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Reign of William III page 9

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Fenwick, in fact, had only insured his own doom. He probably thought William was not aware of the double- dealing of his own ministers, and that he should be able to throw a bombshell into the whig camp, whilst he screened his own fellow-seditionists; but he found that he had to deal with a man much more sagacious than himself, and his stratagem recoiled on his own head. William ordered the confession of Sir John to be laid before the lords-justices, and himself acquainted some of the accused of what it contained, and expressed his contempt of it. Marlborough and Russell, if they had not made up their minds before, seem from this moment to have done so, to avoid any further tampering with St. Germains. It was clear their secret was not only well known to William, but the agents, pretty generally, of James. Marlborough, however, took it calmly; Russell made a great pretence of innocence, and demanded inquiry. Shrewsbury alone seemed dismayed and overcome by it. He wrote to William, admitting that lord Middleton, James's secretary, had been over several times, and had visited him, but that he attributed to their nearness of kinship. He said - "One night at supper, when he was pretty well in drink, he told me he intended to go beyond seas, and asked me if I could command him no service. I then told him, by the course he was taking, it would never be in his power to do himself or his friends service; and if the time should come that he expected, I looked upon myself as an offender not to be forgiven." Shrewsbury added that perhaps these accusations "might render him incapable of serving William" - meaning that he might not think him fit to retain the seals under such a suspicion by the public, but that, if he could not answer for the generality of the world, yet the noble and frank manner in which his majesty had used him on that occasion would ever be acknowledged by him with all the gratitude in his power.

Fenwick, perceiving the fatal blunder that he had made, sent in a second confession; but this appeared rather to absolve James and his adherents from any knowledge of the baser plan of assassination, and from having sanctioned Crosley's scheme of seizing William's person, than to throw any new light on the real workers in the treason. Things were in this position when William returned on the 6th of October. The courtiers flocked to Kensington to pay their respects to his majesty, and amongst them the noblemen who had been so deeply accused by Fenwick, with the single exception of Shrewsbury. William received them all most graciously, and asked where Shrewsbury was. He was informed that he was ill, and the next day the duke himself wrote to say that he had had a fall from his horse, had received considerable injury, and was incapable of travelling. Both the king and the other ministers well knew that the real cause was his extreme sensitiveness, which made him ashamed to face his sovereign after his knowledge of his delinquency; and both they and William wrote to urge his appearance at court as soon as possible. William said – "You are much wanted here. I am impatient to embrace you, and to assure you that my esteem for you is undiminished." Somers wrote him that unless he appeared in his place at court it would convince the public that he felt the justice of Fenwick's charge.

But Shrewsbury, whose mind so readily preyed on itself, could not bring himself to face the king, and sent to request leave to resign the seals. With a magnanimity wonderfully different to that of Henry VIII., who would have had all these nobles' heads off in a few days, William would not hear of his resignation, telling the duke that it would bring the worst suspicions on him; and, more on Shrewsbury's account than his own, he insisted on his keeping the seals. At length he consented, but still dared not go to town, but remained in the seclusion of his home amongst the wilds of Gloucestershire.

On the 20th of October William opened the session of parliament with a speech in which he took a bold review of the troubles and difficulties of the past year. He admitted the distress which the endeavours to restore the coinage to a healthy state had occasioned; the pressure which yet remained from the coinage being only partly effected. He avowed that the liberal funds voted in the last session had fallen far short, and that the civil list could not be maintained without further aid; but, notwithstanding these drawbacks, he contended that they had many causes of congratulation. Abroad the enemy had obtained no advantage, and at home the fortitude and temper with which the nation had struggled through the hardships attending the re-coinage, and the fears or selfishness of those who had added to them by hoarding their money, were admirable. A little time must bear them through this, and he had to inform them that he had received overtures of peace from France. He should be prepared to accept proper terms, but that the was to obtain them was to treat sword in hand. He therefore recommended them to be at once liberal and prompt in their voting the supplies. He recommended to their sympathy the French protestants, who were in a most miserable condition, and he trusted to their taking efficient measures for the maintenance of the public credit.

The commons, on retiring to their house, at the instance of Montague, the chancellor of the exchequer, passed three resolutions, which demonstrated the confidence of the country in the government, and constituted in themselves the most absolute defeat of all the grumblers and malcontents possible. Montague had advocated the bank of England; that had succeeded. He had denounced the scheme of the land-bank; that had proved, as he declared it to be, a delusion, and had brought ruin on its projectors. He had carried the plans of government for the restoration of the coinage stoutly through the most unexampled crises. When the paper of the bank of England was fluctuating in value, the enemies of government casting suspicion on it, so that it would occasionally sink one-fourth of its value in the course of a single day; when both the allies and the enemies of England fancied that her credit was gone and her resources exhausted, Montague knew better, and by his spirit and eloquence kept the machine of government going, and now he reached a point of unquestionable triumph. The credit of the country was no longer falling, but rising; the coinage was fast assuming a position which it had never enjoyed for ages, and the confidence of parliament displayed itself in its votes. The three resolutions, which confounded all the adversaries of William's government, and which have often been referred to as motives for encouragement in periods of governmental distress, were these: - First, that the commons would support the king against all foreign and domestic enemies. Secondly, that the standard of gold and silver should not be altered. Thirdly, that they would make good all parliamentary funds established since the king's succession.

An address was passed on the basis of these resolutions, which was followed by another from the lords, and the commons proceeded in the same spirit to vote six millions for the current expenses of the year. They noticed that this was the eighth year in which they had granted his majesty unexampled supplies to carry on the war, but that they regarded all the cost of blood and treasure which the war had occasioned as well spent for the civil and religious liberty which they had obtained, and they proceeded to vote taxes for the raising of the supplies which would have astonished the Stuarts, and which showed that the best way to a nation's purse is sincerely to study its public advantage. They immediately laid on several of those particular imposts to which the public had always shown themselves most averse, amongst them an income-tax, a poll-tax, and a tax even on servants' wages - the most grievous of all income-taxes. All persons were to pay according to the value of their real and personal estates, on their land and stock-in-trade, as well as on their income from professions, offices, and pensions. Every person not actually receiving alms was to pay a penny a week for one year. Every servant was to pay a farthing in the pound per week on their wages above four pounds per annum up to eight pounds per annum; and a halfpenny in the pound per week from eight pounds to sixteen pounds per annum. Besides these imposts, an aid of three shillings in the pound was demanded on all lands, tenements, and hereditaments. Not a person, from the highest to the lowest, was exempt who could possibly pay anything at all. The treasury was authorised to borrow a million and a half at eight per cent., and to issue exchequer bills for as much more. To cancel these debts the three-shilling aid was appropriated. They voted a hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds to make good the deficiency of the hammered money and the premium of plate brought into the mint. They authorised the bank of England to raise fresh capital by a new subscription, and passed many regulations in its favour. It was to be the sole bank; it was to be exempt from all taxation; penalties were enacted against the counterfeiting or altering of its notes; and measures were taken to prevent the officers of the exchequer delaying or impeding the payments due to it. The different revenues from the tonnage and poundage on wine, vinegar, and tobacco, and an additional duty on salt for two years and three-quarters, were charged with the liquidation of the government debts, and this was called "the general mortgage." Besides the six millions for the year, there was now a debt of five millions, and the facility thus granted of borrowing money on the exchequer tallies soon raised it to such a degree as astonished the whole world.

Bolingbroke in his time expressed his opinion that this new system of borrowing on the credit of posterity would prove fatal to the liberties of the country. He observed that "the notion of attaching men to the new government by tempting them to embark their fortunes in the same bottom was a reason of state to some; the notion of creating a new, that is, a monied interest, in opposition to the landed interest, or as a balance to it, was a reason of party to others; and the opportunity of amassing immense estates by the management of funds, by trafficking in paper, and by all the arts of jobbing, was a reason of private interest to those who supported and improved this scheme, if not to those who devised it."

We in our time know to what a monstrous result this fatal facility of borrowing, thus contrived by Montague, has led; the wars it has encouraged, the debt it has left, the destruction of political and mercantile morals which it has engendered. Out of this political abyss have issued forth the periodical ruin which sweeps through the mercantile world, the direct offspring of the speculative mania thus created, the rage for the sudden acquisition of enormous wealth by artful shuffling to and fro of paper; hence the rotten condition of our governmental executive, of our commissariat departments, of bloated and men-destroying contractors, and the perpetual monster apparitions of Sadleirs, colonel Waughs, Redpaths, Sir John Dean Pauls, not even exempting from its hideous plague-spot the long unblurred names of Gurneys and Overends.

This flowing fountain once opened, it flowed unceasingly. What the commons had already done in a few short weeks was still far from all. The king, in reply to their address, reminded them that there were other deficiencies yet unprovided for, and they immediately enacted a new tax on leather to make up the eight hundred thousand pounds which had been looked for from the land-bank. He reverted to his never-failing topic, the deficiency of the civil list, and they voted five hundred and fifteen thousand pounds for that purpose, to be raised by a malt tax, and by additional duties upon mum, sweets, cider, and perry. They ordered one million four hundred thousand pounds to be raised by a lottery. The treasury was empowered to issue an additional number of exchequer bills, amounting to one million two hundred thousand pounds, to liquidate the transport debt; and they obliged hawkers and pedlars to take out licenses at certain fixed rates.

Well might James behold with wonder this astonishing liberality to his rival. Never under the Stuarts had all their strained efforts been able to extract a half of these taxes. To have endeavoured to impose one of them would have cost any of them their heads or their thrones. But the wretched refugee king might have discovered, had he had the wit, how easy it is to lead a nation to tax itself; how impossible to tax it by compulsion. Smollett justly observes, that " one cannot without astonishment reflect upon the prodigious efforts that were made on this occasion, or consider without indignation the enormous fortunes that were raised by usurers and extortioners from the distresses of their country. The nation did not seem to know its own strength until it was put to this extraordinary trial; and the experiment of mortgaging funds succeeded so well that later ministers have proceeded in the same system, imposing burthen upon burthen, as if they thought the sinews of the nation could never be overstrained." This extraordinary liberality and spirit of the commons, however, had one grand effect: it convinced Louis XIV. that the hope of ever driving William from the throne of England was gone for ever. Caillieres at the Hague received instructions to assure the Dutch ministers that, whenever the treaty of peace could be entertained, he was fully prepared to acknowledge William's right to the English throne without restriction, condition, or reserve. The information was imparted to Lilienroth, the Swedish minister, whose master was employed by Louis to act as mediator betwixt himself and the allies, and Dykvelt speedily sent the news to England, where it at once diffused joy and public confidence, and the whigs, who had carried on the war with such spirit, received a fresh addition of strength from this triumph.

The great topic of the remainder of the session was the inquiry into the guilt of Sir John Fenwick. In denouncing the noblemen named in his confession, he had made them and all their adherents his mortal enemies. The whigs were deeply incensed through the accusation of Russell and Shrewsbury, and the whigs were now more influential than ever. Instead of damaging them and embarrassing William, he had fatally damaged himself. As for Godolphin, who was the only tory in the ministry, they contrived to get him to offer his resignation, which, unlike that of Shrewsbury, was accepted, so that the whigs had now a ministry wholly of their party. Russell was loud in his demands of vengeance and William, at the suggestion of the whigs, sent for Fenwick, and insisted that he should give him some further information as to the real conspirators, whom he had evidently and purposely screened. Fenwick declined, and William gave him to understand that he had nothing more to expect from him.

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