Speech In General Reply To The Evidence Called On Behalf Of Warren Hastings
by Edmund Burke (28th May 1794)

The Commons of Great Britain are not disposed to quarrel with the Divine Wisdom and Goodness, which has moulded up revenge into the frame and constitution of man. He that has made us what we are has made us at once resentful and reasonable. Instinct tells a man that he ought not to be a judge in his own cause. From that moment revenge passes from the private to the public hand; but in being transferred it is far from being extinguished. My Lords, it is transferred as a sacred trust to be exercised for the injured, in measure and proportion, by persons who, feeling as he feels, are in a temper to reason better than he can reason. Revenge is taken out of the hands of the original injured proprietor, lest it should be carried beyond the bounds of moderation and justice. But, my Lords, it is in its transfer exposed to a danger of an opposite description. The delegate of vengeance may not feel the wrong sufficiently; he may be cold and languid in the performance of his sacred duty. It is for these reasons that good men are taught to tremble even at the first emotions of anger and resentment for their own particular wrongs; but they are likewise taught, if they are well taught, to give the loosest possible rein to their resentment and indignation, whenever their parents, their friends, their country, or their brethren of the common family of mankind are injured. Those who have not such feelings, under such circumstances, are base and degenerate. These, my Lords, are the sentiments of the Commons of Great Britain.

Lord Bacon has very well said, that 'revenge is a kind of wild justice.' It is so, and without this wild austere stock there would be no justice in the world. But when, by the skilful hand of morality and wise jurisprudence, a foreign scion, but of the very same species, is grafted upon it, its harsh quality becomes changed, it submits to culture, and, laying aside its savage nature, it bears fruits and flowers, sweet to the world, and not ungrateful even to heaven itself, to which it elevates its exalted head. The fruit of this wild stock is revenge regulated, but not extinguished—revenge transferred from the suffering party to the communion and sympathy of mankind. This is the revenge by which we are actuated, and which we should be sorry, if the false, idle, girlish, novel-like morality of the world should extinguish in the breast of us who have a great public duty to perform.

But, my Lords, they will show you, they say, that Genghis Khan, Kouli Khan, and Tamerlane destroyed ten thousand times more people in battle than this man did. Good God! have they run mad? Have they lost their senses in guilt? Did they ever expect that we meant to compare this man to Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, or Kouli Khan?—to compare a clerk at a bureau, to compare a fraudulent bullock-contractor (for we could show that his first elementary malversations were in carrying on fraudulent bullock-contracts, which contracts were taken from him with shame and disgrace, and restored with greater shame and disgrace) to compare him with the conquerors of the world? We never said he was a tiger and a lion: no, we have said he was a weasel and a rat. We have said that he has made desolations. We have said that he, a fraudulent bullock-contractor, exalted to great and unmerited powers, can do more mischief than even all the tigers and lions in the world. We know that a swarm of locusts, although individually despicable, can render a country more desolate than Genghis Khan or Tamerlane. When God Almighty chose to humble the pride and presumption of Pharaoh, and to bring him to shame, He did not effect His purpose with tigers and lions; but He sent lice, mice, frogs, and everything loathsome and contemptible, to pollute and destroy the country. Think of this, my Lords, and of your listening here to these people's long account of Tamerlane's camp of two hundred thousand persons, and of his building a pyramid at Bagdad with the heads of ninety thousand of his prisoners!

No doubt princes have violated the law of this country: they have suffered for it. Nobles have violated the law; they have been hanged for it. I know no human being exempt from the law. The law is the security of the people of England; it is the security of the people of India; it is the security of every person that is governed, and of every person that governs. There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity—the Law of Nature and of Nations. So far as any laws fortify this primeval law, and give it more precision, more energy, more effect by their declarations, such laws enter into the sanctuary, and participate in the sacredness of its character. But the man who quotes as precedents the abuses of tyrants and robbers pollutes the very fountain of justice, destroys the foundations of all law, and thereby removes the only safeguard against evil men, whether governors or governed—the guard which prevents governors from becoming tyrants, and the governed from becoming rebels.

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