The World's Famous Orations/Volume 3/On Coercive Measures in America

Against the measures of the government in the American colonies. Delivered in the House of Commons in 1775.

30735The World's Famous Orations (Volume 3: Great Britain I) — On Coercive Measures in AmericaJohn Wilkes





Born in 1727, died in 1797; entered Parliament in 1757; established the North Briton in 1762; imprisoned for criticizing the king in 1763; expelled from Parliament in 1764; outlawed for non-appearance when summoned to trial; returned to England in 1768, and reelected to Parliament; Imprisoned and again expelled from Parliament in 1769; several times reelected but declared ineligible; elected Alderman of London in 1770; Lord Mayor in 1774, and in the same year elected to Parliament, securing his seat and remaining a member until 1790.

The address to the king, upon the disturbances in North America, now reported from the Committee of the whole House, appears to be unfounded, rash, and sanguinary. It draws the sword unjustly against America. It mentions, sir, the particular Province of Massachusetts Bay as in a state of actual rebellion.[2] The other provinces are held out to our indignation as aiding and abetting. Arguments have been employed to involve them in all the consequences of an open, declared rebellion, and to obtain the fullest orders for our officers and troops to act against them as rebels.

Whether their present state is that of rebellion, or of a fit and just resistance to unlawful acts of power—resistance to our attempts to rob them of their property and liberties, as they imagine—I shall not declare. This I know: a successful resistance is a revolution, not a rebellion! Rebellion indeed appears on the back of a flying enemy; but revolution flames on the breast-plate of the victorious warrior. Who can tell, sir, whether, in consequence of this day's violent and mad address to his majesty, the scabbard may not be thrown away by them as well as by us; and, should success attend them, whether, in a few years, the independent Americans may not celebrate the glorious era of the Revolution of 1775, as we do that of 1688?

The policy, sir, of this measure, I can no more comprehend, than I can acknowledge the justice of it. Is your force adequate to the attempt? I am satisfied it is not. Boston, indeed, you may lay in ashes, or it may be made a strong garrison; but the province will be lost to you. Boston will be like Gibraltar. You will hold, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, as you do in Spain, a single town, while the whole country remains in the power and possession of the enemy. Where your fleets and armies are stationed, the possession will be secured, while they continue; but all the rest will be lost. In the great scale of empire, you will decline, I fear, from the decision of this day; and the Americans will rise to independence, to power, to all the greatness of the most renowned states! For they build on the solid basis of general public liberty.

I tremble, sir, at the almost certain consequences of such an address, founded in cruelty and injustice, equally contrary to the sound maxims of true policy, and the unerring rule of natural right. The Americans will certainly defend their property and their liberties with the spirit which our ancestors exerted, and which, I hope, we should exert, on a like occasion. They will sooner declare themselves independent, and risk every consequence of such a contest, than submit to the galling yoke which administration is preparing for them. An address of this sanguinary nature can not fail of driving them to despair. They will see that you are preparing, not only to draw the sword, but to burn the scabbard. In the most harsh manner you are declaring them rebels! Every idea of a reconciliation will now vanish. They will pursue the most vigorous course in their own defense. The whole continent of North America will be dismembered from Great Britain, and the wide arch of the raised empire will fall. But may the just vengeance of the people overtake the authors of these pernicious counsels! May the loss of the first province of the empire be speedily followed by the loss of the heads of those ministers who have persisted in these wicked, these fatal, these most disastrous measures!

  1. Delivered in Parliament early in 1775. In October of the previous year Wilkes had become lord mayor, and in his official capacity had presented to the king the remonstrances of the livery against the coercive policy toward America, the manner in which he discharged his duty evoking from the king a remark that he charmed him; had "never known so well bred a lord mayor." Elected to Parliament in 1774, Wilkes continued to oppose with vigor the measures of the government in America.
  2. The Boston Tea Party had occurred in December, 1773. General Gage became governor of Massachusetts in the following May, and in October the Provincial Congress met in defiance of Gage's orders forbidding it to do so.