Front Page Titles (by Subject) Bentham to Sir Francis Burdett. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 10 (Memoirs Part I and Correspondence)
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Bentham to Sir Francis Burdett. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 10 (Memoirs Part I and Correspondence) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 10.
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Bentham to Sir Francis Burdett.
“Queen’s Square Place,Westminster,
Just opened your packet; and dismissed your messenger. He called for an answer. I begged a little breathing time. Yes. I am quite terrified at the thoughts of the task your partiality is seeking to impose upon me; nor less astounded by that tone of self-abasement and flattery, for which, were it not for the so explicitly declared object, and eventual engagement, I should be unable to find any other account to place it to, than that of pleasantry. Patience, dear Sir! patience! The zeal of friends on both sides has given rather too great quickness to their pace; dispositions have been taken for engagements. As to disposition, nothing on my part was ever more sincere: but, before I convert it, if ever I should convert it, into an engagement, I must look round me—I must, in some sort, take measure of the field. In regard to any subject to which I have supposed myself competent, diffidence of my own strength never has been reported, nor really is, I must confess, in the number of my weaknesses. But in the present instance, I assure you, with the utmost sincerity, that sensation in me is extreme. For entering into the details requisite in a bill, never have I regarded myself as sufficiently prepared; nor can I find any present assurance of being able to render myself so. To this subject, in relation to which I feel nothing but incompetence—to this subject I could not apply myself without tearing myself away from others of no mean importance—subjects, in relation to which I feel no such diffidence, and which, if not by me, will not, as far as I can see, be so much as taken in hand by any one.
“At present, considering the labours which I have upon my hands, and of which the fruit will, I hope, be public in less than a fortnight, I cannot, for some days, allow myself so much as a thought upon the subject. Supposing the thing got up in the course of a month or two, before that time Parliament may have been dissolved. I see not at present—perhaps that is not the case with you—what considerable inconvenience could result from the deferring it till after the next Parliament has met. In the course of that time—indeed considerably before that time—I should have had it in my power to take the survey in question, and to say whether I felt the task within my grasp.
“What you see above is written on the sight of a few lines only of each of the interesting papers by which I find myself so highly honoured. Before I conclude the reading of them, one thing occurs to me as necessary to be said at any rate.
“This is—that I never can bring myself to put my name to any plan of Parliamentary Reform, under which suffrages would not be free; nor do I see it possible how they ever can be free, otherwise than by being placed under the safeguard of secrecy. My reasons, which agree entirely with those which had already been so ably stated by the venerable father of reform, are upon record: and I have never been able to discern anything in the shape of a reason on the other side.
“Deeply impressed with the sense of the honour done me by this application of yours, and of the partial kindness with which it is expressed, I remain, dear Sir, yours,” &c.
This proposed union of Bentham and Burdett, was the result of the following document, written by a distinguished friend of both—Henry Bickersteth, now Lord Langdale:—
“February 25, 1818.
“In the contemplation of any improvement in politics or legislation, it is obvious that the possession of an instrument of amelioration, sufficiently powerful and enlightened, is a condition without which no hope of success can be entertained; and, in the present circumstances of England, it is equally clear, that sufficient power, united with sufficient knowledge and rectitude of intention, can only be found in a radically reformed Parliament, after some further time has been allowed for public instruction. If Parliament were reformed to-day, we should have power and upright intention; but unless we had also a more general and familiar knowledge of the principles of legislation than now exists, it might justly be apprehended that, in many cases, mere ignorance of what was right to be done, would produce the same effects which we now suffer under the influence of vice. It appears, therefore, that two things are to be considered—Parliamentary Reform, without which no general good can be done; and Public Instruction, which is necessary, first, as a means of obtaining reform, and, secondly, as a means of reaping the greatest possible benefit from reform when obtained. Upon the last, it is not necessary to say more on the present occasion.
“Reform can be peaceably obtained only by the pressure of public opinion, acting with continually increasing uniformity and weight in favour of the cause. But on such subjects as this, public opinion is no more than the opinion of an individual, advantageously promulgated and well sustained, and therefore adopted by multitudes. Advantageously promulgated—that is, in such manner as will secure universal notoriety, with general attention and respect: well sustained—that is, by the first statement and continued repetition of reasons, which are in themselves incontrovertible because founded on the common interest; and which are laid down so plainly and distinctly, that the least competent of those who have any perceptible influence ever others may easily understand and remember them. If attention be kept alive, and continually supplied with reasons capable only of being strengthened by reiterated discussion, a sufficient uniformity of public opinion may reasonably be expected.
“Now England possesses two distinguished friends of reform, who, by their joint labours, are able to give the most advantageous promulgation to the best possible plan. The characters of Mr Bentham and Sir Francis Burdett are too well known to each other to make it necessary or proper to say anything on that subject. Of the great work to be done, the one is, more than any other person, capable of performing that part which is least congenial to the habits of the other; and their united exertions could not fail to be eminently beneficial. Conceive a plan of reform drawn up by Mr Bentham—the best possible, because framed by the person best qualified; and promulgated and supported by Sir Francis Burdett—the most advantageously, because by the person whose every word becomes universally notorious, and excites universal interest and attention; and the following are among the advantages to be derived from it:—1. A light held up for the guidance of all friends of reform. 2. An effectual moral shield against all enemies. 3. General confidence that the plan was the best that circumstances would permit. 4. A suppression of minor differences of opinion, in favour of a plan so sanctioned, and consequent approaches to uniformity. 5. Petitions for the adoption of a particular plan, which could not be reasonably controverted.
“Whatever may be proposed, the parliamentary debates afford the most extensive means of publication; and it seems probable that the best mode of stating a plan of reform would be,—to propose a few short and simple resolutions, asserting the principal abuses complained of, and setting forth the more general regulations, constituting the intended remedy,—with an indication that a bill, or a complete system of resolutions or propositions, preliminary to the enactment of a law for the establishment of the entire remedy, was prepared and ready to be proposed on the adoption of the first resolutions. From the proposal, follows a debate, every word of which might be recorded and published, with critical and explanatory notes, and an appendix, containing the bill, or system of propositions, comprehending the details of the plan. If the names of Bentham and Burdett went together in this proceeding, we should not only have universal notoriety, but all the reflection and sagacity, as well as all the active zeal in the kingdom, would be called into immediate action on this subject; and it would be surprising indeed, if every succeeding year did not produce an increasing weight of petitions. The most profound philosophy cannot unite in vain with the greatest popularity of the time.
“It is not anticipated that any serious difficulty will arise from the different plans which have been already proposed. Both Sir Francis Burdett and Mr Bentham have expressed themselves to be willing to support any plan which fairly tends to promote the object they have in view, and each of them has bestowed approbation on the labours of the other. The differences of opinion, if any, are probably on points of inferior importance, and the means of conciliation are open.
“But Mr Bentham, whose time is invaluable, is unwilling to divert his attention from other objects, and engage in the work, unless he has some positive assurance that the labour he may devote to it will not be thrown away; and this assurance can only be given by Sir Francis Burdett.”
Burdett’s answer was immediate:—