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The Corn Laws page 2

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The desultory opposition to the bread tax of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce - a body which had only presented one petition on the subject in seven years - was no longer sufficient to represent the feeling of that great centre of industry. " Seven men," says Frederic Bastiat, the eminent French economist, "united themselves in the month of October, 1838, and with that manly determination which characterises the Anglo- Saxon race, they resolved to overturn every monopoly by legal means, and accomplish, without disturbance, without effusion of blood, with the power only of opinion, a revolution as profound, perhaps more profound, than that which our fathers worked to effect in 1789." The names of those seven members are now scarcely remembered out of Manchester, with the exception of Mr. Archibald Prentice, the historian of the League, whose newspaper, the Manchester Times, had fought with considerable talent, and with inexhaustible energy on the side of all the great reforms of this important period in our history. In that newspaper for the 13th of October, a list of the Provisional Committee of a new Anti-Corn-Law Association was for the first time published. It comprised thirty-seven names, chiefly of Manchester manufacturers, and ended with the modest note that, " Subscriptions, 5s. each, would be received by the members of that committee." Such was the simple origin of that vast movement which, a few years later, compelled the very chiefs of the landowners' party in Parliament to become the instruments for carrying out measures more sweeping than even the most ardent free-traders had regarded as possible. But men of influence were beginning to join the movement. The list of the Provisional Committee contained, at least, one name which afterwards became famous - that of Mr. John Bright. Three of them subsequently became members of Parliament, and another, Mr. George Wilson, was afterwards known as the permanent chairman of the League.

The name of the leader of the new movement, however, had not yet been added to the list. Mr. Bright, whose residence was at' Bochdale, had not begun to give personal aid to the cause, and was scarcely known out of his native town, where his efforts to improve the moral and social condition of the working classes had, however, long made him conspicuous among his fellow- townsmen. The name of Bichard Cobden, which appears in the additional list of the committee published a short time afterwards, was one more familiar in Manchester ears. Mr. Cobden was the son of a yeoman at Midhurst, in Sussex, who possessed a small property in that neighbourhood, which he cultivated till his death. The father was, however, not prosperous, and the son, we believe, owed his education to the kindness of a Chichester gentleman, a friend of his family. At an early age he was sent to London, and is said to have been employed in a warehouse in the City. From this position he was promoted to travel for the firm in whose service he was, and thus obtained some knowledge of Lancashire trade. Some time afterwards he found opportunities of starting in business with some fellow-clerks as calico printers in the neighbourhood of Clitheroe. The business prospered, and Mr. Cobden settled in Manchester, where he soon began to interest himself in local affairs. At that time the local government of Manchester was in the hands of the lord of the manor, being governed by a borough reeve, constables, and others elected at the lord of the manor's court leet, exactly as it had been in the ancient times when Manchester consisted of ten streets and Salford of three; and Mr. Cobden was one of those who were chiefly instrumental in overturning this absurd system, and obtaining the municipal charter, which was at last conceded, after much opposition. He had already become known as a political writer, professing generally the views on trade, commerce, and international relations of the liberal school of political economists.

In 1835 there had been sent to the editor of the Manchester Times, for publication in that paper, some admirably written letters. They contained no internal evidence to guide in guessing as to who might be the writer; and the editor concluded that there was some man amongst them who, if he held a station that would enable him to take a part in public affairs, would exert a widely beneficial influence. " He might," says Mr. Prentice, in his interesting narrative of this incident, " be some young man in a warehouse who had thought deeply on political economy, and its practical application in our commercial policy, who might not be soon in a position to come before the public as an influential teacher; but we had, I had no doubt, somewhere amongst us, perhaps sitting solitary after his day's work in some obscure apartment, like Adam Smith in his quiet closet at Kirkcaldy, one inwardly and quietly conscious of his power, but patiently biding his time, to popularise the doctrines set forth in the ' Wealth of Nations,' and to make the multitude think as the philosopher had thought, and to act upon their convictions. I told many that a new man had come, and the question was often put amongst my friends - Who is he? ' In the course of that year, a pamphlet, published by Ridgway, under the title, 'England, Ireland, and America,' was put into my hand by a friend, inscribed ' From the author,' and I instantly recognised the handwriting of my unknown - much by me desired to be known - correspondent; and I was greatly gratified when I learned that Mr. Cobden, the author of the pamphlet, desired to meet me at my friend's house. I went with something of the same kind of feelings which I had experienced when I first, four years before, went to visit Jeremy Bentham, the father of the practical free traders; nor was I disappointed, except in one respect. I found a man who could enlighten by his knowledge, counsel by his prudence, and conciliate by his temper and manners; and who, if he found his way into the House of Commons, would secure its respectful attention; but I had been an actor amongst men who, from 1812 to 1832, had fought in the rough battle for parliamentary reform, and I missed in the unassuming gentleman before me, not the energy, but the apparent hardihood and dash which I had, forgetting the change of times, believed to be requisites to the success of a popular leader."

Mr. Cobden also published a pamphlet entitled t( Russia; by a Manchester Manufacturer." In 1837 he made a journey through France, Belgium, and Switzerland; and in 1838 travelled through Germany. It was on his return from the latter tour that he joined the movement which he found preparing against the system of which the "Manchester manufacturer" had, like Dr. Bo wring, been observing the effects in limiting our foreign trade. But the association were not long in finding in the energy and resources of this remarkable man their best support. The committee saw clearly that there could be no hope for the success of their movement, if they could not succeed in enlightening the body of the people on the nature and effects of the laws which they were seeking to overturn. One of their first acts, therefore, was to begin a system of political education for the people.

In September, 1838, a stranger had engaged a theatre in Bolton, to deliver a lecture on the corn laws. The audience, which were admitted by payment at the doors, were numerous; but it turned out that the lecturer was so ill prepared for his task as altogether to break down in it. The assemblage was about to end in a riot, when a young medical student named Paulton rushed on to the platform, at the request of the mayor and other friends, to address the people. His plea to be heard for a few moments was met with loud cries of "hear, hear" and "go on." An address of a quarter of an hour created a wish that he should be heard again. The people recovered their good humour, and the improvised lecturer ended by promising to open the theatre without a price of admission on that day week, when a lecture on the corn laws would be delivered, a promise which, for the present, satisfied the audience. The young speaker possessed considerable eloquence and general knowledge; and some manufacturers of Bolton, his friends, assisted him in collecting facts. Thus aided, he prepared and delivered his first lecture. The result clearly showed how the people might be reached, and how mistaken were those who thought that no interest could be excited on this subject. The lecture was received with enthusiasm, and was reported in the newspapers.

The new association were not long in inviting Mr. Paulton to deliver two lectures in the Corn Exchange, Manchester. The lectures were attended by a crowded audience, who received with enthusiasm the speaker's quotation from Lord Byron's "Age of Bronze:" -

" For what were all those landed patriots born?
To hunt, and vote, and raise the price of corn
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle. Why? for rent.
Year after year they voted cent, per cent.;
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions. Why? for rent.
They roared, they dined, they drank, they swore they meant
To die for England. Why, then, live for rent?
And will they not repay the treasures lent?
No! Down with everything, and up with rent
Their good, ill, health, wealth, joy, or discontent,
Being, end, aim, religion - rent, rent, rent! "

The eloquent young lecturer soon re-appeared in the magnificent Town Hall of Birmingham, and continued to carry tidings of the new association for giving untaxed food and employment to the people of all the great manufacturing towns. The objects of the association were now declared to be to form a fund for diffusing information, either by lecture or pamphlet, to defray the expense of petitioning, and, above all, to create an organisation to bring numbers together in such force and with such energy of purpose as to secure the great object - the complete freedom of trade - by the destruction, not only of the corn monopoly, but of all the other monopolies which hang upon this monster grievance.

The sluggish Chamber of Commerce at length began to feel the pressure of the movement. The bulk of the members were still timid, but Mr. Cobden urged them to action in a speech abounding with familiar and forcible illustration. "Why, he asked, were the incendiaries, of which the papers told them, enabled to get up their torchlight meetings P People do not quit comfortable homes, containing good beds, and furniture, and tables with something to spread upon them, to attend out-of-door night meetings. There were causes for those evils, and it behoved them to represent strongly what those causes were, and to warn the legislature of the dangers which were hanging over them. Surely it behoved them to read the signs of the times. If their trade should be ruined, the neighbourhood of Manchester must become the theatre where a fearful tragedy would be enacted, which it became their duty and their interest to avert by a timely effort to repeal the corn laws. The Chamber, thus urged, was induced to adopt a petition to the legislature for free trade, drawn up by Mr. Cobden, which they did almost unanimously.

Meanwhile, the first municipal election under the Manchester Charter of Incorporation had been held, at which Mr. Cobden, and a number of other gentlemen professing free trade views, had been chosen aldermen, not without formidable opposition. At a meeting held at Leeds, and attended by seven or eight thousand persons, the Chartists, under Mr. Feargus O'Connor, resisted the resolutions of the free-traders, on the ground that the movement was one only intended to give the manufacturers power to lower the wages of their workmen - a mistaken doctrine, but one not altogether without support in the writings of the free trade party, some of whom, with the common propensity of zealous advocates for adopting doubtful arguments as well as good ones in support of their objects, had put forth the statement that the British manufacturer required cheap food in order to get cheap labour, and thus to compete the better with foreign producers. The opposition of the Chartists created great confusion at almost every meeting held under the auspices of the Manchester Association. Bread, however, continued to rise, and the task of the association in rousing the country became easier.

Subscriptions began to pour in for the association, and the work went on; but the day was still distant when this provincial association, under its altered title of the Anti-Corn-Law League, should make itself recognised by the country at large as a power in the state, overwhelming in the justice of its cause, and in the faith, the energy, and the perseverance of its founders, and those whom they had enlisted in the progress of their struggle. Years afterwards, when that struggle was ended, and the

Leaguers found time to look back, Mr. Cobden said, "There are a number of gentlemen who, during the last seven years and a half, have been almost daily in attendance at the League Rooms in Newall's Buildings; and, bear in mind, for the first two or three years of our agitation it was a very hopeless matter: there was no éclat, no applause, the result of the powers we now enjoy. We sat in a small room, the same we now have, and we had a dingy red curtain drawn across the room, that we might not be chilled by the paucity of our numbers. Two or three were all that were here on one occasion; and I recollect saying to my friend Prentice, 'What a lucky thing it is the monopolists cannot draw aside that curtain, and see how many of us there are; for, if they could, they would not be much frightened.' "

On the 22nd of January, a public dinner was given by the Manchester Association to the members who, in the previous session, had voted in favour of Mr. Villiers' motion, at which it was resolved that, in order to secure unity and efficiency of action, delegates should be appointed by the several Anti-Corn-Law Associations of the kingdom to assemble as a Central Board in London at the opening of Parliament, to whom it was proposed to entrust, among other business, the duty of obtaining the services of such members of Parliament as were inclined to urge their cause with efficiency. It was stated at that meeting that a petition from Glasgow for the total repeal of the corn laws had been signed, in a few days, by 80,000 persons, and one from Leeds by 150,000 persons.

The year 1839 opened with bright prospects for the Anti-Corn-Law crusade. Times were, indeed, changed since pseudo-Liberals had been able to make the apathy of the country an excuse for withholding aid from those who had, on principle, continued to demand justice in the matter of the poor man's loaf. The movement was rapidly becoming general. Mr. Villiers had prophesied in the last session of Parliament that " the day was not far distant" when the landed interest would be compelled to treat this question with respect, and abandon the practice of shouting down the advocates of free trade in the Legislature. That day had now arrived, and sooner, probably, than the prophet himself had expected it. There was scarcely a large town or thickly-peopled district in Great Britain which had not moved, or which was not about to petition Parliament against the bread- tax. In many cases, political differences were not allowed to hinder the common fellowship of citizens having such an object as the overthrow of a system that threatened, sooner or later, to convert the mercantile community into a mass of bankruptcy, and to involve all classes in deep distress. A Sheffield newspaper came out with a woodcut representing an Englishman in fetters, sitting on an island, holding a diminutive loaf in his hand, with a Frenchman grinning at him, and holding up one at the same price and double the size; while a Russian stood by with another four times the size. Underneath the picture was the motto, " England, the envy and admiration of the world."

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