The Roman Catholics Of Ireland
Letter To Sir Hercules Langrishe (1792)
From Prose Of Edmund Burke edited by Sir Philp Magnus (1948)

Our Constitution is not made for great, general, and proscriptive exclusions; sooner or later it will destroy them, or they will destroy the Constitution. In our Constitution there has always been a difference between a franchise and an office, and between the capacity for the one and for the other. Franchises were supposed to belong to the subject, as a subject, and not as a member of the governing part of the state. The policy of government has considered them as things very different; for, whilst Parliament excluded by the Test Acts (and for a while these Test Acts were not a dead letter, as now they are in England) Protestant Dissenters from all civil and military employments, they never touched their right of voting for members of Parliament or sitting in either House: a point I state, not as approving or condemning, with regard to them, the measure of exclusion from employments, but to prove that the distinction has been admitted in legislature, as, in truth, it is founded in reason.....

Toleration, being a part of moral and political prudence, ought to be tender and large. A tolerant government ought not to be too scrupulous in its investigations, but may bear without blame, not only very ill-grounded doctrines, but even many things that are positively vices, where they are adulta et praevalida. The good of the commonwealth is the rule which rides over the rest; and to this every other must completely submit...

Let us admit that the body of the Catholics are prone to sedition (of which, as I have said, I entertain much doubt), is it possible that any fair observer or fair reasoner can think of confining this description to them only? I believe it to be possible for men to be mutinous and seditious who feel no grievance, but I believe no man will assert seriously, that, when people are of a turbulent spirit, the best way to keep them in order is to furnish them with something substantial to complain of.

You separate, very properly, the sober, rational, and substantial part of their description from the rest. You give, as you ought to do, weight only to the former. What I have always thought of the matter is this—that the most poor, illiterate, and uninformed creatures upon earth are judges of a practical oppression. It is a matter of feeling; and as such persons generally have felt most of it, and are not of an over-lively sensibility, they are the best judges of it. But for the real cause, or the appropriate remedy, they ought never to be called into council about the one or the other. They ought to be totally shut out: because their reason is weak; because, when once roused, their passions are ungoverned; because they want information; because the smallness of the property which individually they possess renders them less attentive to the consequence of the measures they adopt in affairs of moment. When I find a great cry amongst the people who speculate little, I think myself called seriously to examine into it, and to separate the real cause from the ill effects of the passion it may excite, and the bad use which artful men may make of an irritation of the popular mind.

The whole being at discretion, I beg leave just to suggest some matters for your consideration :—Whether the government in Church or State is likely to be more secure by continuing causes of grounded discontent to a very great number (say two millions) of the subjects? or whether the Constitution, combined and balanced as it is, will be rendered more solid by depriving so large a part of the people of all concern or interest or share in its representation, actual or virtual? I here mean to lay an emphasis on the word virtual. Virtual representation is that in which there is a communion of interests and a sympathy in feelings and desires between those who act in the name of any description of people and the people in whose name they act, though the trustees are not actually chosen by them. This is virtual representation. Such a representation I think to be in many cases even better than the actual. It possesses most of its advantages, and is free from many of its inconveniences; it corrects the irregularities in the literal representation, when the shifting current of human affairs or the acting of public interests in different ways carry it obliquely from its first line of direction. The people may err in their choice; but common interest and common sentiment are rarely mistaken. But this sort of virtual representation cannot have a long or sure existence, if it has not a substratum in the actual. The member must have some relation to the constituent. As things stand, the Catholic, as a Catholic, and belonging to a description, has no virtual relation to the representative—but the contrary. There is a relation in mutual obligation. Gratitude may not always have a very lasting power; but the frequent recurrence of an application for favours will revive and refresh it, and will necessarily produce some degree of mutual attention. It will produce, at least, acquaintance. The several descriptions of people will not be kept so much apart as they now are, as if they were not only separate nations, but separate species. The stigma and reproach, the hideous mask will be taken off, and men will see each other as they are. Sure I am that there have been thousands in Ireland who have never conversed with a Roman Catholic in their whole lives, unless they happened to talk to their gardener's workmen, or to ask their way, when they had lost it in their sports—or, at best, who had known them only as footmen, or other domestics, of the second and third order: and so averse were they, some time ago, to have them near their persons, that they would not employ even those who could never find their way beyond the stable. I well remember a great, and in many respects a good man, who advertised for a blacksmith, but at the same time added, he must be a Protestant. It is impossible that such a state of things, though natural goodness in many persons will undoubtedly make exceptions, must not produce alienation on the one side and pride and insolence on the other.

Reduced to a question of discretion, and that discretion exercised solely upon what will appear best for the conservation of the state on its present basis, I should recommend it to your serious thoughts, whether the narrowing of the foundation is always the best way to secure the building? The body of disfranchised men will not be perfectly satisfied to remain always in that state. If they are not satisfied, you have two millions of subjects in your bosom full of uneasiness: not that they cannot overturn the Act of Settlement, and put themselves and you under an arbitrary master; or that they are not permitted to spawn a hydra of wild republics, on principles of a pretended natural equality in man; but because you will not suffer them to enjoy the ancient, fundamental, tried advantages of a British Constitution—that you will not permit them to profit of the protection of a common father or the freedom of common citizens, and that the only reason which can be assigned for this disfranchisement has a tendency more deeply to ulcerate their minds than the act of exclusion itself. What the consequence of such feelings must be it is for you to look to. To warn is not to menace.