Samuel Johnson.

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

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always a tendency from less to greater evil; and the same causes which
had made us thus wicked, will, if not obviated, make us worse.

Since the noble lord thinks it not necessary to attempt the
reformation of the people, he might have spared the elaborate
calculation by which he has proved, that a large sum wilt be gained by
the government, though one third part of the consumption be prevented;
for it is of very little importance to discuss the consequences of an
event which will never happen. He should first have proved, that a
third part of the consumption will in reality be prevented, and then
he might very properly have consoled the ministry, by showing how much
they would gain from the residue.

That this bill, as it now stands, will produce a large revenue to the
government, but no reformation in the people, is asserted by those
that oppose, and undoubtedly believed by those that defend it; but as
this is not the purpose which I am most desirous of promoting, I
cannot but think it my duty to agree to the proposal of the noble
lord, that by postponing the consideration of the bill, more exact
information may be obtained by us, and the commons may be alarmed at
the danger into which the nation has been brought by their

Lord BATH then rose again, and spoke to the following effect: - My
lords, as the noble lord who has just spoken appears to have
misapprehended some of my assertions, I think it necessary to rise
again, that I may explain with sufficient clearness what, perhaps, I
before expressed obscurely, amidst the number of different
considerations that crowded my imagination.

With regard to the diminution that might be expected from this law, I
did not absolutely assert, at least, I did not intend to assert, that
a third part would be taken off; but only advanced that supposition as
the basis of a calculation, by which I might prove what many lords
appeared to doubt, that the consumption might possibly be diminished,
and yet the revenue increased.

Upon this supposition, which must be allowed to be reasonable, both
the purposes of the bill will be answered, and the publick supplies
will be raised by the suppression of vice.

The diminution of the consumption may be greater or less than I have
supposed. If it be greater, the revenue will be, indeed, less
augmented; but the purposes which, in the opinion of the noble lords
who oppose the bill, are more to be regarded, will be better promoted,
and all their arguments against it will be, at least, defeated; nor
will the ministry, I hope, regret the failure of a tax which is
deficient only by the sobriety of the nation.

If the diminution be less than I have supposed, yet if there be any
diminution, it cannot be said that the bill has been wholly without
effect, or that the ministry have not proceeded either with more
judgment or better fortune than their predecessors, or that they have
not, at least, taken advantage of the errours that have been
committed. It must be owned, that they have either reformed the
nation, or at least pointed out the way by which the reformation that
has been so long desired, may be effected.

That this tax will in some degree hinder drunkenness, it is reasonable
to expect, because it can only be hindered by taxing the liquors which
are used in excess; but there yet remain, concerning the weight of the
tax that ought to be laid upon them, doubts which nothing but
experience can, I believe, remove.

By experience, my lords, we have been already taught, that taxes may
be so heavy as to be without effect; that restraint may be so violent
as to produce impatience; and, therefore, it is proper in the next
essay to proceed by slow degrees and gentle methods, and produce that
effect imperceptibly which we find ourselves unable to accomplish at

I cannot therefore think, that the duty of three shillings a gallon
can be imposed without defeating our own design, and compelling the
people to find out some method of eluding the law like that which was
practised after the act, by which in the second year of his present
majesty, five shillings were imposed upon every gallon of compound
waters; after which it is well known, that the distillers sold a
simple spirit under the contemptuous title of _senatorial brandy_, and
the law being universally evaded, was soon after repealed as useless.

Such, my lords, or worse, will be the consequence of the tax which the
noble lord has proposed; for if it cannot be evaded, spirits will be
brought from nations that have been wiser than to burden their own
commodities with such insupportable impost, and the empire will soon
be impoverished by the exportation of its money.

Lord HERVEY answered, in substance as follows: - My lords, I am very
far from thinking the arguments of the noble lord such as can
influence men desirous to promote the real and durable happiness of
their country; for he is solicitous only about the prosperity of the
British manufactures, and the preservation of the British trade, but
has shown very little regard to British virtue.

That part of his argument is, therefore, not necessary to be answered,
if the suggestion upon which it is founded were true, since it will be
sufficient to compare the advantage of the two schemes. And with
regard to his insinuation, that senatorial brandy may be revived by a
high duty, I believe, first, that, no such evasion can be contrived,
and in the next place am confident, that it may be defeated by
burdening the new-invented liquor, whatever it be, if it be equally
pernicious, with an equal tax. The path of our duty, my lords, is
plain and easy, and only represented difficult by those who are
inclined to deviate from it.

Lord BATHURST spoke next, to the effect following: - My lords, whatever
measures may be practised by the people for eluding the purposes of
the bill now before us, with whatever industry they may invent new
kinds of senatorial brandy, or by whatever artifices they may escape
the diligence of the officers employed to collect a duty levied upon
their vices and their pleasures, there is, at least, no danger that
they will purchase from the continent those liquors which we are
endeavouring to withhold from them, or that this bill will impoverish
our country by promoting a trade contrary to its interest.

What would be the consequence of the duty of three shillings a gallon,
proposed by the noble lord, it is easy to judge. What, my lords, can
be expected from it, but that it will either oblige or encourage the
venders of spirits to procure from other places what they can no
longer buy for reasonable prices at home? and that those drunkards who
cannot or will not suddenly change their customs, will purchase from
abroad the pleasures which we withhold from them, and the wealth of
the nation be daily diminished, but the virtue little increased?

Thus, my lords, shall we at once destroy our own manufacture and
promote that of our neighbours. Thus shall we enrich other governments
by distressing our own, and instead of increasing sobriety, only
encourage a more expensive and pernicious kind of debauchery.

In the bill now under our consideration, a middle way is proposed, by
which reformation may be introduced by those gradations which have
always been found necessary when inveterate vices are to be
encountered. In this bill every necessary consideration appears to
have been regarded, the health of the people will be preserved, and
their virtue recovered, without destroying their trade or starving
their manufacturers.

The efficacy of this bill seems, indeed, to be allowed by some of the
lords who oppose it, since their chief objection has arisen from their
doubts whether it can be executed. If a law be useless in itself, it
is of no importance whether it is executed or not; and, therefore, I
think it may safely be inferred, that they who are solicitous how it
may be enforced, are convinced of its usefulness.

If this, my lords, be the chief objection now remaining, a little
consideration will easily remove it; for it is well known, that the
only obstruction of the former law was the danger of information; but
this law, my lords, is so contrived, that it will promote the
execution of itself; for by setting licenses at so low a price, their
number will be multiplied, and every man who has taken a license will
think himself justified in informing against him that shall retail
spirits without a legal right.

If, therefore, there should be, as a noble lord has very reasonably
supposed, fifty thousand licensed venders of these liquors, there will
likewise be fifty thousand informers against unlawful traders; and as
the liquors may then always be had under sanction of the law, the
populace will not interest themselves in that process which can have
no tendency to obstruct their pleasure.

Thus, my lords, shall we, by agreeing to this bill, make a law that
will be at once useful to the government and beneficial to the people,
which will be at once powerful in its effects and easy in its
execution; and, therefore, instead of attending any more to the wild
and impracticable schemes of heavy taxes, rigorous punishments, sudden
reformations, and violent restraints, I hope we shall unanimously
approve this method, from which so much may be hoped, while nothing is

Lord CARTERET then rose up, and spoke in substance as follows: - My
lords, though the noble lord who has been pleased to incite us to an
unanimous concurrence with himself and his associates of the ministry,
in passing this excellent and wonder-working bill, this bill, which is
to lessen the consumption of spirits, without lessening the quantity
which is distilled, which is to restrain drunkards from drinking, by
setting their favourite liquor always before their eyes, to conquer
habits by continuing them, and correct vice by indulging it, according
to the lowest reckoning, for at least another year; yet, my lords,
such is my obstinacy, or such my ignorance, that I cannot yet comply
with his proposal, nor can prevail with myself either to concur with
measures so apparently opposite to the interest of the publick, or to
hear them vindicated, without declaring how little I approve them.

During the course of this long debate I have endeavoured to
recapitulate and digest the arguments which have been advanced, and
have considered them both separate and conjoined; but find myself at
the same distance from conviction as when I entered the house; nor do
I imagine, that they can much affect any man who does not voluntarily
assist them by strong prejudice.

In vindication of this bill, my lords, we have been told that the
present law is ineffectual; that our manufacture is not to be
destroyed, or not this year; that the security offered by the present
bill has induced great numbers to subscribe to the new fund; that it
has been approved by the commons; and that, if it be found
ineffectual, it may be amended another session.

All these arguments, my lords, I shall endeavour to examine, because I
am always desirous of gratifying those great men to whom the
administration of affairs is intrusted, and have always very
cautiously avoided the odium of disaffection which they will
undoubtedly throw, in imitation of their predecessors, upon all those
whose wayward consciences shall oblige them to hinder the execution of
their schemes.

With a very strong desire, therefore, though with no great hopes of
finding them in the right, I venture to begin my inquiry, and engage
in the examination of their first assertion, that the present law
against the abuse of strong liquors is without effect.

I hope, my lords, it portends well to my inquiry, that the first
position which I have to examine is true, nor can I forbear to
congratulate your lordships upon having heard from the new ministry
one assertion not to be contradicted.

It is evident, my lords, from daily observation, and demonstrable from
the papers upon the table, that every year, since the enaction of the
last law, that vice has increased which it was intended to repress,
and that no time has been so favourable to the retailers of spirits as
that which has passed since they were prohibited.

It may, therefore, be expected, my lords, that having agreed with the
ministers in their fundamental proposition, I shall concur with them
in the consequence which they draw from it; and having allowed that
the present law is ineffectual, should admit that another is

But, my lords, in order to discover whether this consequence be
necessary, it must first be inquired why the present law is of no
force? For, my lords, it will be found, upon reflection, that there
are certain degrees of corruption that may hinder the effects of the
best laws. The magistrates may be vitious, and forbear to enforce that
law, by which themselves are condemned; they may be indolent, and
inclined rather to connive at wickedness by which they are not injured
themselves, than to repress it by a laborious exertion of their
authority; or they may be timorous, and, instead of awing the vitious,
may be awed by them.

In any of these cases, my lords, the law is not to be condemned for
its inefficacy, since it only fails by the defect of those who are to
direct its operations; the best and most important laws will
contribute very little to the security or happiness of a people, if no
judges of integrity and spirit can be found amongst them. Even the
most beneficial and useful bill that ministers can possibly imagine, a
bill for laying on our estates a tax of the fifth part of their yearly
value, would be wholly without effect, if collectors could not be

I am, therefore, my lords, yet doubtful, whether the inefficacy of the
law now subsisting necessarily obliges us to provide another; for
those that declared it to be useless, owned at the same time, that no
man endeavoured to enforce it; so that, perhaps, its only defect may
be, that it will not execute itself.

Nor though I should allow, that the law is at present impeded by
difficulties which cannot be broken through, but by men of more spirit
and dignity than the ministers may be inclined to trust with
commissions of the peace, yet it can only be collected, that another
law is necessary, not that the law now proposed will be of any

Great use has been made of the inefficacy of the present law to decry
the proposal made by the noble lord for laying a high duty upon these
pernicious liquors. High duties have already, as we are informed, been
tried without advantage; high duties are at this hour imposed upon
those spirits which are retailed, yet we see them every day sold in
the streets without the payment of the tax required; and, therefore,
it will be folly to make a second essay of means which have been
found, by the experience of many years, unsuccessful.

It has been granted on all sides in this debate, nor was it ever
denied on any other occasion, that the consumption of any commodity is
most easily to be hindered by raising its price, and its price is to
be raised by the imposition of a duty; this, my lords, which is, I
suppose, the opinion of every man, of whatever degree of experience or
understanding, appears likewise to have been thought by the authors of
the present law; and, therefore, they imagined, that they had
effectually provided against the increase of drunkenness, by laying
upon that liquor which should be retailed in small quantities, a duty
which none of the inferiour classes of drunkards would be able to pay.

Thus, my lords, they conceived that they had reformed the common
people, without infringing the pleasures of others, and applauded the
happy contrivance by which spirits were to be made dear only to the
poor, while every man who could afford to purchase two gallons, was at
liberty to riot at his ease, and over a full flowing bumper look down
with contempt upon his former companions, now ruthlessly condemned to
disconsolate sobriety, or obliged to regale themselves with liquor
which did no speedy execution upon their cares, but held them for many
tedious hours in a languishing possession of their senses and their

But, my lords, this intention was frustrated, and the project,
ingenious as it was, fell to the ground; for though they had laid a
tax, they unhappily forgot that this tax would make no addition to the
price, unless it was paid; and that it would not be paid, unless some
were empowered to collect it.

Here, my lords, was the difficulty; those who made the law were
inclined to lay a tax from which themselves should be exempt, and,
therefore, would not charge the liquor as it issued from the still;
and when once it was dispersed in the hands of petty dealers, it was
no longer to be found without the assistance of informers, and
informers could not carry on the business of persecution without the
consent of the people.

It is not necessary to dwell any longer upon the law of which the
repeal is proposed, since it appears already, that it failed only from
a partiality not easily defended, and from the omission of what is now
proposed, the collection of the duty as the liquor is distilled.

If this method be followed, there will be no longer any need of
information, or of any rigorous or new measures; the same officers
that collect a smaller duty may levy a greater, nor can they be easily
deceived with regard to the quantities that are made; the deceits, at
least, that can be used, are in use already; they are frequently
detected and suppressed; nor will a larger duty enable the distillers
to elude the vigilance of the officers with more success.

Against this proposal, therefore, the inefficacy of the present law
can be no objection; but it is urged, that such duties would destroy
the trade of distilling; and a noble lord has been pleased to express
great tenderness for a manufacture so beneficial and extensive.

I cannot but sometimes wonder, my lords, at the amazing variety of
intellects, which every day furnishes some opportunity or other of
observing, and which cannot but be remarked on this occasion, when one
produces against a proposal the very argument which another offers in
its favour. That a large duty levied at the still would destroy or
very much impair the trade of distilling, is certainly supposed by
those who defend it, for they proposed it only for that end; and what
better method can they propose, when they are called to deliberate
upon a bill for the prevention of the excessive use of distilled

The noble lord has been pleased kindly to inform us, that the trade of
distilling is very extensive, that it employs great numbers, and that
they have arrived at exquisite skill, and therefore, - note well the
consequence - the trade of distilling is not to be discouraged.

Once more, my lords, allow me to wonder at the different conceptions
of different understandings. It appears to me, that since the spirits
which the distillers produce are allowed to enfeeble the limbs, and
vitiate the blood, to pervert the heart, and obscure the intellects,
that the number of distillers should be no argument in their favour!
For I never heard that a law against theft was repealed or delayed,
because thieves were numerous. It appears to me, my lords, that if so
formidable a body are confederated against the virtue or the lives of
their fellow-citizens, it is time to put an end to the havock, and to
interpose, while it is yet in our power to stop the destruction.

As little, my lords, am I affected with the merit of the wonderful
skill which the distillers are said to have attained: it is, in my
opinion, no faculty of great use to mankind, to prepare palatable
poison; nor shall I ever contribute my interest for the reprieve of a
murderer, because he has, by long practice, obtained great dexterity
in his trade.

If their liquors are so delicious, that the people are tempted to
their own destruction, let us at length, my lords, secure them from
these fatal draughts, by bursting the vials that contain them; let us
crush, at once, these artists in slaughter, who have reconciled their
countrymen to sickness and to ruin, and spread over the pitfals of
debauchery such baits as cannot be resisted.

The noble lord has, indeed, admitted, that this bill may not be found
sufficiently coercive, but gives us hopes that it may be improved and
enforced another year, and persuades us to endeavour the reformation
of drunkenness by degrees, and above all, to beware, at present, of
hurting the _manufacture_.

I am very far, my lords, from thinking, that there are this year any
peculiar reasons for tolerating murder; nor can I conceive why the
manufacture should be held sacred now, if it be to be destroyed
hereafter; we are, indeed, desired to try how far this law will
operate, that we may be more able to proceed with due regard to this
valuable manufacture.

With regard to the operation of the law, it appears to me that it will
only enrich the government without reforming the people, and I believe
there are not many of a different opinion: if any diminution of the
sale of spirits be expected from it, it is to be considered, that this
diminution will or will not be such as is desired for the reformation
of the people; if it be sufficient, the manufacture is at an end, and
all the reasons against a higher duty are of equal force against this;
but if it is not sufficient, we have, at least, omitted part of our
duty, and have neglected the health and virtue of the people.

I cannot, my lords, yet discover, why a reprieve is desired for this
manufacture; why the present year is not equally propitious to the
reformation of mankind as any will be that may succeed it. It is true
we are at war with two nations, and, perhaps, with more; but war may
be better prosecuted without money than without men, and we but little
consult the military glory of our country, if we raise supplies for
paying our armies, by the destruction of those armies that we are
contriving to pay.

We have heard the necessity of reforming the nation by degrees urged
as an argument for imposing first a lighter duty, and afterwards a
heavier; this complaisance for wickedness, my lords, is not so
defensible as that it should be battered by arguments in form, and
therefore I shall only relate a reply made by Webb, the noted walker,
upon a parallel occasion.

This man, who must be remembered by many of your lordships, was
remarkable for vigour, both of mind and body, and lived wholly upon
water for his drink, and chiefly upon vegetables for his other
sustenance: he was one day recommending his regimen to one of his
friends who loved wine, and who, perhaps, might somewhat contribute to
the prosperity of this _spirituous manufacture_, and urged him, with
great earnestness, to quit a course of luxury by which his health and
his intellects would equally be destroyed. The gentleman appeared
convinced, and told him, that he would conform to his counsel, and
thought he could not change his course of life at once, but would
leave off strong liquors by degrees. By degrees, says the other, with
indignation! if you should unhappily fall into the fire, would you
caution your servants not to pull you out but by degrees?

This answer, my lords, is applicable in the present case; the nation
is sunk into the lowest state of corruption, the people are not only
vitious, but insolent beyond example; they not only break the laws,
but defy them; and yet some of your lordships are for reforming them
by degrees.

I am not easily persuaded, my lords, that our ministers really intend
to supply the defects that may hereafter be discovered in this bill;
it will doubtless produce money, perhaps much more than they appear to
expect from it; I doubt not but the licensed retailers will be more
than fifty thousand, and the quantity retailed must increase with the
number of retailers. As the bill will, therefore, answer all the ends
intended by it, I do not expect to see it altered, for I have never
observed ministers desirous of amending their own errours, unless they
are such as produce a deficiency in the revenue.

Besides, my lords, it is not certain, that when this fund is mortgaged
to the publick creditors, they can prevail upon the commons to change
the security; they may continue the bill in force for the reasons,
whatever they are, for which they have passed it, and the good
intentions of our ministers, however sincere, may be defeated, and
drunkenness, legal drunkenness, established in the nation.

This, my lords, is very reasonable; and therefore we ought to exert

Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonThe Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 11. Parlimentary Debates II → online text (page 43 of 46)