PETITION OF THE MERCHANTS OF LONDON RESPECTING COMMERCIAL DISTRESS 24 December 1819 - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence 1815-1823.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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PETITION OF THE MERCHANTS OF LONDON RESPECTING COMMERCIAL DISTRESS
24 December 1819
Mr. Irving presented a petition from the merchants and traders of London for an inquiry into the causes of the commercial distress. Mr. Grenfell and Mr. J. Smith spoke next.
Mr. Ricardo was happy to hear it stated by all the hon. gentlemen who had spoken, that the laws enacted last year concerning the currency of the country, ought not to be disturbed. The country was, unquestionably, in a state of great distress, but he differed in opinion from his hon. friend who presented the petition as to the cause of that distress. His hon. friend thought that this country was in a state of forced currency, and that the evils both at home and abroad arose from the regulations which that House had made relative to the currency. That cause, however, he was convinced, was totally inadequate to produce such an effect, and therefore the evil must be traced to other sources. He might here remark, that his hon. friend had brought an unexpected accusation against him, namely, that he had proposed a plan for the payment of the public debt , but that he had not the merit of originality. Now, he did not think that he had ever claimed that merit, for he was aware that many persons before his time had taken a similar view of the subject, and he hoped that whatever might be the merit of the application which he had made of principles known to others, he had stated his opinions with becoming modesty. He conceived that the distress was chiefly to be ascribed to the inadequacy of the capital of the nation to carry on the operations of trade, manufacture, and commerce. But why was the capital more inadequate now than formerly? If the profits on capital were higher, and labour more productive in other countries, it could not be doubted that capital would be transferred to those countries: no proposition in Euclid was clearer than this. Now, he thought they had greatly aggravated this evil by bad legislation, and he had formerly mentioned instances. He had referred to the corn-laws as one example; and however unpopular the doctrine might be with some gentlemen, he would state his opinion freely, that he believed the corn-laws to have materially increased the evil. These laws had tended to raise the price of sustenance, and that had raised the price of labour, which of course diminished the profit on capital. But of all this evil, the national debt, and the consequent amount of taxation, was the great cause. Hence the main object of the legislature should be to provide for the payment of that debt, and that provision should commence its operation as soon as possible. For as this debt was chargeable upon all the capital of the country, it was obvious that any capital which went out of the country was exonerated from that charge, while the capital which remained was of course compelled to pay a greater proportion of debt and taxes. To guard against this evil, which was productive at once of individual injustice and national injury, the whole capital of the country ought to be assessed for the discharge of the public debt, so that no more capital should be allowed to go out of the country without paying its fair proportion of that debt. The execution of this plan might be attended with difficulty, but then the importance of the object was worthy of an experiment to overcome every possible difficulty. The whole of the plan through which he proposed the payment of the public debt, might in his view be carried into effect within four or five years. For the discharge of the public debt, he proposed that checks should be issued upon the government to each purchaser, which checks should be kept distinct from the ordinary circulating medium of the country, but should be received by the government in payment of taxes. Thus the debt might be gradually liquidated while the government continued gradually receiving the assessments upon capital to provide for that liquidation. He would not, however, dwell farther upon this chimerical project, as he understood it was considered by every one except himself, but proceed to the consideration of the petition. His hon. friend proposed, as particularly worthy of attention, that a committee of that House should inquire into certain restrictions upon commerce, with a view to their removal. But his hon. friend should reflect, that no immediate effect could be reasonably expected from the labour of such a committee for such a purpose, as the restrictions alluded to, however burthensome, could not be suddenly removed. This removal must, indeed, take place by slow degrees, entwined as they were with the general system of the trade of the country. But still great good might be expected from the investigations of such a committee, who would, he hoped, enter particularly into the consideration of the corn laws. His hon. friend had suggested that a certain modification should take place in the arrangements made towards the removal of the restrictions upon the Bank, namely, that the Bank should not be called upon to pay in bullion until the period arrived for such payment at the lowest rate. Now he, on the contrary, thought that it would be much more for the advantage of the Bank itself, to make the payments in the order already settled; because such payments being made gradually would serve to break the fall, and prepare the Bank for the complete resumption of metallic payments. The only modification, indeed, which he deemed desirable on this subject was, that the Bank should be called upon permanently to pay its notes in bullion, instead of coin; for he could not conceive the policy of incurring the expense of coining gold merely for the purpose of the currency, which could be answered as well, if not more conveniently, by paper. The only object to be provided for in this case was, that the real value of the paper should be equal to its denominative value, according to a settled and universal standard of value, or according to its nominal amount in coin. His hon. friend had recommended the establishment of two standards of value, namely, silver and gold; but this was a project, in his opinion, peculiarly objectionable, because, if there were two standards, there would be greater chance of variation, and the establishment of the least variable standard of value was the object to be desired, with a view to maintain the character of our currency.
Mr. Brougham agreed with Ricardo on several points: ‘There was however one point on which he had wished so great an oracle, as he must ever consider him on such subjects, had not pronounced the decided opinion he had. He alluded to the possibility, or, if possible, the adviseableness of paying off the national debt. The proposition was not a new one—it had years ago been suggested by Mr. Hutcheson, indeed, he believed every chancellor of the exchequer had a similar proposition made to him every year. It had in more recent times been brought before the public by Dr. Watson, bishop of Landaff. ... The effect of such a measure would be to place the property for five years at the mercy of all the solicitors, conveyancers, and money-hunters, in the country.’
[Parliament was adjourned on 29 Dec. 1819 and, following the death of George III, it was dissolved on 28 Feb. 1820.]
The new Parliament assembled on 21 April 1820; the King’s speech was delivered on 27 April.