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Reign of George II page 4

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Mr. Pelham, on the part of the ministry, advised the house to wait till the plan was disclosed, and not to enter into debates about what they knew nothing. But the alarm was given, and it flew through the country with lightning rapidity. "A general excise is coming!" was the cry. "A tax on all articles of consumption! a burthen to grind the country to powder! a plot to overthrow the constitution and establish in its place a baleful tyranny!" The opposition had now got a most popular subject of attack on the ministry, and it prosecuted it vigorously. The "Craftsman" thundered incessantly on the subject, and the oppressive manner in which this tax had been collected, and the wide range of articles, used chiefly by the poor, on which it might be rapidly extended, fully justified the alarm. We may draw a lively idea of the feeling of even the most educated at that time against the excise laws, from the definition of excise given by Dr. Johnson in the first edition of his "Dictionary" in 1755: - "A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."

It was not, therefore, a vain alarm which was raised by the opposition. The response to its tocsin cry was the best evidence of the dislike to this tax, and the distrust of its limitation which pervaded the whole community. There were petitions sent up from many towns and many constitutional bodies, including the city and merchants of London, against any extension of the excise laws, in any form, and on any pretence whatever."

Sir Robert Walpole was not a man, with his huge standing majority, to be readily frightened from his purpose. On the 14th of March, 1733, he brought forward his project in a speech in which he put forth all his ability, and that under a well-maintained air of moderation. He took advantage of the alarm that the tax was to be general, and certainly with an effective skill, by representing the falsity of that declaration, and the very slight and limited nature of his real proposal. Adverting to what he called the common slander of his having intended to propose a general excise, he said - "I do most unequivocally assert that no such scheme ever entered my head, or, for what I know, the head of any man I am acquainted with. My thoughts have been confined solely to the duties on wine and tobacco;, and it was the frequent advices I had of the shameful frauds committed in these two branches that turned my attention to a remedy for this growing evil. I shall for the present confine myself to the tobacco trade."

He then detailed the various frauds on the revenue in tobacco, which he stated were of such extent and frequency, that the gross average produce of the tax was seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds, but the nett average only a hundred and sixty thousand pounds. The remedy which he proposed was to transfer this revenue from the customs to the excise. That the same might afterwards be applied to wine, a system of warehousing for re-exportation or placing in bond was proposed, which, he said, "would tend to make London a free port, and, by consequence, the market of the world." He held out the expectation that the success of this plan would render unnecessary the land tax, and thus enable the government entirely to dispense with that. "Arid this," exclaimed Walpole, "is the scheme which has been represented in so dreadful and terrible a light - this the monster, the many-headed monster, which was to devour the people, and commit such ravages over the whole nation."

But all this art, this affected simplicity, did not deceive the public. If the alarm which had been raised had warned the minister to show only the nose of the monster, the public saw that the whole monster was there. Though he dealt now only with tobacco, he did not conceal the fact that he had his eye also on wine; and let the people only submit easily, and that eye would very speedily have ranged over a score of other articles, all equally of popular and not of aristocratic consumption. At this very moment they heard him appealing to his landed majority on the merits of his system, which was to relieve them at the expense of the people. There was to be no land tax, but a tobacco tax, and, if that succeeded, a wine tax, and so on; it might soon descend to meat, bread, and even vegetables. Of the utter want of principle in Walpole they had at the same moment a glaring proof in his invasion of the sinking fund. And as to all those improvements in the system, might they not be as readily introduced into the customs as into the excise? Why not the same searching inquiry into the frauds of the custom-house, and proper securities taken? Why remove tobacco and then wine from the customs to the excise? The people's own common sense gave the answer - Because the practice of levying an excise on articles of daily consumption might be extended by artful and successive movements over the whole host of consumable articles.

The people saw deeper than those historians who have represented this scheme as so reasonable, and the popular outcry as so unreasonable. Walpole ridiculed the notion which had gone abroad, that the revenue officers would be increased into quite a standing army, and would endanger the common liberty by their being empowered to enter private dwellings to search for concealed excisable articles. He said the increase would only be a hundred and twenty- six persons, and that the customs now possessed more searching power than he proposed to give to the excise. But these excisable articles might be deposited in warehouses adjoining dwelling-houses, by which the danger of fraud would be much increased over the custom-house, which stood alone, and on the river-banks; and in such cases searching of private houses would be rendered much more inconvenient. It was contended, too, that it was a benefit to the merchant to convert the duty from one on importation to one on consumption, and that it did not affect the people at all, because the fraudulent trader sold the article to them at the price of duty paid. But it was clear that if the bonding system had been adopted as a general system, allowing merchants to pay the duty or excise at the moment only when it was taken from the government warehouses for sale, a customs duty must be, as proved by the regulations of our own time, as good to him as an excise duty.

Wyndham declared that in all countries excises of every kind were looked on as badges of slavery; but Walpole asked triumphantly in reply, whether brewers or maltsters were reckoned slaves? Whether they were not just as free in elections to elect or be elected as any other persons? But Wyndham rose into higher denunciation. He drew awful pictures of corruption, extortion, and tyranny which would inevitably attend such a system as this tended to inaugurate. He recalled the memories of Dudley and Empson, and asked what was their fate? Popular enough in their own master's time, they found his successor more just, and he took off their heads. At this moment Frederick, prince of Wales, was sitting under the gallery, and the allusion told with immense effect.

Walpole was ably supported by Sir Philip Yorke, the attorney-general, whose abilities as a lawyer and a debatist had for some time been rapidly rising into note. Sir Joseph Jekyll, the master of the rolls, who was more noted for his eccentricities of dress and manner than for eloquence, and who was described by Pope as a man " who never changed his principles or wig," declared that he had come to the house quite undetermined how to vote, but that the arguments of Walpole had quite decided him in favour of the measure.

Whilst the debate was proceeding, great crowds gathered round the house, and became even more numerous and more agitated. Walpole, irritated by the persuasion that these throngs were collected by the arts of the opposition, threw out a remark which he afterwards deeply repented. He said gentlemen might call themselves what they liked, but he knew whom the law called Sturdy Beggars. This phrase, carried out of doors, highly incensed the crowd, who considered that it was meant to cast contempt on the people at large. At two o'clock in the morning, and after thirteen hours' debate, on division there appeared two hundred and sixty-six for the measure, and two hundred and five against. The great increase of the minority struck Walpole with surprise and alarm; and the treatment which he received from the throng at the door was equally menacing. As he endeavoured to reach his carriage, the exasperated people seized him by the cloak, and he would probably have paid dear for his phrase of the "sturdy beggars," had he not been rescued by Pelham and some other friends. The words, however, were not forgotten, but long afterwards were flung in his teeth.

When the resolutions of the committee were reported two days afterwards, the debate was renewed with all its vehemence, and Pulteney unveiled another view of the case, which had much real truth and warning in it. "It is well known," he said, "that every one of the public officers have already so many boroughs or corporations which they look on as their properties. There are some boroughs which are called treasury boroughs; there are others which may be called admiralty boroughs; in short, it may be said that nearly all the towns upon the sea-coast are already seized upon, and in a manner taken prisoners by the officers of the crown. In most of them they have so great an influence that none can be chosen members of parliament but such as they are pleased to recommend. But, as the customs are confined to our sea-ports, as they cannot travel far from the coast, therefore this scheme seems to be contrived in order to extend the laws of excise, and thereby to extend the influence of the crown over all the inland towns and corporations of England."

Spite of these representations, however, the resolutions were confirmed by the same majority as before. Other debates succeeded on the second reading of the bill, but the majority on these gradually sank from sixty to sixteen. During all this time petitions continued to pour in from towns all over the country, and one from the common council of London, prepared by alderman Barber, a violent Jacobite, who had been Swift and Bolingbroke's printer, and was now lord mayor. Pamphlets issued rapidly from the press, and one of them made allusion to a parallel case with Walpole's "sturdy beggars," namely, that cardinal Granvelle, endeavouring to establish this inquisition in the Netherlands, gave the name of Gueux, or Sturdy Beggars, to his opponents, the prince of Orange and counts ▀gmont and Horn, who, however, drove out the cardinal and the oppressive government altogether.

As the storm grew instead of abated, the queen demanded of lord Scarborough what he thought of it, and he replied, "The bill must be relinquished. I will answer for my regiment against the pretender, but not against the opposers of the excise." "Then," said the queen, "we must drop it."

Sir Robert summoned his majority, and requested their opinion, and they proposed to go on, observing that all taxes were obnoxious, and that it would not do to be daunted by a mob. But Walpole felt that he must yield. He declared that he was not disposed to enforce it at the point of the bayonet, and on the 11th of April, on the order of the day for the second reading, he moved that the measure should be postponed for two months. Thus the whole affair dropped. The usually triumphant minister found himself defeated by popular opinion. The opposition were hardly satisfied to allow this obnoxious bill thus to slip quietly away; but out of doors there was rejoicing enough to satisfy them. The towns throughout the kingdom celebrated the public triumph by illuminations, bonfires, and general rejoicings. In London the Monument was illuminated, the effigies of Walpole were burnt in many places, and amid all sorts of insults; and cockades were mounted, with the words "Liberty, Property, and no Excise!" As the popular effervescence subsided, the current of public feeling was turned into a new channel by the announcement that the princess royal, Anne, was espoused to the young prince of Orange. Before the next session arrived, the excitement seemed so wholly forgotten, that there were rumours of a renewal of the attempt. But Walpole observed that he was not so mad as ever again to meddle with anything that looked like an excise, though he still thought it would have benefited the nation.

The depth of Walpole's mortification, however, was shown by the vengeance he took on those who had opposed him. This fell with peculiar weight on lord Chesterfield. Chesterfield had acquired a great reputation by his able management of affairs at the Hague. Since his return he had become lord steward of the household, and a frequent and much admired debatist in the house. But Chesterfield was too ambitious himself to stoop patiently to the domineering temper of Walpole. He was said to have thrown out some keen sarcasms at Walpole's excise bill, and his three brothers in the commons voted against it. Only two days after the abandonment of the bill, as Chesterfield was ascending the staircase at St. James's, he was stopped by an attendant, and summoned home to surrender the white staff. The same punishment was dealt out to a number of noblemen who acted in concert with him. Lord Clinton, a lord of the bedchamber, the earl of Burlington, captain of the band of pensioners, were dismissed, as well as the duke of Montrose, and the earls of Marchmont and Stair from offices held in Scotland. The duke of Bolton and lord Cobham were, by a most unjustifiable stretch of authority, deprived of their regiments. On the other hand, Sir Philip Yorke, the attorney-general, and Charles Talbot, solicitor-general, were raised to the peerage by the titles of baron Hardwicke and baron Talbot. Hardwicke was promoted to the dignity of lord chief justice, and Talbot to that of lord chancellor. These measures, however, perhaps more embittered and strengthened the opposition than they benefited the minister.

The commons voted eighty thousand pounds as a marriage portion to the princess royal, and the nuptials were celebrated in the French chapel at St. James's, on the 14th of February of the following year.

England this year was the witness of war raging in different parts of Europe without having any concern in it - a rare circumstance. Augustus II., king of Poland and elector of Saxony, whom Charles XII. had pursued with such bitter enmity, died in February, and Augustus, his son, found himself opposed by Stanislaus Leczinski, who had been driven from the throne of Poland by the Swedish king. His daughter during his exile had married Louis XV. of France, and that country determined to support the father of their queen in his original right. Stanislaus, however, was ready to claim Poland before the French were prepared to give him substantial military aid., Stanislaus hastened from France to Poland, presented himself before the Poles at Warsaw, and was received with enthusiasm. The majority of the nobles who had the right of voting for their elective sovereign gave him their suffrages, and so far as the choice of the nation could decide the question, Stanislaus was once more king. But Austria and Russia determined to support Augustus, and Stanislaus was soon compelled to fly before these Russian armies, and shut himself up in Dantzic. There he was besieged by the Muscovites, the Saxons, and the section of Poles who had adhered to Augustus. Augustus himself assisted in the siege, and Stanislaus and his party made a stout defence. A place is still shown on the fortifications of Dantzic which is called the grave of the Russians, no less than six thousand of them being said to have fallen in an assault there. Stanislaus was ultimately, however, driven from the city, and Augustus was once more proclaimed king by the Russians. The war still continued, but greatly to the disadvantage of Stanislaus. The emperor of Austria, though he had allowed the czarina, Anne, to carry on the campaign against Stanislaus, was still active in assisting and encouraging Augustus, and the French determined to punish him for this interference with the rights of their protege. Fleury, though as pacific in his disposition as Walpole, now roused himself, and finding the Spaniards ready to join against the emperor for purposes of their own, war was prepared on a considerable scale in the south as well as in the north.

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