Documenting the American South Logo
Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Speech by Thomas Burke concerning rules of procedure in the Continental Congress
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
April 13, 1778
Volume 13, Pages 87-89


Mr. President:

I received the proceedings of the house with respect, and (protesting that until the laws of the State I represent shall expressly declare the contrary, I shall hold myself accountable for my conduct in Congress to that State, and no other power on earth) I shall use the freedom which according to my idea belongs to a Republican, and a representative of a Sovereign people in the answers I shall make I consider the minutes of the 10th of April as a charge of a breach of order in the thing, and a contempt in the manner. I admit that withdrawing without the permission of Congress is a breach of order, and I hold that no member can deny his personal attendance at reasonable hours or even his sentiments on any question debated before him, except by special leave of the house, without incurring the penalties on misbehavior in office and I have only to alledge in excuse that I had so uniformly observed the members of Congress withdraw themselves at pleasure from attendance on Congress, and without reprehension that I thought it not improper to use a liberty which had been denied,

-------------------- page 88 --------------------
as I conceived to no other member, when I deemed the subject of too much importance to be debated and determined, at a time when the faculties of the members were tired by the attendance of a whole day and when my own particular indisposition rendered me incapable of giving that attention which I thought my duty to my constituents required.

As to the manner, I am not conscious of having intended a contempt. I did not, nor do I now admit that less than nine States can make a Congress—I understood not that the message came from the President, but deemed that it came from Colonel Duer whose name the messenger particularly mentioned, from whom he delivered a private message to the delegate from Georgia requesting his company as a favor, and to whom I intended my words should be conveyed. Before my departure, I heard Mr. Lovell from Massachusetts say to the House “there is no further occasion to call the states, this declaration is decisive;” in which I thought the House acquiesced, and that the adjournment was compleat. The Delegates from Georgia, who always answered the last in order accompanied me under the same persuasion with respect to the minutes of the eleventh. Protesting that as a delegate representing a free and sovereign people, I am entitled to entire freedom of debate, I say that the expressions minuted were accompanied with and explained by other expressions not minuted, which declared my sense to be, that Congress have a power so far as to enforce the attendance of the members, that if the hours of attendance were ascertained by Congress I would punctually attend but if not I must use my own judgment at the risk of any consequent punishments as to the time being reasonable when my presence is required, that I am at all times ready and willing to submit my conduct and opinions to my constituents, in whose justice I have the firmest confidence, and to whom I owe as a duty, to prevent, if I can, the decision of important matters, when members cannot duly attend them, that conviction of error always did, and always shall precede concession with me.

That (abstracts from the breach of order under consideration which I meant not to justify, but excuse) my general political opinions were that undue, or unreasonable exercise of any power tho' lawful power, is Tyrranical, and that no freeman is bound to submit to it. That every freeman must use his own judgment on

-------------------- page 89 --------------------
it before he determines to disobey, for until he does disobey there can be no subject for any other judgment and it remains for his Country to decide whether he is mistaken or not, and if he is, he incurs the penalties provided by Law.

That it is Criminal in members of Congress to withhold their attendance when the public safety requires it, but that they are to be judged and punished by the Laws of the State they represent, and no other power.

These sentiments however expressed, I avow, and as to the language, I know no oblication I am under to use a courtly Stile. My expressions are usualy what first occur and in this instance were not intended to offend.

I shall only add that I mean not by any thing I have here said to submit myself to any Jurisdiction, but that of the State I represent. Such submission being in my Idea injurious to the majesty thereof nor do I mean to forego any of my own rights as a citizen entitled to the benefit of the Laws, and Constitution of the free State of North Carolina.


The above writing I compared with Mr. Burke's defence and it contains the express words spoken or read by him in Congress. Witness by my hand.


York April 13th 1778.