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High Price of Provisions,





Dated 8th November, 1800,





Which have prevailed for the last Three Years.




With considerable Alterations and Additions.






This Tract was first published without the Author's name, in the end of the year 1800, in which as well as in the preceding year a great scarcity prevailed in consequence of bad crops. As the soundest and most received principles of political economy are here inculcated, and as the Author has annexed some notes and illustrations applicable to late events, and which may be useful in the present distressful crisis, we have deemed it deserving of a place in our collection of works which ought not to perish, and we have prevailed on the Author to make the corrections and additions which the reader will find.




HAVE for a great part of my life been in the habit of studying political economy as a recreation, in those hours. which I could spare from the proper duties of my station. Though these duties have but little relation to this subject, they have been such as to enable me to converse with and derive information from persons eminent in rank and learning,' as well as practical knowledge. I have also been led to a consideration of the subject by my examinations before the Committees of the House of Commons on the subject of bread and corn. What was before a matter of taste and amusement now becomes a matter of duty; for the present scarcity and high price of provisions is a subject of such high and universal interest that it is of the utmost importance, not only for the members of the Government, but for every individual, to form correct opinions regarding it. As errors among the go-verned as well as the governing are here peculiarly serious and even dangerous to the public peace, it behoves every good man to endeavour not only to form his own opinions on sound principles and solid grounds, but to the utmost of his power to lend his assistance to others in doing so.

As what I have to communicate would derive no weight from my name, it is of no consequence that it should be made public; but knowing the deep interest your Lordship takes in this question, I court the sanction of your name in thus addressing you, and I submit the following enquiry to you, not only as a member of the Legislature, as one of His Majesty's hereditary Counsellors,


The Author lived in habits of private intimacy with the late Lord Liverpool, Mr. Windham the late eminent Statesman and Orator, the late Sir W. Pulteney, and other persons of extensive political information.

and one of his Ministers presiding over a high department of the State, but also as one who by his independence, his private virtues, and various talents, has conciliated the confidence, respect, and affection of the nation, and who is acknowledged to be a promoter and a judge of whatever is beneficial to society.

In enquiring into the causes and remedies of the present distress, much light may be derived from the retrospect of past times. It appears from history that there has been no famine in this country for more than 350 years, though in that time there have been frequent instances of distress from scarcity and dearth. Famines were frequent, not only before the Norman conquest, during the Saxon and Danish dynasties, but since that era until near the end of the Plantagenet race of Kings. During this latter period, though the records of the times are very imperfect in most other points, they are tolerably satisfactory with regard to this; for it was the custom of the annalists of those days to mark the weather from year to year, and it appears that famines never occurred except after bad seasons. It is, however, probable that what were famines would sometimes have been only cases of extraordinary dearth, had it not been for impolitic institutions and regulations. The laws prohibiting the transport of corn from one part of the country to another, must assuredly have contributed greatly to aggravate the evil, and there is one instance of a regulation to fix the price of provisions in the year 1814, to which historians attribute the famine of the following year. However this may be, it may be considered as a historical fact, that famines never occurred in those nor any other ages, but in consequence of bad seasons. How little they depend on political convulsions may be inferred from hence, that they were unknown during the great struggles of the kingdom, such as the civil wars of York and Lancaster, and those of the King and Parliament. The last famine in England was in 1448, in the time of Henry VI. before the disastrous civil wars of that reign broke out. Some died of want in the great scarcity of 1699, but this was in a time of peace.

As there is reason to presume that the general course of nature for the last 250 years has not been different from what it was before that period, some other causes must be sought for, and some knowledge of the utmost importance to the points in question may be derived from an enquiry into the circumstances which rendered those ages so liable to these severe calamities, particularly the 14th century, which was remarkable for famine and pestilence, all over Europe.

1st. The low state of agriculture. This was owing not only

'See Hume's and Henry's Histories of England.

to the backwardness of those ages in every branch of industry, but to the mean and degrading state in which the laborers in agriculture were held in consequence of the prevalence of feudal and military ideas. The cultivation of the soil was held by the Romans in the rank of a liberal pursuit, whereas in the middle ages all over Europe the most opprobrious terms in language are derived from the condition of this class of the community, such as roturier, villain, churls, serfs, &c. It appears that in the 13th and 14th centuries, corn was sold for more than its weight of animal food. In a still later period, a pound of oatmeal in the Highlands of Scotland was considered as equal to a pound of beef. It is quite the reverse in our days-the reason of this no doubt is, that pasturage, requiring but little exertion of talent or labor, is the favorite pursuit of rude times, whereas agriculture requiring great diligence and skill, flourishes only in ages of civilization and industry.'

We may infer from this, that the proportion of corn to animal food was much less in those ages than in our times. It is probable also that the use of wheat in England was confined chiefly to the upper ranks of society, particularly in the northern counties, and that rye and oats were the grains chiefly in use among the common people, who could not have afforded the prices set against wheat+ in the tables of prices. The several grains however must have constituted a considerable proportion of the general subsistence, otherwise the failure of crops could not have caused famines. As civilization advanced, agriculture also advanced, and farinaceous food came to prevail over animal food. Yet even in the 16th century, grain of every species was much higher in price in relation to animal food than in the present times. By an act of parlia ment of the 25th of Henry VIII. the price of beef, veal, and pork,

The high estimation in which agriculture was held by the Romans, was none of the least causes of their excellent moral habits, as well as of their substantial power and grandeur. Cicero says, "Nihil agriculturâ melius, nihil uberius, nihil dulcius, nihil liberi hominis dignius."


2 In order to save the trouble of frequent reference, it may be mentioned that the facts stated in this letter are for the most part taken from Hume and Henry's Historics, and from Smith's Wealth of Nations.

3 See Illustration I.

4 When all this is considered, we must make a very low estimate of the population of those times, for there could be no other food for cattle than the spontaneous herbage; the use of sown grasses, turnips, and other species of food for cattle, depending on agriculture, being then unknown. Even the practice of providing provender for winter by hay, was not in use, and it was the custom even after the middle of the 17th century, to kill the cattle in the end of autumn, and salt them for winter provision. To this it was owing that the Sea scurvy, now entirely unknown, was a common disorder in the winter six months; and we learn from medical writers, that it prevailed in London as late as the reign of Charles II.

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