Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

terpose its authority, is to maintain and protect this liberty against those assaults to which it is so peculiarly liable from the prejudices and passions of the unenlightened multitude.

In truth, there is no branch of trade whatever which at once. deserves so much, and requires so much the protection of law; and there is hardly any of the interpositions of law which demand a greater degree of steadiness and vigour on the part of the magistrate. The general and the permanent interests of the community ought in this, as in all other cases, to be consulted in opposition to the suggestions of a more partial beneficence; and the temporary indignation and odium of the people disregarded, in order to establish a solid claim to their lasting gratitude.

In years of scarcity, those who attend only to the pressure of the present moment, are apt to impute their distress to the avarice of the corn merchant, who becomes, of course, the object of their resentment and hatred, and who is thereby exposed to the danger of having his magazines plundered and destroyed. It is in years of scarcity, however, when prices are high, that the corn merchant expects to make, and is entitled to make, his principal profit. He is generally in contract with some farmer to furnish him for a certain number of years with a certain quantity of corn at a certain price; a price which will be naturally settled according to the ordinary or average rate of the markets. In years of scarcity, therefore, the corn merchant buys a great portion of his corn for the ordinary price, and sells it for a much higher. That this extraordinary profit, however, is no more than sufficient to put his trade upon a fair level with other trades, and to compensate the many losses which he sustains upon other occasions, both from the perishable nature of the commodity itself, and from the frequent and unforeseen fluctations of its price, seems evident enough from this single circumstance, that great fortunes are as seldom made in this as in any other trade. On the contrary, in this as in the other branches of trade, which form the employment of the speculative merchant, bankruptcies are much more numerous than in those where the supply of the commodity can be

In

more accurately and uniformly adjusted to the demand. consequence of this circumstance, added to the effects of popular prejudice, merchants of character and fortune are averse to enter into the Corn Trade, and abandon it to an inferior set of dealers, destitute of a sufficient capital to deserve the credit of the farmers, as well as of that liberality of mind, and those enlarged views of their own interests, which are commonly to be found in men accustomed to the operations of an extensive

commerce.

The prejudices which the lower ranks of men are apt to entertain in all countries, against a trade so peculiarly beneficial to themselves, instead of being discountenanced by the wisdom of law, were unfortunately encouraged and strengthened by those narrow maxims of Political Economy which influenced for a course of ages the policy of modern Europe. Of these maxims a leading one was, that the people would buy their corn cheaper of the farmer than of the corn merchant, who, it was supposed, would require over and above the price he paid to the farmer, an exorbitant profit to himself. It was thought expedient, accordingly, to hinder as much as possible, a middleman of any kind from coming in between the grower and the consumer.

Another circumstance too, it is probable, had some 'influence in dictating this policy. For many years after the Conquest, the greatest part of the inland trade of England was carried on in markets and fairs; all bargains of sale being prohibited excepting in public markets and in boroughs, in order to prevent theft. A very considerable part of the revenues of the Crown arose from the duties payable to the king upon the goods thus brought to sale, and similar duties were enacted by the barons on the goods sold at the fairs within their jurisdictions.1

When the farmers and merchants were bringing their corn. and other necessaries, to be sold at the markets and fairs, people met them by the way, and purchased their provisions, in order to retail them at a higher price. By this means the

1 Hume, Vol. II. p. 126.-Dirom. p. 29.

king and the lord of the manor lost the several duties payable to them; while, at the same time, the price was raised upon the inhabitants, by lessening the quantity of provisions brought to market. Such were the original forestallers, against whom severe penalties were enacted, as the trade they carried on seemed to be equally prejudicial to the privileges of the great and to the general interests of the community.

In process of time the description of a forestaller came to be farther extended to "any person who should buy" any merchandise or victual, coming towards any fair or market, or towards any city, port, creek, or road, of England or Wales, from beyond sea, to be sold; or who should make any bargain for having the same, before the merchandise or victuals should be in the market to be sold; or who should make any motion for enhancing the price; or should move any person coming to the market to forbear to bring the things to be sold."

In the same statute from which these words are quoted, (the 5th and 6th Edward VI.,) the title of regrator is applied to "any person who shall by any means regrate, obtain, or get into his possession, in any fair or market, any corn, wine, fish, butter, cheese, &c., that were brought to any market in England or Wales to be sold, and shall sell the same in any fair or markets holden or kept in the same place, or in any other fair or market within four miles thereof." It is added, that " a person who shall engross, or get into his hands by buying, contract, or promise-making, any growing corn in the fields, or any other corn or grain, butter, cheese, fish, or other dead victuals whatever, with intent to sell the same again, shall be holden or reputed an engrosser." The penalties for these offences, as might be expected from the spirit of the age, are abundantly severe. "That an engrosser (for example) should for the first fault suffer two months' imprisonment, and forfeit the value of the corn; for the second, suffer six months' imprisonment, and forfeit double the value; and for the third, be set in the pillory, suffer imprisonment during the king's pleasure, and forfeit all his goods and chattels."

In Scotland, laws to the same purpose were made against forestallers and regrators; and although the word engrosser does not appear in the laws, the description of an engrosser is fully comprehended under that of the forestaller and regrator, In the case of forestalling, the third criminal act infers escheat of moveables, (1592, c. 148.)1 The ancient policy of most other parts of Europe was similar, in this respect, to that of England and Scotland.

The same principles which led our ancestors to attempt the suppression of the trade of the corn merchant, induced them to impose restraints upon the trade of those whom they called kidders or carriers of corn,-a trade which nobody was allowed to exercise without a license, ascertaining his qualifications as a man of probity and fair dealing. In general, their object plainly was to discourage, as much as possible, any middle-man of any kind from coming in between the grower and the con

sumer.

On the important advantages arising from such an intervention, more especially from the trade of the extensive corn merchant, I shall have occasion afterwards to offer some observations. In the meantime, it may be worth while to remark, that this trade naturally arose from the improving agriculture of the country, and was a most unequivocal symptom of national prosperity; and that it had plainly been suggested, in part, by the experience of those very calamities which it seemed, on a superficial view, to threaten, and against which it is, in fact, the only effectual remedy. In the earlier ages of English history, the trade of a corn-dealer seems to have been unknown; nor, except in the Abbey Granges, do we meet with instances of corn being collected in large quantities.2 The natural consequence was, that the farmers without capital disposed of their crops at moderate prices soon after the harvest; purchasers, who only looked to their immediate wants, having corn cheap, were naturally prodigal and improvident in the consumption. The price, therefore, almost invariably rose as the year advanced, and was frequently at an enormous height just before harvest; 1 Erskine's [Institutes,] 488. P. Eden, On the Poor, Vol. I. p. 18.

2

and before a fresh supply could be obtained, the supply of the preceding year was often entirely exhausted. Stowe informs us, that in 1317, the harvest was all got in before the first of September, and that wheat, which had before been at £4 the quarter, fell to 6s. 8d., a twelfth part of that price. A detail of the prices of grain would furnish us with abundant proof, if proofs were wanting, of the extreme misery of those times, in which the only buyers of grain were the consumers. Five guineas a quarter is a price sufficiently grievous, even at a period when a labourer can earn 18d. a day; but between the Conquest and the accession of Edward the Third, the price of wheat varied from 8d. to £6, 8s. the quarter, to which almost incredible price (being equal to £19, 4s. of our present money,)1 it rose in 1270, and was attended with a famine. At this period, too, it must be remarked, a man's day's work in harvest was valued at a penny, and out of harvest at a halfpenny. On the other hand, that the conclusion may not be pushed too far, it is necessary to recollect that wheat was not the general bread corn of the peasantry. From a valuation of the moveable property in the borough of Colchester, made in the year 1296, preparatory to levying a subsidy of a seventh, for carrying on the war against France, it appears that among the petty tradesmen and artificers of that period, almost every family was provided with a small store of barley or oats, usually about a quarter or two of each; rye appears to have been very little used, and wheat scarcely at all. This circumstance is the more worthy of our notice, that it has been frequently overlooked by our economical writers, many of whom assume the price of wheat, when compared with the wages of labour, as a certain criterion for judging of the condition of the labouring classes at any given period. This, it is evident, can only hold good on the supposition, that this grain is wholly and entirely their ordinary food, which is not the case, even at this day, and was certainly very much otherwise in more early times. From the Household Book of Sir Edward Cooke, it appears that in 1596, rye

1 Smith, Vol. I. p. 277.—[Book I. chap. xi. Vol. I. p. 288, tenth edition.]--

See the Table of Prices in the Wealth of Nations, [Vol. I. p. 398, seq.]

« AnteriorContinuar »