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The national debt at the termination of the American war of independence, amounted to about £250,000,000. The war cost about 120,000,000, incurred in an attempt to force the Americans to bear part of a taxation, the consequence of old Continental struggles, the object of which can only be ascertained by ransacking the secret archives of European cabinets.
The discoveries in machinery, the improvement of our manufactures, and the consequent extension of our commerce, since the accession of George the Third, enabled the citizens, from their increased means, to bear the taxation with comparative ease.* This was quickly perceived by the governing party, who, in a dishonest spirit, after having entered into that terrible struggle with France which has caused such miseries to this country, fixed by law a limit to the tax on land, and rated the amount at about the same as it had been ninety years before. The amount of land-tax to be for ever collected, was limited to about £2,000,000 a year, with the privilege of redemption by land-owners; and at the end of fifty years from the passing of the law, the amount, as already stated, has dwindled down to about £1,200,000. These facts cannot be too often repeated, and pressed on the attention of the people of this country.
The country became involved in a terrible war with the most powerful and enthusiastic nation in Europe, and it saw no prospect of a termination to it; but, on the contrary, the lives and properties of the existing generation appeared completely pledged in the struggle. And in such appalling circumstances, a law was made to limit the responsibility of the very men who led the country into them! It is true, that the income-tax was laid on; but the landowners virtually did not pay as much as the citizens who had no voice in the making of the law, and who derived their incomes from trade, to which they applied all their time and industry.
* And in this spirit of taxing industry, the landed interest, in the year 1791, passed a law prohibiting the importation of wheat into this country, if the price were below 54s. a quarter in the home market.
A war is a great calamity to a nation, however glorious its actions may be. It may be undertaken for objects in which the mass of the citizens have no interest—it may be entered into for purposes of mere personal ambition or privilege; but so awful are its consequences, that the parties, however unprincipled they may be who engage in it, are most particular in their manifestos in giving a colour of justice and self-defence to the enterprise into which they are about to lead so many millions of men. They so plan their schemes as to provoke their enemy to strike the first blow, in order to deceive the world into a belief that the real aggressors are beginning a just and defensive war. The first act of the war that commenced in 1792-3 appeared to be by France; but if the events that preceded the declaration of that country be examined, it will be found that the British aristocratic power was like the wolf towards the lamb in the fable.
But as soon as a country is engaged in actual hostilities, and the minds of the people become excited, the cause of the quarrel is generally lost sight of, and sympathy for our gallant sailors and soldiers, and aspirations for their success, take possession of the hearts of the citizens who remain protected at home. With respect to the men who really draw the sword and handle the musket, the sentiment of the gallant Blake, in the wars of Cromwell, inspires them in danger—" That it is still their duty to fight for their country, into what hands soever the government may fall."
to our sailors—the settlement of peace in 1815, without securing for our commerce those advantages, which so many sacrifices for foreign countries entitled us to demand—the establishment of laws, to restrict or even prohibit the introduction into the country of corn and other provisions— the entailment of a debt, the interest of which is now paid from the contribution of every poor man, woman, and child, in the shape of taxes on their bread, and on almost every article consumed by them—the establishment of a system of lavish expenditure in all departments of government—a pension-list of royal and noble paupers—and many other things which astonish the weak minds of sensitive people, both at home and abroad—all these events and acts may be supposed by the young students of British history, to have been performed and concluded by and with the consent and sanction of the people of this country, under its government of King, Lords, and Commons—the wonder of the world, and the envy of the surrounding nations. And that consequently the people must bear, without repining, the results of their own wisdom or their own folly.
It is true, that more than one hundred years previous to the year 1815, the British House of Commons was composed of several hundred men, who sat, talked, and made laws, and were seemingly the representatives of the so many millions of inhabitants of England, Wales, and Scotland, and of Ireland, since the beginning of this century.
These six hundred and fifty-eight men, who assembled in an old chapel at Westminster, were no more the representatives of the English, Scotch, and Irish people, than they were of the inhabitants of Hindostan; and indeed they might partly claim to be the representatives of some of the people of that far country, for some nabobs there, in possession of English rotten boroughs, actually returned certain members to parliament.
Our young countryfolks must know, that, forty or fifty years ago, it was the fashion in high life, for families to have negroes for footmen. The taste has changed within these twenty years in this respect, and, what is worse, circumstances have so altered, that our white brethren at home would be glad to change places with negroes, as far as abundance of subsistence and comforts go. But the story goes, that a member of the Commons House boasted, from his knowledge of the system, that he could return his black footman to parliament, and maintain the legality of the election. It is to be wondered that the thing was not done at the period alluded to. Sambo, grinning his maiden speech, would really have been a picturesque object on the ministerial benches, in the latter days of Pitt, or under Liverpool, fixing the importation of wheat at 80s. a quarter.
There was even a degree of sublimity in the very abuses of our system: the genius of a political Milton might have become inspired by the subject^ and have given to the world a poem on "Parliament Lost, and Liberty Regained." The pen drops from the hand, conscious of its inability to delineate the system—a system which a Wellington declared to be perfect, and incapable of improvement, and which Peel defended with all that energy and oratorical flourish characteristic of a man in dread of the ruin of his country by some humble but honest countryman acquiring the right to give an independent vote. This system put at defiance all rule, and it could be reduced to no principles of population, property, or moral character of the inhabitants, as the basis of the representation: and yet it was a system of perfection in the estimation of those parties who
had the working of it. It was even maintained that it was the cause of the greatness and prosperity of the British nation. But the people themselves, by their activity and intelligent perseverance, were the cause or moving-spring of the greatness of the country, and they prospered in spite of every dead-weight laid on them, and against every drawback.
In sketching the outlines of the system of representation, let a map of Great Britain be supposed to be open. We will take the two extremities of the island, to begin with— the county of Cornwall in the south-west, and the whole of the ancient kingdom of Scotland in the north. Although neither size nor population were considered, it may be well to compare the two places mentioned; the population of 1811 is taken in both. Cornwall contained about 852,000 acres, and 216,000 population; Scotland contained about 19,700,000 acres, 1,810,000 population. But Cornwall returned to parliament forty-two members, and Scotland forty-five members: the Cornish were—from boroughs forty, and from the county two. It is not worth the trouble to inquire to whom the boroughs belonged: the men sent to parliament were not the representatives of the inhabitants of those places, but were merely the nominees of certain individuals who made a business of the system.* The inhabitants of Cornwall, generally, are a useful and hardworking class of people, engaged in digging for copper and tin in the bowels of the earth. No rational person will maintain that they required forty-two men to represent their
• Even in the reign of that fanatical tyrant James II. the representation of Cornwall was made an instrument of the Court. Among the events and occurrences of 1685, there is the following observations in Wade's British History: "In Cornwall, the Earl of Bath put the names of the Officers of the Guards in most of the charters of that county, so that the king was sure of forty-four votes on all occasions."