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An essay by Charles Lever

The Intoxicating Liquors Bill

Title:     The Intoxicating Liquors Bill
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

Anything more absurd than the late debate in the House on the best means of suppressing intemperance it is very hard to imagine. First of all, in the van, came the grievance to be redressed; and we had a statistical statement of all the gallons of strong drink consumed--all the moneys diverted from the legitimate uses of the family--all the debauchees who rolled drunk through our streets, and all the offences directly originating in this degrading vice. Now, what conceivable order of mind could prompt a man to engage in such a laborious research? Who either doubts the enormity of drunkenness or its frequency? It is a theme that we hear of incessantly. The pulpit rings with it, the press proclaims it, the judges declare it in all their charges, and a special class of lecturers have converted it into a profession. None denied the existence of the disease; what we craved was the cure. Some discrepancy of opinion prevailed as to whether the vice was on the increase or the decrease. Statistics were given, and, of course, statistics supported each assertion. This, however, was a mere skirmish--the grand battle was, How was drunkenness to be put down?

Mr Lawson's plan was: If four-fifths of the ratepayers of any district were agreed that no spirituous liquors should be sold there, that such should become a law, and no licence for their sale should be issued. The mover of this proposal, curiously enough, called this "bringing public opinion to bear on the question." What muddle of intelligence could imagine this to be an exercise of public opinion I cannot imagine. Such, however, is the plan. Drunkenness is to be repressed by making it impossible. Did it never occur to the honourable gentleman, that all legislative enactments whatever work not by enforcing what is good, but by punishing what is evil? No law that ever was made would render people honest and true to their engagements; but we arrive at a result not very dissimilar by making dishonesty penal.

The Decalogue declares: "Thou shalt not commit a murder." Human law pronounces what will come of it if you do. It is, doubtless, very imperfect legislation, but there is no help for it. We accept such cases, however, as the best defences we can find for our social condition, never for a moment presuming to think that we are rendering a vice impossible by attaching to it a penalty.

Mr Lawson, however, says, There shall be no drunkenness, because there shall be no liquor. Why not extend the principle--for it is a great discovery--and declare that, wherever four-fifths of the ratepayers of a town or borough are of opinion that ingratitude is a great offence to morals and a stain to human nature, in that district where they reside there shall be no benefits conferred, nor any act of kindly aid or assistance rendered by one man to his neighbour? I have no doubt that, by such legislation, you would put down ingratitude. We use acts in the moral world pretty much as in the physical; and it is entirely by the impossibility of committing the offence that this gentleman proposes to prevent its occurrence. But, in the name of common sense, why do we inveigh against monasteries and nunneries?--why are we so severe on a system that substitutes restraint for reason, and instead of correction supplies coercion? Surely this plan is based on exactly the same principle. Would it, I ask, cure a man of lying--I mean the vice, not the practice--to place him in a community where no party was permitted to talk?

The example of the higher classes was somewhat ostentatiously paraded in the debate, and members vied with each other in declaring how often they dined out without meeting a drunkard in the company. This is very gratifying and reassurring; but I am not aware that anybody ascribed the happy change to the paucity of the decanters, and the difficulty of getting the bottle; or whether it was that four-fifths of the party had declared an embargo on the sherry, and realised the old proverb by elevating necessity to the rank of virtue.

Let me ask, who ever imagined that the best way to render a soldier brave in battle was to take care that he never saw an enemy, and only frequented the society of Quakers? And yet this is precisely what Mr Lawson suggests. If his system be true, what becomes of all moral discipline and all self-restraint? It is not through my own convictions that I am sober; it is through no sense of the degradation that pertains to drunkenness, and the loss of social estimation that follows it, that I am temperate. It is because four-fifths of the ratepayers declare that I shall have no drink nearer than the next parish; and this reminds of another weak point in the plan.

The Americans, who understand something of the evils of drink, on the principle that made Doctor Panloss a good man, because he knew what wickedness was, lately passed a law in Congress forbidding the use of fermented liquors on board all the ships of war. It was one of those sweeping pieces of legislation that men enact when driven to do something, they know not exactly what, by the enormity of some great abuse. Now, I have taken considerable pains to inquire how the plan operates, and what success has waited on it. From every officer that I have questioned I have received the same exact testimony: so long as the ships are at sea the men only grumble at the privation; but once they touch port, and boats' crews are permitted to go ashore, drunkenness breaks out with tenfold violence. For a while all real discipline is at an end; parties are despatched to bring back defaulters, who themselves get reeling drunk; petty officers are insulted, and scenes of violence enacted that give the unhappy locality where they have landed the aspect of a town taken by assault and given up to pillage. I am not now describing altogether from hearsay; I have witnessed something of what I speak.

As drunkenness, when the ship was at sea, was the rarest of all events, and the good conduct of the men when on shore was the great object to be obtained, this system may be, so far as the navy is concerned, pronounced a decided failure. Whatever may be said about the policy of sowing a man's wild oats, nobody, so far as I know, ever hinted that the crop should be perennial.

Legislation can no more make men temperate than it can make them cleanly or courteous. If Parliament could work miracles of this sort, it would make one really in love with constitutional government. But what a crotchety thing all this amateur lawmaking is! Why did it not occur to this well-intentioned gentleman to inquire how it is that drunkenness is unknown, or nearly unknown, in what are called the better classes? How is it that the orgies our grandfathers liked so well, and deemed the great essence of hospitality, are no longer heard of? The three-bottle man now could no more be found than the Plesiosaurus. He belongs to a past totally and essentially irrevocable.

And by what has this happy change been effected? Surely not by withdrawing temptation. Not only have we an infinitely wider choice in fluids than our forefathers, but they are served and ministered with appliances far more tasteful and seductive. It is, however, to the higher tone of society the revolution is owing. Men saw that drunkenness was disgraceful: it rendered society disorderly and riotous; it interfered with all real conversational pleasure; it led to unmannerly excesses, and to quarrels. A higher cultivation repudiated all these things; and even they who, so to say, "liked their wine" too well, were slow to disparage themselves by an indulgence which good taste declared to be ungentlemanlike.

Is it completely impossible to introduce some such sentiment as this into other orders of society? We see it certainly in some foreign countries--why not in our own? Radical orators are incessantly telling us of the mental powers and the intellectual cultivation of the working-classes, and I am well-disposed to believe there is much truth in what they say. Why not then adapt, to men so highly civilised, some of those sentiments that sway the classes more favoured of fortune? The French artisan would deem it a disgrace to be drunk--so the Italian; even the German would only go as far as a sort of beery bemuddlement that made him a more ideal representative of the Vaterland: why must the Englishman, of necessity, be the inferior in civilisation to these? I am not willing to believe the task of such a reformation hopeless, though I am perfectly convinced that no greater folly could be committed than to attempt it by an Act of Parliament.

When legislation has led men to be agreeable in society, unassuming in manners, and gentle in deportment, it may make them temperate in their liquor, but not before. The thing cannot be done in committee, nor by a vote of the House. It is only to be accomplished by the filtering process, by which the good habits of a nation drop down and permeate the strata beneath; so that, in course of time, the whole mass, leavened by the same ingredients, becomes one as completely in sentiment as in interest. "Four-fifths of the ratepayers" will not effect this. After all, Mr Lawson is only a second-hand discoverer. His bill was a mere plagiarism from beginning to end. The whole text of his argument was said and sung by poor Curran, full fifty odd years ago:--

"My children, be chaste till you're tempted;
While sober, be wise and discreet;
And humble your bodies with fasting
Whenever you've nothing to eat."

[The end]
Charles Lever's Essay: The Intoxicating Liquors Bill