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The distress which had pressed so severely on the people, and which had set them thinking about the most perilous political changes, was intimately connected with the state of the country. Throughout the troubled period of almost incessant war and lavish expenditure between 1797 and 1815, the business of the nation was carried on with an inconvertible paper currency, the precious metals having nearly all departed from the country. Bank notes were issued in such quantities, to meet the exigencies of the Government, that the prices of all commodities were nearly doubled. The Bill which was passed in 1819 providing for the resumption of cash payments had reduced the currency from 48,278,070, which was its amount in 1819, to 26,588,000, in 1822. The consequence was the reduction of prices in the meantime, at the rate of fifty per cent., in all the articles of production and commerce. With this tremendous fall of prices, the amount of liabilities remained unchanged; rents, taxes, and encumbrances were to be paid according to the letter of the contract, while the produce and commoditiesthe sale of which was relied upon to pay themdid not produce more than half the amount that they would have brought at the time of the contracts. The evil of this sudden change was aggravated by the South American Revolution, in consequence of which the annual supply of the precious metals was reduced to a third of its former amount. It was peculiarly unfortunate that this stoppage in the supply of gold and silver occurred at the very time that the Legislature had adopted the principle that paper currency should be regarded as strictly representing gold, and should be at any moment convertible into sovereigns. A paper currency should never be allowed to exceed the available property which it represents, but it is not necessary that its equivalent in gold should be lying idle in the coffers of the Bank, ready to be paid out at any moment the public should be seized with a foolish panic. It is enough that the credit of the State should be pledged for the value of the notes, and that credit should not be strained beyond the resources at its command. The close of 1822 formed the turning-point in the industrial condition of the country. The extreme cheapness of provisions, after three years of comparative privation, enabled those engaged in manufacturing pursuits to purchase many commodities which they had hitherto not been able to afford. This caused a gradual revival of trade, which was greatly stimulated by the opening of new markets for our goods, especially in South America, to which our exports were nearly trebled in value between 1818 and 1823, when the independence of the South American Republics had been established. The confidence of the commercial world was reassured by the conviction that South America would prove an unfailing Dorado for the supply of the precious metals. The bankers, therefore, became more accommodating; the spirit of enterprise again took possession of the national mind, and there was a general expansion of industry by means of a freer use of capital, which gave employment and contentment to the people. This effect was materially promoted by the Small Note Bill which was passed in July, 1822, extending for ten years longer the period during which small notes were to be issued; its termination having been fixed by Peel's Bill for 1823. The average of bank-notes in circulation in 1822 was 17,862,890. In November of the following year it had increased by nearly two millions. The effect of this extension of the small note circulation upon prices was remarkable. Wheat rose from 38s. to 52s., and in 1824 it mounted up to 64s. In the meantime the bullion in the Bank of England increased so much that whereas in 1819 it had been only 3,595,360, in January, 1824, it amounted to 14,200,000. The effect of all these causes combined was the commencement of a reign of national prosperity, which burst upon the country like a brilliant morning sun, chasing away the chilling fogs of despondency, and dissipating the gloom in the popular mind.Affairs had now assumed such an aspect that the different sections of the Opposition saw the necessity of coalescing more, and attending zealously; but still they were divided as to the means to be pursued. A great meeting was held on the 27th of November at the Marquis of Rockingham's, to decide on a plan of action. It was concluded to move for a committee on the state of the nation, and Chatham being applied to, advised that the very next day notice should be given that such a motion should be made on Tuesday next, the 2nd of December. The motion was made, the committee granted, and in it the Duke of Richmond moved for the production of the returns of the army and navy in America and Ireland. Whilst Lord Northwho, if he had been his own master, would have resignedwas refusing to produce the necessary papers, the Lords consented to this measure; and at this very moment came news of the surrender at Saratoga, which was speedily confirmed.
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CHAPTER VI. REIGN OF GEORGE IV. (continued).Sir John landed in Calabria on the 1st of July, in the Gulf of Santa Euphemia, not far from Nicastro, and advanced to seek Regnier. He had not quite five thousand troops with him, all infantry, and a third of these Corsicans, Sicilians, and other foreigners in British pay. Regnier had started for Naples with ten thousand men, but some of these were lost, and others stationed to occupy different posts. On the 3rd of July Sir John Stuart learned that Regnier was near Maida, about ten miles from Sir John's landing-place. Leaving a detachment to guard the stores, Sir John, on the 4th, marched forward, under a burning sun, to come up with him. He found Regnier drawn up in a strong position on a woody slope below the village of Maida, flanked by a thick, scrubby wood on each hand, and having in front the river Amato, at this season of the year perfectly fordable. The position was formidable, and, had Regnier kept it, it must have tried the British severely to dislodge him, especially as they had no cavalry; but Regnier, probably honestly of opinion that the British need only be encountered to be beaten, descended from his vantage ground into the plain. One reason might be, that his cavalry could better avail him there; another, that, after his boasts, Lebrun, the Commissioner of Buonaparte, who always, in the old Jacobin style, had such a person in the field to watch the conduct of his generals, would be ready to condemn him if he showed any delay when engaged with so despised an enemy. The two armies approached each other about nine o'clock in the morning. They fired two or three rounds at each other, and then advanced with fixed bayonets. The officer commanding the British advance column, seeing that the men were oppressed by the blankets which they carried at their backs in that sultry weather, commanded a halt a little before they closed, and ordered them to let their blankets go. The French, seeing this momentary halt, were confirmed in their general's opinion of the cowardice of the British, and rushed on with loud cheers. They were bronzed and bearded veterans; the British, who composed the advance column, were chiefly young and beardless youths; and an officer present informed Sir Walter Scott, that, as he glanced first on the grim-looking French, and then at the smooth, young faces of the British, he could not help feeling a momentary anxiety. But no sooner were the British freed from their blankets than they dashed forward with loud hurrahs; and the French, who, since the battle of Austerlitz, had boasted that no soldiers in Europe could stand against them in a charge of bayonets, were, in their turn, staggered. Some few stood firmly to cross bayonets with the foe, but the greater part fell back. The French officers rushed along their lines to encourage their men, but in vain; nothing could urge them to the points of the British bayonets. The hills around were crowded with the Calabrians, anxious spectators of the fight. When the British halted, they raised loud exclamations of dismay, believing they were about to fly, but the next moment they saw them springing forward with shouts and the French waver, turn, and fly. The First Light Infantrya crack French regimentwere the first to break and run for the hills. But it was too late; the British were at their backs, and pursued them with a terrible slaughter. Regnier's left thus routed by our right, he rode furiously about, bringing all the force he could muster on our left, but there the result was just the same: the French scarcely stayed to feel the bayonets, but fled in headlong confusion. The British took all the forts along the coasts, and drove the French into Upper Calabria, where they were joined, near Cassano, by Massena, with a powerful army. But the British force was not strong enough to do more than it had done. Malaria also began to decimate his troops, and Sir John Stuart returned, in August, to Sicily, carrying with him a great quantity of stores and artillery, which the French had prepared for the reduction of Calabria. The chief benefit of the battle of Maida was to show that the British troops, in proper quantities, were able to drive the French before them, but that, in the small numbers usually sent on expeditions, they were merely wasted. The battle of Alexandria, and now that of Maida, demonstrated that, if Britain would continue to fight on the Continent, she must prepare to do it with a sufficient force; and the after campaigns of Portugal and Spain, and the conclusive battle of Waterloo, were the results of this public conviction. At the same time, the brilliant episode of Maida had wonderfully encouraged the Neapolitans and Calabrians. Joseph Buonaparte, the French intruded king, was once or twice on the very point of flying to the army in Upper Calabria, and many of his counsellors strongly advised it. Massena advised Joseph to remain, and assured him that he would soon reduce the whole kingdom to obedience to him. But, in fact, it took Massena and his successors five years to accomplish the subjugation, with the sacrifice of one hundred thousand men.
The sense of the House was so completely with the Government, that Mr. Brougham, who led the Opposition, declined to go to a division. A division having been called for, however, on the part of Ministers, the whole assembly poured into the lobby, till it could hold no more; and then the remaining members who were shut in were compelled to pass for an opposition, though there were Ministerialists among them. They amounted to twenty, in a House of three hundred and seventy-two.