Historical Outline of Restoration and 18th-Century British Literature * * * Alok Yadav * *

Excise Crisis (1733)

[¶1] In his endeavour to serve the interests of landed proprietors--the country gentlemen who held the fate of ministries in their hands--Walpole was concerned to reduce the burden of the land tax and shift government revenues to other sources. "The excise scheme of 1733 promised revenues which would permit a permanent reduction of the land tax [which stood at 4 shillings in 1727] to one shilling in the pound" (Langford 1989: 28). The measure involved converting the customs duties on tobacco and wine into inland duties. It followed on other fiscal measures that moved in this direction--Walpole had already introduced excise duties on tea, chocolate, and coffee in 1724 ("but the transaction had meant more to the East India Company than to the ordinary consumer and voter"), and in 1732 he had revived the salt duty (a more sensitive issue, for which he was accused of "grinding the faces of the poor," but the measure nonetheless passed easily enough through the House of Commons) (Langford 1989: 29). So, one can see how Walpole was misled into the idea that the excise bill would not pose any great difficulties.

[¶2] As it turned out, the opposition marshaled an intense and effective campaign against the measure. Opponents revived longstanding criticisms of such measures: "Excise duties involved giving extensive powers of search to revenue officers, and a wide jurisdiction to magistrates and excise commissioners. The Englishman's right to privacy on his own property, and also to trial by jury, were put at risk. An entire genre of horror stories, retailed in the press and depicted in broadsheets and prints, exploited such fears" (Langford 1989: 29). Moreover, merchants and traders--both those engaged in circumventing the existing customs duties and those who paid them--disliked the prospect of dealing with "officious excisemen": "The shopkeepers and tradesmen of England were immensely powerful as a class, scarcely less so in electoral terms than those country gentlemen whom Walpole sought to gratify. Whig or Tory, there was no doubt what they thought of more excises. In the spring of 1733 petitions to Parliament and instructions to MPs flooded in from the provinces in support of a vociferous campaign in London itself. . . . In the Commons, when the City [of London] formally presented its petition against the excise on 10 April [1733], Walpole's majority fell to seventeen. In the Lords there seemed every likelihood of an equally damaging aristocratic revolt. . . . On the following day [Walpole] announced the withdrawal of the excise scheme in the Commons" (Langford 1989: 30).

[¶3] This announcement was met with exuberant enthusiasm by the public: "On the streets of London Walpole was burnt in effigy, along with Queen Caroline [his supporter], and also, such was the mob's sense of humour, with Sarah Malcolm, a murderess whose bloody crimes had lately enthralled newspaper readers. The violence of the populace caused something of a reaction on the back-benches" (Langford 1989: 31). More crucially, George II stood by Walpole. As a result, Walpole was able to recover from this debacle, despite the damage it caused. Walpole engineered the dismissal of his rivals and opponents at court: "The King felt compelled to remove Lord Chesterfield and Lord Clinton from their posts in the royal household forthwith. There followed further dismissals, the Dukes of Montrose and Bolton, the Earls of Stair and Marchmont, Lord Cobham and his followers. In the upper house the ministry survived with its majority barely intact; it took peerage creations as well as dismissals to restore it to health. In the Commons, recovery was swifter and more complete" (Langford 1989: 31).

Election of 1734 and after:

[¶4] By eighteenth-century standards, the general election that followed in 1734 was especially contentious. "There were 136 contested elections [out of 558 seats in the House of Commons], more than in any other general election before 1832 except 1710 and 1722. In open constituencies, counties and large boroughs alike, the government was trounced. . . . Printed lists revealing the voting on the excise in 1733 were circulated. MPs who had supported it were severely punished in the large constituencies. More was spent by the Treasury on secret service expenditure in 1734 than in any year between 1688 and 1782, but it made little difference" (Langford 1989: 32). Walpole retained a substantial majority--of "about eighty even on controversial questions" in 1735 (Langford 1989: 33)--but he had lost the hegemonic consensus that he held earlier.

[¶5] "Before 1734 [Walpole] had been able to claim the support of a clear majority of the electorate and the propertied public. After it he was manifestly a closet minister, manipulating the court's political machinery against the wishes of most of his countrymen. His supporters were forced to resort to desperate arguments. The election result had been the consequence of a passing infatuation [they averred], itself due to the malevolence and misrepresentation of the 'malecontents.' Moreover the ignorance and stupidity of ordinary voters made them unqualified to determine affairs of state. The freeholders who had voted so decisively in the counties were 'as unable to express the Sense of the Nation about the Conduct of the Ministry, as the Beasts they ride on to give their votes' [London Journal (15 June 1734)]. Such claims revealed the increasingly narrow basis of Walpolian rule. They also reflected the changing character of Walpole's administration. The Parliament of 1727 to 1734 had seen him at the peak of his powers and his confidence. . . . After 1734 he was perpetually on the defensive" (Langford 1989: 33).

[revised 10 March 2008]