This Day in History: Parliament discusses reconciliation with America
On this day in 1775, a member of Parliament rises and gives a speech in the British House of Commons. Edmund Burke urged members to reconcile with the American colonies, before it was too late. He spoke of the “anger and violence” that “prevailed every day more and more.” He feared that “things were hastening towards an incurable alienation of our colonies.”
Little did he know it, but many of his predictions would come true within a matter of weeks. Less than a month later, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord.
But on that day in March 1775, Burke was still hoping for peace. He proposed that Parliament offer “simple peace.” He thought that the British government ought to take one very simple action: concede and give “permanent satisfaction to your people.” Give them the civil rights that they were demanding!
The reasons that he gave were purely pragmatic. He simply did not think that any other route was feasible. The American colonies were too large; their commerce was too important to England. Perhaps most importantly, he argued that the “temper and character” of Americans prevented them from accepting any other solution. Indeed, he noted, “a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole [of America].”
In other words, Americans were too freedom-minded to ever give up the fight. How, Burke asked, could they be anything else? After all, they “are descendants of Englishmen.”
This phrase would have meant something to his listeners. Remember, the English people had established their own rights against the British government. They had fought long and hard to have those rights recognized. Americans still considered themselves Englishmen, with all the rights and privileges of those at home in Great Britain. Naturally, they recoiled when the British government treated them as if they were inferior, with fewer rights than the citizens at home in England.
Burke concluded: “The temper and character which prevail in our colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. . . . An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.”
The best solution for Britain? Let the colonists be free! Ensure that they have all the civil rights of any other Englishman. He had several specific proposals along these lines. If this is done, Burke argues, “they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing and their privileges another . . . the cement is gone, the cohesion is loosened, and everything hastens to decay and dissolution.” “Slavery they can have anywhere,” Burke concluded. “It is a weed that grows in every soil.”
In the end, Burke failed in his objective. He was unable to convince Parliament to accept his resolutions. But, even if Parliament had agreed to a simple concession, without any strings attached, the news would not have reached America in time to stop the shots at Lexington and Concord.
Ironically, Burke had cited the problems with this long traveling distance in his speech: “Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and [America]. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government.”
Edmund Burke's speech has been digitized HERE.