11 OCTOBER 1873, Page 22

THE STAMP DUTIES.* Tins book belongs to a class which

we are glad to think is becoming increasingly popular. It is written by a man who is practically conversant with the subject of which he treats, and who, though principally addressing himself to a special class of professional readers, is yet anxious to deserve _the attention of the general public. It avoids, therefore, the faults of over-techni- cality, and helps to popularise knowledge which ought to be

• 2t Matey and Explanation of thi Stamp Diaiti. 137-Stephen Dowill, London: LODVOIRIg. lt373. the property of all. It must be confessed, indeed, that, notwithstanding their association with the birth of the great American Republic, as the first link in the chain-of measures that led up to the revolt of the Thirteen Colonies, the Stamp Duties at first sight hardly seem to offer very promising subject-matter for an interesting book. But the reader who will complain of the first half of Mr. Dowell's volume on that score must have an inveterate repugnance to information. The latter portion, indeed, we will not venture to recommend as light reading for leisure hours, though it will be found extremely useful by those officially engaged in the administration of the Stamp Acts. But the earlier part, which is devoted to a historical survey of the legislation respecting stamp duties, from their first imposition to the end of last year, possesses value for the general reader.

Anyone who tries to estimate the nature and extent of the in- fluence exerted on the home life of the people by the intervention of England in Continental quarrels which was one of the conse- quences of the deposition of the Stuarts, will find but little help in his researches from the ordinary histories. To take an example, it is easy to see that the naval triumphs of the great French war, by securing to this country the dominion of the sea, and handing over to her possession the colonies of other European nations, gave her a monopoly of the carrying trade, and thus insured to her com- merce an advantage never since lost. Again, it is sufficiently evident that her overthrow of Napoleon won for her a pre-emi- nence somewhat similar to that now enjoyed by Germany, and consequently directed the thoughts of men to a study of the sources of her greatness, and thus helped to render constitutionalism and industrialism fashionable on the Continent. In these two ways, among others, the Revolutionary wars immensely benefited English trade. But if we now ask what were the disadvantages at the cost of which the benefits were purchased, the answer afforded by the ordinary histories is,—the stoppage of political improvement for a whole generation,—and an enormously increased taxation. The meaning of increased taxation is, however, not readily apprehended. Nor is it possible for the historian to make it plain, except by a few well chosen illustrations, which necessarily fail to convey to the mind of the general reader an adequate idea of the facts. To get this!, we must have recourse to special treatises, and here it is that the popular value of the work before us comes out, inasmuch as no branch of our taxation has exercised a more far-reaching influence than the stamp duties upon the social economy of the country. They have been fruitful causes of that dear law which has formed the burden of the complaint of all our law reformers, since the days of Bentham, and thereby they have played no small •part in the production of our very peculiar social system. By swelling exorbitantly the cost of transferring land, they have intensified in a very marked degree the action of those other causes which were tending towards an accumulation of the soil of the country in the hands of a small number of proprietors. A philosophical history of these duties ought, therefore, to show us the steps of that pro- cess by which, in the language of Mr. Bright, the population of England was divorced from the land. Mr. Dowell's work is, indeed, not a philosophical history, nor are we Rim that he is possessed of the qualifications that would enable him to produce one. But in any case, the nature of the task which he sets him- self—to compose a book, namely, that would be useful to persons- engaged in the administration of the Stamp Acts—forbade him to enter into considerations of the nature we are here contemplating. But in default, he has produced a very readable sketch, in which he traces, in perspicuous language, the gradual steps by which these duties were increased, ender the pressure of foreign war, from insignificant beginnings, until they became so all-embracing as to threaten to strangle important industries, and even, as we have said, entered as potent factors into the formation of our -social system. While waiting for the philosophical treatment of the subject, which it is to be hoped some competent economist will be tempted to favour us with, the student of our social organisa- tion will find the view thus presented to him instructive and suggestive.

Taxation by means of duties on the written evidences of trans- actions was originated, it appears, in Holland, a country which has set the example to Europe in many another matter. It was in the course of the long struggle against Spain, when all known imposts had already been raised as high as it was possible 'to raise them, and the resources of the gallant little Republic seemed on the point of exhaustion ; in their distress, the States-General, or as our authority has it, the States of Holland, offered a reward for the invention of a new tax. If had recourse to by a Govern- ment nowadays, the expedient would not be thought a very pro- misieg one. But in Holland it met with more success than, judging from the contempt with which Sir R. Peel used to speak of volunteer advisers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, one would have a right to expect for it. Possibly the offer of the reward attracted practical financiers. At any rate, " some shrewd and deep-thinking person" suggested stamp duties, and his suggestion was at once acted upon. Early in the reign of Louis XIV., these duties were introduced into France. But it was not till 1694, when a Dutchman had already '-been six years upon the British Throne, that they were imposed in England. The war with France was still dragging on, with anything but glory to oar arms, and the ravages committed by the enemy in the Palatinate had profoundly impressed the people with the conviction that any sacrifice would be cheap which would keep the French engaged at home, and prevent an invasion of this country. It was therefore not difficult to persuade Parliament to impose duties which had been found so useful by their Dutch allies. The ditties were, however, at first imposed only for a year, and were levied by means of six different kinds of stamps, the lowest representing a penny, and the highest, two pounds. And their entire yield for the first four years did not exceed £5,000 per annum. The renewal of the war with France brought with it an increase as well as an extension of the duties, and this process again and again repeated, combined with the growth of wealth and commercial activity, which was taking place simultaneously, raised their yield in the last year of the reign of Queen Anne to £116,931. in exactly twenty years, that is, after their first imposition, the productiveness of the duties had been multiplied more than twenty- three times ! The thirteen years of comparative quiet of the first George's reign followed ; still the duties were continued, but they only increased to £157,142, or about 50 per cent. Then came the thirty-three years of the stirring reign of George II., which raised them to £289,134. During the first eighteen years of George III., the produce constantly increased, chiefly, however, owing to the growing prosperity of the country. But then came the American war, and with it a fresh period of addition to and extension of these duties. At its close they yielded the enormous sum of over £855,000. But the return of peace was far from bringing relief to the taxpayer. The American quarrel had originated in a desire to lighten the pressure upon him, by making his fellow-subject across the Atlantic share his burden. How the desire was realised we all know, and the figures just quoted may help to bring more vividly before us. But even these figures do not tell the whole of the small part of the story we are here narrating. The war had swelled the Debt beyond all previous example, and to meet the new burden thus imposed this fresh taxation was necessary. Hence in 1784 the duties were again increased and extended, until their yield rose to close upon a million sterling. Thus in exactly ninety years the produce was multiplied just two hundred times. We have now come to the beginning of the younger Pitt's first administration, and for eight years we find nothing to report. The country was rapidly recovering from the effects of the American war, and at the close of the period we have men- tioned Pitt prepared to pay off the Debt by means of a sinking fund, and to reduce taxation with a view to the promotion of trade. From his Budget speech in 1792, Mr. Dowell quotes a passage which reminds one of Lord Granville's famous declaration on succeeding to the Foreign Office, and shows in a very striking light how miserably shortsighted, after all, is the boasted foresight of even the most celebrated statesmen. "Unquestionably," says Mr. Pitt, "there never was a time in the history of this country, when, from the situation of Europe, we might more reasonably expect fifteen years of peace than we may at the present moment." A year later this country was plunged into a struggle, which cost her between eight and nine hundred millions sterling, and bequeathed to us a legacy of Debt which even at this distance of time we have not sensibly reduced. When that terrible struggle was over, the yield of the stamp duties was found to have been raised to three millions and three - quarters sterling. The Acts by which these exorbitant duties were imposed had grown in the course of time to an enormous bulk. Some referred to the whole United Kingdom, some to Great Britain only, some to England and Wales alone, some but to Ireland, and some merely to Scotland. Some, again, on the face of them, proclaimed themselves Acts for the imposition of taxes, but others in their titles professed to deal with entirely different matters. Some, moreover, had been repealed in part, most were in contradiction one with another, and many imposed inconsistent penalties for the same offence. The consequence was that in particular cases it was often found impossible to say what stamp was legally required, and that therefore the most conscientious were every day unintentionally incurring penalties. But amidst all uncertainties, of one thing there was no doubt, that "every species of written or printed document necessary for carrying on the business of mankind had been drawn within the grasp of the Stamp laws," and that in almost every instance the duties exacted were immoderately excessive. Yet for five and thirty years nothing was done to put a stop to this disgraceful state of things. At length in 1830 a serious effort was made to bring the law into something like harmony with correct principles of taxa- tion. Other effosts followed, and in 1870 three important Acts were passed consolidating the law relating to this subject, reform- ing its administration, and introducing better principles of classifi- cation. Less important changes were also made in 1871 and 1872. The period of reform has thus fairly set in, but the duties yielded over three millions and a half last year ; it is evident, therefore, that what has yet been done is but a prelude to what remains to be accomplished.