« PreviousContinue »
a long train of inconveniences and internal discontents, which belong almost inevitably to every great change in government; a blessing which may be attributed to the absence of merely popular intervention, and to the circumstance that it was effected by a foreign force, strong enough to preserve order, but utterly incompetent to control the national will, or subvert the constitution which it was called in to protect.
ART. II.-1. Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages, with a Preface on the Causes of the present Disturbances. By N. W. SENIOR, Esq. 8vo. London: 1830.
2. State of the Nation at the close of 1830. By T. POTTER MACQUEEN, Esq. 8vo. London: 1831.
3. Bill to facilitate Emigration to his Majesty's Possessions abroad, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed, 22d February, 1831.
4. Bill to amend the Laws in England relative to Game, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed, 15th February, 1831.
HE outrages that have broken out during the last few months among the peasantry of the southern counties of England-their tumultuary assemblages-the terms they have dictated to their employers-their attacks upon machinery-the repeated instances that have occurred of incendiarism-(with which there is but too much reason to suppose that some of the labourers have been connected)-and the proceedings under the late Special Commission, afford topics of deep and painful interest. But much as these outrages are to be regretted, evincing, as they do, the existence of great irritation, distress, and ignorance, it is some satisfaction to know that the sphere to which they have extended is but of limited extent. The northern, and most of the midland counties, have been perfectly tranquil; and though, in such a complicated system as ours, it is impossible, perhaps, to fix on any period in which some important business is not depressed, and those dependent upon it involved in distress, which is always the most prolific source of disorder, we are bold to affirm, that at no former period has industry been in a healthier condition. Most sorts of farm produce bring good prices. Our manufactures are all in a state of activity, and most classes of workmen receive high wages. To whatever causes, therefore, the distress of the peasantry in some districts of the South, and the outrages that have been perpetrated, may be ascribed, they must be of a local and partial character. Had it been otherwise, Northumberland and Durham would not have
escaped calamities that have been so prevalent in Kent and Hampshire.
Many, both in the House of Commons and out of doors, ascribe all the distress that now exists, and all that has at any time existed in the country, during the last ten years, to the proceedings with respect to the currency in 1819, and the \return to specie payments in 1821. Such ridiculously exaggegerated statements carry with them their own refutation. We do not mean to deny that the act of 1819 made some addition to the burdens of the country, but that addition was comparatively trifling; and Parliament could not have refused to restore the standard, without receding from the express terms of the contract into which it had entered with those who advanced money to the state. But it is not necessary to enter at present into any vindication of the return to specie payments at the old standard. Whatever additions it may have made to the public burdens, no one has hitherto dreamed of affirming that it added more to those of one district or county than to those of another. It is clear, therefore, that it has had nothing to do with the peculiar distresses of the peasantry of the South. It would be easy, indeed, to show that the labouring classes are always benefited by a rise in the value of money, and injured by its fall. But though the reverse were true, it is obvious, inasmuch as the value of money rose to the same level in the Lothians as in Kent or Sussex, that this rise affords no explanation of the peculiarly depressed condition of the agricultural labourers in many districts of the latter.
Nearly the same remarks may be made as to taxation. There was indeed one tax, that on sea-borne coal, which pressed exclusively upon the southern counties, and inflicted on them far more injury than would be readily imagined by those who look only to the amount of the tax. But thanks to the press and Lord Althorpe, this odious impost has been repealed; and it will ever be a subject of astonishment how a tax so glaringly unjust and oppressive-a tax not only upon a necessary of life, but upon the most important instrument of manufacturing industry, was suffered to exist for so long a period. Pernicious, however, as the influence of this tax certainly was, its operation is not sufficient to account for the condition of the southern counties. That it inflamed and aggravated the existing distress, there cannot be a doubt; but it did not create it. Other causes were at work of a still more powerful and destructive character. But with the exception of the tax on sea-borne coal, the other taxes press equally on all parts of the island. They are as heavy in the most as in the least flourishing districts, and might
with as much truth be said to be the sole cause of the peculiar prosperity of the latter, as of the peculiar depression of the former. We certainly have no wish to underrate the inconveniences arising from heavy taxation. But it is an evil inseparable from our condition; for so long as the public faith is preserved unbroken, and adequate provision made for maintaining tranquillity, and national independence and honour, so long must a very large revenue be raised. It is certain, however, that the pernicious influence of our system of taxation has been much exaggerated; and though we should charitably acquit those who represent it as the sole or principal cause of all public distresses, of any intention to inflame popular prejudice, and excite discontent, we should be forced to maintain that they are exceedingly ignorant of the effects of taxation, and of the sources of public wealth. We shall at no distant period enter fully into the subject of tithes, and shall endeavour to ascertain and illustrate the principle on which they ought to be commuted. But though none can be more fully impressed than we are with a conviction of the mischievous and demoralizing influence of this impost, still it is a general, and not a local evil, and will not, therefore, account for distresses and disturbances incident only to the South. That it has increased their intensity and violence, is most true. Tithe, however, is levied in districts that have been perfectly tranquil, and without laying other abuses to its charge, its own natural operation is sufficient for its condemnation.
But if the distresses that afflict the southern counties can neither be ascribed to the return to specie payments, nor to the pressure of taxation, still less can they be ascribed-as Mr Sadler and others of that school would have us believe-to the ascend
ency of the doctrines as to free trade. How these astute persons may explain it, we do not presume to conjecture; but the fact is unquestionable, that those branches of industry that were said to be ruined by the newfangled' theories of hardhearted' economists, are in the most flourishing condition. This is especially the case with the silk and glove trades. We believe we are warranted in affirming that the trade of Spitalfields was never in a sounder state than at present; and the British silk manufacture is now nearly three times as extensive as when Mr Huskisson originated those well-advised and judicious measures which so many contended would be productive of its ruin. The trade of Glasgow has been, for the last two years, exceedingly prosperous; and the same may be said of the trade of Manchester, Birmingham, and generally, indeed, of all the great manufacturing towns. Agriculture is the only great branch of national indus
try not in a satisfactory condition, and exposed to ruinous vicissitudes; and we take leave to say, that it is idle to expect that it will ever be otherwise, without a decided modification of the present corn laws. They are most hostile to the best interests of all classes, and to none are they more hostile than to those of the agriculturists. Still, however, the operation of these laws is not partial. They are as injurious in Scotland as in England, and are in no respect more mischievous in the southern than in the northern counties.
Seeing, therefore, that the distress which exists in many districts of the South, cannot be accounted for by the operation of any of those general causes on which so much stress has been laid, we must seek for its sources in those that are more confined and limited in their operation; and these, certainly, are not difficult to discover. There can be no doubt whatever, that the comparatively depressed condition of the labouring classes in the South, may, for the most part, be fairly ascribed to the abuse /of the poor-laws in that part of the empire. Instead of securing a refuge for the really destitute, the poor-laws have been perverted in the southern counties to the very worst purposes; they have been made a means of reducing wages to the lowest level, of pauperising the whole population, and of throwing a large proportion of the expense of labour upon those who do not employ a single labourer. This perversion began in 1795. The circumstances in which it originated have been explained by Sir F. M. Eden, and others. The prices of corn, and most other articles of provision, having risen to an unusual height in 1795, the condition of the labourers was changed very much for the worse, and many of them were subjected to severe privations and difficulties. But instead of meeting the exigencies of particular cases as they arose, one uniform system was for the most part adopted. The practice appears to have begun in Berks. The justices of that county issued tables in 1795, stating what the wages per week of a labourer should be, according to the magnitude of his family, and the price of the gallon loaf; directing, at the same time, the overseers, and others concerned in the management of the poor, to regulate their allowances accordingly. And, by an act passed in 1796, (36th Geo. III. cap. 23,) the orders of the justices to this effect were rendered valid, notwithstanding any regulations to the contrary. In consequence, the system did not cease with the accidental circumstances that gave rise to it, but has ever since been allowed to continue to spread pauperism and improvidence over the greater part of the South. Happily the contamination has not yet extended to the North.
In the first table issued by the Berkshire magistrates, the minimum weekly wages of an unmarried labourer, supposing the gallon loaf to sell at 1s., were set down at 3s.; when married, and having one child, wages were to be at least 6s.; if he had five children, they were to be at least 12s.; if he had seven children, they were to be 15s. In the event of the price of the gallon loaf rising from 1s. to 1s. 6d., the wages of an unmarried man were not to be less than 4s. 3d. a-week; while the wages of a married man, with a single child, were not to be less than 8s. 3d.; and those of a married man, with seven children, not less than 20s. 3d. The monstrous folly of such regulations must be obvious to every one; and considering how prevalent they have become in the southern counties, can any one wonder at their being overrun with pauperism, idleness, and crime? The attempt to make the wages of labour vary directly with the variations in the price of bread, displays a total ignorance of the most obvious principles;—it is an attempt to secure to labourers the same supply of food in scarce, as in plentiful years, and, consequently, to relieve them from the necessity of making those retrenchments, by which a deficient supply is distributed over the whole year, and absolute famine averted. But this regulation was wisdom itself, compared with that which increased the wages of the labourer precisely in proportion to the number of his children. Of all the stimuli that could be applied to increase the pauper population of the country, this was the most efficient. It did whatever a public regulation could do to destroy all forethought and consideration on the part of the poor. Instead of marriage being a connexion formed with due deliberation, after comparing its pleasures and advantages with the contingent difficulties that might arise from having a family to provide for, it came to be principally looked to as a means of augmenting the claims of the parties on the parish. The practical results have been precisely such as might have been anticipated. Mr Hodges, M.P. for Kent, stated, in his very valuable evidence before the Emigration Committee, that formerly labouring people in Kent (and the same is true of the other southern counties) usually staid in service till they were twenty-five, or thirty, or thirty-five years of age, and until they had saved from L.40 to L.50, and some much more; but that now they married early, very often when minors, speculating upon parish relief, and upon something being done for them. The moral character of the poor, Mr Hodges adds, has been totally changed within my memory. (First Report, p. 136.)*
* Mr Burke, who had a far more profound and extensive know