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.
[Christmas, 1795. First printed by Bishop King, from Burke’s Manuscript, in vol. v. of the 4to ed. of Burke’s Works, 1812.]
To the Earl Fitzwilliam
[Argument PART I, pp. 308-76General purpose of the pamphlet, p. 308. Particular positions controverted. 1. That the Jacobin Faction is France, p. 314. Contrast of this with the Whitehall Declaration of 1793, p. 318. 2. That France will fall by the weight of her own conquests, and crumble into separate republics, p. 321. Contrast of this with the reality—the indivisible republic growing daily in force and dimensions, p. 326. 3. That the reaction in England against French ideas may encourage despotic policy, p. 328. This illustrated by the large seditious meetings advocating his views, held while Lord Auckland’s pamphlet was in the press, ibid. 4. That the Revolution has been a wholesome lesson to sovereigns, p. 330, and to the higher classes generally, p. 333. 5. That the Jacobins are mending their ways, p. 337. This answered by the proceedings at the inauguration of the last Constitution, p. 341, including their insults to England p. 345. That this new Constitution is a good one—not unlike that of England, p. 350, that Robespierre, the incarnation of the old vices of the Revolution has perished, p. 353, that the constitution will be stable, and that its stability will extend to the peace to be made with it, p. 355. But England cannot possibly suffer, even for an “adequate compensation,” what Lord Auckland himself describes as “The abandonment of the Independence of Europe,” p. 363. This illustrated by the certain ruin to Britain in the West Indies which must result from the relations at present subsisting between France and Spain, p. 368. After this digression, Burke returns to the allegation that the Jacobins are mending their ways, p. 373, which he denies, and
Lord Auckland’s Pamphlet criticised
alleges that this is only said with the purpose of deluding England into amity with them. The fatal consequences of such amity are demonstrated in the next Part.
PART II, pp. 376-94The Jacobin Faction will become dominant, p. 375. Comparison of the British Parliament and the Greek Divines, p. 381. Invasion of foreign Jacobinism, p. 382. Ancient character and decayed condition of the British Constitution, p. 384. Picture of the French Jacobins teaching the lessons of their experience in England, p. 385. Its effect on education, p. 389, on legislature and judicature, p. 390. The end of all will be the destruction of monarchy and religion. All this may actually come about, and at short notice, p. 393.]
Consequences in England itself of a Regicide Peace
CONTROVERSY. Here the parties speak for themselves. If the writer, who attacks another’s notions, does not deal fairly with his adversary, the diligent reader has it always in his power, by resorting to the work examined, to do justice to the original author and to himself. For this reason you will not blame me, if, in my discussion of the merits of a Regicide Peace, I do
Que faire encore une fois dans une telle nuit?—
Attendre le jour. The very title seemed to me striking and peculiar, and to announce something uncommon. In the time I have lived to, I always seem to walk on enchanted ground. Every thing is new, and according to the fashionable phrase, revolutionary. In former days, authors valued themselves upon the maturity and fulness of their deliberations. Accordingly they predicted (perhaps with more arrogance than reason) an
*1eternal duration to their works. Quite the contrary is our present fashion. Writers value themselves now on the instability of their opinions, and the transitory life of their productions. On this kind of credit the modern institutors open their schools. They write for youth; and it is sufficient if the instruction lasts as long as a present love, or as the painted silks and cottons of the season.
Apparent circumstances of the War
in the fourth week of October, 1795.” The time is critically chosen. A month or so earlier would have made it the anniversary of a bloody
*2Parisian September, when the French massacre one another.
*3pleasant author that Englishmen hang and drown themselves. In truth, this work has a tendency to alarm us with symptoms of publick suicide. However, there is one comfort to be taken even from the gloomy time of year. It is a rotting season. If what is brought to market is not good, it is not likely to keep long. Even buildings run up in haste with untempered mortar in that humid weather, if they are ill-contrived tenements, do not threaten long to encumber the earth. The Author tells us (and I believe he is the very first Author that ever told such a thing to his readers) “that the
entire fabrick of his speculations might be overset by unforeseen vicissitudes”; and what is far more extraordinary, “that even the
whole consideration might be
varied whilst he was writing those pages.” Truly, in my poor judgement, this circumstance formed a very substantial motive for his not publishing those ill-considered considerations at all. He ought to have followed the good advice of his motto; Que faire encore dans une telle nuit? Attendre le jour. He ought to have waited till he had got a little more day-light on this subject. Night itself is hardly darker than the fogs of that time.
last week in October so particularly referred to, and not perceiving any particular event relative to the War, which happened on any of the days in that week, I thought it possible that they were marked by some astrological superstition, to which the greatest politicians have been subject. I therefore had recourse to my
*4Rider’s Almanack. There I found indeed something that characterized the work, and that gave directions concerning the sudden political and natural variations, and for eschewing the maladies that are most prevalent in that aguish intermittent season, “the last week of October.” On that week the sagacious astrologer,
variable and cold weather“; but instead of encouraging us to trust ourselves to the haze and mist and doubtful lights of that changeable week, on the answerable part of the opposite page, he gives us a salutary caution, (indeed it is very nearly in the words of the author’s motto): ”
Avoid (says he)
being out late at night, and in foggy weather, for a cold now caught may last the whole winter.”
*55 This ingenious author, who disdained the prudence of the almanack, walked out in the very fog he complains of, and has led us to a very unseasonable airing at that time. Whilst this noble writer, by the vigour of an excellent constitution, formed for the violent changes he prognosticates, may shake off the importunate rheum and malignant influenza of this disagreeable week, a whole Parliament may go on spitting and snivelling, and wheezing and coughing, during a whole session. All this from listening to variable, hebdomadal politicians, who run away from their opinions without giving us a month’s warning; and for not listening to the wise and friendly admonitions of Dr. Cardanus Rider, who never apprehends he may change his opinions before his pen is out of his hand, but always enables us to lay in, at least, a year’s stock of useful information.
*5second edition, and a French translation (for the benefit, I must suppose, of the new Regicide Directory) have let down a little of these flattering hopes. We and the Directory know, that the author, whatever changes his works seemed made to indicate, like a weather-cock grown rusty, remains just where he was in the last week of last October. It is true, that his protest against binding him to his opinions, and his reservation of a right to whatever opinions he pleases, remain in their full force. This variability is pleasant, and shews a fertility of fancy;
*6Qualis in aethereo felix Vertumnus Olympo
Mille habet ornatus, mille decenter habet.
*7simple country folk? It is not good for
us, however it may be so for great statesmen, that we should be treated with variable politicks. I consider different relations as prescribing a different conduct. I allow, that in transactions with an enemy, a Minister may, and often must, vary his demands with the day, possibly with the hour. With an enemy, a fixed plan, variable arrangements. This is the rule the nature of the transaction prescribes. But all this belongs to treaty. All these shiftings and changes are a sort of secret amongst the parties, till a definite settlement is brought about. Such is the spirit of the proceedings in the doubtful and transitory state of things between enmity and friendship. In this change the subjects of the transformation are by nature carefully wrapt up in their cocoons. The gay ornament of summer is not seemly in his aurelia state. This mutability is allowed to
piece of resistance. We require some food that will stick to the ribs. We call for sentiments, to which we can attach ourselves; sentiments, in which we can take an interest; sentiments, on which we can warm, on which we can ground some confidence in ourselves or in others. We do not want a largess of inconstancy. Poor souls, we have enough of that sort of poverty at home. There is a difference too between deliberation and doctrine: a man ought to be decided in his opinions before he attempts to teach. His fugitive lights may serve himself in some unknown region, but they can not free us from the effects of the error, into which we have been betrayed. His active Will-o’-the-Whisp may be gone nobody can guess where, whilst he leaves us bemired and benighted in the bog.
impression of what he has urged, taken from the
whole, and not from detached paragraphs.” That caution was not absolutely necessary. I should think it unfair to the author and to myself, to have proceeded otherwise. The author’s
whole, however, like every other whole, can not be so well comprehended without some reference to the parts; but they shall be again referred to the whole. Without this latter attention, several of the passages would certainly remain covered with an impenetrable and truly oracular obscurity.
France. The word France is slipped in just as if the government stood exactly as before that revolution which has astonished, terrified, and almost overpowered Europe. “France,” says the author, “will do this”; “it is the interest of France”; “the returning honour and generosity of France,” &c. &c. Always merely France; just as if we were in a common political war with an old recognized member of the commonwealth of Christian Europe; and as if our dispute had turned upon a mere matter of territorial or commercial controversy, which a peace might settle by the imposition or the taking off a duty, with the gain or the loss of a remote island or a frontier town or two, on the one side or the other. This shifting of persons could not be done without the hocus-pocus of
abstraction. We have been in a grievous error. We thought that we had been at war with
rebels against the lawful government, but that we were friends and allies of what is properly France; friends and allies to the legal body politick of France. But by sleight of hand the Jacobins are clean vanished, and it is France we have got under our cup. Blessings on his soul that first invented sleep, said Don Sancho Panza the wise! All those blessings, and ten thousand times more, on him who found out abstraction, personification, and impersonals! In certain cases they are the first of all soporificks. Terribly alarmed we should be if things were proposed to us in the
concrete; and if fraternity was held out to us with the individuals, who compose this France, by their proper names and descriptions: if we were told that it was very proper to enter into the closest bonds of amity and good correspondence with the devout, pacifick, and tender-hearted Syeyes, with the all-accomplished Rewbel, with the humane
abstraction and personification. “Make your Peace with France.” That word
France sounds quite as well as any other, and it conveys no idea but that of a very pleasant country and very hospitable inhabitants. Nothing absurd and shocking in amity and good correspondence with
France. Permit me to say, that I am not yet well acquainted with this new-coined France, and, without a careful assay, I am not willing to receive it in currency in place of the old Louis d’or.
dictate a pacification, and that this pacification, according to their decree passed but a very few days before his publication appeared, is to “unite to their Empire, either in possession or dependence, new barriers, many frontier places of strength, a large sea-coast, and many sea-ports.” He ought to have stated it, that they would annex to their territory a country about a third as large as France, and much more than half as rich; and in a situation the most important, for command, that it would be possible for her any where to possess.
retaining these conquests, and whether she will not wholly lose that preponderance, which she has held in the scale of European powers, and will not eventually be destroyed by the effect of her present successes; or, at least, whether, so far as the
political interests of England are concerned, she [France] will remain an object of
as much jealousy and alarm, as she was under the reign of a Monarch.” Here, indeed, is a paragraph full of meaning! It gives matter for meditation almost in every word of it. The secret of the pacifick politicians is out. This Republick, at all hazards, is to be maintained. It is to be confined within some bounds, if we can; if not, with every possible acquisition of power, it is still to be cherished and supported. It is the return of the Monarchy we are to dread, and therefore we ought to pray for the permanence of the Regicide authority.
*9Esto perpetua is the devout ejaculation of our Fra Paolo for the Republick one and indivisible! It was the Monarchy that rendered France dangerous; Regicide neutralizes all the acrimony of that power and renders it safe and social. The October speculator is of opinion, that Monarchy is of so poisonous a quality, that a moderate territorial power is far more dangerous to its neighbours under that abominable regimen, than the greatest Empire in the hands of a Republick. This is Jacobinism sublimed and exalted into most pure and perfect essence. It is a doctrine, I admit, made to allure and captivate, if any thing in the world can, the Jacobin directory, to mollify the ferocity of Regicide, and to persuade those patriotick Hangmen, after their reiterated oaths for our extirpation, to admit this well humbled nation to the fraternal embrace. I do not wonder that this tub of
politicians, provided you keep clear of Monarchy, all our fears, alarms and jealousies are at an end: at least they sink into nothing in comparison with our dread of your detestable Royalty.” A flatterer of Cardinal Mazarin said, when that Minister had just settled the match between the young Louis the 14th and a daughter of Spain, that this alliance had the effect of Faith, and removed Mountains—that the Pyrenees were levelled by that marriage. You may now compliment Rewbel in the same spirit on the miracles of Regicide, and tell him, that the guillotine of Louis the 16th had consummated a marriage between Great Britain and France, which dried up the Channel, and
*10restored the two countries to the unity, which, it is said, they had before the unnatural rage of seas and earthquakes had broke off their happy junction. It will be a fine subject for the Poets, who are to prophecy the blessings of this peace.
a system destructive of all publick order; maintained by proscriptions, exiles, and confiscations without number; by arbitrary imprisonments; by massacres which cannot be remembered without horrour; and at length by the execrable murder of a just and beneficent Sovereign, and of the illustrious princess, who with an unshaken firmness has shared all the misfortunes of her Royal consort, his protracted sufferings, his cruel captivity, and his ignominious death.” After thus describing, with an eloquence and energy equalled only by its truth, the means, by which this usurped power had been acquired and maintained, that government is characterized with equal force. His Majesty, far from thinking Monarchy in France to be a greater object of jealousy, than the Regicide usurpation, calls upon the French to re-establish ”
a monarchical government” for the purpose of shaking off ”
the yoke of a sanguinary anarchy; of that anarchy, which has broken the most sacred bonds of Society, dissolved all the relations of civil life, violated every right, confounded
*12a style, which neither the pen of the writer of October, nor such a poor crow-quill as mine can ever hope to equal. I am happy to enrich my letter with this fragment of nervous and manly eloquence, which if it had not emanated from the awful authority of a throne, if it were not recorded amongst the most valuable monuments of history, and consecrated in the archives of States, would be worthy as a private composition to live for ever in the memory of men.
disposing arbitrarily of the property and blood of the inhabitants of France, in order to disturb the tranquillity of other nations, and to render all Europe the theatre of the same crimes and the same misfortunes.” It was but a natural inference from this fact, that the Royal manifesto does not at all rest the justification of this war on common principles: ”
that it was not only to defend his own rights, and those of his Allies,” but ”
Monarchical government shall shake off the yoke of a sanguinary Anarchy.” It is for that purpose the Declaration calls on them to join the standard of an ”
hereditary Monarchy“; and declaring, that the
safety and peace of this Kingdom and the powers of Europe ”
materially depend upon the re-establishment of order in France,” his Majesty does not hesitate to declare, that ”
the re-establishment of Monarchy in the person of Louis the 17th and the lawful heirs of his crown appears to him [his Majesty]
the best mode of accomplishing these just and salutary views.“
*13first Republick in the World, and the closest Ally of this Kingdom, which, under the insulting name of an independency, is under her iron yoke; and, as long as a faction averse to the old government is suffered there to domineer, cannot be otherwise. I say nothing of the Austrian Netherlands, countries of a vast extent, and amongst the most fertile and populous of Europe; and with regard to us most critically situated. The rest will readily occur to you.
*14Pomoerium of England, for them too he has a comfort, which will remove all their jealousies and alarms about the extent of the Empire of Regicide. ”
These conquests eventually will be the cause of her destruction.” So that they, who hate the cause of usurpation and dread the power of France under any form, are to wish her to be a conqueror, in order to accelerate her ruin. A little more conquest would be still better. Will he tell us what dose of Dominion is to be the
quantum sufficit for her destruction, for she seems very voracious of the food of her distemper? To be sure she is ready to perish with repletion; she has a
*15Boulimia, and hardly has bolted down one State, than she calls for two or three more. There is a good deal of wit in all this; but it seems to me (with all respect to the Author) to be carrying the joke a great deal too far. I cannot yet think, that the Armies of the Allies were of this way of thinking; and that, when they evacuated
*16Doctor in Molière) a happy prognostick of recovery. Flanders gone!—
tant mieux. Holland subdued!—charming! Spain beaten, and all the hither Germany conquered!—Bravo! Better and better still! But they will retain all their conquests on a Treaty! Best of all! What a delightful thing it is to have a gay physician who sees all things, as the French express it,
couleur de rose! What an escape we have had, that we and our Allies were not the Conquerors! By these conquests, previous to her utter destruction, she is “wholly to lose that preponderance, which she held in the scale of the European Powers.” Bless me! This new system of France, after changing all other laws, reverses the law of gravitation. By throwing in weight after weight her scale rises, and will by and by kick the beam! Certainly there is one sense in which she loses her preponderance: that is she is no longer preponderant against the Countries she has conquered. They are part of herself. But I beg the Author to keep his eyes fixed on the scales for a moment longer, and then to tell me in downright earnest, whether he sees hitherto any signs of her losing preponderance by an augmentation of weight and power. Has she lost her preponderance over Spain, by her influence in Spain? Are there any signs, that the conquest
*17opinion of some, not in mine, by their own weight. Sometimes they have been unquestionably embarrassed in their movements by the dissociated situation of their Dominions. Such was the case of the empire of Charles the Fifth and of his successor. It might be so of others. But so compact a body of empire; so fitted in all the parts for mutual support; with a Frontier by nature and art so impenetrable; with such facility of breaking out with irresistible force, from every quarter, was never seen in such an extent of territory from the beginning of time, as in that empire, which the Jacobins possessed in October 1795, and which Boissy d’Anglas, in his Report, settled as the Law for Europe, and the Dominion assigned by Nature for the Republick of Regicide. But this Empire is to be her ruin, and to take away all alarm and jealousy on the part of England, and to destroy her preponderance over the miserable remains of Europe!
*18“once to doubt is once to be resolved.” It would be a strange reason for wasting the treasures and shedding the blood of our country to prevent arrangements on the part of another power, of which we were doubtful, whether they might not be even to our advantage and render our neighbour less than before the object of our jealousy and alarm. In this doubt there is much decision. No nation would consent to carry on a war of scepticism. But the fact is, this expression of doubt is only a mode of putting an opinion when it is not the drift of the Author to overturn the doubt. Otherwise, the doubt is never stated as the Author’s own, nor left, as here it is, unanswered. Indeed, the mode of stating the most decided opinions in the form of questions is so little uncommon, particularly since the excellent queries of the
*19excellent Berkeley, that it became for a good while a fashionable mode of composition.
present at least it is subversive of the balance of power.” This, I confess, is not a direct contradiction, because the benefits which he promises himself from it, according to his hypothesis are future and more remote.
our security in the greatness of
her Empire, he has another in reserve if that should fail, upon quite a contrary ground; that is, a speculation of her crumbling to pieces and being thrown into a number of little separate Republicks. After paying the tribute of humanity to those who will be ruined by all these changes, on the whole he is of opinion that “the change might be compatible with general tranquillity, and with the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous commerce among nations.” Whether France be great or small, firm and entire, or dissipated and divided, all is well; provided we can have peace with her.
*20dare not be wise. We have not the fortitude of rational fear. We will not provide for our future safety; but we endeavour to hush the cries of present timidity by guesses at what may be hereafter.
*21“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow”—is this our style of talk, when “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death?” Talk not to me of what swarms of Republicks may come from this carcass! It is no carcass. Now, now, whilst we are talking, it is full of life and action. What say you to the Regicide Empire of to-day? Tell me, my friend, do its terrors appal you into an abject submission, or rouse you to a vigorous defence? But do—I no longer prevent it—do go on—look into futurity. Has this Empire nothing to alarm you when all struggle against it is over, when Mankind shall be silent before it, when all nations shall be disarmed, disheartened and
truly divided by a treacherous peace? Its malignity towards humankind will subsist with undiminished heat, whilst the means of giving it effect must proceed, and every means of resisting it must inevitably and rapidly decline.
A man that’s handsome, valiant, wise,
If he can kill him thinks t’ inherit
His wit, his beauty, and his spirit.
So Shaftesbury, Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour: “For, in good earnest, to destroy a philosophy in hatred to a man implies as errant a Tartar-notion as to destroy or murder a man, in order to plunder him of his wit, and get the inheritance of his understanding.”
The generous plan of power deliver’d down
From age to age, by your renown’d forefathers—
So dearly bought, the price of so much blood—
O let it never perish in your hands,
But piously transmit it to your children.
In the Costume assumed by the members of the legislative body, we almost behold the revival of the extinguished insignia of Knighthood,”
&c. &c. See A View of the relative State of Great-Britain and France at the commencement of the year 1796.
But in the minds of all ingenuous youth,
Change and subversion from that hour. No shock
Given to my moral nature had I known
Down to that very moment.
—The Prelude, Book x.
Much of this book may be read to show the working of the French Revolution on the minds of many of the young men of England.
Cum sese immisit
decimoque volumine pontum
Expulit in terras.
So Taylor, “Mercy of the Divine Judgments”: “If Pharaoh will not be cured by one plague he shall have ten, and if ten will not do it, the great and tenth wave which is far bigger than all the rest.” Young, The Brothers, Act iv.: