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Mr. Burke' s Motion for an Inquiry


Mr˙ Edmund Burke moved, "that it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House, to whom the Petition of the Merchants, Traders, and others, of the City of London, concerned in the commerce of North America, is referred, that they do inquire into the manner of procuring and signing the Petition of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Birmingham, which was presented to the House upon Wednesday last; and also the Petition of sundry Merchants, Factors, and Manufacturers, of Birmingham, in the County of Warwick, on behalf of themselves and others in that neighbourhood, who are interested in the trade from thence to North America, which was presented to the House upon Friday last; and how far the persons severally signing the same are concerned in the trade to North America."

This brought on a debate respecting the manner in which the Petitions had been signed, and by whom: that the first Petition from Birmingham was signed by persons not concerned in the trade to North America, and therefore ought not to have the least weight with Parliament; that the second Petition from Birmingham being signed by the persons really interested, merited a serious consideration.

Sir. W. Bagot opposed the motion.

Mr˙ Burke replied, that the persons who signed the first Petition were not in the least concerned in the trade to North America, and that they chiefly consisted of shopkeepers. He then read a paper, containing an account of the manner in which the Petition was procured, viz: "On the 11th of January, 1775, a meeting of the Merchants, Traders, &c˙, of Birmingham, was held, to consider of proper methods to be pursued on account of the alarming situation of their trade, when it was unanimously resolved to wait and see what the North American Merchants in London did, and to be guided by them. On the 17th another meeting was held, when it was likewise resolved to petition Parliament. At this meeting, a Mr˙ Bolton said he did not think petitioning would have any good effect; but he had a friend next him, Doctor Roebuck, who knew more of the matter. Doctor Roebuck, after apologizing for his neither being a trader nor inhabitant, desired them by no means to petition Parliament; for, by a conversation he had lately with a Lord of the Treasury, he was acquainted that a petition to Lord North would be much better, he being the only person that could give them redress; and that to his certain knowledge, there was at that time in the House of Commons, four Members to one determined to execute the laws in force against America. In this manner did Doctor Roebuck endeavour to hinder the people from


petitioning Parliament; but, notwithstanding his endeavours, a Committee was appointed and a Petition prepared, which, after a few amendments, met with almost universal approbation, and publick notice, by advertisement, was repeatedly given that it lay at the Dolphin, in Birmingham, to be signed. In the interim, the Petition in question was procured by Doctor Roebuck, and carried about from house to house clandestinely, without the least notice, to be signed."

Mr˙ Rice objected to the motion, because the Petition in question, according to his opinion, contained more good sense and sound policy than all the other Petitions put together.

Mr˙ Burke desired to know whether it was sound policy for Merchants to wish to go to war with the people with whom they dealt?

Sir John Wrottesley should agree to the motion, as he was certain it would redound to the Petitioners' honour; at the same time he begged leave to remind the House, that the trade of the neighbourhood of Birmingham was far more extensive than that of Birmingham itself. He asked Mr˙ Burke, whether he was ready to discuss the Bristol Petition?

Mr˙ Burke replied, yes.

Mr˙ Fox observed, that if any gentlemen suggested that the Bristol Petition was surreptitiously obtained, and offered to prove it, the House ought to hear it; but that it came with an ill grace from Ministry, to say that the motives and manner of obtaining Petitions was not to be considered, when their only answer to the Petitions disapproving their conduct, was that they were surreptitiously obtained; that, indeed, there was one difference between the Ministers' imputation and Mr˙ Burke' s charge; theirs was a mere voluntary suggestion of their own; Mr˙ Burke offered proof of his.

Mr˙ T. Townshend was for the motion, saying, that if the allegations set forth were true, the persons guilty of procuring such a Petition ought to be looked on as criminals.

Sir Gilbert Elliot contended that the persons who petitioned had not been guilty of the least fraud, for they styled themselves only the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Birmingham; and certainly no gentleman would deny but the Petitioners were inhabitants, if not traders.

Mr˙ Burke admitted they might be inhabitants, but contended that the counter-petition delivered on the 27th, of the principal Merchants, Traders, Manufacturers, and Factors, of Birmingham," ought to have a preference to that of the inhabitants only.

Sir Edward Astley observed, that had there not been a counter-petition, he should have given a negative to the motion; but as the counter-petition, in his opinion, carried so much more importance with it, he should give his hearty affirmative to the motion.

The question being put, the House divided: Yeas, 37; Noes, 85.

So it passed in the Negative.