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History of Free Trade page 2

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It will probably be difficult for future generations to conceive the extreme folly of some of these taxes. Up to 1833 a tax, producing less than £30,000 per annum, was levied upon that useful little manual in daily life, the almanack. Miserable as this sum was, and scarcely paying the labour of collecting the duty and defending it from encroachment, it constituted, as far as the bulk of the people were concerned, an absolute prohibition, for the duty amounted to no less than Is. 3d. on each copy. Whether our forefathers regarded an almanack as a peculiarly dangerous and heretical publication does not appear; but it can hardly be believed that such a tax could have been devised save for the express purpose of preventing the use of almanacks throughout the kingdom. In Prance the almanack has always been made a vehicle of popular instruction and amusement. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the sale of publications of this kind, in every variety of form, reckons in that country by millions; and readers must be familiar with the names of comic almanacks, merchants' almanacks, and trade and class almanacks, of all kinds, which have sprung up in England since the remission of the duty. But the primary use of the almanack is, of course, its diary, an occasional reference to which can scarcely be dispensed with by any person, however humble his position in life. This, however, the Legislature thought fit to deny the people. A few almanacks, indeed, existed, which had regularly appeared for nearly two centuries; for the effect of all these unnatural restrictions is to destroy all enterprise, and to throw the whole production into one or two hands, constituting a virtual monopoly. Among the most important of these were those known as Moore's and Partridge's. The latter had borne on the title the words " By John Partridge," ever since the days of Swift, who published a well-known satirical account of the pretended death of Partridge, who claimed to be an astrologer. The Stationers' Company, who were the chief publishers of these almanacks, had originally claimed the sole right to issue publications of the kind, under a patent of monopoly granted by King James I.; and they appear to have enjoyed their privilege till the year 1775, when a bookseller having disputed its legality, the cause was decided against the company. Shortly afterwards, Lord North brought in a bill to legalise the privilege, but the House rejected the absurd proposal of the Ministers by a majority of 45. All these almanacks, except the " British Almanack," started, a few years before the repeal of the duty, by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, were wretched pamphlets, printed upon coarse paper, without a wrapper, and were filled with the jargon of astrology, and other puerile and useless matter, exactly as they had been in the days of Queen Anne. Although the matter they were composed of was far less than is now given in a single number of a penny journal, they were issued at the price of 1s. 10d. each copy. A copy of Partridge's almanack for the year 1815 bears the title " Merlinus Liberatus: an Almanack for the Year of our Redemption 1815, being the third after Bissextile, or Leap Year, and from the Creation of the World, according to the best History, 5762, and the 127th of Our Deliverance by King William from Popery and Arbitrary Government, but the 137th from the Horrid Popish Jacobite plot; wherein are contained all things fitting and useful for such a work; as an Ephemeris of the Daily Motions of the Planets, with their various Configurations, Aspects, &c.; Remarks on the Divisions of the Heavens, with Judgments of the Eclipses and Seasons, handled according to the Rules of the Ptolomean Astrology, with many other things relating to the Truth of Astrology, calculated for the Meridian of London. By John Partridge. London: Printed for the Company of Stationers." The body of the publication was covered with " Observations," such as are now only to be met with in almanacks published for the most credulous and ignorant. For example: " Various intelligence arrives this month from most parts of Europe, and many nations are now consulting their future happiness; but there is cause to doubt there will not be that candour and humanity amongst them as might be." Moore's - the only other almanack, indeed, worth mentioning which existed up to a very short period before the repeal - was filled with similar absurdities; yet even business men were compelled to buy such trash, or go without the necessary information which it contained. Of course, the proprietors of these old-established almanacks strongly resisted any change. Notwithstanding, the duty was abolished; and the publication of almanacks sprang at once into an activity which astonished even the advocates of the abolition. The old-established almanacks doubled their circulation in the first year of their freedom from taxation; and more than 200 new ones started immediately on the repeal, of which no less than a quarter of a million of copies were sold. In the present day their circulation probably amounts to ten times that number. There is scarcely a country newspaper, or a cheap periodical, which does not publish its annual almanack; and throughout the country, tradesmen of every class adopt the plan of giving away almanacks to their customers, as a vehicle for advertising their wares. Scarcely a cottage or a servant's kitchen is now without its almanack hanging on the wall. Among the most curious results of the repeal is the multiplication of diaries, or almanacks ruled for daily memoranda, which, though little used thirty years ago, are now in great request among all persons who have engagements of any kind whatever.

The duty on pamphlets was no less objectionable for its vexatious and unproductive character; indeed, it is impossible to doubt that the object of this tax was not to increase the revenue, but simply to check this kind of publication. The duty on pamphlets was imposed in 1815, immediately after the passing of the infamous Corn Law of that year. The bill enacted that every book containing one whole sheet, and not exceeding eight sheets in octavo, or any lesser size, or not exceeding twelve sheets in quarto, or twenty sheets in folio, should be deemed a pamphlet; and imposed a duty of 3s. upon each sheet of one copy of all pamphlets published. Of course, such a trifling duty could only seriously affect the poorest class of publishers, and the cheapest kind of broadsheet, or similar popular publication. The whole amount produced by the duty was less than £1,000 per annum; but it gave the authorities the right to interfere with a species of publication which was frequently annoying to the Government, and on this ground the duty was maintained till 1833, when it was repealed.

The stamp on newspapers was a far more effectual bar to the spread of sound knowledge on political questions. If the people of England at the period under review were prejudiced and ignorant on the subject of those monopolies which lay at the root of their troubles, it was certainly less their fault than that of their rulers. Those who are now accustomed to buy an enormous sheet filled with news and original articles on public affairs for a penny, find it difficult to realise the fact that in 1836 every copy of a newspaper published throughout the kingdom paid a duty to Government of fourpence, signified by a little red stamp in one corner of the sheet. It was impossible at that period, without a violation of the stamp laws, to sell any newspaper for less than 7d. or 7½d. per copy - some were much higher priced. The Spectator - a journal which advocated with remarkable ability the principles of free trade - was published at Is. It was not only political information which was thus restrained; "the numerous advertisements in newspapers, the variety of facts and information they contain," says Mr. M'Culloch, "as to the supply and demand of commodities in all quarters of the world, their prices, and the regulations by which they are affected, render newspapers indispensable to commercial men. supersede great mass of epistolary correspondence, raise merchants in remote places toward an equality with those in the great marts, and wonderfully quicken all the movements of commerce." But newspapers, even under these heavy burdens, had become themselves a considerable commercial article in Great Britain. In the printing and distribution of them, and in the demand they created for paper, machinery, and other things, they already occasioned a large amount of industry. Of course, none but the comparatively wealthy purchased these high-priced papers. In 1833, when the population of the United States was very far less than at present, the total number of newspapers circulating in the Union was estimated at from 55,000,000 to 60,000,000; while the total number issued in Great Britain and Ireland, to a population of 74,000,000, was only 34,515,000. It is surprising, indeed, that so large a number should have been issued under restrictions so powerful. The fact can only be accounted for by the practice which largely prevailed of hiring papers, both weekly and daily, for the trifling payment per hour, and, in some cases, of combining for purchasing some particular journal. It is not to be wondered at that every kind of evasion of the stamp duty was attempted. " Owing to the great craving of the people for information on political subjects," says Mr. Porter, " during the agitation which accompanied the introduction and passing of the Reform Bill, a great temptation was offered for the illegal publication of newspapers upon unstamped paper, many of which were sold in large numbers, in defiance of all the preventive efforts made by the officers of Government." The stamp duty placed the legally published journals beyond the reach of the working classes, who eagerly availed themselves of the low-priced papers offered; which, however inferior in quality they might be, gave, or professed to give, the information which was so eagerly sought. As it was felt to be impossible to put down the illegal publications, without having recourse to a system of harshness which might produce even more violent and more widely-spread feelings of dissatisfaction, the Government wisely gave way, and effectually and at once put an end to the illegal publications by reducing the duty from fourpence to a penny per sheet.

This change appears to have been effected less with a view to the benefits which subsequently resulted from it, than for the sake of putting down a contraband trade which had baffled all the devices of the law. A sort of unstamped newspaper war had long been maintained between the Government and the illegal publishers. The large powers given by the Acts of Parliament to the revenue officers were rigorously applied: printers' types, presses, and other stock in trade, were seized by armed forces of police and military, and destroyed, and the printers thrown into prison. The prisons in London and the provincial towns, particularly Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, were seldom untenanted by some of the persons popularly called the " victims of the unstamped." Large numbers of women and very young persons were put in prison for selling by retail papers without a stamp. But all law, legal devices, severity, even the stretching of law to a point almost illegal, failed to repress the adventurers in unstamped papers. At this period 3s. 6d. had to be paid on every advertisement by which people were in the habit of communicating their wants to each other; in addition to this the compulsory stamp on each copy was 4d., and the duty on the pound of paper 3d. The Examiner newspaper - a journal which advocated the principles of free trade with remarkable ability - was the first journal which systematically called attention to press taxation, inscribing its price on the first page thus: - "Taxes on knowledge, 4d.; print and paper, 3d." One case, illustrating the crusade against this useful exercise of industry and capital, is worth mentioning. On the 9th of July, 1831, a newspaper was started by a writer named Hetherington, bearing on its front page the title - " The Poor Maris Guardian: a Weekly Newspaper for the People. Published contrary to ' law,' to try the power of 'Might' against 'Right.' " Notwithstanding the vigilance of the Government, this unlawful paper was continued till the 26th of December, 1835; and within this period 500 persons suffered imprisonment for selling it. Hetherington was four times convicted of publishing it - twice imprisoned for six months. The frequent prosecution of the vendors of the Poor Maris Guardian compelled them to conduct the issue of the paper to the public with extreme caution. The sellers hid them in their hats, their pockets, or inside their shirts, and retailed them one by one, as opportunity offered; while the publishing office in the Strand was constantly watched by the police. Here amusing scenes often took place. Sham parcels were made up, and men and boys were started off with them at furious speed, the police following hard upon their heels. While this was going on at the front of the house, the real parcels were frequently sent off by a door at the back. Scouts were, therefore, constantly on the look-out as to the whereabouts of the police, and as the only telegram the publisher desired had reference to their movements, the issue took place by day or by night, as circumstances made this possible. Hetherington himself frequently entered the premises in the dress of a Quaker, and had to make his way out by the same way as the papers themselves. He was at length brought to trial in the Court of Exchequer, before Lord Lyndhurst and a special jury. The trial took place on the 17th of June, 1834, the information being filed by Her Majesty's Attorney-General. Hetherington conducted his own defence, and the prosecution failed, the jury returning a verdict for the defendant, on the ground that they did not think that the Poor Maris Guardian came within the act.

The paper duty operated as a far more effectual clog upon literary industry. It was not until 1861 that this tax was entirely abolished, but the evils to which Mr. Gladstone put an end were only a trifling portion of those which existed still unreformed in 1835. The duty, which was calculated to vary from 30 to 200 per cent, ad valorem, had an injurious effect on many other trades besides that of the paper-maker. But the greatest evil of all was the high price of books which it occasioned. This placed a great obstacle in the way of the progress of knowledge, of useful and necessary arts, and of sober and industrious habits. It has been remarked that books carry the productions of the human mind over the whole world, and may be truly called the raw material of every kind of science and art, and of all social improvement. But the legislature appears to have determined to give every possible discouragement to the issue of books and periodicals - particularly those of a popular or educational character, upon which these impositions fell with far greater force than upon the costly publications circulating among the wealthy. For instance, it is stated by Mr. Petter, in a pamphlet entitled " Some Objections to the Repeal of the Paper Duty Considered," that " Cassell's Elements of Euclid," chiefly used as a school-book, contributed to the tax 12½ per cent, of the price of each copy. The duty upon a raw material, it must be remembered, by no means represents the amount of charge which it entails on the manufacturer. Mr. Charles Knight says: " From 1833 to 1837, the price of a ream of Penny Cyclojpœdia paper was 33s.; from 1838 to 1846, it was 24s. The difference in price was 9s. per ream; the amount of reduced duty was 4s. 4½d. The paper-maker and the stationers doubled the tax." The same writer adds, " Upon a tolerably accurate calculation, I have, from my own unaided resources, expended, during the last twenty years, £80,000 upon copyright and editorial labour. During the same period I have paid £50,000 paper duty, which sum has become a double charge to me by the inevitable operation of a tax upon the raw material."

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