BEHIND THE SCENES: HISTORY AND THE HISTORICAL NOVEL
The question every reader has about historical fiction is how much of the story is real.
Many authors, myself included, put an historical note at the end of the novel. Such a note attempts to set the basic record straight. This event happened, that one did not. This person is real, that one is fictional. And so it goes. It's impossible to go into all the details, of course, as years of researach and notes cannot be condensed into a short space. That is why in this and the upcoming blogs I will expand on this time of revolution, naval and military battles, and Napoleonic do or die by giving the story behind the story.
ONE FLEW OVER THE FISCAL CLIFF
With the US about to hit its debt ceiling and fall over the fiscal clff, it's easy to forget this happened once before. How two major eighteenth century military powers dealt with massive war debts provides a cautionary economic tale.
The American Revolution left the treasuries of England and France badly depleted. True, this wasn't the first time wars had beggared either country or that they had to cope with deficits. In
the not-too-distant past there had been the Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian War in the US), in which Britain had stripped France of Canada. The American Revolution was to be a different matter. Baron de Turgot, France's Comptroller-General (rougly equivalent to Treasury secretary, among other things) foresaw costs spiralling out of control. He feared whatever gains won from checking British interests abroad would be more than offset by France's resulting deficits at home. Much needed domestic reforms would be at stake, perhaps permanently damaged, and with them, France herself.
England ended the war with her share of problems. She had lost the American colonies.
Like France, she also was awash in red ink. The national debt was so great that interest on it alone consumed most of the nation's taxes. Yet after the 1783 Treaty of Paris, England possessed one advantage France lacked, William Pitt. Gifted with political and economic insight beyond his years, the twenty-something politician rose to power first as Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Prime Minister. He sought to bring down the national debt immediately with a six million pound loan. Long term, he wanted to establish a sinking fund to pay down the debt and also sell stock at higher interest rates. More importantly, in the short run he raised taxes. It was a bold plan, aimed at goods, which for the most part, were luxury items. Hats, windows, ribbons, linens, gold, silver items, hackney coaches, and so forth, were now subject to taxation.
Pitt initially had included a broader reaching coal tax, but because of popular oppostion (coal was a fuel), he dropped it. Pitt also raised revenues by dropping duties on tea. His aim was to reduce smuggling, and in doing so to actually increase revenues. In the meantime, Pitt increased, not decreased expenditures, most notably by expanding the navy.
Then there was France. Her percentage of public revenue required to pay down the war debt was comparable to, though somewhat less, than England's. Taxes in France, however, were less than those in England. Two additional factors cospired to make French debt more intractable. The first was the perception of debt. Successive French governments viewed it with panic rather than pragmatism. The second problem was the approach to paying down the debt. Pitt had floated a new loan but simultaneously raised taxes. The French relied on loans only to pay the debt because raising taxes would have precipitated a political outcry. Besides the King, French government lay in hands of the nobility and the clergy, both of whom, though some might in theory recommend rasig taxes, were in reality staunchly opposed to it. The system used to gather taxes relied on middlemen, rather than the State itself. Corruption and abuse were rampant, and the tax burden fell mostly on the common Frenchman.
Like England, France also increased her navy and built a new port at Cherbourg, among other projects. Time and time again, efforts to increase taxes were shot down. Bad harvests in 1785 and unrest in the Netherlands, a major loan source, brought France to the brink of bankruptcy and revolution.
Admittedly this is a simplified account of complicated economic events. One thing, though, is certain. England, by raising taxes, helped avert economic disaster. France, by refusing to raise taxes, helped push herself over a financial and political cliff. Let us hope history does not repeat itself here in the United States.
Hague, William. William Pitt the Younger. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005.
Schama, Simon. Citizens. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1989.
The following video presents an American Revolution reenactor demonstrating how to fire a Charleville.
"When I think back upon that time, now so very many years ago, with
what glad anticipation and beating heart I first scaled those those wooden
walls. . .I can only sadly shake my head and conclude I was a d--d fool."
Captain Edward Deveare, Evington Papers, Surrey History Center,
7759/9, Surrey History Center, Woking, England.
"Baltimore be to my liking. As soon as I make enough, I be bringing Nan here as
well. It could be we found a home."
Jemmy Sweetman, Archives, Maryland Historical Society.
"Mr. Pitt, for all his faults, did well to build up the fleet. England shall need every
ship she can put afloat in this war against France."
Private letters, by permission of Sir Reginald Pearse, Bart.
" A good dram of Scots whiskey may not be the cure for all a man's ills, but it
certainly is a good place to start."
Recollections of the Great War, Colonel Ian McAllistair.
"England may not wish for war, but I fear war is what she must face. The French
must not be allowed to fire upon our ships with impunity."
Lord Evington, Evington Papers, 7760/9, Surrey History Center, Woking,
"The old ways of fighting must be changed. Soldiers can and should be encouraged
to think as well as obey, especially line officers."
General Jacques Beldoque, Lettres, Archives de la guerre, Vincennes, France.
"An army of citizens, led by citizens! This is what France needs. This is
what she shall have!"
Colonel Louis Saulnier, Lettres, Archives de la guerre, Vincennes, France.