Muddled and cranky: Macintosh’s letter to a Prime Minister

Macintosh to Addington, 15 November 1801. Devon Archives and Local Studies, 152M/C/1801/OZ/130

Although my current focus should be falling exclusively on Macintosh’s experiences in Grenada in the 1760s and 1770s (as I prepare to begin work on the first of the book’s empirical chapters), I do find it hard to resist the lure of distraction whenever a new or unexpected piece of information about Macintosh presents itself.

This week I received a copy of a letter from Macintosh to the then Prime Minister, Henry Addington, that I have long looked forward to reading. The reason for my anticipation was the idiosyncratic and rather brilliant description of the letter in the catalogue of the Devon Archives, which reads “William MacIntosh, Henry Addington – Ideas on taxation from an old pamphlet (muddled, cranky letter), 1801″

While I do think the archivist was perhaps a little unfair on Macintosh on this occasion, I fully recognise the problem: Macintosh often wrote in convoluted and circuitous ways that make interpretation—particularly from a distance of more than two centuries—challenging, to say the least. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating letter that both confirms some things I had known, or suspected, and reveals new information and opens up new lines of investigation.

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, by Sir William Beechey (1803). NPG 5774.

The letter is interesting partly for what it reveals about Macintosh’s time in Germany. It was sent from Offenbach on the south shore of the river Main, opposite Frankfurt, and contains an account of Macintosh’s investigations the previous year (1800) in Nuremberg. As Macintosh tells it,

In a research amongst old books in the shop of an antiquarian in Nuremberg last year, I found a neglected pamphlet, which I thought worthy of being preserved & bound, on the profound subject of finance.

Macintosh then goes on to expound, seemingly on the basis of this pamphlet, his views on the issue of taxation which, put simply, was that excessive taxation “upon the Necessaries of Life” would drive up the price of British-manufactured goods and reduce their competitiveness on the world market. In Macintosh’s view, “the principal burthen [sic] of the State machine must be made to fall [instead] upon the pecuniary incomes of persons, without exception, in a progressive ratio not dissimilar to the mode of estimating diamonds”.

Perhaps keen to assure Addington that this was no idle speculation, Macintosh underlined his long-term commitment to the task of shaping the government’s view on issues of finance:

At various periods—within the last 20 Years—I sent sketches of plans of finance &c to persons closely connected with Government in England; some of which have been partially adopted—without the real Author’s name being known.

Beyond the contents of the letter itself, which have interesting parallels with discussions around a controversial duty imposed on goods exported from Grenada in the 1760s and 1770s, it is really useful to have confirmation of Macintosh’s status as an anonymous informant and would-be persuader. What this does mean, of course, is that there will be many unsigned letters from Macintosh to British politicians that I can never hope to find. As I try to remind myself, however, my task in this book is not to be definitive, but to open up the world of Macintosh for other scholars to explore.

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  1. Pingback: The closer you look, the more you see | On the archival trail of William Macintosh

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