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Thoughts on the Present Discontents, and Speeches by Edmund Burke

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wine for ale, because they are to get more ale three years hence?
Do not think it. Will they make fewer demands for the advantages of
patronage in favours and offices, because their member is brought
more under their power? We have not only our own historical
experience in England upon this subject, but we have the experience
co-existing with us in Ireland, where, since their Parliament has
been shortened, the expense of elections has been so far from being
lowered that it has been very near doubled. Formerly they sat for
the king's life; the ordinary charge of a seat in Parliament was
then 1,500 pounds. They now sit eight years, four sessions: it is
now 2,500 pounds and upwards. The spirit of emulation has also been
extremely increased, and all who are acquainted with the tone of
that country have no doubt that the spirit is still growing, that
new candidates will take the field, that the contests will be more
violent, and the expenses of elections larger than ever.

It never can be otherwise. A seat in this House, for good purposes,
for bad purposes, for no purpose at all (except the mere
consideration derived from being concerned in the public councils)
will ever be a first-rate object of ambition in England. Ambition
is no exact calculator. Avarice itself does not calculate strictly
when it games. One thing is certain, that in this political game
the great lottery of power is that into which men will purchase with
millions of chances against them. In Turkey, where the place, where
the fortune, where the head itself, are so insecure, that scarcely
any have died in their beds for ages, so that the bowstring is the
natural death of Bashaws, yet in no country is power and distinction
(precarious enough, God knows, in all) sought for with such
boundless avidity, as if the value of place was enhanced by the
danger and insecurity of its tenure. Nothing will ever make a seat
in this House not an object of desire to numbers by any means or at
any charge, but the depriving it of all power and all dignity. This
would do it. This is the true and only nostrum for that purpose.
But a House of Commons without power and without dignity, either in
itself or its members, is no House of Commons for the purposes of
this Constitution.

But they will be afraid to act ill, if they know that the day of
their account is always near. I wish it were true, but it is not;
here again we have experience, and experience is against us. The
distemper of this age is a poverty of spirit and of genius; it is
trifling, it is futile, worse than ignorant, superficially taught,
with the politics and morals of girls at a boarding-school, rather
than of men and statesmen; but it is not yet desperately wicked, or
so scandalously venal as in former times. Did not a triennial
parliament give up the national dignity, approve the Peace of
Utrecht, and almost give up everything else in taking every step to
defeat the Protestant succession? Was not the Constitution saved by
those who had no election at all to go to, the Lords, because the
Court applied to electors, and by various means carried them from
their true interests; so that the Tory Ministry had a majority
without an application to a single member? Now, as to the conduct
of the members, it was then far from pure and independent. Bribery
was infinitely more flagrant. A predecessor of yours, Mr. Speaker,
put the question of his own expulsion for bribery. Sir William
Musgrave was a wise man, a grave man, an independent man, a man of
good fortune and good family; however, he carried on while in
opposition a traffic, a shameful traffic with the Ministry. Bishop
Burnet knew of 6,000 pounds which he had received at one payment. I
believe the payment of sums in hard money--plain, naked bribery--is
rare amongst us. It was then far from uncommon.

A triennial was near ruining, a septennial parliament saved, your
Constitution; nor perhaps have you ever known a more flourishing
period for the union of national prosperity, dignity, and liberty,
than the sixty years you have passed under that Constitution of

The shortness of time, in which they are to reap the profits of
iniquity, is far from checking the avidity of corrupt men; it
renders them infinitely more ravenous. They rush violently and
precipitately on their object, they lose all regard to decorum. The
moments of profit are precious; never are men so wicked as during a
general mortality. It was so in the great plague at Athens, every
symptom of which (and this its worst amongst the rest) is so finely
related by a great historian of antiquity. It was so in the plague
of London in 1665. It appears in soldiers, sailors, &c. Whoever
would contrive to render the life of man much shorter than it is,
would, I am satisfied, find the surest recipe for increasing the
wickedness of our nature.

Thus, in my opinion, the shortness of a triennial sitting would have
the following ill effects:- It would make the member more
shamelessly and shockingly corrupt, it would increase his dependence
on those who could best support him at his election, it would wrack
and tear to pieces the fortunes of those who stood upon their own
fortunes and their private interest, it would make the electors
infinitely more venal, and it would make the whole body of the
people, who are, whether they have votes or not, concerned in
elections, more lawless, more idle, more debauched; it would utterly
destroy the sobriety, the industry, the integrity, the simplicity of
all the people, and undermine, I am much afraid, the deepest and
best laid foundations of the commonwealth.

Those who have spoken and written upon this subject without doors,
do not so much deny the probable existence of these inconveniences
in their measure, as they trust for the prevention to remedies of
various sorts, which they propose. First, a place bill; but if this
will not do, as they fear it will not, then, they say, we will have
a rotation, and a certain number of you shall be rendered incapable
of being elected for ten years. Then, for the electors, they shall
ballot; the members of parliament also shall decide by ballot; and a
fifth project is the change of the present legal representation of
the kingdom. On all this I shall observe, that it will be very
unsuitable to your wisdom to adopt the project of a bill, to which
there are objections insuperable by anything in the bill itself,
upon the hope that those objections may be removed by subsequent
projects; every one of which is full of difficulties of its own, and
which are all of them very essential alterations in the
Constitution. This seems very irregular and unusual. If anything
should make this a very doubtful measure, what can make it more so
than that, in the opinion of its advocates, it would aggravate all
our old inconveniences in such a manner as to require a total
alteration in the Constitution of the kingdom? If the remedies are
proper in a triennial, they will not be less so in septennial
elections; let us try them first, see how the House relishes them,
see how they will operate in the nation; and then, having felt your
way, you will be prepared against these inconveniences.

The honourable gentleman sees that I respect the principle upon
which he goes, as well as his intentions and his abilities. He will
believe that I do not differ from him wantonly, and on trivial
grounds. He is very sure that it was not his embracing one way
which determined me to take the other. I have not, in newspapers,
to derogate from his fair fame with the nation, printed the first
rude sketch of his bill with ungenerous and invidious comments. I
have not, in conversations industriously circulated about the town,
and talked on the benches of this House, attributed his conduct to
motives low and unworthy, and as groundless as they are injurious.
I do not affect to be frightened with this proposition, as if some
hideous spectre had started from hell, which was to be sent back
again by every form of exorcism, and every kind of incantation. I
invoke no Acheron to overwhelm him in the whirlpools of his muddy
gulf. I do not tell the respectable mover and seconder, by a
perversion of their sense and expressions, that their proposition
halts between the ridiculous and the dangerous. I am not one of
those who start up three at a time, and fall upon and strike at him
with so much eagerness, that our daggers hack one another in his
sides. My honourable friend has not brought down a spirited imp of
chivalry, to win the first achievement and blazon of arms on his
milk-white shield in a field listed against him, nor brought out the
generous offspring of lions, and said to them, "Not against that
side of the forest, beware of that--here is the prey where you are
to fasten your paws;" and seasoning his unpractised jaws with blood,
tell him, "This is the milk for which you are to thirst hereafter."
We furnish at his expense no holiday, nor suspend hell that a crafty
Ixion may have rest from his wheel; nor give the common adversary,
if he be a common adversary, reason to say, "I would have put in my
word to oppose, but the eagerness of your allies in your social war
was such that I could not break in upon you." I hope he sees and
feels, and that every member sees and feels along with him, the
difference between amicable dissent and civil discord.

June, 1784

Mr. Speaker,--We have now discovered, at the close of the eighteenth
century, that the Constitution of England, which for a series of
ages had been the proud distinction of this country, always the
admiration, and sometimes the envy, of the wise and learned in every
other nation--we have discovered that this boasted Constitution, in
the most boasted part of it, is a gross imposition upon the
understanding of mankind, an insult to their feelings, and acting by
contrivances destructive to the best and most valuable interests of
the people. Our political architects have taken a survey of the
fabric of the British Constitution. It is singular that they report
nothing against the Crown, nothing against the Lords; but in the
House of Commons everything is unsound; it is ruinous in every part.
It is infested by the dry rot, and ready to tumble about our ears
without their immediate help. You know by the faults they find what
are their ideas of the alteration. As all government stands upon
opinion, they know that the way utterly to destroy it is to remove
that opinion, to take away all reverence, all confidence from it;
and then, at the first blast of public discontent and popular
tumult, it tumbles to the ground.

In considering this question, they who oppose it, oppose it on
different grounds; one is in the nature of a previous question--that
some alterations may be expedient, but that this is not the time for
making them. The other is, that no essential alterations are at all
wanting, and that neither now, nor at any time, is it prudent or
safe to be meddling with the fundamental principles and ancient
tried usages of our Constitution--that our representation is as
nearly perfect as the necessary imperfection of human affairs and of
human creatures will suffer it to be; and that it is a subject of
prudent and honest use and thankful enjoyment, and not of captious
criticism and rash experiment.

On the other side, there are two parties, who proceed on two
grounds--in my opinion, as they state them, utterly irreconcilable.
The one is juridical, the other political. The one is in the nature
of a claim of right, on the supposed rights of man as man; this
party desire the decision of a suit. The other ground, as far as I
can divine what it directly means, is, that the representation is
not so politically framed as to answer the theory of its
institution. As to the claim of right, the meanest petitioner, the
most gross and ignorant, is as good as the best; in some respects
his claim is more favourable on account of his ignorance; his
weakness, his poverty and distress only add to his titles; he sues
in forma pauperis: he ought to be a favourite of the Court. But
when the other ground is taken, when the question is political, when
a new Constitution is to be made on a sound theory of government,
then the presumptuous pride of didactic ignorance is to be excluded
from the council in this high and arduous matter, which often bids
defiance to the experience of the wisest. The first claims a
personal representation; the latter rejects it with scorn and
fervour. The language of the first party is plain and intelligible;
they who plead an absolute right, cannot be satisfied with anything
short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be
the rights of individuals: as by nature there is no such thing as
politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions
of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as men are
individuals, and nothing else. They, therefore, who reject the
principle of natural and personal representation, are essentially
and eternally at variance with those who claim it. As to the first
sort of reformers, it is ridiculous to talk to them of the British
Constitution upon any or all of its bases; for they lay it down,
that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go
himself he must send his representative; that all other government
is usurpation, and is so far from having a claim to our obedience,
that it is not only our right, but our duty, to resist it. Nine-
tenths of the reformers argue thus--that is, on the natural right.
It is impossible not to make some reflection on the nature of this
claim, or avoid a comparison between the extent of the principle and
the present object of the demand. If this claim be founded, it is
clear to what it goes. The House of Commons, in that light,
undoubtedly is no representative of the people as a collection of
individuals. Nobody pretends it, nobody can justify such an
assertion. When you come to examine into this claim of right,
founded on the right of self-government in each individual, you find
the thing demanded infinitely short of the principle of the demand.
What! one-third only of the legislature, of the government no share
at all? What sort of treaty of partition is this for those who have
no inherent right to the whole? Give them all they ask, and your
grant is still a cheat; for how comes only a third to be their
younger children's fortune in this settlement? How came they
neither to have the choice of kings, or lords, or judges, or
generals, or admirals, or bishops, or priests, or ministers, or
justices of peace? Why, what have you to answer in favour of the
prior rights of the Crown and peerage but this--our Constitution is
a proscriptive Constitution; it is a Constitution whose sole
authority is, that it has existed time out of mind. It is settled
in these two portions against one, legislatively; and in the whole
of the judicature, the whole of the federal capacity, of the
executive, the prudential and the financial administration, in one
alone. Nor were your House of Lords and the prerogatives of the
Crown settled on any adjudication in favour of natural rights, for
they could never be so portioned. Your king, your lords, your
judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive; and
what proves it is the disputes not yet concluded, and never near
becoming so, when any of them first originated. Prescription is the
most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to
secure that property, to government. They harmonise with each
other, and give mutual aid to one another. It is accompanied with
another ground of authority in the constitution of the human mind--
presumption. It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of
government against any untried project, that a nation has long
existed and flourished under it. It is a better presumption even of
the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary
arrangement by actual election. Because a nation is not an idea
only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it
is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in
numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one
set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate
election of ages and of generations; it is a Constitution made by
what is ten thousand times better than choice--it is made by the
peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral,
civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves
only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates
itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon
blind, unmeaning prejudices--for man is a most unwise, and a most
wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the
moment, are foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the
species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it
almost always acts right.

The reason for the Crown as it is, for the Lords as they are, is my
reason for the Commons as they are, the electors as they are. Now,
if the Crown and the Lords, and the judicatures, are all
prescriptive, so is the House of Commons of the very same origin,
and of no other. We and our electors have powers and privileges
both made and circumscribed by prescription, as much to the full as
the other parts; and as such we have always claimed them, and on no
other title. The House of Commons is a legislative body corporate
by prescription, not made upon any given theory, but existing
prescriptively--just like the rest. This prescription has made it
essentially what it is--an aggregate collection of three parts--
knights, citizens, burgesses. The question is, whether this has
been always so, since the House of Commons has taken its present
shape and circumstances, and has been an essential operative part of
the Constitution; which, I take it, it has been for at least five
hundred years.

This I resolve to myself in the affirmative: and then another
question arises; whether this House stands firm upon its ancient
foundations, and is not, by time and accidents, so declined from its
perpendicular as to want the hand of the wise and experienced
architects of the day to set it upright again, and to prop and
buttress it up for duration;--whether it continues true to the
principles upon which it has hitherto stood;--whether this be de
facto the Constitution of the House of Commons as it has been since
the time that the House of Commons has, without dispute, become a
necessary and an efficient part of the British Constitution? To ask
whether a thing, which has always been the same, stands to its usual
principle, seems to me to be perfectly absurd; for how do you know
the principles but from the construction? and if that remains the
same, the principles remain the same. It is true, that to say your
Constitution is what it has been, is no sufficient defence for those
who say it is a bad Constitution. It is an answer to those who say
that it is a degenerate Constitution. To those who say it is a bad
one, I answer, Look to its effects. In all moral machinery the
moral results are its test.

On what grounds do we go to restore our Constitution to what it has
been at some given period, or to reform and reconstruct it upon
principles more conformable to a sound theory of government? A
prescriptive government, such as ours, never was the work of any
legislator, never was made upon any foregone theory. It seems to me
a preposterous way of reasoning, and a perfect confusion of ideas,
to take the theories, which learned and speculative men have made
from that government, and then, supposing it made on these theories,
which were made from it, to accuse the government as not
corresponding with them. I do not vilify theory and speculation--
no, because that would be to vilify reason itself. "Neque decipitur
ratio, neque decipit unquam." No; whenever I speak against theory,
I mean always a weak, erroneous, fallacious, unfounded, or imperfect
theory; and one of the ways of discovering that it is a false theory
is by comparing it with practice. This is the true touchstone of
all theories which regard man and the affairs of men: Does it suit
his nature in general?--does it suit his nature as modified by his

The more frequently this affair is discussed, the stronger the case
appears to the sense and the feelings of mankind. I have no more
doubt than I entertain of my existence, that this very thing, which
is stated as a horrible thing, is the means of the preservation of
our Constitution whilst it lasts: of curing it of many of the
disorders which, attending every species of institution, would
attend the principle of an exact local representation, or a
representation on the principle of numbers. If you reject personal
representation, you are pushed upon expedience; and then what they
wish us to do is, to prefer their speculations on that subject to
the happy experience of this country of a growing liberty and a
growing prosperity for five hundred years. Whatever respect I have
for their talents, this, for one, I will not do. Then what is the
standard of expedience? Expedience is that which is good for the
community, and good for every individual in it. Now this expedience
is the desideratum to be sought, either without the experience of
means, or with that experience. If without, as in the case of the
fabrication of a new commonwealth, I will hear the learned arguing
what promises to be expedient; but if we are to judge of a
commonwealth actually existing, the first thing I inquire is, What
has been found expedient or inexpedient? And I will not take their
promise rather than the performance of the Constitution.

But no; this was not the cause of the discontents. I went through
most of the northern parts--the Yorkshire election was then raging;
the year before, through most of the western counties--Bath,
Bristol, Gloucester--not one word, either in the towns or country,
on the subject of representation; much on the receipt tax, something
on Mr. Fox's ambition; much greater apprehension of danger from
thence than from want of representation. One would think that the
ballast of the ship was shifted with us, and that our Constitution
had the gunnel under water. But can you fairly and distinctly point
out what one evil or grievance has happened, which you can refer to
the representative not following the opinion of his constituents?
What one symptom do we find of this inequality? But it is not an
arithmetical inequality with which we ought to trouble ourselves.
If there be a moral, a political equality, this is the desideratum
in our Constitution, and in every Constitution in the world. Moral
inequality is as between places and between classes. Now, I ask,
what advantage do you find, that the places which abound in
representation possess over others in which it is more scanty, in
security for freedom, in security for justice, or in any one of
those means of procuring temporal prosperity and eternal happiness,
the ends for which society was formed? Are the local interests of
Cornwall and Wiltshire, for instance--their roads, canals, their
prisons, their police--better than Yorkshire, Warwickshire, or
Staffordshire? Warwick has members; is Warwick or Stafford more
opulent, happy, or free, than Newcastle or than Birmingham? Is
Wiltshire the pampered favourite, whilst Yorkshire, like the child
of the bondwoman, is turned out to the desert? This is like the
unhappy persons who live, if they can be said to live, in the
statical chair; who are ever feeling their pulse, and who do not
judge of health by the aptitude of the body to perform its
functions, but by their ideas of what ought to be the true balance
between the several secretions. Is a committee of Cornwall, &c.,
thronged, and the others deserted? No. You have an equal
representation, because you have men equally interested in the
prosperity of the whole, who are involved in the general interest
and the general sympathy; and perhaps these places, furnishing a
superfluity of public agents and administrators (whether, in
strictness, they are representatives or not, I do not mean to
inquire, but they are agents and administrators), will stand clearer
of local interests, passions, prejudices, and cabals than the
others, and therefore preserve the balance of the parts, and with a
more general view and a more steady hand than the rest.

In every political proposal we must not leave out of the question
the political views and object of the proposer; and these we
discover, not by what he says, but by the principles he lays down.
"I mean," says he, "a moderate and temperate reform;" that is, "I
mean to do as little good as possible. If the Constitution be what
you represent it, and there be no danger in the change, you do wrong
not to make the reform commensurate to the abuse." Fine reformer,
indeed! generous donor! What is the cause of this parsimony of the
liberty which you dole out to the people? Why all this limitation
in giving blessings and benefits to mankind? You admit that there
is an extreme in liberty, which may be infinitely noxious to those
who are to receive it, and which in the end will leave them no
liberty at all. I think so too; they know it, and they feel it.
The question is, then, What is the standard of that extreme? What
that gentleman, and the associations, or some parts of their
phalanxes, think proper. Then our liberties are in their pleasure;
it depends on their arbitrary will how far I shall be free. I will
have none of that freedom. If, therefore, the standard of
moderation be sought for, I will seek for it. Where? Not in their
fancies, nor in my own: I will seek for it where I know it is to be
found--in the Constitution I actually enjoy. Here it says to an
encroaching prerogative--"Your sceptre has its length; you cannot
add a hair to your head, or a gem to your crown, but what an eternal
law has given to it." Here it says to an overweening peerage--"Your
pride finds banks that it cannot overflow;" here to a tumultuous and
giddy people--"There is a bound to the raging of the sea." Our
Constitution is like our island, which uses and restrains its
subject sea; in vain the waves roar. In that Constitution I know,
and exultingly I feel, both that I am free and that I am not free
dangerously to myself or to others. I know that no power on earth,
acting as I ought to do, can touch my life, my liberty, or my
property. I have that inward and dignified consciousness of my own
security and independence, which constitutes, and is the only thing
which does constitute, the proud and comfortable sentiment of
freedom in the human breast. I know, too, and I bless God for my
safe mediocrity; I know that if I possessed all the talents of the
gentlemen on the side of the House I sit, and on the other, I
cannot, by royal favour, or by popular delusion, or by oligarchical
cabal, elevate myself above a certain very limited point, so as to
endanger my own fall or the ruin of my country. I know there is an
order that keeps things fast in their place; it is made to us, and
we are made to it. Why not ask another wife, other children,
another body, another mind?

The great object of most of these reformers is to prepare the
destruction of the Constitution, by disgracing and discrediting the
House of Commons. For they think--prudently, in my opinion--that if
they can persuade the nation that the House of Commons is so
constituted as not to secure the public liberty; not to have a
proper connection with the public interests; so constituted as not,
either actually or virtually, to be the representative of the
people, it will be easy to prove that a government composed of a
monarchy, an oligarchy chosen by the Crown, and such a House of
Commons, whatever good can be in such a system, can by no means be a
system of free government.

The Constitution of England is never to have a quietus; it is to be
continually vilified, attacked, reproached, resisted; instead of
being the hope and sure anchor in all storms, instead of being the
means of redress to all grievances, itself is the grand grievance of
the nation, our shame instead of our glory. If the only specific
plan proposed--individual, personal representation--is directly
rejected by the person who is looked on as the great support of this
business, then the only way of considering it is as a question of
convenience. An honourable gentleman prefers the individual to the
present. He therefore himself sees no middle term whatsoever, and
therefore prefers of what he sees the individual; this is the only
thing distinct and sensible that has been advocated. He has then a
scheme, which is the individual representation; he is not at a loss,
not inconsistent--which scheme the other right honourable gentleman
reprobates. Now, what does this go to, but to lead directly to
anarchy? For to discredit the only government which he either
possesses or can project, what is this but to destroy all
government; and this is anarchy. My right honourable friend, in
supporting this motion, disgraces his friends and justifies his
enemies, in order to blacken the Constitution of his country, even
of that House of Commons which supported him. There is a difference
between a moral or political exposure of a public evil, relative to
the administration of government, whether in men or systems, and a
declaration of defects, real or supposed, in the fundamental
Constitution of your country. The first may be cured in the
individual by the motives of religion, virtue, honour, fear, shame,
or interest. Men may be made to abandon, also, false systems by
exposing their absurdity or mischievous tendency to their own better
thoughts, or to the contempt or indignation of the public; and after
all, if they should exist, and exist uncorrected, they only disgrace
individuals as fugitive opinions. But it is quite otherwise with
the frame and Constitution of the State; if that is disgraced,
patriotism is destroyed in its very source. No man has ever
willingly obeyed, much less was desirous of defending with his
blood, a mischievous and absurd scheme of government. Our first,
our dearest, most comprehensive relation, our country, is gone.

It suggests melancholy reflections, in consequence of the strange
course we have long held, that we are now no longer quarrelling
about the character, or about the conduct of men, or the tenor of
measures; but we are grown out of humour with the English
Constitution itself; this is become the object of the animosity of
Englishmen. This Constitution in former days used to be the
admiration and the envy of the world; it was the pattern for
politicians; the theme of the eloquent; the meditation of the
philosopher in every part of the world. As to Englishmen, it was
their pride, their consolation. By it they lived, for it they were
ready to die. Its defects, if it had any, were partly covered by
partiality, and partly borne by prudence. Now all its excellencies
are forgotten, its faults are now forcibly dragged into day,
exaggerated by every artifice of representation. It is despised and
rejected of men; and every device and invention of ingenuity, or
idleness, set up in opposition or in preference to it. It is to
this humour, and it is to the measures growing out of it, that I set
myself (I hope not alone) in the most determined opposition. Never
before did we at any time in this country meet upon the theory of
our frame of government, to sit in judgment on the Constitution of
our country, to call it as a delinquent before us, and to accuse it
of every defect and every vice; to see whether it, an object of our
veneration, even our adoration, did or did not accord with a
preconceived scheme in the minds of certain gentlemen. Cast your
eyes on the journals of Parliament. It is for fear of losing the
inestimable treasure we have, that I do not venture to game it out
of my hands for the vain hope of improving it. I look with filial
reverence on the Constitution of my country, and never will cut it
in pieces, and put it into the kettle of any magician, in order to
boil it, with the puddle of their compounds, into youth and vigour.
On the contrary, I will drive away such pretenders; I will nurse its
venerable age, and with lenient arts extend a parent's breath.

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