« PreviousContinue »
this in history. In Portugal, when the high tide of wealth flowed in from the conquests in Africa and the East, the effect of that great influx was not more visible in the augmented splendor of the court, and the luxury of the higher ranks, than in the distress of the people.
Mr. Southey's instance is not a very fortunate one. The wealth which did so little for the Portuguese was not the fruit, either of manufactures or of commerce carried on by private individuals. It was the wealth, not of the people, but of the government and its creatures, of those who, as Mr. Southey thinks, can never be too rich. The fact is, that Mr. Southey's proposition is opposed to all history, and to the phenomena which surround us on every side. Eng. land is the richest country in Europe, the most commercial and the most manufacturing. Russia and Poland are the poorest countries in Europe. They have scarcely any trade, and none but the rudest manufactures. Is wealth more diffused in Russia and Poland than in England ?
There are individuals in Russia and Poland, whose incomes are probably equal to those of our richest countrymen. It may be doubted, whether there are not, in those countries, as many fortunes of eighty thousand a-year, as here. But are there as many fortunes of five thousand a year, or of one thousand a year? There are parishes in England, which contain more people of between five hundred and three thousand pounds a year, than could be found in all the dominions of the Emperor Nicholas. The neat and commodious houses which have been built in London and its vicinity, for people of this class, within the last thirty years, would of them. selves form a city larger than the capitals of some European kingdoms. And this is the state of society in which the great proprietors have devoured the smaller !
The cure which Mr. Southey thinks that he has discovered is worthy of the sagacity which he has shown in detecting
the evil. The calamities arising from the collection of wealth in the hands of a few capitalists are to be remedied by collecting it in the hands of one great capitalist, who has no conceivable motive to use it better than other capitalists,
the all-devouring state.
It is not strange that, differing so widely from Mr. Southey as to the past progress of society, we should differ from him also as to its probable destiny. He thinks, that to all outward appearance, the country is hastening to destruction ;
; but he relies firmly on the goodness of God. We do not see either the piety, or the rationality, of thus confidently expecting that the Supreme Being will interfere to disturb the common succession of causes and effects. We, too, rely on his goodness, - on his goodness as manifested, not in extraordinary interpositions, but in those general laws which it has pleased him to establish in the physical and in the moral world. We rely on the natural tendency of the human intellect to truth, and on the natural tendency of society to improvement. We know no well-authenticated instance of a people which has decidedly retrograded in civilization and prosperity, except from the influence of violent and terrible calamities, such as those which laid the Roman Empire in ruins, or those which, about the beginning of the sixteenth century, desolated Italy. We know of no country which, at the end of fifty years of peace and tolerably good government, has been less prosperous than at the beginning of that period. The political importance of a state may decline, as the balance of power is disturbed by the introduction of new forces. Thus the influence of Holland and of Spain is much diminished. But are Holland and Spain poorer than formerly? We doubt it. Other countries have outrun them. But we suspect that they have been positively, though not relatively, advancing. We suspect that Holland is richer than when she sent her navies up the Thames ;
that Spain is richer than when a French king was brought captive to the footstool of Charles the Fifth."
History is full of the signs of this natural progress of society. We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than governments can squander, and repairs whatever in. vaders can destroy. We see the capital of nations increasing, and all the arts of life approaching nearer and nearer to perfection, in spite of the grossest corruption and the wildest profusion on the part of rulers.
The present moment is one of great distress. But how small will that distress appear when we think over the history of the last forty years ; - a war, compared with which,
, , all other wars sink into insignificance ; taxation, such as the most heavily taxed people of former times could not have conceived ; a debt larger than all the public debts that ever existed in the world added together; the food of the people studiously rendered dear; the currency imprudently de. based, and imprudently restored. Yet is the country poorer than in 1790? We fully believe that, in spite of all the misgovernment of her rulers, she has been almost constantly becoming richer and richer. Now and then there has been a stoppage, now and then a short retrogression ; but as to the general tendency there can be no doubt. A single breaker may recede, but the tide is evidently coming in.
If we were to prophecy that in the year 1930, a population of fifty millions, better fed, clad, and lodged than the English of our time, will cover these islands ; that Sussex and Huntingdonshire will be wealthier than the wealthiest parts of the West-Riding of Yorkshire now are ; that cultivation, rich as that of a flower-garden, will be carried up to the very tops of Ben Nevis and Helvellyn ; that machines,
constructed on principles yet undiscovered, will be in
every house; that there will be no highways but rail-roads, no
;; travelling but by steam ; that our debt, vast as it seems to us, will appear to our great-grand-children a trifling encumbrance, which might easily be paid off in a year or two, many people would think us insane. We prophecy nothing; but this we say — If any person had told the Parliament which met in perplexity and terror after the crash in 1720, that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams; that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered as an intolerable burden; that for one man of L.10,000 then living, there would be five men of L.50,000; that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the mortality would have diminished to one half what it then was ; that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles II. ; that stage-coaches would run from London to York in twenty-four hours ; that men would sail without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses; our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels. Yet the predice tion would have been true; and they would have perceived
: that it was not altogether absurd, if they had considered that the country was then raising every year a sum which would have purchased the fee-simple of the revenue of the Plantagenets, ten times what supported the government of Elizabeth, three times what, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, had been thought intolerably oppressive. To almost all men the state of things under which they have been used to live, seems to be the necessary state of things. We have heard it said, that five per cent. is the natural interest of money, that twelve is the natural number of a jury, that forty shillings is the natural qualification of a county voter. Hence
it is, that though, in every age, everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error, who tell us that society has reached a turning point,
that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason. A million a year will beggar us,' said the patriots of 1640. Two millions a year will grind the country to powder,' was the cry in 1660.
· Six millions a year, and a debt of fifty millions !' exclaimed Swift, the high allies have been the ruin of us.' 'A hundred and forty millions of debt!' said Junius, ' well may we say that we owe Lord Chatham more than we shall ever pay, if we owe him such a load as this.' • Two hundred and forty millions of debt!' cried all the statesmen of 1783 in chorus, ' what abilities, or what economy on the part of a minister, can save a country so burdened ? We know that if, since 1783, no fresh debt had been incurred, the increased resources of the country would have enabled us to defray that burden, at which Pitt, Fox, and Burke stood aghast, - to defray it over and over again, and that with much lighter taxation than what we have actually borne. On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us ?
It is not by the intermeddling of Mr. Southey's idol, the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilization ; and it is to the same prudence and the same energy that we now look with comfort and good hope. Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the people by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties; by leaving capital to find its most lucra. tive course, commodities their fair price, industry and intel