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time, Mr. Wilkeson is very much mistaken in the opinion that, because a nation is great and powerful, it follows that its bonds must always be “absolutely sure and perfectly safe.” The rnost cursory glance at the financial history of England alone ought to have satisfied him on this point.
How can the bonds of any country be said to be “ perfectly safe” when it finds it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to raise sufficient funds for its current expenses? And how often has England been in this position ? Nay, how often have her bond-holders suffered ? Did not the very minister who had assumed so much credit for establishing the sinking fund, and who had so often represented it as absolutely necessary to save the nation from ruin, lay violent hands upon it by appropriating a million of its produce to the supplies of the year ? To this day the most serious charge made against William Pitt, as a statesman, is that he was always too ready to increase the national debt, and, consequently, to enlarge the burden of taxation.
We have never met an intelligent Englishman yet who would seriously maintain that England has sustained no injury from her enormous national debt, not to mention its being a blessing to her. If all Englishmen did so, the world would know that they were wrong. What, for example, but her debt caused her to provoke her American colonies to rebellion? It was precisely because the British minister had to raise £4,840,821, in taxes, to pay the interest on the national debt, and found it extremely difficult to do so, that the Stamp Act was introduced into the House of Commons in March, 1764, at his instigation, and passed the following year by that body, in order that the colonies might be made “to bear a part, at least, of the burden that oppressed the mother country." Can Mr. Wilkeson deny this? Was it a blessing that thus placed England in a position that led to the loss of her best colonies? To the latter, indeed, it was a blessing, but it was the most humiliating blow that ever England had to bear.
Nor shall we find any better results arising from the operation of the national debt if we turn to any of the other European states included in Mr. Wilkeson's table. We need not go beyond France, which is the first on his list. That country has, indeed, a large debt; but we have never heard it urged that it was beneficial to the nation, or even that it has not proved injurious; but the reverse we have heard and seen often enough, and we are convinced that it is true. So early as 1715, Št. Simon proposed to the regent to assemble the States-General and declare a general bankruptcy on account of the burden of the national debt. All the principal historians of France admit that its great increase, caused by the wars of Louis XIII. and of Louis XIV., contributed more to the fall of Louis XVI. than any other cause.
But we have still clearer evidence than this, that a large national debt is neither so good nor so sure as Mr. Wilkeson would have his readers believe. Thus we find that, in 1798, the bonds of France, known as deux tiers were depreciated almost immediately to the extent of 70 to 80 per cent. In a very short time they became utterly worthless, and, as a necessary consequence, the government became bankrupt. But Mr. Wilkeson may tell us that this was a mere matter of form, so far as the public creditors were concerned, because a government debt is so widely different from an individual debt. But such proved not to be the fact in this as in many other cases ; for the failure of the government to meet its payments, as stipulated, was productive of the greatest, suffering. In the language.cf the historian, two hundred thousand families found themselves ruined in a single day; a multitude who had been living on rents, pensions, and the proceeds of their labor, and all they had to spare, were reduced to the most frightful misery.*
Mr. Wilkeson places great stress on the form of government. In the extract we have given, from page 7 of his pamphlet, he tells us that “the life of a government, founded on the will of an intelligent people, is enduring," and that “the debt of a constitutional government is accepted as perfectly safe,” &c. It is certainly true that, if a country may be blessed by imposing a heavy debt upon it, no governments are entitled to so much credit as constitutional governments, since they excel all others in producing large debts. The reader need only turn to Mr. Wilkeson's own table in order to understand this. It shows that constitutional England has nearly four times as large a debt as despotic Russia ; more than three times as large a debt as Austria ; and nearly twice as large a debt as France. Thus, in proportion as a country is more despotic than another, it has a smaller debt, and vice versa. But the disparity between the debts of the different countries per capita is still greater.
Plus de deux cent mille familles se trouvèrent ruinées en un seul jour. Une multitude de rentiers et de pensionnaires perdirent tout à coup le fruit de leurs travaux et de leurs epargnes, et se trouvèrent dans la plus affreuse misère.-M. Hyacinthe Maury.
Thus the English debt per capita amounts to $129.33, while that of Russia amounts only to $19.64 ; that is, every Englishman has to pay more than five times as much annually for the public debt as every Russian has; every American has to pay more than four times as much as every Russian, &c. It may be some consolation to the Englishman or the American that, if he has to pay a larger tax than his neighbor, it has been imposed upon him, not by one person, but by a score or a hundred ; which would be about the same as to prefer paying six dollars or four dollars to a company of hatters for a hat, rather th
pay one dollar to one hatter who had the of selling his hats as he chose, or keeping them all to himself, if that pleased him better.
Nor is it always true that it is safer to deal with six men, or even five hundred, than with one. As it is our disposition, as well as our duty, rather to tell the truth than to laud any form of government further than we think it deserves it, we must remind our author that it is precisely when and where the people have had most power that the public creditors have fared worst. It is well known that Cromwell was more anxious to enrich his friends and supporters than he was to pay the public creditors. And be it remembered that it was the republic of France—not the monarchy—that repudiated its debts in the manner indicated above, and brought ruin on hundreds of thousands. Here was a popular government, but was it safe and enduring on that account? Was there not inore safety, as well as more stability, under the despotic government established by Napoleon I. ?
We do not mean by this that a despotism is better than a republic or as good ; none appreciate the superior advantages of the latter more highly than we do ourselves ; but that is no reason why we should give it credit for virtues which it is notorious it does not possess. On the contrary, the weak point of a popular government is the facility with which it accumulates debt. It is this facility which best explains the difference between the several debts of the five great powers as exhibited in Mr. Wilkeson's table; for it cannot be pretended that France and Russia are not as warlike nations as England. Still less can it be pretended that those governments could not tax their people, if so disposed, to as burdensome an extent as England; if they did not possess this power, it would be absurd to call them despotic.
Nor is the superior stability, or durability, claimed by Mr. Wilkeson for popular governments as a guarantee of safety
to their creditors, founded on any stronger basis. The history of the world shows but too plainly that the reverse is the fact. It is not necessary to go back to the republics of Greece or Rome for proof of this ; we have illustrations enough in modern times. What, for example, has become of the republic of Venice, with all its glory and power? What of the Dutch republic, that set at defiance the imperial power of Spain in her palmiest days ? Has not England herself had a republic, and how long did it last? Has not France had a republic twice, and how long did it“ endure" either time? What security did it afford the public creditor ?
It is obvious, then, that, if we ought to feel no particular uneasiness about our debt, it is not because the form of our government is republican, because it is founded on the will of the people, or because it bears a resemblance to the government of England or any other country. The truth is that the nature of a large public debt, or the influence which it is likely to produce on the nation, is as great a mystery to “the people”.as the quadrature of the circle, or the magic stone of the alchemist, which is to transmute all metals into gold. The opinion, or the vote, of one person who understands a subject is of more value than that of five thousand who do not understand it; and hence it is but natural, after all, that the masses may denounce or execrate to-day what they hurrahed and threw up their hats for yesterday ; for it is now just as true as when Horace wrote his beautiful ode, Ad fortunam, that the will of the mob is a very precarious foundation to build upon:
“At vulgus infidum, et meretrix retro
Perjura ccdit.” The reason why we think there is no cause for alarm, notwithstanding the vast amount of our debt, is that not only are our resources almost boundless, but our situation and circumstances are such that we can use them in time to the best advantage. It is these resources which constitute our wealth according as they are made available; they are so much added to our wealth ; the debt is certainly not an addition to our wealth as asserted by Mr.Wilkeson ; it is more correct to regard it as so much deducted from that wealth. We hold, also, that the only effectual way to discharge the national debt is by the overplus of profits afforded by those resources when made available; and that the sooner it is paid without having recourse to any violent means, or without prejudice to vested rights, the better for the nation.
Hitherto we have adduced only our own views and arguments in refuting the assertions of Mr. Wilkeson ; but we do not assume that these ought to be accepted by our readers if we cannot show that they are corroborated in every important particular by writers on political economy, and especially on this particular branch of it, who are recognized as authorities. None will deny, we dare say, that Professor Hamilton may
be regarded in this light. Now we will ask the reader to remember what wonderful efficacy Mr. Wilkeson ascribes to the funding system, and then hear what the professor has to say on the subject. “Convinced,” says Dr. Hamilton,” that the sinking fund has contributed nothing to the discharge of the public debt, that it has occasioned a large addition to our public burthens, we next enquire whether any and what advantages have been derived from it. The means, and the only means, of restraining the progress of national debt are saving of expenditure and increase of revenue. Neither of these have a necessary connection with a sinking fund. But if they have an eventual connection, and if the nation, impressed with a conviction of the importance of a system established by a popular minister, has, in order to adhere to it, adopted measures, either of frugality in expenditure, or exertion in raising taxes, which it would not otherwise have done, the sinking fund ought not to be considered as inefficient; and its effects may be of great importance. We are not of opinion that the sinking fund has contributed in any degree to frugality in expenditure. The time during which it has operated has not been a time of national frugality. Ministers have had the full power of raising what loans they pleased to supply the means of any expenditure, however lavish ; and it will not be said they have used this power with a saving hand. In regard to increase of taxes, we are of opinion that the sinking fund has had a real effect in calling forth exertions which, although they might have been made as well and as effectually, would not have been made unless to follow out the line which that system required. A loan is made, and the revenue is considered as charged not only with the interest, but a certain proportion of the principal annually. Taxes are imposed to meet the one as well as the other. If the sinking fund had not been in view, it is likely taxes would have been imposed for the interest only.*
Now let the reader bear in mind the distinction which Mr
An inquiry concerning the Rise and Progress, &c., of the National Debt, by Robert Hamilton, LL.D., F.R.S.E., p. 158.