More Like Thieves Who Have Got Possession of a House

Daily Dabble in the Classics, Edmund Burke

Men are unqualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controuling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

This sentence the prevalent part of your countrymen execute on themselves. They possessed not long since, what was next to freedom, a mild paternal monarchy. They despised it for its weakness. They were offered a well-poised, free constitution. It did not suit their taste nor their temper. They carved for themselves; they flew out, murdered, robbed, and rebelled. They have succeeded, and put over their country an insolent tyranny made up of cruel and inexorable masters, and that too of a description hitherto not known in the world. The powers and policies by which they have succeeded are not those of great statesmen, or great military commanders, but the practices of incendiaries, assassins, housebreakers, robbers, spreaders of false news, forgers of false orders from authority, and other delinquencies, of which ordinary justice takes cognizance. Accordingly the spirit of their rule is exactly correspondent to the means by which they obtained it. They act more in the manner of thieves who have got possession of a house, than of conquerors who have subdued a nation.

Opposed to these, in appearance, but in appearance only, is another band, who call themselves the moderate. These, if I conceive rightly of their conduct, are a set of men who approve heartily of the whole new constitution, but wish to lay heavily on the most atrocious of those crimes, by which this fine constitution of theirs has been obtained. They are a sort of people who affect to proceed as if they thought that men may deceive without fraud, rob without injustice, and overturn every thing without violence. They are men who would usurp the government of their country with decency and moderation. In fact they are nothing more or better, than men engaged in desperate designs, with feeble minds. They are not honest; they are only ineffectual and unsystematick in their iniquity. They are persons who want not the dispositions, but the energy and vigour, that is necessary for great evil machinations. They find that in such designs they fall at best into a secondary rank, and others take the place and lead in usurpation, which they are not qualified to obtain or to hold. They envy to their companions the natural fruit of their crimes; they join to run them down with the hue and cry of mankind, which pursues their common offences: and then hope to mount into their places on the credit of the sobriety with which they shew themselves disposed to carry on what may seem most plausible in the mischievous projects they pursue in common. But these men are naturally despised by those who have heads to know, and hearts that are able to go through, the necessary demands of bold wicked enterprises. They are naturally classed below the latter description, and will only be used by them as inferiour instruments. They will be only the Fairfaxes of your Cromwells. If they mean honestly, why do they not’ strengthen the arms of honest men, to support their ancient, legal, wise, and free government, given to them in the spring of 1718, against the inventions of craft, and the theories of ignorance and folly ? If they do not, they must continue the scorn of both parties; sometimes the tool, sometimes the incumbrance, of that, whose views they approve, whose conduct they decry. These people are only made to be the sport of tyrants. They never can obtain or communicate freedom.


Source: Edmund Burke, 19 January 1791, A Letter from Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly in Relation to Some Objections On His Book on French Affairs, The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, p. 491. Quote is unaltered from the original. Original copyright is held in Public Domain.


Daily Dabble in the Classics is a project of Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal. Quotes when edited with explanatory notes, spelling modernizations, paragraph simplification, and/or collectively as a project Copyright © 2009-2012 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.