Samuel Johnson.

The Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 11. Parlimentary Debates II online

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justification of an expedient, that it was practised in the victorious
reign of queen Anne.

If we inquire into the consequences of that law, we shall find no
inducement to revive it on this or any future occasion. For it had no
other effect than that of exposing us to our enemies by dividing our
forces; a disadvantage of which we soon found the effects, by the loss
of two large ships of seventy guns, and of a multitude of trading
vessels, which, by that diminution of our naval armament, necessarily
fell into the hands of privateers and small cruisers, that ravaged the
ocean without fear or molestation.

If we examine the present establishment of our navy, my lords, it will
be discovered, that nothing is proposed in this bill, which is not more
efficaciously performed by the methods now in use, and more judiciously
established by laws, of which long experience has shown the usefulness.
This, my lords, will easily appear from the perusal of the orders which
every commander of a convoy regularly receives, and of the printed
rules, established by his majesty in council, for the royal navy.

In these, my lords, much more is comprehended than can properly be
inferred in a law not occasionally variable; nor do I think any thing
omitted, which an experienced and candid inquirer will think useful to
the increase of our naval strength, or necessary to the protection of
our commerce.

In considering this bill, I shall not trouble your lordships with a
minute consideration of every single paragraph, though every paragraph
might furnish opportunity for animadversions; but shall content myself
with endeavouring to evince the reasonableness of some of the objections
made by the noble lord who spoke first, and enforcing his opinion with
such arguments as have occurred to me, though, indeed, it requires no
uncommon sagacity to discover, or superiour skill in ratiocination to
prove, that where this bill will produce any alteration in our present
scheme, it will manifestly change it for the worse.

For surely, my lords, it will not be necessary to show, by any elaborate
and refined reasoning, the absurdity of confining cruisers to particular
stations, with an absolute prohibition to depart from them, whatever may
be the certainty of destruction, or prospect of advantage.

If the intention of cruising ships is to annoy the enemies of the
nation, ought they to be deprived of the liberty of pursuing them? If
they are designed for the protection of our merchants, must they not be
allowed to attend them till they are out of danger.

Every one, my lords, has had opportunities of observing, that there are
men who are wholly engrossed by the present moment, and who, if they can
procure immoderate profit, or escape any impending danger, are without
the least solicitude with regard to futurity, and who, therefore, live
only by the hour, without any general scheme of conduct, or solid
foundation of lasting happiness, and who, consequently, are for ever
obliged to vary their measures, and obviate every new accident by some
new contrivance.

By men of this disposition, my lords, a temper by which they are
certainly very little qualified for legislators, the bill now before us
seems to have been drawn up; for their attention is evidently so engaged
by the present occurrences, that there is no place left for any regard
to distant contingencies. The conclusion of this war is to them the
period of human existence, the end of all discord and all policy. They
consider Spain as the only enemy with whom we can ever be at variance,
and have, therefore, drawn up a law, a law without any limitation of
time, to enable us to oppose her. They have with great industry and long
searches discovered, that cruisers on this side cape Finisterre, may be
of use against the Spaniards, and propose, therefore, that in all times
of war they are to be despatched to that individual station, though we
should be engaged in disputes with the northern crowns, or fit out
fleets to make conquests in the East Indies.

In all our wars, my lords, however judiciously concerted, and however
happily concluded, the pleasures of success have been abated by the
mortification of losses, and some complaints have been at all times
mingled with the shouts of triumph. How much soever the glory of the
nation has been elevated, the fortunes of particular persons have been
impaired, and those have never thought themselves recompensed by the
general advantages of the publick, who have suffered by the acquisition
of them; they have always imagined themselves marked out for ruin by
malevolence and resentment, and have concluded that those disasters
which fell upon them only by the common chance of war, were brought on
them by negligence or design.

The losses of our merchants in the present war must be acknowledged to
have been more than common, but if we examine accurately into the causes
that may be assigned for so great a number of captures, we shall find
them such as this law will have no tendency to remove, such as might be
easily imagined before the commencement of hostilities, and such as it
will be extremely difficult on any future occasion of the same kind, to
hinder from producing the same effects.

The first and greatest cause, my lords, of the number of our losses, is
the number of our ships, which cannot all be sufficiently protected. The
extent, therefore, of our commerce, in proportion to that of our
enemies, exposes us to double disadvantage; we necessarily lie open in
more parts to the depredations of privateers, and have no encouragement
to attempt reprisals, because they have few ships of value to be seized.
The profit of our commerce naturally withholds our sailors from our
ships of war, and makes part of our navy an idle show; the certainty of
plunder incites them to turn their merchant ships into cruisers, and to
suspend their trade for more profitable employment. Thus they at once
increase the number of plunderers, and take away from us the opportunity
of repairing our losses by the same practice.

And, my lords, if the losses of our merchants have been greater than in
former wars, our trade is more extensive, and our ships far more
numerous. Nor is it to be forgotten that a very important part of our
commerce is carried on before the eyes of the Spaniards, so that they
may issue out upon our merchants from their own coasts, and retire
immediately beyond danger of pursuit.

But, my lords, neither the situation of Spain, nor the extent of our
commerce, would have made this war so destructive, had not our merchants
sometimes facilitated the attempts of our enemies by their own
negligence or avarice.

I have been informed, my lords, that as the masters of trading vessels
complain of having been deserted by their convoys, the captains of the
ships of war have, in their turn, exhibited such representations of the
conduct of the trading masters, as may prove that their caution is not
proportioned to their clamour, and that in however melancholy terms they
may recount the miseries of captivity, the calamities of ruined
families, and the interruption of the trade of Britain, they will not
endeavour to escape their enemies at the expense of much circumspection,
and that the prospect of no large profit will be sufficient to
overbalance the danger of those evils which they so pathetically lament.

It is not uncommon, my lords, when the fleet has entered the open seas,
for the traders to take different courses both from the convoy and from
each other, and to disperse themselves beyond the possibility of
receiving assistance in danger or distress; and what wonder is it if
part of them be lost, since only part of them can be protected?

It may be imagined, my lords, that this is only an excuse forged by the
commanders to cover their own negligence or treachery. It may be asked,
what motives could induce the merchants to expose themselves to
unnecessary dangers, or what proofs they have ever given of such wild
negligence of their own interest or safety, as that they should be
suspected of rushing precipitately into the jaws of rapine?

This, my lords, is an objection specious in itself, and such as those
who have not inquired into the present state of our traffick will not
very readily discover to be fallacious; but it may easily be removed, by
showing that the danger of being taken by the enemy is generally not so
great to those who have the direction of the ship as it is commonly

By the present custom of insurance, my lords, the merchant exempts
himself from the hazard of great losses, and if he insures so much of
the value of the ship and cargo, that the chance of arriving first at
market is equivalent to the remaining part, what shall hinder him from
pressing forward at all events, and directing his course intrepidly
through seas crowded with enemies?

It is well known, my lords, that there is, in a great part of mankind, a
secret malignity, which makes one unwilling to contribute to the
advantage of another, even when his own interest will suffer no
diminution; nor is it to be imagined, that this disposition is less
predominant in traders than in the other classes of the community,
though it is exerted on different occasions. The envy of one part of
mankind is excited by reputation, or interest, or dignity, or power. The
trader, for the most part, envies nothing but money, in which he has
been taught from his infancy that every human excellence is
comprehended, and contributes to the increase of the riches of another,
with the same unwillingness with which a soldier would concur in the
advancement of an inferiour officer to a post of higher rank and
authority than his own.

For this reason, my lords, there is generally a malevolence in the
merchant against the insurer, whom he considers as an idle caterpillar,
living without industry upon the labours of others, and, therefore, when
he lays down the sum stipulated for security, he is almost in suspense,
whether he should not prefer the loss of the remaining part of the value
of his vessel to the mortification of seeing the insurer enjoy that
money, which fear and caution have influenced him to pay.

This disposition, undoubtedly, inclines him to proceed with less regard
to his own security, and betrays him into dangers which it was, at
least, possible to avoid; for to what purpose, says he, have I insured
my ship if I am not to be set free from the necessity of anxiety and
caution? If I arrive safely at the port, I shall dispose of my
commodities with uncommon advantage; if I miscarry, the insurer will at
least suffer with me, and be deservedly punished for his suspicions and

I doubt not but some of your lordships will imagine, that I am now
indulging chimerical speculations, that I am ascribing great force to
weak motives, and supposing men to act upon principles which, in
reality, never operated in the human breast. When I think
disadvantageously of others, my lords, I am, indeed, always desirous to
find myself mistaken, and shall be pleased to hear on this occasion from
any of your lordships, who have conversed at large among mankind, that
it is not common for one man to neglect his own interest for fear of
promoting that of another. In the present question, my lords, I have
only supposed that envy may be one motive among many, and wish its
influence were so small, as that it might have been less proper to
mention it.

The practice of insurance, my lords, whether it contributes or not to
the number of the captures, undoubtedly increases the clamour which they
occasion; for as the loss is extended, the complaint is multiplied, and
both the merchant and insurer take the liberty of censuring the conduct
of the naval officers, and of condemning the measures of the government.
The ministry is charged with neglecting the protection of commerce, with
oppressing the merchants, and with conniving at the enemy's
preparations; that they who most eagerly solicited the war, may be the
first that shall repent it.

Another cause of the frequency of our losses in the present war, is the
general circulation of intelligence throughout Europe, by which it is
made impossible to conceal from our enemies the state of our armies, our
navies, or our trade. Every regiment that is raised, every ship that is
built, every fleet of trading vessels that lies waiting for the wind, is
minutely registered in the papers of the week, and accounts of it
transmitted to every nation of the world, where curiosity or interest
will pay for information. The Spaniards, therefore, need only regulate
their schemes according to their instructions from Britain, and watch
those fleets which are frequently sent out, for they may be confident
that some masters will wander from their protectors, enticed by avarice,
negligence, or temerity, and that they shall have opportunities of
enriching themselves without the necessity of engaging the convoy.

To protect ships which are to be steered each at the will of the master,
is no less impossible, my lords, than to conduct an army of which every
private man is at liberty to march according to his own caprice, to form
and pursue his own plan of operation, and to dispute and neglect the
orders of his leader. Nor is it more reasonable to subject the captains
of the ships of war to penalties for the loss of a vessel, over which
they have no authority, than to require from an officer in the army an
account of the lives of men, who perished by disobeying his commands.

In my opinion, my lords, we might, with far greater probability of
success, revive a precedent that may be found in the reign of king
William, in which it was appointed by an order of council, that the name
of every ship which went out with a convoy should be registered, and
that the owners should give security to provide a sufficient number of
arms and a proper quantity of ammunition to assist the imperial ships in
annoying or repelling the enemy; with one injunction more of the utmost
importance to the efficacious protection of our commerce, and which,
therefore, in every war ought to be repeated and enforced; an injunction
by which the masters of the ships of trade were required to obey the
directions of the commander of the convoy.

That some measures ought to be concerted for the preservation of our
trade I am very far from denying, and shall willingly concur in such as
shall to me appear likely to promote the end proposed by them. Our
losses, my lords, are undoubtedly great, though I believe far less than
they are reported by discontent and malevolence; for if a ship be
delayed by an accidental hinderance, or kept back by contrary winds for
a few days, there are men so watchful to snatch every opportunity of
reproaching the measures of the government, that a clamour is
immediately raised, the ship is taken, the merchants are sacrificed, and
the nation betrayed.

While this report is conveyed from one to another, and, like other
falsehoods, increasing in its progress; while every man adds some
circumstance of exaggeration, or some new proof of the treachery of the
ministry, the ship enters the port, and puts an end, indeed, to the
anxiety of the owners and insurers, but by no means pacifies the people,
or removes their prejudices against the conduct of their governours; for
as no man acknowledges himself the first author of the report, no man
thinks himself under any obligation to retract or confute it, and the
passions of the multitude, being once in commotion, cannot be calmed
before another opportunity of the same kind may be offered for agitating
them afresh.

To the expectations of the people, my lords, it is always proper to have
some regard, nor is there any valuable use of power but that of
promoting happiness, and preventing or removing calamities; but we are
not to endeavour to pacify them by the appearance of redress, which, in
reality, will only increase those evils of which they complain, nor to
depress the reputation of this assembly by passing laws which the
experience of a single month will prove to be of no use.

Of this kind, my lords, the bill now before us has been shown by the
noble lord that spoke first on this occasion; by whom every clause has
been discovered to be either defective or unnecessary, and who has
evinced, beyond all possibility of reply, that the regulations here
proposed can be divided only into two kinds, of which one is already
established either by law or prescription, and the other cannot be
admitted without apparent injury both to our navy and our trade.

Part of the clauses the noble duke has, indeed, attempted to defend, but
has been obliged by his regard to reason and to truth, to make such
concessions, as are, in my opinion, sufficient arguments for the
rejection of the bill. He has admitted of almost every clause that it is
imperfect, that it may be amended by farther consideration, and that,
though not wholly to be neglected, it yet requires some farther
improvements to become effectual to the advantage of our merchants.

The last three clauses, his natural abilities and just discernment
immediately showed him to be indefensible; and he has too much regard to
the interest of his country to attempt the vindication of a bill, which
could not be passed without weakening it by impairing its naval force,
and, yet more sensibly, by diminishing the reputation of its

I hope, therefore, my lords, that I shall not undergo the common censure
of disregard to our commercial interest, or be ranked amongst the
enemies of the merchants, though I declare, that in my opinion, this
bill ought to be rejected as unnecessary and injudicious, and that we
should only, by considering in a committee what no consideration can
amend, waste that time in a fruitless attempt, which may be spent much
more usefully upon other subjects.

Lord CARTERET spoke next, to the following purpose: - My lords, though I
do not approve equally of every part of the bill now before us, though I
think some of the provisions unnecessary, others unlikely to produce any
beneficial effects, and some already established by former acts of the
senate, or rules of the admiralty, yet I cannot agree with the noble
lord that it is unworthy of farther consideration.

In my opinion, my lords, it is necessary, for many reasons, to amend
this bill rather than reject it; and I hope, that when I shall have laid
before you the result of those inquiries and those reflections which I
have made on this occasion, your lordships will judge it not improper to
refer it to a committee.

Nothing, my lords, is more necessary to the legislature than the
affection and esteem of the people; all government consists in the
authority of the _few_ over the _many_, and authority, therefore, can be
founded only on opinion, and must always fall to the ground, when that
which supports it is taken away.

For this reason, my lords, it is worthy of this most august and awful
assembly, to endeavour to convince the people of our solicitude for
their happiness, and our compassion for their sufferings; lest we should
seem elevated by the casual advantages of birth and fortune above regard
to the lower classes of mankind; lest we should seem exalted above
others only to neglect them, and invested with power only to exert it in
acts of wanton oppression; lest high rank should in time produce hatred
rather than reverence, and superiority of fortune only tempt rapine and
excite rebellion.

The bill now under our consideration, my lords, cannot be rejected
without danger of exasperating the nation, without affording to the
discontented and malevolent an opportunity of representing this house as
regardless of the publick miseries, and deaf to the cries of our
fellow-subjects languishing in captivity, and mourning in poverty. The
melancholy and dejected will naturally conceive us inebriated with
affluence, and elated with dignity, endeavouring to remove from our eyes
every spectacle of misery, and to turn aside from those lamentations
which may interrupt the enjoyment of our felicity.

Nor, indeed, can it be justly said, that such representations are
without grounds, when we consider the important occasion on which this
bill is drawn up, the bitterness of those calamities which it is
intended to redress, and the authority by which it is recommended to us.

It may naturally be expected, my lords, that the title of a bill for the
protection and security of trade, should raise an uncommon degree of
ardour and attention; it might be conceived that every lord in this
house would be ambitious of signalizing his zeal for the interest of his
country, by proposing, on this occasion, every expedient which
experience or information had suggested to him; and that instead of
setting ourselves free from the labour of inquiry and the anxiety of
deliberation, by raising objections to the bill and rejecting it, we
should labour with unanimous endeavours, and incessant assiduity, to
supply its defects, and correct its improprieties; to show that a design
so beneficial can never be proposed to us without effect, and that
whenever we find honest zeal, we shall be ready to assist it with
judgment and experience.

Compassion might likewise concur to invigorate our endeavours on this
occasion. For who, my lords, can reflect on families one day flourishing
in affluence, and contributing to the general prosperity of their
country, and on a sudden, without the crime of extravagance or
negligence, reduced to penury and distress, harassed by creditors, and
plundered by the vultures of the law, without wishing that such
misfortunes might by some expedient be averted? But this, my lords, is
not the only nor the greatest calamity, which this bill is intended to
prevent. The loss of wealth, however grievous, is yet less to be dreaded
than that of liberty, and indigence added to captivity is the highest
degree of human misery. Yet even this, however dreadful, is now the lot
of multitudes of our fellow-subjects, who are languishing with want in
the prisons of Spain.

Surely, my lords, every proposal must be well received that intends the
prevention or relief of calamities like these. Surely the ruin of its
merchants must alarm every trading nation, nor can a British senate sit
unconcerned at the captivity of those men by whom liberty is chiefly

Of the importance of the merchants, by whom this bill is recommended to
our consideration, and by whose influence it has already passed the
other house, it is not necessary to remind your lordships, who know,
that to this class of men our nation is indebted for all the advantages
that it possesses above those which we behold with compassion or
contempt, for its wealth and power, and perhaps for its liberty and
civility. To the merchants, my lords, we owe that our name is known
beyond our own coasts, and that our influence is not confined to the
narrow limits of a single island.

Let us not, therefore, my lords, reject with contempt what is proposed
and solicited by men of this class; men whose experience and knowledge
cannot but have enabled them to offer something useful and important,
though, perhaps, for want of acquaintance with former laws, they may
have imagined those provisions now first suggested, which have only been
forgotten, and petitioned for the enaction of a new law, when they
needed only an enforcement of former statutes.

That our naval force has, in the present war, been misapplied; that our
commerce has been exposed to petty spoilers, in a degree never known
before; that our convoys have been far from adding security to our
traders; and that with the most powerful fleet in the world, we have
suffered all that can fall upon the most defenceless nation, cannot be

Nor is it any degree of temerity, my lords, to affirm, that these
misfortunes have been brought upon us by either negligence or treachery;
for, besides that no other cause can be assigned for the losses which a
powerful people suffer from an enemy of inferiour force, there is the
strongest authority for asserting, that our maritime affairs have been
ill conducted, and that, therefore, the regulation of them is very
seasonably and properly solicited by the merchants.

For this assertion, my lords, we may produce the authority of the other
house, by which a remonstrance was drawn up against the conduct of the
commissioners of the admiralty. This alone ought to influence us to an
accurate discussion of this affair. But when an authority yet more
venerable is produced, when it appears that his majesty, by the

Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonThe Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 11. Parlimentary Debates II → online text (page 15 of 46)