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A History of the Four Georges, Volume I

Nearly accomplished the financial task Walpole would


1721--Anticipations of free-trade]

These troubles might have proved serious but for the determined policy of Townshend and of Walpole. We have not thought it necessary to weary our readers with the details of this little running fire of dispute which was kept up for some years between England and Spain. We saw in an earlier chapter how the quarrel began, and what {229} the elements were which fed it and kept it burning. This latter passage is really only a continuation of the former; both, except for the sake of mere continuity of historic narrative, might have been told as one story, and, indeed, would perhaps not have required many sentences for the telling. Walpole applied himself at home to the work of what has since been called Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform. He was the first great English finance minister; perhaps we may say he was the first English minister who ever sincerely regarded the development of national prosperity, the just and equal distribution of taxation, and the lightening of the load of financial burdens, as the most important business of a statesman. The whole political and social conditions of the country were changing under his wise and beneficent system of administration. Population was steadily increasing; some of the great rising towns had doubled their numbers since Walpole's career began. Agriculture was better in its systems, and was brightening the face of the country everywhere; the farmer had almost ceased

for the time to grumble; the laborer was well fed and not too heavily worked. We do not mean to say that Walpole's administration was the one cause of all this improvement in town and country, but most assuredly the peace, and the security of peace, which Walpole's administration conferred was of direct and material influence in the growing prosperity of the nation. His financial systems lightened the burdens of taxation, distributed the load more equally everywhere, and enabled the State to get the best revenue possible at the lowest cost and with the least effort. It might almost be said that Walpole anticipated free-trade. The Royal speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament, on October 19, 1721, declared it to be "very obvious that nothing would more conduce to the obtaining so public a good"--the extension of our commerce--"than to make the exportation of our own manufactures, and the importation of the commodities used in the manufacturing of them, as practicable and as easy as may be; by this means the balance {230} of trade may be preserved in our favor, our navigation increased, and greater numbers of our poor employed." "I must, therefore," the speech went on, "recommend it to you, gentlemen of the House of Commons, to consider how far the duties upon these branches may be taken off and replaced, without any violation of public faith or laying any new burden upon my people; and I promise myself that, by a due consideration of this matter, the produce of those duties, compared with the infinite advantages that will accrue to the kingdom by their being taken off, will be found so inconsiderable as to leave little room for any difficulties or objections." In furtherance of the policy indicated in these passages of the Royal speech, more than one hundred articles of British manufacture were allowed to be exported free of duty, while some forty articles of raw material were allowed to be imported in the same manner. Walpole was anxious to make a full use of this system of indirect taxation. He desired to levy and collect taxes in such a manner as to avoid the losses imposed upon the revenue by smuggling and by various forms of fraud. His principle was that the necessaries of life and the raw materials from which our manufactures were to be made ought to remain, as far as possible, free of taxation. The whole history of our financial systems since Walpole's time has been a history of the gradual development of his economic principles. There has been, of course, reaction now and then, and sometimes the counsels of statesmen appear for a while to have been under the absolute domination of the policy which he strove to supplant; but the reaction has only been for seasons, while the progress of Walpole's policy has been steady. We have now, in 1884, nearly accomplished the financial task Walpole would, if he could, have accomplished a century and a half earlier.

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