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Reign of William III page 4

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On his journey the gentry had flocked to his stopping places from all quarters, and William had done his best to make himself agreeable; and what with the well-chosen time for the election, and this popular conduct, the new parliament returned proved to be greatly in favour of the government. Some of the members of the late parliament most opposed to government were not returned - as Sir John Knight, for Bristol, who had been so furious against William's favourite Dutchmen, and Seymour, for Exeter. Neither could John Hampden, who had saved his neck in the Rye House Plot by the loss of character, and had since shown as much insolence in parliament as he did meanness then, get returned, and in his mortification he committed suicide, - to such degeneracy had fallen the grandson of the illustrious patriot.

When parliament met on the 22nd, they again chose Foley as speaker of the commons. The king, in his speech, again demanded large supplies for the continuance of the war, and informed them that the funds granted the last session had fallen far short of the expenses. This was by no means agreeable news, and William well knew that there was a large party in the country which complained loudly of this system of foreign warfare, which, like a bottomless gulf, swallowed up all the resources of the country. But he took care to flatter the national vanity by praising the valour of the English soldiers, and by expressing his confidence that England would never consent to the French king making himself master of Europe, and that nothing but the power and bravery of England could prevent it. He complained that his civil list was fixed so low that he could not live upon it; and, passing from his own affairs, he strongly recommended to their consideration the deplorable state of the coinage.

When the address came to be considered, there were some strong speeches made against the enormous demands made by the king for this continual war, which really concerned his own country, yet ours had to pay for it. Musgrave and Howe represented the nation as actually bleeding to death under the effects of this Dutch vampyrism; but William had touched the right chord in the national character, and an address of thanks and zealously promised support was carried. The commons likewise voted again above five millions for the services of the year.

The first business which occupied the attention of the commons was the state of the currency. The old silver coin had become so clipped and sweated that, on an average, it now possessed little more than half its proper weight. The consequence was, all transactions in the country were in a state of confusion, and the most oppressive frauds were practised, especially on the poor. They were paid in this nominal coin, but, when they offered it for the purchase of the articles of life, the vendors refused to receive it at more than its intrinsic worth, by which means the price of everything was nearly doubled. The old hammered money was easily imitated, and whilst the clippers went on diminishing the weight of the coin, the forgers were as busy producing spurious imitations of it. The most terrible examples were made of such coiners, till juries refused to send such numbers of them to be hanged. All money-dealers took the advantage to receive the coin only at its value by weight, but paid it out by tale, and thus made enormous fortunes. The house of Duncombe, earls of Feversham, is said to have thus raised itself from insignificance to a coronet.

The house of lords, therefore, took up the subject of a recoinage, and invited the commons to unite with them in it; but the commons, considering it a matter more properly belonging to them, went into a committee of the whole house on the subject. The debate continued for several days. There was a strong party opposed to a recoinage, on the ground that, if the silver coin were called in, there would be no money to pay the soldiers abroad, nor for merchants to take up their bills of exchange with; that the consequence would be universal stagnation and misery. But at this rate the old coin must have staid out so long that literally there would none of it be left. It was resolved to have a new coinage; but Lowndes, the secretary of the treasury, proposed that the standard should be lowered - in fact, that a nominal instead of a real value should be impressed upon it; that ninepence should be called a shilling - as if thereby any- greater value could be given to it. This mode of raising the price of everything by lowering the value of the coinage, which would now be laughed at by the merest tyro in political economy, had then its partisans; but John Locke exploded the whole delusion in a little tract written at the desire of Somers, which showed all the inconveniences and injustice which would flow from a lowered standard. There were, however, other difficulties to be met, and these were, whether the government or the public should bear the loss of the clipped coin, and by what means it could best be called in. If the government bore the loss, and ordered all persons to bring in their clipped coin and receive full-weighted coin instead, that would be a direct premium on clipping, and all the coin would be clipped before it was paid in. Somers proposed as a remedy to proclaim that all the hammered coins should henceforth be taken by government only by weight; but that, after having been weighed within three days, every one should take it back with a note authorising him to receive the difference between the deficiency of weight and the full weight at a future time. By this means government would have suffered the loss.

Locke, on the contrary, proposed that government should receive all clipped coin up to a day to be announced, at full value; after that day only at its value by weight; and something of this kind was carried by Montague after a debate in the house. It was ordered that, after a certain day, no clipped money should pass, except in payment of taxes, or as loans to government. After another fixed day, no clipped money should pass in any payment whatsoever; and that, on a third day, all persons should bring in all their clipped money to be recoined, making just what it would, and after that time clipped money should not be a legal tender at any value, or be received at the mint.

By this plan the holders of clipped money suffered part of the loss where they could not be in time; but the public eventually bore the greatest part of it, for a bill was brought in to indemnify government for its share of the loss, by a duty on glass windows, which was calculated to raise twelve hundred thousand pounds. This was the origin of that window-tax which under William Pitt's government grew to such a nuisance.

In order to meet the demand for milled and unclipped coin to be given in exchange for the clipped coin to be brought in, premiums were offered of five per cent, on good milled money, and of threepence per pound on all plate that should be brought in to melt into the new coins. The 4th of May, 1696, was fixed as the last day for receiving the clipped money in payment of taxes; and early in February furnaces were at work melting down the old coin into ingots, which were sent to the Tower in readiness, and the coining began. Ten of these furnaces were erected in a garden behind the Treasury; yet, in spite of every endeavour to prevent inconvenience to the public, the Jacobites managed to excite great alarm in the minds of the people. There was a widespread panic that there would be great personal losses and wrongs, and that all receipts of money would be stopped, and that there would be general distress. The malcontents attacked Montague and the other ministers in the house; the merchants demanded indemnification for the rise which guineas had taken, namely, from twenty shillings and sixpence to thirty shillings, in consequence of the scarcity of the silver coinage; for a guinea now, instead of purchasing twenty shillings' worth of their goods, would purchase one- third more; so that their stocks were reduced one-third in value till the silver coinage was again plentiful. Parliament, to remove this cause of complaint, inserted a clause in the bill, offering a premium on plate, fixing the price of a guinea at two-and-twenty shillings. Still, however, people imagined that guineas would be scarce, and so gold would rise, and hoarded them up, which made them scarce. But government worked manfully at the recoining. Mints were set up at York, Bristol, Exeter, and Chester as well as in London, and in less than twelve months the coinage was produced with such success that the English currency, which had been the worst, was now the best in Europe.

The bill for regulating the trials for high treason was again brought in, and having now been steadily refused by the lords unless with their clause for granting them the privilege of trying any of their order by the whole house of peers instead of by the court of the lord high steward, the commons now gave way, allowed the clause, and the bill passed. It was ordered to take effect on the 25th of March next, 1696.

A subject of strong national interest was now forced on parliament by William's inordinate desire to advance his Dutch favourites. He had made Ginckel, who had not been very disinterested in his Irish management, earl of Athlone, and Schomberg duke of Leinster: but Portland was his especial friend, and he sought to endow him right royally. Historians, excusing William for his excessive liberality, contend that these men were the most faithful friends that ever man had, which is, no doubt, a very good reason for his rewarding them; but it would have been more becoming had he done it, Dutchmen as they were, out of his own Dutch estates, and not out of the estates of the crown of England, especially when he was already annually complaining of the scantiness of his own allowance from the nation. Now, however, he went a step too far, for he gave to Portland the three lordships of Denbigh, Bamfield, and Yale, in Wales, which belonged to the crown, and which had once been given by queen Elizabeth to her favourite, Leicester, but which the high-spirited Welsh had forced her to recall. A deputation of Welshmen, headed by Sir William Williams, obtained an audience at the Treasury, and represented that these lands were part of the demesnes of the prince of Wales, and that royal honours were attached to them which could not be paid to any subject except the prince of Wales; that the revenue of them went to support the government of Wales, to pay the salaries of the judges and other officers.

These representations produced no effect on the determined mind of the Dutch king, but the warm blood of the Welsh soon made a more lively impression on his cold blood. They sent up a plain-spoken petition, which was presented to the commons by Mr. Price, a Welsh member, who declaimed in a style on this royal job which spared neither the Dutch nor their prince. He declared that these lands, by which the people of Wales were bound to do service to their owner as to a prince, could go to no subject, much less to a foreigner; that the king, of course, could not be expected to know these circumstances, being a foreigner, any more than the English knew his counsels, which he wished they did; that the ministers who sanctioned these grants were traitors to the laws and liberties of England for not having informed the king that it was contrary to the coronation oath of the kings of England to alienate the patrimony of the crown without the consent of parliament, but that ministers and courtiers who surrounded the throne were always nibbling at its estates, and encouraging these alienations for their own benefit; that the Dutch were undermining us in all ways. These lands were worth at least one hundred thousand pounds, and, besides the three lordships, they included other property worth three thousand pounds a year. They were filching away our crown property and our trade; they had joined with the Scotch to ruin our English commerce, and he attributed to them the destruction of our coinage. We saw foreigners thrust into all places of honour and profit, to the exclusion of Englishmen. They were made great barons, they were in the king's council, in the army, and they had become naturalised, and had grasped the best of our trade in the city. How, he asked, was England likely to flourish when we had these men both in the English and the Dutch councils? How was a prince of Wales to be supported when his estates were given to the Dutch? and when he came to the throne he would appear there like another John Lackland. In short, we were on the highway to become a Dutch colony.

Roused by this speech, the commons went in a body to Kensington, and presented a strong remonstrance on the subject. William received them coldly; told them that he was not aware that there were constitutional objections to this particular grant, and, therefore, would recall it; but that he had a kindness for lord Portland, who had deserved well of him, and, therefore, he would find some other way of showing his favour to him. Accordingly, he very soon conferred on him the manors of Grantham, Drakelow, Pevensey, East Greenwich, &c., in the counties of Lincoln, Cheshire, Sussex, and Kent, together with the honours of Penrith, in Cumberland, and other manors in Norfolk, York, and Lancashire. The extraordinary profuseness of these grants appeared as if intended to show the parliament that he would only give away the more for their remonstrance, and the murmuring at this lavish heaping of favours on a foreigner was universal. Portland, no more than his master, had taken any pains to ingratiate himself with the English; he was, like him, cold and retiring. William's popularity sunk rapidly, and even the house of lords took up the subject of the encroachment of the Dutch and Scotch on the commerce of the country. They requested a conference with the commons on the subject. It was insinuated that Portland had favoured the granting of the late charter to the Scotch for trading to India and Africa, and that it was done to promote a union of the Dutch and Scotch for the infringement of the English commerce. They joined in an address to the king representing that the late act of the Scottish parliament granting to the company the right to trade to the East and West Indies, and freeing them from all taxation, would enable them to undersell the English merchants, and make Scotland the mart for all the commodities of the East and West Indies; that it was impossible for the English merchants to bear up under such disadvantages, for the Scotch would clandestinely introduce their importations into England, and thus completely undermine them.

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