of his own conceptions, 
the justice, the bounty,or, if he pleases, the charity of the crown.
His Grace may think as meanly as he will of my deserts in the far
greater part of my conduct in life. It is free for him to do so. There
will always be some difference of opinion in the value of political
services. But there is one merit of mine which he, of all men living,
ought to be the last to call in question. I have supported with very
great zeal, and I am told with some degree of success, those opinions,
or, if his Grace likes another expression better, those old prejudices,
which buoy up the ponderous mass of his nobility, wealth, and titles. I
have omitted no exertion to prevent him and them from sinking to that
level to which the meretricious French faction his Grace at least
coquets with omit no exertion to reduce both. I have done all I could to
discountenance their inquiries into the fortunes of those who hold large
 portions of wealth without any apparent merit of their own.
The grants to the House of Russell were so enormous as not only to outrage
economy, but even to stagger credibility. The Duke of Bedford is the
leviathan among all the creatures of the crown. He tumbles about his
unwieldy bulk, he plays and frolics in the ocean of the royal bounty.
Huge as he is, and whilst "he lies floating many a rood," he is still a
creature. His ribs, his fins, his whalebone, his blubber, the very
spiracles through which he spouts a torrent of brine against his origin,
and covers me all over with the spray, everything of him and about him
is from the throne. Is it for him to question the dispensation of the
royal favor?
It would not be gross adulation, but uncivil irony, to say that he has 
any public merit of his own to keep alive the idea of the services by 
which his vast landed pensions were obtained. My merits, whatever they 
are, are original and personal: his are derivative. It is his ancestor, 
the original pensioner, that has laid up this inexhaustible fund of merit 
which makes his Grace so very delicate and exceptious about the merit of 
all other grantees of the crown.
Well, then, since the new grantees have war made on them by the old, and 
that the word of the sovereign is not to be taken, let us turn our eyes 
to history, in which great men have always a pleasure in contemplating 
the heroic origin of their house.
The first peer of the name, the first purchaser of the grants, was a Mr.
Russell, a person of an ancient gentleman's family, raised by being a
minion of Henry the Eighth. As there generally is some resemblance of
character to create these relations, the favorite was in all likelihood
much such another as his master. The first of those immoderate grants
was not taken from the ancient demesne of the crown, but from the recent
confiscation of the ancient nobility of the land. The lion, having
sucked the blood of his prey, threw the offal carcass to the jackal in
waiting. Having tasted once the food of confiscation, the favorites
became fierce and ravenous. This worthy favorite's first grant was from
the lay nobility. The second, infinitely improving on the enormity of
the first, was from the plunder of the Church. In truth, his Grace is
somewhat excusable for his dislike to a grant like mine, not only in its
quantity, but in its kind, so different from his own.
Mine was from a mild and benevolent sovereign: his from Henry the
Mine had not its fund in the murder of any innocent person of
illustrious rank, or in the pillage of any body of unoffending men.
His grants were from the aggregate and consolidated funds of judgments
iniquitously legal, and from possessions voluntarily surrendered by the
lawful proprietors with the gibbet at their door.
The merit of the original grantee of his Grace's pensions was in giving
his hand to the work, and partaking the spoil, with a prince who
plundered a part of the national Church of his time and country. Mine
was in defending the whole of the national Church of my own time and my
own country, and the whole of the national Churches of all countries,
from the principles and the examples which lead to ecclesiastical
pillage, thence to a contempt of all prescriptive titles, thence to
the pillage of all property, and thence to universal desolation.
His founder's merits were, by arts in which he served his master and
made his fortune, to bring poverty, wretchedness, and depopulation on
his country. Mine were under a benevolent prince, in promoting the 
commerce, manufactures, and agriculture of his kingdom.
I had the honor of a seat, for carrying on with early vigor and decision 
the most clearly just and necessary war that this or any nation ever 
carried on, in order to save my country from the iron yoke of its power, 
and from the more dreadful contagion of its principles,--to preserve, 
while they can be preserved, pure and untainted, the ancient, inbred 
integrity, piety, good-nature, and good-humor of the people of England, 
from the dreadful pestilence which, beginning in France, threatens to 
lay waste the whole moral and in a great degree the whole physical world, 
having done both in the focus of its most intense malignity.
Why should he imagine that no king of England has been capable of judging 
of merit but King Henry the Eighth?
But let him take care how he endangers the safety of that Constitution 
which secures his own utility or his own insignificance, or how he 
discourages those who take up even puny arms to defend an order of 
things which, like the sun of heaven, shines alike on the useful and the worthless
The Duke of Bedford will stand as long as prescriptive law endures,--as long
as the great, stable laws of property, common to us with all civilized nations,
are kept in their integrity, and without the smallest intermixture of the laws, 
maxims, principles, or precedents of the Grand Revolution. They are secure
against all changes but one. The whole Revolutionary system, institutes,
digest, code, novels, text, gloss, comment, are not only not the same,
but they are the very reverse, and the reverse fundamentally, of all the
laws on which civil life has hitherto been upheld in all the governments
of the world. The learned professors of the Rights of Man regard
prescription not as a title to bar all claim set up against old
possession, but they look on prescription as itself a bar against the
possessor and proprietor. They hold an immemorial possession to be no
more than a long continued and therefore an aggravated injustice.
as long as this awful structure shall oversee and guard the subjected 
land,--so long the mounds and dikes of the low, fat, Bedford level will
have nothing to fear from all the pickaxes of all the levelers of France.
But if the rude inroad of Gallic tumult, with its sophistical rights of
man to falsify the account, and its sword as a make-weight to throw into
the scale, shall be introduced into our city by a misguided populace,
set on by proud great men, themselves blinded and intoxicated by a
frantic ambition, we shall all of us perish and be overwhelmed in a
common ruin. If a great storm blow on our coast, it will cast the whales
on the strand, as well as the periwinkles. His Grace will not survive
the poor grantee he despises,--no, not for a twelvemonth. If the great
look for safety in the services they render to this Gallic cause, 
it is to be foolish even above the weight of privilege allowed to wealth
They will laugh, indeed they will laugh, at his parchment and his wax. His
deeds will be drawn out with the rest of the lumber of his evidence-room, 
and burnt to the tune of Ça, ira in the courts of Bedford (then Equality) House.
Am I to blame, if I attempt to pay his Grace's hostile reproaches to me
with a friendly admonition to himself? Can I be blamed for pointing out
to him in what manner he is like to be affected, if the sect of the
cannibal philosophers of France should proselytize any considerable part
of this people, and, by their joint proselytizing arms, should conquer
that government to which his Grace does not seem to me to give all the 
support his own security demands?
They are the Duke of Bedford's natural hunters; and he is their natural game.
In the French Revolution everything is new, and, from want of preparation to
meet so unlooked-for an evil, everything is dangerous. Never before this 
time was a set of literary men converted into a gang of robbers and
assassins; never before did a den of bravoes and banditti assume the
garb and tone of an academy of philosophers.
In France they had their enemies within their houses.
The persons who have suffered from the cannibal philosophy of
France are so like the Duke of Bedford, that nothing but his Grace's
probably not speaking quite so good French could enable us to find out 
any difference.
I assure him that the Frenchified faction, more encouraged than others 
are warned by what has happened in France, look at him and his landed 
possessions as an object at once of curiosity and rapacity. He is made 
for them in every part of their double character. As robbers, to them 
he is a noble booty; as speculatists, he is a glorious subject for their 
experimental philosophy.
I am better able to enter into the character of this description of men 
than the noble Duke can be. I have lived long and variously in the world. 
Without any considerable pretensions to literature in myself, I have aspired
to the love of letters. I have lived for a great many years in habitudes
with those who professed them. I can form a tolerable estimate of what
is likely to happen from a character chiefly dependent for fame and
fortune on knowledge and talent, as well in its morbid and perverted
state as in that which is sound and natural. Naturally, men so formed
and finished are the first gifts of Providence to the world. But when
they have once thrown off the fear of God, which was in all ages too
often the case, and the fear of man, which is now the case, and when in
that state they come to understand one another, and to act in corps, a
more dreadful calamity cannot arise out of hell to scourge mankind.
Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thorough-bred
metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit
than to the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the
Principle of Evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated,
defecated evil.
His Grace's landed possessions are irresistibly inviting to an agrarian
experiment. They are a downright insult upon the rights of man. They are
 more extensive than the territory of many of the Grecian republics;
Abbé Sieyès has whole nests of pigeon-holes full of constitutions
ready-made, ticketed, sorted, and numbered, suited to every season and
every fancy: So that no constitution-fancier may go unsuited from his shop, 
provided he loves a  pattern of pillage, oppression, arbitrary imprisonment, 
confiscation, exile, revolutionary judgment, and legalized premeditated 
murder, in any shapes into which they can be put. What a pity it is that 
the progress of experimental philosophy should be checked by his Grace's
Churches, play-houses, coffeehouses, all alike, are destined to be mingled, 
and equalized, and blended into one common rubbish,--and, well sifted, and 
lixiviated, to crystallize into true, democratic, explosive, insurrectionary
However, they will soon recover themselves, and will tell his
Grace, or his learned council, that all such property belongs to the
nation,--and that it would be more wise for him, if he wishes to live
the natural term of a citizen, (that is, according to Condorcet's
calculation, six months on an average,) not to pass for an usurper upon
the national property. This is what the serjeants-at-law of the rights
of man will say to the puny apprentices of the common law of England.
Is it not a singular phenomenon, that, whilst the sans-culotte
carcass-butchers and the philosophers of the shambles are pricking their
dotted lines upon his hide, and, like the print of the poor ox that we
see in the shop-windows at Charing Cross, alive as he is, and thinking
no harm in the world, he is divided into rumps, and sirloins, and
briskets, and into all sorts of pieces for roasting, boiling, and
stewing, that, all the while they are measuring him, his Grace is
measuring me,--is invidiously comparing the bounty of the crown with
the deserts of the defender of his order, and in the same moment fawning
on those who have the knife half out of the sheath? Poor innocent!
This nobility forms the chain that connects the ages of a
nation, which otherwise (with Mr. Paine) would soon be taught that no
one generation can bind another. He felt that no political fabric could
be well made, without some such order of things as might, through a
series of time, afford a rational hope of securing unity, coherence,
consistency, and stability to the state. He felt that nothing else can
protect it against the levity of courts and the greater levity of the multitude;
But above all, what would he have said, if he had heard it made a matter
of accusation against me, by his nephew, the Duke of Bedford, that I was
the author of the war? Had I a mind to keep that high distinction to
myself, (as from pride I might, but from justice I dare not,) he would
have snatched his share of it from my hand, and held it with the grasp
of a dying convulsion to his end.
It would be a most arrogant presumption in me to assume to myself the
glory of what belongs to his Majesty, and to his ministers, and to his
Parliament, and to the far greater majority of his faithful people: but
had I stood alone to counsel, and that all were determined to be guided
by my advice, and to follow it implicitly, then I should have been the
sole author of a war. But it should have been a war on my ideas and my
principles. However, let his Grace think as he may of my demerits with
regard to the war with Regicide, he will find my guilt confined to that
alone. He never shall, with the smallest color of reason, accuse me of 
being the author of a peace with Regicide.