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The History of Free Trade page 2

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Of course, under these circumstances, growing corn at home became for awhile so good a business, that rents rose everywhere. In fact, the whole amount thus wrung from the consumers of bread throughout the kingdom came ultimately, not to the farmers, and still less to the miserable class of agricultural labourers, but into the pockets of that landed interest so largely represented in the Parliaments which passed and maintained these unjust enactments. For the first sixty-six years of the last century the export of our corn was very great. In one year alone it reached nearly one million of quarters, or about one-fourth of the whole average produce of the country; and in ten years the exporters received in the shape of bounties, or Government rewards for their pains, upwards of one million and a half sterling. From 1697 to 1773, nearly thirty-one millions of quarters were thus exported, and upwards of six millions sterling were paid in bounties. In 1773, the peck loaf having reached the high price of 2s. 6d., a slight change for the better was for awhile established. Foreign wheat was allowed to be brought in on paying a nominal duty of sixpence, but the people were permitted no relief from high prices till corn had reached at least 48s. a quarter. At the same time it was settled that exportation was to cease when the price had reached 44s. - an interference with trade which was at least well intentioned, although now recognised as belonging to a kind of legislation which does far more harm than good. This statute also permitted the importation of corn duty free, if intended to be again exported; but the corn was, in the interval, to be kept closely locked up under the joint custody of the king and the importer, and every other precaution was taken that it should on no account be used in feeding our own people. Foreign corn now began to be brought in, and wheat continued steady at about 45s. a quarter. In 1790, however, the old system was partially returned to, and in 1804 a still worse change was effected.

In that year a Committee of the House of Commons reported that "the price of corn from 1791 to 1803 had been very irregular;" and added, "the casual high prices, however, have had the effect of stimulating industry, and bringing into cultivation large tracts of waste land, which, combined with the two last productive seasons, and other causes, have occasioned such a depression in the value of grain, as, it is feared, will greatly tend to the discouragement of agriculture, unless maintained by the support of Parliament." A bill was, in consequence, brought in by Mr. Western, and an act passed, by which a duty was imposed of 24s. 3d. per quarter, when the price should be at or under 63s.; and 2s. 6d. per quarter, when at or above that rate and under 66s.; and 6d. when above 66s. The consequence of this law was instantly to raise the price of food throughout the country; and the bad harvest of that year still further increased the sufferings of the people. The price of bread was more than doubled - the Legislature was flooded with petitions setting forth the evils of the new tax, but without effect.

Mr. Francis stated, in the course of the debate of 13th May, 1805, that "when the bill passed, the price of bread was not more than eightpence or ninepence the quartern loaf, and in about a month after it rose to sixteen or seventeen pence;" but the House determined by large majorities that the rise had nothing to do with the new law, and all petitions on the subject were ordered to lie on the table. Colonel Stanley in vain represented the extent of the complaints against the bill in the manufacturing parts of Lancashire. In vain Sir Robert Peel, the father of that Peel whose name was afterwards to be for ever associated with the repeal of these iniquitous laws, told the House that " the manufacturing interest should be supported against foreign competition by supplying the necessities of workmen at a reasonable rate," and that " a temporary depression of the farmer's profits ought not to be made the cause of a permanent burden on the consumer." Mr. Coke, the great agriculturist of Norfolk, was naturally " against any further discussion being had on the subject." Mr. Western, a gentleman who is described in the "Index to the House of Commons" of that time as possessing large landed property in Essex, praised the working of the act, because, under the shelter of its provisions, " a man who employed his capital in agriculture might safely conclude on deriving an adequate profit from it, and in this manner be put upon a fair footing with the manufacturer." Sir J. Newport opposed the motion for a committee of inquiry, because "he thought, whenever this subject was discussed, speculations took place which were injurious; " which was no doubt true from the landlord's point of view.

The period which followed was one of ruin to the poorer classes, but of uninterrupted prosperity for the landowners. The enormous expenditure of the war pressed heavily upon industry. Pauperism increased rapidly, and the price of food grew higher and higher. In 1812, owing to bad harvests, and the enormous expense of importation, wheat rose to £7 15s. the quarter, and bread riots were consequently common in various parts of the country. It is a singular proof of the blindness of class interests, that, under these alarming circumstances, the landowners had no remedy to suggest but new barriers against the importation of foreign corn. Owing to the very high prices which had prevailed, the law for some time had had practically little effect in keeping out foreign grain; but the prospect of a sudden collapse was too serious to be regarded complacently by the agricultural party. Sir H. Parnell, the chairman of a committee appointed to inquire into the subject in 1813, complained that, during the previous twenty-one years, "fifty-eight millions sterling had been paid to foreign countries for corn " - a fact, of course, rather consolatory than otherwise, at least from the consumer's point of view, as it showed how much the pressure of our own bad harvestshad been diminished by foreign supplies. Finally, the committee recommended that no foreign corn should be allowed to come in until our own had reached 95s. a quarter, and that even then all importations should be discouraged by a regularly increasing duty. This proposition, however, was strenuously opposed by several members, on the ground that "the real object was, by raising the price of grain, to increase the rents of land, and prevent many thousand persons in every parish from procuring bread, already too high, by their daily labour." This motion, however, though for the present laid aside, sufficiently indicated the temper of the legislature. In truth, as far as the landowners were concerned, there had hitherto been no immediate necessity for the bill, as the war maintained prices so high that foreign corn could not be kept out, however burdened with duties. The war, however, was manifestly drawing to a close, from the almost complete exhaustion of the military resources of France, and the anxiety of the landlords naturally increased. In 1813 the harvest was everywhere abundant, and after the opening of the ports of the Continent the price of corn fell rapidly, till about the end of the year it was scarcely half the price which it had maintained in 1812. The consternation of the landlords was complete. The cry of agricultural distress was heard throughout the land; but the poorer classes - so long kept upon the extreme brink of famine - suddenly found a joyful relief. What they had suffered throughout that dark period, when landowners were rejoicing over high rents, and the farmers who paid them foolishly toasted at their festivals, " The prosperity of agriculture, the true strength of the country," may be inferred from the innumerable projects for their relief which fill the papers and magazines of the time. Few of them, however, reached the true source of the evil. So little had the great truths of economical science then taken root in the minds of political and social writers, that many persons, undoubtedly sincere, recommended schemes which must inevitably have augmented the evils they were intended to cure. Others made suggestions which were simply harmless. One gentleman, who patriotically signed himself " An Englishman, " undertook " to obviate the scarcity of corn in future," adding, " The thing is easy: we have only to offer a bounty on Irish-grown wheat; and in a few years they would not know what a bog was, nor should we have to fear a scarcity. The millions that are now sent to the north of Europe, America, and even to France, would render Ireland the granary of England, would enrich her farmers, employ her poor, and in the course of fifty years completely change the face of the country, and the manners and politics of the inhabitants. Irishmen would be happy, and Englishmen no longer obliged to act unworthy of their characters for a morsel of bread."

Another writer, signing himself "Philanthropist," sends to the " Gentleman's Magazine" - for unhappily there was no "Poor Man's Magazine " in those days to speak the voice of the people on this subject - a sketch of a virtuous family of his acquaintance who were doing their best to mitigate the sufferings of the poor. " They make a distinction," he says, " between the bread consumed by the family and the servants; that for the family being baked in tins, as the servants cannot then lay their own profusion on the parlour. They never suffer a loaf to be cut until after the second or third day of baking; for when eaten new, the consumption is greater, and much waste is occasioned. No toast is permitted; for the same portion cut into bread-and-butter goes one-third farther. No rolls, French bread, or muffins, as all these are needless incentives to appetite. No more cut for dinner than absolutely requisite; for which, one piece, half an inch thick, of a round cut in four, will be found sufficient for each. By this means all broken pieces are prevented. No flour used in pies and puddings; for which rice, variously prepared, will prove an excellent substitute." To such a pass as this had the destructive wars, and the artificial barriers for keeping out food-supplies brought the people of England, and such were the remedies which the social philosophers of that time had to recommend. Meanwhile, the landlords pursued their favourite object of restraining importations of foreign corn. The complaint of agricultural distress was certainly not without some foundation. The landlords, who could no longer obtain the high rents of previous years, were undoubtedly worse off than before; the farmers, or at least those who had taken leases in reliance upon the continuance of high prices, were also injured; but the high prices were a national misfortune, which they had no right to expect to be permanent, and it is doubtful whether the great bulk of agricultural labourers were affected by the alleged distress. Nevertheless, committees of both Houses of Parliament were appointed in 1814, to inquire into the subject of their grievances. The witnesses examined being chiefly connected with agriculture, were, of course, unanimous in describing the act of 1804 as not sufficiently prohibitory of foreign supplies. Some suggested 120s. as the lowest limit at which the British people should be permitted to purchase corn elsewhere than of themselves. The general opinion, however, seems to have been that 80s. was a sufficient limit, and in 1815 a bill was introduced to that effect.

Thus was laid the foundation of that system which was only finally overthrown thirty years later by the vigorous opposition of the Anti-Corn-Law League. The law of 1815 caused intense excitement throughout the country. In our narrative of events for that year we have given an account of that measure and of the circumstances attending its enactment, but some facts of importance may be added here. Petitions against the bill were stated to have been signed by 800,000 persons. Sir Francis Burdett presented a petition signed by 42,473 inhabitants of Westminster. A petition of the City of London to the House of Commons presented an extraordinary number of signatures, upwards of 40,000 having, it was said, been obtained within ten hours. The petition of the City to the Lords comprised 80,000 signatures. The Court of Common Council came to a resolution to petition the Prince Regent to withhold his assent, and the petition was presented by the Lord Mayor in state. A series of formidable riots took place in the metropolis. A large crowd assembled at the doors of the House of Commons, inveighing against the Corn Bill and the members who supported it. An order to clear the passages of the House was executed with difficulty. Several of the mob acquainted with the persons of the members pointed them out, and hooting or applause followed as the member was known to be friendly or adverse to the bill. Mr. Croker, for instance, stated he had been stopped at the entrance to the House, seized by the collar, and struck several blows. Sir William Garrow,, in order to avoid the crowd, endeavoured to get to his house through Westminster Hall; but he was stopped and asked his name, and only got away after much difficulty. The high bailiff of Westminster and two magistrates deposed that the crowd outside the House was too great to be dispersed by the civil force; and that upon communicating with the Speaker, they had received orders to call in the Horse Guards. The soldiers suppressed the tumult, but the riots continued in other parts of the town. The populace broke the windows, and in some cases broke into the houses and destroyed the furniture of a great number of peers and members of Parliament, in various parts of London, known to be friendly to the bill. Two persons were shot during the riots, and a boy wounded, and a proclamation was issued offering a reward of £100 for the conviction of any person who had taken a part in the disturbances. But the legislature paid little attention to these manifestations of popular indignation. The bill was hurried through Parliament, the Earl of Liverpool declaring that if the House meant to legislate, they should legislate at once; that their pace ought neither to be quickened nor retarded by the clamour out of doors; that the injury which the country was sustaining from indecision and procrastination was very great, and that many estates could not be sold, and many farms could not be let, till it was known decisively what course Parliament intended to pursue. The bill was accordingly carried by immense majorities in both Houses; but not without an enlightened protest from ten members of the House of Peers, said to have been drawn up by Lord Grenville. This remarkable document which, it must be remembered, was not the work of corn law repealers, or professional agitators, set forth, among other things, the following reasons for being opposed to the new law: - "Because we are adverse on principle to all new restraints on commerce. We think it certain that public prosperity is best promoted by leaving uncontrolled the free current of national industry; and we wish rather, by well-considered steps, to bring back our commercial legislation to the straight and simple line of wisdom, than to increase the deviation by subjecting additional and extensive branches of the public interest to fresh systems of artificial and injurious restrictions.. „ To compel the consumer to purchase corn dearer at home than it might be imported from abroad, is the immediate practical effect of this law. In this way alone can it operate. Its present< protection, and its promised extension to agriculture, must result (if at all) from the benefits which it creates by keeping up the price of corn to an artificial level."

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