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Letter to Lord North, attributed to Edmund Burke


Williamsburg, Virginia, May 19, 1774.

The following Letter is supposed to be written by Mr˙ Edmund Burke, of the House of Commons.

To the Right Honourable Lord NORTH:

MY LORD: As questions of the highest national importance are now to be decided, and as measures pregnant with danger and ruin are meditated, permit an American to relate a few historical facts, which merit your most serious attention. This is probably the only address you will receive on behalf of the Colonies; when, friends, convinced of the efficacy of reason or truth in the present contest, have resolved to leave the British Government, to gain wisdom by the more certain, but expensive means of unhappy experience; concluding, that the consequences which must result from one hostile effort against America, will produce more conviction than volumes of argument. But as the public papers have been for some weeks abandoned to those incendiaries who wish to spread carnage and devastation through America, I shall make one solitary


attempt to frustrate their hopes, and vindicate the claims of the Colonies.

At the discovery of America, no person imagined any part of that Continent to be within the Realm of England, which was circumscribed within certain known and established limits. Whatever was the title of the Kings of England, at that time, to any share of America, it must have been an acquired title: and the Sovereign then had, and still has, an undoubted prerogative right, to alienate for ever from the Realm without consent of Parliament, any acquisition of foreign territory. This right has been constantly exercised by the Kings of England, at almost every treaty of peace, and at the sale of Dunkirk, &c˙, and it was particularly manifested by the Act for annexing Gibraltar to the Realm. Conformable to this prerogative right King James the First, and Charles the First, did alienate unto certain persons large territories in America, and by the most solemn compacts, did form them into separate civil States, with all the powers of distinct legislation and Government; particularly those of making peace and war, coining money, pardoning crimes, comferring titles and dignities, erecting and incorporating boroughs and cities, establishing ports, harbours, &c˙, with a grant and release of all subsidies and customs, to be levied within the same, and an express exemption from foreign taxation. This is evident from the most ancient Charters of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay, but especially from that of Maryland, which I have particularly stated in another performance. From these charters it manifestly appears to have been the Royal intention, to form these Colonies into distinct States like Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, &c˙, dependent on the Crown, but not on the Parliament of England; and conformable to this intention, we find that when a bill was several times brought into the House of Commons, to secure the people of England a liberty of fishing on the coasts of America, messages were sent to the Commons by those Monarchs, requiring them to proceed no further in the matter, and alleging that "America was without the Realm and jurisdiction of Parliament;" and on this principle the Royal assent was withheld, during all those reigns, from every bill affecting the Colonies. These and other facts, which appear on the journals of Parliament, joined to the charters of the Colonies, fully demonstrate that they were really and intentionally created distinct States, and exempted from the authority of Parliament. And their inhabitants having on the faith of such fundamental terms and conditions, accepted, cultivated, and improved the territories thus granted, have an indefeasible right to maintain and enjoy the privileges so acquired; and nothing but an act of union, made with their own consent, can annex them to the Realms, or subject them to its Legislature.

The right of the Crown to alienate the soil of the Colonies, has not been disputed; but the right of exempting their inhabitants from the jurisdiction of Parliament, has been denied without cause. Allegiance and subjection are due from a people to their Sovereign; but the allegiance of subjects to subjects, is an absurdity unknown to the laws of this Kingdom. The freedom of Britains consists in this, that they participate the power of making those laws by which they are governed; and wherever this freedom is enjoyed, the Legislative power must necessarily be confined to those who partake of it, either in person or delegation. So long as the people of America resided within the Realm, shared in its Government, and were protected by it, so long they were necessarily bound to obey, and support that Government; but when, by the consent of their Sovereign, they migrated to Ireland and America, though they continued within the King' s allegiance, yet ceasing to participate or enjoy the Legislative power of this Realm, the operation of that power over them necessarily terminated; and nothing more was necessary to emancipate the people of America from the authority of Parliament, than to permit them to leave the Realm; which nobody will deny the King' s right of doing; and should the people of England, by their Delegates, continue to exercise the powers of legislation and taxation upon the Colonies, after such separation from the Realm, they must exalt themselves to the sovereignty of America, and render the inhabitants of that country the subjects of subjects; a condition more humiliating than those of the Spartan Helotes; for if a people be subject to any supreme power, in which


they have no pacticipation, whether it be legal in a single person, or in thousands, the power is despotism, and the subjects of it are slaves.

After the death of King Charles the First, the Commonwealth Parliament, which usurped the rights of the Crown, naturally concluded, that by those rights they had acquired some kind of supremacy over the Colonies of America; the people of New England, had indeed approved their proceedings, and were therefore left without any exercise of such supremacy by the Commonwealth Parliament; but Virginia, and other places, having held out for the King, were reduced by force; and the conditions on which they submitted, clearly discover that the supremacy, claimed by this Parliament, was no more than nominal.

The Articles of the Treaty were as follow:

"1st˙ The Plantation of Virginia, and all the inhabitants thereof, shall be and remain in due subjection to the Commonwealth of England; not as a conquered country, but as a country submitting by their own voluntary act: and shall enjoy such freedoms and privileges as belong to the free people of England.

"2d˙ The General Assembly, as formerly, shall convene and transact the affairs of the Colony.

"3d˙ The people of Virginia shall have a free trade, as the people of England, to all places, and all nations.

"4th˙ Virginia shall be free from all taxes, customs, and impositions whatsoever, and none shall be imposed on them, without the consent of their General Assembly; and that neither forts nor castles shall be erected, nor garrisons maintained, without their consent."

From hence your Lordship may discover, that the rights of the Colonies, in those early days, were acknowledged; and that even those who had brought a Monarch to the scaffold, had the moderation and justice to respect, and preserve those rights. Nor did the Virginians esteem the privileges granted by this treaty as any valuable acquisition; for (considering themselves as a distinct State) they in January, 1659, invested Sir William Berkley with the Government, and proclaimed Charles the Second King of England, Scotland, France, Ireland, and Virginia, some time before his restoration to England.

After the restoration, the Act of Navigation, and that of fifteenth of Charles Second, were passed; but these I have fully considered in another place; as also that of the twenty-fifth of the same reign, which for the regulation of Commerce (as the preamble expresses) first laid duties on certain articles in the Colonies. This, however, was held to be such an infringement of their rights, that a general revolution ensued in Virginia, and the King' s Governour was deposed; and when after Bacon' s death, this insurrection subsided, agents were sent to England, to remonstrate against taxes and impositions being laid on the Colony by any authority but that of the General Assembly." And this remonstrance produced a declaration from the King, under the privy seal, dated the 19th of April, 1676, declaring "that taxes ought not to be laid upon the proprietors and inhabitants of the Colony, but by the common consent of the General Assembly, except such impositions as the Parliament should lay on the commodities imported into England, from the Colony." And though the duties which had given rise to this remonstrance and declaration were not wholly repealed until some time after, yet when a supply was wanted for the support of Government in Virginia, the King, in 1679, framed (in England) an Act for the purpose, and sent it thither by Lord Colepeper when it was passed into a law, and "enacted, by the King' s most excellent Majesty, by and with the consent of the General Assembly of the Colony of Virginia, &c." Here we see the Sovereign naming himself as a part of the Legislature of that Province, and thereby manifesting that he considered it as a supreme Legislature. For if the Colonies be a part of the Realm it is a violation of the great Charter of King John and the bill and Declaration of Rights, for the King personally, or by his Governours, to join any other Assembly than the Parliament, in any act for raising money from them; it is to subject them to complex taxations, which are repugnant to the British Constitution.

In the year 1663 the Territory of Carolina was erected into a Principality, with the powers of a distinct state; and so jealous were the Lords Proprietaries of these privileges,


that they even denied the King' s right of appointing a Vice Admiral therein, for trying offences committed without the Principality: and Joseph Morton, the Governour, was dismissed from the Government for having accepted a commission of Vice Admiral from the King.

In 1691, when the new Charter of Massachusetts Bay was granted by King William, the agents thought it not adequate to the deserts and expectations of the Province, and were unwilling to accept it. This, however, the majority of them, after consulting the most able lawyers, resolved to do, and in justification of their conduct subscribed an instrument containing the reasons of it. The last article of which will shew the idea then entertained of the rights of that Province: "The Colony," say these gentlemen, "is now made a Province, and the General Court has, with the King' s approbation, as much power in New England, as the King and Parliament have in England. They have all English privileges and liberties, and can be touched by no law and by no tax, but of their own making." Nor had the people of New England any reason to alter this opinion of their rights until since the conclusion of the last war; no imposition upon them having in that long interval been attempted by Parliamentary authority. There are many other facts which might be adduced to the same purport; but these will suffice to shew that the claim of the Colonies to the privileges of distinct Legislation and Government, and to an exemption from Parliamentary taxation, are not new, as some have ignorantly or wickedly pretended. They will also shew, that from the earliest years of their settlement the rights of the Colonies have been known, and with but little variation have been acknowledged, respected, and maintained, even by the Legislature of this country, and the few instances which have happened to the contrary, may be considered as usurpations of the strong against the weak; and "quod ab initio injustum est, nullum potest habere juris effectum." — Grotius.

There are other grounds, however, on which the adversaries of the Colonies have chosen to manage this contest; and upon these grounds I shall meet them in my next.

I am, my Lord, yours, &˙c˙, &,c.

E˙ B.