Samuel Johnson.

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

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destroying them.

All my inquiries, my lords, have had one constant and uniform Effect.
On what side soever I have turned my speculations, I have found new
arguments against this bill, and have discovered new mischiefs
comprised in it; mischiefs which, however some may endeavour to
overlook them, and others to despise them, will be found in a short
time too general to be concealed, and too formidable to be neglected.

The first consideration, in which the necessity of deliberating on
this bill engaged me, related to the quality of the liquors which are
mentioned in it. With regard to this question, my lords, there was no
possibility of long suspense; for the pernicious effects of spirits
were confessed equally by all those who countenanced and opposed this
new project; nor could any man take a survey of this city without
meeting in his way such objects as might make all farther inquiry
superfluous. The idleness, the insolence, the debauchery of the common
people, and their natural and certain consequences, poverty, diseases,
misery, and wickedness, are to be observed without any intention of
indulging such disagreeable speculations; in every part of this great
metropolis, whoever shall pass along the streets, will find wretches
stretched upon the pavement, insensible and motionless, and only
removed by the charity of passengers from the danger of being crushed
by carriages, or trampled by horses, or strangled with filth in the
common sewers; and others, less helpless perhaps, but more dangerous,
who have drank too much to fear punishment, but not enough to hinder
them from provoking it; who think themselves, in the elevation of
drunkenness, entitled to treat all those with contempt whom their
dress distinguishes from them, and to resent every injury which, in
the heat of their imagination, they suppose themselves to suffer, with
the utmost rage of resentment, violence of rudeness, and scurrility of

No man can pass a single hour in publick places without meeting such
objects, or hearing such expressions as disgrace human nature; such as
cannot be looked upon without horrour, or heard without indignation,
and which there is, however, no possibility of removing or preventing,
whilst this hateful liquor is publickly sold. But the visible and
obvious effects of these pernicious draughts, however offensive or
inconvenient, are yet much less to be dreaded than their more slow and
secret operations. That excess of distilled spirits inflames the poor
to insolence and fury; that it exposes them either to hurt, by making
them insensible of danger, or to punishment, by making them fearless
of authority, is not to be reckoned the most fatal consequence of
their use; for these effects, though their frequency makes it
necessary to suppress them, with regard to each individual are of no
long duration; the understanding is in a short time recovered after a
single debauch, and the drunkard may return to his employment.

But though the pleasures of drunkenness are quickly at an end, its
pains are of longer continuance. These liquors not only infatuate the
mind, but poison the body; nor do they produce only momentary fury,
but incurable debility and lingering diseases; they not only fill our
streets with madmen, and our prisons with criminals, but our hospitals
with cripples. Those who have for a time infested the publick walks
with their insults, quickly disturb them with their lamentations, and
are soon reduced from bullies to beggars, and obliged to solicit alms
from those they used to threaten and insult.

Nor does the use of spirits, my lords, only impoverish the publick, by
lessening the number of useful and laborious hands, but by cutting off
those recruits by which its natural and inevitable losses are to be
supplied. The use of distilled liquors impairs the fecundity of the
human race, and hinders that increase which providence has ordained
for the support of the world. Those women who riot in this poisonous
debauchery are quickly disabled from bearing children, by bringing on
themselves, in a short time, all the infirmities and weaknesses of
age; or, what is yet more destructive to general happiness, produce
children diseased from their birth by the vices of their parents,
children whose blood is tainted with inveterate and accumulated
maladies, for which no cure can be expected;'and who, therefore, are
an additional burden to the community, and must be supported through a
miserable life by that labour which they cannot share, and must be
protected by that community of which they cannot contribute to the

Thus, my lords, is the great source of power and wealth dried up, the
numbers of the people are every day diminished, and, by consequence,
our armies must be weakened, our trade abandoned, and our lands
uncultivated. To diminish the people of any nation is the most
atrocious political crime that it is possible to commit; for it tends
not to enslave or impoverish, but to annihilate; not to make a nation
miserable, but to make it no longer a nation.

Such, my lords, are the effects of distilled liquors; effects of which
I would not have shocked you with the enumeration, had it not been
with a design of preventing them; and surely no man will be charged
with so trivial an offence as negligence of delicacy, when he is
pleading, not for the honour or the life of a single man, but for the
peace of the present age, the health of posterity, and the existence
of the British people.

After having examined the nature of these liquors, it is natural to
inquire, how much they are in use; whether mankind appear to know
their quality, and avoid and detest them like other poisons; or
whether they are considered as inoffensive, and drank, like other
liquors, to raise the spirits, or to gladden the heart; whether they
make part of social entertainments, and whether they are handed round
at publick tables, without any suspicion of their fatal consequences.

It is well known, my lords, that these liquors have not been long in
use among the common people. Spirits were at first only imported from
foreign countries, and were, by consequence, too dear for the luxuries
of the vulgar. In time it was discovered, that it was practicable to
draw from grain, and other products of our own soil, such liquors as,
though not equally pleasing to elegant palates with those of other
nations, resembled them, at least in their inebriating quality, and
might be afforded at an easy rate, and consequently generally

This discovery, my lords, gave rise to the new trade of distilling,
which has been now for many years carried on in this nation, and of
the progress of which, since the duties were laid upon its produce, an
exact account may be easily obtained, which I thought so necessary in
our deliberations on this bill, that I have procured it to be drawn

From this account, my lords, it will be discovered, what cannot be
related without the utmost grief, that there has prevailed, for many
years, a kind of contagious infatuation among the common people, by
which they have been incited to poison themselves and their children
with distilled spirits; they have forsaken those liquors which in
former times enlivened their conversation and exalted their merriment,
and, instead of ale and beer, rioted of late in distilled spirits.

The amazing increase of the consumption of spirits for the last ten
years, is a proof too evident of the prevalence of this destructive
species of drunkenness; and I shall, therefore, without troubling your
lordships with earlier accounts, only mention in round numbers, the
vast quantities for which the duty has been paid for a few years in
that period. In the year 1733, the number of gallons distilled was
three millions and nine hundred thousand, which in 1735 was increased
to five millions and three hundred thousand; soon afterwards the law
was made which we are now persuaded to repeal, by the execution of
which, however feeble and irresolute, the number was reduced in the
first year afterwards to three millions, and might, perhaps, by steady
perseverance have been every year lessened; but in a short time the
people prevailed in the contest with the legislators, they intimidated
information, and wearied prosecution; and were at length allowed to
indulge themselves in the enjoyment of their favourite vice without
any farther molestation.

The effects of this indulgence, my lords, have been very remarkable;
nor can it be denied, that the government betrayed great weakness in
suffering the laws to be overruled by drunkenness, and the meanest and
most profligate of the people to set the statutes at defiance; for the
vice which had been so feebly opposed spread wider and wider, and
every year added regularly another million of gallons to the quantity
of spirits distilled, till in the last year they rose to seven
millions and one hundred thousand gallons.

Such, my lords, is at present the state of the nation; twelve millions
of gallons of these poisonous liquors are every year swallowed by the
inhabitants of this kingdom; and this quantity, enormous as it is,
will probably every year increase, till the number of the people shall
be sensibly diminished by the diseases which it must produce; nor
shall we find any decay of this pernicious trade, but by the general
mortality that will overspread the kingdom.

At least, if this vice should be suppressed, it must be suppressed by
some supernatural interposition of providence; for nothing is more
absurd, than to imagine, that the bill now before us can produce any
such effect. For what, my lords, encourages any man to a crime but
security from punishment, or what tempts him to the commission of it
but frequent opportunity? We are, however, about to reform the
practice of drinking spirits, by making spirits more easy to be
procured; we are about to hinder them from being bought, by exempting
the vender from all fear of punishment.

It has, indeed, been asserted, that the tax now to be laid upon these
liquors will have such wonderful effects, that those who are at
present drunk twice a-day, will not be henceforward able to commit the
same crime twice a-week; an assertion which I could not hear without
wondering at the new discoveries which ministerial sagacity can
sometimes make. In deliberations on a subject of such importance, my
lords, no man ought to content himself with conjecture, where
certainty may, at whatsoever expense of labour, be attained; nor ought
any man to neglect a careful and attentive examination of his notions,
before he offers them in publick consultations; for if they were
erroneous, and no man can he certain that he is in the right, who has
never brought his own opinions to the test of inquiry, he exposes
himself to be detected in ignorance or temerity, and to that contempt
which such detection naturally and justly produces; or if his audience
submit their reason to his authority, and neglect to examine his
assertions, in confidence that he has sufficiently examined them
himself, he may suffer what to an honest mind must be far more painful
than any personal ignominy, he may languish under the consciousness of
having influenced the publick counsels by false declarations, and
having by his negligence betrayed his country to calamities which a
closer attention might have enabled him to have foreseen.

Whether the noble lord, who alleged the certainty of reformation which
this bill will produce, ever examined his own opinion, I know not; but
think it necessary at least to consider it more particularly, to
supply that proof of it which, if it be true, he neglected to produce,
or to show, if it be found false, how little confident assertions are
to be regarded.

Between twice a-day and twice a-week, the noble lord will not deny the
proportion to be as seven to one; and, therefore, to prevent
drunkenness in the degree which he persuades us to expect, the price
of the liquor must be raised in the same proportion; but the duty laid
upon the gallon will not increase the price a fifth part, even though
it should not be eluded by distilling liquors of an extraordinary
strength; one fifth part of the price is, therefore, in his lordship's
estimate, equal to the whole price seven times multiplied. Such are
the arguments which have been produced in favour of this bill; and
such is the diligence with which the publick happiness is promoted by
those who have hopes of being enriched by publick calamities.

As the tax will not make a fifth part of the price, and even that may
be in some measure evaded, the duty paid for licenses scarcely
deserves consideration; for it is not intended to hinder retailers,
but to make them useful in some degree to the ministry, by paying a
yearly tax for the license of poisoning.

It is, therefore, apparent, upon the noble lord's supposition, that
the price of the liquor will be raised in consequence of this tax,
that no man can be hindered from more than a fifth part of his usual
debauchery, which, however, would be some advantage to the publick;
but even this small advantage cannot be expected from the bill,
because one part will obstruct the benefits that might be hoped from

The duty upon liquors, however inconsiderable, will be necessarily an
augmentation of the price to the first buyer, but probably that
augmentation will be very little felt by the consumer. For, my lords,
it must be considered, that many circumstances concur to constitute
the price of any commodity; the price of what is in itself cheap, may
be raised by the art or the condition of those that sell it; what is
engrossed by a few hands, is sold dearer than when the same quantity
is dispersed in many; and what is sold in security, and under the
protection of the law, is cheaper than that which exposes the vender
to prosecutions and penalties.

At present, my lords, distilled spirits are sold in opposition to the
laws of the kingdom; and, therefore, it is reasonable, as has been
before observed, to believe that an extraordinary profit is expected,
because no man will incur danger without advantage. It is at present
retailed, for the greatest part, by indigent persons, who cannot be
supposed to buy it in large quantities, and, consequently, not at the
cheapest rate; and who must, of necessity, gain a large profit,
because they are to subsist upon a very small stock.

These causes concurring, may be easily imagined to raise the price
more than a fifth part above the profit which is expected in other
traffick; but when this bill shall become a law, the necessity of
large profit will no longer subsist; for there will then be no danger
in retailing spirits, and they will be chiefly sold in houses by
persons who can afford to purchase them in great quantities, who can
be trusted by the distiller, for the usual time allowed in other
trades; and who, therefore, may sell them without any exorbitant

Besides, my lords, it is reasonable to imagine, that the present
profit to the retailer is very great, since, like that which arises
from the clandestine exportation of wool, it is sufficient to tempt
multitudes to a breach of the law, a contempt of penalties, and a
defiance of the magistrates; and it may be therefore imagined, that
there is room for a considerable abatement of the price, which may
subtract much more than is added by this new duty.

This deduction from the price, my lords, will probably be soon
produced by the emulation of retailers, who, when the trade becomes
safe and publick, will endeavour to attract buyers by low rates; for
what the noble lord, whose ingenious assertion I am now opposing, has
declared with respect to traders, that for a tax of a penny upon any
commodity, they oblige the consumers to advance twopence, is not
universally true; and I believe it is as likely, that the people will
insist upon having the same liquor at the usual price, without regard
to the tax, as that the venders will be able to raise their price in
an unreasonable proportion. The obstinacy of the people with regard to
this liquor, my lords, has already appeared; and I am inclined to
believe, that they who have confessedly conquered the legislature,
will not suffer themselves to be overcome in the same cause by the
avarice of alehouse keepers.

I am, therefore, confident, my lords, that this bill will produce no
beneficial effects, even in this city; and that in the country, where
the sale of spirits was hindered by the late law, or where, at least,
it might have been hindered in a great measure, it will propagate
wickedness and debauchery in a degree never yet known; the torrent of
licentiousness will break at once upon it, and a sudden freedom from
restraint will produce a wanton enjoyment of privileges which had
never been thought so valuable, had they never been taken away. Thus,
while the crowds of the capital are every day thinned by the licensed
distributors of poison, the country, which is to be considered as the
nursery in which the human species is chiefly propagated, will be made
barren; and that race of men will be intercepted, which is to defend
the liberty of the neighbouring nations in the next age, which is to
extend our commerce to other kingdoms, or repel the encroachments of
future usurpation.

The bill, my lords, will, therefore, produce none of the advantages
which those who promote it have had the confidence to promise the
publick. But let us now examine whether they have not been more
sagacious in securing the benefits which they expect from it

That one of the intentions of it is to raise a sum to supply the
present exigencies of the government is not denied; that this is the
only intention is generally believed, and believed upon the strongest
reasons; for it is the only effect which it can possibly produce; and
to this end it is calculated with all the skill of men long versed in
the laudable art of contriving taxes and of raising money.

I have already shown to your lordships, that seven millions of gallons
of spirits are annually distilled in this kingdom; this consumption,
at the small duty of sixpence a gallon, now to be imposed, will
produce a yearly revenue of £175,000. and the tax upon licenses may be
rated at a very large sum; so that there is a fund sufficient, I hope,
for the expenses which a land war is to bring upon us.

But we are not to forget, my lords, that this is only the produce of
the first year, and that the tax is likely to afford every year a
larger revenue. As the consumption of those liquors, under its late
discouragements, has advanced a million of gallons every year, it may
be reasonably imagined, that by the countenance of the legislature,
and the protection of authority, it will increase in a double
proportion; and that in ten years more, twenty millions will be
distilled every year for the destruction of the people.

Thus far, my lords, the scheme of the ministry appears prosperous; but
all prosperity, at least all the prosperity of dishonesty, must in
time have an end. The practice of drinking cannot be for ever
continued, because it will hurry the present generation to the grave,
and prevent the production of another; the revenue must cease with the
consumption, and the consumption must be at an end when the consumers
are destroyed.

But this, my lords, cannot speedily happen, nor have our ministers any
dread of miseries which are only to fall in distant times upon another
generation. It is sufficient for them, if their expedient can supply
those exigencies which their counsels have brought upon the publick;
if they pay their court to the crown with success, at whatever
disadvantage to the people, and continue in power till they have
enlarged their fortunes, and then without punishment retire to enjoy

But I hope, my lords, that we shall act upon very different
principles; that we shall examine the most distant consequences of our
resolutions, and consider ourselves, not as the agents of the crown to
levy taxes, but as the guardians of the people to promote the publick
happiness; that we shall always remember that happiness can be
produced only by virtue; and that since this bill can tend only to the
increase of debauchery, we shall, without the formality of a
commitment, unanimously reject it with indignation and abhorrence.

Lord CARTERET spoke to the following effect: - My lords, the bill now
before us has been examined with the utmost acuteness, and opposed
with all the arts of eloquence and argumentation; nor has any topick
been forgotten that could speciously be employed against it. It has
been represented by some as contrary to policy, and by others as
opposite to religion; its consequences have been displayed with all
the confidence of prediction, and the motives upon which it has been
formed, declared to be such as I hope every man abhors who projected
or defends it.

It has been asserted, that this bill owes its existence only to the
necessity of raising taxes for the support of unnecessary troops, to
be employed in useless and dangerous expeditions; and that those who
defend it have no regard to the happiness or virtue of the people, nor
any other design than to raise supplies, and gratify the ministry.

In pursuance of this scheme of argument, the consequences of this bill
have been very artfully deduced, and very copiously explained; and it
has been asserted that by passing it, we shall show ourselves the
patrons of vice, the defenders of debauchery, and the promoters of

It has been declared, that in consequence of this law, by which the
use of distilled liquors is intended to be restrained, the retailers
of them will be multiplied, and multiplied without end; till the
corruption, which is already too extensive, is become general, and the
nation is transformed into a herd of drunkards.

With regard to the uses to which the money which shall arise from this
tax is to be applied, though it has been more than once mentioned in
this debate, I shall pass it over, as without any connexion with the
question before us. To confound different topicks may be useful to
those whose design is to impose upon the inattention or weakness of
their opponents, as they may be enabled by it to alter sometimes the
state of the controversy, and to hide their fallacies in perplexity
and confusion; but always to be avoided by those who endeavour to
discover and to establish truth, who dispute not to confound but to
convince, and who intend not to disturb the publick deliberations, but
assist them.

I shall, therefore, my lords, only endeavour to show that the
consequence, of which some lords express, and I believe with
sincerity, such dreadful apprehensions, is not in reality to be feared
from this bill; that it will probably promote the purpose for which it
is declared to be calculated, and that it will by no means produce
that havock in the human species which seems to be suspected, or
diffuse that corruption through the people which has been confidently

The present state of this vice, my lords, has been fully explained, as
well by those who oppose the bill as by those who defend it. The use
of distilled liquors is now prohibited by a penal law, but the
execution of this law, as of all others of the same kind, necessarily
supposes a regular information of the breach of it to be laid before
the magistrate. The people consider this law, however just or
necessary, as an act of the most tyrannical cruelty, which ought to be
opposed with the utmost steadiness and vigour, as an insupportable
hardship from which they ought at any rate to set themselves free.

They have determined, therefore, not to be governed by this law, and
have, consequently, endeavoured to hinder its execution; and so
vigorous have been their efforts, that they have at last prevailed. At
first they only opposed it by their perseverance and obstinacy, they
resolved to persist in the practice of retailing liquors without
regard to the penalties which they might incur by it; and, therefore,
as one was put to prison, his place was immediately supplied by
another; and so frequent were the informations and so fruitless the
penalties, that the chief magistrate of the metropolis lamented
publickly in the other house, the unpleasing necessity to which he was
subjected by that law, of fining and imprisoning without end, and
without hopes of procuring the reformation that was intended. Thus
they proceeded for some time, and appeared to hope that the
magistrates would after a while connive at a practice, which they

Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonThe Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 11. Parlimentary Debates II → online text (page 38 of 46)