Speech At Bristol Declining The Poll
by Edmund Burke (9 September 1780)

This morning the sheriff and candidates assembled as usual at the Council-House, and from thence proceeded to Guildhall. Proclamation being made for the electors to appear and give their votes, Mr. Burke stood forward on the hustings, surrounded by a great number of the Corporation and other principal citizens, and addressed himself to the whole assembly as follows:

Gentlemen—I decline the election. It has ever been my rule through life to observe a proportion between my efforts and my objects. I have never been remarkable for a bold, active, and sanguine pursuit of advantages that are personal to myself.

I have not canvassed the whole of this city in form, but I have taken such a view of it as satisfies my own mind that your choice will not ultimately fall upon me. Your city, Gentlemen, is in a state of miserable distraction, and I am resolved to withdraw whatever share my pretensions may have had in its unhappy divisions. I have not been in haste; I have tried all prudent means; I have waited for the effect of all contingencies. If I were fond of a contest, by the partiality of my numerous friends (whom you know to be among the most weighty and respectable people of the city) I have the means of a sharp one in my hands. But I thought it far better, with my strength unspent, and my reputation unimpaired, to do, early and from foresight, that which I might be obliged to do from necessity at last.

I am not in the least surprised nor in the least angry at this view of things. I have read the book of life for a long time, and I have read other books a little. Nothing has happened to me but what has happened to men much better than me, and in times and in nations full as good as the age and country that we live in. To say that I am no way concerned would be neither decent nor true. The representation of Bristol was an object on many accounts dear to me; and I certainly should very far prefer it to any other in the Kingdom. My habits are made to it; and it is in general more unpleasant to be rejected after long trial than not to be chosen at all. But, Gentlemen, I will see nothing except your former kindness, and I will give way to no other sentiments than those of gratitude. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for what you have done for me. You have given me a long term, which is now expired. I have performed the conditions, and enjoyed all the profits to the full; and I now surrender your estate into your hands, without being in a single tile or a single stone impaired or wasted by my use. I have served the public for fifteen years. I have served you in particular for six. What is past is well stored; it is safe, and out of the power of fortune. What is to come is in wiser hands than ours; and He in whose hands it is, best knows whether it is best for you and me that I should be in Parliament, or even in the world.

Gentlemen, the melancholy event of yesterday reads to us an awful lesson against being too much troubled about any of the objects of ordinary ambition. The worthy Gentleman [a Mr. Coombe] who has been snatched from us at the moment of the election, and in the middle of the contest, whilst his desires were as warm and his hopes as eager as ours, has feelingly told us what shadows we are and what shadows we pursue.

It has been usual for a candidate who declines, to take his leave by a letter to the sheriffs: but I received your trust in the face of day, and in the face of day I accept your dismission. I am not—I am not at all, ashamed to look upon you; nor can my presence discompose the order of business here. I humbly and respectfully take my leave of the sheriffs, the candidates, and the electors, wishing heartily that the choice may be for the best, at a time which calls, if ever time did call, for service that is not nominal. It is no plaything you are about. I tremble, when I consider the trust I have presumed to ask. I confided, perhaps, too much in my intentions. They were really fair and upright; and I am bold to say that I ask no ill thing for you, when, on parting from this place, I pray, that whomever you choose to succeed me, he may resemble me exactly in all things, except in my abilities to serve, and my fortune to please you.

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