Letters on a Regicide Peace
By Edmund Burke
This volume includes Burke’s four
Letters on a Regicide Peace, his last published writings on the French Revolution and the policy toward it that he would have Great Britain follow. There is no need to explain here the historical circumstances in which Burke wrote these works or the details of their composition and publication, since E. J. Payne has so thoroughly done that in his Introduction. A few comments will be enough—possibly more than enough…. [From the Editor’s Foreword by Francis Canavan.]
E. J. Payne, ed.
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Compiled and with a foreword and notes by Francis Canavan. Vols. 1-3 originally published Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874-1878. E. J. Payne, Ed. Foreword and notes by Francis Canavan.
Portions of this edited edition are under copyright.
Two Letters Addressed to A Member of the Present Parliament, on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France by the right honourable Edmund Burke
[Second Edition. Rivingtons, 1796.]
On the Overtures of Peace
[ArgumentINTRODUCTION, pp. 62-78. Difficulties of the “philosophy of history,” p. 62. Rise and successes of the Regicide Republic, p. 64. England often at her strongest when she believes herself to be weakest, as in 1757, p. 67. The nation to be awakened, p. 68. Double aspect of the Wealth of England, p. 69. England cannot act apart from Europe, p. 70. Discreditable issue of the war hitherto, p. 72. Disaster abroad reflected in distemper at home, p. 73, which is explained by the want of high-principled leaders, p. 75. The peculiar character of a war with a Regicide State, p. 76. This leads the author (Part I) to review the history of the Overtures for Peace already made by the English Government, and to show from them that no Peace is seriously contemplated by France. Thence (Part II) to show that these Overtures cannot accord with the sentiments of the English nation, and lastly (Part III) to show that the nature of the Regicide Republic is such that no Peace could be made with it. PART I, pp. 78-101Indications of French temper. Bird’s mission, p. 79; Hamburg declaration, p. 81.1st OVERTURES. Speech from the Throne, Oct. 29, 1795, and reply of 5th Pluviose (Jan. 25, 1796), p. 82.2nd OVERTURES. Note of March 8, 1796, from Mr. Wickham to M. Barthélémy, and answer of the latter, March 26, p. 86. Downing Street Note of April 10, p. 91. Disasters of the Summer, and failure of rumoured Prussian mediation, p. 92.PRESENT OVERTURES. Lord Grenville’s request, through the Danish Minister, for a passport for an English plenipotentiary, Sept. 6, 1796, p. 93. Refusal of the French Government, Sept. 19, p. 94. Lord Grenville applies directly, by the note of Sept. 19, and the passport is despatched on the 11th of Vendémiaire. The first manifesto, issued at the same time as the passport, proves the futility of going on with the negotiations, p. 96. These views confirmed by the second manifesto of Oct. 5, p. 98. Burke mournfully contrasts the present with the former attitude of the Government, and quotes the famous Whitehall Declaration of Oct. 29, 1793, p. 99.
History of the Overtures for Peace
PART II, pp. 101-22They are contrary to the policy of England, p. 101, and to the disposition of the nation, p. 102. The Jacobins a minority, p. 105. Dulness and inaction of the sound part of the nation, p. 106. A popular war, such as the Spanish War of 1739, is produced by superficial causes: the deep causes of the present war require to be explained and
The Overtures do not represent the feeling of the British Nation
enforced, p. 108. Power of the British nation under a great leader fully illustrated by the history of the great war with France, 1689-1713, pp. 110-22. Weakness of England then as a military power, p. 112, an isolated nation, with little commerce, p. 113. In spite of all this, Unanimous Address of a factious House of Commons in 1697 against the Enemy’s Overtures for Peace, p. 114. Continuation of William’s Great War, p. 115. He carries it on against the Ministry and People, and converts the Lords to his views, p. 117, and ultimately the Commons, p. 118. Conclusion drawn from this, p. 119. If the war against Louis XIV was thus heroically carried on, how much more should the present war be fought out, p. 122. PART III, pp. 122-52A state based on the principles of Regicide, Jacobinism, and Atheism (p. 124), and fortified by the propagation of a corresponding system of manners and morals (pp. 126-32), is a standing menace to Europe. Europe is a moral and social unity (p. 132) in which France has violently isolated herself, and taken up a position of hostility, p. 134. Position of Europe and France illustrated from the Civil Law, p. 135, and the war upon France justified by the principles of the
Why no Peace possible with France
Law of Vicinage, p. 138. The condition of France transferred for the sake of argument to England, p. 139. The case of Algiers distinguished, p. 143.CONCLUSION, pp. 147-52. Popular opinion no safe guide: the decision must rest with Ministers, p. 147. Scheme of future letters, arranged in six heads, p. 148. Personal explanation, p. 149.]
*2unpleasant appearances. They were represented to us as indicating the state of the popular mind; and they were not at all what we should have expected from our old ideas even of the faults and vices of the English character. The
*3disastrous events, which
*4in its aphelion. But when to return?
*5same periods of infancy, manhood, and decrepitude, that are found in the individuals who compose them. Parallels of this sort rather furnish
*6similitudes to illustrate or to adorn, than supply analogies from whence to reason. The objects which are attempted to be forced into an analogy are not found in the same classes of existence. Individuals are physical beings, subject to laws
*7moral essences. They are artificial combinations; and, in their proximate efficient cause, the arbitrary productions of the human mind. We are not yet acquainted with the laws which necessarily influence the stability of that kind of work made by that kind of agent.
*8There is not in the physical order (with which they do not appear to hold any assignable connexion) a distinct cause by which any of those fabrics must necessarily grow, flourish, or decay; nor, in my opinion, does the moral world produce any thing more determinate on that subject, than what may serve as an amusement (liberal indeed, and ingenious, but still only an amusement) for speculative men. I doubt whether the history of mankind is yet complete enough, if ever it can be so, to furnish grounds for a sure theory on the internal causes which necessarily affect the fortune of a State. I am far from denying the operation of such causes: but they are infinitely uncertain, and much more obscure, and much more difficult to trace, than the foreign causes that tend to raise, to depress, and sometimes to overwhelm a community.
*10remained nearly as they have begun, and could hardly be said to ebb or flow. Some appear to have
*11spent their vigour at their commencement. Some have
*12blazed out in their glory a little before
*13meridian of some has been the most splendid. Others, and they the greatest number, have fluctuated, and experienced at different periods of their existence a great variety of fortune. At the very moment when some of them seemed
*14plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster, they have suddenly emerged. They have begun a new course, and opened a new reckoning; and even in the depths of their calamity, and on the very ruins of their country, have laid the foundations of a towering and durable greatness. All this has happened without any apparent previous change in the general circumstances which had brought on their distress. The
*15death of a man at a critical juncture,
*18his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation.
*19A common soldier,
*21a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.
*22humbled; to all appearance she had weakened; certainly had endangered, by cutting off a very large, and by far the most growing part of her empire. In that it’s acmé of human prosperity and greatness, in the
*23high and palmy state of the Monarchy of France, it fell to the ground without a struggle. It fell without any of those vices in the Monarch, which have sometimes been the causes of the fall of kingdoms, but which existed, without any visible effect on the state, in the highest degree in many other Princes; and, far from destroying their power, had only left some slight stains on their character. The financial difficulties were only pretexts and instruments of those who accomplished the ruin of that Monarchy. They were not the causes of it.
*24a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all
*25poison of other States is the food of the new Republick. That bankruptcy, the very apprehension of which is one of the causes assigned for the fall of the Monarchy, was the capital on which she opened her traffick with the world.
*26finest parts of Europe, has distressed, disunited, deranged, and broke to pieces all the rest; and so subdued the minds of the rulers in every nation, that hardly any resource presents itself to them, except that of entitling themselves to a contemptuous mercy by a display of their imbecility and meanness. Even in their greatest military efforts and the greatest display of their fortitude, they seem not to hope, they do not even appear to wish, the extinction of what subsists to their certain ruin. Their ambition is only to be admitted to a more favoured class in the order of servitude under that domineering power.
*27At first the French force was too much despised. Now it is too much
*28publick must never be regarded as incurable. I remember in the beginning of what has lately been called the Seven Years’ War, that an eloquent writer and ingenious speculator,
*29Dr. Brown, upon some reverses which happened in the beginning of that war, published an elaborate philosophical discourse to prove that the distinguishing features of the people of England had been totally changed, and that a frivolous effeminacy was become the national character. Nothing could be more popular than that work. It was thought a great consolation to us, the light people of this country, (who were and are light, but who were not and are not effeminate,) that we had found the causes of our
*30Pythagoras could not be more pleased with his leading discovery. But whilst, in that splenetick mood, we amused ourselves in a sour critical speculation, of which we were ourselves the objects, and in which every man lost his particular sense of the publick disgrace in the epidemic nature of the distemper; whilst,
*31as in the Alps,
goitre in countenance; whilst we were thus abandoning ourselves to a direct confession of our inferiority to France, and whilst many, very many, were ready to act upon a sense of that inferiority, a few months effected a total change in our variable minds. We emerged from the gulph of that speculative despondency, and were buoyed up to the highest point of practical vigour.
*32Never did the masculine spirit of England display itself with more energy, nor ever did it’s genius soar with a prouder pre-eminence over France, than at the time when frivolity and effeminacy had been at least tacitly acknowledged as their national character, by the good people of this kingdom.
*33eye of the mind is dazzled and vanquished. An abject distrust of ourselves, an extravagant admiration of the enemy, present us with no hope but in a compromise with his pride, by a submission to his will. This short plan of policy is the only counsel which will obtain a hearing. We plunge into a dark gulph with all the rash precipitation of fear. The nature of courage is, without a question, to be conversant with danger; but in the
*34palpable night of their terrors, men under consternation suppose, not that it is the danger, which, by a sure instinct, calls out the courage to resist it, but that it is the courage which produces the danger. They therefore seek for a refuge from their fears in the fears themselves, and consider a temporizing meanness as the only source of safety.
*35at no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment. We have a
*36vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it. But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments. If wealth is the obedient and laborious slave of virtue and of publick honour, then wealth is in it’s place, and has it’s use. But if this order is changed, and honor is to be sacrificed to the conservation of riches, riches, which have neither eyes nor hands, nor any thing truly vital in them, cannot long survive the being of their vivifying powers, their legitimate masters, and their potent protectors. If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free.
*37If our wealth commands us, we are
*38poor indeed. We are bought by the enemy with the treasure from our own coffers. Too great a sense of the value of a subordinate interest may be the very source of it’s danger, as well as the certain ruin of interests of a superiour order. Often has a man lost his all because he would not submit to hazard all in defending it. A display of our wealth before robbers is not the way to restrain their boldness, or to lessen their rapacity. This display is made, I know, to persuade the people of England that thereby we shall awe the enemy, and improve the terms of our capitulation: it is made, not that we should fight with more animation, but that we should supplicate with better hopes. We are mistaken. We have an enemy to deal with
*39He is the Gaul that puts his
sword into the scale. He is more tempted with our wealth as booty, than terrified with it as power. But let us be rich or poor, let us be either in what proportion we may, nature is false or this is true, that where the essential publick force (of which money is but a part) is in any degree upon a par in a conflict between nations,
*40that state which is resolved to hazard it’s existence rather than to abandon it’s objects, must have an infinite advantage over that which is resolved to yield rather than to carry it’s resistance beyond a certain point. Humanly speaking, that people which bounds it’s efforts only with it’s being, must give the law to that nation which will not push its opposition beyond its convenience.
*41petty peculium in the war, we have had some advantages; advantages
*42ambiguous in their nature, and dearly bought. We have not in the slightest degree impaired the strength of the common enemy in
*43any one of those points in which his particular force consists: at the same time that new enemies to ourselves, new allies to the Regicide Republick, have been made out of the wrecks and fragments of the general confederacy. So far as to the selfish part. As composing a
*44When Louis the Fourteenth had made himself master of one of the largest and most important provinces of Spain; when he had in a manner over-run Lombardy, and was thundering at the gates of Turin; when he had mastered almost all Germany on this side the Rhine; when he was on the point of ruining the august fabrick of the Empire; when, with the Elector of Bavaria in his alliance, hardly any thing interposed between him and Vienna; when the Turk hung with a mighty force over the Empire on the other side; I do not know, that in the beginning of 1704 (that is in the third year of the renovated war with Louis the Fourteenth) the state of Europe was so truly alarming. To England it certainly was not. Holland (and Holland is a matter to England of value inestimable) was then powerful, was then independent, and though greatly endangered, was then full of energy and spirit. But the great resource of Europe was in England. Not in a sort of England detached from the rest of the world, and amusing herself with the
*45puppet shew of a naval power (it can be no better, whilst all the sources of that power, and of every sort of power, are precarious), but in that sort of England, who considered herself as embodied with Europe; in that sort of England, who, sympathetick with the adversity or the happiness of mankind, felt that
*46nothing in human affairs was foreign to her. We may consider it as a sure axiom that, as on the one hand, no confederacy of the least effect or duration can exist against France, of which England is not only a part, but the head, so neither can England pretend to cope with France but as connected with the body of Christendom.
as a war of communion, to the very point in which we began to throw out lures, oglings,
*48pale cast of thought sicklied over all their enterprizes and turned all their politicks awry.” They could not, or rather they would not read, in the most unequivocal declarations of the enemy, and in his uniform conduct, that more safety was to be found in the most arduous war, than in the friendship of that kind of being. It’s hostile amity can be obtained on no terms that do not imply an inability hereafter to resist it’s designs. This great
*49prolific error (I mean that peace was always in our power) has been the cause that rendered the allies indifferent about the
direction of the war; and persuaded them that they might always risque a choice, and even a change in it’s objects. They seldom improved any advantage; hoping that the enemy, affected by it, would make a proffer of peace. Hence it was that all their
*50early victories have been followed almost immediately with the usual effects of a defeat; whilst all the advantages obtained by the Regicides, have been followed by the consequences that were natural. The discomfitures, which the Republick of Assassins has suffered, have uniformly called forth new exertions, which not only repaired old losses, but prepared new conquests. The losses of the allies, on the contrary, (no provision having been made on the speculation of such an event) have been followed by
*52mutual accusations, by a distrust in every member of the alliance of it’s fellow, of it’s cause, it’s power, and it’s courage.
general state of things, growing out of events and causes already known in the gross, there is no piety in the fraud that covers it’s true nature; because nothing but erroneous resolutions can be the result of false representations. Those measures which in common distress might be available, in greater, are no better than playing with the evil. That the effort may bear a proportion to the exigence, it is fit it should be known; known in it’s quality, in it’s extent, and in all the circumstances which attend it. Great reverses of fortune there have been, and great embarrassments in counsel: a principled Regicide enemy possessed of the most important part of Europe, and struggling for the rest: within ourselves, a total relaxation of all authority, whilst a
*53cry is raised against it, as if it were the most ferocious of all despotism. A worse phaenomenon—our government disowned by the
*54most efficient member of it’s tribunals; ill supported by any of their constituent parts; and the
*55highest tribunal of all (from causes not for our present
*9 The doctor of the Constitution, pretending to under-rate what he is not able to contend with, shrinks from his own operation. He doubts and questions the salutary but critical terrors of the cautery and the knife. He takes a poor credit even from his defeat; and covers impotence under the mask of lenity. He praises the moderation of the laws, as, in his hands, he sees them baffled and despised. Is all this, because in our day the statutes of the kingdom are not engrossed in as firm a character, and imprinted in as black and legible a type as ever? No! the law is a clear, but it is a dead letter. Dead and putrid, it is insufficient to save the State, but potent to infect and to kill. Living law, full of reason, and of equity and justice, (as it is, or it should not exist) ought to be severe and awful too; or the words of menace, whether written on the parchment roll of England, or cut into the brazen tablet of Rome, will excite nothing but contempt. How comes it, that in all the State prosecutions of magnitude, from the Revolution to within these two or three years, the Crown has scarcely ever retired disgraced and defeated from it’s Courts? Whence
*56poisonous jaws of anarchy, the fascination grows irresistible. In proportion as we are attracted towards the focus of illegality, irreligion, and desperate enterprize, all the venomous and blighting insects of the State are awakened into life. The promise of the year is blasted, and shrivelled, and burned up before them. Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut: the harvest of our law is no more than stubble.
*57It is in the nature of these eruptive diseases in the State to sink in by fits, and re-appear. But the fuel of the malady remains; and in my opinion is not in the smallest degree mitigated in it’s malignity, though it waits the favourable moment of a freer communication with the source of Regicide to exert and to encrease it’s force.
*58what the bulk of us must ever be, when abandoned to our vulgar propensities, without guide, leader or controul. That is, made to be full of a blind elevation in prosperity; to despise untried dangers; to be overpowered with unexpected reverses; to find no clue in a labyrinth of difficulties; to get out of a present inconvenience, with any risque of future ruin; to follow and to bow to fortune; to admire successful though wicked enterprize, and to imitate what we admire; to contemn the government which announces
*60a system, which, by it’s essence, is inimical to all other Governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace and war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an
armed doctrine that we are at war. It has, by it’s essence, a faction of opinion, and of interest, and of enthusiasm,
*61in every country. To us it is
*62a Colossus which bestrides our channel. It has one foot on a foreign shore, the other upon the British soil. Thus advantaged, if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail. Nothing can so compleatly ruin any of the old Governments, ours in particular, as the acknowledgment, directly or by implication, of any kind of superiority in this new power. This acknowledgment we make, if in a bad or doubtful situation of our affairs, we solicit peace; or if we yield to the modes of new humiliation, in which alone she is content to give us an hearing. By that means the terms cannot be of our choosing; no, not in any part.
*63To their power they take a security against any
*64Regicides we could by any selection of time, or use of means, obtain any thing at all deserving the name of peace.
form. The Monthly Review, April, 1815, describes them as “addressed to those advocates of the peace who had originally been partizans of the war: and it was only with persons of this description that Mr. B. deigned to enter into controversy.” This is true of the ultimate public whom he hoped to influence, but not of the ostensible correspondent.
Which in all states from common causes flow:
But likewise, those, which, by the will of fate,
On each peculiar mode of Empire wait:
Which in its very constitution lurk,
Too sure at last to do their destin’d work.
In se di destruzion racchiudon’ semi.”
As to England, Mr. Hallam remarks that it differs from all free governments of powerful nations which history has recorded by manifesting, after the lapse of several centuries, not merely no symptoms of decay, but a more expansive energy. Middle Ages, vol. ii. chap. viii.
Which trulier may be said to possess them.
The conceit is derived from a classical source: “Ea invasit homines habendi cupido ut possideri magis quam possidere videamur”: Pliny, Letters, B. ix. Lett. 30. So Archbishop Leighton, Commentary on 1 St. Peter, iv. 8: “Hearts glued to the poor riches they possess or rather are possessed by.” Leighton repeats it in his “Commentary on the Ten Commandments.”
This weak forbearance?
“The inadmissible pretension is there avowed of appropriating to France all that the laws existing there may have comprised under the denomination of French territory. To a demand such as this, is added an express declaration that no proposal contrary to it will be made, or even listened to. And even this, under the pretence of an internal regulation, the provisions of which are wholly foreign to all other nations.”While these dispositions shall be persisted in, nothing is left for the King, but to prosecute a war equally just and necessary.”Whenever his enemies shall manifest more pacific sentiments, his Majesty will, at all times, be eager to concur in them, by lending himself, in concert with his allies, to all such measures as shall be calculated to re-establish general tranquillity on conditions just, honourable and permanent, either by the establishment of a general Congress, which has been so happily the means of restoring peace to Europe, or by a preliminary discussion of the principles which may be proposed, on either side, as a foundation of a general pacification; or, lastly, by an impartial examination of any other way which may be pointed out to him for arriving at the same salutary end.”Downing-Street, April 10, 1796.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTORY.“Different Journals have advanced that an English Plenipotentiary had reached Paris, and had presented himself to the Executive Directory, but that his propositions not having appeared satisfactory, he had received orders instantly to quit France.”All these assertions are equally false.”The notices given, in the English Papers, of a Minister having been sent to Paris, there to treat of peace, bring to recollection the overtures of Mr. Wickham to the Ambassador of the Republick at Basle, and the rumours circulated relative to the mission of Mr. Hammond to the Court of Prussia. The
insignificance, or rather the
subtle duplicity, the
PUNICK stile of Mr. Wickham’s note, is not forgotten. According to the partizans of the English Ministry, it was to Paris that Mr. Hammond was to come to speak for peace: when his destination became publick, and it was known that he went to Prussia, the same writer repeated that it was to accelerate a peace, and notwithstanding the object, now well known, of this negociation, was to engage Prussia to break her treaties with the Republick, and to return into the coalition. The Court of Berlin, faithful to its engagements, repulsed these
perfidious propositions. But in converting this intrigue into a mission for peace, the English Ministry joined to the hope of giving a new enemy to France,
that of justifying the continuance of the war in the eyes of the English nation, and of throwing all the odium of it on the French Government. Such was also the aim of Mr. Wickham’s note.
Such is still that of the notices given at this time in the English papers.“This aim will appear evident, if we reflect how difficult it is, that the ambitious Government of England should sincerely wish for a peace that would
snatch from it it’s maritime preponderancy, would re-establish the freedom of the seas, would give a new impulse to the Spanish, Dutch, and French marines, and would carry to the highest degree of prosperity the industry and commerce of those nations in which it has always found
rivals, and which it has considered as
enemies of it’s commerce, when they were tired of being it’s
dupes.“But there will
no longer be any credit given to the pacific intentions of the English Ministry, when it is known, that it’s gold and it’s intrigues, it’s open practices, and it’s insinuations, besiege more than ever the Cabinet of Vienna, and are one of the principal obstacles to the negotiation which that Cabinet
would of itself be induced to enter on for peace.“They will no longer
be credited, finally, when the moment of the rumour of these overtures being circulated is considered.
The English nation supports impatiently the continuance of the war, a reply must be made to it’s complaints, it’s reproaches: the Parliament is about to re-open it’s sittings, the mouths of the orators who will declaim against the war must be shut, the demand of new taxes must be justified; and to obtain these results, it is necessary to be enabled to advance, that the French Government refuses every reasonable proposition of peace.”
The conception is borrowed, through the Latins, from the Greek elegiac authors. Meleager in Anthol.;
—See Martial, Ep. Lib. v. 34. Juv. Sat. vii. 207, &c.
Oct. 29, 1793.
au principe de souveraineté de peuples qui ne lui permet pas de reconnoître aucune institution qui y porte atteinte,” &c. &c. Decrêt sur le Rapport de Cambon, Dec. 18, 1792, and see the subsequent proclamation.
Armies of martyrs that in exile groan’d,
Sighs from the depth of gloomy dungeons heard,
And prayers in bitterness of soul preferr’d.
This poem was sometimes quoted in the debates on peace in Parliament.
To show your master this from me?
How painters write their names at Co.
Burke alludes to Grenville’s master-hand similarly displayed in the Declaration.