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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 charac< ter, produced either the semblance or the reality of prosperity. (r) 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 as
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. Their improvements had commonly been made with 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 difi‘erence 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. Whenlarge 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 prolonged struggle, does not produce the financial relief which 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 18:6. The war had raised the debt to 1,360,000,000; the charge of it, including the sinking fund, .to more than £46,ooo,ooo. 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.1
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 the nation. Excessive establishments were, in his judgment, productive of a double evil. In the first place, the patronage which they involved increased the influence of the Crown, or, as we should more correctly say, of the Ministers; and in the next place, the presence of an armed force enabled the Ministry to persevere in autocratic measures.
A standing army which destroyed the freedom of England would not march by heat of drum to Westminster and. dismiss the House of Commons; it would not proscribe the House of Peers, and deluge the streets of London with the blood of her magistrates. It would appear in the shape of a guardian of order; it would support the authority of the two Houses of Parliament; it would be hostile to none but mobs and public meetings, and shed no blood but that of labourers and journeymen. It would establish the despotic power, not of a single king or a single general, but of a host of corrupt senators and half a million of petty tyrants. [And he added] Happily the projects of 1816 were defeated; a third of the army has been disbanded, and we are not yet reduced to this dreadful state of servitude. . . . Our poverty and distress have saved our constitution.2
Lord John Russell, then, was anxious to clip the wings of autocracy, and to limit the resources by which it was ordinarily sustained. He stated his views at the opening of the session; seconding, in the debate on the Address, an amendment, moved by Mr. Brand, condemning the Ministry for not convening the legislature at an earlier date, and pledging the House to a rigid inquiry into the public expenditure. In the course of his speech Lord John forced the Government into a
1 See 36 Geo. III. cc. 7 and 8; May's Canst. Hirt. ii. 3:8, 14.; and the trial of Brandreth, in State Trials, xxxii. 755.
2 Russell an 111: Com-titution, pp. 379, 380, 381 : cf. the chapter on ‘ The Influence of the Crown.‘
premature declaration of its intention to continue the income tax at a reduced rate. He said—
It was reported that Ministers intended very shortly to propose to continue a great part of the income tax. He would say that there could be no more dreadful calamity for this country than the continuance of the tax in question. For now, after glory on glory and victory upon victory, all prosperity has vanished. The farmer could not pay his rent, the landlord could not pay his taxes, and from the lowest labourer of the land to the peer who stood next the throne, all felt that our prosperity was gone, except, indeed, those who were paid out of the public purse.1
This passage in Lord John’s speech really indicated the policy of the Opposition. The Whigs attacked the estimates of the Government and the supplies which Ministers proposed. In the first of these onslaughts they received active assistance from Lord John; he led the Opposition to the army estimates, declaring that the bare proposal that a standing army of 150,000 men should be supported must alarm every friend to his country and its constitution. . . . A time might arrive . . . when the House of Commons, for its own security, as well as the security of the Crown, would find it necessary to keep up an immense regular force. When that event occurred, the people must bid farewell to that freedom which they had so long and so anxiously preserved.2
Lord John Russell’s opposition notwithstanding, the Ministry succeeded in carrying its motion,8 and Lord John himself, oddly enough, was absent from the division. The Whigs were more successful in their attack on the supplies. By presenting night after night petitions against the income tax, and by raising, as the rules of Parliament then permitted them to raise, fresh debates on each petition, they wearied out the Ministry and created an impression in the country which ultimately enabled them to defeat the proposal for continuing the tax. But in these discussions Lord John took no part.
1 I have pieced together sentences from the speech : Hanrara', xxxii. 32. 33.
2 Mid. 843.
1‘ By 241 votes to 121. laid. 1017. Lord John spoke on two other occasions during the session of 1816. Mid. pp. 607 and 738.