Q&A: Finding House of Commons debates and members' biographies for the 1700s.

According to America's Historical Newspapers, a speech was given in Parliament in February of 1774, ostensibly by someone whose last name is "Van." Supposedly he said, in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party: “The offence of the Americans is flagitious. The town of Boston ought to be knocked about their ears and destroyed. Delenda est Carthago. You will never meet with proper obedience to the laws of this country until you have destroyed that nest of locusts.” I'm wondering how I can get the original speech that was given in Parliament, and find out more about the member of Parliament who gave it.


For this period of Parliament's history, there was no official record of debates, but there were a variety of private transcripts made, with some printed commercially, recording debates in a non-systematic way.

Some of the collections of Commons debates that Stanford owns are kept in the British Documents collection in Green Library, West Wing, Level 2.

Looking in one of those, called William Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England, Vol. XVII, A.D. 1771-1774, one finds a debate on March 23, 1774 on "the Boston Port Bill," which gives the exact version of the speech as you cite it:

"Mr. Van said, he agreed to the flagitiousness of the offence in the Americans, and therefore was of opinion, that the town of Boston ought to be knocked about their ears, and destroyed. Delenda est Carthago: said he, I am of opinion you will never meet with that proper obedience to the laws of this country, until you have destroyed that nest of locusts" (p. 1178)

Oxford University is working on a digital version of Cobbett's History. It doesn't yet do full text searching, but the volumes are all there.

Interestingly, a similar, yet slightly variant account is found in volume IV of R.C. Simmons' and P.D.G. Thomas's Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, January to May, 1774, V. 4.

In their account, which is also based on several manuscript diaries, Van is recorded as saying [and there are gaps, indicated by punctuation]:

"If they block up the harbour I would say Delenda est Carthago. That the English army should not trespass over that rebel town. Make it a mark that shall never be restored. They bring an odium upon themselves whichever part they take .... Impress the Americans. 'That was the town.' Now destroy them if ever you fear a single ball against it. Demolish it, that is my opinion. Delenda est Carthago."

The next speaker, Col. Barré refers back to Van's speech, citing Van as saying "Delenda est Carthago. If you fear a single shot you had better annihilate that rebel town".

So, locusts notwithstanding, that Van said "Delenda est Carthago" seems certain.

As for the biographies of members of the House of Commons for the 18th Century, the best resource is the History of Parliament Series of volumes in the Lane Reading Room.

As to Van, One looks in The History of Parliament volume called The House of Commons, 1754-1790 for Van's biography.

Van was Charles Van (d. 3 April 1778) of Llanwern, Monmouthshire. It notes that "he was an extreme anti-American and carried his support of British authority to an absurd extent." Apparently, in a speech on 15 April, 1774 "he advocated setting on fire the forests of Massachusetts to facilitate punitive operations." This volumes records a speech on February 4, 1778, which is not cited in the Cobbett or Simmons/Thomas, but in some other contemporary editions of debates cited in the entry biographical entry. The entry of the speech:

"Mr. Van in a long speech caused much mirth in the beginning, and entertained the house with a long comparison between Britain and Rome, America and Carthage, and concluded with asserting that whatever Opposition might be individually without, they were as a party rank idiots within doors. He compared some of their leaders to Hannibal and predicted their fate to be similar to that famous general's, who vowed to the destruction of Rome and fell in the impious attempt."

So we have three variants of this speech, with various dates. It would appear that Mr. Van gave versions of his speech on more than one occasion.