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Great Britain: I. (710–1777). 1906.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield

Against the Gin Bill of the Ministry

THE BILL now under our consideration appears to me to deserve a much closer regard than seems to have been paid to it in the other House, through which it was hurried with the utmost precipitation, and where it passed almost without the formality of a debate. Nor can I think that earnestness with which some lords seem inclined to press it forward here consistent with the importance of the consequences which may with great reason be expected from it.

To desire, my lords, that this bill may be considered in a committee, is only to desire that it may gain one step without opposition; that it may proceed through the forms of the House by stealth; and that the consideration of it may be delayed till the exigencies of the government shall be so great as not to allow time for raising the supplies by any other method.

By this artifice, gross as it is, the patrons of this wonderful bill hope to obstruct a plain and open detection of its tendency. They hope, my lords, that the bill shall operate in the same manner with the liquor which it is intended to bring into more general use; and that, as those who drink spirits are drunk before they are well aware that they are drinking, the effects of this law shall be perceived before we know that we have made it. Their intent is, to give us a dram of policy which is to be swallowed before it is tasted, and which, when once it is swallowed, will turn our heads.

To pretend, my lords, that the design of this bill is to prevent or diminish the use of spirits is to trample on common sense and to violate the rules of decency as well as of reason. For when did any man hear that a commodity was prohibited by licensing its sale, or that to offer and refuse is the same action?

It is indeed pleaded that it will be made dearer by the tax which is proposed, and that the increase of the price will diminish the number of purchasers; but it is at the same time expected that this tax shall supply the expense of a war on the continent. It is asserted, therefore, that the consumption of spirits will be hindered; and yet that it will be such as may be expected to furnish from a very small tax, a revenue sufficient for the support of armies, or the reestablishment of the Austrian family, and the repressing of the attempts of France.

Surely, my lords, these expectations are not very consistent; nor can it be imagined that they are both formed in the same head, tho they may be expressed by the same mouth. It is, however, some recommendation of a statesman, when, of his assertions, one can be found reasonable or true; and in this, praise can not be denied to our present ministers. For tho it is undoubtedly false that this tax will lessen the consumption of spirits, it is certainly true that it will produce a very large revenue—a revenue that will not fail but with the people from whose debaucheries it arises.

Our ministers will therefore have the same honor with their predecessors, of having given rise to a new fund; not indeed for the payment of our debts, but for much more valuable purposes—for the cheering of our hearts under oppression, and for the ready support of those debts which we have lost all hopes of paying. They are resolved, my lords, that the nation which no endeavors can make wise, shall, while they are at its head, at least be very merry; and, since public happiness is the end of government, they seem to imagine that they shall deserve applause by an expedient which will enable every man to lay his cares to sleep, to drown sorrow, and lose in the delights of drunkenness both the public miseries and his own.

Luxury, my lords, is to be taxed, but vice prohibited, let the difficulties in executing the law be what they will. Would you lay a tax on the breach of the ten commandments? Would not such a tax be wicked and scandalous; because it would imply an indulgence to all those who would pay the tax? Is not this a reproach most justly thrown by the Protestants upon the Church of Rome? Was it not the chief cause of the Reformation? And will you follow a precedent which brought reproach and ruin upon those that introduced it? This is the very case now before you. You are going to lay a tax, and consequently to indulge a sort of drunkenness, which almost necessarily produces a breach of every one of the ten commandments. Can you expect the reverend bench will approve of this? I am convinced they will not; and therefore I wish I had seen it full upon this occasion. I am sure I have seen it much fuller upon other occasions, in which religion had no such deep concern.

Surely, my lords, men of such unbounded benevolence as our present ministers deserve such honors as were never paid before; they deserve to bestride a butt upon every sign-post in the city, or to have their figures exhibited as tokens where this liquor is to be sold by the license which they have procured. They must at least be remembered to future ages as the “happy politicians” who, after all expedients for raising taxes had been employed, discovered a new method of draining the last relics of the public wealth, and added a new revenue to the government. Nor will those who shall hereafter enumerate the several funds now established among us, forget, among the benefactors to their country, the illustrious authors of the Drinking Fund.

May I be allowed, my lords, to congratulate my countrymen and fellow subjects upon the happy times which are now approaching, in which no man will be disqualified from the privilege of being drunk; when all discontent and disloyalty shall be forgotten, and the people, tho now considered by the ministry as enemies, shall acknowledge the leniency of that government under which all restraints are taken away?

But, to a bill for such desirable purposes, it would be proper, my lords, to prefix a preamble, in which the kindness of our intentions should be more fully explained, that the nation may not mistake our indulgence for cruelty, not consider their benefactors as their persecutors. If, therefore, this bill be considered and amended (for why else should it be considered?) in a committee, I shall humbly propose that it shall be introduced in this manner:

  • Whereas the designs of the present ministry, whatever they are, can not be executed without a great number of mercenaries, which mercenaries can not be hired without money; and whereas the present disposition of this nation to drunkenness inclines us to believe that they will pay more cheerfully for the undisturbed enjoyment of distilled liquors than for any other concession that can be made by the government: be it enacted by the King’s most excellent Majesty, that no man shall hereafter be denied the right of being drunk on the following conditions.
  • The noble lord has, indeed, admitted that this bill may not be found sufficiently coercive, but gives us hopes that it may be improved and enforced another year, and persuades us to endeavor a reformation of drunkenness by degrees, and, above all, to beware at present of hurting the manufacture.

    I am very far, my lords, from thinking that there are, this year, any peculiar reasons for tolerating murder; nor can I conceive why the manufacture should be held sacred now, if it be to be destroyed hereafter. We are, indeed, desired to try how far this law will operate, that we may be more able to proceed with due regard to this valuable manufacture.

    With regard to the operation of the law, it appears to me that it will only enrich the government without reforming the people; and I believe there are not many of a different opinion. If any diminution of the sale of spirits be expected from it, it is to be considered that this diminution will, or will not, be such as is desired for the reformation of the people. If it be sufficient, the manufacture is at an end, and all the reasons against the higher duties are of equal force against this; but if it be not sufficient, we have at least omitted part of our duty, and have neglected the health and virtue of the people.

    When I consider, my lords, the tendency of this bill, I find it calculated only for the propagation of diseases, the suppression of industry, and the destruction of mankind. I find it the most fatal engine that ever was pointed at a people; an engine by which those who are not killed will be disabled, and those who preserve their limbs will be deprived of their senses.

    This bill, therefore, appears to be designed only to thin the ranks of mankind, and to disburden the world of the multitudes that inhabit it; and is perhaps the strongest proof of political sagacity that our new ministers have yet exhibited. They well know, my lords, that they are universally detested, and that, whenever a Briton is destroyed, they are freed from an enemy; they have therefore opened the floodgates of gin upon the nation that, when it is less numerous, it may be more easily governed.

    Other ministers, my lords, who had not attained to so great a knowledge in the art of making war upon their country, when they found their enemies clamorous and bold, used to awe them with prosecutions and penalties, or destroy them like burglars, with prisons and with gibbets. But every age, my lords, produces some improvement; and every nation, however degenerate, gives birth, at some happy period of time, to men of great and enterprising genius. It is our fortune to be witnesses of a new discovery in politics. We may congratulate ourselves upon being contemporaries with those men who have shown that hangmen and halters are unnecessary in a state and that ministers may escape the reproach of destroying their enemies by inciting them to destroy themselves.

    For this purpose, my lords, what could have been invented more efficacious than an establishment of a certain number of shops at which poison may be vended—poison so prepared as to please the palate, while it wastes the strength, and only kills by intoxication? From the first instant that any of the enemies of the ministry shall grow clamorous and turbulent, a crafty hireling may lead him to the ministerial slaughterhouse and ply him with their wonder-working liquor till he is no longer able to speak or think, and, my lords, no man can be more agreeable to our ministers that he can neither speak nor think, except those who speak without thinking.