The King’s speech on the opening of the session was delivered on 4 Feb. 1823.
FOREIGN TRADE OF THE COUNTRY
12 February 1823
Mr. Wallace (the retiring Vice-President of the Board of Trade) moved for the revival of the committee on foreign trade of the previous session.
Mr. Ricardo rose for the purpose of paying his tribute of respect to the merits of the right hon. gentleman, who had so lately filled the office of vice-president of the Board of Trade. He would say this; that, much as the right hon. gentleman’s plans had benefitted the commerce of the country, they would have benefitted it still more, had all of them been fully carried into effect. They had met, however, with too many obstacles from interests that were hostile to his improvements; and, though he regretted the circumstance much, he must still observe, that those interests ought to be tenderly dealt with. He thought it would be wiser to make a compensation to any parties who might be injured by the alteration, than to persist in a system which was proved to be detrimental to the commercial interests of the nation at large. He had heard with the greatest pleasure, the very liberal speech which the right hon. gentleman had made that evening; nor was it with less satisfaction that he had heard his flattering account of the export trade of the country. It had been said, that the exports were greater now than they had been during the most flourishing year of the war. It ought likewise to be stated, that during the war our great foreign exports went to meet our great foreign expenditure; whereas at present we received valuable returns for every thing we exported. In looking at the general state of the country, it was satisfactory to find that, amid the gloom and distress in which the agricultural interests were involved, its foreign commerce was in a flourishing condition. He was sure that it must be the wish of all who heard him, that it might long go on, prospering and to prosper. His only reason for rising was to bear his testimony to the extraordinary merits of the right hon. gentleman.
18 February 1823
Mr. Grenfell, in moving for a return of the balances of public money in the hands of the Bank of England, observed that the services rendered by the Bank to the public were overpaid. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Robinson) declined entering at present into the subject. Mr. Baring said that the advantage of holding the public balances ‘had been estimated and paid for by the Bank on the renewal of their charter.’
Mr. Ricardo said, it was true the Bank had made a compensation for the grant of the charter; but it was not sufficiently great for the advantages they had so long possessed. If, during his continuance in office, the Bank of England should apply for a renewal of the charter, he hoped the chancellor of the exchequer would be particularly careful that they did not overreach him. Before any such bargain should be made, it would be the duty of the right hon. gentleman to consult the House as to the terms of it. If it should be open to public competition, much more would be given for it than had ever yet been offered. From the advantages which the Bank had derived, it was impossible not to see, that the terms had been very much in their favour.
FINANCIAL SITUATION OF THE COUNTRY
21 February 1823
The new Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Robinson), anticipating the Budget, made an exposition of the financial situation of the country; he expected a surplus of more than 7,200,000l. and proposed to reduce or repeal several of the assessed taxes. Mr. Maberly intimated his intention to propose a plan for hastening the operation of Pitt’s land tax redemption act [on this plan, see p. 259 below].
Mr. Ricardo said, he remembered, that at the termination of the last session, he had frequently to repel the attacks which were made upon the science of political economy. He had been delighted, however, to hear the plain, sound, practical, and excellent speech, which had been delivered by the right hon. gentleman opposite; and he thought that the science of political economy had never before had so able an expositor as it had now found in that House. He thought that there never yet had been in that House a minister filling the situation which was held by the right hon. gentleman, who had in that capacity delivered sentiments so candid, so wise, and so excellent. In all the statements which he had made, it was impossible not to follow him with the greatest ease and safety; for it was in all these quite clear, that each of them was, in fact, as the right hon. gentleman had put it. But, there was this one difference—an important one, certainly—between him and the right hon. gentleman. The right hon. gentleman had stated the surplus of our income over our expenditure at 7,000,000l. Now he (Mr. Ricardo) had contended last year, and did still contend, that the transaction respecting the commutation of the pension charge, was only a transfer from one hand to the other. This evening the right hon. gentleman had introduced into his surplus of 7,000,000l. a sum of 2,000,000l. to be received; he would like to know from whom? Could the right hon. gentleman himself tell? On the one side of the account he had put an amount of 2,800,000l. to be paid for pensions and half-pay; and on the other side, he had stated, that he was to receive 4,800,000l. from the trustees, whoever they might be, who were to pay such pensions and half-pay; and of these two items, the balance was 2,000,000l. to be repaid, of course, to these trustees or commissioners themselves. Undoubtedly, therefore, from this assumed surplus of 7,000,000l. of actual income over expenditure, there must be deducted these 2,000,000l., which the sinking fund itself was to supply. If this view of the subject was correct, the right hon. gentleman when he should have carried his plan into effect, of giving the proposed relief to the country, would actually leave them with a clear sinking fund, not of 5,000,000l., but of 3,000,000l. This was the only difference in point of statement between him and the right hon. gentleman. But he could go along with the right hon. gentleman in every principle that he had applied to the sinking fund; as applicable to the diminution of our debt in time of peace. But, this was always in the supposition, that we did actually possess such a sinking fund, and that it could be so applied to pay off our debt. So convinced was he of the necessity, the indispensable necessity of getting rid of this tremendous debt, that he had before ventured to suggest the expediency of a general contribution from the capital of the country for that purpose. He would contribute any proportion of his own property, for the attainment of this great end, if others would do the same. If this proposition should be thought extravagant, or if it should be supposed that the contribution he should suggest was excessive, why not ask for a smaller contribution of capital for the same object? As to the other parts of the right hon. gentleman’s speech, he considered that taxes raised in order to pay off debt, ought to be looked upon in a very different light, from those that were raised for the immediate services of the state. The one, we might be considered as paying to ourselves; the other was for ever lost to us. As to the plan proposed by the hon. gentleman who spoke last, he had few or no remarks to offer upon it. His scheme for the reduction of the debt, by paying off the land tax, was, as far as he (Mr. R.) understood it, quite practicable. It did exist, indeed, to some extent, at the present moment; but the hon. gentleman’s plan would, perhaps, increase its facilities. The hon. gentleman, however, in his plan for the reduction of taxes, went much too far; for he seemed to consider, that the clear surplus, which they had to dispose of, after allowing for the 2,200,000l. which the right hon. gentleman proposed to remit in taxes, would give a sinking fund of 5,000,000l. Now, he said, that the hon. gentleman went too far, on this ground—that we could not have such a sinking fund applicable to such a purpose. And here he would beg leave to call the attention of the House to a pamphlet which had been lately published under the auspices of ministers themselves. [Hear, hear! from the Treasury Bench.] Well, he did not know how that might be; but this he knew, that it contained arguments which were constantly in the mouths of ministers. In this pamphlet the sinking fund was made applicable to two or three different objects: and first of all, it was efficient for paying off debt. If so, it was clearly efficient for no other object. If a man applied the surplus of his income to the payment of debts, he surely could not apply it to any other purpose. But the pamphlet proceeded to say, that the fund was efficient for carrying on war in case of an emergency, if allowed, in the mean time, to accumulate at compound interest. This was as if the real object of the fund was, in the event of any aggressions by an enemy, to enable us to fight that enemy, in case of a war. But if so, why did not ministers confess it? Let them at once openly avow their object. But he thought that the more constitutional course would be, in case we should be required to repel the aggressions of an enemy, for the ministers of the crown to come down to the House and acquaint it with the necessity of providing for the expenses of a war that was about to be undertaken, rather than to retain the sinking fund at its present establishment, with the view of making it available on such an emergency. He did think that there was something mysterious in this doctrine of making that which was supposed to be applicable to paying off our debts applicable to the expense of a war.
AGRICULTURAL DISTRESS—SURREY PETITION
26 February 1823
Mr. Denison, in presenting a petition from the freeholders of Surrey, referred to the mischief produced by tampering with the currency in 1797 and 1819, and expressed the opinion that ‘some amicable adjustment was necessary throughout the country.’
Mr. Ricardo would not have risen upon this occasion, if the hon. gentleman had not declared, that he wished some amicable arrangement could be made by which that part of the country which was now profiting on account of the loss of the others, might be made to bear its share in the burdens.
He complained that the words which had been used at that and at other public meetings, had been vague as to the advantage of the public creditor. For his part, he was at a loss to see what advantage the fundholder had gained. The argument appeared to him to be made use of rather upon the principle, that by giving your adversary’s argument a bad name, you give your own a good one. Upon such grounds it was contended that the stockholder had met with nothing but gain; but those who had attended to the question, were of a different opinion. If only that which the fundholder was gaining now upon the sums which he had lent after the depreciation, was to be taken into the account, then there would no doubt be a balance in his favour; but, this view of the question would be most unfair. It would be stating the profit on the one side, without the corresponding loss on the other. If both of these were to be taken into the account, it would be found that the stockholder had had nothing more than was just; and that if the interest which he had been paid in depreciated currency, upon capital which when lent had not been depreciated, were to be set against the interest which he was receiving in undepreciated currency now, upon capital which when lent had been depreciated, then, not only would the loss in the one case compensate all that had been hitherto paid in the other, but would actually be equal to a perpetual annuity to that annual amount, which he was at present receiving. Mr. Mushett, of his majesty’s mint, than whom nobody was better able to understand the subject himself, or to afford clear views of it to others, had, in a very luminous publication, demonstrated that this was the fact. A parade was made in the speeches at public meetings, of the 800,000,000l. of debt which had been lent in depreciated currency, and the vast amount of the difference of interest upon it; but it was well known, that about 400,000,000l. of this debt was borrowed before the Bank Restriction bill had operated any depreciation whatever; and another hundred millions had been lent to the government before any considerable depreciation had taken place. Hence there had been 500,000,000l. lent to the public in capital which was not depreciated. Interest in the depreciated currency had been paid upon this for twenty years; and the loss arising therefrom, according to the calculation of Mr. Mushett, was, allowing simple interest, about 27,000,000l.; or, allowing compound interest, and that was the fair allowance, about 12 or 13 millions more. It would appear, that the whole loss which the stockholder had sustained, in consequence of having been paid in a depreciated currency the interest on the sums borrowed, previous to and immediately following 1797, was about forty millions.—Having thus stated the disadvantages to the old public creditor, he should next state what was the calculation of the same authority, as to the advantages since the depreciation had ceased, by the alteration of the currency. That he calculated at two millions per annum. Compare that with the previous loss of forty millions, and by converting that amount into perpetual annuity, we should have the sum of two millions a year. So that the profit and loss would be found to balance each other. Taking, therefore, the respective interests of the stockholder and the payer of taxes, it would be seen, that no injury had occurred to either. Whether his opinion was right or wrong, as to the depreciation that existed at the period of the alteration of the currency, still, on the calculations of Mr. Mushett, it was evident, that to the public creditor, the profits at the one time, though greater, would be balanced by the corresponding losses at the other. He stood not there to defend the alterations that had taken place in the currency. No man had taken greater pains than himself, either within or without that House, to show the absolute necessity of a fixed standard. His hon. friend expressed his regret, that what was called an amicable adjustment had not taken place in 1819, at the restoration of the standard. Why, then, had he not proposed it? It was suggested at that period by a noble lord (Folkestone), in place of reverting to the old standard, to alter it to 4l. 1s. being the amount of the variation between the paper and the price of gold at that time. But, supposing that suggestion to have been adopted, was it to be argued, that a loss of 3 or 4 per cent could have produced all those distresses to agriculture, which the most extravagant opposers of the alteration of the currency attributed to that measure? Their opinions, even as to the amount of the depreciation, were irreconcileable: some stated it at 20 per cent, others contended it was 100; while the most extravagant went the length of asserting, that it amounted to 300 per cent. Suppose, however, that in place of reverting to the ancient standard, it had been increased 100 per cent, did they think no evils would have followed? Would the result, after doubling the amount of all the taxes, have left what now existed—an increasing revenue and a thriving trade? It was not his intention to renew the discussion on that hackneyed topic, Mr. Peel’s bill; but, as such a variety of contradictory opinions had been given on its effects, he would state what was the opinion of a bank director on its efficacy, as it operated on the proceedings of the Bank. Mr. Turner, who had been in the direction for two years, decidedly said, that as to the operations of the Bank, Mr. Peel’s bill remained a dead letter. It had neither accelerated nor retarded payments in specie; except by the payment of ten millions of exchequer bills to the Bank, which enabled it to expend that amount in the purchase of bullion. Taking into consideration the rule by which the bank directors generally admitted they regulated their issues, namely, the application for discounts, and coupling with that the low rate of the interest of money, the circulation would have been the same, and consequently the distress of agriculture as great, even if that bill had never passed.
Lord Folkestone replied, and, ‘with respect to the suggestion he had made, in 1819, of increasing the standard to 4l. 1s., he confessed that now, after mature consideration, he was convinced that that amount of increase would be wholly inadequate to the state of things. That principle was limited to the variation which existed between paper and gold at the particular period. His hon. friend himself then argued on the assumption, that the amount of that variance did not exceed 5 per cent. And here he must be allowed to say, that his hon. friend had not been perfectly consistent with himself; for he had since admitted, that the variance was as great as 10 per cent. He (lord F.) maintained, however, that the depreciation was infinitely greater.’
Mr. Ricardo admitted, that the noble lord was correct, in stating that he (Mr. R.) had on one occasion computed the depreciation at 5 per cent, and that he now found it to be 10 per cent; still, he was not in error. His first computation referred to a payment in bullion; and it would have been correct if the Bank had acted precisely in the spirit of that bill: but, instead of doing so, they had got together a large quantity of gold, which they coined into sovereigns, and then they came down to the House to procure an act, enabling them to get rid of those sovereigns. If the measure of which he approved had been acted on, the depreciation would have been but 5 per cent; because it would have been measured by the price of gold.
Lord Folkestone said, ‘he had supposed the hon. member to have been arguing with reference to Mr. Peel’s bill; but now he discovered, that his argument rested on a measure which existed only in his own imagination.’
MR. WHITMORE’S MOTION RESPECTING THE CORN LAWS
26 February 1823
Mr. Whitmore moved for leave to bring in a bill for lowering the price, at which the importation of foreign corn was permitted, by 2s. a year, until it was reduced to 60s. Mr. Huskisson (the new President of the Board of Trade) opposed the motion.
Mr. Ricardo said, that the right hon. gentleman, in all the arguments which he had brought forward for postponing the consideration of the corn laws, had in reality given a reason for proceeding at once to amend them. What was the danger which his hon. friend, who brought forward the present motion, apprehended? It was the danger of those very high prices, to the recurrence of which the right hon. gentleman looked forward, as the conjuncture when the corn laws might be amended. He apprehended the danger of capital being again drawn, by the temptation of high prices, to the land (and the right hon. gentleman agreed that the danger existed)—that there would again be a succession of low prices, and another loss of capital. This evil it was the object of the present proposition to prevent; yet the right hon. gentleman would wait till the evil came upon them, before he would provide the remedy. As to the motion of his hon. friend, he would not oppose it; because he should be glad of any approach to a free trade in corn. But he thought his hon. friend did not go far enough; he had left the mischief of a fixed price. Both his hon. friend and the right hon. gentleman had laid down the true principles of a corn law; namely, that a protecting duty should be imposed on foreign corn, equal to the peculiar burthens borne by the grower of corn in this country. But, when this was done, a fixed price should be done away altogether. In fact his hon. friend had seemed a little uncertain as to his fixed price. He had taken it at 60s.; but he had stated, that if foreign corn could be imported at 55s., he should have reduced it to that. He thought he had committed a great error in taking any fixed price at all. A duty should be imposed on corn imported, equal to the peculiar burthens borne by the grower of corn; and, in his opinion, a drawback or bounty to nearly the same amount should be allowed on corn exported. Then, and then only, would corn be kept at a price nearly equal in this, to what it was in other countries. If there was an abundant harvest, it would find a vent by means of the bounty; and, on the other hand, if there was a deficient supply, under the influence of the duty, corn would be introduced as it was wanted, and not in the enormous quantities poured in under the existing law, when the price rose to a certain height. The right hon. gentleman had objected to the proposition, because of the agitation it would create out of doors. But his hon. friend’s proposition did not interfere with the present law, until the price of corn was as high as 80s. In this, also, he differed from his hon. friend; because, before corn was so high, that encouragement might be given to extensive cultivation, which it was his object to avert. He (Mr. R.) should recommend, that the law for the amendment of the corn laws should come into operation long before corn had reached 80s.; and he should then recommend a system of duties and bounties, at first[,] in deference to those prejudices of which he thought they were too tender, higher than the amount of the peculiar burthens of the agriculturists; and gradually diminishing to an equality with the computed amount of those burthens. He could not in any way agree with his hon. friend, the member for Cumberland, nor with the hon. member for Wiltshire, who had entered into some strange calculations, to show that the agriculturist paid taxes to the amount of 67 per cent. But, on what did the hon. member reckon this per centage? Not on the expense of growing corn, but on the rent. This was a most unwarranted mode of calculation. They had it in evidence before the agricultural committee, that there was some land in England which did not pay above 2s. an acre rent; yet, no doubt, as the cultivation of that land was heavy, there were in truth taxes on the producer which did not affect the landlord, and taxes on the landlord which did not affect the producer. If a tax was imposed directly on the production of corn, the grower would remunerate himself, not by a deduction from the landlord’s rent, but by getting more from the consumer. And as to general taxes, they pressed alike on all classes; on the labourer who worked at the loom, as well as on the labourer who worked at the plough. He hoped his hon. friend would not withdraw his motion. The greatest good would be done by bringing the question before the House. His hon. friend’s speech abounded in excellent principles, which could not fail of producing an effect upon gentlemen in that House, and removing the delusion which prevailed out of doors. He therefore urged his hon. friend to take the sense of the House on this most important question. The object of the approach to a free trade, which he recommended, was to keep prices steady and low. He did not mean such low prices as would not remunerate the grower; for when the manufacturer ate his bread at all cheaper than the price at which the farmer could be remunerated, the greatest injury was done to the general interests of the country.
The House divided on the motion: Ayes, 25; Noes, 78. Ricardo voted for the motion.
MR. MABERLY’S MOTION FOR THE REDUCTION OF TAXATION
28 February 1823
Mr. Maberly, pursuant to notice [cp. above p. 248], moved for the removal of the exorbitant conditions which, by the Act of 1798, were attached to the redemption and purchase of the land tax; it was reasonable to expect that, once those obstacles were removed, the remaining balance of the tax to the amount of about 1,250,000l. would be redeemed, thus cancelling a sum of about 40,000,000l. of the three per cents. This would be a substitute for the sinking fund, which could then be applied to relieve the people of seven millions of taxes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer opposed the motion.
Mr. Ricardo thought that the plan which had been proposed by the hon. mover, could by no means be considered as a desirable substitute for the sinking fund. At the same time, it might possess those merits which should induce the House to adopt it. In the manner in which his hon. friend had proposed that plan, he certainly could not acquiesce; for he thought it would fail to accomplish the object which he conceived to be so desirable. It was, indeed, most desirable, that we should diminish the amount of our debt; and to effect that diminution, he did believe it might be available; but, in such case, it must be adopted in a different way from that in which the hon. gentleman had stated it. Its object was to purchase up a certain quantity of the land tax, by the transfer of a certain quantity of stock; and then it went on to propose, that other parties might purchase the tax, in case the proprietor of the land should not choose to do so. If this had been the extent of the plan—if it had gone simply to cancel an amount of stock—if it had left the purchaser no other right but that which a mortgagee possessed in his claim upon the land—if it had allowed the parties to claim of the landlord, without any intervention of the government or its officers, then he would say, that it was certainly calculated to accomplish the great object of diminishing the debt. But if, under this plan, there was to be a receiver-general to receive the amount of the proprietor, and to pay it into the Bank—if there was to be this sort of management and collection created—it would only be substituting one debt for another; and though there might thus be 42,000,000l. and upwards, of stock, cancelled, yet he should consider, that they were only creating a new stock in its place, and transferrable in the same manner. An objection had been raised by the chancellor of the exchequer, that did not seem to possess all the weight which that right hon. gentleman attached to it. He had said,—“Would it not be a great hardship to give to a stranger the right of demanding this tax of a land proprietor?” Why, what would be the hardship? The landed proprietor, it was clear, must pay at all events; and was the receiver of the taxes so merciful a gentleman, that the House was to suppose he would exercise his official functions with much more kindness and humanity than the proprietor of the land tax would manifest? He (Mr. R.) very much regretted, that the land tax was not of that description, that it might be extended further; for if those taxes which were applicable to the reduction of the national debt could be so extended, it was quite clear that they might push that most desirable object still nearer to its accomplishment. So far he concurred with his hon. friend, and no further. He could by no means agree with him, that if the land proprietor should wish to purchase, he should have the right; but if he should decline that, then a stranger might purchase; and, failing both, that it should be sold by public auction. How such a purpose was to be accomplished by public auction, he really could not see. Certainly, the result of this plan could not, by any means, be called a sinking fund. It was totally unconnected with such a fund. But the right hon. gentleman might say, if he pleased, “Your plan is a very good one, and I will adopt it, in addition to my sinking fund.” If the plan was a good one, as he (Mr. R.) undoubtedly considered it, upon the whole, to be, he thought it might be quite desirable on its own peculiar grounds; but not as a substitute for the sinking fund. With respect to the sinking fund, he had already very frequently said, that he should be willing to vote for a reduction of taxes to the amount of that sinking fund; but he could not consent to vote any larger reduction than was equivalent to its absolute amount. It was now universally agreed, that the definition of such a fund was the surplus of our income over our expenditure. That surplus, which the right hon. gentleman estimated at 7,000,000l., he (Mr. R.), and the country in general he believed, took to be, in fact, no more than 5,000,000l. How had the right hon. gentleman got the item of 2,000,000l. which he made a part of that surplus? Was it to be obtained in any other way, than by taking it from the sinking fund itself, or borrowing it in the market? If it was borrowed in the market, it was only increasing, by so much, the debt. If it was taken from the sinking fund, it was by so much a diminution of the assumed surplus. Therefore, he (Mr. R.) could not vote for remitting taxes to the amount of 7,000,000l. He thought, indeed, that if due economy and retrenchment were observed in every department of our expenditure, it might be very possible to remit even 7,000,000l., and thus add 2,000,000l. to the proposition of the chancellor of the exchequer. But he greatly feared the fact would not be so; and he must see another account brought in by the government, before he could consent to the remission of the additional 2,000,000l. Under the false notion with which ministers seemed to be impressed about their surplus of 7,000,000l., it was much to be apprehended, that they would not prove a whit more economical than usual, were the House even to vote the remission of other 2,000,000l. They would say, “You only take away our surplus, and therefore there is no necessity for further economy.” He hoped the House would pardon him, if he was tedious, but he desired once more to explain what he meant by an efficient sinking fund. An efficient sinking fund, in the opinion of many gentlemen who sat near him, could not exist at the same period that we were increasing our debt. In that position he did not coincide. He thought, for instance, that when Mr. Pitt first established a sinking fund, and although, during a considerable portion of his subsequent life, the country was engaged in foreign wars, by the enormous expenses of which the debt was increased in a far greater proportion than the sinking fund paid it off; yet that, in effect, we then always had a sinking fund. Of every loan that was borrowed to meet those vast expenses, Mr. Pitt provided for the interest, and reserved a fund of one per cent for the extinction. Undoubtedly, an incredible weight was added to the debt by the protracted war that ensued; but, what would have been the situation of the country, had she sooner effected a peace? All those loans which had been borrowed in war time, would have been provided for, and there would have been left an efficient sinking fund. Had this system been adhered to during the whole progress of the war, he (Mr. R.) would have been the last man to raise his voice against the sinking fund. But, what was the fact? In 1813, the late chancellor of the exchequer came down to the House, took 8,000,000l. per annum away from the sinking fund, and in the same breath told them, that they were paying their debt, that the finances would be placed in the most flourishing condition; and in a short time after the peace, he told them, that they would be in possession of a greater treasure than any other nation of the earth could boast. It was at the very moment that he took away from the sinking fund 8,000,000l., that the late chancellor of the exchequer had made all those splendid promises. But, unfortunately, this was not his only attack on that fund; nay, it was a trifling one, compared to those which he subsequently made upon it. The late chancellor of the exchequer, instead of providing for the annual interest of his loans, suffered compound interest to accrue upon them. Though there was placed, in the hands of commissioners, who most conscientiously and perfectly discharged their duties, a fund of 15,000,000l., he said, “I have, by my expenditure, left you in a situation in which you have a deficiency of 15,000,000l. in your finances.” Why, where, then, was the sinking fund? Would the chancellor of the exchequer have dared to come to that House, year after year, and have calmly spoken of a deficiency of between 12,000,000l. and 15,000,000l., if he had not known all the while, that there was, in reserve, a fund of 15,000,000l. which he reckoned upon parliament’s permitting him to apply to other purposes than those which it was originally intended to effect? Now he (Mr. R.) contended, that the sinking fund of this day would have the same fate as its predecessors. If it remained, it might go on well enough for a few years; but, should the right hon. gentleman opposite continue in power, he, or if not, then some future chancellor of the exchequer, after coming down to the House, and telling them how thriving a condition this sinking fund was in, would some day inform parliament, that a deficiency of some sort or other was discovered, or that some emergency had arisen, which rendered it necessary to appropriate the whole. The language of his majesty’s ministers confirmed these anticipations in a great measure. If, however, they properly considered the matter, they ought to look upon this fund as already appropriated. It was a fund to pay off debt; and surely it was never to be considered as applicable to the expenses of a war; for if it was to pay debt, it could meet no other object. Let the House suppose the case of a private individual: suppose he had an income of 1,000l. a-year, and that he found it necessary to borrow 10,000l., for which he agreed to give up to his creditor 500l. per annum. Let them suppose his steward to say to him, “If you will live on 400l. a year, and give up another 100l., out of your income of 500l., that will enable you, in a certain number of years, to get completely rid of your debt.” The party listened to this good advice, lived on 400l. a-year, and gave up annually 600l. to his steward, in order to pay his creditor. The first year, let it be assumed, that the steward paid the creditor 100l. Then the debt would be 9,900l.; and therefore the income due to the creditor would be only 495l. But the party continuing to pay to his steward 600l. per annum, in the next year the steward paid over 105l.; and so from year to year the debt was diminished, 600l. being still received by the steward. At the end of a certain number of years, the result was this:— That out of a yearly reserve of 600l., half the debt was paid off: only 250l. was due to the creditor, and 350l. remained in the hands of the steward; his master continuing to live on 400l. per annum. At this period, some object offering to the steward, which he thought might be beneficial to the gentleman, or to himself, he borrowed 7,000l., and devoted the whole 350l. in his hands, to pay the interest on that sum. What, then, became of this gentleman’s sinking fund? Originally he was in debt only 10,000l.; now, he found himself indebted, altogether, 12,000l.; so that instead of possessing a sinking fund, as he had hoped, he was positively so much more in debt. He considered that the whole mystery of our sinking fund was, in truth, just the same. He did believe, in his conscience, that the amount of the national debt would not have been near so large as it now was, if the sinking fund had been honourably adhered to. He did believe, that such a disastrous result would not have been the case, if Mr. Pitt had continued minister. No: he would have provided—as any other honest or efficient minister would have done—for debts as he contracted them. In time of war even we should have possessed a sinking fund. But, as he despaired of ever seeing such a system followed by any minister in that House —as he despaired of seeing a sinking fund strictly and inviolably sustained—he would give his hearty support to his hon. friend’s motion, if he would make his proposed remission of taxes 5,000,000l., instead of 7,000,000l. The latter amount seemed rather beyond the mark, and therefore he could not vote for it. With respect to the memorable plan of last year, he hoped the right hon. gentleman was not one of those who could support such an inexplicable mystery. He hoped that the right hon. gentleman would repel the charge of having contributed to such a delusion. If the right hon. gentleman really wished to repeal 2,000,000l. of taxes, let him say to the House that the ministers of the crown, wishing to do so, proposed to take them out of the sinking fund. The roundabout statements, and the machinery of acts of parliament, which in recent sessions had been resorted to, were unbecoming the station of the right hon. gentleman, and unworthy of the government of a great and powerful nation.
Mr. Baring ‘could not help adverting to what he considered a contradiction in the speech of his hon. friend. His hon. friend said, he was not opposed to the principle of Mr. Pitt’s sinking fund; but he objected to the preservation of any surplus at all, because he was sure that somebody would take it away: he was afraid that some minister or other would take it away; and, therefore, he was resolved to take it away himself. This reminded him of the Frenchman in some play, who, upon being appealed to by a lady for his advice, as to the best mode of resisting the advances of her admirer, replied, that the best way of resisting temptation was to yield to it at once.’ ‘He should like to know from the hon. member for Portarlington, how, in a case of emergency, the country could effectively act without a surplus revenue? What would be the situation of the country, when deprived of credit?’ Mr. Baring next adverted to the plan for an ‘adjustment of property’ which the hon. member for Portarlington had suggested; ‘he must assert, that however specious in theory, or valid in abstract calculation,’ it was ‘totally inapplicable to any practical object.’
The motion was negatived.
NATIONAL DEBT REDUCTION BILL
6 March 1823
On 3 March the Chancellor of the Exchequer moved a series of resolutions recommending the repeal of the old sinking fund acts and the establishment of a new sinking fund of 5,000,000l.
On 6 March, on the report of the committee upon the bill to give effect to these resolutions, Mr. Monck observed that the operation of the sinking fund, though it reduced the capital of the debt, raised the price of stocks, and therefore increased ‘the real amount of the debt.’ ‘The more that was paid, the more we had to pay.’ It would be better to apply the surplus revenue to the reduction of taxes. ‘In this way, the Americans at the close of the war, having an expenditure of four millions of dollars beyond their revenue, raised small loans, till, in the last year, their revenue had increased so as to enable them to reduce their debt.’
Mr. Ricardo said, it was true that the government of America had borrowed 4,000,000 dollars, and that, by bringing capital from other countries, it had, in fact, improved its resources. It was also true, that the effect of the sinking fund was at present to raise prices against ourselves. But this was true of every sinking fund. The question was, had not the sinking fund reduced the annual charge? It certainly would do so if correctly applied. A real sinking fund, if properly appropriated, was a great good. To a fictitious sinking fund he had many objections. But there was a great difference between the two. A real sinking fund applied to pay off the debt, would raise the price of stocks, and enable us to borrow on better terms. Many members had no hopes that a real sinking fund would be preserved. They, therefore, objected to grant a sum for a purpose, the beneficial effects of which they were never likely to see. His hon. friend, the member for Taunton, had facetiously observed, that because he (Mr. R.) thought ministers were going to rob the sinking fund, he would willingly take it away himself. It was, he thought, good policy, when his purse was in danger, rather to spend the money himself than allow it to be taken from him. He did not, he confessed, think the national purse safe in the hands of ministers. It was too great a temptation to entrust them with. What he wanted was a real sinking fund, and therefore he supported the present as far as it was real. But there was every reason to believe it would become fictitious; for every sinking fund had, in its origin, been real, but had all been turned into fictitious funds. As to the Annuity bill of last year, he hoped the whole of it would be repealed, and the amount be transferred to the sinking fund. It had been estimated that 2,000,000l. of those annuities would die off annually. Let this sum be applied to the purposes of the sinking fund. The hon. member for Taunton had, on a former evening, been severe on him, giving him credit for the ability of his calculations, but denying that he looked sufficiently at their political and moral consequences. Now, he claimed the merit of extent in the scope of his views beyond the hon. member. He felt deep alarm at the heavy amount of the debt, and at the want of proper means to lighten it. His hon. friend, with his enlarged views, wished for a sinking fund, not to pay off the debt, but to furnish ministers with the means of going to war, in cases of extremity. But, if this fund were to be so appropriated, how was the debt to be paid off? He would tell his hon. friend, if no means were taken to pay it off, that he was sleeping on a volcano. He thought a national debt of 800 millions a very serious evil; and he thought so from the heart-burnings which were occasioned by the taxes levied to pay it, which in one year affected one interest, and the next year another interest. Taxation pressed on every interest; and did he not propose to benefit mankind when he said we ought to endeavour to get rid of the debt? By doing this, should we not get rid of the expense of collecting taxes? Should we not get rid of the immorality of smuggling, and of the excise laws? By getting rid of smuggling, should we not benefit trade? For all the profit of the smuggler was a tax on the whole community. Neither would it be a trifling benefit, in a constitutional point of view, that it would deprive ministers of a great deal of patronage. It would also confer great benefits on our commerce, by putting it in a natural state. At present, from the duties and restrictions of customs and excise, it was in a most unnatural state. Was this legislating for men, or for stocks and stones? He had before stated, that he thought a great effort should be made to get rid of the debt; and he had mentioned a plan which he thought should be adopted. The hon. and learned member for Winchelsea had opposed his plan; and had said, that it would throw the whole land of the country into the hands of pettifogging attorneys; but of this there was no danger. Parliament might interfere, and give secure titles to the land which was disposed of, without the interference of pettifogging attorneys. Let it not be said, that he was not aware of the difficult situation in which the country stood. Nothing else could have induced him to recommend the measure. He could be quite easy in recommending the measure of a sinking fund, if they had a different kind of parliament—one that moved in more direct sympathy with the people. He confessed his fear of the present parliament, and its disposition to ministerial compliance. His hon. friend asked, in case of applying the sinking fund, what they were to do should a new war break out? If that was the real view, they should not call it a sinking fund. They might call it a fund for ministers to divert to particular purposes, but not a sinking fund. But, suppose a new war to break out, no such thing as a sinking fund ever having been heard of—was his hon. friend ready to vote a fund prospectively to be at the disposal of ministers, in that event? Let him say yes, and they would understand each other.
Mr. Baring said, ‘that, with every respect which he might have for his hon. friend’s talents and the ingenuity which marked the speech which he had just made, he must be allowed to say he had never listened to one which led to such—(not to say absurd— that term would savour of want of courtesy), but so singular a conclusion. To begin with the plan of paying off a part of the debt, by a new disposition of the property of the country, he must be allowed to say, that it was the plan of a man who might calculate well and read deeply, but who had not studied mankind. It was ingenious in theory, and obvious enough; but not very sound for practice. He did not pretend to any thing like the reach of intellect possessed by his hon. friend, but he thought his hon. friend sometimes over-reached himself, and lost sight of man, and of all practical conclusions.’
11 March 1823
On the report stage, Mr. Grenfell said that ‘many plans had been devised to pay off, by one great effort, the national debt, and the crotchet of his hon. friend (Mr. Ricardo) for accomplishing that great object by a general contribution from all the property of the country, was the wildest of them all.’ Sir H. Parnell expounded his plan for applying the sinking fund so as to replace the perpetual annuities by long annuities determinable in a fixed number of years.
Mr. Ricardo highly approved of his hon. friend’s plan, which, by taking the sinking fund out of the hands of ministers, would do away his great objection to it; namely, its liability to be perverted from the purpose for which it was originally intended. His hon. friend’s proposition of converting what were at present permanent into determinable annuities, appeared to him to be deserving the serious attention of the House; and he must say, that he did not think his hon. friend did justice to his own plan, in stating, that it would liquidate the existing debt in 45 years; for the calculation on which he had proceeded was made when the 3 per cents were only at 80. The House might easily conceive how beneficially public credit would be affected, if a real sinking fund were thus continually operating over the whole extent of the debt. From the adoption of such a plan, ministers, in the event of any occurrence requiring an increased expenditure, would not, as heretofore, be enabled to despoil a fund, which ought to be sacredly appropriated to another purpose; but must come down to parliament, and otherwise provide for the public exigencies. While he was on his legs, he would say a few words on what an hon. friend had been pleased to call his “crotchet” for reducing the national debt by a general contribution of capital. His (Mr. R.’s) proposition would merely carry further the principle of the income tax. His hon. friend was quite deceived, if he supposed that he ever contemplated the possibility of effecting the object he had described at once. On the contrary, the operation might be extended by numerous instalments over a period of two, three, six or twelve months. And when the immense benefits which would result from its adoption were considered, he could not think it so Utopian a scheme as his hon. friend seemed to imagine it to be.
14 March 1823
On the second reading (13 March) the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that ‘there was only a surplus of 3,000,000l.’, but if the plan of spreading the war pensions over 45 years was carried out, there would remain a clear surplus of 5,000,000l. ‘That appeared to him a real bonaâ fide surplus, applicable to the reduction of the debt. It was that surplus which, by the bill, it was proposed so to apply. In so doing there was no increase whatever made of the unfunded debt. Nor was there any mystery—any of what was familiarly called hocus pocus.’
On the third reading (14 March) Mr. H. G. Bennet moved as an amendment that it be postponed six months. Mr. Baring intimated that if Mr. Bennet’s motion was negatived, he would move that the sinking fund be limited to three millions. With respect to the plan of Sir H. Parnell ‘he thought it would not have been a bad one, if it had been applied to the reduction of the 5 per cents last year; but it could not be applied to the 3 per cents without the consent of the holders of stock; which could not be well calculated upon, because there would be a difficulty of selling the new stock in the market.’
Mr. Ricardo said, that he felt great delight at the admissions which had at length been made, as to the real amount of the sinking fund now in the exchequer. That pleasure, however, was somewhat qualified, by finding that the House was now called upon to augment this real sum of three millions to the sum of five millions. The chancellor of the exchequer, a few evenings ago, had said, that he did not think there was any hocus pocus in his plan. The House, after that declaration, could scarcely expect to be called on to vote that there was at present a surplus of five millions. An act of parliament could not create a surplus where it was not. As to the objection which had been made against the plan of the hon. baronet, that it might not be agreed to by the holders of the 3 per cents, it had much weight. The plan of the hon. baronet did not presume any such consent. He only proposed, that a trial should be made whether or not the public would consent to it. He proposed to convert a certain sum, say 50,000,000l. from 3 per cents to 4 per cents. Why should not ministers try the experiment? The public opinion would thereby be ascertained. They did not want grounds for estimating the probable event of that plan. There were then long annuities in the market, of which 37 years remained unexpired. Taking them at 4 per cent at 19 years purchase, they would be worth 75 or 76. If ministers, therefore, could go to market to sell the 4 per cent annuities at 37 years for 76, they might buy 100l. three per cents at less than 76. It was said, that we had reduced 24 million of debt since 1816. Any one would imagine, in the way this was put, that the reduction was the effect of the sinking fund. It was no such thing. The reduction was occasioned by changing one kind of stock into another. We thus lessened the capital, but we did not diminish the charge; except to a very trifling amount. He would prefer being without any sinking fund, to one upon the plan now proposed; and he was sure, that if we were, public credit would not suffer. He would therefore support the amendment, and if that were negatived, then he would support the proposition of his hon. friend (Mr. Baring.)
The House divided on Mr. Bennet’s amendment: Ayes, 59; Noes, 109. The House again divided on Mr. Baring’s amendment: Ayes, 72; Noes, 100. The bill was then passed.
MERCHANT VESSELS APPRENTICESHIP BILL
13 March 1823
Mr. Huskisson moved for leave to bring in a bill enacting that every merchant vessel should have a number of apprentices in proportion to her tonnage.
Mr. Ricardo wished to know whether the sailors were friendly to the measure. He had no doubt that their employers were so; because they would be enabled to lower the rate of wages by increasing the number of apprentices. He thought the navy would not receive that benefit from it, which seemed to be anticipated. Our sailors would seek employment in the merchant service of other countries, if the rate of wages was unduly lowered in their own. Should that be the case, where would gentlemen find that nursery for the navy, of which they now talked so largely?
[See further, p. 276.]
MUTINY BILL—FOREIGN RELATIONS
18 March 1823
In the course of the debate Colonel Davies referring to the meeting recently held in support of Spain said that it was ‘a cruel mockery’ to inform them that they wished them success; and then to talk of neutrality.
Mr. Ricardo protested against the inference, with respect to those who had attended the dinner given to the Spanish minister. He felt a deep sympathy with the Spanish people; but he was very far from intending, by his attendance at that meeting, to pledge himself to engage the nation in war. He had no hesitation in declaring his opinion, that it would be wise in this country to keep out of the war. At any rate, the House ought to hear what ministers had to say, before it came to a decision on the subject. Right or wrong, it was not fair to condemn them unheard.
21 March 1823
A petition was presented from owners of Collieries at Forest Dean, complaining of the operation of the Coastwise Duty on Coal, and praying for relief.
Mr. Ricardo said, that this was one of the many cases in which industry was cramped by a restrictive system of taxation. He understood that Forest Dean was as well able as any place in its vicinity to supply coals, were it not that it was fettered with duties, with a view to give a preference to more favoured places. They were daily receiving petitions upon this subject, and he was glad to find that His Majesty’s Ministers at length acknowledged the evils of the system. He hoped they would turn their attention, not only to this, but the many other inconveniences which arose out of the restrictive system, as the country was entitled to enjoy every benefit which could be derived from its capital and industry.
21 March 1823
Mr. Wallace introduced a measure to permit foreign manufactures and produce to be deposited in British warehouses and taken out for exportation without payment of duty [cp. above, p. 220].
Mr. Ricardo was of opinion, that the bill was founded on a sound and judicious principle, and one which ought to prevail throughout our commercial code. The country was greatly indebted to the right hon. gentleman for his efforts to liberalize the system of trade. It was impossible to make a law which would not interfere with the interests of some classes; but the one before the House, while it was calculated to advance the public welfare, interfered as little as possible with particular interests.
On 2 April the bill was passed.
MERCHANT VESSELS APPRENTICESHIP BILL
24 March 1823
The report of this bill [cp. above, p. 273] being brought up,
Mr. Ricardo said, he objected altogether to the principle of the bill. He thought it was a maxim, that no person ought to be controlled in his own arrangements, unless such control was rendered necessary by paramount political circumstances. Now, no such necessity could be shown in support of this bill. In his opinion, it would not be more unjust to enact a law, that every surgeon should take a certain number of apprentices, to encourage the progress of surgical science, than it would be to pass this bill, rendering it imperative on the masters of merchant vessels to take a given number of apprentices, in order to encourage the increase of efficient seamen. He denied that this bill would cause an addition of one seaman to the number now in the service. So long as there was employment for seamen, there would be encouragement enough for them; and when there was not, those who were now here, would resort to foreign countries for employ. The only effect of the bill would be, to reduce the wages of seamen; and that alone would render it objectionable. He would move, to leave out from the word “repealed,” to the end of the bill, his object being, to remove the compulsory condition for taking a certain number of apprentices from the bill.
The House divided: for Ricardo’s amendment, 6; against it, 85.
- List of the Minority
- Bennet, hon. H. G.
- Grenfell, Pascoe
- Smith, Robert
- Sykes, D.
- Whitmore, W. W.
- Wyvill, M.
- Ricardo, D.
- Hume, J.
[See further, p. 282.]
PETITION FROM MARY ANN CARLILE FOR RELEASE FROM IMPRISONMENT
26 March 1823
Mr. Hume presented a petition from Mary Ann Carlile, shopwoman of her brother Richard Carlile; she had been prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice for selling a copy of An Appendix to the Theological Works of Thomas Paine and had been sentenced for blasphemous libel to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 500l. or to be imprisoned till that fine was paid. The year of her imprisonment had expired, but she was kept in gaol from her inability to pay the fine.
Mr. Ricardo trusted that the House would excuse him if he ventured to say a few words upon this petition. The hon. and learned gentleman who had just sat down, appeared to conceive, that Mary Ann Carlile would have been entitled to some lenity, had she expressed contrition for her past offences, or had she stated any change to have taken place in her religious sentiments. Now, they were bound in common justice, to consider that the petitioner was expressing her own sentiments in the libel of which she had been found guilty. The demand, therefore, of the attorney-general was, that she must acknowledge that to be right, which she conscientiously believed to be wrong, before she could entitle herself to any lenity; or, in other words, that she must commit an act of the most shameless duplicity, in order to become a proper object for the mercy of the crown. While upon that subject, he must be permitted to find fault with a rule that prevailed in the courts of justice. A witness, before he was examined, was asked whether he believed in a future state: if he replied that he did not, his oath could not be taken. Supposing that an individual did not believe in a future state, and by replying that he did not, showed that he was an honest man, he was put aside as an incompetent witness; whereas, if he belied his belief, and did not act the part of an honest man, he was considered as a witness worthy of credit. He contended, that the hon. member for Devonshire had by no means answered the case which his hon. friend had made out. His hon. friend had stated, that these prosecutions had aggravated the very evil which they were instituted to check. The hon. baronet asserted, that the fact was not so—and how did he prove it? Why, he read a passage which proved that the sale continued in spite of his prosecutions, and thus confirmed the very argument which he had intended to refute. Besides, it appeared to him, that the hon. baronet, in reading the opinions of which he complained so loudly, had not taken a wise course, to keep them from the knowledge of the public. He fully agreed with his hon. friend that the prosecutions of the Society for the Suppression of Vice had done much mischief. Blasphemy was an offence which it was quite impossible to define. Nobody, in committing it, was aware of what he was offending against. It was one thing in this country, and another thing in France; indeed, that which was blasphemy here, was not blasphemy there, and vice versâ. Indeed, as the law was now laid down, the mere disputing the truths of Christianity was an offence; and, therefore, the moment it was shown that the individual had sold a work reflecting upon them, that moment he stood convicted. If he said that he believed in what he wrote or sold, and attempted to state the grounds on which he rested his belief, he was told immediately he was aggravating his original offence by repeating it; and being thus precluded from making a defence, and bound as it were hand and foot, was delivered over to the vengeance of the prosecutor. The attorney-general found great fault with his hon. friend for saying, that the jury would never have returned a verdict of guilty against Mary Ann Carlile if they could have anticipated the punishment that awaited her; and had argued, that the doctrines which such a sentence inculcated was most dangerous to the interests of public morality and justice. Now he (Mr. Ricardo) fully agreed in all that his hon. friend had said upon that subject; and so far from the doctrine of his hon. friend being new or unheard of, it was a doctrine that was perpetually influencing the conduct of juries. Juries were constantly taking into their consideration the consequences that were likely to follow from their verdicts. If not, why were they so often finding individuals guilty of stealing property under the value of 40s. when every man was convinced that the property was worth much more? Why, but because they knew that, if they did not return such a verdict, a punishment would be inflicted incompatible with the spirit of the times? In forgeries, too, would any man deny, that the punishment which followed on conviction did not often come within the contemplation of the jury? [Hear hear!] He should therefore dismiss the observations of the attorney-general, without any further remark. He must now inform the House, that after a long and attentive consideration of the question, he had made up his mind that prosecutions ought never to be instituted for religious opinions. All religious opinions, however absurd and extravagant, might be conscientiously believed by some individuals. Why, then, was one man to set up his ideas on the subject as the criterion from which no other was to be allowed to differ with impunity? Why was one man to be considered infallible, and all his fellow men as frail and erring creatures? Such a doctrine ought not to be tolerated: it savoured too much of the Inquisition to be received as genuine in a free country like England. A fair and free discussion ought to be allowed on all religious topics. If the arguments advanced upon them were incorrect and blasphemous, surely they might be put down by sound argument and good reasoning, without the intervention of force and punishment. He was convinced that if it had not been for the indiscreet conduct of certain societies in prosecuting Mr. Carlile and his connexions, that family would never have acquired the notoriety by which it was at present distinguished.
CROWN DEBTORS—CONTEMPT OF COURT
10 April 1823
Mr. Hume moved for returns of the numbers of persons confined as Crown debtors and for contempt of Court.
Mr. Ricardo objected to the imposition of a fine by a judge, afterwards to be remitted by a secretary of state. A judge might as well pass but one sentence—say death—for all crimes, and leave the government to inflict the quantity of chastisement it thought fit. The judge who tried the case was the fit person to decide what penalty the offender should endure .
MILITARY AND NAVAL PENSIONS BILL
18 April 1823
On 24 March 1823 the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced a bill to amend the act of the previous session [see above, p. 191] so as to allow the trustees to sell their annuity for a term of years and not merely from year to year, the Bank of England having now agreed to receive part of the fixed annuity and to pay the pensions for five and a quarter years.
On the third reading of this bill, on 18 April, Sir J. Newport contended, ‘that this bargain with the Bank was a direct violation of the statute of William and Mary which prevented the Bank from becoming a dealer and jobber in public securities.’
Mr. Ricardo did not blame the Bank directors for making as advantageous a bargain as possible for their constituents. It was, however, an extremely improvident one for the country. He thought that there was also a constitutional objection to the contract, founded on the nature of the charter of the Bank, and the manner in which the capital was made available to the public. It seemed to him highly impolitic, that the Bank should be allowed to make speculations in the funds. At all events, ministers ought to have delayed the conclusion of the bargain, until they had laid the papers regarding the late negotiations upon the table: had they so waited, the bargain might have been more favourable to the public. He wished to know whether the Bank was to be allowed to charge for the management of this transaction, as well as for the management of the public debt.
Mr. Huskisson answered, ‘that the Bank was to be allowed nothing beyond the terms of the contract which were before the House. He contended, that the bargain was advantageous for the public, and that the Bank were permitted to deal in public securities.’
The bill was then passed.
MERCHANT VESSELS APPRENTICESHIP BILL
18 April 1823
On this bill [cp. above, p. 276] being brought in for the third reading,
Mr. Ricardo opposed the measure, as imposing injurious restrictions on a particular trade, and interfering with the private rights of the individuals connected with that trade. The right hon. gentleman opposite was bound to show, that there were some circumstances in this particular trade which ought to take it out of the general rule. He had, however, not only failed to do this, but he had failed to prove that the measure would afford any protection to private seamen. He should therefore move as an amendment, “That the bill be read a third time that day six months.”
Mr. Huskisson said, ‘the measure had given universal satisfaction to the ship-owners, and he believed there was scarcely a man in the House, except the hon. member (Mr. Ricardo) who was not satisfied of its utility.’
Mr. Ricardo withdrew his amendment; and the bill was read a third time and passed.
LORD JOHN RUSSELL’S MOTION FOR A REFORM OF PARLIAMENT
24 April 1823
Lord John Russell moved ‘that the present state of the representation of the people in parliament requires the most serious consideration of this House.’
Mr. Ricardo said, that the arguments of the hon. gentleman who had just sat down had been too often repeated, and too often refuted, to have any weight with him on the present occasion. He would not admit that conclusions hostile to the cause of reform could be drawn from the practices of past ages; because he denied that the present generation ought to be bound down by all that had been done by their ancestors. He thought the present generation possessed not only as much wisdom as any of those which had preceded it, but a great deal more. The simple question for them to determine was, whether they would not purify the House, when it was notorious that it could not be considered, in the fair sense of the words, to represent the people? He perfectly agreed with all that his noble friend who made the present motion had said, with reference to the state and condition of the House. He concurred with him in every one of his representations; but he did not think the remedy he had prescribed was the most adviseable for the purposes they both wished to accomplish. The question of reform was naturally divided into three considerations. First, the extension of the suffrage; secondly, the mode of election; and thirdly, the duration of parliaments. As to extension of the suffrage, important as he felt that topic to be, and convinced as he was that it ought to be extended much beyond its present limits, still the other two points appeared to him to be of deeper interest. In the arrangement of the suffrages, the whole of the people might be represented, and yet the House might be composed of persons whose elections had been procured by improper means. It was for this reason that he was compelled to dissent from his noble friend’s proposal for transferring a portion of the representatives from close boroughs to extensive counties. He thought the whole system of election which prevailed at present was illegal. Of what use was it that the power of choosing its representatives should be given to the people, unless the free exercise of that right were also secured to them? He contended, that so long as the influence of the aristocracy possessed, as it did now, the means of biassing the votes of the people, this House could not be a fair representation of that people. Let it not be supposed, that he wished to deprive the aristocracy of that just influence which it derived from its wealth and respectability; but he thought that it became most pernicious, when it was exercised for the purpose of influencing elections. Of its practical evil, every person’s own knowledge would furnish many and ample proofs. How could it be expected, that a man whose means of procuring a livelihood depended mainly upon the patronage and support of those who were in a more elevated rank—how could it be expected, for instance, that the inferior class of tradesmen—should withstand the threats and terrors which might be put into execution, to prevent them from voting according to their conscience? To look for this would be to call upon small freeholders for a degree of severe virtue which had no corresponding example in the higher ranks of society. There was but one method of obviating these difficulties; which was by altering the mode of election, and adopting the ballot instead of open votes. If this were done, they would have a house of commons which would fairly represent the people.—The other point which he wished to mention to the House was the necessity of more frequent election. And this he thought was indisputable; because it was the ready means of ensuring the attention of the House uniformly to the interests of the people.—There was another point in which he must dissent from the opinion of his noble friend. His noble friend had argued that in the event of any parliamentary reform, the House ought to take into their consideration what were called the vested rights of individuals in boroughs. Now, this really appeared to him to be a most extraordinary proposition. Could those pretended rights be considered in the light of property? Could any thing be more contrary to justice than to propose any compensation for such assumed property? Had not the people a right to be well governed? And was it to be maintained, that, because a certain set of persons had, for corrupt purposes, enjoyed the privilege for many years of preventing the people from being well governed, they should, therefore, be compensated for the loss of a privilege so unjustifiable.—The right honourable secretary (Mr. Canning) had, upon a former occasion, stated, that if the House of Commons should fairly represent the people, it would become too powerful for the safety of the Crown and the House of Lords. This argument, he (Mr R.) contended, did not belong to the question; for it was impossible that a House of Commons fairly constituted should not consult their own interests. If, therefore, such a House should propose to dismiss the Crown and the House of Lords, it would be because they were unnecessary to the good government of the country. The right hon. gentleman must, therefore, abandon this argument, or confess, that a virtuous House of Commons would be driven to dismiss the Crown and the House of Lords.—It had also been contended, that if the general principle of his noble friend’s motion were acceded to, a hundred different plans of reform would start up, and that it would be impossible to secure any thing like unanimity on the subject. That was not his opinion. He, for one, was for no alteration in the constitution of the House of Commons, unless that alteration should render it fully and fairly a representation of the people; and he was convinced that that was the object which all the friends of parliamentary reform had in view. The only difference between his noble friend and himself was, that he did not think the plan proposed by his noble friend would accomplish that object. He believed that if that plan were adopted, the House would continue to be what it now was—the representative of the aristocracy of the country, and of the aristocracy only. County elections were, in his opinion, conducted on no better principles than borough elections; and he repeated his conviction, that unless the system of ballot were resorted to, it would be in vain to attempt any reform at all of parliament.—The right hon. secretary opposite had argued, when the question was last under consideration, that the House of Commons, as at present constituted, operated as a check upon the Crown, and a balance of the power of the other House of Parliament. That he denied. To make such a proposition good, it must be first shown that the House of Commons fairly represented the people; otherwise, it was a farce and a mockery to say, that it operated as a check upon the Crown and a balance of the power of the other House of Parliament. His opinion was, that at present the government of this country was a compromise between the aristocracy and the Crown. Instead of the House of Commons, as at present constituted, being a check upon the people, it was itself frequently checked by public opinion. But, was that a convenient operation? Was it convenient that county and other public meetings should perpetually be called, for the purpose of affording a check to the proceedings of the House of Commons? Would it not be much better that the House should really represent the people—that it should be the organ of public opinion?— The right hon. gentleman, on the occasion to which he had already alluded, had triumphantly asked, to what period of our history the reformers would refer as affording the best view of the state of the House of Commons? For himself, he would answer, to none. He believed the people never had been better represented. But, were we never to have a good House of Commons, because we never had had a good one? The people at large now possessed so much more information than they ever before possessed, that they were entitled to be better represented in parliament than they had ever before been.—The right hon. gentleman opposite had allowed, that the proposition might be a beneficial one, but that it was not the constitution under which we were born. The same argument might be used to perpetuate every abuse and every evil. It might be said with respect to Ireland, was the present state of things to be continued in Ireland, because it was the constitution under which the Irish were born? To hear the right hon. gentleman, it would be supposed that the friends of reform were proposing the establishment of a republic. But that was a gratuitous assumption: it was his conclusion, not theirs. The demands of the people might be easily satisfied. They asked only for that which was perfectly reasonable—that they might have a voice in the public councils, and the power of restraining the expenditure of their own money.—He by no means denied the assertion of the right hon. gentleman, that the aggregate of the House of Commons contained as much intellectual ability and moral integrity as ever existed in any similar assembly in the whole world. But then it must be recollected, that all men, in all situations, acted under the influence of motives. He was persuaded that the conduct of the very same gentlemen by whom he was then surrounded, if they were really chosen by the people, and were frequently returned to the people that their merits might be re-considered, would be extremely different from that which it was at present. Mr. Pitt, when he was the friend of parliamentary reform, had said, that it was impossible for an honest man to be minister of this country with such a House of Commons. He was also of that opinion. He did not say, that the ministers did not mean to act honestly; but they were obliged to consult men, and to pursue measures, opposed to the interests of the people. However they might be inclined, they could not do otherwise; feeling that, owing to the peculiar constitution of the House, they would be turned out in a week if they should venture to act honestly. That the people were competent to the task of electing their representatives, the experience of this and of every other country conclusively showed. The enlightened Montesquieu had said, “Could we doubt the natural capacity of the people to discern real merit, it would only be necessary to cast our eyes upon the continued series of surprising elections which were made by the Athenians and the Romans, which undoubtedly no one could attribute to hazard. It is well known that although at Rome the people possessed the right of electing the plebeians to public offices, they never chose to exercise that power; and that although at Athens, by the law of Aristides, they were allowed to select the magistrates from every rank of the state, yet the common people, says Xenophon, never petitioned for such employment as could possibly interfere with their safety or their glory.” These instances might serve to show, that instead of selecting demagogues and disturbers of the public peace, as was unjustly apprehended, the people, if left to the unrestricted exercise of their choice, would act wisely and prudently.
Mr. Martin, of Galway, opposing the motion said: ‘His honourable friend and countryman, the member for Portarlington—(Loud laughter and cries of “No”); he begged pardon, he was sorry he had called the honourable gentleman his countryman, for he was informed he had never set foot in Ireland. That honourable gentleman had talked gravely against the influence of the aristocracy, yet, notwithstanding, he did not believe he could himself mention one of his own constituents, although they did not amount to more than twelve in all; and it was equally certain, that the honourable gentleman was either returned by that very aristocracy, whose influence he so loudly deprecated, or by an interest quite equivalent, and not less cogent.’
The House divided on the motion: Ayes, 169; Noes, 280. Ricardo was one of the tellers for the minority.
SCOTCH LINEN LAWS
7 May 1823
Mr. Ricardo, in presenting a Petition from the Merchants and Manufacturers of the Burgh of Arbroath against the present regulation, which imposes a stamp, and inflicts a tax upon the manufacture of that article, stated, that in the opinion of the Petitioners, an opinion in which he concurred, this stamping afforded no security whatever as to the quality of the cloth, but had, in fact, rather an opposite tendency, being thus a severe and vexatious burthen upon the manufacturer, without the least advantage to the consumer or the revenue. As such, it ought no longer to be allowed to fetter the trade. He felt great pleasure in stating that the Board of Trade had taken the same view of the subject, and that the President of that Board was to bring in a Bill for the regulation of it, which he (Mr. Ricardo) hoped would meet with no opposition.
Mr. Ricardo then presented a Petition from the Spinners of Linen Yarn in the neighbourhood of Arbroath, praying that they might be relieved from that vexatious part of the Linen Laws which subjects their hanks to seizure, even though it be the full weight stipulated, if one of the hanks either want a few threads, or have a few threads too many; casualties which, in the making up of yarn spun by machinery, cannot possibly be always avoided.
7 May 1823
Mr. Curwen presented a Petition from the Butchers praying for the imposition of a duty on foreign tallow.
Mr. Ricardo was not exactly aware of the nature of the measure which the Hon. Gentleman had in contemplation; but if it was to be similar to that of last year, he had no hesitation in saying, that the remedy would have no other effect than the imposing of a heavy burthen upon the people of this country without any advantage to the revenue; and therefore he hoped that the House would deal with it as before.
Sir T. Lethbridge complained that British farmers could not compete with the prices of tallow imported from Russia.
Mr. Ricardo characterised this as one of the measures which aimed at putting money into the hands of the landed interest by taking it out of the pockets of the rest of the people. The landed interest had already too many regulations in their favour. For instance, the commercial interest had to pay five per cent. upon all property transferred upon the death of the owner; and this was not required of the landed interest.
SPITALFIELDS SILK MANUFACTURE ACTS—PETITION FOR THE REPEAL THEREOF
9 May 1823
Mr. T. Wilson presented a petition from the silk-manufacturers of London against the Spitalfields Acts (which empowered the magistrates to fix the wages of the journeymen silk-manufacturers).
Mr. Ricardo could not help expressing his astonishment that, in the year 1823, those acts should be existing and in force. They were not merely an interference with the freedom of trade, but they cramped the freedom of labour itself. Such was their operation, that a man who was disposed to embark in the trade could not employ his capital in it in London; and, as it might be inconvenient, in many instances to carry that capital out of London, the trade was necessarily cramped and fettered.
Mr. Huskisson ‘fully agreed in the propriety of repealing the acts’ and intimated that he would bring in a bill to that effect.
[See further, p. 295.]
LAW OF PRINCIPAL AND FACTOR—PETITION FOR AN ALTERATION THEREOF
12 May 1823
Mr. J. Smith presented a petition from the merchants and bankers of London, praying for an alteration in the existing law of lien upon goods sent on foreign ventures. Mr. Baring said, that ‘the great inconvenience felt from the present system was, that money could not be raised by the hypothecation of goods, because it was not known to whom they belonged.... If moneywere remitted, the possession passed from the hands of the principal to the agent, and no lien was created; the same freedom was sought to be established for the circulation of merchandise.’
Mr. Ricardo said, he would put the case in this way: suppose an individual employed him as an agent, to dispose of goods, and that he was dishonestly inclined, and defrauded his principal; in that case, who ought to be the loser, the man who said, “I will not pay a single penny without the goods are delivered to me;” or the man who did not make any inquiry, but lent his money upon mere representations? It was not desirable that either party should lose; but one must suffer, and the sufferer ought to be the individual who did not use proper caution.
On 15 May a select committee was appointed to enquire into the question: Ricardo was a member of the committee.
IMPORTATION OF TALLOW—PETITION FOR AN ADDITIONAL DUTY ON
12 May 1823
Sir T. Lethbridge presented a petition from the butchers of Leadenhall-market, complaining of the glut of Russian tallow in the market, and praying for a further import duty on that article. He said, ‘that the duty on Russian tallow would fall on the Russian merchant, and not on the English consumer.’
Mr. Ricardo observed, that the principle advocated by the hon. baronet might be applied to every foreign commodity. As the hon. baronet had discovered so easy a way of reducing the national debt, by throwing the burthen of taxation entirely on foreigners, he ought to become chancellor of the exchequer without delay; for he was afraid they had never yet found a chancellor of the exchequer who could impose taxes without inflicting serious burthens on the people.
BEER DUTIES BILL
12 May 1823
Mr. Denison, in presenting a petition from the table beer and ale brewers of London, suggested that the tax should be removed from beer and placed on malt. ‘This would place the poor man and the rich on an equality. At present, the poor man, who could not brew his beer, paid a tax from which the rich man was exempt.’
Mr. Ricardo could see no reason why the tax should not be imposed on the malt. If that were done, individuals would be at liberty to brew what quality of beer they pleased. The hardship was very great on the poor man, who was obliged to purchase his beer at a high rate from the public brewer; whereas all those who possessed facilities for brewing were exempted from the burden.
[See further, p. 301.]
SILK MANUFACTURE BILL
21 May 1823
The Lord Mayor presented a petition from his constituents, the working silk-weavers of Sudbury, against the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts.
Mr. Ricardo thought that this petition, coming from a district which was free, and praying that a restriction might be continued upon another district, was a most powerful argument in favour of the very measure which it opposed.
Mr. F. Buxton presented a similar petition from the journeymen silk-weavers of London; ‘it stated, that the journeymen weavers had derived great benefit from the effects of the existing laws, of which he thought they were competent judges.’ Mr. Hume vindicated the principles upon which the proposed measure was founded and said, the petitioners ‘did not understand the operation of those principles to their own advantage or dis-advantage. They thought, for instance, that the existing law had been beneficial to them, when it had, in fact, been, for the last forty or fifty years, diverting the trade to Sudbury and other places.’ Mr. F. Buxton ‘admitted, that the petitioners did not pretend to understand political economy—a science, the principles of which appeared to change every two or three years.’ Mr. Ellice agreed that all restrictions on trade had probably better be removed. ‘They were, however, proceeding to remove a law which, as the workmen conceived, afforded them protection, while they allowed the Combination act, and the act against the emigration of artisans, to remain in existence, which statutes, as every one knew, operated severely against certain of the working classes.’
Mr. Ricardo said, in answer to what had fallen from an hon. gentleman, that if they waited until they could, at one stroke, destroy all restrictions on trade they would never effect any useful alteration. The hon. member for Weymouth had observed, that the petitioners knew nothing about political economy, the principles of which seemed to change every two or three years. Now, the principles of true political economy never changed; and those who did not understand that science had better say nothing about it, but endeavour to give good reasons, if they could find any, for supporting the existing act. He most assuredly would not utter a word that could be injurious to the manufacturing classes: all his sympathies were in their favour: he considered them as a most valuable part of the population, and what he said was intended for their benefit. But, why should this particular trade come under the cognizance of the magistrate more than any other? Why should he interfere with this particular branch of the trade when many other branches of it were not under his control? The law only applied to the weavers. With respect to all other parties connected with the trade the magistrate had no jurisdiction whatever. Why should he have the power to fix the price of labour, more than the price of bread, meat, or beer? Delay was asked for. Now, he saw no use or advantage in delaying the measure. The hon. member for Norwich called on the House to delay the bill until next session. But, what reason had he given for the postponement? No one whatever. He merely said, “I think the existing measure is a very bad one for the workmen, but there is an extraordinary prejudice in its favour amongst the weavers, and therefore I would delay the measure until that prejudice is removed.” Why, at the end of the next session they would be in exactly the same state as at present; the prejudice would be found to exist as strongly as before. He therefore hoped that his right hon. friend would proceed with the measure, and refuse any application for delay.
[See further, p. 306.]
EAST AND WEST INDIA SUGARS
22 May 1823
Mr. W. Whitmore moved that a select committee be appointed with a view to equalising the duties on sugar (at present an extra duty of 10s. to 15s. was payable on sugar from the East, above that which was payable on sugar from the West Indies). Mr. C. Ellis, opposing the motion, said that ‘the protection extended to the West-India colonists had been conceded as a compensation for restrictions to which the East-India interest was not subject. If it were not a formal charter, it was an absolute compact with the consideration of value received, and not less valid than positive law.’ Mr. Robertson contended that the consumer was benefitted by the present state of things; owing to the incapacity of the East Indies under their wretched system of slavery, and the destruction caused by the white ants, ‘it would be impossible ever to make the growth of sugar in the East Indies sufficiently productive.’
Mr. Ricardo congratulated the House upon the comfortable information contained in the speech of the hon. member who had spoken last, and who had shown, that, what with the white ants and other difficulties, it would be impossible for the East-India planters ever to compete with those of the West-India colonies. The inference from which was, that there was nothing to fear from allowing them the advantage required. On this occasion he would take the liberty of quoting a speech of the hon. member for Sandwich (Mr. Marryat) in 1809, which was marked throughout by its strict adherence to the true principles of political economy. In that speech, the hon. member had contended for the policy of admitting the conquered colonies to an equal participation in the trade with the other colonies of England. The question at that time was, whether the colony of Martinique should be allowed to send its sugars to the British market on the same terms as the other colonies, and the hon. member had then clearly shown, by a train of the soundest reasoning, that the price of sugar on the continent regulating the price in this country, it could be no disadvantage to us that the sugar of Martinique should be sent here. Here the hon. member read the passage of the speech to which he had alluded. He then went on to contend, that the same argument (substituting the East Indies for Martinique) would apply to the question before the House. The sugars of the East Indies would not exclude those of the West. He would maintain, that there ought to be no restrictions on the imports of any of our colonies—that it would be an injury, as well to the colonies as to the mother country, and that therefore we ought to get rid of them altogether. It should also be recollected, that if the proposed measure gave advantages to the East-India trade which it did not possess before, there were disadvantages under which that trade still laboured, which went to counterbalance them. An hon. member had talked of our compact with the West Indies. He would say, in reply, that if any compact existed, by which the industry, either of the colonies or of the mother country, was rendered less productive, the sooner it was got rid of the better. The argument of the hon. member for Dumfries (Mr. K. Douglas) was quite inconclusive, in supposing that we should lose a great portion of the revenue derived from our West-India produce. He did not think the proposed measure would have any such effect, or that we should have the produce of either the West or East Indies at half their present price. He wished that could be proved; because it would render the proposition still more desirable. But he thought it was absurd to maintain, that because our West-India planters had a large capital embarked in the trade, we were therefore bound to take sugars from them at double the price which we could get them for elsewhere. Such an effect would not, however, be the result of the proposed alteration. East or West-India sugars would not be much lowered by it; but we should have this advantage from it, which would be most desirable—it would prevent sugars from rising above their value. Some gentlemen were alarmed at the idea of exporting bullion to India. For himself, he did not object to it; for bullion could not be acquired without the employment of our industry, and if a duty was levied in one case as well as in the other, it was clear that we should not lose any part of our revenue. With respect to the employment of our ships and sailors, it was natural to conclude, that as the East Indies were further off than the West, the proposed alteration would employ more rather than fewer. As to the duty on East India sugar, it was, by their own confession, of recent date, not having been introduced until 1814. What then, became of the ground of long possession? With respect to the effect the measure recommended would produce on the negro population, he did not see any grounds for supposing that it would be injurious. In the first place, he did not believe that we should import East-India sugar to any very considerable amount. But even were the competition to interfere with the sale of the produce of the West Indies, the condition of the slaves, if not improved, would not be injured by the change; inasmuch as the capital now employed in the production of sugar, would, under such circumstances, be converted to the growth of a more beneficial, because a more remunerating commodity. In the speech of the hon. member for Sandwich, to which he before alluded, there was a most extraordinary observation. It the more surprised him, as it was irreconcileable with the sound views entertained by the hon. member. In the speech, however, it was stated, that the price of any commodity did not depend on the cost of cultivation, but on the relation of the supply to the demand. Now, nothing was more unsound. In all cases, the cost of cultivation was sure to regulate the price which any commodity must bear in the markets of the world. As, therefore, the cost of production was acknowledged to be less in the East Indies in the production of sugar, the price of that article in the markets of the world must in the long run be regulated by that cost. There was another observation which was worthy of remark. The hon. members acknowledged, that the greatest advantage would attend a free trade; but, said they, “it is not a free trade, but a participation in the monopoly that the East-India advocates demand.” Granted. He would accede to their object; though at the same time, he was prepared to go to a much greater extent. He was ready to allow a free trade on sugar from all parts of the world where that commodity was grown. He would allow a competition not alone of East-India sugar, but of the sugars of South America, Cuba, Brazils, and China. And so would the hon. member for Sandwich, provided he was allowed to import the sugars of the West Indies with the lower rate of duties. It was, however, of those duties which prohibited all competition, that he (Mr. R.) complained; and, with the hope of modifying the evil, he would give his support to the motion.
Mr. Marryat said, ‘it was extremely amusing to hear hon. members, proprietors of East-India stock, declaiming in that House on the advantages of a free trade, at the very moment that they themselves were interested in one of the most outrageous monopolies that ever existed in any country in the world.’
Mr. Ricardo, in explanation, observed, that he had never possessed a shilling more than 1000l. East-India stock, and never given a vote in favour of monopoly in his life.
Mr. Huskisson ‘agreed with the hon. member for Portarlington that, considering the question abstractly, and without reference to the state of things which had grown out of the colonial policy of this country for the last century—the only point worthy of notice was, where, as consumers, could we get our sugars at the cheapest rate? But, he denied that the question ought to be so abstractly considered’, and opposed the motion.
The House divided on Mr. Whitmore’s motion: Ayes, 34. Noes, 161. Ricardo voted for the motion.
MALT AND BEER TAX
28 May 1823
Mr. Maberly moved ‘That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the present mode of taxing malt and beer separately, and whether it would not be expedient to collect the same amount on malt alone’ [cp. above, p. 294]. The Chancellor of the Exchequer opposed the motion.
Mr. Ricardo thought, that his hon. friend, the mover, had shown the tax on beer to be unequal, and that one class was exempted from it, while another was obliged to pay. He had shown, also, that the diminution in the expense of collecting this tax would assist the revenue. The hon. member regretted that this had been made a question between the agricultural and other classes; but, even if it were true that the tax had an unequal operation, in this respect also the sooner it was equalized the better. If the duty paid ought to attach on all persons consuming beer, it ought to attach equally. The motion should have his hearty support, because it went to accomplish that object.
The House divided: Ayes, 27. Noes, 119. Ricardo voted for the motion.
WAGES OF MANUFACTURERS—USE OF MACHINERY
30 May 1823
Mr. Attwood presented a petition from the manual weavers of Stockport, complaining of the extremely low rate of wages: ‘they complained also of certain improvements in machinery, the effect of which had been to reduce the quantity of employment of those who wove by hand, and which threatened to leave a large population without any means whatever of support.’ Mr. Philips contended ‘that no means were so effectual for the benefit of the manufacturing class, as the introduction of machinery; and if parliament were foolish enough to comply with the prayer of those who wished to discourage machinery, they would inflict the greatest possible injury on the public, and especially on the petitioners themselves.’ Mr. H. G. Bennet said, ‘a very useful publication on the subject of machinery, written by Mr. Cobbett, had been extensively circulated throughout the manufacturing counties, and would, he hoped, effect a change of opinion no less extensive.’
Mr. Ricardo said, that much information might, undoubtedly, be derived from Mr. Cobbett’s publication, because that writer explained the use of machinery in such a way as to render the subject perfectly clear. He was not, however, altogether satisfied with the reasoning contained in that pamphlet; because it was evident, that the extensive use of machinery, by throwing a large portion of labour into the market, while, on the other hand, there might not be a corresponding increase of demand for it, must, in some degree, operate prejudicially to the working classes. But still he would not tolerate any law to prevent the use of machinery. The question was,—if they gave up a system which enabled them to undersell in the foreign market, would other nations refrain from pursuing it? Certainly not. They were therefore bound, for their own interest, to continue it. Gentlemen ought, however, to inculcate this truth on the minds of the working classes—that the value of labour, like the value of other things, depended on the relative proportion of supply and demand. If the supply of labour were greater than could be employed, then the people must be miserable. But the people had the remedy in their own hands. A little forethought, a little prudence (which probably they would exert, if they were not made such machines of by the poorlaws), a little of that caution which the better educated felt it necessary to use, would enable them to improve their situation.
Mr. Philips instanced the fact, that the wages of the artisan were more liberal where machinery was used than where it was not used, as a proof that its introduction was not hurtful to the weaver.
Mr. Ricardo said, his proposition was, not that the use of machinery was prejudicial to persons employed in one particular manufacture, but to the working classes generally. It was the means of throwing additional labour into the market, and thus the demand for labour, generally, was diminished.
IRISH TITHES COMPOSITION BILL
30 May 1823
This measure (which had been introduced by Mr. Goulburn, chief secretary for Ireland, on 6 March) ‘proceeded upon the principle of endeavouring to effect a voluntary agreement between the owners and the payers of tithes.’
Mr. Ricardo observed that, by the present bill, land improved within the last 21 years was not to be tithable for such improvement; but as an adjustment was to take place every year, suppose a man possessed of poor land, to improve that land within one year after the passing this bill, he would become liable to pay upon his improved land, while his neighbour, having been so fortunate as to improve a year sooner, would be liable to no such burthen. This would be to give one person a preference, ruinous in its effect, to another. The bill might be favourable to Ireland, but it would be most injurious to the English agriculturist, as it would enable the Irish grower to grow corn cheap, and he might glut the English market, to the ruin of the English grower, unless a protecting duty was imposed on Irish corn.
Mr. Goulburn said, ‘the argument just introduced by the hon. member for Portarlington, was one quite beside the present question; though it would apply to any measure introduced with a view of assisting agriculture in any part of the empire.... Howwould the hon. gentleman reconcile his proposition with the various instances which existed in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, in particular, of parishes relieved from the operation of the tithe system by special acts of parliament. According to the hon. gentleman’s doctrine, we must have Custom-houses erected on the borders of those counties, and countervailing duties imposed, to keep up this beautiful system of equilibrium of price.’
RECIPROCITY OF DUTIES
6 June 1823
Mr. Huskisson (President of the Board of Trade) moved two resolutions authorising his majesty, by order in council, to declare that the importation or exportation of merchandise in foreign vessels might take place upon payment of the same duties as were payable on similar merchandise carried in British vessels, from or to countries which allowed reciprocal conditions; and granting powers of retaliation. This, he said, ‘was an entire departure from the principles which had hitherto governed our foreign commerce.... It had for a long time, indeed from thepassing of the Navigation act, been our policy to impose upon cargoes, brought in foreign vessels, higher duties than those imported in British bottoms’; that policy was becoming impossible, owing to retaliatory action taken by foreign countries.
Mr. Ricardo said, that the country was much indebted to his right hon. friend (Mr. Huskisson) for the enlightened views he had taken, and the measures he had brought forward, to improve the commerce of the country. Parliament had, at length, begun to find out, that restrictions on commerce were restrictions, not on other countries, but on ourselves. It certainly was a question of policy whether England should take off the duties without receiving reciprocal advantage from foreign powers; but, if foreign powers recognised the same liberal principle, there could be no doubt that the advantage to England would be double the advantage which any other country could derive from the regulation. An hon. member had said, that it would be to his personal advantage to second the principles laid down, but that personal benefits ought to be sacrificed for the good of the navy. Now, with respect to the navy, he had no apprehension whatever. The state of that navy, the facility for building ships, the superiority of this country in that branch of art, the great capital and enterprise of the people, were so many securities, that the navy would not fall into decay. He hoped soon to see Canada deprived of the preference which she enjoyed in the timber trade, and placed, in that respect, upon the same footing as Norway and Sweden.
The resolutions were agreed to.
SILK MANUFACTURE BILL
9 June 1823
On the report of the bill for the repeal of the Spitalfields acts Mr. F. Buxton moved that it be referred to a select committee, so that the petitioners against the measure [see above, p. 295] might prove their case by evidence. ‘It was indeed objected to the petitioners, that the bill did not rest upon disputed facts, but rested on admitted principles of political economy; but, ... it was rather hard to say to these poor people, that they should lose their bread by principles of political economy.... The petitionersalso begged humbly to represent, that they had seen the greatest fluctuations, as to what the “soundest principles of political economy” were. And indeed the House must know, that certain principles of political economy were acted upon some fifty years ago, and which were then undoubted, until Adam Smith gained great credit by overturning them; and recently they had heard his hon. friend, the member for Portarlington (Mr. Ricardo), combat the doctrines of Adam Smith in many particulars, with a clearness and force which had certainly persuaded him (Mr. F. Buxton) of his hon. friend’s correctness. The petitioners therefore, were certainly entitled to ask, what security there was, that some future system of political economy would not overturn the system of his hon. friend, which had overturned the system of Adam Smith, who, in his day, had overturned the system of those who had gone before him?’ Mr. Huskisson opposed the inquiry. Mr. Bright supported it and asked, ‘ought the House to refuse it merely because some persons talked largely about the principles of political economy?’
Mr. Ricardo was as anxious for inquiry as any member, in cases where it was at all necessary; but, admitting all that the opponents of this bill stated they could prove, it would not change his opinion. If these acts were indeed so beneficial, they ought to be adopted all over the country, and applied to every branch of manufacture; but the question was, whether labour should or should not be free? The quantity of work must depend upon the extent of demand; and if the demand was great, the number of persons employed would be in proportion. If these acts were repealed, no doubt the number of weavers employed in London would be greater than at present. They might not, indeed, receive such high wages; but it was improper that those wages should be artificially kept up by the interference of a magistrate. If a manufacturer was obliged to use a certain quantity of labour, he ought to obtain it at a fair price. It had been said, that the weavers of Spital-fields received very little from the poor-rates. True. And why? Because there was so little to be distributed among them. Very little could be raised in the parish; and sometimes, when great distress prevailed, resort had actually been had to government, for large sums for the relief of the poor. An hon. member for Bristol had talked about political economy; but the words “political economy” had, of late, become terms of ridicule and reproach. They were used as a substitute for an argument, and had been so used by the hon. member for Wey-mouth. Upon every view which he could take of the subject, the bill would be beneficial both to the manufacturers and the workmen.
The House divided: For the Committee, 60. Against it, 68.
11 June 1823
Mr. Huskisson having moved the third reading of the bill,
Mr. Ricardo contended, that the effect of the existing law was, to diminish the quantity of labour, and that, though the rate of wages was high, the workmen had so little to do, that their wages were, in point of fact, lower than they would be under the proposed alteration of the law. He could not bear to hear it said that they were legislating to the injury of the working classes. He would not stand up in support of the measure, if he thought for one moment that it had any such tendency. The existing law was more injurious to the workmen than to their employers; because, at periods when the trade was brisk, it empowered the magistrates to interfere, and prevent their wages from rising as much as they would if the law imposed no shackles on the regulations of the trade. He was in possession of a number of cases, in which the decision of the magistrates had been resisted, either by the workmen or their masters, where counsel had been employed, and the masters had at length given up the dispute rather than incur the trouble and expense of continuing it. He was perfectly satisfied that, if the present bill should pass, there would be a much greater quantity of work for the weavers in London than there was at present. With respect to wages, he was persuaded, that, in all the common branches of the manufacture, they would not fall; for at the present moment they were as high in the country, with reference to those branches, as they were in London.
The House divided: For the third reading, 53; Against it, 40. The bill was then passed.
On 18 July, when the amended bill came back from the Lords, Mr. Huskisson declared that ‘it now came down in so altered a state and with so many of the old regulations unrepealed, that, in his view of the subject, it would neither conduce to the public interest, nor be consistent with his duty, to proceed further with it at present.’
MR. WESTERN’S MOTION RESPECTING THE RESUMPTION OF CASH PAYMENTS
11 June 1823
Mr. Western (the member for Essex) moved ‘That a committee be appointed to take into consideration the changes that have been made in the value of the currency between the year 1793 and the present time, and the consequences produced thereby upon the money-income of the country derived from its industry; the amount of the public debt and taxes considered relatively to the money-income of the country; and the effect of such changes of the currency upon the money-contracts between individuals.’
Mr. Ricardo observed, that the hon. member for Essex, and all those who took his view of the subject, laid down very sound principles, but drew from them conclusions which were altogether untenable. No one doubted, that, in proportion as the quantity of money in a country increased, commerce and transactions remaining the same, its value must fall. No one questioned, that the change from a depreciated to a metallic currency of increased value must have the effect of reducing its quantity, and of lowering the price of all commodities brought to market. These were principles which he had himself on various occasions asserted; but the difference between him and the hon. member for Essex, was, as to the degree in which the value of our currency had been increased, and the degree in which prices generally had been diminished by the bill (called Mr. Peel’s Bill) of 1819. It was from seeing the evils which resulted from a currency without any fixed standard, that he had given his best support to that bill. What he sought was, to guard against the many and the severe mischiefs of a fluctuating currency; fluctuating, not according to the variations in the value of the standard itself, from which no currency could be exempted, but fluctuating according to the caprice or interest of a company of merchants, who, before the passing of that bill, had the power to increase or diminish the amount of money, and consequently to alter the value, whenever they thought proper. It was from seeing the immense power which the Bank, prior to 1819, possessed—a power, which he believed that body had been inclined to exercise fairly, but which had not been always judiciously exercised, and which might have been so used as to have become formidable to the interests of the country—it was from the view which he took of the extent of that power of the Bank, that he had rejoiced, in 1819, in the prospect of a fixed currency. He had cared little, comparatively, what the standard established was—whether it continued at its then value, or went back to the old standard: his object had been, a fixed standard of some description or other. In the discussions of 1819, he certainly had said, that he measured the depreciation of the then currency, by the difference of value between paper and gold; and he held to that opinion still. He maintained now, that the depreciation of a currency could only be measured by a reference to the proper standard—that was, to gold; but he did not say, that the standard itself was not variable. The hon. gentleman, and those who supported his opinions, were always confounding the terms “depreciation,” and “value.” A currency might be depreciated, without falling in value; it might fall in value, without being depreciated, because depreciation is estimated only by reference to a standard. He had undoubtedly given an opinion in 1819, that, by the measure then proposed, the prices of commodities would not be altered more than 5 per cent; but, let it be explained under what circumstances that opinion had been given. The difference in 1819, between paper and gold, was 5 per cent, and the paper being brought, by the bill of 1819, up to the gold standard, he had considered that, as the value of the currency was only altered 5 per cent, there could be no greater variation than 5 per cent, in the result as to prices. But this calculation had always been subject to a supposition, that no change was to take place in the value of gold. Mr. Peel’s bill, as originally constituted, led the way to no such change. That bill did not require the Bank to provide itself with any additional stock of gold till 1823. It was not a bill demanding that coin should be thrown into circulation, till after the expiration of four years and a half; and before that period, if the system worked well, of which there could be no doubt, parliament could, and in all probability would, have deferred coin payments to a considerably later time. It was a bill by which, if they had followed it strictly, the Bank would have been enabled to carry on the currency of the country in paper, without using an ounce more of gold than was then in their possession.
Gentlemen forgot that, by that bill, the Bank was prohibited from paying their notes in specie, and were required only to pay them in ingots on demand; ingots which nobody wanted, for no one could use them beneficially. The charge against him was, that he had not foreseen the alteration in the value of the standard, to which, by the bill, the paper money was required to conform. No doubt, gold had altered in value; and why? Why, because the Bank, from the moment of the passing of the bill in 1819, set their faces against the due execution of it. Instead of doing nothing, they carried their ingots, which the public might have demanded of them, to the Mint, to be coined into specie, which the public could not demand of them, and which they could not pay if it did. Instead of maintaining an amount of paper money in circulation, which should keep the exchanges at par, they so limited the quantity as to cause an unprecedented influx of the precious metals, which they eagerly bought and coined into money. By their measures they occasioned a demand for gold, which was, in no way, necessarily consequent upon the bill of 1819; and so raising the value of gold in the general market of the world, they changed the value of the standard with reference to which our currency had been calculated, in a manner which had not been presumed upon.
This, then, was the error which he (Mr. Ricardo) had been guilty of: he had not foreseen these unnecessary, and, as he must add, mischievous operations of the Bank. Fully allowing, as he did, for the effect thus produced on the value of gold, it remained to consider what that effect really had been. The hon. member for Essex estimated it at 30 per cent; he (Mr. Ricardo) calculated it at 5 per cent; and he was therefore now ready to admit, that Mr. Peel’s bill had raised the value of the currency 10 per cent. By increasing the value of gold 5 per cent, it had become necessary to raise the value of paper 10 per cent, instead of 5 per cent, to make it conform to the enhanced value of gold. To estimate what the effect of this demand for gold had had upon its value in the general market of the world, he contended, that we should compare the quantity actually purchased, with the whole quantity used in the different currencies of the world; and he was satisfied that, on such a principle of calculation, 5 per cent would be found to be an ample allowance for the effect of such purchases. But the hon. member for Essex had said nothing of all this. He merely came down to the House and said, “My proof that there has been an alteration of 30 per cent in the value of money is, that there is a change to that amount in the price of wheat, and of various other commodities.” Every alteration, under every circumstance, in the price of commodities might so be solved, without the trouble of inquiry, by reference to the value of gold. If this argument were good for any thing now, it was good for all times; and we never had had any variations in the value of commodities: the variations in price, which had often occurred, were to be attributed to no other cause but to the alteration in the value of money.
But, suppose the calculation of the hon. member to be correct, and that all the alteration which had taken place in the price of corn had been owing to the alteration in the value of money, he (Mr. Ricardo) should ask him, whether, even in that case, the agricultural interest had suffered any injustice? It was not pretended, that money was now of a higher value than it was previous to the Bank Restriction bill, nor corn at a lower price. The favourite argument was, that they, the landed interest, had to pay the interest of the debt in a medium of a different value from that in which it had been contracted, and therefore, that they actually pay 30 per cent more than they would have paid, if money had never altered in value. He (Mr. Ricardo) had once before endeavoured to show the fallacy of this argument, and had attempted to prove, that the payers of taxes actually paid no more now, than they would have paid, if we had had the wisdom never to depart from the sound principles of currency; and that the stock-holders, taking them as a class, receive no more than what is justly due to them. The hon. member would lead the House to believe, that the whole of our immense debt was contracted in a depreciated currency; but the fact was, that nearly five hundred millions of that debt was contracted before the currency had suffered any depreciation; and the rest of the debt had been contracted in currency depreciated in various degrees. Mr. Mushett had been at the trouble of making very minute calculations on this subject, and had proved, that the loss to the stock-holders, from receiving their dividends in a depreciated currency for twenty years, on the stock contracted for in a sound currency, would amount to a sum sufficiently large to buy a perpetual annuity, equal to the additional value of the dividends paid on the three hundred millions of debt contracted for in the depreciated currency. He should be glad to hear an answer given to this statement. For his own part, it did appear to him, that the success of the present motion would not benefit the landed interest a jot: because the motion asked for an examination as to the changes from the year 1793 to the present moment; and, as it must be admitted, that the landed interest had derived vast advantages from the depreciation between the years 1800 and 1819, the present motion compelling them to make due allowance for the benefits they had acquired during those years, would take from them an amount equal to that which they had lost by the subsequent change.
The hon. member for Essex said, that the currency had altered 30 per cent in value; but his chief proof rested on the altered price of corn. The true cause of the greater part of this alteration was, not the change in the currency, but the abundance of the supply. The stimulus to agriculture had been great during the war, and we were now suffering from a re-action, operating at the same time with the effect of two or three abundant crops. Could the agricultural interest be ruined by an alteration in the value of money, without its affecting, in the same manner, the manufacturing and commercial interests of the country? If corn fell 30 per cent from an alteration in the value of money, must not all other commodities fall in something like the same proportion? But, had they so fallen? Was the manufacturing interest so distressed? Quite the contrary. Every thing was flourishing, but agriculture. The legacy duty, the probate duty, the advalorem duty on stamps, were all on the increase; and certainly, if a raised value of money had lessened the value of property, less might be expected to be paid generally upon transfers of property. The state of the revenue was to him (Mr. Ricardo) a satisfactory proof, if every other were wanting, of the erroneous conclusions of the hon. gentleman.
The hon. member for Essex had asked, if any man would say, that under the present system of currency the country could bear the expenses of a war? would any man say now, that the country could pay, as it did in the former war, eighty-four millions per annum? Now, this question was not put quite fairly; because, as the hon. member contended, that our currency was increased in value 30 per cent, he ought to ask, whether we could now afford to pay sixty millions per annum for a war, as we paid eighty-four millions formerly? He (Mr. Ricardo) would answer, that the country would be able to pay just as much real value under the existing system, as under any system of the hon. member for Essex’s recommendation; for he thought, that a change in the value of her currency could have no effect at all upon the powers of a country. An unrestricted paper currency created a new distribution of property. It transferred wealth from the pockets of one man to whom it really belonged, to the pockets of another who was in no way entitled to it; but it imparted no strength to a country.
Agreeing as he did most sincerely, with almost all the opinions of his right hon. friend, the president of the Board of Trade (Mr. Huskisson) on this subject, he still considered, that his right hon. friend had given too much currency to the opinion, that an unrestricted paper issue enabled us to meet with increased strength the public enemy. It was not useful to war—it was most injurious in peace—and could not again be put under control, without the grossest injustice to a great portion of the community. We had happily recovered from those effects; and he sincerely trusted, that the country would never again be subjected to a similar calamity.
It was singular, that the objection against the restoration of our currency from a depreciation of 5 per cent in a period of four years, should have come from the hon. member for Essex, who, in 1811, saw no danger in restoring it from its depreciated state of 15 per cent in a single day. The House might recollect that, in 1811, a bill had been brought in, to make paper money equivalent to a legal tender, in consequence of lord King having, most justly, demanded the payment of his rents in the coin of the realm, according to the value of the currency at the time the leases were granted. Suppose that bill had been thrown out, agreeably to the views of the hon. gentleman, who in a speech strenuously opposed the bill, and that the law had taken its course, and that creditors had been defended, in demanding their payments in coin—what would have been the result in that case? Would not the ounce of gold have fallen the very next day from 4l. 10s. to 3l. 17s. 10½d.? Would there have been no inconvenience in an enhancement in the value of the currency to that amount? or was the hon. gentleman prepared to say, that a rise in the value of paper of 15 per cent in one day, in 1811, would have been harmless, but that it would be ruinous to raise it to the amount of 5 per cent only, in a period of four years from 1819?
The hon. member for Essex had not dealt quite fairly by him (Mr. Ricardo) in a pamphlet which he had recently published. In speaking of Mr. Peel’s bill, he acquitted his majesty’s ministers of any intention of plunging the country into the difficulties which he thought that bill had caused: he paid a compliment to their integrity, by supposing them ignorant: but not so to him (Mr. Ricardo). Without naming him, the hon. gentleman alluded to him and his opinion, in a way that no one could mistake the person meant, and said, that it required the utmost extent of charity to believe, that in the advice he had given he was not influenced by interested motives. The hon. gentleman would have acted a more manly part, if he had explicitly and boldly made his charge, and openly mentioned his name. He (Mr. Ricardo) did not pretend to be more exempted from the weaknesses and errors of human nature than other men, but he could assure the House and the hon. member for Essex, that it would puzzle a good accountant to make out on which side his interest predominated. He (Mr. R.) would find it difficult himself, from the different kinds of property which he possessed (no part funded property), to determine the question. But, by whom was this effort of charity found so difficult? By the hon. gentleman, whose interest in this question could not, for one moment be doubted—whose whole property consisted of land—and who would greatly benefit by any measure which should lessen the value of money. He imputed no bad motive to the hon. gentleman. He believed he would perform his duty as well as most men, even when it was opposed to his interest; but he asked the hon. gentleman to state, on what grounds he inferred, that he (Mr. Ricardo) should, under similar circumstances, be wanting in his.
I beg particularly (continued Mr. Ricardo) to call the attention of the House, to the opinions which I have given on the cause of our recent difficulties, and which the hon. member for Essex now reprobates; as I think that, for every one of those opinions, I can appeal to an authority which the hon. gentleman will be the last to question—for it is to his own. I contend, that the present low price of corn is mainly owing to an excess of supply, and not to an alteration in the value of the currency. What said the hon. gentleman in this House, in the year 1816, when corn had fallen considerably, and when the causes of that fall was the subject of discussion? “The first and obvious cause, I say, has been a redundant supply beyond the demand, and that created chiefly by the produce of our own agriculture. Permit me, Sir, here to call to the recollection of the House the effect of a small surplus or deficit of supply above or below the demand of the market. It is perfectly well known, that if there is a small deficiency of supply, the price will rise in a ratio far beyond any proportion of such deficiency: the effect, indeed, is almost incalculable. So likewise on a surplus of supply beyond demand, the price will fall in a ratio exceeding almost tenfold the amount of such surplus. Corn being an article of prime necessity, is peculiarly liable to such variations: upon a deficit of supply the price is further advanced by alarm; and upon a surplus, it is further diminished by the difficulty the growers have in contracting the amount of their growth, compared to the means which other manufacturers have of limiting the amount of their manufacture.”
Now, I would ask the House in what these sentiments differ from those which I have had the honour of supporting in this House, and which the hon. gentleman now thinks so reprehensible? But further, the hon. gentleman contended, in the speech alluded to, that the diminution which at that time had taken place in the amount of the circulating medium was not in any way the cause of the fall in the price of corn, but on the contrary it was the fall in the price of corn which was the cause of the diminution of the quantity of the circulating medium—“I say” (continued he) “there is nothing which will prevent it” (corn) “so falling, nor are there any means to force a re-issue of this paper currency which has thus vanished in a moment: nothing but a revival of the value on which it was founded can accomplish the object.”
On this point, I rather agree with the hon. gentleman’s present opinions, than with his former ones, that there are means of forcing a re-issue of paper, and of raising the price of corn; but I trust that we shall not have recourse to them. The hon. gentleman proceeds to say—“Now, Sir, let us turn from the contemplation of this gloomy picture, and consider what prospect there is of remedy, or what means we have of affording relief. If I am right in attributing the primary cause of all these calamities to the effects of a surplus in the market beyond the demand, the remedy must be found in taking off that surplus; or it will remedy itself in a short time by a reduction of supply. The danger is, that the 11 June 1823 present abundant supply should be converted into an alarming deficiency.” The hon. gentleman goes on to say, that it is impossible, for any length of time, for the price of corn to be below a remunerating price, and that it is possible for the harvest to be so abundant as to produce loss instead of advantage to the grower. These were the opinions which he (Mr. Ricardo) held on this subject, and which he had at various times, though with much less ability, attempted to support in that House. If he had learned them from the hon. member, it was very extraordinary that at the moment he adopted them the hon. member should turn round and reproach him for conforming to his sentiments.
The hon. gentleman proceeded to animadvert on the arguments and statements set forth by the hon. mover in a pamphlet recently published, and particularly on one, in which the hon. member, in making up the balance of advantage which the stock-holder had derived from the several measures affecting the currency, entirely omitted to set on one side of the account, the various sums which had been paid to him in discharge of his debt by the sinking fund in the depreciated currency, and which, amounted to upwards of one hundred millions. If the money advanced by the stockholder to the public had been in a depreciated currency, so had been the payments made to the stock-holder; and it was not fair for the hon. gentleman to calculate on the sum of such advances, but on the difference between the advances and payments. As the hon. gentleman stated the question, it would appear as if all the advances to government had been in depreciated money, and all the payments from government to the stock-holder had been in currency of the Mint value. Nothing could be so little conformable to the fact; as the advances and payments were made in the same medium, and, as far as the amounts were equal, they were equally injurious to both parties.
After going through various other objections which he took to the contents of the same pamphlet, Mr. Ricardo went on to justify the opinions which he had given before the Bank committee from an attack which had been made upon them, in another pamphlet, by the hon. member for Callington (Mr. Attwood). He concluded by objecting to the motion. It was too late to make any alteration in the currency. The difficulties of the measure of 1819 were now got over. The people were reconciled to it. Agriculture, he believed, would soon be in the same flourishing condition as the other interests of the country. If it were not, it would only be on account of the mischievous corn law, which would always be a bar to its prosperity. As a punishment to the hon. gentleman, he could almost wish that a committee should be granted. He would, of course, be chairman of it; and tired enough he would be of his office, by the time he had “adjusted” all the interests relative to his new modus! He could not tell how the hon. gentleman would go about the performance of such a labour; but this he would say, that the immediate result of granting such a committee would be, to produce the most mischievous effects, and to renew all the inconveniences which had been previously occasioned by the uncertainty and fluctuations of the currency.
The debate extended to the following day, when Mr. Peel and Mr. Huskisson opposed the motion. Most of the speakers for the motion attacked Ricardo; one of them, Mr. Wodehouse, said that Ministers ‘were too ready to listen to the suggestions of the hon. member for Portarlington (Mr. Ricardo), whose conclusions on this head appeared to him to be utterly incomprehensible. Never could he introduce that hon. member’s name without feeling what was due to his talents, and also to his character; and, as this observation from himself must carry with it an air of presumption, perhaps he might be allowed to state in explanation, that he had sat with the hon. member for weeks on the same Committee [the Agricultural Committee], had differed with him on almost every point that had been started, but was so struck with the entire absence of all illiberal imputation, and such a manifest desire on his part of establishing only that which was fair, that somehow it was impossible not to have acquired a facility of communication, even with one so infinitely his superior. But, to believe that he had a clear perception on the subject of money, was utterly impossible.’
Mr. Western’s motion, with the addition of a clause for ‘establishing an equitable adjustment of contracts’, proposed by Lord Folkestone, being put, the House divided: Ayes, 27; Noes, 96.
BEER DUTIES BILL
13 June 1823
On the report of this bill (which added to the two kinds of beer, then taxed respectively 10s. and 2s. per barrel according to strength, an ‘intermediate beer’, to be taxed 5s., and prohibited the brewing of different kinds of beer on the same premises),
Mr. Ricardo thought the bill would be inoperative and it certainly was very unjust; as it, in fact, confiscated the property of the table-beer brewers. As to the idea of preventing weak beer from being put off on the public for strong, the public might be safely left to take care of itself. No harm could be done by passing the bill without the vexatious restrictions; at least for a year, by way of experiment.
On 17 June the bill was read a third time and passed. Ricardo voted against the third reading.
USURY LAWS REPEAL BILL
17 June 1823
Mr. Serjeant Onslow moved that the usury laws repeal bill be committed. Mr. Davenport opposed the motion.
Mr. Ricardo argued, that money ought to be placed on the same footing as any other commodity. The lender and borrower ought to be allowed to bargain together, as freely as the buyer and seller did when goods were to be disposed of. The hon. member who spoke last, feared that this measure would place the borrower entirely in the power of the lender. But, did the present laws alter his situation? Certainly not. Means were found to evade the law; for though the law said, “You shall not take more than a certain interest for your money,” it could not compel a man to lend at that particular rate; and, therefore, he who wished to borrow at all events, and he who wished to lend at as high a rate of interest as he could get, both conspired to evade the law. These laws operated precisely in the same way as the laws against exporting the coin of the realm. Now, notwithstanding those laws, did not the exportation of that coin take place? The only effect of the statutes in that case was, to place the traffic in the hands of characters who had no scruples against taking a false oath. They were encouraged to evade the law, and made a great profit by so doing.
The House divided: For the motion, 38; Against it, 15. On the report stage (27 June) the bill was lost.
RELIGIOUS OPINIONS—PETITION OF MINISTERS OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION FOR FREE DISCUSSION
1 July 1823
Mr. Hume presented the ‘Christians’ petition’ against the prosecution of unbelievers and moved ‘That it is the opinion of this House, that Free Discussion has been attended with more benefit than injury to the community, and it is unjust and inexpedient to expose any person to legal penalties on account of the expression of opinions on matters of religion.’ Seconding the motion,
Mr. Ricardo said, he had heard with pleasure a great part of the speech of his hon. friend who had just sat down, and the remainder certainly with no inconsiderable concern. The greater part of that speech had been in support of the opinion which he (Mr. Ricardo) held, in common with his hon. friend who had introduced the motion; namely, that no man had a right to dictate his opinions upon abstract questions to another, upon peril of punishment for a refusal to adopt them; and his hon. friend had further admitted, that so long as the controversy upon such topics was conducted with decency, it ought not to be prevented by force of law. Now, he lamented that when his hon. friend had thought proper to quote the sentiments of Dr. Paley, he had not given them more at length, for he would, in the writings of that eminent individual, find a more large and liberal spirit of toleration, than he was disposed to admit practically in other parts of his speech.
Mr. Wilberforce.—Dr. Paley distinctly excepts to the treatment of such subjects with levity and ribaldry.
Mr. Ricardo.—That, certainly, was Dr. Paley’s only exception; and he, as well as the other chief ornaments of the church, for instance, Dr. Tillotson and Dr. Porteus, had asserted, in the largest sense, the right of unfettered opinion. If the validity of such opinions were admitted, who could approve of the operation of the law of this country in such matters? Who could sustain those impolitic and unjust prosecutions? What was the prosecution of Carlile for republishing the “Age of Reason?” That was not a work written in a style of levity and ribaldry, but a serious argument upon publishing the truth of the Christian religion. Look again at the impending prosecution for eighteen weeks of the same man for publishing Mr. Hone’s parodies, which was not abandoned until Hone had himself secured an acquittal on the charge. But, said his hon. friend (Mr. Wilber-force), in justification of these public prosecutions, there were some offences which did not directly affect private interest, although they injured the community, and which might go unpunished, were it not for general associations which took cognizance of such matters; and he had talked of obscene writings in illustration of his opinion. But, was there really any comparison between such writings and those upon speculative points of religion, which were the only topics to which this motion applied? They were all agreed that obscene writings ought to be punished. And why?— because they were obviously pernicious to the moral interests of society, and constituted a general and disgusting species of offence. But not so with respect to abstract religious subjects, upon which it was quite impossible to obtain universal assent. No man had a right to say to another, “My opinion upon religion is right, and yours is not only wrong when you differ from me, but I am entitled to punish you for that difference.” Such an arrogant assumption of will was intolerable, and was an outrage upon the benignant influence of religion. They might talk of ribaldry and levity, but there was nothing more intolerable than the proposition which he had just stated, and which was nothing less than the power contended for by the advocates of these prosecutions for mere opinions upon points of faith. Then, what an absurd and immoral mode did the law provide for estimating the credit of a man’s faith before his testimony was legally admissible! When the question was put to a witness, “Do you believe in a future state?” If he were a conscientious man, entertaining seriously such an opinion, his answer must be in the negative, and the law said he should not be heard; but if he were an immoral man, and disregarded truth, and said, “I do believe in a future state,” although in his conscience he disbelieved in it, then his evidence was admissible, and his hypocrisy and falsehood secured him credibility. Now, there would be some sense in the law, if it declined tempting the hypocrisy of the individual, or his fear of the world’s hostility or prejudice, and let in other evidence to establish, from previous knowledge of the individual, whether or not he ought not to be admitted as a witness; but as it stood, it was absurd and ridiculous; and when he (Mr. R.) was charged upon this ground with a desire to do away with the sanctity of an oath, his reply was, “I do not desire to diminish the sacredness of the obligation; but I do desire to get rid of the hypocrisy by which that oath may be evaded.” But then, again, was it possible for a man not to believe in a future state, and yet be strictly moral, and impressed with the necessity of upholding credibility in the common obligations of society? For his part, he firmly believed in the possibility of a man’s being very honest for all the social purposes and essential obligations of the community in which he lived, and still not assenting to the belief of a future state. He fully admitted that religion was a powerful obligation; but he denied it to be the only obligation. It was, in fact, one which was superadded to the general force of moral impressions—it were a libel upon human nature to say otherwise. Tillotson was of that opinion in the following quotation from his works:—“As for most of those restraints which Christianity lays upon us, they are so much both for our private and public advantage, that, setting aside all considerations of religion, and of the rewards and punishments of another life, they are really good for us; and if God had not laid them upon us, we ought in reason, in order to our temporal benefit and advantage to have laid them upon ourselves. If there were no religion, I know men would not have such strong and forcible obligations to these duties; but yet, I say, though there were no religion, it were good for men, in order to temporal ends, to their health and quiet, and reputation, and safety, and, in a word, to the private and public prosperity of mankind, that men should be temperate, and chaste, and just, and peaceable, and charitable, and kind, and obliging to one another, rather than the contrary. So that religion does not create those restraints arbitrarily, but requires those things of us, which our reason, and a regard to our advantage, which the necessity and conveniency of the things themselves, without any consideration of religion, would in most cases urge us to.” He read this passage for the purpose of showing, and from a great authority in the church, that the obligation of religion was not alone considered as the influential test of moral truth, and that a man might be very sceptical upon doctrinal points, and yet very positive in the control of moral impressions distinct from religious faith. For instance, there was Mr. Owen of Lanark, a great benefactor to society, and yet a man not believing (judging from some opinions of his) in a future state. Would any man, with the demonstrating experience of the contrary before his eyes, say that Mr. Owen was less susceptible of moral feeling, because he was incredulous upon matters of religion? Would any man, pretending to honour or candour, say that Mr. Owen, after a life spent in improving the condition of others, had a mind less pure, a heart less sincere, or a less conviction of the restraint and control of moral rectitude, than if he were more imbued with the precepts of religious obligation? Why, then, was such a man (for so by the law he was) to be excluded from the pale of legal credibility—why was he, if he promulgated his opinions, to be liable to spend his days immured in a prison? With respect to the exception provided according to his hon. friend (Mr. Wilberforce), for treating such subjects with levity and ribaldry, he must confess, that he thought it a very singular reservation: for what was it, but to say—“You may discuss, if you please, in the most solemn, most serious, and therefore most influential manner, any topic of religion you please; but, the moment you discuss it with levity or ribaldry, that is, in such a manner as to be sure to offend the common sense of mankind, and therefore deprive you of really acquiring any serious proselytes, then the law takes cognizance of your conduct, and makes your imbecility penal.” Was not this a glaring inconsistency? The law allowed the greater evil, the serious and substantial principle of discussion; and it denounced the lesser, which after admitting the first, it ought to have tolerated; and yet his hon. friend had, by his argument, justified and supported so singular a course. There was one passage of this petition which was very forcible, and to which he called the attention of his hon. friend. It was this: —“The reviler of Christianity appears to your petitioners to be the least formidable of its enemies; because his scoffs can rarely fail of arousing against him public opinion, than which nothing more is wanted to defeat his end. Between freedom of discussion and absolute persecution there is no assignable medium.” When this subject was last before the House, unless his memory deceived him, he had heard singular opinions propounded by gentlemen who took a different view of this subject from himself. He thought he had heard it avowed, that the religion which ought to be established in a state, was not that which the majority said they believed, but that the doctrines of which were true. He had heard an observation like that fall from a very respectable quarter. It was difficult to argue with any body entertaining such an opinion; for where was the test by which such an argument could be tried? There was not in polemics, as in astronomy, one unerring criterion to which the common credence of mankind bowed: it was not like the rising sun, or any of the other phenomena of nature, which were bound by indissoluble and indisputable laws; but, on the contrary, a subject open to conflicting opinions. Who, then, was to decide upon the truth—who was authorized to say, “My opinion is right, yours is wrong?” If this was impossible, how was the test to be decided? How, for instance, in such a country as Ireland try the question of the truth of what ought to be the religion of the state, against the opinions of the majority of the people? How would, upon that test, the stability of the Protestant religion in Ireland be secured? Or, if it was secured there, merely because the minority thought it the true religion, the same reason and the same duty, would authorize the extension of the principle to India; and why not supplant Mahometanism to establish the doctrines of the Reformation? Into this wide field did the gentleman enter who embarked in such fanciful notions. He begged to be understood as having argued this question, from beginning to end, as the friend of free discussion. He knew the delicacy of the subject, and was anxious to guard himself against being supposed to entertain opinions obnoxious to the bulk of mankind. He repeated, that he only contended for the general right of self-opinion, and for the unfettered liberty of discussion, and hoped that while he was doing so, he should not have, as his hon. friend (Mr. Hume) had had last night, certain opinions fixed upon him which he did not entertain, and which it was quite unnecessary for him to countenance, in supporting the line of argument which the subject suggested to him, and which his reason approved.
Mr. Money, opposing the motion, said, that ‘his principal object in rising was, to do justice to an individual who had been alluded to during the debate—he meant Mr. Owen. An hon. member had said, that Mr. Owen disbelieved in a future state. He had communicated with Mr. Owen, and he had great reason to believe that the hon. member had mistaken the opinions of Mr. Owen. He begged the hon. member to state in what part of Mr. Owen’s works he found that opinion promulgated.’
Mr. Ricardo said, that the last act he would commit would be to misrepresent the opinions of any individuals. He had gathered Mr. Owen’s opinions from the works which he had published. After reading the speeches which Mr. Owen had delivered in Ireland and other places, he had come to the conclusion, that Mr. Owen did not believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. It was one of the doctrines of Mr. Owen that a man could not form his own character, but that it was formed by the circumstances which surrounded him—that when a man committed an act which the world called vice, it ought to be considered his misfortune merely, and that therefore no man could be a proper object for punishment. This doctrine was interwoven in his system; and he who held it could not impute to the Omnipotent Being a desire to punish those who, in this view, could not be considered responsible for their actions.
The motion was negatived.
[The session closed on 19 July 1823.]
12 Feb. 1824
On 12 Feb. 1824 Mr. Hume rose to move for an inquiry into the laws restricting the emigration of artizans, the exportation of machinery and the combination of workmen, and said: ‘At the end of last session he had given notice that he would, early in the present, fulfil his undertaking; and he had done so by the advice, and in hopes of the assistance, of a distinguished individual, whose recent loss the kingdom had to deplore [hear, hear!]. The late Mr. Ricardo was so well acquainted with every branch of the science of political economy, formerly, and until he had thrown light upon it, so ill understood, that his aid on such a question would have been of the utmost value. When he remembered the manner in which his lamented friend had always delivered his opinions, and the candour of moderation he invariably displayed towards his opponents, he might boldly assert, that there was not a member on any side of the House, who would for a moment deny the extent of the loss the country had thus sustained [hear, hear! from all parts of the House]. The general interest of the community was the single object he ever had in view, and through good report and bad report, he had pursued it with the meekest spirit of humility, and the most liberal spirit of inquiry. With regard to the principles which Mr. Ricardo was so capable of expounding, now that time had worn away many of the ruder prejudices against them, he might say, that not a few of those opponents, who had long theoretically resisted his doctrines, would at this time, though perhaps somewhat unwillingly, allow, that many of his predictions had been fulfilled. It was doubtless presumptuous in him to touch matters which his late friend had already so ably treated; and he only had given notice originally of his intention to bring this great subject under the consideration of the House, in the hope and expectation, that he should have enjoyed the benefit of his aid and counsel.’
Mr. Huskisson (President of the Board of Trade), concurring in the motion, said: ‘He was not at all surprised that the hon. member for Aberdeen, in proposing this inquiry, should have regretted the loss which the House had sustained by the death of his valued friend, the late Mr. Ricardo—a gentleman, whom he had also had the pleasure of reckoning among his friends. There was no man who esteemed more highly the acuteness and ability of Mr. Ricardo than he did, and no man who more sincerely lamented his loss. In all his public conduct there was an evident anxiety to do what he thought right, to seek the good of the country, and to pursue no other object; and his speeches were always distinguished by a spirit of firmness and conciliation that did equal honour to himself and to his country.’
RICARDO’S AUTOGRAPH TRANSCRIPT OF HIS OWN SPEECH OF 24 MAY 1819
(see p. xxx)
EVIDENCE ON THE USURY LAWS 1818