Online Library of Liberty

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

Advanced Search

Knox on how the people during wartime are cowered into submission and pay their taxes “without a murmur” (1795)

During the Wars against the French Revolution, the English minister Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821) denounced the infringement of the peoples' liberties and the ever increasing taxes which were imposed to pay for the war. “Court sycophants” taught the people they had to obey their rulers and to pay their taxes no matter what, yet he believed they had a “natural right” to protect their liberties:

But such is the effect of political artifice, under the management of court sycophants, that the middle ranks of people are taught to believe, that they ought not to trouble themselves with affairs of state. They are taught to think that a certain set of men come into the world like demigods, possessed of right, power, and intellectual abilities, to rule the earth, as God rules the universe, without controul. They are taught to believe, that free inquiry and manly remonstrance are the sin of sedition. They are taught to believe, that they are to labour by the sweat of their brow to get money for the taxes; and when they have paid them, to go to work again for more, to pay the next demand without a murmur. Their children may starve; they may be obliged to shut out the light of heaven, and the common air which the beasts on the waste enjoy; they may be prevented from purchasing the means of artificial light in the absence of natural; they may be disabled from procuring a draught of wholesome and refreshing beverage after the day’s labour which has raised the money to pay the tax; they may not be able to buy the materials for cleanliness of their persons, when defiled by the same labour; yet they must acquiesce in total silence. They must read no obnoxious papers or pamphlets, and they must not utter a complaint, at the house where they are compelled to go for refreshment, which the tax prevents them from enjoying at home with their little ones. Yet they have nothing to do with public affairs; and if they show the least tendency to inquiry or opposition, they suffer a double punishment, first from their lordly landlord and employer; and secondly, from prosecution for turbulence and sedition.

As to the right of the people to think, let him who denies it, deny, at the same time, their right to breathe. They can no more avoid thinking than breathing. God formed them to do both; and though statesmen often act as if they wished to oppose the will of the Deity, yet happily they want the power. And since man must think, is it possible to prevent them from thinking of the government? upon the right conduct of which depend their liberty, their property, and their lives. It is their duty to watch over the possessors of power, lest they should be prevented, by the encroaching nature of power, from leaving to their posterity that freedom which they inherited; a natural right, preserved from the oppressor’s infringement by the blood of their virtuous ancestors.

But such is the effect of political artifice, under the management of court sycophants, that the middle ranks of people are taught to believe, that they ought not to trouble themselves with affairs of state. They are taught to think that a certain set of men come into the world like demigods, possessed of right, power, and intellectual abilities, to rule the earth, as God rules the universe, without controul. They are taught to believe, that free inquiry and manly remonstrance are the sin of sedition. They are taught to believe, that they are to labour by the sweat of their brow to get money for the taxes; and when they have paid them, to go to work again for more, to pay the next demand without a murmur. Their children may starve; they may be obliged to shut out the light of heaven, and the common air which the beasts on the waste enjoy; they may be prevented from purchasing the means of artificial light in the absence of natural; they may be disabled from procuring a draught of wholesome and refreshing beverage after the day’s labour which has raised the money to pay the tax; they may not be able to buy the materials for cleanliness of their persons, when defiled by the same labour; yet they must acquiesce in total silence. They must read no obnoxious papers or pamphlets, and they must not utter a complaint, at the house where they are compelled to go for refreshment, which the tax prevents them from enjoying at home with their little ones. Yet they have nothing to do with public affairs; and if they show the least tendency to inquiry or opposition, they suffer a double punishment, first from their lordly landlord and employer; and secondly, from prosecution for turbulence and sedition.

The legal punishments attending the expression of discontent, by any overt-act, are so severe, and the ill-grounded terrors of them so artfully disseminated, that rather than incur the least danger, they submit in silence to the hardest oppression.

Even the middle ranks are terrified into a tame and silent acquiescence. They learn to consider politics as a dangerous subject, not to be touched without hazard of liberty or life. They shrink therefore from the subject. They will neither read nor converse upon it. They pay their contribution to a war, and take a minister’s word that it is just and necessary. Better part with a little money patiently, since part with it we must, say they, than by daring to investigate the causes or conduct of public measures, risk a prison or a gibbet.

About this Quotation:

Vicesimus Knox ran afoul of the British military for his outspoken opposition to the war against the French in the 1790s. His fiery sermons against the war led to his house being burned and him being driven out of Bristol. He wrote the Spirit of Despotism (1795) in an effort to show the British people how their liberties were being gradually eroded as a result of war hysteria and fears of invasion and domestic revolution. In this passage from section XI on the “Indifference of the middle and lower Classes of the People to public Affairs” he reminds members of the public that they have a natural proclivity to think about the behaviour of their rulers, to question the “court sycophants” who urge them to obey and pay without question, and to defend their “natural right” to liberty when it is infringed upon. In particular he notes the ever increasing burden of taxation for the war effort which meant that ordinary people did not have enough money to feed their children, have windows for light (there was a window tax), buy a drink after work, or soap for washing, or even keep a pet dog (an unpopular “dog tax was introduced in 1796). They had to endure all this and "acquiesce in total silence” under threat of being charged with sedition.

More Quotations