Samuel Johnson.

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

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opinion, to be imputed to strong prejudices, formed when the question
was first proposed; by which the noble lords have been incited to warm
declamations and violent invectives; who, having once heated their
minds with suspicions, have not been able to consider the propositions
before them with calmness and impartiality; but have pursued their
first notions, and have employed their eloquence in displaying the
absurdity of positions never advanced, and the mischief of
consequences which will never be produced.

It is first to be considered, my lords, that this bill is intended,
not to promote, but to hinder, the consumption of spirituous liquors;
it is, therefore, by no means necessary to expatiate upon that which
is presupposed in the bill, the pernicious quality of spirits, the
detestable nature of drunkenness, the wickedness or miseries which are
produced by it. Almost all that has been urged by the noble lords who
have spoken with the greatest warmth against the bill, may reasonably
be conceived to have been advanced for it by those who projected it;
of whom it may be justly imagined, that they were fully convinced how
much spirits were abused by the common people, and how much that abuse
contributed to the wickedness which at present prevails amongst us,
since they thought it necessary to prevent them by a new law.

But, my lords, when they saw that the abuse of distilled liquors was
in a very high degree detrimental to the publick, they saw, likewise,
that the trade of distilling was of great use; that it employed great
numbers of our people, and consumed a great part of the produce of our
lands; and that, therefore, it could not be suppressed, without
injuring the publick, by reducing many families to sudden poverty, and
by depriving the farmers of a market for a great part of their corn.
In the plains of the western part of this island, the grain that is
chiefly cultivated is barley, and that barley is chiefly consumed by
the distillers; nor, if they should be at once suppressed, could the
husbandman readily sell the produce of his labour and his grounds, or
the landlord receive rent for his estate; since it would then produce
nothing, or what is in effect the same, nothing that could be sold.

It is, indeed, possible, my lords, that the Dutch might buy it; but
then it must be considered, that we must pay them money for the
favour, since we allow a premium upon exportation, and that we shall
buy it back again in spirits, and, consequently, pay them for
manufacturing our own product. For it is not to be imagined, that any
law will immediately reclaim the dispositions, or reform the appetites
of the people. They are well known to have drank spirits before they
were made in our country, and to indulge themselves at present in many
kinds of luxury which are yet loaded with a very high tax. It is not,
therefore, probable, that upon the imposition of a high duty they will
immediately desist from drinking spirits; they will, indeed, as now,
drink those which can be most easily procured; and if, by a high tax
suddenly imposed, foreign spirits be made cheaper than our own,
foreign spirits will only be used, our distillery will be destroyed,
and our people will yet not be reformed.

That heavy taxes will not deter the people from any favourite
enjoyment, has been already shown by the unsuccessfulness of the last
attempt to restrain them from the use of spirits, and may be every day
discovered from the use of tobacco, which is universally taken by the
common people, though a very high duty is laid upon it, and though a
king thought it so pernicious that he employed his pen against it. The
commons, therefore, prudently forbore to use violent measures, which
might disgust the people, but which they had no reason to believe
sufficient to reform them, and thought it more expedient to proceed by
more gentle methods, which might operate by imperceptible degrees, and
which might be made more forcible and compulsive, if they should be
found ineffectual.

Another evil will by this method, likewise, be avoided, which is the
certain consequence of high duties; this tax will produce no
clandestine frauds nor rebellious defiance of the legislature; the
distillers will not be tempted to evade this impost by perjuries, too
often practised where the profit of them is great, nor smugglers to
assemble in numerous troops with arms in their hands, and carry
imported liquors through the country by force, in opposition to the
officers of the customs, and the laws of the nation. That this,
likewise, is practised upon other occasions to escape heavy taxes, all
the weekly papers inform us; nor are there many months in which some
of the king's officers are not maimed or murdered doing of their duty.

All these evils, my lords, and a thousand others, will be avoided by
an easy tax; in favour of which I cannot but wonder, that it should be
necessary to plead so long, since every nation, which has any
pretension to civility or a regular government, will agree, that heavy
imposts are not to be wantonly inflicted, and that severity is never
to be practised till lenity has failed.

It, therefore, appears to me, my lords, that justice, reason, and
experience, unite in favour of this bill; and that nothing is to be
feared from it, but that it will not be sufficiently coercive, nor
restrain the abuse of spirits so much as is hoped by those that have
stood up in its vindication. That it can encourage drunkenness, or
increase the consumption of distilled liquors, is surely impossible;
for they are now drunk without restraint; and therefore no restraint
will be taken away: and since their price must be increased by a
double duty, it may reasonably be conceived, that those who now spend
all that they can gain by their labour in drunkenness, must be content
with less than before, because they will have no more to spend; and
what has hitherto enabled them to riot in debauchery will no longer be
sufficient for the same purposes; the same excess will require more
money, and more money cannot be had.

I do not affirm, my lords, that the success of this bill is
demonstrably certain; nor can I deny that many arguments have been
alleged against it which cannot easily be confuted; all that I can
venture to assert is, that in my opinion, the reasons _for_ the bill
preponderate, not that those _against_ it, are without weight.

Of this, at least, we are certain, that the bill can produce no ill
consequences; and that if the experience of the ensuing year shall
show it to be ineffectual, it may be amended in the next session by
new provisions, which we shall be then more able to adjust for the
benefit of the publick.

All laws, especially those which regard complicated and intricate
affairs, have been perfected by degrees; experience has discovered
those deficiencies which sagacity could not foresee, and the progress
of human wisdom has been always slow. To charge any scheme with
imperfection, is only to allege that it is the production of men, of
beings finite in their capacity, and liable to errour; nor do I see
what can be recommended to such beings, more than what the government
is now endeavouring to practise, that nothing should be done
precipitately, and that experience should always be trusted rather
than conjecture.

Lord LONSDALE next spoke to the effect following: - My lords, the
arguments of the noble lord have by no means influenced me to alter my
opinion; nor do I now rise up to pronounce a recantation of any of my
former assertions, but to explain one of them, which the noble lord
has been pleased to controvert.

He observes, in opposition to my argument, that the distillery
contributes to the consumption of the produce of our grounds, and, by
consequence, to the advantage of those who possess them; but I, my
lords, am inclined to believe that it produces a contrary effect, and
that it hinders the consumption, even of that grain which is employed
in it.

We may reasonably suppose, my lords, that they who now drink distilled
liquors, would, if they were debarred from them, endeavour to obtain
from ale and beer the same renovation of their vigour, and relaxation
of their cares; and that, therefore, more ale would be brewed, as
there would be more purchasers: if, therefore, the same quantity of
malt, which is sufficient, when distilled, to produce intoxication,
would, when brewed into ale, have the same effect, the consumption
would still be the same, whether ale or spirits were in use; but it is
certain, that the fourth part of the malt which is necessary to
furnish ale for a debauch, will, when exalted in the still, be
sufficient to satisfy the most greedy drunkard; and it is, therefore,
evident, that he who drinks ale, consumes more barley by three parts
in four than he who indulges, the use of spirits, supposing them both
equally criminal in the excess of their enjoyments.

The noble lord has taken occasion to mention tobacco as an instance of
the obstinacy with which the people persevere in a practice to which
they are addicted. Of the obstinacy of the people, my lords, I am
sufficiently convinced; but hope that it will never be able to
overpower the legislature, who ought to enforce their laws, and
invigorate their efforts in proportion to the atrociousness of the
corruption which they are endeavouring to extirpate: nor do I think so
meanly of government, as to believe it unable to repress drunkenness
or luxury, or in danger of being subverted in a contest about spirits
or tobacco.

Tobacco, indeed, has not properly been produced as an instance; for I
never heard, that however it may be disapproved by particular men, of
whatever rank or abilities, it was prohibited by law; nor should I
think any such prohibition necessary or reasonable; for tobacco, my
lords, is not poison, like distilled spirits, nor is the use of it so
much injurious to health, as offensive to delicacy.

The poisonous and destructive quality of these liquors is confessed by
the noble lord, a confession with which I find it very difficult to
reconcile his solicitude for the distillery; for when it is once
granted, that spirits corrupt the mind, weaken the limbs, impair
virtue, and shorten life, any arguments in favour of those who
manufacture them come too late, since no advantage can be equivalent
to the loss of honesty and life. When the noble lord has urged that
the distillery employs great numbers of hands, and, therefore, ought
to be encouraged, may it not, upon his own concession, be replied,
that those numbers are employed in murder, and that their trade ought,
like that of other murderers, to be stopped? When he urges that much
of our grain is consumed in the still, may we not answer, and answer
irresistibly, that it is consumed by being turned into poison, instead
of bread? And can a stronger argument be imagined for the suppression
of this detestable business, than that it employs multitudes, and that
it is gainful and extensive?

Nor can I discover, my lords, how the care of preserving the
distillery is consistent with the ends which the preamble in this bill
declares to be proposed, or which the advocates for it appear to
desire. If the consumption of distilled spirits is to be hindered, how
is the distillery to remain uninjured? If the trade of distilling is
not to be impaired, what shall hinder the consumption of spirits? So
far as this bill operates, the distillers must be impoverished by it;
and if they may properly and justly suffer a small diminution of their
profit for a small advantage to the publick, why will not a greater
benefit be equivalent to a greater diminution?

Nothing, my lords, is more apparent, than that the real design of this
bill, however its defenders may endeavour to conceal it in the mist of
sophistry, is to lay only such a tax as may increase the revenue; and
that they have no desire of suppressing that vice which may be made
useful to their private purpose, nor feel any regret to fill the
exchequer by the slaughter of the people.

Lord AYLESFORD then rose up, and spoke to the following purpose: - My
lords, the noble lord who spoke last in defence of this new scheme,
appears to have imbibed very strong prejudices in favour of the
distillery, from which he finds it practicable to draw large sums for
the support of the measures which have been already formed, and which
he, therefore, considers as the most important and beneficial trade of
the British nation.

It is not improbable, my lords, that in a short time all the
provisions which have been made by the wisdom of our ancestors for the
support of the woollen manufacture, will be transferred for the
encouragement of the distillery, which appears to be at present the
reigning favourite; for it is evident, that both manufactures cannot
subsist together, and that either must be continued by the ruin of the
other.

Of these rivals, which is doomed to fall we may conjecture from the
encomium just now bestowed upon the prudence of the commons, by whom
the darling distillery has been so tenderly treated; yet that the
trade, in which the bounty of nature has enabled us to excel all other
nations of the world, may not be suffered to perish in silence, I will
take this opportunity to declare, that this boasted prudence can, in
my opinion, produce no other effects than poverty and ruin, private
calamities, and general wickedness; that by encouraging drunkenness at
the expense of trade, it will stop all the currents by which the gold
of foreign nations has flowed upon us, and expose us to conquest and
to slavery.

[Thus ended this memorable debate. The question being put, was
determined in favour of the bill by 57 against 38.]

END





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