Online Library of Liberty

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

Advanced Search

William Cobbett on the dangers posed by the “Paper Aristocracy” (1804)

The English radical William Cobbett (1763-1835) objected to the funding of the war against Napoleon by issuing debt and suspending gold payments. He called the financial elite who benefited from the huge increase in government debt as the “Paper Aristocracy”:

Amongst the great and numerous dangers to which this country, and particularly the monarchy, is exposed, in consequence of the enormous public debt, the influence, the powerful and widely-extended influence, of the monied interest is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded …

I mean an interest hostile alike to the land-holder and to the stock-holder, to the colonist, to the real merchant, and to the manufacturer, to the clergy, to the nobility and to the throne; I mean the numerous and powerful body of loan-jobbers, directors, brokers, contractors and farmers general, which has been engendered by the excessive amount of the public debt, and the almost boundless extension of the issues of paper-money,——It was a body very much like this, which may with great propriety, I think, be denominated the Paper Aristocracy, that produced the revolution in France.

Amongst the great and numerous dangers to which this country, and particularly the monarchy, is exposed, in consequence of the enormous public debt, the influence, the powerful and widely-extended influence, of the monied interest is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it necessarily aims at measures which directly tend to the subversion of the present order of things. In speaking of this monied interest, I do not mean to apply the phrase, as it was applied formerly, that is to say, to distinguish the possessors of personal property, more especially property in the funds, from persons possessing lands; the division of the proprietors into a monied interest, and a landed interest, is not applicable to the present times, all the people who have any thing, having now become, in a greater or less degree, stock-holders. From this latter circumstance it is artfully insinuated, that they are all deeply and equally interested in supporting the system; and, such is the blindness of avarice, or rather of self-interest, that men in general really act as if they preferred a hundred pounds’ worth of stock to an estate in land of fifty times the value. But, it is not of this mass of stock-holders; it is not of that description of persons who leave their children’s fortunes to accumulate in those funds, where, even according to the ratio of depreciation already experienced, a pound of to-day will not be worth much above a shilling twenty years hence; it is not of these simpletons of whom I speak, when I talk of the monied interest of the present day; I mean an interest hostile alike to the land-holder and to the stock-holder, to the colonist, to the real merchant, and to the manufacturer, to the clergy, to the nobility and to the throne; I mean the numerous and powerful body of loan-jobbers, directors, brokers, contractors and farmers general, which has been engendered by the excessive amount of the public debt, and the almost boundless extension of the issues of paper-money,——It was a body very much like this, which may with great propriety, I think, be denominated the Paper Aristocracy, that produced the revolution in France. Burke evidently had our monied interest, as well as that of France, in his view; but, when, in another passage of his celebrated work, he was showing the extreme injustice of seizing upon the property of the Church to satisfy the demands of the paper aristocracy of France, he little imagined that an act of similar injustice would so soon be thought of, and even proposed, in England, where clergyman and pauper are become terms almost synonymous. He had been an attentive observer of the rise and progress of the change that was taking place in France: and he thought it necessary to warn his own country, in time, against the influence of a description of persons, who, aided by a financiering minister, who gave into all their views, had begun the destruction of the French monarchy.——Our paper-aristocracy, who arose with the schemes of Mr. Pitt, have proceeded with very bold strides; theirs was the proposition for commuting the tithes; theirs the law for the redemption of the land-tax; theirs the numerous laws and regulations which have been made of late years in favour of jobbing and speculation, till at last they obtained a law compelling men to take their paper in payment of just debts, while they themselves were exempted, by the same law, from paying any part of the enormous debts which they had contracted, though they had given promissory notes for the amount!

About this Quotation:

In this critique of the massive increase in British government debt to fund the war against Napoleon, Cobbett makes two interesting points. One is the observation that a similar thing had happened in France and this was a bad omen for what Prime Minister Pitt was doing in England, what he called the “Pitt System”. The French state had massive debts which it could not pay off from the war against England fought in North America during the 1750s and 1760s. In an attempt to do so, it became indebted to its own Paper Aristocracy of state financiers and tax farmers with dire consequences. To raise more money the King called a meeting of the Estates General, which triggered the Revolution in 1788-89. The second point Cobbett makes, is that he makes a clear distinction between the non-productive, parasitical financiers of state debt (the Paper Aristocracy) and other productive members of the economy such as “the land-holder and the stock-holder, the colonist, the real merchant, and the manufacturer.”

More Quotations