Miscellaneous Writings

Burke, Edmund
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E. J. Payne, ed.
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date
Foreword and notes by Francis Canavan.

Thoughts and Details on Scarcity

[November 1795]


This document is the nearest thing to a formal treatise on economics that Edmund Burke ever wrote. Even so, it was not meant as a full treatment of the subject but was a lengthy memorandum to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, on an immediate question of policy. Burke was alarmed by a project for governmental subsidy of the wages of agricultural laborers during a time of poor harvests. His memorandum was therefore very much an ad hoc document, addressed to a temporary situation.


Burke thought well enough of it, however, to plan to expand it into a fuller work. But in the year and a half that remained of his life, he was a sick and dying man, and more urgently concerned with the folly of British overtures toward peace with Revolutionary France. He never managed to write more than several disjointed pages of his proposed economic treatise, and the memorandum was not published until after his death, by his literary executors, French Laurence and Walker King.


They had it published in 1800 with a lengthy preface by themselves. It is included here for their explanation of the circumstances in which Burke wrote the memorandum and of their editing and interpolation in Burke's text of the fragments of his planned expansion of it that they found among his papers.

Thoughts and Details on Scarcity

[Originally Presented to The Right Hon. William Pitt, in the Month of November, 1795]


BEACONSFIELD, Nov. 1, 1800


The wisdom, which is canonized by death, is consulted with a sort of sacred veneration. A casual remark, or an incidental maxim in some ancient author, an interesting narrative, or a pointed anecdote from the history of past times, even though they bear but a remote and general application to the exigency of our own immediate situation, are caught up with eagerness, and remembered with delight. But how much more important is the instruction which we may derive from the posthumous opinions of those who, having been most eminent in our own times for superior talents and more extensive knowledge, have formed their observation on circumstances so similar to our own, as only not to be the same, yet who speak without influence from the little prejudices and passions, to which accident, folly, or malevolence may have given birth in the present moment.


The late Mr. Burke, in the estimation of those who were most capable of judging, stood high, both as a scientific and a practical farmer. He carried into his fields the same penetrating, comprehensive, and vigorous mind, which shone forth so conspicuously in all his exertions on the stage of public life. Wherever he was, in whatever he was engaged, he was alike assiduous in collecting information, and happy in combining, what he acquired, into general principles. All that the ancients have left us upon husbandry was familiar to him, and he once encouraged and set on foot a new edition of those valuable writers; but, though he might occasionally derive new hints even from those sources, he preferred the authority of his own hind*45 to that of Hesiod or Virgil, of Cato or Columella. He thought for himself upon this, as upon other subjects; and not rejecting sound reforms of demonstrated errors, he was, however, principally guided by the traditionary skill and experience of that class of men, who, from father to son, have for generations laboured in calling forth the fertility of the English soil. He not only found in agriculture the most agreeable relaxation from his more serious cares, but he regarded the cultivation of the earth, and the improvement of all which it produces, as a sort of moral and religious duty. Towards the close of his life, when he had lost his son, in whom all his prospects had long centered, after lamenting, in an elegant allusion to Virgil, that the trees, which he had been nursing for many years, would now afford no shade to his posterity, he was heard to correct himself, by adding, "Yet be it so: I ought not therefore to bestow less attention upon them—they grow to God."


Agriculture, and the commerce connected with, and dependent upon it, form one of the most considerable branches of political economy; and as such, Mr. Burke diligently studied them. Indeed, when he began to qualify himself for the exalted rank which he afterwards held among statesmen, he laid a broad and deep foundation; and to an accurate research into the constitution, the laws, the civil and military history of these kingdoms, he joined an enlightened acquaintance with the whole circle of our commercial system. On his first introduction, when a young man, to the late Mr. Gerard Hamilton, who was then a Lord of Trade, the latter ingenuously confessed to a friend still living, how sensibly he felt his own inferiority, much as he had endeavoured to inform himself, and aided as he was by official documents, inaccessible to any private person. He was also consulted, and the greatest deference was paid to his opinions by Dr. Adam Smith, in the progress of the celebrated work on the Wealth of Nations.


In Parliament, Mr. Burke very soon distinguished himself on these topics. When the first great permanent law for regulating our foreign corn-trade*46 was under the consideration of the House in 1772, he was one of its principle supporters, in a speech admired at the time for its excellence, and described as abounding with that knowledge in oeconomics, which he was then universally allowed to possess, and illustrated with that philosophical discrimination, of which he was so peculiarly a master. About the same time, too, he zealously promoted the repeal of the statutes against forestallers;*47 a measure not lightly and hastily proposed or adopted in the liberal impulse of an unguarded moment, but the result of various investigations made by the House, or in different committees, during six years of scarcity and high prices; a measure which, although two Bills of a contrary tendency had formerly been introduced and lost, so approved itself, at length, to the reason of all, that it was ordered to be brought in, without a single dissentient voice. Yet, though such was his early pre-eminence in these pursuits, to the last hour of his life, as his fame spread wider and wider over Europe, he availed himself of the advantage which this afforded him, to enlarge the sphere of his enquiries into the state of other countries, that he might benefit his own. The consequence of all was, he every day became more firmly convinced, that the unrestrained freedom of buying and selling is the great animating principle of production and supply.


The present publication records Mr. Burke's most mature reflections on these interesting subjects; the more valuable, because the sentiments which he delivered on the occasions already mentioned, have not been preserved to us, either by himself or by others. He was alarmed by the appearance of the crop in 1795, even before the harvest. In the autumn of that year, when the produce of the harvest began to be known, the alarm became general. Various projects, as in such cases will always happen, were offered to Government; and, in his opinion, seemed to be received with too much complaisance. Under this impression, anxious as he ever was, even in his retirement, and in the midst of his own private affliction, for the publick safety and prosperity, he immediately addressed to Mr. Pitt*48 a Memorial, which is the ground-work of the following tract. Afterwards, considering the importance of the matter, and fearing a long cycle of scarcity to come, he intended to have dilated the several branches of the argument, and to have moulded his "Thoughts and Details" into a more popular shape. This he purposed to have done in a series of letters on rural oeconomics, inscribed to his friend Mr. Arthur Young. It may be remembered, that he even announced this design in an advertisement.*49 But his attention was irresistibly called another way. His whole mind was engrossed by the change of policy which discovered itself in our councils at that period,*50 when forgetting the manly arts, by which alone great nations have ever extricated themselves from momentous and doubtful conflicts, we descended, against the remonstrances of our allies, to the voluntary and unnecessary humiliation of soliciting a peace, which, in his judgment, the animosity of our insolent enemy was not then disposed to grant, and which, if offered, we could not then have accepted, without the certainty of incurring dangers much more formidable than any that threatened us from the protraction of the war. He hastened to raise and re-inspirit the prostrate genius of his country. In a great measure he succeeded, and was still employed in the pious office, when Divine Providence took him to receive the reward of those, who devote themselves to the cause of virtue and religion. After his decease, two or three detached fragments only of the first letter to Mr. Young were found among his papers. These could not be printed in that imperfect state, and they seemed too precious to be wholly thrown aside. They have been inserted, therefore, in the Memorial, where they seemed best to cohere. The first and largest of these interpolations reaches from the middle of the sixth to the bottom of the 18th page; the second commences near the bottom of the 20th, and ends a little below the middle of the 24th; and the last, occupying about three pages and a half, forms the present conclusion.*51


The Memorial had been fairly copied, but did not appear to have been examined or corrected, as some trifling errors of the transcriber were perceptible in it. The manuscript of the fragments was a rough draft from the Author's own hand, much blotted and very confused. It has been followed with as much fidelity as was possible, after consulting those who were most accustomed to Mr. Burke's manner of writing. Two or three chasms in the grammar and sense, from the casual omission of two or three unimportant words at a distance, have been supplied by conjecture. The principal alteration has been the necessary change of the second for the third person, and the consequent suppression of the common form of affectionate address, where Mr. Young is named. That gentleman alone can have reason to complain of this liberty, inasmuch as it may seem to have deprived him of that, which in some sort was his property, and which no man would have known better how to value. But, it is hoped, he will pardon it, since in this manner alone these golden fragments (to borrow a favourite phrase of critics and commentators) could have been made, as they were designed to be, of general utility. To the reader no apology is due, if the disquisitions thus interwoven may seem a little disproportioned to the summary statements of the original Memorial. Their own intrinsic worth and beauty will be an ample compensation for that slight deformity; though perhaps in such a composition, as this professes to be (and the title is Mr. Burke's own) nothing of the kind could have been fairly regarded as an irregular excrescence, had it been placed by himself, where it now stands.


The Memorial, which was indeed communicated to several members of the King's Government, was believed at the time to have been not wholly unproductive of good. The enquiry, which had been actually begun, into the quantity of corn in hand,*52 was silently dropped. The scheme of public granaries, if it ever existed, was abandoned. In Parliament the Ministers maintained a prudent and dignified forbearance; and repressed in others, or where they could not entirely controul, interposed to moderate and divert, that restless spirit of legislation, which is an evil that seems to grow up, as the vehemence of party-contention abates. The consistency and good sense of the Commons defeated an attempt, which was made towards the close of the sessions, to revive against forestallers of one particular description, some portion of the exploded laws.


Last year, on the approach of our present distresses, the same excellent temper of mind seemed to prevail in Government, in Parliament, and among the people. There was no proposal of taking stock, no speculation of creating a new establishment of royal purveyors to provide us with our daily dole of bread. The corn merchants were early assured that they should not again have to contend with the competition of the Treasury,*53 in the foreign market. A Committee of the House of Commons ventured to dissuade the stopping of the distilleries*54 in a report, very closely coinciding with the reasoning of Mr. Burke. Little or no popular declamation was heard on the miseries of "the labouring poor"; not a single petition was presented, or motion made, against forestallers. The least objectionable of the experiments suggested, to encrease the supply or lessen the consumption, were adopted. It is hardly worthy of mention, as an exception, that a Parliamentary charter was granted to a company of very worthy and well-meaning persons, who, on the notion of a combination (which, by the way, they totally failed in proving) among the trades that supply the capital with bread, opened a subscription for undertaking to furnish nearly one-tenth of the consumption. They were contented to do this with limited profits, merely as humane badgers and jobbers, charitable millers, sentimental mealmen,*55 and philanthropic bakers. But distrusting a little their own sufficiency for their new business, they naturally desired to be exempted from the operation of the bankrupt laws; and their bill was carried by a very small majority, consisting of partners in the firm. All this while, under trials much more severe than in the former dearth, the inferior classes displayed a patience and resignation, only to be equalled by the alacrity and zeal, which the higher and middle orders every where manifested, to relieve the necessities of their poorer neighbours in every practicable mode.


The present is a season of ferment and riot. The old cry against forestallers has been raised again with more violence than ever. It has been adjudged, for the first time, it is presumed, since the repealing act of 1772, that they are still liable to be punished by the common law, with fine and imprisonment at least, if not with whipping and the pillory, according to the notion which the judge may entertain of their crime.


The interpreters of the law must expound it, according to their conscientious judgments, as it is; and the doctrine is not quite new. It has certainly been suggested in grave books since the repeal. Yet men of sober minds have doubted, and will doubt, whether in the whole code of customs and usages, derived to us from our ancestors, there can be found any one part so radically inapplicable to the present state of the country, as their Trade law; which, formed before commerce can be said to have existed, on mixed considerations, of police for the prevention of theft and rapine, and of protection to the interest of the Lord in the rights of toll and stallage,*56 permitted no transaction of bargain and sale in any kind of commodity, but openly at a market, or a fair, and more anciently still, with the addition of witnesses also before the magistrate, or the priest; which knew of no commercial principle, but that of putting, in every instance, the grower, the maker, or the importer, native and foreigner alike, at the mercy of the consumer, and for that purpose prohibited every intermediate profit, and every practice by act, by word, or by writing, that could enhance the price; by which, if the dragging of the mouldering records into day be not a mere robbery of the moths and worms, should a gentleman encourage fishermen, brewers, and bakers to settle on his estate, it may be pronounced a forestallage of the next town, and a silk merchant, should he ask too much for his raw and organzine*57 (the unfortunate Lombard in the assize-book only asked, he did not get it from the poor silkewemen)*58 may be punished by a heavy fine; which cannot now be partially in force against one set of dealers, and abrogated by disuse with regard to all others; which, if generally applied for a single term, without the interposition of that wisdom of Parliament, over which this resort to the common law is by some regarded as a triumph, would more effectually clog, distress, and ruin our foreign and domestic commerce in all its branches, than a confederacy of the whole world against us in many years.


Be the late convictions, however, what they may, in legal merits; their practical effects have been much to be deplored. Gross minds distorted them into authorities to prove, that there was plenty in the land, and that the arts of greedy and unfeeling men alone intercepted the bounty of Providence. Meetings were called; non-consumption agreements were signed, to fix a compulsory price, and associations were formed, chiefly in cities and great towns, to prosecute those, without whom cities and great towns can never be regularly fed. There is no weak, no wild, no violent project, which did not find countenance in some quarter or other. The fall of the market immediately after the harvest, and the subsequent rise, though the natural effects of obvious causes, encreased the public agitation; and the multitude began to pursue their usual course of providing in the shortest way for their instant wants, or of terrifying, or punishing those, whom they had been taught to consider as their oppressors; unconscious or unconcerned that they were thus only preparing for themselves a tenfold aggravation of their own future sufferings. The eyes of all were now turned towards Parliament, not for a train of judicious measures, which, if it be possible, may hereafter again equalize the production with the consumption of the country, but for an immediate supply; as if the omnipotence of Parliament could restore a single grain that has been injured by the most contemptible insect.


At such a juncture, however unfavourable it may be to the popularity of this little tract, the publication of it was felt to be a duty. He who wrote it, ever set that consideration before him as the first motive of all his actions. While he lived, he never ceased, publickly and privately, to warn his country and her rulers, against every danger which his wisdom foresaw. He now gives to her and them, this solemn warning from his grave.

Thoughts and Details on Scarcity


Of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous, and it is always worst in the time when men are most disposed to it: that is, in the time of scarcity. Because there is nothing on which the passions of men are so violent, and their judgment so weak, and on which there exists such a multitude of ill-founded popular prejudices.


The great use of Government is as a restraint; and there is no restraint which it ought to put upon others, and upon itself too, rather than on the fury of speculating under circumstances of irritation. The number of idle tales spread about by the industry of faction, and by the zeal of foolish good-intention, and greedily devoured by the malignant credulity of mankind, tends infinitely to aggravate prejudices, which, in themselves, are more than sufficiently strong. In that state of affairs, and of the publick with relation to them, the first thing that Government owes to us, the people, is information; the next is timely coercion: the one to guide our judgment; the other to regulate our tempers.


To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people. It is in the power of Government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in any thing else. It is not only so of the state and statesman, but of all the classes and descriptions of the Rich—they are the pensioners of the poor, and are maintained by their superfluity. They are under an absolute, hereditary, and indefeasible dependance on those who labour, and are miscalled the Poor.


The labouring people are only poor, because they are numerous. Numbers in their nature imply poverty. In a fair distribution among a vast multitude, none can have much. That class of dependant pensioners called the rich, is so extremely small, that if all their throats were cut, and a distribution made of all they consume in a year, it would not give a bit of bread and cheese for one night's supper to those who labour, and who in reality feed both the pensioners and themselves.


But the throats of the rich ought not to be cut, nor their magazines plundered; because, in their persons they are trustees for those who labour, and their hoards are the banking-houses of these latter. Whether they mean it or not, they do, in effect, execute their trust—some with more, some with less fidelity and judgment. But on the whole, the duty is performed, and every thing returns, deducting some very trifling commission and discount, to the place from whence it arose. When the poor rise to destroy the rich, they act as wisely for their own purposes as when they burn mills, and throw corn into the river, to make bread cheap.


When I say, that we of the people ought to be informed, inclusively I say, we ought not to be flattered: flattery is the reverse of instruction. The poor in that case would be rendered as improvident as the rich, which would not be at all good for them.


Nothing can be so base and so wicked as the political canting language, "The Labouring Poor." Let compassion be shewn in action, the more the better, according to every man's ability, but let there be no lamentation of their condition. It is no relief to their miserable circumstances; it is only an insult to their miserable understandings. It arises from a total want of charity, or a total want of thought. Want of one kind was never relieved by want of any other kind. Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality, and religion, should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud. It is horrible to call them "The once happy labourer."


Whether what may be called moral or philosophical happiness of the laborious classes is increased or not, I cannot say. The seat of that species of happiness is in the mind; and there are few data to ascertain the comparative state of the mind at any two periods. Philosophical happiness is to want little. Civil or vulgar happiness is to want much, and to enjoy much.


If the happiness of the animal man (which certainly goes somewhere towards the happiness of the rational man) be the object of our estimate, then I assert, without the least hesitation, that the condition of those who labour (in all descriptions of labour, and in all gradations of labour, from the highest to the lowest inclusively) is on the whole extremely meliorated, if more and better food is any standard of melioration. They work more, it is certain; but they have the advantage of their augmented labour; yet whether that increase of labour be on the whole a good or an evil, is a consideration that would lead us a great way, and is not for my present purpose. But as to the fact of the melioration of their diet, I shall enter into the detail of proof whenever I am called upon: in the mean time, the known difficulty of contenting them with any thing but bread made of the finest flour, and meat of the first quality, is proof sufficient.


I further assert, that even under all the hardships of the last year, the labouring people did, either out of their direct gains, or from charity, (which it seems is now an insult to them) in fact, fare better than they did, in seasons of common plenty, 50 or 60 years ago; or even at the period of my English observation, which is about 44 years. I even assert, that full as many in that class, as ever were known to do it before, continued to save money; and this I can prove, so far as my own information and experience extend.


It is not true that the rate of wages has not encreased with the nominal price of provisions. I allow it has not fluctuated with that price, nor ought it; and the Squires of Norfolk*59 had dined, when they gave it as their opinion, that it might or ought to rise and fall with the market of provisions. The rate of wages in truth has no direct relation to that price. Labour is a commodity like every other, and rises or falls according to the demand. This is in the nature of things; however, the nature of things has provided for their necessities. Wages have been twice raised in my time, and they bear a full proportion, or even a greater than formerly, to the medium of provision during the last bad cycle of twenty years. They bear a full proportion to the result of their labour. If we were wildly to attempt to force them beyond it, the stone which we had forced up the hill would only fall back upon them in a diminished demand, or, what indeed is the far lesser evil, an aggravated price of all the provisions, which are the result of their manual toil.


[There is an implied contract, much stronger than any instrument or article of agreement, between the labourer in any occupation and his employer—that the labour, so far as that labour is concerned, shall be sufficient to pay to the employer a profit on his capital, and a compensation for his risk; in a word, that the labour shall produce an advantage equal to the payment. Whatever is above that, is a direct tax; and if the amount of that tax be left to the will and pleasure of another, it is an arbitrary tax.


If I understand it rightly, the tax proposed on the farming interest of this kingdom,*60 is to be levied at what is called the discretion of justices of peace.


The questions arising on this scheme of arbitrary taxation are these—Whether it is better to leave all dealing, in which there is no force or fraud, collusion or combination, entirely to the persons mutually concerned in the matter contracted for; or to put the contract into the hands of those, who can have none, or a very remote interest in it, and little or no knowledge of the subject.


It might be imagined that there would be very little difficulty in solving this question; for what man, of any degree of reflection, can think, that a want of interest in any subject closely connected with a want of skill in it, qualifies a person to intermeddle in any the least affair; much less in affairs that vitally concern the agriculture of the kingdom, the first of all it's concerns, and the foundation of all it's prosperity in every other matter, by which that prosperity is produced?


The vulgar error on this subject arises from a total confusion in the very idea of things widely different in themselves; those of convention, and those of judicature. When a contract is making, it is a matter of discretion and of interest between the parties. In that intercourse, and in what is to arise from it, the parties are the masters. If they are not completely so, they are not free, and therefore their contracts are void.


But this freedom has no farther extent, when the contract is made; then their discretionary powers expire, and a new order of things takes it's origin. Then, and not till then, and on a difference between the parties, the office of the judge commences. He cannot dictate the contract. It is his business to see that it be enforced; provided that it is not contrary to pre-existing laws, or obtained by force or fraud. If he is in any way a maker or regulator of the contract, in so much he is disqualified from being a judge. But this sort of confused distribution of administrative and judicial characters, (of which we have already as much as is sufficient, and a little more) is not the only perplexity of notions and passions which trouble us in the present hour.


What is doing, supposes or pretends that the farmer and the labourer have opposite interests; that the farmer oppresses the labourer; and that a gentleman called a justice of peace, is the protector of the latter, and a controul and restraint on the former; and this is a point I wish to examine in a manner a good deal different from that in which gentlemen proceed, who confide more in their abilities than is fit, and suppose them capable of more than any natural abilities, fed with no other than the provender furnished by their own private speculations, can accomplish. Legislative acts, attempting to regulate this part of oeconomy, do, at least, as much as any other, require the exactest detail of circumstances, guided by the surest general principles that are necessary to direct experiment and enquiry, in order again from those details to elicit principles, firm and luminous general principles, to direct a practical legislative proceeding.


First, then, I deny that it is in this case, as in any other of necessary implication, that contracting parties should originally have had different interests. By accident it may be so undoubtedly at the outset; but then the contract is of the nature of a compromise; and compromise is founded on circumstances that suppose it the interest of the parties to be reconciled in some medium. The principle of compromise adopted, of consequence the interests cease to be different.

Notes for this chapter

Corn, as a general term, includes all the cereals, wheat, rye, barley, oats, maize, rice, etc.
To "forestall" is to intercept goods before they reach the public market, to buy them up privately and keep them off the market with a view to raising the price. Until 1772 it had been forbidden by law.
William Pitt the Younger, First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister) since 1784.
In December 1795, "it was announced that a letter from Burke to Young on agricultural wages would shortly appear." W&S 9:119, headnote. This was a more precise description of the subject of the memorandum than "rural oeconomics," as this Preface calls it.
The overtures for peace with Revolutionary France that occasioned Burke's Letters on a Regicide Peace, for which see volume 3.
These interpolations have been placed in brackets for the convenience of the reader.
See note on p. 77.
The purchase of grain abroad by the British government to feed the poor at home.
In June 1795, the distillation of spirits from wheat, barley, or malt was prohibited until February 1796 in order to increase the supply of those grains to feed the population; in December 1796, the prohibition was extended to February 1797. W&S 9:141, n. 1.

Badger: one who buys corn and other commodities and carries them elsewhere to sell—more broadly, an itinerant middleman between producers and consumers; jobber: a piece-worker, one employed by the job—more broadly, a middleman, broker, or small trader or salesman; mealman: one who deals in meal, the edible part of any grain or pulse ground to a powder, e.g., oatmeal, Indian cornmeal.
Toll: a charge levied by a lord for the privilege of bringing goods to a market for sale; stallage: a charge for the privilege of setting up a stall at a fair or market.
Raw: raw silk, drawn from the cocoons by the process of reeling; organzine: the strongest and best kind of silk thread, formed of several strands twisted together in the direction contrary to that in which their component filaments are twisted.
An old spelling for women engaged in the manufacture, use, or sale of silk.
Burke may have mistakenly written Norfolk when he meant Suffolk, where the Justices of the Peace recommended that the wages of laborers should be adjusted in proportion to the price of corn. W&S 9:122-23.
The reference is to the so-called Speenhamland system, which inspired Burke to write this memorandum to William Pitt. In 1782, Parliament had enacted Gilbert's Act, which authorized local governments to grant allowances in aid of wages. Subsidizing the wages of the poor was not even then a new departure in English law. On this basis, in 1795 the magistrates of Berkshire, a county adjacent to Burke's Buckinghamshire, met in the Pelican Inn in Speenhamland, and adopted a scheme to ensure laborers a living wage. A minimum wage was fixed, which varied with the price of corn; if the wages actually paid fell below that, they would be supplemented from the poor rates.

End of Notes


But in the case of the farmer and the labourer, their interests are always the same, and it is absolutely impossible that their free contracts can be onerous to either party. It is the interest of the farmer, that his work should be done with effect and celerity: and that cannot be, unless the labourer is well fed, and otherwise found with such necessaries of animal life, according to it's habitudes, as may keep the body in full force, and the mind gay and cheerful. For of all the instruments of his trade, the labour of man (what the ancient writers have called the instrumentum vocale) is that on which he is most to rely for the re-payment of his capital. The other two, the semivocale in the ancient classification, that is, the working stock of cattle, and the instrumentum mutum,*61 such as carts, ploughs, spades, and so forth, though not all inconsiderable in themselves, are very much inferiour in utility or in expence; and without a given portion of the first, are nothing at all. For in all things whatever, the mind is the most valuable and the most important; and in this scale the whole of agriculture is in a natural and just order; the beast is as an informing principle to the plough and cart; the labourer is as reason to the beast; and the farmer is as a thinking and presiding principle to the labourer. An attempt to break this chain of subordination in any part is equally absurd; but the absurdity is the most mischievous in practical operation, where it is the most easy, that is, where it is the most subject to an erroneous judgment.


It is plainly more the farmer's interest that his men should thrive, than that his horses should be well fed, sleek, plump, and fit for use, or than that his waggon and ploughs should be strong, in good repair, and fit for service.


On the other hand, if the farmer ceases to profit of the labourer, and that his capital is not continually manured and fructified, it is impossible that he should continue that abundant nutriment, and cloathing, and lodging, proper for the protection of the instruments he employs.


It is therefore the first and fundamental interest of the labourer, that the farmer should have a full incoming profit on the product of his labour. The proposition is self-evident, and nothing but the malignity, perverseness, and ill-governed passions of mankind, and particularly the envy they bear to each other's prosperity, could prevent their seeing and acknowledging it, with thankfulness to the benign and wise disposer of all things, who obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success.


But who are to judge what that profit and advantage ought to be? certainly no authority on earth. It is a matter of convention dictated by the reciprocal conveniences of the parties, and indeed by their reciprocal necessities. But, if the farmer is excessively avaricious?—why so much the better—the more he desires to increase his gains, the more interested is he in the good condition of those, upon whose labour his gains must principally depend.


I shall be told by the zealots of the sect of regulation, that this may be true, and may be safely committed to the convention of the farmer and the labourer, when the latter is in the prime of his youth, and at the time of his health and vigour, and in ordinary times of abundance. But in calamitous seasons, under accidental illness, in declining life, and with the pressure of a numerous offspring, the future nourishers of the community but the present drains and blood-suckers of those who produce them, what is to be done? When a man cannot live and maintain his family by the natural hire of his labour, ought it not to be raised by authority?


On this head I must be allowed to submit, what my opinions have ever been; and somewhat at large.


And, first, I premise that labour is, as I have already intimated, a commodity, and as such, an article of trade. If I am right in this notion, then labour must be subject to all the laws and principles of trade, and not to regulations foreign to them, and that may be totally inconsistent with those principles and those laws. When any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vender, but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price. The extreme want of the seller has rather (by the nature of things with which we shall in vain contend) the direct contrary operation. If the goods at market are beyond the demand, they fall in their value; if below it, they rise. The impossibility of the subsistence of a man, who carries his labour to a market, is totally beside the question in this way of viewing it. The only question is, what is it worth to the buyer?


But if authority comes in and forces the buyer to a price, who is this in the case (say) of a farmer, who buys the labour of ten or twelve labouring men, and three or four handycrafts, what is it, but to make an arbitrary division of his property among them?


The whole of his gains, I say it with the most certain conviction, never do amount any thing like in value to what he pays to his labourers and artificers; so that a very small advance upon what one man pays to many, may absorb the whole of what he possesses, and amount to an actual partition of all his substance among them. A perfect equality will indeed be produced; that is to say, equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary, and on the part of the partitioners, a woeful, helpless, and desperate disappointment. Such is the event of all compulsory equalizations. They pull down what is above. They never raise what is below: and they depress high and low together beneath the level of what was originally the lowest.


If a commodity is raised by authority above what it will yield with a profit to the buyer, that commodity will be the less dealt in. If a second blundering interposition be used to correct the blunder of the first, and an attempt is made to force the purchase of the commodity (of labour for instance), the one of these two things must happen, either that the forced buyer is ruined, or the price of the product of the labour, in that proportion, is raised. Then the wheel turns round, and the evil complained of falls with aggravated weight on the complainant. The price of corn, which is the result of the expence of all the operations of husbandry, taken together, and for some time continued, will rise on the labourer, considered as a consumer. The very best will be, that he remains where he was. But if the price of the corn should not compensate the price of labour, what is far more to be feared, the most serious evil, the very destruction of agriculture itself, is to be apprehended.


Nothing is such an enemy to accuracy of judgment as a coarse discrimination; a want of such classification and distribution as the subject admits of. Encrease the rate of wages to the labourer, say the regulators—as if labour was but one thing and of one value. But this very broad generic term, labour, admits, at least, of two or three specific descriptions: and these will suffice, at least, to let gentlemen discern a little the necessity of proceeding with caution in their coercive guidance of those whose existence depends upon the observance of still nicer distinctions and sub-divisions, than commonly they resort to in forming their judgments on this very enlarged part of economy.


The labourers in husbandry may be divided: 1st. into those who are able to perform the full work of a man; that is, what can be done by a person from twenty-one years of age to fifty. I know no husbandry work (mowing hardly excepted) that is not equally within the power of all persons within those ages, the more advanced fully compensating by knack and habit what they lose in activity. Unquestionably, there is a good deal of difference between the value of one man's labour and that of another, from strength, dexterity, and honest application. But I am quite sure, from my best observation, that any given five men will, in their total, afford a proportion of labour equal to any other five within the periods of life I have stated; that is, that among such five men there will be one possessing all the qualifications of a good workman, one bad, and the other three middling, and approximating to the first and the last. So that in so small a platoon as that of even five, you will find the full complement of all that five men can earn. Taking five and five throughout the kingdom, they are equal: therefore, an error with regard to the equalization of their wages by those who employ five, as farmers do at the very least, cannot be considerable.


2dly. Those who are able to work, but not the complete task of a day-labourer. This class is infinitely diversified, but will aptly enough fall into principal divisions. Men, from the decline, which after fifty becomes every year more sensible, to the period of debility and decrepitude, and the maladies that precede a final dissolution. Women, whose employment on husbandry is but occasional, and who differ more in effective labour one from another than men do, on account of gestation, nursing, and domestic management, over and above the difference they have in common with men in advancing, in stationary, and in declining life. Children, who proceed on the reverse order, growing from less to greater utility, but with a still greater disproportion of nutriment to labour than is found in the second of these sub-divisions; as is visible to those who will give themselves the trouble of examining into the interior economy of a poor-house.


This inferior classification is introduced to shew, that laws prescribing, or magistrates exercising, a very stiff, and often inapplicable rule, or a blind and rash discretion, never can provide the just proportions between earning and salary on the one hand, and nutriment on the other: whereas interest, habit, and the tacit convention, that arise from a thousand nameless circumstances, produce a tact that regulates without difficulty, what laws and magistrates cannot regulate at all. The first class of labour wants nothing to equalize it; it equalizes itself. The second and third are not capable of any equalization.


But what if the rate of hire to the labourer comes far short of his necessary subsistence, and the calamity of the time is so great as to threaten actual famine? Is the poor labourer to be abandoned to the flinty heart and griping hand of base self-interest, supported by the sword of law, especially when there is reason to suppose that the very avarice of farmers themselves has concurred with the errors of Government to bring famine on the land.


In that case, my opinion is this. Whenever it happens that a man can claim nothing according to the rules of commerce, and the principles of justice, he passes out of that department, and comes within the jurisdiction of mercy. In that province the magistrate has nothing at all to do: his interference is a violation of the property which it is his office to protect. Without all doubt, charity to the poor is a direct and obligatory duty upon all Christians, next in order after the payment of debts, full as strong, and by nature made infinitely more delightful to us. Puffendorf,*62 and other casuists do not, I think, denominate it quite properly, when they call it a duty of imperfect obligation. But the manner, mode, time, choice of objects, and proportion, are left to private discretion; and perhaps, for that very reason it is performed with the greater satisfaction, because the discharge of it has more the appearance of freedom; recommending us besides very specially to the divine favour, as the exercise of a virtue most suitable to a being sensible of it's own infirmity.]


The cry of the people in cities and towns, though unfortunately (from a fear of their multitude and combination) the most regarded, ought, in fact, to be the least attended to upon this subject; for citizens are in a state of utter ignorance of the means by which they are to be fed, and they contribute little or nothing, except in an infinitely circuitous manner, to their own maintenance. They are truly "Fruges consumere nati."*63 They are to be heard with great respect and attention upon matters within their province, that is, on trades and manufactures; but on any thing that relates to agriculture, they are to be listened to with the same reverence which we pay to the dogmas of other ignorant and presumptuous men.


If any one were to tell them, that they were to give in an account of all the stock in their shops; that attempts would be made to limit their profits, or raise the price of the labouring manufacturers upon them, or recommend to Government, out of a capital from the publick revenues, to set up a shop of the same commodities, in order to rival them, and keep them to reasonable dealing, they would very soon see the impudence, injustice, and oppression of such a course. They would not be mistaken; but they are of opinion, that agriculture is to be subject to other laws; and to be governed by other principles.


A greater and more ruinous mistake cannot be fallen into, than that the trades of agriculture and grazing can be conducted upon any other than the common principles of commerce; namely, that the producer should be permitted, and even expected, to look to all possible profit which, without fraud or violence, he can make; to turn plenty or scarcity to the best advantage he can; to keep back or to bring forward his commodities at his pleasure; to account to no one for his stock or for his gain. On any other terms he is the slave of the consumer; and that he should be so is of no benefit to the consumer. No slave was ever so beneficial to the master as a freeman that deals with him on an equal footing by convention, formed on the rules and principles of contending interests and compromised advantages. The consumer, if he were suffered, would in the end always be the dupe of his own tyranny and injustice. The landed gentleman is never to forget, that the farmer is his representative.


[It is a perilous thing to try experiments on the farmer. The farmer's capital (except in a few persons, and in a very few places) is far more feeble than commonly is imagined. The trade is a very poor trade; it is subject to great risks and losses. The capital, such as it is, is turned but once in the year; in some branches it requires three years before the money is paid. I believe never less than three in the turnip and grass-land course, which is the prevalent course on the more or less fertile, sandy and gravelly loams, and these compose the soil in the south and south-east of England, the best adapted, and perhaps the only ones that are adapted, to the turnip husbandry.


It is very rare that the most prosperous farmer, counting the value of his quick and dead stock, the interest of the money he turns, together with his own wages as a bailiff or overseer, ever does make twelve or fifteen per centum by the year on his capital. I speak of the prosperous. In most of the parts of England which have fallen within my observation, I have rarely known a farmer, who to his own trade has not added some other employment or traffic, that, after a course of the most unremitting parsimony and labour (such for the greater part is theirs), and persevering in his business for a long course of years, died worth more than paid his debts, leaving his posterity to continue in nearly the same equal conflict between industry and want, in which the last predecessor, and a long line of predecessors before him, lived and died.


Observe that I speak of the generality of farmers who have not more than from one hundred and fifty to three or four hundred acres. There are few in this part of the country within the former, or much beyond the latter, extent. Unquestionably in other places there are much larger. But, I am convinced, whatever part of England be the theatre of his operations, a farmer who cultivates twelve hundred acres, which I consider as a large farm, though I know there are larger, cannot proceed, with any degree of safety and effect, with a smaller capital than ten thousand pounds; and that he cannot, in the ordinary course of culture, make more upon that great capital of ten thousand pounds, than twelve hundred a year.


As to the weaker capitals, an easy judgment may be formed by what very small errors they may be farther attenuated, enervated, rendered unproductive, and perhaps totally destroyed.


This constant precariousness and ultimate moderate limits of a farmer's fortune, on the strongest capital, I press, not only on account of the hazardous speculations of the times, but because the excellent and most useful works of my friend, Mr. Arthur Young, tend to propagate that error (such I am very certain it is, of the largeness of a farmer's profits). It is not that his account of the produce does often greatly exceed, but he by no means makes the proper allowance for accidents and losses. I might enter into a convincing detail, if other more troublesome and more necessary details were not before me.


This proposed discretionary tax on labour militates with the recommendations of the Board of Agriculture: they recommend a general use of the drill culture.*64 I agree with the Board, that where the soil is not excessively heavy, or incumbered with large loose stones (which however is the case with much otherwise good land), that course is the best, and most productive, provided that the most accurate eye; the most vigilant superintendance; the most prompt activity, which has no such day as to-morrow in its calendar; the most steady foresight and pre-disposing order to have every body and every thing ready in it's place, and prepared to take advantage of the fortunate fugitive moment in this coquetting climate of ours—provided, I say, all these combine to speed the plough, I admit its superiority over the old and general methods. But under procrastinating, improvident, ordinary husbandmen, who may neglect or let slip the few opportunities of sweetening and purifying their ground with perpetually renovated toil, and undissipated attention, nothing, when tried to any extent, can be worse, or more dangerous: the farm may be ruined, instead of having the soil enriched and sweetened by it.


But the excellence of the method on a proper soil, and conducted by an husbandman, of whom there are few, being readily granted, how, and on what conditions, is this culture obtained? Why, by a very great encrease of labour; by an augmentation of the third part, at least, of the hand-labour, to say nothing of the horses and machinery employed in ordinary tillage. Now, every man must be sensible how little becoming the gravity of Legislature it is to encourage a Board, which recommends to us, and upon very weighty reasons unquestionably, an enlargement of the capital we employ in the operations of the land, and then to pass an act which taxes that manual labour, already at a very high rate; thus compelling us to diminish the quantity of labour which in the vulgar course we actually employ.]


What is true of the farmer is equally true of the middle man; whether the middle man acts as factor,*65 jobber, salesman, or speculator, in the markets of grain. These traders are to be left to their free course; and the more they make, and the richer they are, and the more largely they deal, the better both for the farmer and consumer, between whom they form a natural and most useful link of connection; though, by the machinations of the old evil counsellor, Envy, they are hated and maligned by both parties.


I hear that middle men are accused of monopoly. Without question, the monopoly of authority is, in every instance and in every degree, an evil; but the monopoly of capital is the contrary. It is a great benefit, and a benefit particularly to the poor. A tradesman who has but a hundred pound capital, which (say) he can turn but once a year, cannot live upon a profit of 10 per cent. because he cannot live upon ten pounds a year; but a man of ten thousand pounds capital can live and thrive upon 5 per cent. profit in the year, because he has five hundred pounds a year. The same proportion holds in turning it twice or thrice. These principles are plain and simple; and it is not our ignorance, so much as the levity, the envy, and the malignity of our nature, that hinders us from perceiving and yielding to them: but we are not to suffer our vices to usurp the place of our judgment.


The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other's wants. Nobody, I believe, has observed with any reflection what market is, without being astonished at the truth, the correctness, the celerity, the general equity, with which the balance of wants is settled. They who wish the destruction of that balance, and would fain by arbitrary regulation decree, that defective production should not be compensated by encreased price, directly lay their axe to the root of production itself.


They may even in one year of such false policy, do mischiefs incalculable; because the trade of a farmer is, as I have before explained, one of the most precarious in its advantages, the most liable to losses, and the least profitable of any that is carried on. It requires ten times more of labour, of vigilance, of attention, of skill, and let me add, of good fortune also, to carry on the business of a farmer with success, than what belongs to any other trade. Seeing things in this light, I am far from presuming to censure the late circular instruction of Council to Lord Lieutenants*66—but I confess I do not clearly discern its object. I am greatly afraid that the enquiry will raise some alarm as a measure, leading to the French system of putting corn into requisition. For that was preceded by an inquisition somewhat similar in it's principle, though, according to their mode, their principles are full of that violence, which here is not much to be feared. It goes on a principle directly opposite to mine: it presumes, that the market is no fair test of plenty or scarcity. It raises a suspicion, which may affect the tranquillity of the public mind, "that the farmer keeps back, and takes unfair advantages by delay"; on the part of the dealer, it gives rise obviously to a thousand nefarious speculations.


In case the return should on the whole prove favourable, is it meant to ground a measure for encouraging exportation and checking the import of corn? If it is not, what end can it answer? And, I believe, it is not.


This opinion may be fortified by a report gone abroad, that intentions are entertained of erecting public granaries, and that this enquiry is to give Government an advantage in it's purchases.


I hear that such a measure has been proposed, and is under deliberation, that is, for Government to set up a granary in every market town, at the expence of the state, in order to extinguish the dealer, and to subject the farmer to the consumer, by securing corn to the latter at a certain and steady price.


If such a scheme is adopted, I should not like to answer for the safety of the granary, of the agents, or of the town itself, in which the granary was erected—the first storm of popular phrenzy would fall upon that granary.


So far in a political light.


In an economical light, I must observe, that the construction of such granaries throughout the kingdom, would be at an expence beyond all calculation. The keeping them up would be at a great charge. The management and attendance would require an army of agents, store-keepers, clerks, and servants. The capital to be employed in the purchase of grain would be enormous. The waste, decay, and corruption, would be a dreadful drawback on the whole dealing; and the dissatisfaction of the people, at having decayed, tainted, or corrupted corn sold to them, as must be the case, would be serious.


This climate (whatever others may be) is not favourable to granaries, where wheat is to be kept for any time. The best, and indeed the only good granary, is the rick-yard of the farmer, where the corn is preserved in it's own straw, sweet, clean, wholesome, free from vermin and from insects, and comparatively at a trifle of expence. This, with the barn, enjoying many of the same advantages, have been the sole granaries of England from the foundation of it's agriculture to this day. All this is done at the expence of the undertaker, and at his sole risk. He contributes to Government; he receives nothing from it but protection, and to this he has a claim.


The moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted. I don't know whether the farmer will suffer by it, as long as there is a tolerable market of competition; but I am sure that, in the first place, the trading government will speedily become a bankrupt, and the consumer in the end will suffer. If Government makes all it's purchases at once, it will instantly raise the market upon itself. If it makes them by degrees, it must follow the course of the market. If it follows the course of the market, it will produce no effect, and the consumer may as well buy as he wants—therefore all the expence is incurred gratis.


But if the object of this scheme should be, what I suspect it is, to destroy the dealer, commonly called the middle man, and by incurring a voluntary loss to carry the baker to deal with Government, I am to tell them that they must set up another trade, that of a miller or a mealman, attended with a new train of expences and risks. If in both these trades they should succeed, so as to exclude those who trade on natural and private capitals, then they will have a monopoly in their hands, which, under the appearance of a monopoly of capital, will, in reality, be a monopoly of authority, and will ruin whatever it touches. The agriculture of the kingdom cannot stand before it.


A little place like Geneva, of not more than from twenty-five to thirty thousand inhabitants, which has no territory, or next to none; which depends for it's existence on the good-will of three neighbouring powers, and is of course continually in the state of something like a siege, or in the speculation of it, might find some resource in state granaries, and some revenue from the monopoly of what was sold to the keepers of public-houses. This is a policy for a state too small for agriculture. It is not (for instance) fit for so great a country as the Pope possesses, where, however, it is adopted and pursued in a greater extent, and with more strictness. Certain of the Pope's territories, from whence the city of Rome is supplied, being obliged to furnish Rome and the granaries of his Holiness with corn at a certain price, that part of the papal territories is utterly ruined. That ruin may be traced with certainty to this sole cause, and it appears indubitably by a comparison of their state and condition with that of the other part of the ecclesiastical dominions not subjected to the same regulations, which are in circumstances highly flourishing.


The reformation of this evil system is in a manner impracticable; for, first, it does keep bread and all other provisions equally subject to the chamber of supply, at a pretty reasonable and regular price, in the city of Rome. This preserves quiet among the numerous poor, idle, and naturally mutinous people, of a very great capital. But the quiet of the town is purchased by the ruin of the country, and the ultimate wretchedness of both. The next cause which renders this evil incurable, is, the jobs which have grown out of it, and which, in spite of all precautions, would grow out of such things, even under governments far more potent than the feeble authority of the Pope.

Notes for this chapter

Instrumentum vocale, the tool that speaks; semivocale, the tool that utters sounds but not words; mutum, the tool that is inanimate, hence mute.
Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), whose The Whole Duty of Man was used as a textbook at Trinity College, Dublin, when Burke was a student there. It was a translation of Pufendorf's De officio hominis et civis, which in turn was an epitome, made by Pufendorf himself, of his famous De jure gentium et naturae (1672).
"Born to consume the fruits [of the earth]." Horace Epistles 1.2.27.
To drill is to sow seeds or seedlings along a shallow furrow.
One who acts for another as an agent, deputy, or representative; more narrowly, an agent who buys or sells for another; a commission merchant.
A circular letter sent by the Council through the Home Secretary to the Lords Lieutenant asking them to hold magistrates' meetings in their counties to ascertain the produce of the recent harvest. W&S 9:133, n. 1.

End of Notes


This example of Rome which has been derived from the most ancient times, and the most flourishing period of the Roman empire (but not of the Roman agriculture) may serve as a great caution to all Governments, not to attempt to feed the people out of the hands of the magistrates. If once they are habituated to it, though but for one half-year, they will never be satisfied to have it otherwise. And, having looked to Government for bread, on the very first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them. To avoid that evil, Government will redouble the causes of it; and then it will become inveterate and incurable.


I beseech the Government (which I take in the largest sense of the word, comprehending the two Houses of Parliament) seriously to consider that years of scarcity or plenty, do not come alternately or at short intervals, but in pretty long cycles and irregularly, and consequently that we cannot assure ourselves, if we take a wrong measure, from the temporary necessities of one season; but that the next, and probably more, will drive us to the continuance of it; so that in my opinion, there is no way of preventing this evil which goes to the destruction of all our agriculture, and of that part of our internal commerce which touches our agriculture the most nearly, as well as the safety and very being of Government, but manfully to resist the very first idea, speculative or practical, that it is within the competence of Government, taken as Government, or even of the rich, as rich, to supply to the poor, those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to with-hold from them. We, the people, ought to be made sensible, that it is not in breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope of softening the Divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer, or which hangs over us.


So far as to the principles of general policy.


As to the state of things which is urged as a reason to deviate from them, these are the circumstances of the harvest of 1795 and 1794. With regard to the harvest of 1794, in relation to the noblest grain, wheat, it is allowed to have been somewhat short, but not excessively; and in quality, for the seven and twenty years, during which I have been a farmer, I never remember wheat to have been so good. The world were, however, deceived in their speculations upon it—the farmer as well as the dealer. Accordingly the price fluctuated beyond any thing I can remember; for, at one time of the year, I sold my wheat at 14l. a load, (I sold off all I had, as I thought this was a reasonable price), when at the end of the season, if I had then had any to sell, I might have got thirty guineas for the same sort of grain. I sold all that I had, as I said, at a comparatively low price, because I thought it a good price, compared with what I thought the general produce of the harvest; but when I came to consider what my own total was, I found that the quantity had not answered my expectation. It must be remembered, that this year of produce, (the year 1794) short, but excellent, followed a year which was not extraordinary in production, nor of a superior quality, and left but little in store. At first this was not felt, because the harvest came in unusually early—earlier than common, by a full month.


The winter, at the end of 1794, and beginning of 1795, was more than usually unfavourable both to corn and grass, owing to the sudden relaxation of very rigorous frosts, followed by rains, which were again rapidly succeeded by frosts of still greater rigour than the first.


Much wheat was utterly destroyed. The clover grass suffered in many places. What I never observed before, the rye-grass, or coarse bent, suffered more than the clover. Even the meadow-grass in some places was killed to the very roots. In the spring, appearances were better than we expected. All the early sown grain recovered itself, and came up with great vigour; but that, which was late sown, was feeble, and did not promise to resist any blights, in the spring, which, however, with all its unpleasant vissicitudes passed off very well; and nothing looked better than the wheat at the time of blooming: but at that most critical time of all, a cold dry east wind, attended with very sharp frosts, longer and stronger than I recollect at that time of year, destroyed the flowers, and withered up, in an astonishing manner, the whole side of the ear next to the wind. At that time I brought to town some of the ears, for the purpose of shewing to my friends the operation of those unnatural frosts, and according to their extent I predicted a great scarcity. But such is the pleasure of agreeable prospects, that my opinion was little regarded.


On threshing, I found things as I expected—the ears not filled, some of the capsules quite empty, and several others containing only withered hungry grain, inferior to the appearance of rye. My best ears and grains were not fine; never had I grain of so low a quality—yet I sold one load for 21l. At the same time I bought my seed wheat (it was excellent) at 23l. Since then the price has risen, and I have sold about two load of the same sort at 23l. Such was the state of the market when I left home last Monday. Little remains in my barn. I hope some in the rick may be better; since it was earlier sown, as well as I can recollect. Some of my neighbours have better, some quite as bad, or even worse. I suspect it will be found, that wherever the blighting wind and those frosts at blooming time have prevailed, the produce of the wheat crop will turn out very indifferent. Those parts which have escaped, will, I can hardly doubt, have a reasonable produce.


As to the other grains, it is to be observed, as the wheat ripened very late, (on account, I conceive, of the blights) the barley got the start of it, and was ripe first. The crop was with me, and wherever my enquiry could reach, excellent; in some places far superior to mine.


The clover, which came up with the barley, was the finest I remember to have seen.


The turnips of this year are generally good.


The clover sown last year, where not totally destroyed, gave two good crops, or one crop and a plentiful feed; and, bating the loss of the rye-grass, I do not remember a better produce.


The meadow-grass yielded but a middling crop, and neither of the sown or natural grass was there in any farmer's possession any remainder from the year worth taking into account. In most places, there was none at all.


Oats with me were not in a quantity more considerable than in commonly good seasons; but I have never known them heavier, than they were in other places. The oat was not only an heavy, but an uncommonly abundant crop. My ground under pease did not exceed an acre, or thereabouts, but the crop was great indeed. I believe it is throughout the country exuberant.


It is however to be remarked, that as generally of all the grains, so particularly of the pease, there was not the smallest quantity in reserve.


The demand of the year must depend solely on it's own produce; and the price of the spring-corn is not to be expected to fall very soon, or at any time very low.


Uxbridge is a great corn market. As I came through that town, I found that at the last market-day, barley was at forty shillings a quarter; oats there were literally none; and the innkeeper was obliged to send for them to London. I forgot to ask about pease. Potatoes were 5s. the bushel.


In the debate on this subject in the House, I am told that a leading member of great ability, little conversant in these matters, observed, that the general uniform dearness of butcher's meat, butter, and cheese, could not be owing to a defective produce of wheat; and on this ground insinuated a suspicion of some unfair practice on the subject, that called for enquiry.


Unquestionably the mere deficiency of wheat could not cause the dearness of the other articles, which extends not only to the provisions he mentioned, but to every other without exception.


The cause is indeed so very plain and obvious, that the wonder is the other way. When a properly directed enquiry is made, the gentlemen who are amazed at the price of these commodities will find, that when hay is at six pound a load, as they must know it is, herbage, and for more than one year, must be scanty, and they will conclude, that if grass be scarce, beef, veal, mutton, butter, milk, and cheese, must be dear.


But to take up the matter somewhat more in detail—if the wheat harvest in 1794, excellent in quality, was defective in quantity, the barley harvest was in quality ordinary enough; and in quantity deficient. This was soon felt in the price of malt.


Another article of produce (beans) was not at all plentiful. The crop of pease was wholly destroyed, so that several farmers pretty early gave up all hopes on that head, and cut the green haulm as fodder for the cattle, then perishing for want of food in that dry and burning summer. I myself came off better than most—I had about the fourth of a crop of pease.


It will be recollected, that, in a manner, all the bacon and pork consumed in this country, (the far largest consumption of meat out of towns) is, when growing, fed on grass, and on whey, or skimmed milk; and when fatting, partly on the latter. This is the case in the dairy countries, all of them great breeders and feeders of swine; but for the much greater part, and in all the corn countries, they are fattened on beans, barley meal, and pease. When the food of the animal is scarce, his flesh must be dear. This, one would suppose, would require no great penetration to discover.


This failure of so very large a supply of flesh in one species, naturally throws the whole demand of the consumer on the diminished supply of all kinds of flesh, and, indeed, on all the matters of human sustenance. Nor, in my opinion, are we to expect a greater cheapness in that article for this year, even though corn should grow cheaper, as it is to be hoped it will. The store swine, from the failure of subsistence last year, are now at an extravagant price. Pigs, at our fairs, have sold lately for fifty shillings, which, two years ago, would not have brought more than twenty.


As to sheep, none, I thought, were strangers to the general failure of the article of turnips last year; the early having been burned as they came up, by the great drought and heat; the late, and those of the early which had escaped, were destroyed by the chilling frosts of the winter, and the wet and severe weather of the spring. In many places a full fourth of the sheep or the lambs were lost, what remained of the lambs were poor and ill-fed, the ewes having had no milk. The calves came late, and they were generally an article, the want of which was as much to be dreaded as any other. So that article of food, formerly so abundant in the early part of the summer, particularly in London, and which in a great part supplied the place of mutton for near two months, did little less than totally fail.


All the productions of the earth link in with each other. All the sources of plenty, in all and every article, were dried or frozen up. The scarcity was not as gentlemen seem to suppose, in wheat only.


Another cause, and that not of inconsiderable operation, tended to produce a scarity in flesh provision. It is one that on many accounts cannot be too much regretted, and, the rather, as it was the sole cause of scarcity in that article, which arose from the proceedings of men themselves. I mean the stop put to the distillery.


The hogs (and that would be sufficient) which were fed with the waste wash of that produce, did not demand the fourth part of the corn used by farmers in fattening them. The spirit was nearly so much clear gain to the nation. It is an odd way of making flesh cheap, to stop or check the distillery.


The distillery in itself produces an immense article of trade almost all over the world, to Africa, to North America, and to various parts of Europe. It is of great use, next to food itself, to our fisheries and to our whole navigation. A great part of the distillery was carried on by damaged corn, unfit for bread, and by barley and malt of the lowest quality. These things could not be more unexceptionably employed. The domestic consumption of spirits, produced, without complaints, a very great revenue, applicable, if we pleased, in bounties*67 to the bringing corn from other places, far beyond the value of that consumed in making it, or to the encouragement of it's encreased production at home.


As to what is said, in a physical and moral view, against the home consumption of spirits, experience has long since taught me very little to respect the declamations on that subject—whether the thunder of the laws, or the thunder of eloquence, "is hurled on gin,"*68 always I am thunder-proof. The alembic,*69 in my mind, has furnished to the world a far greater benefit and blessing, than if the opus maximum*70 had been really found by chemistry, and, like Midas, we could turn every thing into gold.


Undoubtedly there may be a dangerous abuse in the excess of spirits; and at one time I am ready to believe the abuse was great. When spirits are cheap, the business of drunkenness is atchieved with little time or labour; but that evil I consider to be wholly done away. Observation for the last forty years, and very particularly for the last thirty, has furnished me with ten instances of drunkenness from other causes, for one from this. Ardent spirit is a great medicine, often to remove distempers—much more frequently to prevent them, or to chase them away in their beginnings. It is not nutritive in any great degree. But, if not food, it greatly alleviates the want of it. It invigorates the stomach for the digestion of poor meagre diet, not easily alliable to the human constitution. Wine the poor cannot touch. Beer, as applied to many occasions, (as among seamen and fishermen for instance) will by no means do the business. Let me add, what wits inspired with champaign and claret, will turn into ridicule—it is a medicine for the mind. Under the pressure of the cares and sorrows of our mortal condition, men have at all times, and in all countries, called in some physical aid to their moral consolations—wine, beer, opium, brandy, or tobacco.


I consider therefore the stopping of the distillery, oeconomically, financially, commercially, medicinally, and in some degree morally too, as a measure rather well meant than well considered. It is too precious a sacrifice to prejudice.


Gentlemen well know whether there be a scarcity of partridges, and whether that be an effect of hoarding and combination. All the same race of birds live and die as the wild do.


As to the lesser articles, they are like the greater. They have followed the fortune of the season. Why are fowls dear? was not this the farmer's or jobber's fault. I sold from my yard to a jobber, six young and lean fowls, for four and twenty shillings; fowls, for which, two years ago, the same man would not have given a shilling a-piece. He sold them afterwards at Uxbridge, and they were taken to London to receive the last hand.


As to the operation of the war in causing the scarcity of provisions, I understand that Mr. Pitt has given a particular answer to it—but I do not think it worth powder and shot.


I do not wonder the papers are so full of this sort of matter, but I am a little surprised it should be mentioned in parliament. Like all great state questions, peace and war may be discussed, and different opinions fairly formed, on political grounds, but on a question of the present price of provisions, when peace with the regicides is always uppermost, I can only say, that great is the love of it.


After all, have we not reason to be thankful to the giver of all good? In our history, and when "The labourer of England is said to have been once happy," we find constantly, after certain intervals, a period of real famine; by which, a melancholy havock was made among the human race. The price of provisions fluctuated dreadfully, demonstrating a deficiency very different from the worst failures of the present moment. Never since I have known England, have I known more than a comparative scarcity. The price of wheat, taking a number of years together, has had no very considerable fluctuation, nor has it risen exceedingly until within this twelvemonth. Even now, I do not know of one man, woman, or child, that has perished from famine; fewer, if any, I believe, than in years of plenty, when such a thing may happen by accident. This is owing to a care and superintendance of the poor, far greater than any I remember.


The consideration of this ought to bind us all, rich and poor together, against those wicked writers of the newspapers, who would inflame the poor against their friends, guardians, patrons, and protectors. Not only very few (I have observed, that I know of none, though I live in a place as poor as most) have actually died of want, but we have seen no traces of those dreadful exterminating epidemics, which, in consequence of scanty and unwholesome food, in former times, not unfrequently, wasted whole nations. Let us be saved from too much wisdom of our own, and we shall do tolerably well.


[It is one of the finest problems in legislation, and what has often engaged my thoughts whilst I followed that profession, "What the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual discretion." Nothing, certainly, can be laid down on the subject that will not admit of exceptions, many permanent, some occasional. But the clearest line of distinction which I could draw, whilst I had my chalk to draw any line, was this: That the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity. In it's preventive police it ought to be sparing of its efforts, and to employ means, rather few, unfrequent, and strong, than many, and frequent, and, of course, as they multiply their puny politic race, and dwindle, small and feeble. Statesmen who know themselves will, with the dignity which belongs to wisdom, proceed only in this the superior orb and first mover of their duty, steadily, vigilantly, severely, courageously: whatever remains will, in a manner, provide for itself. But as they descend from the state to a province, from a province to a parish, and from a parish to a private house, they go on accelerated in their fall. They cannot do the lower duty; and, in proportion as they try it, they will certainly fail in the higher. They ought to know the different departments of things; what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate. To these, great politicians may give a leaning, but they cannot give a law.


Our Legislature has fallen into this fault as well as other governments; all have fallen into it more or less. The once mighty State, which was nearest to us locally, nearest to us in every way, and whose ruins threaten to fall upon our heads, is a strong instance of this error.*71 I can never quote France without a foreboding sigh—ESSETAI'HMAP!*72 Scipio said it to his recording Greek friend amidst the flames of the great rival of his country.*73 That state has fallen by the hands of the parricides of their country, called the Revolutionists, and Constitutionalists, of France, a species of traitors, of whose fury and atrocious wickedness nothing in the annals of the phrenzy and depravation of mankind had before furnished an example, and of whom I can never think or speak without a mixed sensation of disgust, of horrour, and of detestation, not easy to be expressed. These nefarious monsters destroyed their country for what was good in it: for much good there was in the constitution of that noble monarchy, which, in all kinds, formed and nourished great men, and great patterns of virtue to the world. But though it's enemies were not enemies to it's faults, it's faults furnished them with means for it's destruction. My dear departed friend,*74 whose loss is even greater to the public than to me, had often remarked, that the leading vice of the French monarchy (which he had well studied) was in good intention ill-directed, and a restless desire of governing too much. The hand of authority was seen in every thing, and in every place. All, therefore, that happened amiss in the course even of domestic affairs, was attributed to the Government; and, as it always happens in this kind of officious universal interference, what began in odious power, ended always, I may say without an exception, in contemptible imbecillity. For this reason, as far as I can approve of any novelty, I thought well of the Provincial Administrations. Those, if the superior power had been severe, and vigilant, and vigorous, might have been of much use politically in removing government from many invidious details. But as every thing is good or bad, as it is related or combined, government being relaxed above as it was relaxed below, and the brains of the people growing more and more addle with every sort of visionary speculation, the shiftings of the scene in the provincial theatres became only preparatives to a revolution in the kingdom, and the popular actings there only the rehearsals of the terrible drama of the republic.


Tyranny and cruelty may make men justly wish the downfall of abused powers, but I believe that no government ever yet perished from any other direct cause than it's own weakness. My opinion is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more especially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people.]


Notes for this chapter

Bounty: a sum of money paid by government to merchants or manufacturers to encourage an industry or trade. It could be a sum paid to exporters of corn because exports produced a favorable balance of trade or, as here, to importers to encourage buying grain abroad in a time of scarcity of corn at home. Burke was obviously not opposed to all government intervention in the economy.
See Alexander Pope's Epilogue to the Satires, deploring the presumptuousness of the lower classes in imitating the vices of their social superiors:

    This, this, my friend, I cannot, must not bear;
    Vice thus abused demands a nation's care;
    This calls the Church to deprecate our sin,
    And hurls the thunder of the laws on gin.
    Dialogue 1, lines 129-31.
An apparatus used in distilling spirits.
The greatest work or art, that of realizing alchemy's dream of turning base metals into gold.
That of the fixing of prices by government.
The first words of a passage in Homer, in which Hector tells his wife that he knows that Troy is doomed:

    The day will come when sacred Troy will perish,
    And Priam and his people shall be slain.
    Iliad 6.448-49.
The Roman general Scipio, who had finally and fully conquered Carthage, repeated Hector's words, "The day will come," when his Greek friend, the historian Polybius, asked him why he wept when he saw Carthage in flames. He feared for Rome, too, says Polybius, "when he reflected on the fate of all things human." Histories 38.22.1-3.

His son Richard, who had died the year before, on August 2, 1794.

Volume 4, Speech on Fox's East India Bill

End of Notes

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