Friday, February 8, 2013

Beelzebub Complains About Taxes In 1763

by Stephen J. Gertz

A scarce satirical hieroglyphic epistle dated April 1, 1763 and written by Beelzebub, one of the seven princes of Hell, has recently come to market. It was surely hell on the mail-carrier. Within, the Evil One complains about an excise duty on wines and spirits. People were going postal.

The letter, addressed to John Stuart, 3d Earl of Bute and Prime Minister of Great Britain (May 26, 1762- April 8, 1763),  mocks the 1763 cider tax of four shillings per hogshead  (a large wine cask holding approx. 300 liters) on apple cider or perry (pear cider), to be paid by the grower. It was imposed by the  rake, politician, and founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, Francis Dashwood - later Baron Le Despencer - who owed his appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer to his dependence upon Lord Bute.

The tax was levied to pay down debts that the British government had accrued to finance the Seven Years War aka the French and Indian War. The tax was greeted with riots in the streets of London and Lord Bute's windows were smashed. The commotion led to Bute's resignation on April 8, 1763, a week after this engraved broadside was published. Highly unpopular, the new tax was eventually repealed in 1767.

The need for debt reduction an ongoing imperative after the War, in 1765 the British levied the American colonies with the Stamp Act, which required that printed material used in America be produced using British paper bearing a revenue stamp. That did not go over well and the reaction in the Colonies became the first instance of organized resistance to British rule, which ultimately led to the American revolution. 

In the letter Beelzebub suggests that the Earl might think of taxing other commodities such as bread, milk, beer and water, "for wh[eye] should the Vulgar (who are no more than Brutes in [ewer] Opinion) have any thing to Eat above Gr[ass] without paying Tribute [toe] their Superiors."

Hieroglyphic epistles, with emblematic figures substituting for words  as in the Hieroglyphic Bibles first seen in Germany in 1687 and later published in England and the United States to great popularity in the late 18th through 19th centuries, were a minor craze in Britain during the late eighteenth century. I'm aware of another example written by Beelzebub, from 1779.

BEELZEBUB. Excise A Comical Hieroglyphical Epistle. London, Sold by I. Williams next the Mitre Tavern Fleet Street, April 1st, 1763. Engraved broadside, 13 3/4 x 10 1/4 inches (350 x 260mm).

Image courtesy of Shapero Rare Books, currently offering this item, with our thanks.

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