BURKE, EDMUND (1729-1797, Irish statesman, author, orator and political theorist)
Lot 408
BURKE, EDMUND (1729-1797, Irish statesman, author, orator and political theorist)
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Lot Details
BURKE, EDMUND (1729-1797, Irish statesman, author, orator and political theorist)
UNPUBLISHED AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED ('Edm Burke'), commenting on the French Revolution and anticipating the end of his friendship with Fox, to his friend, [John] King, a law clerk at the Home Office, soon to be (in December 1791) an Under-Secretary in the Home Office: Burke expresses his vehement reaction to the publication by the French of a manifesto ('this French Business') which Burke states is by the French Foreign Minister Marc de Montmorin and 'throws the French Revolution, the French constitution, the state of the French King, & the principles predominant in France, directly in the King's face...[reading] a Lecture of Politicks morals & legislation, to his Majesty & to all the crowned heads in Europe' and adding to 'their impudence & [leaving] no doubt of their design of sowing the principles of sedition in every Country; they have orderd this astonishing State memorial to be printed previously to its communication to the several Courts to which it is to be transmitted officially'; characterises it as unique in diplomatic instruments; comments that 'The absurdity of those Fanaticks does not render their attempts the less dangerous; perhaps it only makes them the more so', states boldly that 'it is little less than a declaration of War against all the antient, legal, prescriptive Governments in the world' and concludes 'that the Systematick proceeding of the Leaders in France, concurring with the no less systematick proceedings of the dissenters here, are in a degree dangerous to the British constitution as well as to our internal Tranquility, & to that of every other Country...'; Burke then recommends, 'with the diffidence that becomes those, who are ignorant of the bottom of things', a 'certain degree of reserve' by Ministers towards French officials and perhaps conferences with other powers and even the cutting of the French Ambassador ('to pass him without speaking to him') and withdrawing Lord Gower from the French Court; he then gives it as his understanding that he may be prevented from expressing his views at the committee stage of the Quebec Bill and asks whether if this succeeds could a formal motion be laid before the House with the French Manifesto followed by an address 'declaring our inviolable adherence to our constitution in Church & State & our resolution to support it against all the Machinations of foreign Enemies, or domestick...& promising to stand by his Majesty in all the means w[hic]h shall be found necessary for defeating the designs of persons ill inclined to our constitution...' ; he asks John King how the matter could be brought to the House and declares his firm intention in some way or other to state his case unequivocally ('...I mean to clear myself & to shew that I am ready to justify whatever I may have written in my closet...') and adhere to his principles ('...there is something of more importance in the world, than the Interest of the best parties...'), 4 full pages, folio, no place, 1 May 1791

Footnotes

  • REAFFIRMING HIS OPPOSITION TO THE FRENCH REVOLUTION SIX MONTHS AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF HIS REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE AND FIVE DAYS BEFORE THE CELEBRATED ENDING OF HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH FOX, A GREAT OCCASION OF PARLIAMENTARY HISTORY, WHICH HE ANTICIPATES IN THE PRESENT LETTER.

    From February 1790 the gulf between Burke and his party gradually revealed itself. In November his seminal work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, was published. The great friends, Charles James Fox and Burke, who now stood on either side of the argument about the Revolution, for many months avoided provoking one another in Parliament, despite Fox stating in the Commons in April that he 'admired the new constitution of France, considered altogether, as the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty' and that France was now a country 'from which neither insult nor injustice was to be dreaded'.

    The Quebec Bill, aimed at altering the constitution of Canada, gave Burke the opportunity to make his views clear to the House. On 6 May, five days after the date of the present letter, following the opening question put forward by the committee Chairman, Burke launched into a lengthy debate against the so-called 'rights of man' and the example of the French Revolution. Unlike Burke, who had avoided personal abuse, Fox countered by charging Burke with inconsistency in having previously supported the American rebels and defended the French Revolution as resolutely as Burke had opposed it. Burke reaffirmed his loyalty to the British constitution and defended himself against Fox's imputations, stating that at whatever cost of provoking enemies or losing friends he would exhort his countrymen to 'Fly from the French constitution'. Fox whispered 'there was no loss of friends'; Burke retorted 'Yes, there was loss of friends'. At this Fox rose, with tears running down his cheeks at the loss of his old friend, accusing Burke of treating him in a 'cruel and hard manner.' Burke claimed that Fox was beginning a new attack under 'the mask of kindness'. On 11 May, when the quarrel continued, Pitt intervened, delighted at the estrangement of the two most influential Whigs, and, rubbing salt in the wound, pointedly praised Burke and declared him 'entitled to the gratitude of his country, for having that day, in so able and eloquent a manner, stated his sense of the degree of danger to the constitution that already existed.'

    John King (1759-1830), a Home Office official and politician, was appointed as a law clerk at the Home Office in January 1791 and an Under-Secretary of State in the same office in December that year. He was one of a talented group of civil servants that was to be responsible for the administration of government under William Pitt, the Younger, in the 1790s against the French Revolution. His family had long been intimately connected with Burke and he became so as well, with Burke stating that King's promotion 'to so honourable and advantageous a situation made us the happiest people in the world'. In December 1794 King was made responsible for much of the correspondence of the Alien Office, which monitored French émigrés in Britain and became the hub of an intelligence operation involving counter-revolutionary activities. He later became one of the Joint Superintendents of Aliens, Joint Secretary to the Treasury and, lastly, Comptroller of Army Accounts.

    Two of King's brothers, Thomas (1746-1801) and Walker (1751-1827) were especially part of Burke's circle: Thomas acted as tutor and companion to Edmund's son Richard, and Walker, Burke's protégé, disciple and secretary, managed Burke's family affairs and arranged Burke's funeral. Walker gathered up Burke's papers at his death and was editor of his Works. Burke was also a political theorist and philosopher, advocate of a liberal attitude to the American colonies, credited as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism and staunch opponent of the French Revolution.
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