Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

John Trenchard identifies who will benefit from any new war “got up” in Italy: princes, courtiers, jobbers, and pensioners, but definitely not the ordinary taxpayer (1722)

John Trenchard (1662-1723), one of the author’s of Cato’s Letters, warned in 1722 that a new war with Italy would allow "many princes (to) warm their hands at it, whilst their subjects will be burnt to death," and reward many jobbers and courtiers who stood to personally benefit from increased taxes and debt:

We find by woeful experience, that three shillings in the pound has not maintained the current expence of the government, but we have run still in debt. The money given for the Civil List has not defrayed that charge, but new and large sums have been given to pay off the arrears; which, it is said, are not yet paid off. New salaries and new pensions have been found necessary to satisfy the clamours of those who will never be satisfied; and the greater occasions which the courtiers have, and the greater necessities which they are in, the more will still be found necessary: for it is no news for artful men to engage their superiors in difficulties, and then to be paid largely for helping them out of them again.

I propose in this letter to shew, and I hope to do it unanswerably, that nothing can be a greater disservice to his Majesty’s interest, more fatal to his ministry, or more destructive to his people, than to engage them in a new war, if there be but a bare possibility of preventing it, let the pretences be what they will. A new fire seems to be now kindling in Italy, which in all likelihood will blaze out far and wide; and, without doubt, many princes will warm their hands at it, whilst their subjects will be burnt to death: But I hope we shall have wit enough to keep out of its reach, and not be scorched with its flames; but, like some of our wiser neighbours, lie still, and know how to make our markets of the follies and misfortunes of others. We have been heroes long enough, and paid the price of our gallantry and credulity. We are got near sixty millions in debt, and have nothing for it but Gibraltar and Port Mahon; and it is said, that some of our allies have had the presumption to expect these from us too; and I am sure, if they should be lost, or given away, we have nothing left wherewith to compensate any powerwhich we shall vanquish hereafter…
But if such a war were ever so necessary, how shall it be supported? We find by woeful experience, that three shillings in the pound has not maintained the current expence of the government, but we have run still in debt. The money given for the Civil List has not defrayed that charge, but new and large sums have been given to pay off the arrears; which, it is said, are not yet paid off. New salaries and new pensions have been found necessary to satisfy the clamours of those who will never be satisfied; and the greater occasions which the courtiers have, and the greater necessities which they are in, the more will still be found necessary: for it is no news for artful men to engage their superiors in difficulties, and then to be paid largely for helping them out of them again. The customs and excise are anticipated and mortgaged almost beyond redemption: The salt, leather, windows, and almost every thing else that can be taxed, is already taxed, and some of them so high, as to lessen the produce, and they are appropriated to pay off debts due to private men.

About this Quotation:

John Trenchard was a trenchant critic of the British Empire and the political and financial elites who benefited from it. A number of interesting points are made in this passage: there is the listing of those groups who stand to benefit from the additional revenues raised in order to fight a spurious war in Italy; the recommendation that Britain not be involved in this dispute but sit back and look for trading opportunities to emerge; and then there is the powerful “fire” metaphor with the great powers “kindling” a fire in Italy, the Princes who will “warm their hands” at the fire, while their subjects “will be burnt to death”, with Trenchard urging Britain to stay well back so not to be “scorched” by the flames. The phrase “how wars are ‘got up’” was chosen deliberately in order to evoke memories of a famous essay by Richard Cobden, the great English anti-war and free trade campaigner, called “How Wars are Got Up in India” (1852). Cobden makes similar arguments as Trenchard about the origins of wars, especially on the colonial frontier.

More Quotations