Samuel Johnson.

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

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evaded, may yet be probably abated from the present profits of the

It has appeared, my lords, that no effect can be produced by this bill
but the promotion of debauchery, the increase of drunkenness, the
subversion of order, and the decay of industry; the miseries of
disease, and the rage of want.

But that this bill will not produce, at least for some time, a large
addition to the publick revenues, has not yet been proved; and while
it is allowed that it will raise money, I do not wonder to hear it
steadily defended, because nothing more is expected from it. But as I
have not yet conversed enough with statesmen to persuade myself that
the government ought to be supported by means contrary to the end for
which government is instituted, I am still convinced that this bill
ought to be rejected with contempt, because it will lessen the wealth
of the nation without any equivalent advantage, and will at once
impoverish the people, and corrupt them.

Lord ISLAY then spoke to this effect: - My lords, I cannot but be of
opinion that this debate has been carried on with a vehemence by no
means necessary, and that the question has been perplexed by a
mistaken zeal, that the effects of this bill have been exaggerated,
perhaps, on both sides, and that the opinions which have been formed
with relation to it, are not really so opposite as they appear.

Those who oppose the bill, think the duty upon spirits not so high as
to hinder that debauchery which so much prevails among us; and those
that vindicate it, declare that more violent restraints will not be
borne. Both parties have reason, and the vindicators of the bill have,
likewise, experience on their side.

But, my lords, though severe restraints suddenly opposed to the habits
and inclinations of the people, operating in their full force, may be
broken through by restless struggles and obstinate resistance, yet a
diminution of those gratifications will be borne which cannot wholly
be taken away, and the same laws, introduced by proper degrees, will
be patiently obeyed; this, therefore, may be very properly considered
as the first tax necessary to be laid, which, though it may produce no
great effects in itself, may at least make way for a second that shall
be more sensibly felt, till at length these fatal spirits shall be
raised to a price at which few will be able, and none willing, to
purchase one pleasure of drunkenness.

But it is not impossible that even this tax, with the other provisions
in the bill, may produce the reformation which is unanimously desired;
and as violence should never be used till gentle methods have been
tried, this bill ought, in my opinion, to be passed, and, therefore,
to be referred to a committee without farther debate; for it will be
thought, both by our allies and our enemies, that a great part of this
assembly is very indifferent about the success of the war, if we delay
the supplies, by disputing in what manner they shall be raised.

[The question being then put, whether the bill shall be committed, it
was carried in the affirmative. And the lords DELAWARE and HERVEY
being appointed tellers, the numbers were, Contents 59, Proxies
23 - 82. Not contents 38, Proxies 16 - 54.

It was remarked on this occasion, that there being ten prelates in the
house, they all divided against the question; upon which the earl of
CHESTERFIELD seeing them come towards him, said, he doubted if he had
not mistaken the side, not having had the honour of their company for
many years.

Two days after, the same bill was considered by the house of lords in
a committee to which all of them were summoned, and occasioned another
very important and curious debate.]

FEBRUARY 23, 1742-3.

The title of the bill on spirituous liquors being read, was postponed:
then the preamble was read, importing, "that whereas great
difficulties and inconveniencies had attended the putting the act 9
Geo. II. in execution, and the same had not been found effectual to
answer the purposes intended," the commons being desirous to raise the
necessary supplies in the easiest manner, do grant the rates on
spirituous liquors, hereafter mentioned, and repeal the present rates.

Lord HERVEY spoke to the effect following: - My lords, notwithstanding
the specious arguments which were used to influence the house to
permit this bill to escape the censure it deserved, and be admitted to
a farther examination in a committee, I am still confident that
nothing can justly be offered in its defence; and am not afraid to
declare my opinion, that it is not approved even by those who
vindicate it; of whom I cannot but believe, from long experience of
their judgment and their knowledge, that they consider it only as an
_easy manner_ of raising money, as an expedient rather necessary than
eligible, and such as only the exigencies of the government could have
prevailed upon them to propose; for nothing is more evident, than that
it cannot answer the purposes of the former bill.

This, however harsh it may appear, and however inconsistent with that
delicacy with which the debates of this august assembly have generally
been carried on, must surely be pardoned on this occasion, if for no
other reason, at least for this, that it is not easy to forbear it, it
is impossible wholly to suppress it in the mind; and to forbear to
speak what cannot but be thought, is no part of the duty of a publick

The conduct of those whose station subjects them to the resentment of
the ministry, or who may be reasonably imagined to expect favours from
them, has, throughout all our deliberations on this bill, been such as
evidently discovers their only care to be the imposition of a new tax,
and the establishment of a new fund. They do not seem to urge
seriously any other argument than the necessity of raising money, or
to oppose the objections that have been offered, for any other reason,
than because they have a tendency to obstruct the supplies.

No other argument can, indeed, be urged in vindication of a bill which
every principle of policy or justice must incite us to condemn; a bill
by which the sense of morality and religion will be extinguished, and
the restraints, of law made ineffectual; by which the labourer and
manufacturer will be at once debilitated and corrupted, and by which
the roads will be filled with thieves, and the streets with beggars.

It appears, my lords, from the papers on the table, that seven
millions of gallons are every year distilled; and experience shows us,
that the quality of the liquor is such, that a quarter of a pint is
sufficient to intoxicate the brain. Upon this computation, my lords,
it is reasonable to believe, that a twentieth part of the labouring
hands of this nation are detained from their proper occupations by
this kind of drunkenness; and, consequently, that a twentieth part of
the trade is every year lost, or, perhaps, a twentieth part of our
people every year hurried to the grave, or disabled from contributing
to the publick good.

These, my lords, are no doubtful facts, or conjectural calculations,
they are confirmed by the most incontestable evidence, and established
by all the demonstration of arithmetick; and therefore your lordships
are in no danger of errour from either ignorance or uncertainty, but
must determine, if you approve this bill, in opposition to all the
powers of conviction, and must set aside testimony and reason at the
same time.

These facts, my lords, are so plain, that the warmest advocates for
the bill have tacitly acknowledged them, by proposing that, if it be
found ineffectual, it shall be amended in the next session. What
effect this proposal may have upon others, I know not; but for my
part, I shall never think it allowable to sport with the prosperity of
the publick, or to try experiments by which, if they fail, the lives
of thousands must be destroyed.

Such a scheme, my lords, very ill becomes those to whom their
ancestors have transmitted the illustrious character of guardians of
the people; for surely such cruelty was never practised by the utmost
wantonness of tyranny, or the most savage rage of invasion. No man
ever before conceived the design of scattering poison for a certain
period of time among the people, only to try what havock it would

What will be the effects of unrestrained and licensed debauchery may
be known, without the guilt of so dreadful an experiment, only by
observing the present conduct of the people, even while they are
hindered from the full enjoyment of their pleasures, by the terrours
of a penal law. Whoever shall be so far touched with the interest of
the publick, as to extend his inquiries to the lowest classes of the
people, will find some diseased, and others vitiated; he will find
some imprisoned by their creditors, and others starving their
children; and if he traces all these calamities and crimes to their
original cause, will find them all to proceed from the love of
distilled liquors.

I know, my lords, that in answer to all these expostulations, and a
thousand more, it will be urged by the ministers and their friends,
that there is no other method to be found of raising the supplies, and
that the demands of the government must be satisfied at whatever rate,
and by whatever means.

Though I am very far from approving this assertion, I do not wonder at
its prevalence among those who are enriched by every tax, and whose
only claim to the preferments which they enjoy arises from their
readiness to concur in every scheme for increasing the burdens of the
publick; and, therefore, shall never expect their approbation of any
proposal, by which a new tax may be retarded. Yet I cannot but declare
that, in my opinion, we ought to suspend our proceedings, that the
commons may discover what danger their negligence, precipitation, or
blind compliance, has brought upon the nation; and that the people
may, by so signal a proof of our disapprobation, be alarmed against
any attempt of the same kind under any future administration.

This, my lords, will be considered, not only by posterity, but by all
the wise and honest men of the present time, as a proof of our regard
for virtue, and our attention to the publick welfare. This conduct
will be secretly approved, even by those who may think themselves
obliged to oppose it in publick; and, as it will be moderate and
decent, may probably preserve the nation without irritating the other

I therefore move, my lords, that instead of proceeding in the
superfluous forms of a committee, we should resume the house, and
endeavour to obtain farther information.

After a short silence, lord CHOLMONDELEY spoke to this effect: - My
lords, the observations which, though sufficiently explained and
enforced in the late debate, the noble lord has been pleased to repeat
on this occasion, are in themselves, indeed, sufficiently pertinent,
and have been urged by his lordship with uncommon spirit and elegance;
but he ought to have reflected, that general declamations are improper
in a committee, where the particular clauses of the bill are to be
separately considered.

I propose, therefore, that instead of wasting that time, of which the
exigencies of the publick now require an uncommon frugality, in
useless rhetorick, and untimely vehemence, we should proceed to
examine in order the distinct paragraphs of this bill, by which it may
more easily appear, whether it ought to be rejected or approved.

It cannot, indeed, be proposed, that any of the clauses shall be
amended in this committee; for the claims of the commons, and the
obstinacy with which they have always adhered to them, on whatever
they are founded, is well known. I am old enough to remember the
animosities which have arisen between the two houses, from attempts to
adjust this part of their pretensions; animosities which at this time
may be not only dangerous to ourselves, but fatal to a great part of
mankind, and which it ought, therefore, to be our utmost care not to

Lord AYLESFORD: - My lords, though the consideration of the distinct
paragraphs of the bill be, as the noble lord has very justly observed,
the proper business of the committee; yet since, as he has likewise
observed, the present state of our affairs requires unusual
expedition, I think we may very properly spare ourselves the trouble
of considering paragraphs which we cannot amend; and which are in
themselves so clear and so obvious, that they may be understood in
their full extent upon a cursory perusal.

But, my lords, though I think it not proper to follow our usual method
of considering the paragraphs distinctly, which can only drive the
bill forward towards the third reading, as it has already been forced
into the committee; yet I think it not necessary to irritate the other
house, alarm our allies, or encourage our enemies, by rejecting that
bill by which it is intended that the supplies shall be raised. There
is an easy and moderate method, by which the same end may be attained
without any disturbance of the publick, any impediment of the schemes
of the government, or any just offence to the commons.

Instead of passing or rejecting this bill, of which the first is
absolutely criminal, and the second perhaps improper, let us only
delay it, by which we shall give the commons time to reflect upon it,
to reexamine it, and discover, what they, perhaps, have not hitherto
suspected, its destructive tendency. Nor can it be doubted, but the
observations which will arise from the necessity of inquiring into the
reasons of our conduct, will soon induce them to form another bill,
not liable to the same objections; I, therefore, second the noble
lord's motion to resume the house.

Lord ISLAY: - My lords, if we consider the pretensions of the commons,
and the stubbornness with which they have hitherto adhered to them, we
shall easily find the impropriety of the noble lord's motion, and
foresee the inefficacy of the methods which he so warmly recommends.

The alarm which he supposes us to give the commons by postponing the
bill before us, the observations which they will make upon our
conduct, the new informations which they will receive, and the new
bill which they will send, are merely imaginary. They will not
consider themselves as concerned in the delay or expedition of our
procedure, but will suppose us to act upon our own reasons, which it
is not necessary for them to examine, and will by no means send
another bill for supplies, till they are informed that this is

Thus, my lords, we shall only retard the supplies, without altering,
or being able to alter, the method of raising them; and at last pass
that bill, without examination, which we now neglect to examine, lest
we should pass it; or, perhaps, irritate the commons by the novelty of
our conduct, which, if they should resolve to consider it, they will
probably consider only to censure.

Lord AYLESPORD: - My lords, I am no stranger to the claims of the
commons to the sole and independent right of forming money bills, nor
to the heat with which that claim has been asserted, or the firmness
with which it has always been maintained in late senates. Nor am I
ignorant, that by contesting this claim, we have sometimes excited
disputes, which nothing but a prorogation of the senate could appease.

I know, my lords, and allow, that by acting in any unusual manner with
regard to bills of this kind, we may excite the resentment of the
commons, and that some interruption of the publick business may, for
want of candour and moderation, possibly ensue.

But, my lords, I cannot think the possibility of an ill consequence an
argument sufficient to show the unreasonableness of my proposal; for
the inconveniencies that may arise from postponing the bill, are only
possible, but the calamities that we shall bring upon our country by
passing it are certain.

But we are likewise to consider, my lords, that these events, of which
it can only be said that they may happen, may also not happen. When I
reflect that the house of commons is an assembly of reasonable beings,
that it is filled by the representatives of the British people, by men
who will share the calamities of the publick, and whose interest it
is, equally with ours, to prevent the destruction of our commerce, the
decay of our manufactures, the corruption of the present age, and the
ruin of posterity, I cannot but hope that they will apply themselves
to a candid review of the bill which they have sent, and without heat,
jealousy, or disputes, explain it as they may do by another, which
will be no deviation from the rules which they have established for
themselves, and by which they may secure the happiness of their
country without receding from their own pretensions.

The duke of BEDFORD: - My lords, the proposal made by the noble lord
appears to me so prudent and equitable, so moderate and so seasonable,
and, in my opinion, suggests so easy a method of reconciling the
pretensions of the commons with the necessity of amending the bill,
that I cannot but think it worthy of the unanimous approbation of your

I am very far from conceiving the commons to be an assembly of men
deaf to reason, or imagining them so void of all regard for the
happiness of the publick, as that they will sacrifice it to an
obstinate adherence to claims which they cannot but know to be in
themselves disputable, and of which they must at least allow that they
are only so far just as they contribute to the great end of
government, the general good.

But lest they should, by any perverse and unseasonable obstinacy,
attend more to the preservation of their own power than to the
promotion of the happiness of their constituents, a method is now
proposed, by which the errours of this bill may be corrected, without
any concession of either house. The commons may easily be informed of
the dangers which are justly dreaded from this bill; and may,
therefore, prepare another, by which a tax of the same kind may be
laid, without a general license of drunkenness; or if a method of
laying a duty upon these liquors, which may at once hinder their
excessive use, and increase the revenue of the government, cannot be
discovered, they may raise the supplies for the year by some other

Lord CARTERET: - My lords, as the expedient proposed by these noble
lords, however it may be recommended, as being at once moderate and
efficacious, has, in reality, no other tendency than to procure an
absolute rejection of this bill, it is proper to consider the
consequences which may be reasonably expected from the measures which
they have hitherto proposed.

In order to the effectual restraint of the common people from the use
of these pernicious liquors, they assert the necessity of imposing a
very large duty to be paid by the distiller, which might, indeed,
produce, in some degree, the effect which they expect from it, but
would produce it by giving rise to innumerable frauds and

The immediate consequence of a heavy duty would be the ruin of our
distillery, which is now a very extensive and profitable trade, in
which great multitudes are employed, who must instantly, upon the
cessation of it, sink into poverty. Our stills, my lords, not only
supply our natives with liquors, which they used formerly to purchase
from foreign countries, and therefore increase, or at least preserve
the wealth of our country; but they likewise furnish large quantities
for exportation to Guernsey, Jersey, and other places. But no sooner
will the duty proposed to be laid upon this liquor take place, than
all this trade will be at an end, and those who now follow it will be
reduced to support themselves by other employments; and those
countries in which our spirits are now drank will be soon supplied
from other nations with liquors at once cheaper and more pleasant.

It may be proposed, as an expedient for the preservation of our
foreign trade, that the duty shall be repaid upon exportation; but the
event of this provision, my lords, will be, that great quantities will
be sent to sea for the sake of obtaining a repayment of the duty,
which, instead of being sold to foreigners, will be privately landed
again upon our own coasts.

Thus, my lords, will the duty be collected, and afterwards repaid; and
the government will suffer the odium of imposing a severe tax, and
incur the expense of employing a great number of officers, without any
advantage to the publick. Spirits will, in many parts of the kingdom,
be very little dearer than at present, and drunkenness and debauchery
will still prevail.

That these arts, and a thousand others, will be practised by the
people to obtain this infatuating liquor, cannot be doubted. It cannot
be imagined that they will forbear frauds, who have had recourse to
violence, or that those will not endeavour to elude the government,
who have already defied it.

Every rigorous law will be either secretly evaded, or openly violated;
every severe restraint will be shaken off, either by artifice or vice;
nor can this vice, however dangerous or prevalent, be corrected but by
slow degrees, by straitening the reins of government imperceptibly,
and by superadding a second slight restraint, after the nation has
been for some time habituated to the first.

That the government proceeds by these easy and gentle methods of
reformation, ought not to be imputed to negligence, but necessity; for
so far has the government been from any connivance at this vice, that
an armed force was necessary to support the laws which were made to
restrain it, and secure the chief persons of the state from the
insults of the populace, whom they had only provoked by denying them
this pernicious liquor.

Since, therefore, my lords, all opposition to this predominant
inclination has appeared without effect, since the government
evidently wants power to conquer the united and incessant struggles
for the liberty of drunkenness, what remains but that this vice should
produce some advantage to the publick, in return for the innumerable
evils which arise from it, and that the government should snatch the
first opportunity of taxing that vice which cannot be reformed?

This duty arises, indeed, from a concurrence of different causes, of
just designs in the government, and of bad inclinations in the people.
The tax is just, and well meant; but it can be made sufficient to
support the expenses to which it is appropriated, only by the
resolution of the populace to continue, in some degree, their usual

I am far, my lords, from thinking this method of raising money
eligible for its own sake, or justifiable by any other plea than that
of necessity. If it were possible at once to extinguish the thirst of
spirits, no man who had any regard for virtue, or for happiness, would
propose to augment the revenue by a tax upon them.

But, my lords, rigour has been already tried, and found to be vain; it
has been found equally fruitless to forbid the people to use spirits,
as to forbid a man in a dropsy to drink. The force of appetite long
indulged, and by indulgence made superiour to the control of reason,
is not to be overcome at once; it cannot be subdued by a single
effort, but may be weakened; new habits of a more innocent kind may in
time be superinduced, and one desire may counterbalance another.

We must endeavour, my lords, by just degrees, to withdraw their
affections from this pernicious enjoyment, by making the attainment of
it every year somewhat more difficult: but we must not quicken their
wishes, and exasperate their resentment, by depriving them at once of
their whole felicity. By this method, my lords, I doubt not but we
shall obtain what we have hitherto endeavoured with so little success;
and I believe that though, in open defiance of a severe law, spirits
are now sold in every street of this city, a gentle restraint will, in
a short time, divert the minds of the people to other entertainments,
and the vice of drinking spirits will be forgotten among us.

Lord HERVEY then rose up again, and spoke to the effect following: - My
lords, though I have always considered this bill as at once wicked and
absurd, I imagined till now that the projectors of it would have been
able to have argued, at least, speciously, though not solidly, in
defence of it; nor did I imagine it to have been wholly indefensible,
till I discovered how little the extensive knowledge, the long
experience, and the penetrating foresight of the noble lord who spoke
last, enabled him to produce in vindication of it.

Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonThe Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 11. Parlimentary Debates II → online text (page 40 of 46)