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William Hazlitt: Difference between a war-expenditure and what ought to be a peace-establishment



Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

William Hazlitt: Selections on war


William Hazlitt
From On Southey’s Letter to William Smith (1817)

Mr Southey then talks of the Established Church, whom, as well as the Government, in his courtly way, he accuses of having for centuries “neglected its first and paramount duty,” the bettering the condition of the people; of Savings Banks, of colonies of disbanded soldiers and sailors; of columns of Waterloo and Trafalgar, of diminishing the poor-rates, and improving the morals of the people, so that they may live without eating; of the glories of our war-expenditure, and of the necessity of keeping up the same expenditure in time of peace. “Never indeed,” he exclaims, “was there a more senseless cry than that which is at this time raised for retrenchment in the public expenditure, as a means of alleviating the present distress.” [This senseless, cry, however, is either an echo of, or was echoed by, the Prince Regent in his Speech from the Throne. Is there no better understanding between Mr Southey and the Prince Regent’s advisers?] – “That distress arises from a great and sudden diminution of employment, occasioned by many coinciding causes, the chief of which is, that the war-expenditure of from forty to fifty millions yearly, has ceased.” – [No, the chief is, that our war-expenses of from forty to fifty millions yearly and for ever, are continued, and that our war-monopoly of trade to pay them with has ceased.] – “Men are out of employ” – [True.]….”the evil is, that too little is spent,’ [Because we have wasted too much.] – “and as a remedy, we are exhorted to spend less.” [Yes, to waste less, or to spend what we have left in things useful to ourselves, and not in Government gimcracks, whether of peace or war. Is it better, does Mr Southey think, that ten poor men should keep ten pounds a-piece in their pockets, which they would of course spend in food, clothing, fuel, &c. for themselves and families, or that this hundred pounds, that is, ten pound a-piece, should be paid out of the pockets of those ten poor men in taxes, which, added to Mr Croker’s salary, would enable him to keep another horse, to pay for the feed, furniture, saddle, bridle, whip, and spurs? We ask Mr Southey this question, and will put the issue of the whole argument upon the answer to it. The money would be spent equally in either case, say in agriculture, in raising corn for instance, wheat or oats: but the corn raised and paid for by it in the one instance would go into the belly of the poor man and his family: in the other, into the belly of Mr Croker’s horse. Does that make no difference to Mr Southey? Answer, Man of Humanity! Or, if Mr Southey, the Man of Humanity, will not answer let Mr Malthus, the Man of God, answer for him! Again, what would go to pay for a new saddle for the Secretary of the Admiralty, would buy the poor man and his family so many pair of shoes in the year; or what would pay for an extra straw litter for his sleek gelding, would stuff a flock-bed for the poor-man’s children! Does not Mr Southey understand this question yet? We have given him a clue to the whole difference between productive and unproductive labour, between waste and economy, between taxes and no taxes, between a war-expenditure and what ought to be a peace-establishment, between money laid out and debts contracted in gunpowder, in cannon, in ships of war, in scattering death, money laid out in paying for food, furniture, houses, the comforts, necessaries, and enjoyments of life. Let Mr Southey take the problem and the solution with him to Italy, study it there amidst a population, half Lazzaroni, half Monks: let him see his error, and return an honest man! But if he will not believe us, let him at least believe himself. In the career of his triumph about our national monuments, he has fallen into one of the most memorable lapses of memory we ever met with. “In proportion, “says he, “to their magnificence, also, will be the present benefit, as well as the future good; for they are not like the Egyptian pyramids, to be raised by bondsmen under rigorous taskmasters: the wealth which is taken from the people returns to them again, like vapours, which are drawn imperceptibly from the earth, but distributed to it in refreshing dews and fertilizing showers. What bounds could imagination set to the welfare and glory of this island, if a tenth part, or even a twentieth of what the war expenditure has been, were annually applied in improving and creating harbours, in bringing our roads to the best possible state, in colonizing our waste lands, in reclaiming fens and conquering tracks from the sea, in encouraging the liberal arts, in erecting churches, in building and endowing schools and colleges, in making war upon physical and moral evil with the whole artillery of wisdom and righteousness, with all the resources of science, and all the ardour of enlightened and enlarged benevolence!”

Well done, Mr Southey. No man can argue better, when he argues against himself. What! one-twentieth part of this enormous waste of money laid out in war, which has sunk the nation into the lowest state of wretchedness, would, if wisely and beneficially laid out in works of peace, have raised the country to the pinnacle of prosperity and happiness! Mr Southey in his raptures forgets his war-whoop, and is ready to exclaim with Sancho Panza, when the exploits of knight-errantry are over, and he turns all his enthusiasm to a pastoral account, “Oh what delicate wooden spoons shall I carve! What crumbs and cream shall I devour!” Mr Southey goes on to state, among other items, that “Government should reform its prisons .” But Lord Castlereagh, soon after the war-addition to Mr Croker’s peace-salary, said that this was too expensive. In short, the author sums up all his hopes and views in the following sentences: – “Government must reform the populace, the people must reform themselves.” The interpretation of which is, The Government must prevent the lower classes from reading any thing; the middle classes should read nothing but the Quarterly Review. This is the true Reform, and compared with this, all else is flocci, nauci, nihili, piti.”


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