Speech On The Petition Of The Unitarians Quotes

Edmund Burke

"Dangers By Being Despised Grow Great"

Context: In May, 1792, a motion was made in the House of Commons to repeal and alter certain acts of Parliament respecting religious opinions. The motion was grounded chiefly upon a petition presented by the Unitarian Society. This motion caused Edmund Burke to make this well-known address in the House of Commons on May 11, 1792. Proclaiming at the beginning of his speech that he is, as always, looking to circumstances, as well as principles, Burke goes on to point out that in a Christian country the church and state are really one, being composed of the same persons; in such a situation, he believes, the magistracy has religion as a part of their care. Burke states as his view, "A reasonable, prudent, provident, and moderate coercion may be a means of preventing acts of extreme ferocity and rigour; for by propagating excessive and extravagant doctrines, such extravagant disorders take place, as require the most perilous and fierce corrections to oppose them." Burke is careful to say that he is looking only at the Unitarians, not at other religious groups, when he says that they represent a danger to the state. He maintains that they are a political faction at that time, as well as a theological sect. He says that they are sympathetic to the French, at a moment when the French Revolution appears as a real threat to the peace of every country in western Europe, including Great Britain. Burke expresses his fear that Unitarians, because of their expressed beliefs, are a danger that cannot be overlooked:

. . . Dangers by being despised grow great; so they do by absurd provision against them. . . . Whether an early discovery of evil designs, an early declaration, and an early precaution against them, be more wise than to stifle all inquiry about them, for fear they should declare themselves more early than otherwise they would, and therefore precipitate the evil–all this depends on the reality of the danger. Is it only an unbookish jealousy, as Shakespeare calls it? It is a question of fact. Does a design against the constitution of this country exist? If it does, and if it is carried on with increasing vigour and actively by a restless faction, and if it receives countenance by the most ardent and enthusiastic applauses of its object in the great council of this kingdom, by men of the first parts which this kingdom produces, perhaps by the first it has ever produced, can I think that there is no danger? . . .