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MR. BURKE'S SPEECH,
ON AMERICAN TAXATION, DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, APRIL 19TH, 1774.
LORD NORTH commenced his administration at a time, when the disputes between the mother country and the colonies had attained to a height, which menaced the mosts serious conséquences. The obnoxious, laws passed by the preceding ministry, had excited throughout the American dependencies a spirit of discontent, which seemed already prepared to burst forth in open resistance to the authority of the parent state, and, if not appeased, to dissolve for ever the connexion which had very recently been cherished, with exultation, as the most certain source of their glory, their prosperity, and happiness.
Among the earliest of his measures, of any importance, was the revocation of the act which laid a duty on articles of merchandise imported into the colonies, reserving only the one upon tea, as a mere recognition of the right in parliament of legislation over the whole of the empire.
As this tax was deemed the proximate and most irritating grievance, the minister entertained a sanguine expectation that its repeal would tranquillize the prevalent turbulence, and rekindle the nearly extinguished sentiments of loyalty and attachment which were once so conspicuously displayed in every section of the provinces. But he was utterly deceived. Like all temporizing half-way measures, which lose their efficiency by their neutrality, this well meant project of conciliation totally failed. Denying the parliamentary right of taxing them, the Americans were not satis
fied by the discontinuance of the several duties, while any one remained to sanction the right.
It was not the weight of taxation against which they murmured; but the principle on which it was imposed. This partial repeal, therefore, was received not as an act of grace, or token of concession; but rather as an insidious stratagem to perpetuate under a disguise, an odious assumption of power.
The scheme of lord North was justly and with great felicity described by a cotemporary "as a heterogeneous mixture of concession and coercion; of concession not tending to conciliate, and of coercion that could not be carried into execution; at once exciting hatred for the intention, and contempt for the weak
Notwithstanding the urgent remonstrance of the colonies against the tax, and their increasing disposition to violence, the government of Great Britain resolved to enforce the measure, and vessels loaded with the offensive commodity were accordingly permitted to be sent to America.
The scene of riot and tumult which ensued on the arrival of the ships at Boston is too vividly recollected to require here to be related.
When the intelligence of these commotions reached England, sensations of the deepest solicitude and apprehension were created in the reflecting part of the nation. The leading characters of the minority in each house of parliament contemplated the posture of colonial affairs with the same anxiety. They contended with all the powers of reasoning and persuasion, that an adjustment of the existing differences could alone be effected by an entire, immediate, and absolute renunciation of those hateful and arbitrary pretensions, set up in a season of delusion by the mother country.
With a view to the restoration of harmony, Mr. Rose Fuller, an eminent commoner, moved on the 19th of April, 1774, "That the house resolve itself into a committee to take into consideration the duty upon the importation of tea into America, for its
repeal." This motion was seconded by Edmund Burke, who delivered in its support the subsequent speech, which, whether we consider it as an exhibition of imagery, lively, gorgeous, elevated, and resplendent, as a luminous exposition of the subject of debate, or as a chain of close argumentation in maintenance of the proposition he recommends, is equal, and perhaps superiour, to any specimen of the art ancient or modern.
It has sometimes been objected to the speeches of this celebrated orator, that, though they excel in variety and extent of knowledge, in curious and instructive observations on human nature, in the sublime sentiments and reflections of philosophy, and, in the creations of fancy, and the embellishments of rhetorick, are unrivaled, yet, that they are loose and digressive, and hence comparatively feeble in producing those convictions for which they were designed. This criticism, which, we think, might very successfully be combated, certainly does not apply to the present one. The speech on American taxation is, indeed, a model that presents in a greater degree than any other, the properties of perfect eloquence.
This speech is, moreover, peculiarly interesting as containing a very distinct account of all the schemes which were successively adopted in the government of the plantations, with their causes and consequences. In the progress of the review he has thought fit, as influencing their measures, to describe the characters of the different ministers. These portraits are deserving of the highest admiration. They are sketched with the bold conception of Salvator Rosa, and coloured with the bright and mellow tints of Claude Lorraine.
The efforts of Burke and his party were ineffectual. The motion was lost by a large majority. The ministry had previously fixed upon an opposite policy. Conceiving that the cup of conciliation was exhausted, they had already determined to exchange it for a system of coercion of rigorous and unmitigated severity.
I AGREE with the honourable gentleman* who spoke last, that this subject is not new in this house. Very disagreeably to this house, very unfortunately to this nation, and to the peace and prosperity of this whole empire, no topick has been more familiar to us. For nine long years, session after session, we have been lashed round and round this miserable circle of occasional arguments and temporary expedients. I am sure our heads must turn, and our stomachs nauseate with them. We have had them in every shape; we have looked at them in every point of view. Invention is exhausted; reason is fatigued; experience has given judgment; but obstinacy is not yet conquered.
The honourable gentleman has made one endeavour more to diversify the form of this disgusting argument. He has thrown out a speech composed almost entirely of challenges. Challenges are serious things; and as he is a man of prudence as well as resolution, I dare say he has very well weighed those challenges before he delivered them. I had long the happiness to sit at the same side of the house, and to agree with the honourable gentleman on all the American questions. My sentiments, I am sure, are well known to him; and I thought I had been perfectly acquainted with his. Though I find myself mistaken, he will still permit me to use the privilege of an old friendship, he will permit me to apply myself to the house under the sanction of his authority; and on the various grounds he has measured out, to submit to you the poor opinions which I have formed, upon a matter of importance enough to demand the fullest consideration I could bestow upon it.
He has stated to the house two grounds of deliberation; one narrow and simple, and merely confined
* Charles Wolfran Cornwall, Esq. lately appointed one of the lords of the treasury.