The difficulty of treating cotemporary characters and events has been ever acknowledged; but it may be doubted whether the difficulty is diminished when we would commemorate the men and things that have preceded us. The cloud of passion in the first instance, or in the other the mist of time, may render it equally hard and perplexing to discriminate.
CHAPTER IV. The Cure for Irish Ills
The truth is that the delay in the conduct of parliamentary business which has been much complained of during the last few years, murmurs of which were especially rife in 1848, is attributable to the fact that the ministry, though formed of men inferior in point of ability to none who could be reasonably intrusted with administration, had not sufficient parliamentary strength. After all their deliberations and foresight,â€”after all their observations of the times and study of the public interest, their measures when launched from the cabinet into the House were not received by a confiding majority, firm in their faith in the statesmanlike qualities of the authors of these measures and in their sympathy with the general political system of which the ministry was the representative. On the contrary, the success of the measures depended on a* variety of sections who in their aggregate exceeded in number and influence the party of the ministers. These became critics and took the ministerial measures in hand; the measures became, the measures, not of the cabinet, but of the House of Commons; and a purely legislative assembly became, in consequence of the weakness of the government, yearly more administrative. This was undoubtedly a great evil, and occasioned, besides great delay, many crude enactments, as will be the case where all are constructors and none are responsible, but the evil was not occasioned by the forms of the House or the length of the speeches. Sir Robert Peel was unquestionably a very able administrator, but if he had not had a majority of ninety he would have fallen in as ill repute as has been too often the lot of Lord John Russell.
His eager and energetic disposition; his quick perception, clear judgment, and prompt decision; the tenacity with which he clung to his opinions; his frankness and love of truth; his daring and speculative spirit; his lofty bearing, blended as it was with a simplicity of manner very remarkable; the ardour of his friendships, even the fierceness of his hates and prejudicesâ€”all combined to form one of those strong characters who, whatever may be their pursuit, must always direct and lead.
After noticing the inadequate poor-law which then existed in Ireland, he added: â€˜There is also another point immediately connected with this subject to which I must refer. I allude, sir, to the system of absenteeism. I cannot disguise from myself the conviction, that many of the evils of Ireland arise from the system of receiving rents by absentee landlords who spend them in other countries. I am well aware that, in holding this doctrine, I am not subscribing to the creed of political economists. I am well aware that Messrs. Senior and Mâ€™Culloch hold that it makes no difference whether the Irish landlord spends his rents in Dublin, on his Irish estates, in London, in Bath, or elsewhere. I profess, sir, I cannot understand that theory. I believe that the first ingredient in the happiness of a people is, that the gentry should reside on their native soil, and spend their rents among those from whom they receive them. I cannot help expressing a wish that some arrangement may be made connected with the levying of the poor-rate in Ireland, by which absentee landlords may be made to contribute in something like a fair proportion to the wants of the poor in the district in which they ought to reside. There is an arrangement in the hop-growing districts in England in respect to tithe, which might, I think, afford a very useful suggestion. There are two tithes: the one, the ordinary tithe; the other, extraordinary; which is levied only so long as the land is cultivated in hops. I think if there were two poor-rates introduced into Ireland, the one applying to all occupiers of land, and the other to all those who did not spend a certain portion of the year on some portion of their estates in Ireland, it would prove useful. I think, that by thus appealing to their interests, it might induce absentee landlords to reside much more in Ireland, than is now unfortunately the case.
â€˜I observe from a cotton circular sent to me the other day, that seven thousand five hundred bags of cotton had been purchased for exportation between the 1st and 21st of May. If with reduced stocks of raw cotton we are commencing a career of increased exportation, it appears to me to involve very serious consequences for our cotton manufactures as growing out of the existing monetary difficulties of the manufacturers.
Had the general election been postponed until the autumn, the results might have been very different. That stormâ€”which had been long gathering in the commercial atmosphereâ€”then burst like a typhoon. The annals of our trade afford no parallel for the widespread disaster and the terrible calamities. In the month of September, fifteen of the most considerable houses in the city of London stopped payment for between five and six millions sterling. The governor of the Bank of England was himself a partner in one of these firms; a gentleman who had lately filled that office, was another victim; two other Bank directors were included in the list. The failures were not limited to the metropolis, but were accompanied by others of great extent in the provinces. At Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow large firms were obliged to suspend payments. This shock of credit arrested all the usual accommodation, and the pressure in the money-market, so terrible in the spring, was revived. The excitement and the alarm in the city of London were so great that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer hurried up to town on the 1st of October, he found that the interest of money was at the rate of 60 per cent. per annum. The Bank Charter produced the same injurious effect as it had done in April; it aggravated the evil by forcing men to hoard. In vain the commercial world deplored the refusal of the government to comply with the suggestion made by Lord George Bentinck and Mr. Thomas Baring in the spring; in vain they entreated them at least now to adopt it, and to authorize the Bank of England to enlarge the amount of their discounts and advances on approved security, without reference to the stringent clause of the charter. The government, acting, it is believed, with the encouragement and sanction of Sir Robert Peel, were obstinate, and three weeks then occurred during which the commercial credit of this country was threatened with total destruction. Nine more considerable mercantile houses stopped payment in the metropolis, the disasters in the provinces were still more extensive. The Royal Bank of Liverpool failed; among several principal establishments in that town, one alone stopped payment for upwards of a million sterling. The havoc at Manchester was also great. The Newcastle bank and the North and South Wales bank stopped. Consols fell to 79 1/4, and exchequer bills were at last at 35 per cent, discount. The ordinary rate of discount at the Bank of England was between 8 and 9 per cent., but out of doors accommodation was not to be obtained. In such a state of affairs, the small houses of course gave way. From their rising in the morning until their hour of retirement at night, the First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were employed in seeing persons of all descriptions, who entreated them to interfere and preserve the community from universal bankruptcy. â€˜Perish the world, sooner than violate a principle,â€™ was the philosophical exclamation of her Majestyâ€™s ministers, sustained by the sympathy and the sanction of Sir Robert Peel. At last, the governor and the deputy-governor of the Bank of England waited on Downing Street, and said it could go on no more. The Scotch banks had applied to them for assistance. The whole demand for discount was thrown upon the Bank of England. Two bill-brokers had stopped; two others were paralyzed. The Bank of England could discount no longer. Thanks to the Bank Charter, they were safe and their treasury full of bullion, but it appeared that everybody else must fall, for in four-and-twenty hours the machinery of credit would be entirely stopped. The position was frightful, and the government gave way. They did that on the 25th of October, after houses had fallen to the amount of fifteen millions sterling, which they had been counselled to do by Lord George Bentinck on the 25th of April. It turned out exactly as Mr. Thomas Baring had foretold. It was not want of capital or deficiency of circulation which had occasioned these awful consequences. It was sheer panic, occasioned by an unwisely stringent law. No sooner had the government freed the Bank of England from that stringency, than the panic ceased. The very morning the letter of license from the government to the Bank of England appeared, thousands and tens of thousands of pounds sterling were taken from the hoards, some from boxes deposited with bankers, although the depositors would not leave the notes in their bankersâ€™ hands. Large parcels of notes were returned to the Bank of England cut into halves, as they had been sent down into the country, and so small was the real demand for an additional quantity of currency, that the whole amount taken from the Bank, when the unlimited power of issue was given, was under ?ï¿¡400,000, and the Bank consequently never availed itself of the privilege which the government had accorded it. The restoration of confidence produced an ample currency, and that confidence had solely been withdrawn from the apprehension of the stringent clauses of the Bank Charter Act of 1844.