William Hone to Robert Southey, 24 November, 1830

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William Hone to Robert Southey, 24 November, 1830.1-TEI-

13 Gracechurch Street, London
24 November 1830.
Dear Sir

Within an hour after your kind visit I put my hand on the printed papers which I told you had been sent to me, and here they are, as I received them, in the envelope, which you will perceive is inscribed "Swing."2

As respects the Press I think that its inflammation is consequent upon public excitement—a symptom, not a cause of it. Remove the occasion of public excitement, and the violence of the Press ceases.

The burnings are symptomatic of long suffering, despair of redress—the blind indiscriminate vengeance of hopeless ignorance. Or, they may have originated from incendiary hands foreign to the districts of conflagration. At any rate the half-fed, & the less than half employed in other counties, will assuredly take the infection, and then—if this political shingles runs around the country—all is over. To save the great body of the commonwealth it is requisite to repress the mischief in the disturbed parts, and stay it from spreading. The power to abate and stop the progress is with the landed priprietors. Government can proclaim against the offence and denounce its enormity, and terrify the timid throughout the kingdom, offer rewards for apprehending the offenders, and try, and hang them. It can punish, but not prevent. Will the punishments bury the general discontent? And yet government can do no more than punish.

It is my firm opinion that, if the landed-proprietors can be made to see their interest and do their duty, all may go well. If government cannot enlist them into the preventive service we shall, sooner or later, go into Revolution, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow upon this unhappy world. Have the landlords, as yet, done anything? The burnings have gone on for three weeks, and all that I perceive of their movements is, that in their capacity of Magistrates they meet, and pass resolutions, and adjourn—and in the meantime, more corn-ricks are fired and homesteads burnt, and [one word][?] are seized and carted out of parishes, and clergymen are dragged from their beds by torchlight to renounce portions of their alloted income, and for what? — that the small farmers may be enabled to afford the requisitionists two shillings per day for winter-labor. What say the landed proprietors to this? "We will call out the yeomanry." What say the yeomanry to the call? "We will not turn out." This is the language of one county, Kent; I have not heard of the question being put in Sussex and why is it not? — the answer there may be the same! And in this state of things the landed proprietors do nothing—nothing effectively certainly, for they are silent observers of the destruction around them—amid flames—silent as martyrs.

We have incurred a debt—no matter how—which must be paid, for it is justly due to those, or the assigns of those who lent their property to the government on the [one word][?] of the nation. The land-owner has profited largely by this obligation. It enabled him to raise his rent commensurate to war prices, and there he keeps it, by grinding his tenantry; and the tenantry grind the laborers, and the laborers fall back upon the overseers, who grind again, and the poor creatures are rounded in their parishes "between the upper & the nether millstone." They have not endured without complaining, but their complaints have been unheeded—and now we have stack-firing, and farm-burning. If effected by them, it is only a movement of belly-politics. Let the land-owners reduce their rents to their tenantry and the farmers will be enabled to pay the wages of labor. The government should move in the matter as little, and the land-owners as much, and as fast as possible. The landed-men must instantly concede a portion of their stipulated rents. Nothing short of this, nothing but this, will quell the disturbances. They must do so generally throughout the kingdom, or the entire agricultural prairie[?] of the country will be in a blaze.

But is the land-owner the only man that is to make a sacrifice? No. Every man must sacrifice something to the general weal. The government proposes to make a [one word][?] measure of Reform in Parliament. Whatever is done in that way will allay a large portion of discontent among the middling classes. Still neither a reformed parliament nor a government however constituted, can feed the hungry, or enforce moral justice. The whole country must reform. We must all go back — give up our goods[?] & trappings, make our homes homely, & live honestly. To begin with the head — I should say from what I hear, or rather read, of the management of the kings household, & the queen's economy, that I should refer to them as an example of order. It seems that the government is to be unsparing in retrenchment, so must we be in order to meet demands which we, then, shall feel assured will be faithfully [applied?]. When profusion & extravagance cease in government, shameless expectants will drop off into the country & be more among their tenantry. The vulgarity of fashion must be laid aside by farmers, their hunters be sold, [wine?] excluded, their daughters cured of piano-ing & pale faces by rising early & dairying, & their sons put to the plough. Great land-owners must promote the rebuilding of the farmhouses they pulled down during the war, & the farmers & their families sit at the same board with their laborers; & to get their work done see it done, with a "come boys," instead of "go fellows." Government must continue its present (obviously persisted in) policy of limiting credit between man & man, by rendering it still more dangerous for the trader to afford it, for credit is a social curse which wary man will avoid when he is enforced to prudence, & Ready money is best for both seller & buyer. The Excise duties should come off every consumable article, the assessed taxes be repealed, and a real property tax be laid on, for the honest purposes of the government. The administration of the Duke of Wellington preserved to us the advantages of a gold currency, which I deem one of the greatest, if not the most noble act of his firmness; although, perhaps, I ought to assign this work of national strength to Sir Robert Peel. If arrangements of this kind be persisted in we may yet "flourish great and free."

Could the conflagrations be stopped, as they may, & must be, by the landlords, immigration might be promoted & provided for. That however being a work of great difficulty, labor, & expense, & necessarily requiring much time before it could be effected to an extent that would be felt, public works might be set on foot for employing the surplus hands. I mean such as will be of national benefit. Parliament should readily pass bills for such undertakings as the rail-road from Manchester to London, and institute surveys with a view to level existing roads, & make new ones. Such works spiritedly undertaken would instantly afford labor for many thousands of hands without a shilling of expence to the Country. With the currency in its present wholesome state, & under a general conviction of non-interference abroad, the funds will gradually rise, & capitalists be glad to engage in fair projects that will yield more than stock interest. Government itself is, & must remain poor; that is, it will not, I hope, have the disposition, & ought not to have the power to squander; but the country is rich to overflowing, and, notwithstanding the prevailing selfishness, which I have observed the growth of, there are thousands of wealthy men who would rejoice in dispensing happiness throughout the community, if they knew how. There is a superflux of means, but we are deficient in management.

Our manners have broken down the apparent distinction of ranks, but they are not less real. The aristocracy are ignorant of the laborer & know very little of the middle class of society, and almost as little of the science of legislation. They miss the simplicity of its great principle, which is, "let us alone." They have dandled & overlegislated for the poor, till the poor think that everything is to be done for them. Talk of the National Debt! It is as a feather, compared with the ever-increasing debt we have inflicted upon ourselves for the maintenance of the Poor, which will not commence to diminish until a generation shall arise that will be just rather than charitable.

We are called a Christian people—are we such a people? A Christian man with the New Testament in his hand would make fearful havoc of those amongst the people who are content to be so called. No denomination of them is free from the sin of covetousness & making "haste to be rich"—And they are rich, and they are not happy—and they want to be more rich, & they get more rich, & still they cry more! more! But I find the end of my paper, & have written more than I purposed, much more perhaps than you will concur in, & much possibly that you may wholly reject—yet I know not to what [one word][?] might have gone had I ventured on another sheet. Will you excuse so much from, Dear Sir,

Yours most respectfully and sincerely,
W Hone
Robert Southey Esq. &c. &c. &c.
Curry Collection, University of Tennessee, MS 2052, Bx 1, f. 57. A more detailed account of the place of this letter in the context of the Hone/Southey relationship is available in the accompanying Conversation narrative. [return]
Judging by the mention in Southey's reply (26 Nov.), the "printed papers" were likely some handbills related to the ongoing "Captain Swing" riots. [return]
William Hone. Date: 2014-04-25