The Tax Gatherer Essay Definition

When The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett came out in 2009, it chimed well with the post-crash mood. The book claimed that higher levels of inequality were associated with a whole range of poor health issues, including lower life expectancy, increased obesity, and higher murder rates. It seemed that those fat cat bankers hadn’t just wrecked the financial system: they were making us all ill, too.

Subsequently, however, these claims came in for a great deal of criticism, especially from sociologists on the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Whether right or wrong, however, the original book has raised a deeper question, and one that is still wide open. By framing the debate about inequality in a biological context, The Spirit Level harked back to an older philosophical conundrum about human nature. Are we, fundamentally, an egalitarian species or a fiercely competitive one? Or are we perhaps so flexible that we can be equally at home in either kind of society?

Evolutionary biology casts considerable light on this question. Start with the fact that our species has spent more than 90 per cent of its existence living in highly egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. There is no room in this nomadic existence for the accumulation of property, and hence no great differences in material possessions. As the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observed in his 1968 essay on the ‘original affluent society’:

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Of the hunter it is truly said that his wealth is a burden. In his condition of life, goods can become ‘grievously oppressive’ … and the more so the longer they are carried around. Certain food collectors do have canoes and a few have dog sleds, but most must carry themselves all the comforts they possess, and so only possess what they can comfortably carry themselves.

It was only when the first humans started farming, around 10,000 years ago, that it became possible for one person to accumulate many more possessions than another. Farmers are sedentary and can therefore store property in buildings, and stake a claim to land by building walls. Farming is also more efficient than hunting and gathering, so a division of labour can develop. Some grow enough food to support other people who have nothing to do with food production, such as artisans, soldiers, priests and kings. Inevitably, those who do not produce food end up far richer than those who do. Kings skim off the surplus production in the form of taxes and use it to finance armies, palaces and temples. Priests spin yarns about tithing to justify all this robbery in exchange for an income of their own. In just a few thousand years — a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms — humans have gone from living in small egalitarian bands to large-scale sedentary societies with extreme levels of inequality.

It would hardly be surprising then if the sudden appearance of inequality didn’t have deleterious consequences for the human mind and body. Other novelties associated with the advent of farming, such as the constant proximity of domestic animals and higher population density, exposed our ancestors to new threats for which they were unprepared, such as the rise of infectious diseases. Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that our ancestors found the new landscape of social inequality similarly damaging, and that there has not yet been enough time for natural selection to adapt us to it, if it ever will.

According to the social competition hypothesis of depression, humans are exquisitely sensitive to small differences in social status. Such sensitivity was vital when our ancestors lived in smaller bands of hunter-gatherers, where status differences were relatively slight. But in today’s world, where the global elite earn thousands of times more than those at the bottom of the economic heap and have completely different lifestyles, our status detectors go into overdrive. Hence a sensitivity that evolved to help low-status individuals signal obedience would, in today’s world, produce pathological results.

It is not enough to succeed, as Gore Vidal said; others must fail

Support for this idea is provided by studies of dominance hierarchies in other primates. Low-ranking vervet monkeys, for example, have serotonin levels that are half those of the alpha males, and low-status yellow baboons have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Both of these physiological responses are found in depressed people, so perhaps inequality does literally get under our skin. A study of British civil servants found that those in lower-grade jobs showed significantly higher levels of the cortisol-awakening response (the difference between cortisol levels at waking and 30 minutes later, which is thought to be linked to the hippocampus’s preparation to face anticipated stress) than those in higher grades. Contrary to popular belief, then, it seems that those at the top of the pyramid, who tend to have the most decision-making responsibility, have the least stressful lives. One theory is that, the lower one is in the chain of command, the less control one has over one’s daily life. Taking orders, rather than giving them, results in raised heart rate, stress hormones, and blood pressure.

Inequality is not a negative-sum game — in which everybody ends up worse off — but a zero-sum game, in which the poorer health of those at the bottom of the pile is offset by the health gains of those at the top. There is nothing like the sight of a beggar to make one feel rich. It is not enough to succeed, as Gore Vidal said; others must fail.

Evolutionary psychologists have also looked to experimental psychology for evidence that we are naturally averse to inequality. In the ultimatum game, for example, two strangers are paired and given a sum of money. One of them — usually referred to as the ‘proposer’ — has to decide how to divide the money. The proposer might suggest a 50-50 split, or they might offer only 10 per cent and keep the lion’s share. The other player can then either accept or reject this offer. If the responder accepts the offer, each player walks away with the share suggested by the proposer. If the responder rejects the offer, each player walks away with nothing.

According to game theory, a rational proposer should always offer the smallest amount possible, and a rational responder should always accept the proposer’s offer, no matter how small it is. After all, some money is better than none. But this isn’t what people actually do when they play this game. Instead of offering the smallest possible amount, most proposers offer between 40 and 50 per cent of the money. And on the few occasions that proposers offer less than 20 per cent, responders reject about half of those offers, despite the fact that this means both lose.

Such findings have been interpreted as evidence that people naturally dislike inequality and will sacrifice some personal gains to avoid it. However, when the experiment has been carried out with indigenous people with a low degree of market integration, the results are very different. Machiguenga farmers in Peru, for example, offer very little, and accept almost every offer, no matter how derisory. In the cultures least exposed to the influence of capitalism, people behave almost as greedily as game theory suggests they should. This does not bode well for the idea that inequality aversion is part of our DNA.

Levels of inequality might have fluctuated during our evolutionary past. The last common ancestor we share with chimpanzees — a primate who lived in the rainforests of Africa some five million years ago — was probably as hierarchical as chimps still are today. Alpha male chimps are, basically, big bullies who take what they want and brutally punish junior males who dare to challenge them, and the first hominids were probably similar. Yet, according to the anthropologist Christopher Boehm, all this changed around 500,000 years ago when our ancestors first developed spears. The development of more sophisticated weapons meant that physical strength was no longer decisive in determining the outcome of a fight. Weaker males could now kill stronger ones, enabling the transition to more egalitarian communities in which leadership was more a matter of skilful negotiation and bargaining than simple brute force.

If Boehm is right, it is the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers that is unusual from an evolutionary point of view, a mere phase between the dominance hierarchies of our primate inheritance and the social inequality brought on by the advent of farming. Far from being our natural state, the low levels of inequality in bands of hunter-gatherers might be a fragile achievement resulting from a certain stage of military technology, a temporary truce among creatures who are innately predisposed to hierarchical arrangements.

Attempts to forge a more equal society will have to contend with our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status

The development of weaponry might also have favoured the transition to egalitarianism by enabling our ancestors to hunt big game. There is far too much meat in a dead bison for one hunter to consume all by himself, so most of it is eaten by others. But the link between meat-sharing and egalitarianism does not pass by way of equal distribution. Some scholars argue that hunter-gatherers do not divide the spoils of the hunt equally among the members of the band as if they were practicing some kind of primitive communism. Rather, those who come back empty-handed snatch scraps of meat from the successful hunter without permission. This is a model of human sharing known as ‘tolerated theft’. The theft is tolerated by the successful hunter only because he is too busy stuffing his own face to punish every transgression. Once again, egalitarianism arises from the difficulty of coercion, not because of fellow feeling or kindred spirit.

The discovery that inequality might go deeper in the psyche than egalitarianism tells us nothing, of course, about what kind of society we should strive to create. To jump from empirical evidence about our hierarchical nature to moral conclusions would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. But while we can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a better understanding of human nature can enable us to identify the obstacles that hinder the path to greater social equality, if this is what we desire.

In particular, attempts to forge a more equal society will have to contend with our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status. These are not cultural artefacts that can be swept away by economic reforms, as the ideologues of the Russian Revolution believed when they looked forward to the emergence of the ‘New Soviet Man’. On the contrary, they are deeply etched into our nature, and will find ways to express themselves in any society. Indeed, they might well be the reason why Europe’s communist societies lasted as long as they did. Given the Soviet Union’s huge inefficiencies, it is a puzzle how it managed to survive for close to 70 years. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that it never managed to become truly communist. Despite strenuous attempts to stamp them out, tiny pools of capitalism persisted, and these provided just enough steam to keep the system going. For example, factory bosses were given bonuses when they met their production quotas, and often relied on tolkachi (‘fixers’ or ‘pushers’) whose job was to pull strings and set up unofficial arrangements with other factories. Ironically, then, it was the old, unreformed elements of human nature that allowed the communist party to survive for so long. People look for ways to compete, even when competition is forbidden.

How can our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status be channelled in ways that favour a more equal society? The answer lies in our capacity for instrumental reasoning and our ability to respond intelligently to incentives. Competition might be in our DNA, but what we compete for is not; our ancestors fought to kill the biggest beast, while we compete to buy the bigger house or the faster car. Likewise, status-seeking might be a given, but what counts as a status symbol varies from culture to culture. A plump figure was once the height of fashion, but not today.

This limited flexibility both constrains the range of workable social systems and suggests certain ways of tinkering with them. A communist society might be forever beyond our grasp, even if we wanted one, but it should be possible to create better forms of capitalism by more closely aligning individual incentives with socially desirable outcomes. The million-dollar question is how.

The obvious way is by means of clever social engineering. For example, if the use of stock options in executive compensation gives managers the incentive to take excessive risk and fraudulently manipulate the company’s stock price, executives could be forced to wait a few years before exercising these options. The problem with all such solutions is that people are good at finding new loopholes. In other words, it is precisely our capacity to respond intelligently to incentives that makes it so difficult to design foolproof incentives. A whole area of game theory known as mechanism design has arisen to address the challenges of designing systems that can’t be outwitted, but it is still in its infancy and is of course fiendishly complicated.

Left to their own devices, people will find ways to check the most extreme inequalities

An alternative to social engineering is to let social systems evolve in the hope that we will thereby discover better forms of organisation that we might not have been clever enough to design ourselves. This might seem like political nihilism, an irresponsible abandonment of any attempt to correct the inequities of the market. But, viewed from another perspective, it can be seen as a humble acceptance of our cognitive limitations, and a deep faith in the wisdom of the crowd. It has also proved far more effective at producing equitable institutions than the more deliberative approach. Take British common law, for example. This hodgepodge of accumulated precedents seems to be far better at promoting fairness and equality of access to justice than the more streamlined Napoleonic code on which the legal systems of most Latin American countries are built.

Left to their own devices, people will find ways to check the most extreme inequalities without eliminating all incentives to work. The spread of norms about sharing seems to bear this out. Norms which govern sharing and negotiating with strangers are a cultural invention, not an innate part of human nature. It seems likely that they began to develop only with the emergence of long-range trading between unrelated groups, around 35,000BC. From there, it was a long, slow journey to the merchant bankers who financed grain trading in medieval Italy, and on to the complex mechanisms of today’s global economy. The gradual development of market mechanisms would have been impossible without the co-evolution of norms about what constitutes a fair exchange. And this gives rise to a paradox: markets are both the cause of great inequality, and the source of ideas about what constitutes fair exchange. Perhaps Marx was on to something when he suggested that capitalism would sow the seeds of its own destruction. Or perhaps it has simply provided the mechanisms for softening its worst excesses.

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Dylan Evans

is the founder of Projection Point, a risk analysis firm. His latest book is Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (2012).

In this essay we wish to examine 5 prints drawn by James Gillray in the 1790s and 1800s which explore the theme of the suffering of the British people (“John Bull”) under the heavy taxation and national debt which the British government imposed on them while fighting the war against Napoleon.

James Gillray, "A Great Stream from a Petty-Fountain; or John Bull swamped in the Flood of new-Taxes; Cormorants Fishing the Stream" (1806)


In this essay we wish to examine 5 prints drawn by James Gillray in the 1790s and 1800s which explore the theme of the suffering of the British people ("John Bull") under the heavy taxation and national debt which the British government imposed on them while fighting the war against Napoleon. Gillray shows us not only the suffering of the British taxpayer but also the groups within the British political and military establishment which benefited from these taxes at John Bull's expense. The caricatures are:

  1. "BEGGING no ROBBERY; i.e. Voluntary Contribution; or John Bull escaping a Forced Loan" (1796)
  2. "'The FRIEND of the PEOPLE', and his Petty-New-Tax-Gatherer, paying John Bull a visit" (1806)
  3. "More PIGS than TEATS, or the new Litter of hungry Grunters sucking John Bull's old Sow to death" (1806)
  4. "A Great Stream from a Petty-Fountain; or John Bull swamped in the Flood of new-Taxes; Cormorants Fishing the Stream" (1808)
  5. "Broad-Bottom Drones storming the Hive, Wasps, Hornets & Bumble Bees joining the Attack" (1808)

Useful information about the historical background to the caricatures, especially the identification of the people depicted, can be found in Thomas Wright and R.H. Evans, Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray, comprising a Political and Humorous History of the Latter Part of the Reign of George the Third (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1851).


Historical Context: Taxes, Government Debt, and the Gold Standard 1793-1816

The British government raised its revenue throughout the 18th century by means of a number of sources: a land tax (4 shillings in the pound), excise taxes on items of common consumption. customs duties on imported items (in 1759 the rate was 25%), and loans which were added to the public debt (debt stood at 238 million pounds in 1783 after the War of American Independence). When war broke out against France in 1793 the government initially funded its war effort by taking out more loans - 90% of its expenditures between 1793 and 1798 were from loans, thus doubling its level of indebtedness by the end of that period. Not only did it finance its own war effort but it gave very large contributions to the other monarchies of Europe in order to encourage them to keep fighting the French republicans and then the Bonapartists. By 1815 when Napoleon was defeated the British government debt stood at 875 million pounds.

As the war continued and became increasingly expensive it began to raise taxes, such as the so-called "assessed taxes" on individual items which were imposed on many luxury goods (houses, carriages, servants, horses, plate). These increased so frequently and were applied to more and more items (increasingly on common consumer goods) that it was said of the government that "Wherever you see an object, tax it!" A turning point came in 1799 when an income tax was introduced by William Pitt the Younger; on incomes less than 60 pounds it was zero, over 60 pounds it was 2 pence in the pound, but it rose to 10% for incomes over 200 pounds. By the end of the war the British government was raising 80% of its revenue from the new income and land taxes. The income tax was abolished by Henry Addington in 1802 during a temporary peace with Napoleon, and then reintroduced in 1803 when hostilities resumed. It was finally abolished in 1816 after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Robert Peel reintroduced the income tax yet again, as a "temporary" measure in 1842 at 7 pence in the pound for incomes over 150 pounds. It has remained in place in various forms ever since.

A second turning point in war funding occurred in 1797 when the British government suspended specie payments. Up until that time Britain had been on the gold standard and claims against the Bank of England could be met by withdrawing gold coins or bullion. By stopping specie payment the government was able to get additional loans from the Bank of England via issuing more paper money. The resumption of specie payment took place some years after the war had ended (May 1821). The crisis in British banking over the suspension of specie payment resulted in the so-called Bullion Controversy. The House of Commons requested a report on the way in which increasing paper note issue led to a rise in the price of gold (bullion), which led to the preparation of the Bullion Report of 1810 written largely by Francis Horner, William Huskisson, and Henry Thornton. It was in response to this report that David Ricardo wrote a number of papers on the issue of bullion during 1809-1811.

Interestingly, the finances of Revolutionary France were quite different. The the negative experience of the heavy endebtedness of the Ancien Régime and the failures of the assignat paper currency in the early years of the Republic meant that France was afraid of unfunded debt and so remained on the gold standard throughout the period. It relied less on borrowing and inflating the money supply as its British counterpart did but it was able to make up the shortfall through its draconian policy of taxing the peoples it conquered (or by the outright confiscation of property). Government debt was also alleviated by a deliberate policy of repudiating the debts held by emigre aristocrats.

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About the Artist: James Gillray (1756-1815)

Gillray trained as an engraver but became best known for making hundreds of caricatures of British social and political life in the 1790s and 1800s. He satirized in particular King George III, William Pitt, the French Jacobins, Napoleon, and many others in the British political and military establishment. A recurring theme in his work was the dramatic increase in taxation and the national debt which was imposed in order to fight the wars against Napoleon and which placed a growing burden on the English people (represented as "John Bull"). Gillray also satirized the large numbers of well-connected people in the government and the military who profited from increased government expenditure by depicting them as greedy cormorants, sucking pigs, highway men, and wasps and hornets. These individuals came from both sides of the political spectrum (from the both the Whig and the Tory parites) and were thus called members of the "Broad Bottom'd" (or bipartisan) party.


1. "BEGGING no ROBBERY; i.e. Voluntary Contribution; or John Bull escaping a Forced Loan" (1796)

"BEGGING no ROBBERY; i.e. Voluntary Contribution; or John Bull escaping a Forced Loan" (1796)
[See a higher resolution version of this image 475 KB JPG]


Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection, Yale University Library <>


This is one of several caricatures Gillray did about the "voluntary loan" which was a thinly veiled threat by the government that a "forced loan" would be imposed on taxpayers to raise money for the war effort if they did not make "voluntary" contributions to the exchequer. The government created war hysteria of a French invasion or of domestic revolution in order to frighten members of the public ("John Bull") into making contributions to the government. The author and politician Edmund Burke was very active in contributing to this hysteria with his writings in 1795 on "Letters on a Regicide Peace" (1795) in which he described the French Revolution and its supporters as a "cancer" which had to be cut out of the body politic. Wright and Evans [p. 89] believe that Burke is one of the "three banditti" in the bushes to the right (Dundas, Grenville, and Burke) and that the scene is a parody of the picaresque novel Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715) in which Gil Blas, the son of a poor stablehand and chambermaid, encounters robbers on his way to the University of Salamanca, is forced to assist them, and therefore runs afoul of the law.

Here we see John Bull riding an emaciated horse which looks like it is on its last legs. He has come from "Constitution Hill" and is on his way to "Slavery Slough ("swamp") via Beggary Corner". He has been waylaid by highwaymen hiding in the bushes as he rides by and is obliged to make a "donation" of coins into their hat instead of being forced to make a loan to the government to fund the army. Note the pained expression on his face. The men in the bushes on the right have pistols pointed at him and are wearing fine robes and hats which suggest that they represent the aristocracy, the church, and the law. The man kneeling by the roadside is a soldier wearing torn and bedraggled clothes. He has in his pocket a pistol and a sheet of paper which says "forced loan in reserve". He is holding a blunderbuss on which is written "standing army". In the speech bubble above him it says "Good Sir, for Charity's sake, have Pity upon a poor ruin'd Man; drop if you please, a few bits of Money into the Hat, & you shall be rewarded hereafter." At his feet is a petition which states "Humble PETITION for VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS, Subscriptions & new TAXES, to save the DISTRESSED from taking worse COURSES."


2. "'The FRIEND of the PEOPLE', and his Petty-New-Tax-Gatherer, paying John Bull a visit" (1806)

"'The FRIEND of the PEOPLE', and his Petty-New-Tax-Gatherer, paying John Bull a visit" (May 28, 1806)
[See a higher resolution version of this image 2.4 MB JPG]


Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection, Yale University Library <>


Gillray has ironically called the new tax gatherers in this caricature "The Friend of the People" when obviously from the drawing John Bull and his family are in dire financial straits. A thin looking cat stands in an upper window of their house, washing hangs from a window, his wife and family look frightened when the tax gatherers knock on their door demanding payment of the new taxes, one of the children is gnawing on a meatless thigh bone. A withered grape vine grows on the front of the building. The sign above the front door says "John Bull, late Dealer in the Shop below; Moved Up-Stairs; NB. Porterage done; Shoes clean'd &" . John Bull has lost the lease to his shop (a sign outside says "This Shop to Let. Enquire of the Tax-Gatherer") and has had to move upstairs and do much more menial labour to make a living.

John Bull says to the tax gatherers "TAXES? TAXES? TAXES? why how am I to get Money to pay them all! I shall very soon have neither a House nor Hole to put my head in." Two sharply dressed tax gathers (one with a quill pen behind his ear in order to write down in his ledger the taxes owed and paid - possibly Lord Henry Petty the Chancellor of the Exchequer) are knocking on the door announcing that they have come to collect the new "TAXES! TAXES! TAXES!" They are holding a book which lists all the new taxes the Bulls must pay: property tax 10%, small beer tax, taxes on servants and maids, iron tax, malt tax, window tax, stamp tax, taxes on hats, salt, tobacco, shoes, shirts, and stools. The portly tax gatherer (possibly Charles James Fox) has a large sack of money in his pocket labelled "poundage" (a percentage of a worker's wages taken by the government) and says to John Bull "a house to put your head in? why what the devil would you want with a House? hav'nt you got a first-Floor Room to live in? & if that is too dear, can't you move into the garret or get in to the Cellar? Taxes must be had. Johnny - come down with your Cash, its all for the good of your dear Country."

Wrght and Evans [p. 274] quote from Hansard's Debates, May 15th, 1806 a speech by Fox which parallels what the portly tax gather (Fox) says to John Bull: "According to the extent of a man's income, in many different situations, he might have it in his power to make such alterations in his expenditures as that the tax might not entirely crush him; he might be able in some measure to relieve himself; if he lived in the first floor, for instance, he might remove to the second, and so lessen his expenses: if he was on the second floor already, he might mount to the attic story: but where a man was already to be found in the cellar, where could he be sent to, what reseources could he have?" As Wright and Evans duly note, this caricature was a "most just and happy satire" on Fox's speech in Parliament concerning the new 10% property tax and the hardship which it would impose on the British people.

To the left of John Bull's house is a pawn shop (the "Broad Bottom Pop Shop" with its pawn broker balls hanging above the door - "Broad Bottom" refers to a coalition of politicians from both parties who essentially agree on pursuing a common policy which in this case was increased taxation to fight the war against Napoleon). In the upper story windows we can see large bags of money which suggests that business has been very good as people like John Bull pawn their possessions in order to pay the new taxes. Behind the portly tax gatherer is a horse-drawn cart called the "New Tax Cart" which is filled with household possessions like clocks and furniture which the tax gatherers have possibly accepted in lieu of payment in cash.

In the foreground are numerous references to the new taxes on alcohol. The new taxes on the ingredients for home beer making (malt and hops) meant that working men and women were forced to frequent local pubs which did not have to pay the new taxes (a barrel behind the portly tax gatherer has "Home Brewd Smallbeer. Ten Shillings a Barrel Duty" written on it). Three street urchins (note the girl eating an onion which was a common part of the diet of the very poor) are playing with what looks to be a "beer pump" which is now the only way the poor can afford to drink. The pump has written on the top "NEW BREWERY for the Benefit of the Poor. Erected 1806. C.J. Volpone Overseer". [Volpone, or "the Big Fox", was a character in a play of the same name by Ben Jonson (1606). Volpone was a notorious aristocrat who dupes and tricks others]. At their feet is a drip tray with the name of the manufacturer on it "Whitbreads Entire".

[See the quotation by Vicesimus Knox on the myriad taxes imposed by the British government during the French Revolutionary Wars and its impact on ordinary people.]


3. "More PIGS than TEATS, or the new Litter of hungry Grunters sucking John Bull's old Sow to death" (1806)

"More PIGS than TEATS, or the new Litter of hungry Grunters sucking John Bull's old Sow to death" (March 5, 1806)
[See a higher resolution version of this image 1.6 MB JPG]


Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection, Yale University Library <>


In this caricature John Bull is shown as a pig farmer who has come to check on his old sow in the pig stye. The sow represents the British economy which was being sucked dry by all the demands being placed upon it by the British government in order to fight the war against Napoleon, especially the new war taxes. Those doing the "sucking" are the vested interests which benefited from the policy of war, such as members of the government, the law, the military, and the aristocracy. John Bull is shocked to see his poor emaciated sow (emaciated and near death, with a very forlorn look on her face) being besieged by "hungry Grunters" wanting to suck at her teats. John Bull says "O Lord. O Lord! I never had such a dam'd Litter of hungry pigs in all my life before! why they's beyond all count! [I count 28 (editor)]. where the devil do they think I shall find Wash & Grains for all their Guts? zookers, why they'll drain the poor old Sow to an Otomy! (?) e'cod She'll make but bad Bacon for Boney [the English nickname for Napoleon Bonaparte], when they's all done sucking o'her!!!"

Note that some of the human heads on the sucking pigs are wearing the wigs of barristers and judges (one at each end of the sow). Wright and Evans list the following names from the Whig government which had just come to power and who would now be sucking at John Bull's sow's teats: Horne Tooke, Sir F. Burdett, Tierney, Duke of Bedford, Lord Carlisle, Lord Erskine, Lord Grenville, Lord H. Petty, Lord Temple, Lord Derby, Lord Sidmouth, Sheridan, Fox, Grey, Lord Moira, Windham, The Speaker. [pp. 260-61, no. 311].


4. "A Great Stream from a Petty-Fountain; or John Bull swamped in the Flood of new-Taxes; Cormorants Fishing the Stream" (1806)

"A Great Stream from a Petty-Fountain; or John Bull swamped in the Flood of new-Taxes; Cormorants Fishing the Stream" (May 9, 1806)
[See a higher resolution version of this image 2.5 MB JPG]


Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection, Yale University Library <>


In this caricature, on the left we see John Bull (the personification of Britain) in a sinking boat which has been swamped by a mass of new taxes to fund the war against Napoleon. He has lost hold of an oar with the name of "William Pitt" written on it. [William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister from 1804-1806 as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (or minister of finance)]. On the right we see a man's head (probably Lord Henry Petty the new Chancellor of the Exchequer) from whose mouth pours a fountain of water labeled "new taxes" which are named in the cascades of the fountain (taxes on salt, tea, hops, malt, sugar, alcohol, candles, horses, servants, soap, houses, land, stamps, windows, property, etc.). In the foreground we see 10 hungry cormorants with human heads devouring the fish, crabs, and eels which thrive in the waters of the tax fountain. In the middle ground there are 2 other human-headed birds; in the distance we can see dozens more hungry cormorants heading towards the tax feast. The heads of the cormorants probably depict prominent politicians and other figures of the day.

Wright and Evans observe that the Whig party when it was in opposition had opposed heavey taxation but as soon as they were able to form a government they not only retained all the taxes of the old government but introduced a large number of new ones. The Whig's new budget was brought down by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Henry Petty, whose face can be seen on the right disgorging a stream of new taxes. The cormorants depict the hungry new Whig politicians who eagerly snap up the tax revenues which flow their way. Their heads are those of Windham, Grey, Lord Derby, Duke of Bedford, Fox, Lord Moira, Lord Grenville, Sherdian, Lord Sidmouth, Tierney, Lord H. Petty, Sir F. Burdett, Horne Tooke. [pp. 261-62, no. 313].


5. "Broad-Bottom Drones storming the Hive, Wasps, Hornets & Bumble Bees joining the Attack" (1808)

"Broad-Bottom Drones storming the Hive, Wasps, Hornets & Bumble Bees joining the Attack" (May 2, 1808)
[See a higher resolution version of this image 479 KB JPG]


Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection, Yale University Library <>


The expression "Broad-Bottom" in the title refers to a coalition of politicians from both parties (Whig and Tory) who essentially agree on pursuing a common policy which in this case was increased taxation to fight the war against Napoleon. Hence, the attack on the Treasury was a bi-partisan movement by all the vested interests and power groups within the establishment to make use of the increased government revuenue made possible by higher and more numerous taxes imposed upon the British people.

On the right is a beehive which represents the British treasury. The monarch's crown sits on the top and the hive rests on a wooden table on which is written "Treasury Bench". Beneath this are three pots named "Honey" which are brimming over with coins showing the prosperity and wealth of Britain. To the right of the hive we see three productive honey bees collecting nectar in what looks to be the flowers of a rose bush.

In front of the hive are 21 bees who have come forward to protect the hive from marauding wasps, hornets, and bumble bees who have come to steal the hive's honey. These insects perhaps represent all the vested interest groups seeking money and other benefits from the government, or those groups which cost the Treasury money (say for defence). The bees appear to have beaten off one attack - the six insects at the lower left who have turned tail and are retreating. On their wings are written slogans which reveal their affiliation. Most are illegible but one has a pair of wings on which is written "No Laws" and "No Bastille", another has "Incest", suggesting that the British Treasury has been able to defeat the worst of the French Revolution. The face of the bee leading the defense has well defined human features and is probably meant to be Spencer Perceval who was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1807-1809 and who was able to maintain the war against Napoleon without raising taxes and by cutting costs.

Above the small group of retreating insects (6) is a much more numerous swarm (24) which is advancing towards the hive. The smaller and less distinct insects have the following slogans on their wings: Volponean rancour, vanity, cunning, policy, disappointment, majesty of the people, detractors, profundity, folly, reason - the meanings of which are unclear. At the bottom of the advancing swarm is one long insect with wings which read "New Republican Gills for Sailing without Rudder."

In the middle of the swarm are three large bumble bees who are actively attacking the hive. The top one in green has on his wings Wax" and "Stationary"(a lawyer perhaps) and appears to be vomiting on the hive. The middle one in red and wearing spectacles has on his wings "Catholic Loyalty" and "Catholic Gratitude" and is farting at the crown on the top of the hive (the monarch is head of the established Anglican Church). This may be a reference to the fact that Spencer Perceval continued to oppose Catholic emancipation when he was Prime Minister. The lower bumble bee is yellow with a large red crucifix on its back. His wings say "Envy" and "Ambition" and he is blowing rings of smoke at the hive (suggesting the traditional anti-catholic sentiments of British protestants who thought the Catholic Church wanted to create an independent power structure in Britain that would be loyal to a foreign power, i.e. the Pope, and that it would use the "smoke" of obfuscation and ritual to bamboozle the British people).

Note that in the highest resolution image of this caricature someone has tried to identify in pencil in the margin the names of the individuals whose heads adorn the wasps, hornets, and bumble bees in the picture. Unfortunately these are illegible. However, Wright and Evans [p.316] do provide a list of names which they believe are being caricatured in the print: Lord Sidmouth, Lord Ellensborough, Duke of Bedford, Windham, Lord Carlisle, Lord Spencer, Duke of Norfolk, Lord St. Vincent, Courtney, Lord Lauderdale, Sheridan, Horne Tooke, Duke of Clarence, Lord Erskine, Sir F. Burdett, Lord Moira, Lord Derby, Tierney, Marquis of Buckingham, Lord Temple, Windham, Lord Grenville, Whitbread, Lord H. Petty, Lord Hawkesbury, Lord Eldon, Canning.


Last modified April 13, 2016

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