Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (March 2, 1861)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


A busy week in the British Parliament, and a still more eventful one both on the Continent of Europe, and in the United States. We have seen our own Government thrown into a passing minority upon the question of the Income Tax: we have seen a renewed—and for the present an abortive attempt to revive the old Reform Agitation. On the other side of the Channel the discussion of Pope, or No Pope, in the character of a Temporal Prince, is proceeding in a very lively manner. The French Army is being organised into divisions fit for active service, under the command of generals of the highest reputation. The Estimates for our own land-service, on the other hand, are set at a mere trifle short of 15,000,000/. The resistance of Hungary to the authority of Francis-Joseph is gaining strength every day, whilst the forces of the Austrian Empire are collected on the banks of the Mincio, and in the fortresses of the Quadrilateral, ready for a last rush if the war-party should gain the upper-hand but for one dangerous moment. Italian air, at the same time, is becoming purer and purer every day, and more fit for freemen. From the United States we are informed that this crumbling to pieces of the old Confederation, of which Europe is now hearing for the first time, is not any fortuitous circumstance, but the result of a long and painful conspiracy of the Southern against the Northern States. The world is startled in the same way as when men heard, for the first time, that the British Empire in India was in peril, on account of a greased cartridge. Thus also the cause of the Crimean War was said to be a temporary squabble about the keys of a church. Now we hear that the election of a First Magistrate, whose views upon the subject of Slavery are not extreme, and who, in any case, can retain possession of office but for four years, is the pretext for a dissolution of that Great Confederation to which—with all its faults—the friends of liberty and human progress were accustomed to point triumphantly in proof of the capacity of men for self-government.

Abraham Lincoln has been to the Southerners what the greased cartridge was to the Sepoy, or the keys of the Holy Sepulchre to the Czar Nicholas, in his last violent endeavour to carry into effect the most memorable of the clauses in the famous political will and testament which, truly or not, has been attributed to Peter the Great. It has now been proved to conviction, that the anxiety of the Russian to get possession of Constantinople, and the desire of the Sepoy to expel the British from India were not mere momentary outbreaks of feeling, but that, when they bore fruit in action, plans had been steadily matured for many a long year beforehand, and that it was only in the fulness of time that positive operations were begun. In the same way—so at least it is now asserted—the Gulf States have, during the last five presidentships at least, continuously intrigued and conspired for a separation from the Northern States. They have only so long deferred the execution of their designs, because, during that period, political power was in their hands—the presidents were more or less the representatives of their views, and certainly in no case opposed to them. Who would pluck down the ripening pear which must, ere long, be his own? It cannot be said that Last Week has been deficient either in events or in discoveries of the highest interest to Englishmen and to mankind.

The points which have been discussed in our own House of Commons may be dismissed with very brief remark, inasmuch as they have been abundantly considered through a long series of years, and upon them men’s minds have been made up either one way or the other. When Sir Robert Peel came back to power for his last term of administration, he claimed his fee for the nostrum which was to set all our political ailments to rights. The fee was the office of. First Minister—the nostrum was the Income Tax. If the British nation would but swallow the specific, a cure would soon follow, and the medicine might be then discontinued. An apparent cure was effected, but the medicine was not discontinued. What with the necessity of driving the morbific ingredient of Protection out of the national blood—what with the hot fever fit of the Russian war—what with the present alarming condition of the Frenchman who lives next door, and from whom the infection has to a certain degree passed upon us, we have been driven to renew and to increase the dose from four years to four years. The British nation—which was no doubt gouty at its extremities when Dr. Peel was called in twenty years ago—is now living upon the financial colchicum of that great physician; nor is there much prospect that we shall be able to leave it off. It has become to us a diet rather than a remedy; it is our food, not our medicine. Under these circumstances, it becomes more and more necessary that the dose to each of us should be graduated according to the strength of his constitution. The drastic potion—which might be serviceable enough to the robust patients whom we will include under a fanciful Schedule A—would be most distressing to another category of invalids whom we will cast into say Schedule D, and absolutely destructive to a set of sickly valetudinarians whom we will throw into a Schedule E. Let each man have his dose according to his vital powers—but not beyond. If the potion were to be administered to us but for a passing occasion, it might have been superfluous to hold out about distinctions of ability to withstand its operations. It is, however, a very different case when we are called upon to make use of it—not once and again—but daily, for the term of our natural lives.

To drop all metaphor—who hopes that any British subject, liable to the Income-Tax, will see the end of it before he is included in other, and more permanent schedules? It follows that although we might have borne an unequal distribution of this impost when it was to endure but for a short and fixed period, we look at this question from another point of view when we feel sure that it is to form a large and permanent ingredient in our financial system. Now, it would require something more than Mr. Gladstone’s nimble intelligence and oratorical power to convince the British nation that a man who owns 1000l. per annum issuing out of land, or from the public stocks, has not a broader back for the purposes of direct taxation than the merchant or manufacturer,—than the lawyer or literary man, who for three years last past has earned an equal sum as the produce of his commercial risks, or the premium on his overwrought brain. Income, taking the word in its naked sense, is a most insufficient and fallacious test of property. To tax his income in place of his property is to tax a man’s transitory and apparent, not his permanent and real means. How little do those who hold this opinion know of the risks, the vicissitudes, the anxieties of commerce, or the feverish and destructive conditions under which the physician, the lawyer, the writer, the artist, the actor, earns his painful bread and the means of maintaining his family in respectability and comfort. The usual answer is, that his income is only taxed whilst it lasts—whilst property endures, and is always obnoxious to the inspection of the collector. But when the income ceases, what remains? Tax property as you will, so this be not done in a tyrannical and ridiculous manner, at the end of each year the holder of property is just where he was at the beginning of it—he and his children after him. Mr. Hubbard’s effort of the other night was to obtain some remedy for this great anomaly. If the Income-Tax is to endure until the year 1900, and even longer, let it not be levied in a manner so repugnant, as at present, to the most ordinary notions of justice and fair play. Mr. Gladstone resisted the proposition for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the subject with the usual stock arguments about the difficulty of apportionment, and so forth. As the late Duke of Wellington said of the French at Waterloo, he just came on in the old style, and was driven back in the old style. The motion for a Select Committee was carried in a very full House, despite of the most strenuous efforts of the Government. Without being very sanguine as to the results which may follow from the decision of the House of Commons, thus much of advantage seems reasonably certain. Until the deliberations of the Committee are concluded, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can scarcely venture to screw up the Income-Tax to a higher point than that at which it at present stands fixed. The ten-pence of 1860 can scarcely be converted into the shilling of 1861. Considering the rapid ratio of increase, according to which the Income-Tax has developed itself, and, moreover that Mr. Gladstone at the present moment is not without his embarrassments as a finance minister, there is some consolation in this thought.

With regard to a further reform of our system of Parliamentary Representation, and the propositions of Mr. Locke King and Mr. Baines for further enfranchisements, little need be said but this. When the nation desires Reform, and demands it—but not till then—it will have it. There is no use in reckoning upon Parliamentary agitation as of much account with reference to immediate action. It is well that there should be members there who should keep the torch alight, and pass it from hand to hand, even though they be few in number, and not amongst the most considerable amongst our public men. Time was when the advocates of Religious, Political, and Commercial Freedom stood in small minorities, and were exposed to the gibes and jeers of our public writers, and our club-house politicians. The time arrived, however, when the sun shone on their side of the hedge, and they who had come to curse remained to bless. The Liberals of England should not join in the cry which is raised against the advocates of Reform, just because Reform happens to be out of fashion at the present moment. Just now our minds are far more intent upon continental politics than upon any other subject. Until we feel a certain assurance that no great movement in which we ourselves may be involved is likely to occur in Europe, we certainly shall not give serious attention to a question of domestic politics which cannot be discussed in any decisive way until party feeling again runs high, and men are in earnest upon the matter. Meanwhile, do not let us discredit our Reformers, simply because they are discharging garrison duty, and not actually engaged in the turmoils and dangers of a campaign.

Are we at last to see an end of the temporal power of the Pope? The Romans believe it. The French troops at Rome believe it. The vast majority of the Italian nation desire it most anxiously—to what extent they believe in the proximate deposition of the priests from power, it would be difficult to say. Here in London we are sceptical in this matter. In Paris the subject is freely discussed by the Pamphleteers, and the Pamphleteers of Paris do not usually discuss a subject save with the full assent of the Government. M. de la Guerronière, the Emperor’s chief scribe, seems all for the speedy release of the Pope from the harassing anxieties of worldly affairs. The Ami de la Rélgion takes one side of the question—La Presse, the other. The contention has now assumed a more sincere form. Is it for the benefit of France upon the whole that the Pope—however infallible in spiritual things—should in matters temporal be reduced to the condition of First Subject of the King of Italy? Is Italy, which seems destined to fill a large space in the eyes of men as a great naval power in the Mediterranean, to have the further advantage of housing the Pope? Such are the points which the French Emperor is just now leaving to the consideration of his faithful. As far as we know of the pamphlets, no writer of note has just now revived the notion which was thrown out some months back, that the secession of the Gallican Church from a strict allegiance to the See of Rome was amongst the political propositions of the time. It is difficult to suppose that this would not follow as a natural consequence of the Pope’s dethronement; for a French ruler could scarcely tolerate that the subject of another country should be the leader and inspirer of discontent and disorder within the limits of his dominion. So far, the Pope’s French friends are in the right; but they are in the wrong, when they do not see that a remedy for this evil would very speedily be forthcoming. The discussion at Paris seems indicative of a change of policy with regard to Rome and Papal affairs.

Meanwhile there was high jubilee at Rome when the intelligence was received there that Gaëta had fallen. According to the time-honoured traditions of Italian demonstrations, crowds of Romans—there were thousands upon thousands—paraded the Corso arm-in-arm, their eyes gleaming with triumph for what had been done further to the South, and with the hope of a speedy liberation from all the evils which they had endured. A Bengal light—the first was a white one—was fired near the Piazza del Popolo; and instantly from that vast crowd there arose shouts for a United Italy—for Victor Emmanuel—for Louis Napoleon. Then a red light was displayed—and then a green one. The next moment the national colours were displayed in the most prominent situations in the city—aye, before the very Palace of the Austrian ambassador. The soldiers and gendarmes in the service of the Pope, wherever they showed themselves, were driven back with curses and execrations down the side streets—and attempted no interference, where interference would have been in vain. The French soldiers chatted and laughed for a considerable time with the people; and it was not until the demonstration had fairly exhausted itself, that any serious effort was made by the French authorities to check it in any way. Can such a state of things last? If matters remain quiet in Upper Italy, the system at Rome seems perishing of itself. Should the Austrians, on the other hand, make any insane attempt upon the new-born kingdom of Italy, one of the most obvious means of annoyance at the disposal of the French Emperor, would be to withdraw his troops from Rome, and leave the Pope to his fate. The Parti Prêtre in Austria would struggle to the death against any policy which might lead to such a conclusion. Meanwhile time passes, and the situation of the Pope is becoming more desperate from day to day.

But what about these French armaments? Why should Louis Napoleon collect under arms so numerous a body of Frenchmen, when France is not threatened from any side? A short time back it was believed that just in the same way as he had defeated Russia to revenge the memorable campaign of 1812, and—as he had driven the Austrians out of Lombardy as an answer to the double occupation of Paris towards, and at the conclusion of the great European war, so he was about to find employment for his troops in Prussia—notably at Berlin. The vote of the Prussian Chamber, however, seems to have dissipated this dream. The new King of Prussia may be sufficiently well disposed to carry out the policy of his two immediate predecessors; but the nation—in this instance—wiser than their Sovereign, instinctively recoil from the pit which has been dug as a snare to their feet. Had the Prussians mixed themselves up with the fortunes of Austria in Venetia, they would very soon have found that the contest was to be decided rather on the banks of the Spree than of the Mincio. There is an end of that. The Rhenish provinces of Prussia are so tempting and so easy a bait, that it is no wonder if a French ruler should seek to incorporate them with his dominions. The Prussians have seen this, and have drawn back in time. Meanwhile, what is Louis Napoleon to do with these great armies which he is collecting at Chalons and elsewhere? Towards the latter end of Last Week an idea prevailed in London that there is a secret understanding between Sardinia—may we not say Italy?—and France, in pursuance of which an attack is to be made upon Venetia, even if Francis Joseph should not provoke it by any overt act of hostility. The realisation of such a project, if it be seriously entertained, will entirely depend upon the turn which affairs may take in Hungary; and the prospect in that portion of the Austrian Empire is just now gloomy enough as far as the interests of Francis Joseph are concerned.

It is scarcely credible that Great Britain should be seriously involved in these complications of policy and intrigue upon the continent of Europe. The unhappy differences in the United States of North America are to us of far more immediate interest. The prosperity of about one-third of the inhabitants of these islands is for the next few years inextricably bound up with the fortunes of the cotton planters in the Southern States. Will the breach in the Union be healed? If not, the manufacturing districts of our own country will feel the results of the dissension with terrible intensity. The general opinion in town for the last six weeks or two months has been that the disturbances in the States were merely transitory, and that the North and South were so indissolubly bound together by the ties of mutual interest, that Separation was merely a popular outcry—the political hallucination of the moment. But if credit is to be attached to the recent advices from the other side of the Atlantic, the election of Abraham Lincoln is merely the match which has caused an explosion which had been carefully prepared for years beforehand. The Northerners now declare that the ulterior object of the Southern States for many years past has been the formation of a grand Slave Empire which should embrace the islands in the Gulf of Mexico, and the territories facing it. They say that this was the idea of General Walker, which failed simply because the man was not equal to the occasion. They say that the leading notion of the Southern Statesman, for many years past, has been to weaken the resources of the Northern, and to arm the Southern States.

In the days of President Pierce, when Mr. Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War, the conspiracy against the North was matured; and, during Mr. Buchanan’s tenure of power, the policy has been fully carried out. The Army has been tampered with. Secessionists have been placed in all important posts. No effort has been spared to destroy the credit of the Government. The election of Abraham Lincoln only brought matters to a crisis, whilst Mr. Jefferson Davis is the head and leader of the conspiracy against the integrity of the Union. In the words of the American journalist, “At the South a movement towards the tropics is felt to be a necessity. More room for the Slave or a black Republic bordering the Gulf, instead of a white one is felt to be inevitable.” The movement has come sooner than was expected.