« EdellinenJatka »
another man in England, who had not completed the twentythird year of his age, who had seen so much and who had done so much as Lord John Russell ? His desultory education had been appropriately ended by his leaving Edinburgh without taking a degree. But the deficiency had been amply repaired. He had graduated in the University of the
there is reason to believe, written in 1813, and will explain
Lord John's sentiments at the opening of his career:
To study man, God's last and greatest work,
1 The poem from which these lines are taken is in an undated MS. book. The six last lines were afterwards copied-in the form in which they appear in the text—into another MS. book, and dated 1813. The four last lines were published
in The Mun of Arrouca.
But, if for these high mysteries unfit—
VOL. I. G
POLITICS AND LITERATURE.
THERE are few subjects which are perhaps less perfectly understood than the condition of England at the close of the great war in 1815. The student, gazing backward over the long intervening years, is arrested by the vision of a great triumph. Those, however, who were on the stage at the time heard the shout of triumph drowned by the wail of suffering, and saw the sunshine of victory obscured by a cloud of sorrow.
While the war lasted three causes, different in their character, produced either the semblance or the reality of prosperity. (1) The superiority of the British at sea gave them a predominance in trade, which tended to develop the native and colonial industries of the empire; (2) the vast expenditure of the Government, forestalling the accumulations of future generations, created fictitious demands for labour; and (3) an inconvertible currency, established by the Bank Restriction Act of 1797, raised prices to an unprecedented level, and provoked an appetite for speculation. A period of high prices is always advantageous to the landed classes. The landowners of 1815 found themselves in a position of affluence, and were able to raise the price of labour by increasing their own expenditure.
These conditions were abruptly terminated by the peace of 1815. The Act of 1797 had stipulated that payments in cash should be resumed six months after the conclusion of peace. In consequence, the price of gold fell rapidly from the artificial level to which an inconvertible currency had forced it. The price of every other article fell with the decrease in its value. The whole complicated operations of trade were affected by a universal fall of prices, and the creditor was everywhere benefited at the expense of the debtor. No body of persons suffered so severely from this crisis as the class which was dependent on land. Tempted by the prospect of high prices, landlords had everywhere been spending money on the improvement of their estates, and on the enclosure of inferior land. These improvements had commonly been made on borrowed money. The fall of prices reduced their rental, but the charges on their property remained unchanged. There was indeed every apparent probability that the resumption of specie payments would compel them to pay in gold the interest on a debt which they had contracted to pay in paper, and the difference between the intrinsic value of gold and the value of paper towards the close of the war was a difference of very nearly 30 per cent. The fall in prices, which would have resulted in any event from the prospect of a resumption of specie payments, was accelerated by the reduction in the military and naval expenditure of the country. The agriculturists, suddenly confronted with a reduced demand for agricultural produce, found it necessary to retrench ; the easiest method of retrenching was to throw inferior land out of tillage, and to discharge their labourers. But these proceedings, however necessary they may have been, aggravated the general distress. Labourers discharged by the thousand were supported by the rates; the existence of a vast amount of surplus labour led to a rapid fall in wages. When large numbers of redundant workmen are clamouring for food, the pressure of distress is sure to fall chiefly on the shoulders of the poor. Miserable as the condition of the poor thus became, it was aggravated by measures which were probably unavoidable. Peace compelled the Government to discharge large numbers of soldiers and sailors. The condition of these men was deplorable. Wandering through the country, seeking work and finding none, they had the effect, which Irish immigration afterwards produced, of depreciating still further the value of labour. Without finding work themselves, their presence assisted to lower the rate of wages. It may perhaps be thought that even these misfortunes, grave as they were, were partially redeemed by the lighter taxation consequent on the peace. But peace, following a
it might be expected to afford. A long war is almost necessarily conducted on borrowed money; and when peace has been proclaimed, the bill has to be paid. So it was in 1816. The war had raised the debt to 860,000,000/.; the charge of it, including the sinking fund, to more than 46,000,000/. The charge of the debt at the conclusion of the war was more than twice the sum required for the whole expenditure of the State at the beginning of it. It would have been strange if the conditions which have been thus related had not produced discontent, which was not the less grave because it required opportunity for articulate expression. The House of Commons at that time was composed of some 150 county members elected by the freeholders, and of some 500 borough members, the majority of whom were returned by private patrons. Neither county members nor borough members were in touch with a suffering people. The later policy of Mr. Pitt, moreover, which was adopted by his successors, prevented, or at any rate impeded, the expression of opinion. Mr. Pitt's Acts of 1795 declared that any person levying war upon the king in order to compel him to change his measures or counsels, or in order to intimidate either House of Parliament, should be guilty of high treason. They further declared that no meeting of more than fifty persons (except county and borough meetings duly called) should be held for considering petitions or addresses for alteration of matters in Church or State, or for discussing any grievance, without previous notice to a magistrate, who was to attend and control the meeting. These extraordinary powers were the more tremendous from the construction commonly placed on them by lawyers and judges. A serious riot became armed insurrection. If the riot grew out of a meeting which desired the removal of an existing Ministry, it amounted, so it was judicially affirmed, to a levying of war against the king." Such was the state of things in 1816. By birth and conviction a Whig, Lord John Russell sincerely desired its termination. It seemed to him that the right method of terminating it was by a vigorous attack on the bloated expenditure of
* See 36 Geo. III. cc. 7 and 8; May's Const. Hist. ii. 318, sq.; and the trial of Brandreth, in State Trials, xxxii. 755.