Page images

liamentary voucher, such as would support the assertion "it appears to this house;" for, in fact, it was merely a compilation, made up indeed by a respectable individual, but at the same time unauthorised by either parliament or the treasury; and if the noble lord produced such a book at all, it was only in deference to the right honorable mover of the present address; who having seen the book, wished it to be produced to the house. But though it might serve to satisfy the curiosity of the house, it was not so authentic a document, as that a grave proceeding should be grounded upon it. The same reasoning would support the amendment for leaving out the specific sum; for if the house, and not on the authority of the book, speak with certainty on one point, they could not, of course, speak with certainty on the other. He had not the least objection to the motion, if it should be thus amended; and he was satisfied that the amendments would not, in the smallest degree, tread upon the spirit of the address.

The amendments were opposed by Mr. W. Grenville, Mr. W. Pitt, and Mr. Arden; and supported by Lord John Cavendish, and Mr. Fox.

Mr. SHERIDAN professed he had no wish but to keep the public from being deceived. He thought it right that notice should be taken of the circumstance; but not in the way proposed in the motion.

The amendments were carried without a division.



Doubts had arisen whether any penalty was incurred under the act in its present form, by those who had signed receipts upon unatampt paper; and these doubts were changed into a confident idea, by the opinion of some respectable members of the law having been published in the newspapers. The tax, which previous to the promulgation of those opinions, appeared likely to be very productive,

has since fallen off. The opinion of the Attorney-General was diametrically opposite to those alluded to; and, therefore, a bill was proposed to indemnify those who had given receipts without a stamp ; and so to explain the meaning of the act, as to prevent such an evasion of it for the future.

Mr. SHERIDAN observed, that the last speaker but two (Mr. Arden), had said that the receipt-tax was oppressive and unpopular; and that when it should be known, complaints would pour in against it from every quarter. It was a little singular that a tax should be oppressive, which was not felt; and that it should be unpopular when it was not known. In the country, an honorable baronet (Sir Edward Astley), had said, it had been hardly heard of; and in the town it had been, since the publication of certain authorities, pretty generally evaded. As to the penalty of signing a receipt on unstamped paper, he remembered well to have stated in the committee, when the matter was under consideration, it was intended that such an act should be made penal; and he wished that whenever the learned member who spoke last (Lord John Cavendish), should be called upon again, along with other gentlemen of the law (Oliver Quid, and others), to give an opinion on a statute on which the existence of a considerable branch of the revenue depended, he would give less way to vivacity, and read all the clauses, before he let his opinion get abroad into the world; where such an opinion as his could not fail to carry great weight.

Mr. Arden having retorted on Mr. Sheridan with some acrimony, and defended, in a high tone of voice, his opinion,

Mr. SHERIDAN got up a second time, and said, he should not adopt the warmth of the honorable member; because he found, by the experience of its having not the least effect, when used by another, it might probably be of as little service if he took it as his mode of defence. But again he reprobated the sending forth an opinion, calculated to affect


the revenue, without the decency of reading the act on which it was founded.

The question was at last put on the motion for leave to bring in the bill, which was carried without a division.



Mr. SHERIDAN said, he was very glad to hear it generally admitted, that when gentlemen thought fit to move the repeal of an existing tax, they ought to propose some tax in lieu of it; that in their opinion, at least, was likely to prove equally productive. This was certainly right, because when that house was called upon, as it was by the motion then under consideration, it was called upon to do as strong an act as the house could possiby perform, viz. to change the security given to the public creditor, and to take away the mortgage he held in payment of the interest of his money. The receipt tax, Mr. Sheridan said, was a tax that had passed almost unanimously. At least it had been approved of by the majority of that house, and declared to be a light, impartial, and wise tax. Such, he was in in his own mind persuaded, it would have proved, had the tax had fair play. It had not, however, been yet truly tried. No sooner was this tax, so much liked within doors, heard of, but the utmost pains were taken to raise a clamour against it without. Committees and associations were formed for that purpose expressly. All the art and ingenuity of man were employed in finding out means of evading it. Remonstrances against it had been fabricated, and carried from house to house to procure signatures. Those who never had heard of the tax, were called upon to lend their names to the list; nay, one man, who could not write himself,

had been invited to make his mark, in order to overthrow a tax, which he was told materially concerned him, as it was a check to the currency of written evidence. As soon as any probable means of evading it were hit on, they were industriously circulated throughout the kingdom; and government having, out of lenity, forborne to prosecute for the penalties incurred by those who flew in the face of the act, a case was made out of the whole against the tax itself; and, when parliament met, it was applied to, in order to repeal the tax. Mr. Sheridan reprobated such conduct, and said, he trusted that the good sense of the house would interpose, and prevent the repeal of a tax so treated. With regard to the taxes suggested by the honorable gentleman who spoke last, they appeared to him to be full as liable to objection as the receipt tax,-indeed, infinitely more so, because there was not any fixed criterion to judge of them by. For instance, suppose a tax was laid on dogs, in that case the keeper of a pack might immediately sell it, and buy a hunter with the money, and follow the pack of some neighbour. In like manner, if a person kept dogs to guard his house, on a tax being laid, he might dispose of his dogs, and resort to some other means of security. So, likewise, with regard to pews, in order to evade the payment of a tax upon them, persons might no longer choose to hold them. The tax on grave-stones, indeed, was not easily evaded, and could not be deemed oppressive, as it would only be once paid; but such was the spirit of clamor against any tax on receipts, that he should not wonder if it extended to them; and that it should be asserted, that persons having paid the last debt, the debt of nature, government had resolved they should pay a receipt tax, and have it stamped over their grave. Nay, with so extraordinary a degree of inveteracy were some committees in the city, and elsewhere, actuated, that if a receipt tax of the nature in question

was enacted, he should not be greatly surprised if it were soon after published, that such committees had unanimously resolved that they would never be buried, in order to avoid paying the tax; but had determined to lie above ground, or have their ashes consigned to family urns, in the manner of the ancients. Having diverted the house with this idea, which he handled with equal point and pleasantry, Mr. Sheridan resorted to more serious argument, and took notice of Mr. Thornton's remarks, relative to a clerk's salary being forty pounds a year, and that came to two-pence an hour, which he pointed out as absurd. He also remarked upon what had fallen from Mr. Martin, who had said, that the retail trader distributed his price of the receipt upon the several articles he sold. The strongest argument urged against the tax, Mr. Sheridan said, he had ever conceived to be, that it fell heavier upon the retail trader, than upon the wholesale dealer or merchant. If, however, the honorable gentleman's remark was true, this argument necessarily fell to the ground. Mr. Sheridan said, in his mind, the great recommendation of the receipt tax was, that being paid directly, and not immediately, the public felt it; and it naturally led them to consider the state of the nation. This was the excellence of the tax, and a right principle of taxation. If he might presume to lay down a principle of taxation, as fit to be adopted in an arbitrary and in a free country, taxes should be imposed as indirectly as possible; and the giving alarm to mens' feelings ought to be most studiously avoided. The reverse exactly should be the case in a free country; the taxes there ought always to be direct and open. The subject, when he paid any of them, should know that he paid a tax; and his attention should in consequence be provoked to an examination of the state of the country's debts, the weight of which being obliged to be horne by all, they necessarily concerned all in an equal degree,

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »