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History of Free Trade page 4

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The legislature of King George III.'s reign likewise took especial note of buttons, including foreign buttons, buttons made of wood, cloth buttons, and metal buttons. No one was to have, even in his possession, any foreign buttons under the most terrible penalties; and shops, warehouses, and dwelling-houses were liable to be searched for any such treasonable articles. Nobody was allowed to make, sell, or sew on, any buttons made of wood only, and turned in imitation of other buttons. An information having been 10dged against an unfortunate person for making wooden buttons contrary to the statute, the jury, after a solemn charge from the judge, found a verdict that the button was of wood, but that there was in it a shank of wire. After a long argument, judgment was given for the King, on the ground that this was a button of wood notwithstanding the shank, the judge learnedly observing that the shank was no essential part of the button, for buttons of silk and hair have no shanks. By another act Englishmen were forbidden to make or sew any buttons or button-holes of serge, drugget, frieze, camlet, or any other stuff of which clothes are usually made, the offender being liable to be committed to the common gaol of the county or place where he should be found, and kept to hard labour for three calendar months (4 Geo. I., cap. 7). An exception was made in favour of persons wearing velvet clothes, who might choose what buttons they pleased; but excepting in regard to these garments the wearers were equally liable to penalties. It was also part of the law of this realm that no one should wear printed or dyed calico, with the special proviso that the act did not extend to calico dyed all blue. The statute of 14 Geo. III., cap. 72, gravely recites that doubts had arisen whether stuff wholly made of cotton spun within this kingdom ought not to be considered as calico, and declares that any person may use the same in apparel or otherwise; that in every piece there shall be woven in the warp in both selvedges three blue stripes, each stripe of one thread only, " the first of which stripes shall be the first or outermost thread, the second of the stripes shall be the third thread, and the third of the stripes shall be the fifth thread; and, instead of the word ' calico,' each piece shall be marked with the words British manufactory.' " Some of these old statutes remained till lately unrepealed, and it has happened in the last fifteen years that a defendant to an action brought by a tailor put in the plea that the articles of clothing supplied were furnished with buttons of silk, in contravention of the statute. It is hardly surprising that our progress in population and wealth before the partial relaxation of these unjust and pernicious laws was extremely slow as compared with the subsequent period. It is, indeed, a remarkable evidence of the spirit and energy of the English race that their numbers should have increased at all under such circumstances, or the people escaped from sinking into that listless condition which writers describe as the characteristic of the natives of Iceland, and which Mr. Baring Gould, the latest of our travellers in that region, traces entirely to the mischievous influença of the interference with all trade formerly exercised by the Danish Government.

The silly system of attempting to fix the price of bread by law, was maintained far into the present century, and is even now not everywhere abolished. The most arbitrary acts were done by those entrusted with power to interfere with the baking trade. Mr. Scholey, alderman of London, in his evidence before the Select Committee on the Bread Laws, in 1815, stated that the Court of Aldermen had, of their own judgment, shortly before fined a baker £500 for having traded in flour on which he was to have only a factorage - an offence of a purely imaginary kind. " The regulation of the trade," says Mr. MacCulloch, " was supposed to be necessary, to prevent that monopoly on the part of the bakers which, it was feared, might otherwise take place. But it is needless, perhaps, to say that this apprehension was of the most futile description. The trade of a baker is one which may be easily learned, and it requires no considerable capital to carry it on; so that were those engaged in the business in any particular town to attempt to force up prices to an artificial elevation, the combination would be immediately defeated by the competition of others; and even though this were not the case, the facility with which bread may be baked at home, would of itself serve to nullify the efforts of any combination. But the assize regulations were not merely useless - they rendered the price of flour a matter of comparative indifference to the baker, and they obliged the baker to use the finest flour and make the best bread - to sell at the same rate as those who used inferior flour, and whose bread was decidedly of a worse quality. But these considerations, how obvious soever they may appear, were for a long time entirely overlooked. According, however, as the use of wheaten bread was extended, it was found to be impracticable to set assizes in small towns and villages; and notwithstanding that the fewness of the bakers in such places gave them greater facilities for combining together, the price of bread was almost uniformly lower in them than in places where assizes were set. In consequence, partly, of this circumstance, but still more of the increase of intelligence as to such matters, the practice of setting an assize was gradually relinquished in most places, and in 1815 it was expressly abolished by an act of the Legislature (53 Geo. III. cap. 99), in London and its environs. In other places, though the power to set the assize still subsists, it is seldom acted upon, and has fallen into comparative disuse."

It was not until 1824 that wiser and more equitable views of the freedom of workmen and masters were finally established, by the repeal of the Combination Laws. In that year a select committee of the House of Commons reported strongly against the whole body of the laws then existing on this subject. After collecting a large amount of evidence from various persons familiar with the practical working of these regulations, the committee declared their opinion that the laws to prevent combination and meetings among workmen had altogether failed in their objects, and had even rendered more violent and dangerous those trade associations which existed in spite of the law. It Was remarked that although the masters had often combined to lower the rates of their workmen's wages, as well as to resist a demand for an increase, to regulate their hours of working, and sometimes to discharge their men who would not consent to the conditions offered, no instances had been adduced of any masters having been punished for such offences against the law. Prosecutions against masters had, indeed, taken place where the steps taken by the masters had been followed by riotous proceedings and acts of violence; but in no case had a conviction been obtained. On the other hand, to show the partial and unjust working of these laws, it was found that prosecutions for similar offences had frequently been carried on under the statute and the common law against the workmen, numbers of whom had, in consequence, suffered different periods of imprisonment. The committee, accordingly, recommended that " masters and workmen should be freed from such restrictions, and be left at perfect liberty to make such agreements as they may mutually think proper." And an act was accordingly passed to that effect.

Thus the present century has seen almost all of these vexatious restrictions removed. The mischievous assize of labour, or system of settling the rates of wages by order of justices of the peace, had existed ever since the fourteenth century, untouched by constitutional settlements or Bill of Eights - indeed, was scarcely heard of as a grievance amid all the political discussions of that long period. No greater proof can be found of how little the people were regarded by the parliaments and rulers of those bad old times. For four hundred years the poor were thus harassed and oppressed - driven from this employment, shut out from that, regulated, watched, and kept down by fine and imprisonment - in a way which rendered their supposed emancipation from the old feudal serfdom a change but in name. What they might do, and what they might not do, in the way of exercise of their industry - their only birthright - would have comprised more rules than a man with leisure could have got by heart in a lifetime. The very intervals for their meals were defined by law. And amid all this no voice was heard, except an occasional outcry on the part of those who were more happily circumstanced, against the alleged idleness of the poor. Whenever labour became scarcer, whether by reason of a plague removing a large number of the competitors for employment, or from the natural increase of employment due to the growth of wealth and manufactures, this cry was raised. Just as in France, before the great Revolution, no belief was more common among the privileged classes than that the labouring classes would not work; and as in our own colonies, since we have emancipated the negroes, it is the common complaint of the planters that the blacks are lazy, and will not toil for the old remuneration of mere food and shelter, so it was customary at every period when the English labourer's wages had a tendency to rise, to exclaim against their exorbitant demands, and to call upon the Legislature for more stringent laws. Some of these cries were, no doubt, honestly believed in. Before the principles taught by Adam Smith were generally understood, a notion prevailed that the foreign commerce of England was dependent upon the power of manufacturers to obtain cheap labour; and that a rise in wages would prevent their supplying goods to foreign markets at those low rates which it was supposed were the cause of our export trades. Among the many good effects of the promulgation of sounder views, we may place in the first rank the dispersion of these false doctrines. It was at last perceived that countries in which labour was cheaper than with us - as was the case almost throughout the Continent - had no superiority in the condition of their export trade, but the contrary; while in countries in which labour was dearer, as in America and the new colonies, the export trade was often remarkably flourishing. In the latter case the facts observed were no doubt owing chiefly to the greater abundance and superior natural fertility of land; but, in fact, exports are merely the mode in which a country pays for the foreign articles which it desires to consume. If, therefore, the exporters were really injured by high wages, they would simply increase the price of their goods. It is absurd to suppose that English consumers would go without tea because the cottons and woollens which we export to China in exchange had risen in price through an increase of wages in those particular trades. The merchants would only export some other articles, or would recompense themselves for the additional expense of their trade by a rise in the price of tea.

It is quite true that many restrictions on domestic industry were supported even by the labouring classes themselves. The outcry against that settling of foreign artificers in England, by which our arts and manufactures in earlier times have been so largely improved, has always been popular; and the legislation on this subject, which has so often disgraced our statute book, may be said to have been forced upon the rulers for the time being by the clamour of the people, who were not aware that great branches of industry, hitherto scarcely followed in this country, had been created by the very causes which they desired to remove. The Guild regulations, which were all so many obstructions to fair play in the struggle for employment, were naturally supported by those fortunate classes - for labour itself had its aristocracy and privileged few - who benefited by them at the expense of the consumer. Such, too, were the old apprenticeship laws, which were always jealously supported by the working classes. By the old common law of England, which may be said to have been the spontaneous growth of the moral sense of the people, every one had a right to employ himself in any business he pleased. Bad legislation, however, succeeded in corrupting the popular mind on this point by sowing ideas of a totally different character. By the Statute of Apprenticeship, which existed up to the year 1814, it was enacted that no person should for the future exercise any trade, craft, or mystery at that time exercised in England and "Wales, unless he had previously served to it an apprenticeship of seven years at least. The judges, however, who had been bred in different views of law, were always unwilling to give effect to the provisions of this statute. Nothing, indeed, could be more unjust than this regulation; nor was its injustice mitigated by the extreme harshness of the provisions generally inserted in apprenticeship indentures. Moreover, nothing could be more unreasonable than the fixing of one period - especially a period so long as seven years - for the learning of every craft. There were, of course, trades which required infinitely longer time to learn than others; and, of course, the capacities, and the industry, and zeal of learners were also various. Under the system, however, which the wisdom of the rulers of our forefathers instituted, all occupations were brought to one lifeless level. A dreary servitude was the only "porch and inlet" by which the British workman could find his way to the privilege of toiling for his daily bread. No amount of steady perseverance in the study of his art could save him from one week of this term; no willingness on the part of the master to take him for a shorter period could relieve him from the disabilities of the law; and if he had the misfortune to be brought up without " serving his time," as it was called, to any business, no after struggle could repair the error.

It must be admitted, however, that the opposition on the part of the working classes to the admission of workmen who had not, like themselves, served a term of apprenticeship, was not unreasonable. As long as law or custom sanctioned and maintained these barriers, it was a manifest injustice to the workmen of any particular trade to be suddenly flooded with competitors for work who had not been subjected to a similar ordeal. It is possible to conceive that the wages in any trade might be reduced far below the general level by a relaxation of these rules. Nor was the opposition to immigrations of foreign workmen, however illiberal, altogether based upon delusions. The statesmen of the past, who have framed the laws for the regulation of our domestic and foreign trade, have been guilty of far graver economical errors than were implied in the workman's dislike of large importations of labour. These immigrations, it must be remembered, generally took place in consequence, not of an extraordinary demand here for workmen, but of some political circumstances abroad. Such was the celebrated Edict of Nantes, which drove out of France large numbers of Protestant workmen, who took refuge in this country. These refugees were in great part connected with the silk trade, and the redundancy of labour which they occasioned in that trade was certainly one of the causes why the English weavers sunk to that position of dependence to which they have so long been doomed. The only traces of these laws now existing are to be found in some city regulations, and in the voluntary practice of certain trades, from the effect of which they are rapidly dying out. We must, however, note a remarkable exception to this principle in the legal profession, where, as if for ever to deprive the better educated classes of any right to reproach the workman with his illiberality and selfishness, regulations still exist as to the term of apprenticeship or articles, the number of articled clerks, and other things, which though based, as all these abuses are, upon a pretended regard for public interest, have really no other effect than to restrict the number of lawyers, and maintain a rate of remuneration above that level to which it would inevitably fall under a system of free trade in law.

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