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Lord Sydenham
Chapter II - Entry Upon Public Life


THE more permanent developments in the reawakening of Br lish industrial and commercial enterprises had brought to light the repressive effects of Britain's foreign trade policy. As a result, several of the younger and more progressive of British thinkers and statesmen revived and expanded the policy which had been advocated by Adam Smith and accepted by Mr. Pitt and other enlightened British statesmen. At their time, however, the French Revolution bursting upon the world had paralyzed for nearly forty years every Liberal and progressive movement in Britain. Sydney Smith has given us in his picturesque language a glimpse of the intellectual and political blight which had fallen on England during this period. "From the beginning of the century to the death of Lord Liverpool, was an awful period for those who ventured to maintain Liberal opinions; and who were too honest to sell them for the ermine of the judge, or the lawn of the prelate. A long and hopeless career in your profession, the chuckling grin of noodles, the sarcastic leer of the genuine political rogue; prebendaries, deans, bishops made over your head; reverend renegades advanced, to the highest dignities of the Church for helping to rivet the fetters of Catholic and Protestant dissenters; and no more chance of a Whig administration than of a thaw in Zembla. These were the penalties exacted for Liberality of opinion at that period; and not only was there no pay, but there were many stripes."

Among the first to effect a break m this Conservative reaction was William Huskisson, who became president of the Board of Trade in 1823. He made several very strong attacks upon the classic Navigation Acts and tariff anomalies, with the result that the former were greatly relaxed and the latter much amended. But the criticisms which Huskisson made and the convincing arguments which he brought to bear upon the whole commercial policy of the country, were far more wide-reaching than the measures which he succeeded in passing. They started an active discussion throughout the country, which was steadily maintained until the present system of free trade was finally adopted as a national policy. This new and vital discussion, which did so much to revive the intellectual life of the whole country and to reanimate the decadent spirit of British politics, naturally attracted the attention of the young merchant engaged in international trade, and who had given so much attention to the practical study of economic conditions in different countries. As a result of his studies and observations, Poulett Thomson had been led of his own accord to take a broad and liberal view of these new political issues, notwithstanding that the family traditions were quite of an opposite character. He thus found himself in perfect sympathy with the new movement led by Huskisson, and soon made the acquaintance of such exponents of the new principles as John Stuart Mill, Dr. Bowring, Jeremy Bentham, Henry Warburton, and Joseph Hume. He studied political economy with McCulloch, and frequently attended the discussions at the recently established Political Economy Club. His temperament was such that whatever he identified himself with he pursued with great zeal. He was filled also with a strong but wholesome ambition which ever spurred him on • to larger ideals of self-realization. His ardour in the interest of the new Liberal movement, his wide experience and practical capacity, and the admirable training of natural gifts which eminently fitted him for public life, all suggested his peculiar fitness as an exponent of the new ideas in parliament. In the summer of 1825, through the instrumentality of Dr. Bowring, he was approached by representatives of the Liberal element in the borough of Dover with a proposition that he should become their candidate at the next election. These advances coinciding with his own inclinations, he immediately accepted the suggestion, issued an address to the electors of Dover about the middle of September, and was busily canvassing the constituency during the following winter. In this movement he was actively supported by his new friends of the utilitarian school. Bowring industriously assisted >n his canvass, and even the shy and retiring Bentham, high priest of the new school, became so enthusiastic in his cause that he removed for a time to Dover and actively canvassed for him, much to the astonishment of those who knew his normal disposition. On the other hand, his own family regarded this new departure in politics in much the same light as his excursion into mining speculation, treating it with similar remonstrances and discouragement. However, the tendency to self-reliance and self-confidence, which had been fostered by his early contact with the world, was proof against all disapproval and obstruction on the part of his relatives.

Political contests in those days of unreformed parliaments were costly affairs, and such expenses following immediately on his losses in the speculative mania were severe drains upon his business capital, and naturally very annoying to his brother Andrew who was his business partner. Moreover, his enthusiastic prosecution of his political canvass was not favourable to the steady pursuit of business and was an additional incentive to exasperation on the part of his brother, who went so far as to threaten a dissolution of partnership. His political friends, confident of success, had promised him a comparatively inexpensive contest, but once they were into the thick of it the opposition was found to be unexpectedly vigorous. This, however, only served to reveal the characteristics of the future minister and Canadian governor. He spared neither his energies nor his purse, the latter suffering severely through the need for bringing in nonresident voters, these being the days of open voting and long-drawn polling. The election lasted ten days, and although the ardent young Liberal candidate was successful, it was at a pecuniary sacrifice of at least three thousand pounds. He took his scat in parliament on the 18th of November, 1820.

Once in the House, he soon had occasion to declare his principles. One of his earliest votes was in favour of the reduction of the duty on corn, in which, however, he and his associates were in a hopeless minority. The movement, which within the next ten years was to convert the nation, was still in the hands of a few courageous pioneers. For a time Mr. Thomson took little part in the debates of the House, devoting his time to a study of his new environment, its characteristics and susceptibilities.

For some years the ministry was in a very unsettled condition. When Thomson entered parliament Lord Liverpool was prime minister, and William Huskisson was president of the Board of Trade, having succeeded that stout advocate of the Corn Laws and the Navigation Act, F. J. Robinson, afterwards Viscount Goderich and Earl of Ripon. In 1827 Lord Liverpool resigned, and Canning, foreign secretary since 1822, succeeded him as prime minister. This caused the resignation of the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel, and Lord Eldon. But within four months Canning died and was succeeded by Robinson, then Lord Goderich, ► under whom Huskisson was appointed colonial secretary, and Charles Grant, afterwards Lord Glenelg, became president of the Board of ! rade. Within another few months Lord Goderich was forced to resign, and Wellington and Peel returned to office, January, 1828, with the Duke as prime minister and Peel as home secretary, Huskisson and Grant still retaining the colonial office and Board of Trade, but later in the year they went out with Palmerston. Sir George Murray then became colonial secretary, and Charles V. Fitzgerald president of the Board of Trade.

These rapid changes, occurring within the first couple of years of Poulett Thomson's parliamentary career, presented many interesting object lessons in political combinations and adjustments, which were not lost on the young politician. That they were not inspiring! however, may be gathered from an extract from a letter to his brother in February, 1828. "Now and then it occurs to me that some ten or fifteen years hence, when I am broken in health, in constitution, and in spirits, and disappointed in both fortune and ambition,—which must happen, I am aware, for who has not been?— I shall envy your position, and regret the useless waste of time, health, and money of the present day."

Though seldom taking part in the debates, when he did speak it was on questions with the concrete facts of which he was familiar. Thus when it, was proposed to employ the weapon of retaliation by specially taxing corn imported from countries imposing high duties on British .foods, he was able to show from his practical knowledge of Russian conditions how injurious such a policy would be as affecting British trade with that country.

His first important speech was delivered in May, 1827. It was in a debate 011 the state of the British shipping interest, and was in support of Mr Huskisson's policy which favoured the relaxing of the Navigation Acts. The speech made a very favourable impression upon the House, and Mr. Huskisson alluded to it as follows: "The debate has afforded to the honourable member for Dover an opportunity of manifesting an extraordinary degree of acuteness and knowledge in respect to the commerce and nav Ration of the country, and of stating his information in a manner which must, I am sure, have made the most favourable impression on the House." In referrmg to the success of his speech ia reply to congratulations, he made the following acute observation: "A man who tells the House facts with which the majority are unacquainted, is sure to be listened to, and the reputation for doing so will procure him attention upon other points on which he, perhaps, does not deserve it."

During the same session, on the fifth of .June, Mr. Poulett Thomson first brought to the attention of the House of Commons the proposal to adopt voting by ballot n parliamentary elections. At that time, however, such a proposition was regarded as utterly un-British. Another measure introduced by him and doomed to immediate defeat, though equally certain of a complete triumph at a later date, was a bill for the repeal of the Usury Laws. This he advocated with much ability in a speech which revealed his capacity to handle monetary and financial problems. In later years as governor of Canada lie was specially called upon to deal with such matters.

His voice and vote steadily supported the cause of civil and religious liberty, and during the session of 1828 he supported Lord John Russell's motion for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. In the following session of 1829 he scored another triumph in a speech in favour of Mr. Huskisson's policy for greater freedom of trade in the silk industry. His speech as usual was replete with new, accurate and effective information, presented in an interesting manner, and stated with great clearness and force. He was thoroughly convinced, on grounds alike of principle and practice, of the wisdom of a policy of free trade for a country like Britain, filled with native energy and potential enterprise, and capable therefore of indefinite expansion were only the artificial trammels upon foreign and domestic trade removed. He was inclined, indeed, to go much further in his advocacy of freedom of trade than Mr. Huskisson himself, encumbered as he was with the responsibilities of office and the need for getting measures through parliament. Nevertheless, the pioneer work being done by such members as Poulett Thomson brought new and hitherto untried regions within the range of practical politics, and by educating the public mind m advance prepared them to accept, if not to demand, the next steps in progress.

At the same time he fully recognized the necessity, and therefore the wisdom, of treating the people to lie educated in a conciliatory spirit. The contrast in manner between himself and some of his more doctrinaire friends is well brought out in his reply to one of them:—

"My dear—, I see Black has put your effusions into the 4 Chronicle.' I like your doctrine very well, but you fall into the line of which my friends the utilitarians are but too justly accused, and which with you, as with them, will go farther to defeat the extension of your principles, than your reasoning will go to establish them. \ ou, like them, begin every discussion by telling those who differ from you that they are d—d fools, not exactly the way to put them in an humour for cool argument. You seem besides to have formed a most erroneous judgment of the facility with which any improvement can be carried into effect. To propose, to legislate, and to act on your law, you seem to think follow one another as glibly as cause and effect. Why, God bless you, the majority of the House of Commons, aye, 200 of the 250 senators, are opposed upon principle to any change, be it what it may; and a whole session could be readily spent by them in considering whether they had better consider."

We find, however, that such uncompromising Radicals as Cobden regarded his slower educational methods with a good deal of impatience and criticized his diluted radicalism with customary vigour.

In 1829, when still only thirty years of age, Poulett Thomson found himself suffering from severe attacks of constitutional gout, a malady which afterwards gave him much trouble. Desiring rest and change of air lie resolved to spend the winter in Paris, where during numerous visits he had acquired a number of distinguished friends in political and diplomatic circles. There he found an interesting group of publicists who sympathized with his views as to the desirability of a freer international trade. Among these were M. B. Delessert, the philanthropist and naturalist who was a member of the Chamber of Deputies, noted also as having established the first industry for making sugar from beet-roots; M. De Broglie the nobleman and statesman who was to play such an important part in French politics, domestic and foreign, within the next ten years; M. De St. Julaire the bright and witty diplomat, afterwards ambassador of France at the court of Vienna. He was also a frequent visitor in the family circle of Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who was to find himself within another twelvemonth on the throne of France. Poulett Thomson had hoped to enlist the high influence of the duke in favour of a more liberal international policy. No doubt so far as personal inclination went he had the duke's sympathy while prince, and even as king, but the condition of France was not that of England. In Paris, ideas propagate rapidly, but in France social and economic conditions alter very slowly, and this the future president of the Board of Trade was afterwards to discover.

On the eve of the great Reform Act of 1832, Poulett Thomson, though usually confining his attention in the House to matters of trade and commerce, took part in exposing the anomalies and inequalities of the existing system of parliamentary representation. He devoted particular attention to the case of the Duke of Newcastle, who was accustomed to dispose of the electoral liberties of Newark in a very high-handed manner, and who, when his methods were criticized, replied with righteous indignation, "May I not do what I choose with my own?" Even in the reformed parliament which followed, it was this same constituency of Newark which the duke placed at the disposal of young Gladstone, whose fervent denunciation of reform, within the safe precincts of the Oxford Union, had captured the heart of the old nobleman.

Returning to his special field, Poulett Thomson, in March, 1830, moved for a committee on the expediency of making a general revision of the national system of taxation. In an exceedingly able speech, comparable only to some of Mr. Gladstone's efforts in similar lines, he dealt with the whole field of British taxation. Marshalling his large army of facts, figures and authorities, he marched them in perfect order and harmony in the most interesting evolutions across the whole plain of British fiscal policy, and finally massed them in the most effective support of a practically unanswerable conclusion. His language was dignified, yet simple and direct; his diction was elegant, yet natural and easy. For so young a man his range of knowledge was astonishing. He was familiar at once with the economic history of Britain and of the other states of Europe, as also with the existing conditions of the chief commercial countries of the world. He pointed out that the existing system of taxation, with the exception of a few special changes lately made, had simply persisted as Pitt had left it. But Pitt had been forced to raise revenue on the spur of the moment and from year to year, expecting every year of the war to be the last. He had, therefore, simply lived from hand to mouth, and was the last person to have claimed that he was establishing a permanent system of taxation. Following up scientifically the real incidence of existing taxation, he showed how costly the system was in that it drained the pockets of the people and impoverished industry far beyond the amount which was actually contributed to the exchequer. In his survey of the fiscal system and its pressure upon the raw materials of industry, he incidentally touched upon the timber duties. He pointed out that the single article of timber was burdened with a tax of £1,500,000 per annum in order to promote a special interest, and force the country to take an inferior timber from special sources in the colonies. This and similar criticisms of the colonial timber bounty were to be remembered against him when he came to Canada. He claimed that with lower duties and freer trade there would be a great relief and corresponding stimulus to industry, while the revenue would be enlarged by at least a half. In thus passing in review the fiscal system of the country he did not propose to introduce a sudden revolution, but he did desire that the wisdom of recasting the fiscal system should be acknowledged and that the work should proceed intelligently and systematically.

The mastery at once of principles and details which this speech revealed made it plain that when his party succeeded to power the government would not have far to seek for a person to fill the presidency of the Board of Trade or, ultimately, the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. As a matter of fact it fell to his lot to begin that systematic revision of the fiscal system of Britain which Mr. Gladstone brought to a conclusion with the systematic introduction of the income tax, a policy which both Huskisson and Thomson were already advocating as a substitute for the taxes then obstructing the trade and commerce of the country. No attempt was made to answer Thomson's masterly exposition, the principles of which were indeed accepted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and many others on the government side. Mr. Peel, himself afterwards an exponent of similar views, avoided taking direction from the Opposition on such an important matter by claiming that to accept the motion would be to transfer the functions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a committee of the House.


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