On the Case of the Admiral Byng, 3 letters

[ Tallentyre's commentary: In 1756, the French, under the Duc de Richelieu, took Minorca from the English--the English fleet, under Admiral Byng, retiring before the French. Paris went mad with joy. Britain forgot her traditional love of fair play, and wreaked her bitterness at being beaten on her native element, not on the blundering ministry who had commanded him impossibilities, but on Admiral Byng himself. In December, 1756, George Keith, Earl Marischal of Scotland (whom Voltaire had met in Prussia), arrived at Les Délices to plead with the man who was fast becoming Humanitarian-in-Chief of Europe to defend Admiral Byng--now arraigned on a charge of treason and cowardice. Voltaire wrote to his friend Richelieu, who replied in the first of the following letters, vindicating the character and conduct of his foe. Voltaire sent a copy of this letter to Byng with his own. He had met the Admiral many years before in England, but judged it better not to mention the acquaintance. The third letter--Voltaire to Richelieu--shows the fruitlessness of their efforts. Notwithstanding the recommandation to mercy, Byng was shot on March 14, 1757, and his defender, the author of Candide, added to it an immortel phrase, "In this country (England) it is as well to put an admirai to death now and then, to encourage the others." ]

The Duc de Richelieu to Voltaire

December, 1756 (probably).

I am much concerned, sir, about the case of Admiral Byng. I can assure you that all I have seen and heard of him is entirely honourable to him. Since he had done all that coud reasonably be erpected of him, he was not to be blamed for having suffered defeat.

When two generals engage in battle, though both are equally men of honour, one must be beaten: it is not in the least to M. Byng's discredit that he was. His conduct was throughout that of a clever sailor, and worthy of all admiration. The strength of the two fleets was about the same: the English had thirteen vessels: we had twelve, but ours were much better equipped and smarter. Fortune--which is the goddess of all battles--particularly of sea-battles--was more favourable to us than to our enemies, in causing our fire to have a much greater effect on their vessels than their fire on ours. I am convinced--and it is the general opinion--that, had the English persisted in the fight, their whole fleet would have been destroyed. Nothing could be more unjust than the present campaign against Admiral Byng. All men of honour, all officers in the services, should take a special interest in it.

Voltaire to Admiral Byng

[Voltaire enclosed with this letter a copy of the above letter from Richelieu.]


Sir, although I am almost unknown to you, I think it is my duty to send you a copy of the letter I have just received from the Marechal de Richelieu: honour, humanity, and justice demand that it should reach your hands.

This noble and unsolicited testimony of one of the most honest and generous of my fellow-countrymen makes me conclude that your judges will render you the same justice.

I am, with respect,


Voltaire to the Duc de Richelieu

February I3, 1757

Your letter on Admiral Byng, sir, was given to that unfortunate man by the Secretary of State, to be used by him as a means of justification. The court martial found him a brave man and a true. But, notwithstanding, by one of those contradictions which are common in all such cases, he was condemned to death on the strength of an ancient law--I know not what--while at the same time he was recommended to mercy--a power which can be exercised by the King alone. The faction which attacked him now accuses him of treachery in trying to turn your letter to account--as if it were that of a man he had bribed to speak for him. So reasons malice: but the clamour of the dogs will not prevent honest people from regarding your letter as that of a just and generous conqueror, prompted only by the magnanimity of his heart.

I suppose you have been busy this last month with all these public events--horrible, troublesome, or disagreeable--which succeed each other so rapidly. Those of us who live philosophically in retirement are not the most to be pitied. I will not impose on your time and your kindness by writing at great length: a first gentleman of the chamber, who has the King and the Dauphin to attend to, and who, besides, is at the head of armies and in the secrets of councils, deserves that his correspondents should be brief.

Mme. Denis is always your faithful admirer, and there is no Swiss more tenderly and respectfully attached to you than

The Swiss Voltaire.

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