Speech At Bristol Previous To The Election Quotes

Edmund Burke

"Bad Laws Are The Worst Sort Of Tyranny"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Edmund Burke faced an election at the time he made this speech at the guildhall in Bristol, which he had been representing in Parliament for six years. The speech is a bid for re-election and also a defense of his conduct as a member of the House of Commons. He notes that he is accused of neglecting his constituents by not visiting Bristol, of being wrong in his stand upon the Irish trade acts, of being wrong in his opinions and mode of proceeding on Lord Beauchamp's debtors' bills, and of voting wrongly on bills having to do with religious freedom for Roman Catholics. He defends himself against these charges one by one. In answering the last-named accusation, he describes how laws against Roman Catholics came into existence during the seventeenth century, especially how one law had been passed ironically in 1699. This particular law had been intended to seem so harsh that it could not pass, but it did. And, says Burke, "The effects of the act have been as mischievous as its origin was ludicrous and shameful. From that time every person of that communion, lay and ecclesiastic, has been obliged to fly from the face of day." Burke shows specific examples of the cruel effects of this law, the repeal of which he had worked for. After challenging his hearers, "Let him stand forth that disapproves what we have done!" Burke comments on bad laws:

Gentlemen, bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. In such a country as this they are of all bad things the worst, worse by far than anywhere else; and they derive a particular malignity even from the wisdom and soundness of the rest of our institutions. For very obvious reasons you cannot trust the crown with a dispensing power over any of your laws. However, a government, be it as bad as it may, will, in the exercise of discretionary power, discriminate times and persons; and will not ordinarily pursue any man, when its own safety is not concerned. A mercenary informer knows no distinction. Under such a system, the obnoxious people are slaves, not only to the government, but they live at the mercy of every individual; they are at once the slaves of the whole community, and of every part of it; and the worst and most unmerciful men are those on whose goodness they most depend.