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History of Free Trade page 5

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The Parliamentary Report on the Inquiry into the Condition of the Hand-loom Weavers, undertaken in this year, describes the impression that corn laws were, directly and indirectly, injurious to trade and the condition of the working classes as universally prevalent among masters and men. " The operation of the corn laws," says one of the commissioners, " in impeding the sale of British manufactured goods in countries willing to receive them, will be best explained by the following statement, communicated to me by letter from Mr. William Barret, a manufacturer at Newton Heath, Manchester: - ' In the autumn of 1819, a time when there was much distress and discontent among the hand- loom weavers, Mr. John Bell, an agent from a respectable house in Hamburg, offered us an order for several kinds of goods which we were manufacturing. We accepted the order, of course; and I said, "How do you pay?" He replied, "We pay in corn." "In corn! " I said. " But the ports are shut; we cannot enter a single bushel for home consumption." He answered, " We are aware of that; but it can be bonded; and you can ship it to the Peninsula." I said, " We have no connection there, and it will not do for us to become foreign merchants; but, if you cannot pay in money, can you send us nothing else? Can you send us linen yarn, which we could use?" "No," he replied; "our warehouses are blocked up full of corn, and we have nothing else to offer, though we are much in want of goods." I then said, "We are very sorry to refuse such an order at this time, for our weavers are not fully employed; but refuse it we must, for we can do nothing with corn: however, as we have gone so far, would you please to tell us at what price you would charge it?" He then produced his memorandum of goods wanted, and written instructions, and showed us that he was authorised to offer the best Baltic wheat, free at Hull, for 30s. 6d. per quarter. The average price in the English market at this time was 64s. I had,' says the writer, 'some doubts before this whether it would be proper to allow a free trade in corn; but the matter was here brought home: for we not only missed a good order, but were prevented from finding our weavers with work, and supplying them with good bread-corn at about one-half the price.' The statements of the manufacturers that by maintaining the corn laws we were encouraging the growth of foreign manufactures, to an extent which threatens our own with extinction, have been brought so fully before Government by themselves, that I need not repeat here the evidence many of them submitted to me to the same effect."

In another portion of the Report we find the following statement as to the condition of the working class at this time: - " Wheaten bread and flour, as daily food, are still beyond the reach of fully one-third of the population of Great Britain and Ireland. But taking the whole body of agricultural labourers, supposed to derive the greatest practical benefit from our corn laws, beef and mutton, as articles of food among them, are almost unknown from the north of England to the south. Pork is the only description of animal food they get, and often little of that; so generally are they under-fed, that it is often very difficult to rally a constitution after an attack of fever or ague in the rural districts. I have often heard medical men say, 'We give them tonic medicines, but the only physic they want is a slice of mutton or beef every day for three months; and that we cannot prescribe, for how are they to purchase meat without denying themselves bread? When 8s. out of 15s. must be spent in bread and flour by a family, and the greater part of the rest be expended in rent, clothing, and fuel, what is there left for animal food? ' " The report continues as follows: -

"In the 'Annals of Agriculture' (vol. xxxvii., p. 265), Arthur Young says: - ' There is now living (1801), in the vicinity of Bury, a person who, when he laboured for 5s., could purchase with that 5s. a bushel of wheat, a bushel of malt, 1 lb. of butter, 1 lb. of cheese, and a pennyworth of tobacco. To enable the same man to purchase the same articles at the present moment, his wages ought to have risen from 5s. to 22s. The present prices are - for a bushel of wheat, 11s.; a bushel of malt, 9s.; 1 lb. of butter, Is. 2d.; 1 lb. of cheese, 9d.; a pennyworth of tobacco, Id.; total, £1 2s. The present average of wages for an agricultural labourer may, perhaps, be assumed at 10s.; no other class of persons, therefore, has suffered so severely by the tendency of the existing system to make bread dear as agricultural labourers, and I do not except hand-loom weavers." ' To such a pass was the English labourer brought in 1838-9!

On the 15th of March, 1838, Mr. Villiers rose in Parliament to make the first of those motions on the corn laws with which he afterwards became associated in the public mind. After modestly alluding to his own position in the House, he told his hearers that of all the errors and injustice which an unreformed Parliament had inflicted on the country, these unrighteous laws, which raised the price while they limited the amount of human subsistence, were the most infamous. He knew that he should be told that it was idle to moot such a matter at the present moment, and that he could have no prospect of success; but the people had a right to seek justice from the House. He warned them that the time would arrive when the removal of those laws must be taken into consideration by the legislature, and when neither that nor the other House of Parliament could ' withhold from the people, by means either of privilege or power, the justice they demanded. He pointed out the extreme tenderness of the legislature for the interests of the agriculturists, and contrasted it with their indifference to those of all other classes of producers. He showed that although the effects of machinery and other labour-saving processes had been to benefit the nation by increasing production, they had frequently been attended by ruin and distress to those whose labour was superseded by them; yet no one had thought of giving these unfortunate people compensation for the injury done them - much less of protecting them by artificial laws against the cheapness and abundance which had deprived them of employment. When the labourers complained of machinery, or arose in a body to destroy their new enemy, they were reminded of the truths of political economy, and told that they ought to be contented, because on the whole the results were beneficial to the country. The legislature had even given rewards and encouragement to inventors of machinery for economising labour. Mr. Villiers referred to the case of the hand- loom weavers, who had remained in great distress since the introduction of Dr. Cartwright's invention; and asked the House whether a majority of the hand-loom weavers in that and the other House of Parliament might not prohibit the power-looms or parody the sliding scale of the corn laws by enacting that, until the cloth produced by hand labour had reached a certain price, that produced by the new machinery should be subjected to a fluctuating rate of duty. If this should be regarded by the House as mere political economy and abstract notions, more fitted for Frenchmen than enlightened Britons, he asked them what the coal owners might be expected to say if a plan were invented for warming the chambers of honourable gentlemen without the use of coal. Might they not call out for protection like the landowners, and would they not be able to support their claims by arguments equally strong? He declared that if the House would resolve itself into a committee, he would certainly move for the repeal of the whole of the duties on corn. He exposed the futility of the plea that these duties were necessary for the revenue, because the landlords could not pay taxes unless their incomes were sustained by these artificial regulations. The manufacturer, he said, had only a protection of 20, or at most of 30 per cent., whilst the landowner had a protection of 80, if not 100 per cent.; but the manufacturers of Great Britain did not wish for protection, and repudiated the principle of imposing duties in order to give their productions an undue preference over those of other countries. Taking the quantity of wheat sold annually at twenty-six millions of quarters, he calculated that the agriculturists, if the corn laws were repealed, would lose £15,600,000. It was plain, then, that this represented the sum taken annually from the pockets of the industrious classes to enrich the landed interest. Several witnesses from Sheffield had stated before a recent committee of the House that manufacturers to a great extent had left that town and established themselves successfully in the Rhenish provinces of Prussia, because bread was there only l½d., and beef 3½d. a pound; while the corn monopolists in this country maintained the price of the formér of those articles at 3d. and 4d., and the latter at 7d. and 8d. Twenty-four years had now passed under the present system, and what advantage had the country received? Even the landowners could not come forward and represent themselves as a happy, prosperous, or contented race. It was impossible to open one of the petitions and reports which filled the shelves of the library of the House without finding conclusive evidence of the pernicious effects of these laws. The report of the committee which sat in 1821, only five years after the corn law was passed, spoke of the great distress of the agricultural body which that law was intended to prevent, and all but expressed that it was this very law which caused the distress. The well-being of the farmer depended upon nothing so much as upon steadiness of prices; but no more effectual means could be devised for bringing about unsteadiness of prices than the corn laws. They promised the farmer high prices, but they gave him no security for them. They did not guard him against the effects of differences of the seasons, against differences of the soil as between this country and Ireland, against improvements in agriculture, and therefore they did not take any effectual means to secure the prices at a fixed level. This was the cause of all the distress which had prevailed. The farmer was induced by the laws to speculate upon the certainty of getting nearly twice as much as the actual price, and so ran in debt to his landlord, and was ultimately ruined. Mr. Villiers then exposed the pretence that the welfare of the agricultural labourer was included in the objects of the supporters of these laws. He asked the House to remember the condition of the agricultural labourer in 1830, when nine out often were paupers. Was he not told then that his labour was not wanted, and was he not charged in most parishes with some offence against the law in breaking machinery? And did honourable gentlemen care for the labourer in other matters? Would not the agricultural labourers rather desire to put a stop to machinery than cry out for the corn laws? Mr. Villiers then concluded his speech by stating that "every friend of the country should raise his voice for the establishment of commercial freedom, which was as essential to our prosperity as the civil and religious liberty for which we struggled in former times. We fought for and won the latter; and it was now the duty of public men to use their best efforts for the emancipation of our commercial interests. They should look to the welfare of the industrious classes of the community, and enable them to fulfil the designs of Nature, and, by the exchange of their toil with their fellow-men, to obtain an adequate reward for their industry. He would now move that this House resolve itself into a committee of the whole House to consider the act of the 9th of George IV. c. 60, relating to the importation of corn. He had put his motion in this form to avoid offending the prejudices of any person. He did not expect that members would pledge themselves to repeal the corn laws, but he hoped that they would admit that the law as it stood at present was defective, and would vote for a committee."

The motion was seconded by that Sir William Moles- worth who afterwards became so widely known for his enlightened and successful efforts to reform our colonial policy, which won for him the title of the Liberator and Regenerator of the Colonial Empire of Great Britain. Placed, at a very early period of life, in the possession of great wealth, Sir William Moleswörth voluntarily chose to devote his time to severe, abstruse thought and study. He was the intimate friend of Bentham and James Mill (the political economist and historian of British rule in India). It has been remarked that Nature had endowed him with a mind wanting in that flexibility and dexterity which constitute the Parliamentary gladiator, and possessing neither quickness of apprehension nor brilliancy of imagination, but remarkably clear, sound, logical, and comprehensive. No man was more luminous in arrangement, more clear and conclusive in argument - no man combined and tempered more happily abstract theory with practical good sense - no man looked less to the victory of the moment, or more to the establishment of the truth and the progress of human enlightenment. The elaborate care with which he was known to prepare his speeches combined with certain natural defects of manner and elocution to prevent his becoming a popular orator; but the weapons that he wielded were weighty, and probably no one ever produced so much effect in so few speeches. The moral nature of the man was a fitting counterpart to the intellectual. Simple, sincere, and straightforward, without fear and without compromise, no man's assertions carried more weight, no man received and deserved more entire credit for consistency of principle and singleness of purpose. Sir William entered into public life at a very early age. At the first election after the passing of the Reform Bill, he was elected without opposition for the eastern division of Cornwall, his native county, and he soon became distinguished as one of the party popularly known as "philosophical Radicals," of which Bentham was the chief. In 1837 he had been returned for Leeds, for which borough he now sat in Parliament.

It was natural that Sir William Molesworth should take a somewhat more abstract view of the question than his friend the mover of the resolution. Country gentlemen who held their seats secure by virtue of territorial influence drew their hats over their eyes and nodded while the Radical young baronet explained to them how, in his opinion, the tendency of the corn laws was to create discontent, uneasiness, and an infinitude of moral evils among the great bulk of the community. "A nation," he said, "was rich or poor, powerful or weak, according to the facility or difficulty with which it obtained food for its population - according as a greater or less proportion of hands is employed in raising subsistence for the whole society." He pictured a state of society in which the landlord's theory should be carried to the highest pitch, and so much employment secured for the agricultural interest by artificial limitations of the supply, that nearly the whole population should be absorbed in producing food. In such a state of society, he remarked, no individual could possess any amount of leisure - there could be no disposable portion of the population, fed by the remainder, to be employed either for the purposes of defence or aggression; there could be no combination of labour, nor arts, nor manufactures of any importance, nor commerce, nor science. Far different was the condition of the population in which only a small portion needed to be employed in procuring food, and where consequently a large surplus was raised. That surplus was the fund out of which the community paid those who devoted themselves to the different sciences or learned professions. To that surplus we owed our armies and navies, and the means of defraying the interest of our debt. To that surplus we were indebted for our crowded cities, our temples of piety, our schools and colleges of education, our halls of legislation and justice. These positions seemed to him clearly to point out the injurious effects of the law which restricted the importation of corn. A labourer in England could not obtain anything like as much food by tilling the soil as he could obtain in exchange for the products of his manufacturing industry. Thus, the immediate effect of the corn laws was to augment the proportion of labourers employed in growing subsistence, and to decrease to the same extent the disposable population. The community was, therefore, less rich, powerful, and civilised than it might be with an unrestricted trade in corn.

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