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A non-fiction by Samuel Johnson

Debate On The Bill For Prohibiting The Exportation Of Corn

Title:     Debate On The Bill For Prohibiting The Exportation Of Corn
Author: Samuel Johnson [More Titles by Johnson]



On the first day of the session, his majesty, in his speech from the throne, recommended to parliament to consider of some good law to prevent the growing mischief of the exportation of corn to foreign countries.

On the fourth day, a bill for preventing, for a limited time, the exportation, etc, was read a first time in the house of commons, and the question put, whether it should be printed, which passed in the negative.

This day the agent for the colonies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, presented a petition against the said corn bill, which was referred to the committee.

Another petition was also presented by the agent for the colony of Connecticut, in New England, setting forth that the chief trade of that colony arose from supplying other British colonies with corn, so that unless that colony be excepted from the restraints intended by this bill, both that and those which are supplied by it will be reduced to great distress, and praying, therefore, that such exception may be allowed.

The allegations in this petition were confirmed by another, from one of the provinces supplied by the colony of Connecticut.

Another petition was presented by the agent for South Carolina, setting forth, that unless the rice produced in that province were allowed to be exported, the colony must be ruined by the irretrievable loss of their whole trade, as the countries now supplied from thence might easily procure rice from the French settlements, already too much their rivals in trade.

This petition was supported by another, offered at the same time by the merchants of Bristol.

A petition was likewise presented by the agent for the sugar islands, in which it was alleged, that if no provisions be imported thither from Britain, they must, in one month, suffer the extremities of famine.

All these petitions were referred to the committee for the bill.

A printed paper was also delivered to the members, entitled, 'considerations on the embargo,' which enumerated many dangerous consequences likely to be produced by an embargo on provisions, and suggested that it was no better than a wicked scheme for private profit, with other reflections, for which the paper was deemed a libel, and the author committed to prison.

The bill being read in the committee, produced the following memorable debate.

Mr. PULTNEY spoke to this effect:--Sir, after all the attention which has been bestowed upon the bill now before us, I cannot yet conceive it such as can benefit the nation, or such as will not produce far greater inconveniencies than those which it is intended to obviate, and therefore, as those inconveniencies may be prevented by other means, I cannot but declare that I am far from approving it.

Our ancestors, sir, have always thought it the great business of this house to watch against the encroachments of the prerogative, and to prevent an increase of the power of the minister; and the commons have always been considered as more faithful to their trust, and more properly the representatives of the people, in proportion as they have considered this great end with more attention, and prosecuted it with more invariable resolution. If we inquire into the different degrees of reputation, which the several assemblies of commons have obtained, and consider why some are remembered with reverence and gratitude, and others never mentioned but with detestation and contempt, we shall always find that their conduct, with regard to this single point, has produced their renown or their infamy. Those are always, by the general suffrage of mankind, applauded as the patterns of their country, who have struggled with the influence of the crown, and those condemned as traitors, who have either promoted it by unreasonable grants, or seen it increase by slow degrees, without resistance.

It has not, indeed, sir, been always the practice of ministers to make open demands of larger powers, and avow, without disguise, their designs of extending their authority; such proposals would, in former times, have produced no consequences but that of awakening the vigilance of the senate, of raising suspicions against all their proceedings, and of embarrassing the crown with petitions, addresses, and impeachments.

They were under a necessity, in those times, of promoting their schemes; those schemes which scarcely any ministry has forborne to adopt, by more secret and artful and silent methods, by methods of diverting the attention of the publick to other objects, and of making invisible approaches to the point in view, while they seemed to direct all their endeavours to different purposes.

But such, sir, have been the proofs of implicit confidence, which the administration has received from this assembly, that it is now common to demand unlimited powers, and to expect confidence without restriction, to require an immediate possession of our estates by a vote of credit, or the sole direction of our trade by an act for prohibiting, during their pleasure, the exportation of the produce of our lands.

Upon what instances of uncommon merit, of regard to the pnblick prosperity, unknown in former times, or of discernment superior to that of their most celebrated predecessors, the present ministers found their new claims to submission and to trust, I am, indeed, at a loss to discover; for, however mankind may have determined concerning the integrity of those by whom the late memorable convention was transacted, defended, and confirmed, I know not that their wisdom has yet appeared by any incontestable or manifest evidence, which may set their abilities above question, and fix their reputation for policy out of the reach of censure and inquiries.

The only act, sir, by which it can be discovered that they have any degree of penetration proportionate to their employments, is the embargo lately laid upon provisions in Ireland, by which our enemies have been timely hindered from furnishing themselves, from our dominions, with necessaries for their armies and their navies, and our fellow-subjects have been restrained from exposing themselves to the miseries of famine, by yielding to the temptation of present profit; a temptation generally so powerful as to prevail over any distant interest.

But as nothing is more contrary to my natural disposition, or more unworthy of a member of this house, than flattery, I cannot affirm that I ascribe this useful expedient wholly to the sagacity or the caution of the ministry, nor can I attribute all the happy effects produced by it to their benign solicitude for the publick welfare.

I am inclined to believe that this step was advised by those who were prompted to consider its importance by motives more prevalent than that of publick spirit, and that the desire of profit which has so often dictated pernicious measures, has, for once, produced, in return, an expedient just and beneficial; and it has, for once, luckily fallen out, that some of the friends of the administration have discovered that the publick interest was combined with their own.

It is highly probable, sir, that the contractors for supplying the navy with provisions, considering, with that acuteness which a quick sense of loss and gain always produces, how much the price of victuals would be raised by exportation, and, by consequence, how much of the advantage of their contracts would be diminished, suggested to the ministry the necessity of an embargo, and laid before them those arguments which their own observation and wisdom would never have discovered.

Thus, sir, the ministers, in that instance of their conduct, on which their political reputation must be founded, can claim, perhaps, no higher merit, than that of attending to superiour knowledge, of complying with good advice when it was offered, and of not resisting demonstration when it was laid before them.

But as I would never ascribe to one man the merit of another, I should be equally unwilling to detract from due commendations, and shall therefore freely admit, that not to reject good counsel, is a degree of wisdom, at which I could not expect that they by whom the convention was concluded would ever have arrived.

But whatever proficiency they may have made in the art of government since that celebrated period, however they may have increased their maxims of domestick policy, or improved their knowledge of foreign affairs, I cannot but confess myself still inclined to some degree of suspicion, nor can prevail upon myself to shut my eyes, and deliver up the publick and myself implicitly to their direction.

Their sagacity, sir, may, perhaps, of late, have received some improvements from longer experience, and with regard to their integrity, I believe, at least, that it is not much diminished; and yet I cannot forbear asserting the right of judging for myself, and of determining according to the evidence that shall be brought before me.

I have, hitherto, entertained an opinion that for this purpose only we are deputed by our constituents, who, if they had reposed no confidence in our care or abilities, would have given up, long since, the vexatious right of contesting for the choice of representatives. They would have furnished the ministry with general powers to act for them, and sat at ease with no other regard to publick measures, than might incite them to animate, with their applauses, the laudable endeavours of their profound, their diligent, and their magnanimous governours.

As I do not, therefore, check any suspicions in my own mind, I shall not easily be restrained from uttering them, because I know not how I shall benefit my country, or assist her counsels by silent meditations. I cannot, sir, but observe that the powers conferred by this bill upon the administration are larger than the nation can safely repose in any body of men, and with which no man who considers to what purposes they may be employed will think it convenient to invest the negotiators of the convention.

Nor do my objections to this act, arise wholly from my apprehensions of their conduct, who are intrusted with the execution of it, but from my reflections on the nature of trade, and the conduct of those nations who are most celebrated for commercial wisdom.

It is well known, sir, how difficult it is to turn trade back into its ancient channel, when it has by any means been diverted from it, and how often a profitable traffick has been lost for ever, by a short interruption, or temporary prohibition. The resentment of disappointed expectations inclines the buyer to seek another market, and the civility to which his new correspondents are incited by their own interest, detains him, till those by whom he was formerly supplied, having no longer any vent for their products or their wares, employ their labours on other manufactures, or cultivate their lands for other purposes.

Thus, sir, if those nations who have hitherto been supplied with corn from Britain, should find a method of purchasing it from Denmark, or any other of the northern regions, we may hereafter see our grain rotting in our storehouses, and be burdened with provisions which we can neither consume ourselves, nor sell to our neighbours.

The Hollanders, whose knowledge of the importance or skill in the arts of commerce will not be questioned, are so careful to preserve the inlets of gain from obstruction, that they make no scruple of supplying their enemies with their commodities, and have been known to sell at night those bullets which were next day to be discharged against them.

Whether their example, sir, deserves our imitation I am not able to determine, but it ought at least to be considered, whether their conduct was rational or not, and whether they did not, by a present evil, ensure an advantage which overbalanced it.

There are, doubtless, sir, sometimes such exigencies as require to be complied with at the hazard of future profit, but I am not certain that the scarcity which is feared or felt at present, is to be numbered amongst them; but, however formidable it may be thought, there is surely no need of a new law to provide against it: for it is one of those extraordinary incidents, on which the king has the right of exerting extraordinary powers. On occasions like this the prerogative has heretofore operated very effectually, and I know not that the law has ever restrained it.

It is, therefore, sir, in my opinion, most prudent to determine nothing in so dubious a question, and rather to act as the immediate occasion shall require, than prosecute any certain method of proceeding, or establish any precedent by an act of the senate.

To restrain that commerce by which the necessaries of life are distributed is a very bold experiment, and such as once produced an insurrection in the empire of the Turks, that terminated in the deposition of one of their monarchs.

I therefore willingly confess, sir, that I know not how to conclude: I am unwilling to deprive the nation of bread, or to supply our enemies with strength to be exerted against ourselves; but I am, on the other hand, afraid to restrain commerce, and to trust the authors of the convention.

Mr. PELHAM spoke next, to the following purport:--Sir, I am always in expectation of improvement and instruction when that gentleman engages in any discussion of national questions, on which he is equally qualified to judge by his great abilities and long experience, by that popularity which enables him to sound the sentiments of men of different interests, and that intelligence which extends his views to distant parts of the world; but, on this occasion, I have found my expectations frustrated, for he has inquired without making any discovery, and harangued without illustrating the question before us.

He has satisfied himself, sir, with declaring his suspicions, without condescending to tell us what designs or what dangers he apprehends. To fear, without being able to show the object of our terrours, is the last, the most despicable degree of cowardice; and to suspect, without knowing the foundation of our own suspicions, is surely a proof of a state of mind, which would not be applauded on common occasions, and such as no man but a patriot would venture to confess.

He has, indeed, sir, uttered some very ingenious conceits upon the late convention, has alluded to it with great luxuriancy of fancy, and elegance of diction, and must, at least, confess that whatever may be its effects upon the interest of the nation, it has to him been very beneficial, as it has supplied him with a subject of raillery when other topics began to fail him, and given opportunity for the exercise of that wit which began to languish, for want of employment.

What connexion his wonderful sagacity has discovered between the convention and the corn bill, I cannot yet fully comprehend, but have too high an opinion of his abilities to imagine that so many insinuations are wholly without any reason to support them. I doubt not, therefore, sir, but that when some fitter opportunity shall present itself he will clear their resemblance, and branch out the parallel between them into a thousand particulars.

In the mean time, sir, it may be proper for the house to expedite the bill, against which no argument has yet been produced, and which is of too much importance to be delayed by raillery or invectives.

Mr. SANDYS spoke next, in substance as follows:--Sir, the bill before us, as it is of too great importance to be negligently delayed, is likewise too dangerous to be precipitately hurried into a law.

It has been always the practice of this house to consider money bills with particular attention, because money is power in almost the highest degree, and ought not, therefore, to be given but upon strong assurances that it will be employed for the purposes for which it is demanded, and that those purposes are in themselves just.

But if we consider, sir, the bill now before us, it will appear yet more than a money bill, it will be found a bill for regulating the disposal of that, which it is the great use of money to procure, and is, therefore, not to be passed into a law without a close attention to every circumstance that may be combined with it, and an accurate examination of all the consequences that may be produced by it.

Some of these circumstances or consequences, it is the duty of every member to lay before the house, and I shall, therefore, propose that the inducements to the discovery of any provisions illegally exported, and the manner of levying the forfeiture, may be particularly discussed; for by a defect in this part, the regulation lately established by the regency, however seasonable, produced tumults and distractions, which every good government ought studiously to obviate.

By their proclamation, sir, half the corn that should be found designed for exportation was to be given to those who should discover and seize it. The populace, alarmed at once with the danger of a famine, and animated by a proclamation that put into their own hands the means of preventing it, and the punishment of those from whose avarice they apprehended it, rose in throngs to execute so grateful a law. Every man, sir, whose distress had exasperated him, was incited to gratify his resentment; every man, whose idleness prompted him to maintain his family by methods more easy than that of daily labour, was delighted with the prospect of growing rich on a sudden by a lucky seizure. All the seditious and the profligate combined together in the welcome employment of violence and rapine, and when they had once raised their expectations, there was no small danger lest their impatience of disappointment should determine them to conclude, that corn, wherever found, was designed for exportation, and to seize it as a lawful prize.

Thus, sir, by an imprudent regulation, was every man's property brought into hazard, and his person exposed to the insults of a hungry, a rapacious, and ungovernable rabble, let loose by a publick proclamation, and encouraged to search houses and carriages by an imaginary law.

That we may not give occasion to violence and injustice of the same kind, let us carefully consider the measures which are proposed, before we determine upon their propriety, and pass no bill on this important occasion without such deliberation as may leave us nothing to change or to repent.

Mr. EARLE spoke next to this effect:--Sir, notwithstanding the dangers which have been represented as likely to arise from any errour in the prosecution of this great affair, I cannot but declare my opinion, that no delay ought to be admitted, and that not even the specious pretence of more exact inquiries, and minute considerations, ought to retard our proceedings for a day.

My imagination, sir, is, perhaps, not so fruitful as that of some other members of this house, and, therefore, they may discover many inconveniencies which I am not able to conceive. But, as every man ought to act from his own conviction, it is my duty to urge the necessity of passing this bill, till it can be proved to me, that it will produce calamities equally to be dreaded with the consequences of protracting our debates upon it, equal to the miseries of a famine, or the danger of enabling our enemies to store their magazines, to equip their fleets, and victual their garrisons.

If it could be imagined, that there was in this assembly a subject of France or Spain, zealous for the service of his prince, and the prosperity of his country, I should expect that he would summon all his faculties to retard the progress of this bill, that he would employ all his sophistry to show its inconveniency and imperfections, and exhaust his invention to suggest the dangers of haste; and certainly he could do nothing that would more effectually promote the interest of his countrymen, or tend more to enfeeble and depress the power of the British nation.

If this would naturally be the conduct of an enemy, it is unnecessary to prove that we can only be safe by acting in opposition to it, and I think it superfluous to vindicate my ardour for promoting this bill, when it is evident that its delay would be pleasing to the Spaniards.

Mr. BURREL then spoke as follows:--Sir, if this law be necessary at any time, it cannot now be delayed, for a few days spent in deliberation, may make it ineffectual, and that evil may be past of which we sit here contriving the prevention.

That many contracts, sir, for the exportation of provisions are already made in all the maritime parts of the empire, is generally known; and it requires no great sagacity to discover that those by whom they are made, and made with a view of immense profit, are desirous that they may be executed; and that they will soon complete the execution of them, when they are alarmed with the apprehension of a bill, which, in a few days, may take from them the power of exporting what they have already collected, and snatch their gain from them when it is almost in their hands.

A bill for these purposes, sir, ought to fall upon the contractors like a sudden blow, of which they have no warning or dread; against which they, therefore, cannot provide any security, and which they can neither elude nor resist.

If we allow them a short time, our expedients will be of little benefit to the nation, which is every day impoverished by the exportation of the necessaries of life, in such quantities, that in a few weeks the law, if it be passed, may be without penalties, for there will be no possibility of disobeying it.

Sir John BARNARD spoke next, to the following purpose:--Sir, I cannot discover the necessity of pressing the bill with such precipitation, as must necessarily exclude many useful considerations, and may produce errours extremely dangerous; for I am not able to conceive what inconveniencies can arise from a short delay.

The exportation of provisions from Ireland is at present stopped by the proclamation; and the beef which was designed for other nations, has been prudently bought up by the contractors, by which those murmurs have been in a great measure obviated which naturally arise from disappointments and losses.

There is, therefore, sir, no danger of exportations from that part of our dominions, which is the chief market for provisions, and from whence our enemies have been generally supplied: in Britain there is less danger of any such pernicious traffick, both because the scarcity here has raised all provisions to a high price, and because merchants do not immediately come to a new market.

The bill, at least, ought not to be passed without regard to the general welfare of our fellow-subjects, nor without an attentive consideration of those petitions which have been presented to us; petitions not produced by panic apprehensions of imaginary dangers, or distant prospects of inconveniencies barely possible, but by the certain foresight of immediate calamities, the total destruction of trade, and the sudden desolation of flourishing provinces.

By prohibiting the exportation of rice, we shall, sir, in one year, reduce the colony of South Carolina below the possibility of subsisting; the chief product of that country, the product which induced us originally to plant it, and with which all its trade is carried on, is rice. With rice the inhabitants of that province purchase all the other necessaries of life, and among them the manufactures of our own country. This rice is carried by our merchants to other parts of Europe, and sold again for large profit.

That this trade is very important appears from the number of ships which it employs, and which, without lading, must rot in the harbours, if rice be not excepted from the general prohibition. Without this exception, sir, it is not easy to say what numbers, whose stations appear very different, and whose employments have no visible relation to each other, will be at once involved in calamity, reduced to sudden distress, and obliged to seek new methods of supporting their families. The sailor, the merchant, the shipwright, the manufacturer, with all the subordinations of employment that depend upon them, all that supply them with materials, or receive advantage from their labours, almost all the subjects of the British crown, must suffer, at least, in some degree, by the ruin of Carolina.

Nor ought the danger of the sugar islands, and other provinces, less to alarm our apprehensions, excite our compassion, or employ our consideration, since nothing is more evident than that by passing this bill without the exceptions which their petitions propose, we shall reduce one part of our colonies to the want of bread, and confine the other to live on nothing else; for they subsist by the exchange of those products to which the soil of each country is peculiarly adapted: one province affords no corn, and the other supplies its inhabitants with corn only.

The necessity of expediting this bill, however it has been exaggerated, is not so urgent but that we may be allowed time sufficient to consider for what purpose it is to be passed, and to recollect that nothing is designed by it, but to hinder our enemies from being supplied from the British dominions with provisions, by which they might be enabled more powerfully to carry on the war against us.

To this design no objection has been made, but it is well known, that a good end may be defeated by an absurd choice of means, and I am not able to discover how we shall increase our own strength, or diminish that of our enemies, by compelling one part of our fellow-subjects to starve the other.

It is necessary, sir, to prohibit the exportation of corn to the ports of our enemies, and of those nations by which our enemies will be supplied, but surely it is of no use to exclude any part of our own dominions from the privilege of being supplied from another. Nor can any argument be alleged in defence of such a law, that will not prove with equal force, that corn ought to remain in the same granaries where it is now laid, that all the markets in this kingdom should be suspended, and that no man should be allowed to sell bread to another.

There is, indeed, sir, a possibility that the liberty for which I contend, may be used to wicked purposes, and that some men may be incited by poverty or avarice to carry the enemy those provisions, which they pretend to export to British provinces. But if we are to refuse every power that may be employed to bad purposes, we must lay all mankind in dungeons, and divest human nature of all its rights; for every man that has the power of action, may sometimes act ill.

It is, however, prudent to obstruct criminal attempts even when we cannot hope entirely to defeat them, and, therefore, I am of opinion, that no provisions ought to be exported without some method of security, by which the governours of every place may be assured that they will be conveyed to our own colonies. Such securities will easily be contrived, and may be regulated in a manner that they shall not be defeated without such hazard, as the profit that can be expected from illegal commerce, will not be able to compensate.

It is, therefore, sir, proper to delay the bill so long, at least, as that we may produce by it the ends intended, and distress our enemies more than ourselves; that we may secure plenty at home, without the destruction of our distant colonies, and without obliging part of our fellow-subjects to desert to the Spaniards for want of bread.

Mr. BOWLES spoke in this manner:--Sir, the necessity of excepting rice from the general prohibition, is not only sufficiently evinced by the agent of South Carolina, but confirmed beyond controversy or doubt, by the petition of the merchants of Bristol, of which the justice and reasonableness appears at the first view, to every man acquainted with the nature of commerce.

How much the province of South Carolina will be distressed by this prohibition, how suddenly the whole trade of that country will be at a stand, and how immediately the want of many of the necessaries of life will be felt over a very considerable part of the British dominions, has already, sir, been very pathetically represented, and very clearly explained; nor does there need any other argument to persuade us to allow the exportation of rice.

But, from the petition of the merchants of Bristol, it appears that there are other reasons of equal force for this indulgence, and that our regard for the inhabitants of that particular province, however necessary and just, is not the only motive for complying with their request.

It is shown, sir, in this petition, that the prohibition of rice will very little incommode our enemies, or retard their preparations; for they are not accustomed to be supplied with it from our plantations. We ought, therefore, not to load our fellow-subjects with embarrassments and inconveniencies, which will not in any degree extend to our enemies.

It appears, sir, not only that a very important part of our commerce will be obstructed, but that it will, probably, be lost beyond recovery; for, as only a small quantity of the rice of Carolina is consumed at home, and the rest is carried to other countries, it is easy to conceive that those who shall be disappointed by our merchants will procure so necessary a commodity from other places, as there are many from which it may be easily purchased; and it is well known that trade, if it be once diverted, is not to be recalled, and, therefore, that trade which may be without difficulty transferred, ought never to be interrupted without the most urgent necessity.

To prove, sir, that there is now no such necessity, by a long train of arguments, would be superfluous, for it has been shown already, that our enemies will not suffer by the prohibition, and the miseries that inevitably arise from a state of war, are too numerous and oppressive, to admit of any increase or aggravation upon trivial motives.

The province of Carolina, sir, has already suffered the inconveniencies of this war beyond any other part of his majesty's dominions, as it is situate upon the borders of the Spanish dominions, and as it is weak by the paucity of the inhabitants in proportion to its extent; let us, therefore, pay a particular regard to this petition, lest we aggravate the terrour which the neighbourhood of a powerful enemy naturally produces, by the severer miseries of poverty and famine.

Sir Robert WALPOLE spoke next, in substance as follows:--Sir, nothing is more absurd than for those who declare, on all occasions, with great solemnity, their sincere zeal for the service of the publick, to protract the debates of this house by personal invectives, and delay the prosecution of the business of the nation, by trivial objections, repeated after confutation, and, perhaps, after conviction of their invalidity.

I need not observe how much time would be spared, and how much the despatch of affairs would be facilitated by the suppression of this practice, a practice by which truth is levelled with falsehood, and knowledge with ignorance; since, if scurrility and merriment are to determine us, it is not necessary either to be honest or wise to obtain the superiority in any debate, it will only be necessary to rail and to laugh, which one man may generally perform with as much success as another.

The embargo in Ireland was an expedient so necessary and timely, that the reputation of it is thought too great to be allowed to the administration, of whom it has been for many years the hard fate, to hear their actions censured only because they were not the actions of others, and to be represented as traitors to their country for doing always what they thought best themselves, and perhaps sometimes what was in reality approved by those who opposed them.

This, sir, they have borne without much uneasiness, and have contented themselves with the consciousness of doing right, in expectation that truth and integrity must at last prevail, and that the prudence of their conduct and success of their measures would at last evince the justice of their intentions.

They hoped, sir, that there would be some occasions on which their enemies would not deny the expedience of their counsels, and did not expect that after having been so long accused of engrossing exorbitant power, of rejecting advice, and pursuing their own schemes with the most invincible obstinacy, they should be supposed on a sudden to have laid aside their arrogance, to have descended to adopt the opinions, and give themselves up to the direction of others, only because no objection could be made to this instance of their conduct.

How unhappy, sir, must be the state of that man who is only allowed to be a free agent, when he acts wrong, and whose motions, whenever they tend to the proper point, are supposed to be regulated by another!

Whether such capricious censurers expect that any regard should be paid by the publick to their invectives, I am not able to determine, but I am inclined to think so well of their understandings, as to believe that they intend only to amuse themselves, and perplex those whom they profess to oppose. In one part of their scheme I know not but they may have succeeded, but in the other it is evident how generally they have failed. It must, at least, sir, be observed of these great patrons of the people, that if they expect to gain them by artifices like this, they have no high opinion of their discernment, however they may sometimes magnify it as the last appeal, and highest tribunal.

With regard, sir, to the manner in which the embargo was laid, and the expedients made use of to enforce the observation of it, they were not the effects of a sudden resolution, but of long and deliberate reflection, assisted by the counsels of the most experienced and judicious persons of both nations; so that if any mistake was committed, it proceeded not from arrogance or carelessness, but a compliance with reasons, that if laid before the house, would, whether just or not, be allowed to be specious.

But, sir, it has not appeared that any improper measures have been pursued, or that any inconveniencies have arisen from them which it was possible to have avoided by a different conduct; for when any expedient fails of producing the end for which it was proposed, or gives occasion to inconveniencies which were neither expected nor designed, it is not immediately to be condemned; for it might fail from such obstacles as nothing could surmount, and the inconveniencies which are complained of might be the consequences of other causes acting at the same time, or cooperating, not by the nature of things, but by the practices of those who prefer their own interest to that of their country.

But though it is, in my opinion, easy to defend the conduct of the ministry, I am far from thinking this a proper time to engage in their vindication. The important business before us, must now wholly engage us, nor ought we to employ our attention upon the past, but the future. Whatever has been the ignorance or knowledge, whatever the corruption or integrity of the ministry, this bill is equally useful, equally necessary. The question is now concerning an act of the senate, not of the ministry, and the bill may proceed without obstructing future examinations.

If the bill, sir, now before us be so far approved as to be conceived of any real benefit to the nation, if it can at all contribute to the distress or disappointment of our enemies, or the prevention of those domestic disturbances which are naturally produced by scarcity and misery, there is no need of arguments to evince the necessity of despatch in passing it. For if these effects are to be produced by preventing the exportation of provisions, and a law is necessary for that purpose, it is certain that the law must be enacted, while our provisions are yet in our own hands, and before time has been given for the execution of those contracts which are already made.

That contracts, sir, are entered into for quantities that justly claim the care of the legislative power, I have been informed by such intelligence as I cannot suspect of deceiving me. In one small town in the western part of this kingdom, fifty thousand barrels of corn are sold by contract, and will be exported, if time be allowed for collecting and for shipping them.

A few contracts like this will be sufficient to store an army with bread, or to furnish garrisons against the danger of a siege; a few contracts like this will produce a considerable change in the price of provisions, and plunge innumerable families into distress, who might struggle through the present difficulties, which unsuccessful harvests have brought upon the nation, had we not sold the gifts of providence for petty gain, and supported our enemies with those provisions which were barely sufficient for our own consumption.

I have not heard many objections made against the intention of the bill, and those which were offered, were mentioned with such diffidence and uncertainty, as plainly showed, that even in the opinion of him that proposed them, they were of little weight; and I believe they had no greater effect upon those that heard them. It may, therefore, be reasonably supposed that the propriety of a law to prevent the exportation of victuals is admitted, and surely it can be no question, whether it ought to be pressed forward, or to be delayed till it will be of no effect.

Mr. FAZAKERLY spoke next, to this effect:--Sir, as the bill now under our consideration is entangled with a multitude of circumstances too important to be passed by without consideration, and too numerous to be speedily examined; as its effects, whether salutary or pernicious, must extend to many nations, and be felt in a few weeks to the remotest parts of the dominions of Britain, I cannot but think, that they who so much press for expedition on this occasion, consult rather their passions than their reason, that they discover rather enthusiasm than zeal, and that by imagining that they have already traced the effects of a law like this to their utmost extent, they discover rather an immoderate confidence in their own capacity than give any proofs of that anxious caution, and deliberate prudence, which true patriotism generally produces.

There is another method, sir, of proceeding, more proper on this occasion, which has been already pointed out in this debate; a method of exerting the prerogative in a manner allowed by law, and established by immemorial precedents, and which may, therefore, be revived without affording any room for jealousy or complaints.

An embargo imposed only by the prerogative may be relaxed or enforced as occasion may require, or regulated according to the necessity arising from particular circumstances; circumstances in themselves variable, and subject to the influence of a thousand accidents, and which, therefore, cannot be always foreseen, or provided against by a law positive and fixed.

Let us not subject the commonwealth to a hazardous and uncertain security, while we have in our hands the means of producing the same end, with less danger and inconveniency; and since we may obviate the exportation of our corn by methods more speedily efficacious than the forms of making laws can allow, let us not oppress our fellow-subjects by hasty or imprudent measures, but make use of temporary expedients, while we deliberate upon the establishment of a more lasting regulation.

Mr. CAMPBELL spoke to the following purpose;--Sir, that an embargo on merchandise or provisions may, upon sudden emergencies, or important occasions, be imposed by the prerogative, cannot be doubted by any man whose studies have made him acquainted with the extent of the regal power, and the manner in which it has been exerted in all ages. The chief use of the prerogative is to supply the defects of the laws, in cases which do not admit of long consultations, which do not allow time to convoke senates or inquire into the sentiments of the people.

For this reason, in times of war the imperial power is much enlarged, and has still a greater extent as exigencies are more pressing. If the nation is invaded by a foreign force, the authority of the crown is almost without limits, the whole nation is considered as an army of which the king is general, and which he then governs by martial laws, by occasional judicature, and extemporary decrees.

Such, sir, is the power of the king on particular emergencies, and such power the nature of human affairs must, sometimes, require; for all forms of government are intended for common good, and calculated for the established condition of mankind, but must be suspended when they can only obstruct the purposes for which they were contrived, and must vary with the circumstances to which they were adapted. To expect that the people shall be consulted in questions on which their happiness depends, supposes there is an opportunity of consulting them without hazarding their lives, their freedom, or their possessions, by the forms of deliberation.

The necessity of extending the prerogative to the extremities of power, is, I hope, at a very great distance from us; but if the danger of the exportation of victuals be so urgent as some gentlemen have represented it, and so formidable as it appears to the whole nation, it is surely requisite that the latent powers of the crown should be called forth for our protection, that plenty be secured within the nation, by barring up our ports, and the people hindered from betraying themselves to their enemies, and squandering those blessings which the fertility of our soil has bestowed upon them.

Sir Robert WALPOLE replied in the following manner:--Sir, it is so unusual among the gentlemen who have opposed my opinion to recommend an exertion of the regal authority, or willingly to intrust any power to the administration, that, though they have on this occasion expressed their sentiments without any ambiguity of language, or perplexity of ideas, I am in doubt whether I do not mistake their meaning, and cannot, without hesitation and uncertainty, propose the motion to which all their arguments seem necessarily to conduct me; arguments of which I do not deny the force, and which I shall not attempt to invalidate by slight objections, when I am convinced, in general, of their reasonableness and truth.

The necessity of that despatch which I have endeavoured to recommend, is not only universally admitted, but affirmed to be so pressing, that it cannot wait for the solemnity of debates, or the common forms of passing laws. The danger which is every moment increasing, requires, in the opinion of these gentlemen, to be obviated by extraordinary measures, and that pernicious commerce, which threatens the distress of the community, is to be restrained by an immediate act of the prerogative.

If this be the opinion of the house, it will be necessary to lay it before his majesty, by a regular address, that the nation may be convinced of the necessity of such extraordinary precautions, and that the embargo may be imposed, at once, with the expedition peculiar to despotick power, and the authority which can be conferred only by senatorial sanctions.

Whether this is the intention of the members, from whose declarations I have deduced it, can only be discovered by themselves, who, if they have any other scheme in view, must explain it in clearer terms, that the house may deliberate upon it, and reject or adopt it, according to its conformity to the laws of our country, and to the present state of our affairs.

Mr. PULTENEY spoke thus:--Sir, whatever may be the meaning of other gentlemen, who must undoubtedly be left at full liberty to explain their own expressions, I will freely declare, that I am sufficiently understood by the right honourable gentleman, and that, in my opinion, no remedy can be applied to the present distemper of the nation, a distemper by which it is hourly pining away, by which its vitals are impaired, and the necessary nourishment withdrawn from it, that will operate with sufficient efficacy and speed, except an embargo be imposed by the prerogative.

That this opinion, if received by the house, must be the subject of an address, is in itself manifest, and the reason for which an embargo is required, proves that an address ought not to be delayed.

I cannot omit this opportunity of remarking, how plainly it must now appear that many of us have been unjustly charged with obstructing the progress of the bill for pernicious purposes, with views of raising discontents in the nation, of exposing the administration to publick hatred, of obstructing the measures of the government, or hindering the success of the war, when we have receded from our general principles, and suspended the influence of our established maxims, for the sake of facilitating an expedient which may promote the general advantage, by recommending his majesty to the affections of his people.

Mr. PELHAM here replied, to this effect:--Sir, I am far from blaming any gentleman for asserting, on all occasions, the integrity of his designs, or displaying the reasonableness of his conduct; and of what I do not disapprove I shall not decline the imitation.

It is not uncommon, in the heat of opposition, while each man is convinced of his own honesty, and strongly persuaded of the truth of his own positions, to hear each party accused by the other of designs detrimental to the publick interest, of protracting debates by artful delays, of struggling against their own conviction, and of obscuring known truth by objections which discover themselves to be without force.

These accusations, which are on both sides frequent, are, I hope, on both sides generally false; at least, it must appear on this occasion, that those who press the bill had no views of strengthening their party by a victory, of wearying their opponents by obstinacy, or of promoting any private purposes by a new law; since an expedient, by which time may be gained, and the avowed end of hastening this necessary bill secured, is no sooner proposed on one part, than received on the other.

At the close of the debate, a form of an address was proposed by Mr. CLUTTERBUCK; which, being approved by the house, was presented to his majesty: and an embargo was laid on all provisions accordingly.

On the 17th day of sitting the house proceeded on the bill for preventing exportation; and ordered an account of the corn which had been exported for six years last past to be laid before the committee.

The house also addressed his majesty to take off the embargo on ships laden with fish or rice, which his majesty had before ordered to be done.

On the 21st the corn bill was again the subject of deliberation, and some amendments were offered by Mr. SANDYS, containing not only exceptions of rice and fish, which had been before admitted, but likewise of butter, as a perishable commodity, which, if it were not allowed to be exported, would corrupt and become useless in a short time.

He proposed, likewise, that the two islands of Jersey and Guernsey might continue to be supplied, with certain restrictions, from the port of Southampton.

It was proposed, likewise, in favour of some other colonies, that they might receive provisions from Britain, lest there should be a necessity for the inhabitants of those provinces to abandon their settlements.

The penalties of this law, and the manner in which they should be recovered and applied, were likewise settled on this day.

NOVEMBER 25, 1740.

The consideration of the corn bill was resumed; and it was particularly debated from what time it should commence, which some of the members were inclined to fix on the 9th day of the session, on which occasion Mr. CAMPBELL spoke as follows:

Sir, that the laws may be observed by the nation without daily violence and perpetual compulsion, that our determinations may be received with reverence, and the regulations which we establish confirmed by the concurrence of our constituents, it is necessary that we endeavour to preserve their esteem, and convince them that the publick prosperity may be safely trusted in our hands.

This confidence is to be gained as well in high stations, as in lower conditions, by large assemblies, as by individuals, only by a constant practice of justice, and frequent exertion of superiour wisdom. When any man finds his friend oppressive and malicious, he naturally withdraws his affections from him; when he observes him advancing absurd opinions, and adhering to them with obstinacy incapable of conviction, he falls unavoidably into a distrust of his understanding, and no longer pays any deference to his advice, or considers his conduct as worthy of imitation.

In the same manner, sir, if the legislative powers shall, in making laws, discover that they regard any motives before the advantage of their country, or that they pursue the publick good by measures inadequate and ill-concerted, what can be expected from the people, but that they should set up their own judgment in opposition to that of their governours, make themselves the arbiters in all doubtful questions, and obey or disregard the laws at discretion?

If this danger may arise from laws injudiciously drawn up, it may surely be apprehended from a compliance with this proposal; a proposal that the operation of the law should commence eleven days before the law itself is in being.

I have, hitherto, sir, regarded it as a principle equally true in politicks as in philosophy, that nothing can act when it does not exist; and I did not suspect that a position so evident would ever stand in need of a proof or illustration.

We live, indeed, in an age of paradoxes, and have heard several notions seriously defended, of which some would, not many years ago, have condemned their abetter to a prison or a madhouse, and would have been heard by the wisest of our ancestors with laughter or detestation; but I did not expect that the most hardy innovator would have shocked my understanding with a position like this, or have asserted that a law may operate before it is made, or before it is projected.

That where there is no law there is no transgression, is a maxim not only established by universal consent, but in itself evident and undeniable; and it is, sir, surely no less certain, that where there is no transgression there can be no punishment.

If a man may be punished, sir, by a law made after the fact, how can any man conclude himself secure from the jail or the gibbet? A man may easily find means of being certain that he has offended no law in being, but that will afford no great satisfaction to a mind naturally timorous; since a law hereafter to be made, may, if this motion be supposed reasonable, take cognizance of his actions, and how he can know whether he has been equally scrupulous to observe the future statutes of future senates, he will find it very difficult to determine.

Mr. PELHAM rose, and spoke thus:--Sir, notwithstanding the absurdity which the honourable gentleman imagines himself to have discovered in this proposal, and which he must be confessed to have placed in a very strong light, I am of opinion, that it may, with very little consideration, be reconciled to reason and to justice, and that the wit and satire that have been so liberally employed, will appear to have been lost in the air, without use and without injury.

The operation of the law may, very properly, commence from the day on which the embargo was laid by his majesty's proclamation, which surely was not issued to no purpose, and which ought not to be disobeyed without punishment.

Sir John BARNARD spoke next, to this effect:--Sir, I cannot but be somewhat surprised, that a gentleman so long conversant in national affairs, should not yet have heard or known the difference between a proclamation and a penal law.

By a proclamation, his majesty may prevent, in some cases, what he cannot punish; he may hinder the exportation of our corn by ordering ships to be stationed at the entrance of our harbours; but if any should escape with prohibited cargoes, he can inflict no penalties upon them at their return.

To enforce this prohibition by the sanction of punishments is the intention of the present bill, but a proclamation can make nothing criminal, and it is unjust and absurd to punish an action which was legal when it was done.

The law ought, sir, in my opinion, not to commence till time is allowed for dispersing it to the utmost limits of this island; for as it is unreasonable to punish without law, it is not more equitable to punish by a law, of which, they who have unhappily broken it, could have no intelligence.

A future day was agreed to.

[The end]
Samuel Johnson's non-fiction: Debate On The Bill For Prohibiting The Exportation Of Corn