The Age of George III

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William Pitt's speech in the House of Commons on the benefits of the Vergennes Treaty with France (12 February 1787)

Parliamentary Register, XXI, pp. 168-176

Even though the Vergennes Treaty of 1786 did not establish complete free trade between Britain and France, it was an important victory for the free trade movement in Britain. Pitt the Younger was the Prime Minister.

It would be necessary for the Committee to take into their consideration the relative state of the two kingdoms... It was a fact generally admitted, that France had the advantage in the gift of soil and climate, and in the amount of her natural produce. That, on the contrary, Great Britain was, on her part, as confessedly superior in her manufactures and artificial productions. Undoubtedly, in point of natural produce, France had greatly the advantage in this treaty. Her wines, brandies, oils, and vinegars, particularly the two former articles, were matters of such important value in her produce, as greatly and completely to destroy all idea of reciprocity as to natural produce - we perhaps having nothing of that kind to put in competition, but simply the article of beer.

But on the contrary, was it not a fact as demonstrably clear, that Britain, in its turn, possessed some manufactures exclusively her own, and that in others she had so completely the advantage of her neighbour, as to put competition to defiance? This then was the relative condition, and this the precise ground on which it was imagined that a valuable correspondence and connection between the two might be established. Having each its own and distinct staple - having each that the other wanted; and not clashing in the great and leading lines of their respective riches, they were like two great traders in different branches, they might enter into a traffic which would prove mutually beneficial to them. Granting that a large quantity of their natural produce would be brought into this country, would any man say, that we should not send more cottons by the direct course now settled, than by the circuitous passages formerly used - more of our woollens than while restricted in their importation to particular ports, and burdened under heavy duties? Would not more of our earthenware, and other articles, which, under all the disadvantages that they formerly suffered, still, from their intrinsic superiority, force their way regularly into France, now be sent thither; and would not the aggregate of our manufactures be greatly and eminently benefited in going to this market loaded only with duties from twelve to ten, and in one instance with only five per cent.?

... A market of so many millions of people - a market so near and prompt - a market of expeditious and certain return - of necessary and extensive consumption, thus added to the manufactures and commerce of Britain, was an object which we ought to look up to with eager and satisfied ambition. To procure this, we certainly ought not to scruple to give liberal conditions. We ought not to hesitate, because this which must be so greatly advantageous to us must also have its benefit for them. It was a great boon procured on easy terms, and as such we ought to view it....

We had agreed by this treaty to take from France, on small duties, the luxuries of her soil, which however the refinements of ourselves had converted into necessaries. The wines of France were already so much in the possession of our markets, that with all the high duties paid by us, they found their way to our tables. Was it then a serious injury to admit these luxuries on easier terms? The admission of them would not supplant the wines of Portugal, nor of Spain, but would supplant only an useless and pernicious manufacture in this country....

... The next was brandy.... The reduction of the duties would have a material effect on the contraband in this article; it was certain that the legal importation bore no proportion to the quantity clandestinely imported - for the legal importation of brandy was no more than 600,000 gallons, and the supposed amount of the smuggled, at the most rational and best-founded estimate, was between three and four hundred thousand gallons. Seeing then that this article had taken such complete possession of the taste of the nation, it might be right to procure to the state a greater advantage from the article than heretofore, and to crush the contraband by legalizing the market.

The oil and vinegar of France were comparatively small objects, but, like the former, they were luxuries which had taken the shape of necessaries, and which we could suffer nothing from accepting on easy terms. These were the natural produce of France to be admitted under this treaty. Their next inquiry should be to see if France had any manufactures peculiar to herself, or in which she so greatly excelled as to give us alarm on account of the treaty, viewing it in that aspect. Cambric ... was an article in which our competition with France had ceased, and there was no injury in granting an easy importation to that which we would have at any rate. In no other article was there anything very formidable in the rivalry of France. Glass would not be imported to any amount. In particular kinds of lace, indeed, they might have the advantage, but none which they would not enjoy independent of the treaty; and the clamours about millinery were vague and unmeaning, when, in addition to all these benefits we included the richness of the country with which we were to trade; its superior population of 20 millions to 8, and of course a proportionate consumption, together with its vicinity to us, and the advantages of quick and regular returns, who could hesitate for a moment to applaud the system, and look forward with ardour and impatience to its speedy ratification? The possession of so extensive and safe a market must improve our commerce, while the duties transferred from the hands of smugglers to their proper channel, would benefit our revenue - the two sources of British opulence and British power.

Viewing the relative circumstances of the two countries then in this way, he saw no objection to the principle of the exchange of their respective commodities. He saw no objection to this, because he perceived and felt that our superiority in the tariff was manifest. The excellence of our manufactures was unrivalled, and in the operation must give the balance to England ....

The effect of this treaty on our revenue ...would almost exceed credibility, though it would cause an average reduction of 50 per cent. in every article in our book of rates; on French wines the reduction would be £10,000 per annum; on Portugal wines, £170,000 should the Methuen treaty be continued; and, on brandy, a reduction of £20,000. The surrender of revenue for great commercial purposes was a policy by no means unknown in the history of Great Britain, but here we enjoyed the extraordinary advantage of having them returned to us in a threefold rate, by extending and legalizing the importation of the articles...

Considering the treaty in its political view, he should not hesitate to contend against the too frequently advanced doctrine, that France was, and must be, the unalterable enemy of Britain. His mind revolted from this position as monstrous and impossible. To suppose that any nation could be unalterably the enemy of another, was weak and childish. It had neither its foundation in the experience of nations nor in the history of man. It was a libel on the constitution of political societies, and supposed the existence of diabolical malice in the original frame of man. But these absurd tenets were taken up and propagated... Men reasoned as if this treaty was not only to extinguish all jealousy from our bosoms, but also completely to annihilate our means of defence; as if by the treaty we gave up so much of our army, so much of our marine; as if our commerce was to be abridged, our navigation to be lessened, our colonies to be cut off or to be rendered defenceless, and as if all the functions of the state were to be sunk in apathy. What ground was there for this train of reasoning? Did the treaty suppose that the interval of peace between the two countries would be so totally unemployed by us as to disable us from meeting France in the moment of war with our accustomed strength? Did it not much rather, by opening new sources of wealth, speak this forcible language; that the interval of peace, as it would enrich the nation, would also prove the means of enabling her to combat her enemy with more effect when the day of hostility should come. It did more than this; by promoting habits of friendly intercourse, and of mutual benefit, while it invigorated the resources of Britain, it made it less likely that she should have occasion to call forth those resources. It certainly had at least the happy tendency to make the two nations enter into more intimate communion with one another, to enter into the same views even of taste and manners; and while they were mutually benefited by the connection, and endeared to one another by the result of the common benefits, it gave a better chance for the preservation of harmony between them, while so far from weakening, it strengthened their sinews for war....

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