Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE FIRST PANIC. 1847–1848. - The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
THE FIRST PANIC. 1847–1848. - Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, vol. 2 
The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, with a Preface by Lord Welby, Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet, C.B., and William Cullen Bryant, Notes by F.W. Chesson and a Bibliography, vol. 2, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
THE FIRST PANIC. 1847–1848.
As the question involved throughout these pages turns mainly upon the comparative strength of the English and French navies, the reader's attention will be frequently solicited to the preceding tables of naval expenditure, &c., in the two countries. They comprise:—
There is also a list of the number of vessels in commission in each year during the same period in the French navy, for which there is no parallel list available in the English accounts.
It should be understood, however, that a comparison of the total expenditure in the two countries, for any one year, would be a very unfair test of the cost or strength of their respective navies. There are several very large items charged in the British navy estimates, as, for instance, the half-pay and pensions, which are found under other heads in the finance accounts of France. On the contrary, there are some smaller sums charged to the navy in France, which come under other categories of expenditure in England. The chief use of this table is to furnish an unbroken comparison of the progress of expenditure in the two countries during a series of years; and, with this view, the accounts of the Ministry of the Colonies, in which some changes have taken place to break the continuity, have been omitted.
For comparing the naval expenditure of the two countries for any one year, especially in what a French writer has called the “aggressive” outlay, a more accurate test is afforded by the second table, giving the amounts expended for wages in their respective dockyards.
But the truest comparison of the strength or cost of the two navies, in any given year, is afforded by the numbers of the seamen. The official representatives of the Admiralty in the House of Commons have always laid down the rule, that the vote for men is decisive of the whole amount of expenditure. In the words of the highest authority of our day: “It has been well ascertained with respect to the naval branch, and still more with respect to the other branches of our defensive force, that the number of men rules the amount of money voted on all the other branches of the various estimates.”∗ Again, in a Report laid before Parliament, on the “Comparative State of the Navies of England and France,”† to which further allusion will be made, it is stated: “But as, in the case of the Army Estimates, nearly every vote is affected by the number of men; so, in the Navy Estimates, it will be found that almost every vote is influenced by the same consideration; as an increase in the number of seamen involves a corresponding increase in the force of ships, in the expense of bringing them forward and fitting them for service, and providing for wear and tear.”
Before proceeding, it may be well to meet an objection. It has been said in the House of Commons,‡ that the French public accounts are unreliable. That the estimates of the expenditure for the different ministerial departments are less reliable in France than in this country, is universally admitted. This arises from two causes: the facility with which supplementary credits have been granted by the Executive—a privilege which has recently been renounced by the Emperor; and from the circumstance that the Estimates are prepared a year in advance of ours. For instance, our Navy Estimates for 1862 are prepared in December 1861, while in France the same progress is going on for 1863. Hence, when the war between France and Austria broke out, in the spring of 1859, as the navy expenditure for that year had been fixed in December 1857, it followed necessarily that all the expenses for that war had to be met by supplementary credits.
But it must not be inferred that no record is kept of those supplementary expenses. Every franc is inserted in the Bulletin des Lois, and afterwards appears in the Réglement définitif des Budgets. Each item is allocated to the various ministries, and the Compte Général des Finances comprises absolutely every one of those items. Had it not been so, how could M. Fould, in his late programme, have exhibited the exact amount of the difference between the estimates and the expenditure over a long series of years? Ought not the recent unfavourable exposé of French finance to satisfy the most sceptical that those in power have not the unchecked control of the public accounts?
The system of public accounts in France is the most exact in principle, and the most rigidly sustained in practice, in the whole world; and, as the Auditors (La Cour des Comptes) are irremovable judges, an error or a fraud is all but impossible. But it requires a delay of more than a year to obtain the audited accounts, and hence the above tables are only brought down to 1859.
There is one other point requiring a preliminary observation. It might be supposed, from the tone frequently assumed by our officials, when speaking in the House on the subject of the navy of France, and from the pretended revelations which sometimes appear in a portion of the public press, that the Government of that country is in the habit of taking sudden and secret resolutions respecting its naval armaments. So far is this from being the case, that everybody acquainted with the subject knows that the French are far more open than ourselves in discussing and defining, publicly, beforehand, the amount and character of their naval force. With us the inquiries of Committees of Parliament, or Royal Commissions, are confined to the details of administration; they are restrained from considering and pronouncing an opinion on the amount of force to be kept up on the plea that that is the prerogative of the Sovereign, to be exercised on the responsibility of the Cabinet. Not so in France, where commissions appointed by the chambers or the crown discuss the future strength and re-organisation of the navy for many years to come, and the result of their deliberations, with their recommendations, is published to the world.
It must not, however, be supposed that these plans are always carried to completion, for no country, perhaps, produces a greater number of abortive paper projects than France; but the Government more frequently falls short of than exceeds the recommendations of the committees. For instance, at the present moment the French Government is regulating its expenditure under the chief heads of its naval budget by an Imperial decree of 1857, issued in consequence of the report of a special commission appointed in 1855, and which fixed the outlay for fourteen years; but it is certain that new discoveries in naval architecture, if not the state of the finances, will lead to a modification of this programme.
There is something very puerile in the recent attempts to frighten the country with stories about secret preparations in the French dockyards. It would be just as possible to build a great hotel in secrecy in Paris as to conceal the process of constructing a ship of war at Toulon or Cherbourg. Such tactics on the part of the alarmists are novel, and not complimentary to the intelligence of the public. The subject was treated with greater candour formerly. In introducing the Navy Estimates in 1839, Mr. Wood (now Sir Charles Wood),∗ the Secretary of the Admiralty, said: “The French annual estimates contain the fullest information. The French carry publicity to a fault. They carry it, as Sir John Barrow has mentioned in his late Life of Lord Anson, to their own detriment. There is no disguise about the state of their navy.”†
In comparing the expenditure of the two countries it will be observed that they almost invariably rise and fall together. In the long run this must be the case, because it has always been the recognised policy of the Governments to preserve a certain relation to each other. Looking back for nearly a century we shall find that in the time of peace France has been accustomed to maintain a naval force not greatly varying from the proportion of two-thirds of our own. If, however, we turn to the tables on the first page we shall find that in 1840–41 this proportion underwent a great and sudden derangement, and that, instead of being content with two-thirds of our force, the French navy approached almost to an equality with our own. Though remotely antecedent this incident is not wholly unconnected with the first panic.
It was under these circumstances that Sir Robert Peel's Government was formed in 1841. The earliest utterances of that statesman in the House of Commons when at the head of a large Conservative majority, indicated the line of policy which he was desirous of pursuing. “Is not the time come,” said he, “when the powerful countries of Europe should reduce those military armaments which they have so sedulously raised? Is not the time come when they should be prepared to declare that there is no use in such overgrown establishments? What is the advantage of one power greatly increasing its army and navy? Does it not seem that other powers will follow its example? The consequence of this must be that no increase of relative strength will accrue to any one power; but there must be a universal consumption of the resources of every country in military preparations. They are, in fact, depriving peace of half its advantages, and anticipating the energies of war whenever they may be required.” And he thus proceeds to indicate a practical policy to the civilised world. “The true interest of Europe is to come to some one common accord so as to enable every country to reduce those military armaments which belong to a state of war rather than of peace. I do wish that the councils of every country (or that the public voice and mind if the councils did not) would willingly propagate such a doctrine.”∗
The more than official earnestness of these remarks leaves no room to doubt that the speaker yearned for the opportunity of carrying into effect his peaceful and cosmopolitan policy. But the relations of England and France were at that moment peculiarly unfavourable to his views. During the previous year, whilst his political opponents were still in power, and when M. Thiers was at the head of the French Government, the great diplomatic rupture had occurred between the two Governments on the Eastern question, the effects of which have descended in increased armaments to the present time. Two rival statesmen, who wielded with consummate skill the combative pride and the soaring vanity of these great nations, had encountered each other on the shores of Syria, where France was especially sensitive to defeat and loss of influence. The consequence was a deep popular irritation and sense of humiliation throughout the French nation.
It was under such circumstances that these two statesmen, passing from office into opposition, became from 1841 the persistent advocates in their respective countries of a policy that led to constant increase of armaments. The genius of both belonged less to the present than to the past. The one revelled in the historical glories of the First Empire, exulted in being the author of the fortifications of Paris, talked of 800,000 soldiers for a peace establishment, and forced upon successive Governments the increase of the navy. The other inherited the traditions of Pitt, saw in our great neighbour only the aggressive and warlike foe of our fathers, and urged on the vexed and unwilling ear of Sir Robert Peel the construction of fortifications, the augmentation of the navy, and the re-organisation of the Militia.∗ The following extract from a speech delivered July 30, 1845, might almost be taken for the utterance of 1860: “Now, sir, France, as I had occasion to state on a former occasion, has now a standing army of 340,000 men, fully equipped, including a large force of cavalry and artillery, and in addition to that 1,000,000 of the National Guard. I know that the National Guard of Paris consists of 100,000 men, trained, disciplined, reviewed, clothed, equipped, and accustomed to duty, and perfectly competent, therefore, to take the internal duty of the country, and to set free the whole of the regular force. Now, sir, if France were a country separated from our own by an impassable barrier, if she had no navy, or if the Channel could not be crossed, I should say this was a matter with which we had no concern; but this is not the case. In the first place, France has a fleet equal to ours. I do not speak of the number of vessels actually in existence, but of the fleet in commission and half commission, in both which respects the fleet of France is equal to that of this country. But again, the Channel is no longer a barrier. Steam-navigation has rendered that which was before impassable by a military force nothing more than a river passable by a steam bridge.”†
These accents of mistrust and defiance were echoed from the Tribune of the Chamber of Deputies in the following year, when M. Guizot was compelled by his active and brilliant opponent to enlarge his project for increasing the navy:—“We pay England,” said M. Thiers, “the compliment of thinking only of her when determining our naval force; we never heed the ships which sally forth from Trieste or Venice; we care only for those which leave Portsmouth or Plymouth.”∗
Although we have been in the habit of assuming, for the last ten years, that our naval ascendancy has been endangered by the policy of the successor of Louis Philippe, it was during the last eight years of that king's reign, and especially for a year or two subsequent to the Syrian dispute, that a serious effort seemed really to be made to rival us at sea. The vast projects for extending the dockyards of France, especially Toulon, arose out of this diplomatic rupture. It seemed as though the Government of that country sought to console the nation for the wounds which had been inflicted on its self-love, by enormous and costly preparations for future wars. But, since nobody now believes that the “Citizen King”—the “Napoleon of Peace”—ever contemplated a descent on our shores, it would be a waste of time to enter into lengthened details respecting the first panic, which terminated with his downfall. Some of the incidents which preceded that event have, however, exercised so much influence on the two succeeding panics, that they cannot be altogether passed over without notice.
At the time to which we are now more particularly referring (1845–6), the first of these great political delusions had acquired no hold on the public mind. The principal contribution to the first panic, previous to the publication of the Duke of Wellington's letter, was the pamphlet of Prince Joinville. It is difficult now, after a calm perusal of this tract, to understand how it could have been pressed into the service of the alarmists. It is filled throughout with complaints of the inferiority of the French navy, and offers not a few, probably unmerited, compliments to the superior management of England. Here are its concluding words:—“I have been obliged, in the whole course of this little pamphlet, to make my country undergo an afflicting comparison with a country that is advanced so much before it in the knowledge of its interests; I have been obliged to expose the secret of our weakness compared to the greatness of British power; but I should think myself happy if, by the sincere avowal of those sorrowful truths, I were able to dissipate the illusion, in which are so many clever persons, as to the real condition of the navy of France, and to decide them to ask with me those salutary reforms which alone can give our navy a new era of power and glory.”
The feelings of irritation which had been kept alive by portions of the press, in the interests of certain political parties in the two countries, from the time of the Syrian difficulty, and throughout the dispute on the Tahiti affair, in 1844, now found fresh aliment in the rupture of the two Governments on the question of the Spanish marriages. It was in the midst of the alienation and suspicion with which the public mind regarded these proceedings of the French Court, that, towards the end of 1847, the Letter of the Duke of Wellington on our National Defences made its appearance, an event which led to an immediate “invasion panic,” and furnished a never-failing argument to successive Governments for increased warlike expenditure. Nor was this the only evil produced by the letter. It unfortunately gave rise to a host of imitators; for how could a military man, of whatever rank, be more patriotically employed than in following the example of the Commander-in-Chief, and proclaiming to the world the necessity for increased armaments? And, unhappily, this task could only be accomplished by rousing the hostile passions of two great nations, by appeals to the fears and resentment of the one, and accusations of meditated violence and treachery against the other.
The public has never been fully informed of the circumstances which led to the publication of this famous Letter. In a pamphlet which appeared in France, just previous to the opening of the session of 1848, written by M. Chevalier, who had already devoted his accomplished pen to the cause of the Anglo-French alliance, the Duke's letter had been treated in the character of an answer to Prince Joinville's publication. This drew from Lord John Russell an explanation in the House, on the authority of the Duke himself, in which he said that “nothing could have given greater pain” to the writer, “than the publication of sentiments which he had expressed confidentially to a brother officer.”∗ It was stated by Lord Palmerston, at a subsequent date, that the letter was written “in consequence of an able memorandum drawn up by Sir John Burgoyne.”† Whoever gave it to the world must have assumed that it would possess an authority above criticism; otherwise, it contains passages which would have induced a friend to withhold it from publication. The concluding sentence, where, in speaking of himself, he says, “I am bordering upon seventy-seven years of age, passed in honour,” affords sufficient proof that it was not intended for the public eye. The entire production, indeed, gives painful evidence of enfeebled powers. One extract will be sufficient; the italics are not in the original:
“I am accustomed to the consideration of these questions, and have examined and reconnoitred, over and over again, the whole coast from the North Foreland, by Dover, Folkestone, Beachy Head, Brighton, Arundel, to Selsey Bill, near Portsmouth; and I say that, excepting immediately under the fire of Dover Castle, there is not a spot on the coast on which infantry might not be thrown on shore at any time of tide, with any wind, and in any weather, and from which such body of infantry, so thrown on shore, would not find within a distance of five miles a road into the interior of the country, through the cliffs, practicable for the march of a body of troops.”
Now, any person who has been in the habit of visiting Eastbourne and Hastings, knows that for half the year no prudent mariner brings his vessel within several miles of that coast, and that there is a considerable extent of shore where a landing is at all times impracticable. It may be safely affirmed that if any one but the Duke of Wellington had stated that there was any shore in the world on which a body of troops could be landed “at any time of the tide, with any wind, and in any weather,” the statement would have been deemed undeserving of notice. The assertion, however, passed unchallenged at the time, and the entire Letter was quoted as an unanswerable proof that the country was in danger. To have ventured on criticism or doubt would only have invited the accusation of want of patriotism.
Few people now remember the incidents of the invasion panic which culminated in the spring of 1848. It was the first occasion on which the attempt had been made to terrify the public with the idea of a sudden invasion from France in a time of peace, without a declaration of war, and without the hope of conquest, or even the glory of honourable warfare. The theory degraded our civilised and polite neighbours to the level of pirates. And yet, so generally was it proclaimed by the London journals of the time, that the editor of that staid and philosophical print, the Spectator, drew on himself a remonstrance from his friend, the late Sir William Molesworth, in a letter dated January 17, 1848, from which the following is an extract:—
“You say that ‘the next attack on England will probably be without notice; that 5,000 Frenchmen might inflict disgrace on some defenceless post; 500 might insult British blood at Herne Bay, or even inflict indelible shame on the empire at Osborne House!’ Good God! Can it be possible that you—whom I ranked so high among the public instructors of this nation—that you consider the French to be ruffians, Pindarees, freebooters—that you believe it necessary to keep constant watch and ward against them, as our Saxon forefathers did against the Danes and the Nordmen, lest they should burn our towns, plunder our coasts, and put our Queen to ransom,” &c., &c.
It naturally followed, since the greatest military authority had proclaimed the country in danger, that it should be the fashion for civilians in high places to echo the cry of alarm. Even the peerage, that body which views all other agitations with so much serenity, partook of the excitement. Lord Ellesmere published a letter, bearing at its head the motto, “Awake, arise! or be for ever fallen!” in which he foretold that, in case of an invasion, the Guards would march out at one end of the metropolis as the French entered at the other, and that on the Lord Mayor would be imposed the duty of converting the Mansion House into a place where billets would be found for the foreign army; upon which Sir Robert Peel drily remarked, that “he would defy the Lord Mayor afterwards to show his face in Cheapside.”∗
It was under these circumstances that Parliament assembled in 1848. The Whig Government, which had succeeded to power in 1846, on the disruption of the Conservative party consequent upon the repeal of the Corn Laws, found themselves with a deficient revenue, arising from the late famine in Ireland, and great depression in nearly all branches of trade and industry. On the 18th February, Lord John Russell made his financial statement for the year. For the better understanding of what is to follow, it may be well to give his opening remarks on the state of the nation:—
“I shall proceed, sir, at once, by reminding the House that the year which has passed over our heads, or I should perhaps say, the period of the last eighteen months, has been one which, excepting cases of foreign war or domestic insurrection, is without a parallel, I think, in the history of this country. The changes and vicissitudes of prices—the difficulties of commerce—the panic which more than once prevailed—the extreme distress of a part of the United Kingdom—the extraordinary efforts that were made to relieve that distress—altogether affected the state of this country to a degree, that I believe it would not be easy to find an example of such distress in our history.”∗
After alluding to the great increase that had taken place in the French navy, he proposed, in order to meet the necessity for increased defensive armaments, and in accordance with the advice in the Duke of Wellington's Letter, to re-organise the militia, and to slightly modify, without materially increasing, the regular forces. To cover the deficiency in the revenue, and to meet the increased charges for militia, &c., the minister proposed an addition of 5d. in the pound to the income-tax, thus raising it from 7d. to a shilling. The proposition, so far as concerned the increase of our armaments, appeared so moderate, when viewed in connection with the excitement that had reigned out of doors with respect to the designs of our neighbours, that it led Sir Robert Peel to remark—
“After the panic which prevailed in this country about a month since, I am glad to find the tide has ebbed so fast, and that the alarm on the subject of invasion has visibly abated. I was afraid the Government might have been unduly influenced by that alarm; and I am relieved when I learn that it is not intended to make any increase in the military or naval force.”
But the budget met with no favour from any part of the House, and it soon became evident that the intended addition to the income-tax would prove fatal to the whole scheme. The proposed increase of expenditure for militia, &c., was denounced by the reformers, who demanded a reduction of the existing establishments; whilst it was still more ominous to hear Mr. Bankes, the representative of the country gentlemen, declare that “that was not the moment to talk of valour and triumph, but the time for reflecting how they could remedy the evils which pressed so heavily on the great mass of the community.”†
Whilst the Government measure was still under discussion, a portentous event occurred in France, which, if it had not involved the gravest consequences to Europe and the world, would have imparted a character of burlesque to the closing scene of the first invasion panic. On the evening of the 24th of February, 1848, whilst the House of Commons was in session, a murmur of conversation suddenly arose at the door, and spread through the House, when was witnessed—what never occurred before or since, in the writer's experience—a suspension, for a few minutes, of all attention to the business of the House, every member being engaged in close and earnest conversation with his neighbour.∗ The intelligence had arrived of the abdication and flight of Louis Philippe, and of the proclamation of the Republic. The monarch and his ministers—whose ambitious projects had furnished the pretexts for our warlike armaments; and the gallant prince—whose pamphlet had sounded like a tocsin in our ears, were now on their way to claim the hospitality of England.
Under any other circumstances than those in which the country now found itself, this astounding intelligence would probably have caused an increase rather than a diminution of of the invasion panic. There was, indeed, a momentary effort, in certain quarters, to turn to account the apparition of the dread Republic, with all the grim reminiscences associated with its motto of “Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité. “But the nation was too much harassed with its internal difficulties to listen to the suggestion of those who would revive the terrors of an invasion. Bad as had been the condition of the country, it was now felt that there was a worse state of things impending, from the destruction of confidence, the suspension of trade, and the interruption to labour, which the revolutions, now spreading over the Continent, were sure to produce. Public meetings were called; men of influence, of different political parties, mingled on the same platform, to denounce the increase of taxation, to repudiate the desire for the Militia, or any other addition to the defensive armaments of the country, and to call for a reduction of the public expenditure. Petitions, in this sense, poured into the House, the Government took the alarm, and, on the 28th February, the Chancellor of the Exchequer withdrew the budget for amendment. The Militia Bill was heard of no more for four years. A Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to examine into the Military and Naval expenditure, with a view to greater economy in the Estimates. Before the close of the session, considerable reductions were announced. The Income-tax remained at its previous amount of 7d. in the pound for the remainder of the year; and, on the meeting of Parliament in 1849, notwithstanding that a Bonaparte had just previously been elected President of the French Republic, and that the Continent generally was in a state of revolutionary disquiet, the Queen's Speech contained the following announcement:—
“The present aspect of affairs has enabled me to make large reductions on the Estimates of last year.”
The advocates of a system of direct taxation may profit by the admission: there can be no doubt that the proposal to add 5d. in the pound to the Income-tax mainly contributed to put an end to the first invasion panic.
[∗]Sir James Graham, Hansard, cxxiv. 312.
[‡]Mr. Bentinck, Hansard, clxi. 1765.
[∗]Created Viscount Halifax in 1866.
[†]Hansard, xiv. 1219.
[∗]Hansard, lix. 403–4.
[∗]Vide post, p. 561.
[†]Lord Palmerston, Hansard, lxxxii. 1223.
[∗]Chamber of Deputies, 1846.
[∗]Hansard, xcvi. 909.
[†]Hansard, clx. 18.
[∗]Hansard, xcvi. 1074.
[∗]Hansard, xcvi. 900.
[†]Hansard, xcvi. 932.
[∗]The writer of these pages was sitting by the side of the late Mr. Hume when the tidings reached their bench. Sir Robert Peel was on the opposite front seat, alone, his powerful party having been broken and scattered by his great measure of Corn-Law Repeal. “I'll go and tell Sir Robert the news,” exclaimed Mr. Hume, and, stepping across the floor, he seated himself by his side, and communicated the startling intelligence. On returning to his place, he repeated, in the following words, the commentary of the ex-minister:—“This comes of trying to carry on a Government by means of a mere majority of a Chamber, without regard to the opinion out of doors. It is what these people (pointing with his thumb over his shoulder to the protectionists behind him) wished me to do, but I refused.”