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The Corn Laws


Spirit of Opposition to the Corn Laws in the Manufacturing Districts - Free Trade Tendencies of Manchester - Meeting of Merchants in that Town in 1834 - Persistence of the New Borough in returning Free Trade Candidates - Condition of the People in Manchester during the abundant years 1832-35 - Sudden Distress on Failure of the Harvest in 1836- 38 - Perseverance of the Landed Party in resisting all Change - Rejection of the Bill for permitting the Grinding of Wheat in Bond- Supposed Last Dying Speech of the Advocates of Free Trade in Corn- Mr. Villiers's solemn Warning of the Danger of Refusing Relief - The "East Retford of the Corn Laws " - Glasgow Petition presented by Earl Fitzwilliam - Temper of the House of Lords - Remarkable Declaration of Lord Melbourne - Public Dinner to Dr. Bowring at Manchester- Formation of the Anti-Corn Law Association - Modest Commencement of the Movement - The Provisional Committee - Mr. Bright, Richard Cobden - The Bolton Lecture on the Corn Laws - Movement in the Manchester Chamber of Commerce - The Association's Scheme of Agitation - Progress of the Movement - Humble Origin of the League - Room in Newall's Buildings - Rapid Spread of the Agitation- Movement in the Metropolis - Attitude of the Working Classes - Advocacy by the Tmes - Meeting of the Manchester Delegates in London- Opening of the Session - Omission of the Corn Laws from the Queen's Speech - Debate on the Address - Lord Brougham's Great Speech - Rejection of the Petition of the Delegates to be heard at the Bar of the House - Condition of the Movement at the Close of 1839.
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While the landed interest were thus showing their determination to maintain, at all hazards, the laws for preventing the importation of foreign corn, a spirit of opposition had been growing up in the large manufacturing towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which, though only partially shared in by the working classes, was already significant of the approaching downfall of the system of monopoly. The first use made by Manchester of its constitution as a political borough by the Reform Act was to send to Parliament Mr. Poulett Thompson and Mr. Mark Philips, two members long conspicuous in the House for the zeal and ability with which they supported the principles of free trade. The Manchester newspapers generally advocated the same views; and Manchester became regarded as the centre of the Anti- Corn Law agitation. No organised movement, however, had yet been attempted. A series of good harvests from 1832 to 1835 rendered it extremely difficult to arouse public attention to the injustice which the bread law invariably inflicted under less favourable circumstances. Nevertheless, the effort was made. In January, 1834, a meeting of merchants and manufacturers was held in the Manchester Exchange Committee-room, to consider how the cause of Corn Law repeal was to be forwarded, at which some powerful speeches were delivered by the members for the borough and other speakers of influence. A committee was appointed, which timidly endeavoured to avoid the appearance of a political agitation, and finally ended by doing nothing. Trade was not suffering from any particular depression, employment could be found, and food was comparatively cheap. On the dissolution of Parliament in that year by the new Tory administration of Sir Robert Peel, Manchester again returned the two free trade candidates in the face of the efforts of an unprogressive ministry to substitute its own candidate. The Peel administration were soon driven from office, and Mr. Poulett Thompson was again returned for Manchester, and became President of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the cabinet, having first stipulated that he should be free to speak and vote against the corn laws. "It was something," says Mr. Prentice, "that Manchester compelled this concession from colleagues far behind its member in the comprehension of a principle and boldness in giving it expression - something that Manchester, from the period of its enfranchisement to the repeal of the corn laws, always sent representatives to protest against the landlords' monopoly."

It was evident that, when the year of bad harvests and dear food should come, the cry of the people against the bread tax would be loudest in this great focus of manufacturing industry. At the beginning of 1836, the price of wheat reached 1 16s. the imperial quarter, the lowest point of depression which it had touched for some years. The cry of agricultural distress was immediately raised, and committees were appointed by both Houses of Parliament early in the session of 1836 to inquire into the subject; but the tenor of the information obtained did not bear out the views of the agricultural party. Indeed, it was found that so far from there being a decline, there had been an extension and improvement of cultivation and an increase of produce; and that so far from the agricultural labourer being in more than usual distress, his circumstances had greatly improved, his wages not having been reduced in proportion to the fall in the prices of necessaries. Trade, too, was enjoying one of those intervals of comparative prosperity in which the periodical visitation of hard times is naturally forgotten by the bulk of the people. " In Manchester," says the writer just quoted, " I had the gratification of again seeing the working man on a Saturday night helping his wife to carry home the heavy basket. There was no need for statistical tables to show that there was a great additional consumption o necessaries and comforts. The fact spoke out in the manifest improvement in the appearance of the multitudes, now well dressed, and presenting undeniable proofs that they were well-fed. I asked my foreman how the compositors in my office, whose wages had been the same sum weekly for a quarter of a century, were expending what they saved from the low price of food; and he said it was astonishing to see how much they were laying out on good clothes and good furniture, besides what they were laying b^ lor a future provision. And now again came the question from some - Why should it not always be thus? If a good harvest in England was productive of all this comfort, why should not the people of England have the advantage of a good harvest anywhere else? But then again came the question from others, Why should we agitate for cheap food, when wheat is only 4s. 6d. a bushel?" It is not surprising that the leaders of the Manchester free traders found it difficult to obtain a hearing at such a time. But the tide was about to turn. The harvest of 1836 showed a considerable falling off compared with that of previous years. Wheat rose 70 per cent, higher than the prices of the previous year. Some heavy failures occurred in London, Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow; and in the following April many of the Lancashire factories were working only four days a week, and some thousands of hand-loom weavers were discharged. Towards the end of the previous year, an association for agitation against the corn laws had been formed in London, comprising twenty-two members of Parliament, and a number of manufacturers and gentlemen of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow. The body, however, was not representative, and did no more than contribute to keep public attention directed to the subject. The crop of 1837 was also inferior to that of previous abundant years, but wheat fell again from 61s. 9d. to 53s. Then came the severe winter of 1837-8, and again the unhappy dependents upon weekly wages found the price of bread more than double what it had been two years before. The distress was now general, and the time for movement had arrived.

The determined opposition of the landed interest in Parliament to all changes, however slight, in the laws for maintaining the price of food, may be said to have reached its height in the debate of the 9th of May, 1838, on the second reading of the bill for permitting the grinding of wheat in bond for foreign export. At that time British shipowners were in the habit of obtaining their supplies of food for the consumption of their crews in foreign ports. As none of that food need be brought into the country, and the captains and owners were necessarily free to buy where they pleased, it was impossible to suppose that they would supply their vessels with the heavily taxed articles of their own country. They must clearly be permitted to take the corn they wanted out of bond free of duty, or must continue to be driven to seek supplies elsewhere. This, in fact, was conceded as far as corn was concerned, but the ships had no means of grinding wheat into flour, or converting it into biscuit. It was shown that to relax the law slightly in this respect could lead to no possible loss to the landlord, would obviate the prevailing wasteful and circuitous system of obtaining stores from abroad, and would, besides, give employment to a great number of persons in our chief sea-ports. The project appeared so harmless that the first reading of the bill was carried by a majority of 127 to 92. The landowners, however, quickly took alarm. They dreaded all change, however trifling; and suggested that flour or biscuits might be more easy to smuggle than grain, and that the change might lead to a fraudulent importation of food to the injury of their own monopoly. These ideas rapidly spread in the agricultural districts. Petitions against the bill began to pour in from Buckinghamshire, where the Marquis of Chandos, who presented them, had been holding excited meetings; and when Colonel Seale rose to move the second reading, it was manifest that the bill was doomed. In vain it was pointed out that the bill provided that all flour so made should be absolutely exported within two months after being ground. The Marquis of Chandos, who led the opposition, told the House that he had no doubt the bill would afford a great advantage to the commercial, at the expense of the agricultural interest; that at the present moment the agriculturists were enjoying a little relief from the long period of distress under which they suffered, which referred, of course, to the high price of bread, by which the agriculturists were then so largely profiting, and added that " the only wish of the farmers was that the House would not interfere with them." Another representative of this party declared "that the last dying speech of the free traders in corn " had been made in a recent speech of Mr. Clay. It is a lamentable fact that Sir Robert Peel was among the most conspicuous of the speakers on this side.

Sir James Graham followed with a speech against the bill. The free traders had nothing to oppose to the numerical strength of their opponents, but a solemn warning of the danger and folly of the course which they were pursuing. Mr. Brotherton and Mr. Villiers avowed that they regarded the rejection of the bill as even to be desired, because tending " to hasten the downfall of the wicked corn laws." So little did their party concur in the view that the " last dying speech " of the free traders in corn had been spoken, that they looked forward to their defeat that night as the signal for the people to arouse. Mr. Villiers concluded his speech with the remarkable words, If the measure be carried, it will open to our trade a new channel for profit and employment; but if it be rejected, it will, perhaps, be still more useful. This is just what is now required. What is most wanted is some practical illustration of the working of the corn laws and the spirit of those who maintain them; something to strike the imagination - something to arouse those who had too long kissed the rod which had scourged them. I look upon it as a good sign. All great changes are preceded by some wanton act of the power which was complained of and attacked. I regard it as the East Retford of the corn laws. To reject this measure would be like that preliminary folly which characterised those whom Heaven had marked as its victims." The warning was received with "laughter and loud cries of divide;" and the bill was finally rejected by a majority of 200 to 150.

A few months, however, began to show the truth of these words. While the landlords were foolishly consoling themselves with the belief that the opposition to the corn laws was dead, a movement was commencing which was destined to force this question upon the Government, as the one great question of the day. The Manchester newspapers, in commenting upon the debate, regarded it rather as a sign of the necessity for further reform in the representation of the people, than as a signal for an extensive movement against the monopoly system. Elsewhere the corn laws had only partially been adopted as a rallying cry of Reformers; and the Chartists and extreme Radicals still looked coldly on what they were told was merely an employers' question: indeed, in many instances, the Chartists openly avowed themselves on the side of the landlords.

A few weeks after the debate on Colonel Seale's motion, Earl Fitzwilliam, a nobleman who had distinguished himself by his enlightened views on this question, presented a petition from a great number of inhabitants of Glasgow against the corn laws. " The debate that ensued," remarks the Manchester Times of July 7th, 1838, " was inmost respects just of the character which always marks the treatment of a question affecting the profits of that House - of corn dealers on the one hand, and the comfortable subsistence of twenty-six millions of people on the other. We thought, however, we discovered some symptoms of fear, if not of repentance, on the part of one or two of the titled monopolists who spoke on the occasion. Apprehensions of short harvests, dear bread, and a probable famine, floated across their brains, and found utterance in some warning prognostications as to the effect of such accidents upon the fate of the question then under discussion. Their lordships are right; a wet July might come, August might find the country with scarcely a month's consumption of corn on hand, and the ports of Continental Europe drained for the supply of the United States. We are now entirely dependent on the still ungathered harvest for preservation against greater misery than ever afflicted a civilised community. To the corn laws it is owing that no sacks of wheat or other grain are filling the granaries of our own capitalists, or awaiting their orders in the stores of Hamburg or Odessa; and should starvation stalk through the land, every additional death will be attributed to those laws."

It was in the course of this discussion that Lord Melbourne uttered a remarkable declaration of the policy of the Ministry. He believed, he said, that the corn laws had acted well for the interests of all parties; and holding these opinions, he certainly would not attempt to alter the system which had been established, nor would he ever introduce any new system of corn laws founded on a different principle from the present, unless a decided opinion was expressed on the subject by a large majority of the people. It was probably far from the thought of the Minister who once declared it madness to interfere with these laws, and who regarded the theories of political economists generally with aversion, to recommend a general Anti-Corn-Law agitation; but his words served at least to remind Reformers that no relief could be expected from Parliament until an. overwhelming force of public opinion should be directed to the subject.

The Ministerial challenge was not long in finding a body of men able and willing to take it up, with a spirit determined to overcome all obstacles. Before the end of August, wheat had attained the price of 3 17s. the quarter - more than double the price of the same period in 1835. On the 10th of September, Dr. Bowring was invited to a public dinner at Manchester, on his way from Liverpool to Blackburn. He had recently returned from a mission to promote more free commercial intercourse with some foreign countries; and he gave to the Manchester people an eloquent account of the mischiefs which he had found everywhere traceable to our absurd Custom House laws. He showed how he had found the Hungarian nobles on the Danube ceasing to produce corn for the English market, and turning their capital to manufacturing those articles with which England, under a better system of international exchange, might have supplied them. He illustrated the folly of the fear of being reduced to what the Duke of Wellington had called the humiliating necessity of depending upon foreign lands for a supply of food by the case of Holland - a country entirely dependent upon foreign trade, and yet one in which the granaries were always well filled, and where the people knew at all times the real rate of wages, because, with a very slight alteration in price, they could always estimate what the quartern loaf would cost them and their families. He showed the meeting the wonderful results of the enlightened policy of the Pacha of Egypt, who had been converted to free-trade principles, declaring that he "thought it better to let corn come in and go out of the ports without any duty whatever." Mr. Hadfield, one of the speakers on this memorable occasion, reminded his hearers that, although this law had been passed in the days of Toryism, against the will of the country, while petitions signed by millions were being presented against it, and when Lord Goderich had his house burnt over his head by an assemblage of Anti-Corn-Law rioters, no simultaneous popular effort had from that time to this been made to overturn it. It was time, he said, "to unite heart and hand on this question, and challenge the whole country to put their shoulder to the wheel, and get rid of a system alike offensive to the laws of God and man." This appeal excited the enthusiasm of the company, which was still further aroused when another speaker, Mr. Howie, said that what had just fallen from the chairman reminded him that they had at Manchester no Anti-Corn-Law Association. He should propose that the present company at once form themselves into such an association, and though few in number, be the rolling stone that should gather strength in its progress. The proposition was considered by the company, and it was agreed that the meeting should form a committee to establish such an association, and meet on the following Monday.

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