Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

William J. Ashworth, Customs and Excise: Trade, Production, and Consumption in England, 1640-1845. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xiii + 396 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-925921-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul Carvajal, Department of History, University College London.

This is an ambitious book with a wide scope both thematically and chronologically. It provides a comprehensive description of the origins, development and demise of a mode of taxation, namely, the fiscal regime of the English/British State from the formation of the Excise in the 1640’s to the introduction of income tax some two hundred years later. It provides an account of the organization and operation of the revenue collecting departments, the Customs and Excise, the impact and ramifications and these institutions and the nature and consequences of resistance to them. Much of the argument relies on a synthesis of previous historiography but includes new research and an imaginative use of sources.

In this regime the state increasingly raised revenue through a system of indirect taxation levied by the departments of Customs, generally on imports and exports, and Excise on goods manufactured or retailed at “home.” Parliamentary oversight and consent replaced the Crown, the Treasury became the sole receiver and tax farming by private individuals was replaced by public administration by Commissioners. The revenue underpinned government credit, the ever-expanding national debt and the new financial instruments and architecture commonly referred to as the “financial revolution.” It was the reliability, legitimacy and visibility of revenue that created the necessary confidence among investors.

Indirect taxation was increasingly favored over the direct forms of land tax and subsidy that relied on amateur administration and the consent of the landowners. Excise emerged as the primary source of revenue. While Customs was riddled with patronage, sinecures, fees and inadequate financial procedures, Excise developed new “bureaucratic” practices of selection on merit, training, discipline and financial probity. Furthermore the Excise targeted, though not exclusively, necessary items of consumption such as soap, candles, beer and leather. On these items demand was inelastic and therefore reliable. Shifting the point of excise onto the producer made taxes more opaque and distant from the consumer, assisting the State in its continuous struggle for legitimacy.

This is a conventional account up to this point that relies on a synthesis of the work of Elizabeth Hoon (The Organisation of the English Customs System, London, 1938), John Brewer (The Sinews of Power, Cambridge, 1989) and Michael Braddick (The Nerves of State, Manchester, 1996) among others. However where these studies have focused on administration and state formation, Ashworth is at his most original when considering the economic ramifications of this fiscal regime. Much of the book is concerned with the influence of Customs and Excise on manufacturing, trade, economic thought and policy. In order to tax particular goods it was necessary to encourage forms of consumption, trade and manufacture. To achieve this the State adopted an important role in regulating and shaping the economy. This role, argues Ashworth, constituted a coherent economic policy that engendered a legislative and administrative program. This is his strongest, most unorthodox claim that remains powerfully suggestive despite the lack of a systematic attempt to demonstrate it.

Economic intervention entailed a system of trade structured by Customs through the enforcement of the Navigation Acts, prohibitions, tariffs, bounties and drawbacks in order to protect and encourage certain domestic manufactures and markets. The argument would benefit here from a more systematic account of the trade system as a whole, integrating Ashworth’s discussions of the Navigation Acts, America, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The organization and practice of the Customs system is well drawn and uses Board of Customs Order and Minute Books, an excellent and underused source. A detailed and quantitative examination of the impact of this system on imports and exports, markets, production costs and so on would take the argument further. He is successful in showing how the need for visibility and control led to the standardization of casks and the creation of “enclosed” topographies culminating in enclosed docks and the Warehousing Act in 1803.

The pressure for standardization also affected metrology. The standardization of weights and measures was necessary both for purposes of measurement and also as a legitimating practice, replacing and at times conflicting with older forms of verification based on oaths, custom and relationship with disinterested and visible objectivity. The creation of abstract and standard measures universally applied within the boundaries of the State assisted the integration of the national economy, already encouraged by the absence of internal customs tariffs and duties.

The need to render processes and goods visible, measurable and accountable led the Excise to intervene directly in manufacturing. It shaped the “space of production” in the excised manufactures by encouraging large, centralized, easily observable production units and through the specification and surveillance of manufacturing processes. He demonstrates this through an examination of glassmaking, brewing, tanning, distilling and other excised manufactures. A wider, partly quantitative examination of the development, scale, profitability and so on of the excised manufactures would allow a further understanding of the effects of regulation. However, this is an important contribution to a wider theme, that of the active economic role of the state within the economy. Ashworth shows the state creating a regulating, surveying and “panoptic” presence within the economic sphere.

The interventions of the Customs and Excise met objection and evasion. Objection took many forms and Ashworth provides interesting accounts of debates about liberty and property, consumption and luxury, the taxing of the poor and the relationship between taxation and representation. He shows how tensions over these issues led to radical critiques of Old Corruption and to that great rupture of the tax regime, the revolt of the American colonies. Drawing on the work of Linebaugh (The London Hanged, London, 1991) he locates metrology, casks, warehouses, wharves and docks within the relationships of class and class struggle. The incentive to evade tax created an illicit economy of false measure, adulteration, perquisite, illegal production and a vast intricate smuggling network of import, distribution and marketing. This is well drawn, though his use of the term “common economy” to describe this illicit economy is not explained. The term remains suggestive but perplexing, particularly as, like Mui and Mui (“Smuggling and the British Tea Trade,” American Historical Review, October, 1968), he sees this economy as entrepreneurial and instrumental in building extensive distribution networks and markets.

The government sought to achieve legitimacy through “retrenchment,” Parliamentary scrutiny and reform. Probity, merit, accountability and office as a public service rather than a private property were cultivated in this endeavor, particularly within the Excise. The continuing expansion of the national debt, particularly after the Napoleonic Wars, exhausted tax opportunities. Cotton, iron and pottery emerged, as lightly taxed, technologically innovative, export-led industries resistant to the impositions and restrictions of trade barriers and excise regulations. Confidence and ambition regarding the international competitiveness of these industries made trade barriers and protection appear unnecessary and obstructive.

The growing intensity of radical critiques of the taxation of necessaries and the poor, especially in light of the American revolt, increasingly threatened the legitimacy of government and the limits of political representation. Labor theories of value shifted concern from the balance of trade to the costs of labor and the cost of tax on the wage. At the same time new forms and distributions of wealth had emerged among the new middle classes, entrepreneurs and investors. In 1842 Peel introduced income tax to tap this wealth, removing dependence on indirect taxation and allowing the removal of trade barriers and taxation of the consumption of the poor. This new dispensation in turn required the expansion of the political nation to create a legitimate match of taxation and representation.

The scope of his book conveys the general importance of taxation and its critical relationship to the development of economy and state, both materially and ideologically. It is perhaps not possible for a book of this thematic and chronological scope to adequately address all its claims or to follow all its points of departure. As I have argued some of his most interesting and provocative claims remain in need of further development. Ashworth has provided a useful and comprehensive synthesis of current historiography and makes important and innovative contributions. This book complicates the relationship between economy and state and establishes that a history of either cannot be complete without a history of the mode of taxation.

Paul Carvajal, a graduate student in history at University College London, is writing a dissertation titled “Moral and Market Economies on the 18th-century River Thames.”