Speech On The Impeachment of Warren Hastings
by Edmund Burke (15 February 1788)

There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginning of all governments. Ours in India had an origin like those which time has sanctified by obscurity. Time, in the origin of most governments, has thrown this mysterious veil over them; prudence and discretion make it necessary to throw something of the same drapery over more recent foundations, in which otherwise the fortune, the genius, the talents, and military virtue of this nation never shone more conspicuously. But whatever necessity might hide or excuse or palliate, in the acquisition of power, a wise nation, when it has once made a revolution upon its own principles and for its own ends, rests there. The first step to empire is revolution, by which power is conferred; the next is good laws, good order, good institutions, to give that power stability. I am sorry to say that the reverse of this policy was the principle on which the gentlemen in India acted. It was such as tended to make the new government as unstable as the old. By the vast sums of money acquired by individuals upon this occasion, by the immense sudden prodigies of fortune, it was discovered that a revolution in Bengal was a mine much more easily worked and infinitely more productive than the mines of Potosi and Mexico. It was found that the work was not only very lucrative, but not at all difficult. Where Clive forded a deep water upon an unknown bottom, he left a bridge for his successors, over which the lame could hobble and the blind might grope their way...

He have arbitrary power! My Lords, the East India Company have not arbitrary power to give him; the King has no arbitrary power to give him; your Lordships have not; nor the Commons, nor the whole Legislature. We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is a thing which neither any man can hold nor any man can give. No man can lawfully govern himself according to his own will; much less can one person be governed by the will of another. We are all born in subjection—all born equally, high and low, governors and governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existent law, prior to all our devices and prior to all our contrivances, paramount to all our ideas and all our sensations, antecedent to our very existence, by which we are knit and connected in the eternal frame of the universe, out of which we cannot stir.

This great law does not arise from our conventions or compacts; on the contrary, it gives to our conventions and compacts all the force and sanction they can have. It does not arise from our vain institutions. Every good gift is of God; all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from Whom alone it originates, will never suffer the exercise of it to be practised upon any less solid foundation than the power itself. If, then, all dominion of man over man is the effect of the Divine disposition, it is bound by the eternal laws of Him that give it, with which no human authority can dispense—neither he that exercises it, nor even those who are subject to it; and if they were mad enough to make an express compact that should release their magistrate from his duty, and should declare their lives, liberties, and properties dependent upon, not rules and laws, but his mere capricious will, that covenant would be void. The acceptor of it has not his authority increased, but he has his crime doubled. Therefore can it be imagined, if this be true, that He will suffer this great gift of government, the great, the best, that was ever given by God to mankind, to be the plaything and the sport of the feeble will of a man, who, by a blasphemous, absurd, and petulant usurpation, would place his own feeble, comtemptible, ridiculous will in the place of the Divine wisdom and justice?

The title of conquest makes no difference at all. No conquest can give such a right; for conquest, that is force, cannot convert its own injustice into a just title by which it may rule others at its pleasure. By conquest, which is a more immediate designation of the hand of God, the conqueror succeeds to all the painful duties and subordination to the power of God which belonged to the sovereign whom he has displaced, just as if he had come in by the positive law of some descent or some election. To this at least he is strictly bound: he ought to govern them as he governs his own subjects. But every wise conqueror has gone much further than he was bound to go. It has been his ambition and his policy to reconcile the vanquished to his fortune, to show that they had gained by the change, to convert their momentary suffering into a long benefit, and to draw from the humiliation of his enemies an accession to his own glory. This has been so constant a practice, that it is to repeat the histories of all politic conquerors in all nations and in all times; and I will not so much distrust your Lordships' enlightened and discriminating studies and correct memories as to allude to any one of them. I will only show you that the Court of Directors, under whom he served, has adopted that idea—that they constantly inculcated it to him, and to all the servants—that they run a parallel between their own and the native government, and, supposing it to be very evil, did not hold it up as an example to be followed, but as an abuse to be corrected—that they never made it a question, whether India is to be improved by English law and liberty, or English law and liberty vitiated by Indian corruption.

No, my Lords, this arbitrary power is not to be had by conquest. Nor can any sovereign have it by succession; for no man can succeed to fraud, rapine, and violence. Neither by compact, covenant, or submission—for men cannot covenant themselves out of their rights and their duties-nor by any other means, can arbitrary power be conveyed to any man. Those who give to others such rights perform acts that are void as they are given—good, indeed, and valid only as tending to subject themselves, and those who act with them, to the Divine displeasure, because morally there can be no such power. Those who give and those who receive arbitrary power are alike criminal; and there is no man but is bound to resist it to the best of his power, wherever it shall show its face to the world. It is a crime to bear it, when it can be rationally shaken off. Nothing but absolute impotence can justify men in not resisting it to the utmost of their ability.

Law and arbitrary power are in eternal enmity. Name me a magistrate, and I will name property; name me power, and I will name protection. It is a contradiction in terms, it is blasphemy in religion, it is wickedness in politics, to say that any man can have arbitrary power. In every patent of office the duty is included. For what else does a magistrate exist? To suppose for power is an absurdity in idea. Judges are guided and governed by the eternal laws of justice, to which we are all subject. We may bite our chains, if we will, but we shall be made to know ourselves, and be taught that man is born to be governed by law; and he that will substitute will in the place of it is an enemy to God.

Mr. Hastings has no refuge here. Let him run from law to law; let him fly from the Common Law and the sacred institutions of the country in which he was born; let him fly from acts of Parliament, from which his power originated; let him plead his ignorance of them, or fly in the face of them. Will he fly to the Mahomedan law? That condemns him. Will he fly to the high magistracy of Asia to defend the taking of presents? Padishah and the Sultan would condemn him to a cruel death. Will he fly to the Sophis, to the laws of Persia, or to the practice of those monarchs? I cannot utter the pains, the tortures, that would be inflicted on him, if he were to govern there as he has done in a British province. Let him fly where he will, from law to law; law, I thank God meets him everywhere, and enforced, too, by the practice of the most impious tyrants, which he quotes as if it would justify his conduct. I would as willingly have him tried by the law of the Koran, or the Institutes of Tamerlane, as on the Common Law or Statute Law of this Kingdom...

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