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Reign of George III. (Continued.) page 3

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Joseph therefore determined to throw down that great barrier of fortified towns betwixt Holland and Flanders, which William III. of England and Marlborough had established, and which, at the same time, constituted the strongest barrier against French inroads, open up the whole navigation of the Scheldt to Austria and establish Antwerp and Ostend as great commercial ports and most damaging rivals of the Dutch. On pretence that the Dutch were suffering the fortifications to fall to decay, and that he could himself defend the frontiers from any attacks of France, he entered the barrier towns, destroyed the fortifications, and sold the materials. The Dutch sent commissioners to Brussels to remonstrate with the Austrian authorities; but these were disregarded and fresh aggressions made. The Austrians seized the fort of Old Lillo, pulled down the Dutch flag on other parts of the frontier, seized on the old city of Maestricht and the country round, and claimed full and free navigation of the Scheldt, spite of the barrier treaty.

In this dilemma, feeling themselves unable to cope with Austria, the Dutch threw themselves into the arms of France, which, notwithstanding the alliance with Joseph, entered into a treaty of mutual defence. Joseph put an army of sixty thousand men on march for the occupation of his usurpations in Holland; but winter setting in before the arrival of the news of the Dutch and French treaty, caused the troops to halt. Meantime, the rashly ambitious movements of Joseph had raised up powerful opponents. He was found to be endeavouring to exchange his Austrian Netherlands with the elector of Bavaria for his electorate. This would have added all Bavaria to Austria, and have completely destroyed the balance of power in the German empire. This roused the alarm of Frederick of Prussia, who, though he had refused every overture of reconciliation with the kings of England since they supported Austria against him, now did not hesitate to apply to George III., as elector of Hanover, in common with the other German powers, to form an alliance for the preservation of the integrity of Germany.

Compelled to desist in this quarter, Joseph was now glad to surrender his plans of opening the navigation of the Scheldt, except to his own dominions; to surrender Maestricht; to abandon the right of the navigation of the Meuse, which he next claimed, and simply to accept ten millions of gilders (nine hundred and sixteen thousand six hundred and sixty-six pounds), on the plea of injuries sustained, two millions of which (one hundred and eighty-three thousand pounds) the French paid, being highly delighted with their achievement of the treaty with Holland and the destruction of the barrier treaty. Joseph was also allowed to retain the forts of Old Lillo and Liefkenshoeck; but France boasted that by the treaty she was as good as in positive possession of Holland. She made her party still more powerful in that country, and aided it by all her power to destroy the influence of the house of Orange. The stadtholder was deprived of his government of the Hague and of his body guard; his power was annihilated, and he retired in indignation to his patrimonial city, sending his wife and family to West Friesland. The French were in the ascendant in the country; the French marshal, De Maillebois, was at the head of their army, and at his instigation the Dutch discharged the troops from their oath to the stadtholder, and enjoined a new oath to the states alone. The jealousies of the two contending parties laid the country at the feet of the French, who had numerous officers in the Dutch army, who so well studied the strength and weakness of it as to become the ablest pioneers of the French revolutionary hosts, which, a few years after, overran and subjugated the ungrateful and impolitic Dutch.

This state of things had attracted-anxious notice in the English parliament before its prorogation, on the 2nd of August, 1785; but when the house of commons met again, the 24th of January, 1786, Fox introduced the subject with extreme earnestness. In the debate on the address, he commented most severely on the delinquency of the government in allowing France to form such a close compact with Holland. He contended that} by a liberal abandonment of resentment, we might have offered our assistance to Holland against the aggressor, and have thus shut out the busy interference of France. True, we should have offended the emperor Joseph, who was the only ally on the continent capable of awing France; but we had now mortally offended him, by opposing his bargain for Bavaria, without securing the friendship of Holland. The consequence was, that France, Holland, and Spain, would remain banded against us at sea, and would necessitate an unusually large and expensive navy. At the same time, we might have formed a strong and useful alliance with the czarina, whilst she was harassed by the Turks; but now she had made peace with the Ottoman empire, and such a union was become proportionately more difficult. Both Fox and the earl of Surrey condemned the taxes of Pitt as most injudicious, and his attempt at legislating for Ireland as having resulted in disgusting both countries. Lord Surrey remarked that, whilst Pitt was professing administrative reform, we maintained an ambassador for Spain, who, for two years, had never been in that country; and two for France, with separate establishments.

The great financial questions of this session were the duke of Richmond's plan of fortifying Portsmouth and Plymouth, Pitt's proposal of a sinking fund to pay off the national debt, an excise duty on wines, and some regulations of the woods and forests. During the previous session the duke of Richmond, master-general of the ordnance, had proposed a plan of fortifying these great arsenals, so that, in the supposed absence of our fleet on some great occasion, they would be left under the protection of regiments of militia, for whom enormous barracks were to be erected. A board of officers had been appointed to inquire into the advantages of the plan, and their report was now brought up on the 27th of February, and introduced by Mr. Pitt, who moved that the plan be adopted. This scheme was strongly opposed by General Burgoyne, Colonel Barre, and others. Mr. Bastard moved an amendment declaring the proposed fortifications inexpedient. He said the militia had been called the school of the army, but to shut them up in these strongholds, separate from their fellow-subjects, was the way to convert them into universities for praetorian bands He protested against taking the defence of the nation from our brave fleet and conferring it on military garrisons; tearing the ensign of British glory from the mast-head, and fixing a standard on the ramparts of a fort. The bill was rejected, Fox, Sheridan, Wyndham, and all the great oppositionists declaiming against it.

On the 21st of March, a committee which had been appointed early in the session to inquire into the public income and expenditure, and to suggest what might in future be calculated on as the clear revenue, presented its report through Mr. Grenville, their chairman. On the 29th, Pitt, in a committee of the whole house, entered upon the subject, and detailed the particulars of a plan to diminish progressively and steadily the further debt. It appeared from the report of the select committee that there was, at present, a clear surplus revenue of nine hundred thousand pounds sterling, and that this surplus could, without any great additional burthen to the public, be made a million per annum. This he declared to be an unexpected state of financial vigour after so long and unfortunate a war. " To behold," he said, " this country emerging from a war which had- added such an overwhelming accumulation of sums before enormous, boldly viewing its situation, and, instead of crouching in despair, establishing, upon a spirited and permanent plan, the means of relieving itself from all incumbrances, must give ideas of our resources and spirit of exertion which would astonish foreign nations and restore our just pre-eminence."

The plan which he proposed was to pay two hundred and fifty thousand pounds quarterly into the hands of commissioners appointed for the purpose to purchase stock to that amount, which was under par, or to pay stock above par, and thus cancel so much debt. In addition to this, the annuities for lives, or for limited terms, would gradually cancel another portion. All, dividends arising from such purchases were to be similarly applied. Pitt calculated that by this process, and by the compound interest on the savings to the revenue by it, in twenty-eight years no less than four million sterling per annum of surplus revenue would be similarly applied, or employed for the exigencies of the state. By this halcyon process he contemplated the eventual extinction of that enormous debt, to pay the mere interest of which every nerve had been stretched, and every resource nearly exhausted.

In a delightful state of self-gratulation, Pitt declared that he was happy to say that all this was readily accomplishable; that we had nothing to fear, except one thing - the possibility of any minister in need violating this fund. Had the original sinking fund, he said, been kept sacred, we should have had now very little debt. To prevent the recurrence of this fatal facility of ministers laying their hands on this fund, he proposed to place it in the hands of commissioners, and he declared that "no minister could ever have the confidence to come down to that house, and desire the repeal of so beneficial a law, which tended so directly to relieve the people from their burthens." He added that he felt that he had by this measure " raised a firm column, upon which he was proud to flatter himself that his name might be inscribed." He said not a word about the name of Dr. Price being inscribed there, to whom the whole merit of the scheme belonged; he never once mentioned his name at all. On his own part, Dr. Price complained not of this, but that he had submitted three schemes to Pitt, and that he had chosen the worst.

The greater part of the house, as well as the public out of doors, were captivated with the scheme, which promised thus easily to relieve them of the monster debt; but Sir Grey Cooper was the first to disturb these fairy fancies. He declared that the whole was based on a fallacious statement; that it was doubtful whether the actual surplus was as described; but even were it so, that it was but the surplus of a particular year, and that it was like the proprietor of a hop-ground endeavouring to borrow money on the guarantee of its proceeds in a particularly favourable year. Fox, Burke, and Sheridan followed in the same strain. They argued that, supposing the assumed surplus actually to exist, which they doubted, it would immediately vanish in case of war, and a fresh mass of debt be laid on. Sheridan said, the only mode of paying off a million a-year would be to make a loan of a million a-year, for the minister reminded him of the person in the comedy who said, " If you won't lend me the money, how can I pay you? " On the 4th of May he moved a string of fourteen resolutions unfavourable to the report of the committee, which he said contained facts which could not be negatived, but the house did negative them all without a division, and on the 15th of May passed the bill. In the lords it met with some proposals from earl Stanhope, which were to render the violation of the act equivalent to an act of bankruptcy, but these were negatived, and the bill was passed there on the 26th.

The immediate effect of the measure was to strengthen public credit, and encourage trade and manufactures; but the course of this history will have to show how completely all the defences of this bill failed to protect it from the hands of needy ministers, and how the debt throve far beyond its former bounds, in the hands of this very person who endeavoured to set bounds to it. It is a singular circumstance that the two opponents who most ably showed the fallacy of the scheme, Fox and Sheridan, knew more than any men living the difficulty of limiting private debts, except Pitt himself, who was hopelessly over head and ears in money embarrassments. Whilst he was so confident of managing a nation's finances, his own were in the most deplorable condition. Though he was not married, had, therefore, no expensive family of his own, had no expensive habits, was neither gambler nor horseracer, and lived in the most simple style, he was plundered by his servants and tradesmen, in compact, to an extent which could not for a week have escaped the attention of any man who thought at all of his affairs. Finding that he could not make his income meet the demands upon him, though he kept little company, and frequently dined out, he asked his friend, Robert Smith, afterwards baron Carrington, to examine his accounts, and this able man of business soon stood in speechless astonishment at the bills which came before him. One month's account from his butcher amounted to three thousand eight hundred pounds of meat! This butcher's bill averaged ninety-six pounds a-week, and those of all the other purveyors for his household were on a like scale. Smith declared that the bills altogether exceeded everything that he could ever have imagined.

Pitt's master, the king, was little better off. Notwithstanding the repeated grants to clear the civil list, and its augmentation to nine hundred thousand pounds per annum, Pitt had to request a fresh grant of two hundred and ten thousand pounds. There were many expressions of discontent and astonishment at these continual demands for the royal household, and the fact of the prince of Wales now being engaged in the building of Carlton House, a palace which his allowance was insufficient to maintain, added to these censures, as this augured similar applications from that quarter at no distant period.

In order to enable the revenue to furnish the required million surplus for the sinking fund, Pitt found it necessary to propose to extend the excise laws to foreign wine, which had hitherto been under the jurisdiction of the customhouse. He contended that, on a moderate calculation, the sum lost to the revenue by the frauds in the trade in wine amounted to upwards of two hundred and eighty thousand pounds per annum. To remedy this, and to prevent at once smuggling and the adulteration of wine, that the excise officers should have free access to the cellars of all who sold wine, but not into private ones. To abate that repugnance to the law which all excise laws awaken in the public mind, Pitt stated that the change would not amount to more than thirteen thousand pounds a-year, and that not more than one hundred and seventy additional officers would be required, who could add little to the influence of the crown, as they were by law incapable of voting at elections.

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