John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy

Marcet, Jane Haldimand
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First Pub. Date
London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman
Pub. Date
1st edition. Some essays published earlier as pamphlets
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Essay 9



JOHN HOPKINS was walking with farmer Stubbs over his farm one day, examining the crops. They passed through a field of wheat in which the scarlet poppies were nearly as plentiful as the ears of corn. "Methinks, Master Stubbs," said John, "this field will scarcely pay you the labour it has cost you; you will get but a poor pennyworth out of it; and I'll venture to say, you must have put a good pennyworth into it, to make it yield even the little it does, seeing it's such a bad soil."


"I'm not such a fool as that comes to, neither," returned the farmer. "Though I may not have served my time at book-keeping, I know how to reckon up of the goings out and the comings in; ay, and to give a shrewd guess what they are like to be before I sow my crop; and if I did not see a fair chance of the field paying its expenses, ay, and a profit to boot, why, I should not have sown it. It is true, corn does not fetch so good a price as it once did, but it is good enough yet to make even this pitiful bit of soil give me a profit."


"Ah! but," says John; "you have some beautiful corn fields on the sunny side of the hill, with the stream at the bottom. That's a fine soil and a fine aspect, and those are crops it does one's heart good to look at, and will pay you well, and make up for the poverty of this here field, and so one with another you make a fair profit; but if you were to sow this field alone, I question whether you would get any thing by it."


"There you are mistaken," replied Stubbs; "for if I did not make any thing by it in corn, I should lay it down in grass; or if it was not good enough for that, I should plant it."


"But how can you tell," said Hopkins, "whether you make any thing by this very field or not? for you send your corn to market in the lump, without reckoning which field it comes from."


"It's a farmer's business," replied Stubbs, "if he means to thrive in the world, to find out what answers, and what don't. I know how many bushel of corn this same field gives me, and how much I sell it for: then, on the other side, I reckon the labour, and the manure, and the seed corn, in a word, all that the crop costs me; and if I did not find that I got a profit—mind ye, I do not mean such a profit as the crops t'other side of the hill give me, but a decent profit—for such a soil, this field would be a corn field no more."


"Well," said John, with a sigh, "it's hard that we poor folk are forced to pay so much for our bread, that you farmers may make a profit on such a miserable bit of soil as this."


"Why, it's not I that fix the market price," retorted Stubbs. "I must sell my corn for what it will fetch, cheap or dear, or I should not be able to carry on the outgoings of the farm; for I've no store of money on hand as our landlord has, who may keep his crops back when the price is low, until the market rises. Then I should be glad to know, how you would be the better for this field not being sown? for supposing this field, and all other fields in the country that had no better soil, were laid down in grass, why there would be much less corn in the markets (for there's a good number of such fields in the land, I can tell you); and you know well enough what follows a scarcity of corn at market, Hopkins?"


"Why, a rise of price," answered Hopkins.


"So, then, you see, man, you are all in the wrong," exclaimed Stubbs, exultingly, "to think that my raising corn on poor land does you any harm. Why, it's all for your good, John; for you see that if I and others did not do so, corn would rise, and bread would be dearer."


"Not quite so sure of that, neither, Master Stubbs," replied John, demurely. "You may think it bold in me, who am but a poor man, and no farmer, to venture to argue with you, who know so much about it. But, you must know that I have had a deal of talk of late with the squire, (who is your landlord as well as mine,) about foreign trade; and, if I could but tell you all he said, Master Stubbs, you would be quite in a wonderment to hear the good foreign trade does the country. And brother Bob, who has been so much in foreign parts, was all of one mind with his honour. Nay, it was so clear, that even my boy Tom understood it: and, though I tried all I could to argue against them, they brought me round at last."


"Clear as it may be, I think it has turned your head, Hopkins," replied Stubbs. "I should be glad to know what foreign trade can have to do with my raising corn on poor land."—"Why, don't you see," replied John, "if we could get our corn from foreign parts, where it is cheaper than it is here, we should be better off?"


"Oh, that's what you are after," cried Stubbs, with a shrug: "and so you would ruin the farmers of your own country, would you, to make the fortunes of your outlandish French jackanapes. Well, I thought better of you than that comes to."—"Don't you fly off in such a huff, Master Stubbs," said John. "God knows, I have no wish to ruin you or any other farmer; nor was I for caring about making the fortune of foreigners: what I was thinking of, was, how to get bread cheapest for my own children; and every poor man has a right to think about that: and, what's more, it is his duty, too."—"Well; but you will not persuade me that the squire told you that it was good for the country to get corn from foreign parts, unless it be in times of scarcity, when the price is very high; and then, you know, the law allows it; for it don't hurt the farmer. But, as for making a free corn trade at all times, as some fools talk of, why, our landlord knows his interest too well to dream of such a thing."


"And why should not the poor look to their own interest as well as the rich?" said Hopkins; "and if corn coming from foreign parts would make bread cheaper, why should they not say that the law of the land ought to allow it, and have an eye to their good as well as that of the landholder?"—"You may think and you may say what you please," cried Stubbs; "but let me tell you, that as long as the landholders make the laws, they will not be such fools as to make a law to undo themselves. Ask a man to cut his own throat? why it's sheer nonsense."—"Well, I've a better opinion of the landholders than you," replied Hopkins. "Take our landlord, for example. It's true, he did not say any thing about corn."—"No, I was sure enough of that," interrupted Stubbs.—"But he told us," continued John, "that whenever we could get any thing from abroad cheaper than we could make it at home, it was for the good of the country that we should get it from abroad. I can't go over all his arguments, but they were as clear as broad day."—"It may be so, for aught I know," said Stubbs, "with manufactured goods, their French silks and frippery, that's made with hands; but we don't make corn, we grow it."—"Well, but though the squire did not just speak of corn, he made no difference between things that are grown and things that are made; for he talked of tobacco, and currants, and raisins, and loads of other things, the growth of the soil: and I am sure he would have said as much of corn, if it had but come into my head to have asked him."—"Nay, nay," retorted Stubbs, shaking his head with an incredulous look, "he has too good a head for that."—"I know he has a good head," replied Hopkins; "for he not only understands these matters himself, but he knows how to make us poor unlettered folks understand them too. But then, Master Stubbs, I'll warrant his heart is as sound as his head: and if he thought it was for the welfare of the country that the corn trade should be free, and that we poor folks would fare better for it, why he would give it up manfully; and never mind it's hurting himself a bit."


"He's free to do as he likes," said Stubbs; "but let me tell him, he must not expect me to pay him such a rent as I do now, if every foreign vessel that chose to bring their trash of corn into our ports were free of our markets. No, no, as soon as my lease was out (and that's next Michaelmas come two years), I should say, 'You may take the farm upon your own hands, or let it me at a lower rent, for I have been losing instead of gaining a livelihood ever since the corn trade has been free.'"—"Well, then you need not be in such a taking, Master Stubbs; for, let the worst come to the worst, you can but be a loser for a couple of years. No farmer could be a loser beyond the term of his lease; for then he would strike a new bargain. Besides, I am given to think, that, if the trade were free, there would be such an outcry among the farmers, that the landlords would make them some amends even during the run of the lease."—"No, no, they will not be over ready to come down before they must," cried Stubbs. "They would know their loss would be for ever and aye; for they would never get such rents for their farms again—no, never; at least, as long as the trade was free."—"And if once it was," cried John, "it's my mind, it would be for ever and aye: for, when the poor know what it is to have bread cheap and plenty, they won't put up with dearness and scarcity."—"And pray at what price do you think you would have corn, if the trade were free?" cried Stubbs; "for half what you pay now, perhaps; but you're quite mistaken. Corn costs land and labour, whereever it be grown; and I should be glad to know where there's farmers who understand the raising it better than we do here: for I've always heard there's no farming to be compared to that of old England."—"That may be true," replied John, "but yet I've always heard that foreign corn was cheaper than that we grow at home."—"Then," said Stubbs, "it must be worse than ours, for the best farmers ought to raise the best crops; you can't deny that?"—"Why it may, and it may not be," cried John, thoughtfully. "If foreigners should have a better soil, or greater plenty of land, so that their rent don't run so high, or a finer climate, they may be able to grow corn as good as ours, and yet cheaper, though they do not understand farming so well as we do."—"Well, but granting that in some parts corn may be a trifle cheaper than in England, you forget that there's the freight to pay; and the further it comes from, the more that costs. Then there's sea risks; the ship may be wrecked, and the cargo lost; and even when it arrives in port, oftentimes the sea water gets in and it rots; and though it may not be good enough to bring to market, it must be paid for in the main; for, d' ye see, they won't bring over corn for nothing, and what they lose in one cargo must be made up in the price of another: so, one way or another, I'll venture to say, the trade being open would scarcely make any difference in the price."—"Well, all I can say," replied Hopkins, "is, that if it makes but little difference to me who buy corn, it will make but little difference to you who sell it; so you need not set up such an outcry against it. But I will tell you honestly, that in my mind it would make a great difference; for I know that in America corn is very cheap, and for this plain reason. America is a very large place, with but few people in it: so they have as much land as they choose, and they sow corn on the choice soils. Indeed, they say the soil is so good, that it is well nigh all choice; and wants no manure, and only just scratching over with the plough. So they may well afford to sell their corn cheap, when it costs them so little to grow it; besides, they are ready enough to sell it, being so few to eat it at home."


"Now, that's what comes of talking of what you don't understand," exclaimed Stubbs:—"few people in America, say you? why, I have been told there's ten times as many there as there is in Old England; and you know there's no lack of folks here." John was at first puzzled at this assertion; but, after scratching his head and turning the matter in his mind, he said,—"Mayhap, Master Stubbs, America may be a hundred times bigger than England; and then, you know, it would be much thinner of people, though they were ten times our number. I know you have got a book of maps; so let us give a look into it when we come to the house." They did so, and were both astonished to find that America was not only one hundred, but many hundred, times larger than England. "But, look ye, what a way off it is," cried Stubbs; "and what a heavy charge there must be to bring corn from such a distance."—"It's all across sea," said Hopkins, pointing to the Atlantic Ocean; "and freight aboard ship costs but little. Then, when it gets to England, you see, it comes up one of these great rivers, to London, or to Bristol, or to Liverpool. Besides," continued John, "without going so far as America, I've heard say, that there's many countries nearer at hand, where corn is much more plentiful, and cheaper, than with us. In Poland, where the poor folks have been fighting so hard lately, they have abundance of corn, and are ready to send it over to us whenever the law allows it."


"Ay, provided we pay them a good price for it," cried Stubbs.


"But, what's a good price to them, who grow it cheap, is a low price to us, who grow it dear," replied Hopkins. "Think how it would do one's heart good to get corn as low as forty shillings a quarter, and the quartern loaf at five-pence? Why, it would be a great saving to you, Master Stubbs, with your large family, who eat as much as ever they like."—"Save a penny, and lose a pound," replied Stubbs, sulkily.—"Well, but when you get a new lease," said John, "you will save the penny without losing the pound."


"That's true enough," replied Stubbs, brightening up. "But still," added he, after a little thought, "look ye, Hopkins,—if bread was so cheap, it would never pay me to raise corn on poor soils, as I do now."


"To be sure," answered Hopkins, "the field we passed through must be laid down in grass; but you would get a fair profit, still, on your corn fields by the river-side."


"Fine talking, indeed," cried Stubbs, angrily: "as if it was a mere nothing to lay down land in grass, when you have been laying loads of dung on it for years past, and lime and what not, to better the soil, and make it produce corn! All that's to be wasted, is it? Why, you never dream the money that is gone that way!"


"There's no help for that," replied Hopkins: "if the trade be made free, that money is clear gone away for ever: and, if you went on raising corn on poor soils, to sell at a loss, I don't see how that would mend the matter."—"That's why I don't want the trade to be thrown open," cried Stubbs.


"But I am talking of what would happen if the trade be thrown open, whether you will or no," said Hopkins.


"Well," said Stubbs; "but though the landlords would be obliged to lower their rents, I doubt much whether they would bring them down so low as to clear us farmers of any loss by the trade being thrown open."—"Why, you are always at liberty not to take the farm," said John.—"Ay; but one would rather make a sacrifice than part with house and home that one has been used to; nor can you part with it without a great loss: besides, how is one to get another farm on better terms, if the landlords agree to hold out against the farmers?"—"Why, then the farmers must hold out against the landlords: and what are they to do, if they cannot let their farms? If they won't allow farmers a fair profit, why, they will look about them for some better means of getting a livelihood."—"Ay, but," replied the farmer, "it's no easy matter to turn your hand to any thing, especially at my time of life; so I must put up with what I can get, rather than seek to change my condition."—"Well, but farmers, if they cannot change, they would at least bring up their children to some other calling; and when the landlords found they had a hard matter to let their farms, they would be obliged to come round at last."


"But," said Stubbs, "suppose you were to get all the corn from those cheap countries you talk of, and there breaks out a war, why, they would send us no more; and we should be in a pretty pickle then."


"If we went to war with one country, we should get the corn from another," said John: "we should hardly fall out with all the corn countries at once."


"I can't answer for that," replied Stubbs, "as the fashion is in these revolutionary times."—"I don't know what you mean by the fashion of the times, Master Stubbs: here's well nigh twenty good years we have had peace in Old England," said John: "and I have heard say, no one can recollect so long a peace before. There has been fighting abroad, and plenty, it is true; but then, it has not been, as they tell me, so much one nation coming to blows with another, as it has been the people rising up against their rulers when they ruled them with an iron rod; then they wrested it out of their hands, and knocked them down with it. But, take my word for it, war or no war, those who have got corn to sell, will contrive to get it over to a good market. Besides, Master Stubbs, I was never for having all our corn from abroad: grow as much as you will here, on good land; for then it will cost you little to raise; and you can afford to sell it as cheap as we can get it from abroad."—"Ay; but you are forgetting the high rent that's paid for good soil, which makes the corn stand you in as much as that grown on a bad soil."


"Nay," replied John; "it is you who are forgetting that, next Michaelmas two years, your rent will be lowered if the trade be thrown open; so that you may get your profit and we may eat our bread cheap; and all the loss will fall on the landlords, who are best able to bear it. Besides, the poor soils will not lie fallow, though you do not sow them with corn: they will be turned to grass, and feed cattle, which you may make a pretty penny by: and so, meat, and milk, and butter, and cheese, would be more plentiful and cheaper, as well as bread; and our little ones would stand some chance of getting a mess of milk and bread for their breakfasts, and we might more often get a bit of meat in our pot for dinner. Oh, those would be brave times, Stubbs, for us poor folk!"


"Well, you may say what you will," cried Stubbs; "but I can't but have a fellow feeling for the landlords, and would rather by half give them a good turn than your foreign corn-dealers."—"Give a good turn to the poor of your own country, Master Stubbs; it's they want it most; and if, by so doing, we chance to serve our neighbours, why, so much the better, though they are but foreigners. If they have more corn than they want, is not it better that we should have it, than that it should be wasted?"—"Oh, as for that matter," cried Stubbs, "they will take care not to grow more corn than they have a market for. If they have no sale for it abroad, they will raise no more than they want at home. They would not be such fools as to grow corn to have it lie on their hands and rot. Corn is not grown without expense, and a heavy one, too, on the best of soils; so no man in his senses would grow more than he has a fair chance of selling, and with a fair profit besides. No, no, John: wait till home crops fail, and then you may get foreign corn, and welcome."


"But," said John, archly, "have not you just been saying, that, in the corn countries, they will not grow more than they want at home, if they have no regular sale for it abroad; so, if we wait till there comes a scarcity with us, they will not have any to part with."—"Oh, leave them alone for that," cried Stubbs; "when the price rises high, they would sooner take it out of their own mouths than miss the making so good a bargain."—"But, think ye what a price must be paid to tempt them to half starve themselves, in order to let us have the corn. Whilst, if we got some from them regularly every year, why, they would grow it regularly for our market, and we should have no extra price to pay. Then, if there came a scarcity, being such good customers, they would let us have a larger supply than usual, without raising the price out of all reason."—"Well, but they might have a scarcity as well as us," replied Stubbs; "and then what's to be done? Our corn fields, that have been laid down in grass, cannot be ploughed up in a hurry."—"Nor would there be any need of it," answered Hopkins; "for, if the trade were thrown open, we should not deal with one corn country only, but with a dozen, mayhap; and it's hard if their crops all fail the same year. If the season is bad in this part of the world, there's a good chance of its being fair in America, which lies quite another way. Look, what a deal of land there is here," cried Hopkins, pointing to the map of the world: "why, England is but a nutshell to it all: and why must you be for having all the corn we eat grown in this little spot?"


"Well, it don't sound well of you, to say any thing to the disparagement of Old England," cried Stubbs. "If it is but small, it's a tight little island, and able to withstand many a greater country when put to it. And why should we not be able to grow corn for the people that live in it, as well as other countries do?"—"Why just because we are a great people, living in a little country; there's more of us than the land can feed."—"But the more people there is, the more hands there is to work, and so the more corn they can grow," said Stubbs.—"Ay," replied Hopkins, "but the country grows no bigger for being more thickly peopled; and it's land we want to raise corn upon."—"Nay, nay," cried Stubbs, "you cannot say there's any want of land, when so much lies waste in commons and such like."—"But it's want of good land that I complain of; such soils as you may grow corn on cheap, as they do in corn countries. If there was but half the number of people to feed, perhaps corn enough might be grown in the country to feed them: but the English people are a great nation, as great as any in all this map, I'll be bold to say. Where is there such a trading country as we are? and why? because we have so many manufactures: but then we must have people to work at the manufactures, besides those that work in the fields; and both must be fed. Why, for her size, England has perhaps twice as many people as most other countries; and yet you won't let us have more bread than we can grow at home? I tell you it is half starving us: first, because there's not enough; and next, because you grow the corn on bad soils, and must sell it dear to make it answer."


"Why, Hopkins," replied the farmer, "you are now boasting of the great population of this little island, and forgetting that it was but the other day you were complaining of it; and saying, that the misery of the poor came from there being too many people."—"And so I do still," cried John, "so long as you will not let us have bread to eat, cheap and plenty; that is, as cheap as we might get it if the corn trade were free. If there's too many people, it's not for want of room to live in, and stir about as much as they will; but there's too many people, because there's not food enough for all. Let us be free to have corn from all parts as cheap as it is to be had, and then, mayhap, there may be enough for all. There never can be too many people when there's wherewithal to maintain them; there cannot be too many happy people: but when they are pinched for food, and suffer in body and mind, they can do no good to themselves or to others either, and the country would be all the better without them."

The End


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