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The Corn Laws page 3


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From the manufacturing districts the movement was spreading to the metropolis, where usually there had been but little attention paid to this important subject. The various trades of London began to take part in the preparation of petitions, and to hold meetings. At some of these the working men carried resolutions against the petitions; and they made similar, though unsuccessful, attempts in various towns. But it was remarked that even while refusing to take preliminary measures for procuring relief from the bread- tax, they declared its injustice; in fact, the savage mood to which the prevalent distress was bringing the labouring classes began to manifest itself in a determination to postpone every question save that of their claim to a share of political power. They were not friendly to the middle class; but their ill-will could not be cited even as a proof of their indifference to the continuance of the corn law system. It began to appear as if the whole kingdom was occupied almost exclusively with the discussion of the question; and so irresistible was the general feeling on this vital point believed to be, that it was openly stated by the more influential Liberal journals that the fate of Lord Melbourne's Administration was expected entirely to depend on their own prudence in taking the lead in this matter, by a clear and distinct declaration on this subject to be made from the throne. Some said that Ministers would join the opponents of the corn laws, and dissolve Parliament on the question; but cautious friends of the movement advised the free-traders to put no faith in such a supposition. It was seen that the Ministers could hope for nothing from such a course - that they would offend many of their present supporters, without obtaining a single new vote. It seemed more probable that they would merely encourage the agitation to a certain point, in the hope that it would absorb all other troublesome topics.

The Opposition, however, appear to have been by no means certain of the absurdity of the expectation that corn law repeal would be taken up by the Melbourne Administration as a bait for popularity out of doors; and, in the common course of party strategy, a section of the party appear to have determined to adopt the presumed tactics of their enemies, It was remarked that some Conservatives had signed requisitions for anti- corn law meetings; and at length the Times, the most powerful organ of that party, commenced a series of articles against the corn laws, remarkable for their ability. At first sight, nothing appeared more calculated to aid the cause of the Manchester association than the newly-awakened zeal of this influential journal. On the 18th of January, 1839, the first of these manifestoes, which was read with so much alarm by the country squires and ultra Tories, made its appearance. Claiming credit for consistency, because, " twenty-three years ago, the same paper had opposed the corn laws," and remarking, as if, though silent on the subject, they had been occupied with it in their own minds ever since, that " nothing had happened to impair, but everything to confirm their censures," the writer declared that the present movement of the country for a redress of grievances arose not from party or factious impulses, but was a genuine and intelligent effort to shake off a painful load. He warned the landed proprietary that if they attempted to stop the progress of this popular determination, it would mistake very glaringly its own interest, and would exaggerate its own power. " A law," the writer declared, "establishing a monopoly for the supply of food in favour of one particular class of the community, was really nothing better, though it might not sound so monstrous, as a similar monopoly possessed by Mehemet Ali." He told the landlords that if it were true that free trade in corn, and its consequent fall in prices, would throw corn lands out of cultivation, there was nothing to be done but to take to pasture. " How," he asked, " would our landowners like to see a portion of the stiff clay soil of Wiltshire turned into vineyards, with the grapes thereon raised under glass, and a prohibitory duty on all foreign wines imposed, for the sake of encouraging the home producer, who would thus be enabled to charge these same British landlords 50 per cent, more than the price of the highest flavoured foreign claret, champagne, &c., for his sour and unpalatable beverage? Just a parallel case is that of bolstering up, by bounties and prohibitions, the costly and inferior grain-crops of our coarser soil, many of which would supply our industrious countrymen with beef on moderate terms."

In short, no tract issued by the Anti-Corn-Law Association for the information of the hard-worked artisans of Lancashire and Yorkshire, could have been more thorough in its free-trade declaration than this powerful organ of the landed party. Shrewd free traders, however, Were not deceived by this furious zeal for the adoption of the views of the manufacturing class. That the true object of the writer was to threaten the Ministry, and to frighten them from adopting a course so easily parodied by their opponents, was unmistakably manifested in the following significant conclusion of the article itself: - "We shall just add that the manoeuvres now set on foot, and actively prosecuted by the Queen's Ministers, to degrade this vast national question into an instrument of their own factious and jobbing selfishness, will recoil upon them fearfully before they are one month older." When the opening of Parliament and the Queen's speech had revealed the Government policy, we find the same journal taxing the Ministers with having endeavoured to mislead their opponents by authorising their confidential friends to insinuate a division in the Cabinet on the subject of the corn tax, and sneering at Lord John Russell for having "found it necessary to sop the manufacturing interest by pledging himself, if not to introduce, to vote for a corn law modification." Thus did the party politicans of the day treat a question which was moving the country from end to end.

Under these favourable circumstances, but amid the warnings of their friends not to relax, or fall into the error of regarding the approaching fight as an easy one, the delegates from the great manufacturing towns were preparing to assemble in London. Statesmen bred in the old time, when Toryism was supreme, and when popular clamour for bread was met with no other answer than the Riot Act and a detachment of dragoons, looked with little favour upon an irregular and unauthorised body claiming to represent the interests of the people so imperfectly represented in the Legislature. Such a precedent might lead to evil consequences. The fact that the Chartists, in spite of the Convention Act, were at the same time sending delegates, who were meeting in a sort of mock parliament, calling itself a National Convention, at an hotel in Cockspur Street, Charing Cross, and afterwards in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, was calculated to render the Manchester delegates still more distasteful to the authorities. The Anti-Corn-Law agitators, however, had a clearly-defined purpose, and rigidly excluded all other topics from their speeches, lectures, petitions, and tracts. They were men who well knew the grounds of what they demanded. They were not repudiators of the great truths of political economy, preaching a suicidal crusade against capital, or demanding an impossible distribution of the wealth of the country; but men prepared both practically and theoretically to maintain the justice of their cause. Their text-books were acknowledged authorities in political science; and their friends in Parliament, though few, comprised some of the soundest statesmen of the time. Parliament was to meet on the 5th of February, and on the day before, the delegates assembled at Brown's Hotel in Palace Yard, within a stone's throw of the entrance to that House of Commons whose proceedings they had come to watch. Manchester sent Messrs. J. B. Smith, R. H. Greg, C. J. S. Walker, W. Rawson, and George Wilson; Bolton, Messrs. Edmund Ashworth and A. W. Paulton; Liverpool, Messrs. Joshua Walmsley and J. Aikin; Glasgow, Messrs. Alexander Johnstone and William Weir; Leeds, Messrs. Edward Baines, jun., and Hamer Stanfield; Stockport, the Mayor, J. Slack, and the Town Clerk; Kendal, Messrs. J. Edmonston, W. Wilson, and Alderman Isaac Wilson; Huddersfield, Messrs. Brook and Shaw; Preston, Mr. Parker; Birmingham, Messrs. Joseph Sturge, Bradford, and E. Edwards; London, Colonel Thompson, W. Weymouth, Dr. Bowring, and M. A. Taylor. Mr. Villiers, the faithful representative of their cause in Parliament; Mr. Thornley, member for Wolverhampton; and Mr. Ewart, lately member for Liverpool, were also present. The next day the delegates, increased in numbers, met, and passed a kind of self-denying ordinance, in the name of their manufacturing constituents, that while they demanded a repeal of all restrictions on the importation of articles of subsistence, they were prepared to resign all claims to the protection of home manufacturers. They also resolved to meet from day to day during the discussions on the corn laws, and to invite Mr. Villiers to include in his motion that evidence be heard at the bar of the House. They then separated to attend the House of Commons at the opening of the Parliamentary session.

Scarcely a month had passed since Ministerial and Opposition organs had seemed to vie with each other in the struggle to be first to take up the corn law question; but those who observed closely the political horizon knew that there was already a considerable change in the position. The threat of a section of the Tories, who were growing in popularity, to take the lead, if compelled, in the matter of the bread laws, had had its effect. If there had been any serious intention to move in the matter, when Lord John Russell, a short time previously, had addressed a letter to the electors of Stroud, declaring the existing corn laws indefensible, it had already evaporated. When the Queen's Speech was delivered, it was found to contain no allusion to the subject. It was introduced into the debate on the address, but only to show the imbecility of the Government. In the Upper House the Prime Minister had nothing to say to the taunts of the Opposition, but that the question had been regarded by the Ministry, from the very first commencement and constitution of the present Government, as an open one, or one on which every member of the Cabinet was at liberty to speak and vote in his own way. He believed that a majority of its members were favourable to a revision of those laws, but if the House inferred his (Lord Melbourne's) opinion thereon, he said it was likely to infer erroneously. He was not willing to enter into a debate on the corn laws then. Finally, he told their lordships and the country that " though he was not prepared to pledge himself to the support of the present system as the best that could be devised, he was not, on the other hand, prepared to pledge himself to any change or alteration of the law as it stood at present."

The Opposition, whose policy was to weaken and degrade in the eyes of the country the ministry to whom they gave a partial support, were not slow in showing that they had no serious intention of giving relief to the people. The landed interest were determined to uphold the system. Sir Robert Peel, their most conspicuous representative, was firm upon that point; and two days later, when a member presented a petition against the corn laws, signed by 13,000 of his constituents, he arose and, with vehement gesticulation, protested against any statement being made on the petition, as contrary to the rules of the House. The corn law repealers, however, were equally determined to press their point, and to throw upon the House the odium, if they were so determined, of endeavouring to stifle inquiry. It had been resolved by the delegates that Mr. Villiers should move that members of their body be heard at the bar of the House in support of the allegations of their petition presented on the 15th instant, complaining of the operation of the corn laws. Among the earliest opponents of that motion was Lord John Russell, who, on the evening when Mr. Villiers gave the customary notice of intention, disgusted the free trade party in the house by announcing his hostility to the motion. This speech, from the man whose name had been associated with liberal measures, "caused," says Miss Martineau, "a stronger sensation than some of the longest he had ever delivered. It was copied in the newspapers, with a declaration that it made one's blood boil; and the universal impression, among men of all parties, seems to have been that it proved him so unaware of the existing circumstances and temper of the nation, as to injure his immediate reputation and influence, and to weaken him, unaccountably to himself, in every one of the various positions in regard to the Corn Law question, in which he afterwards endeavoured to establish himself. He said ' the impression on his mind was that it would be his duty to oppose the motion as to hearing evidence at the bar. He had not, as yet, found sufficient reasons or precedents to induce him to adopt that course. At the same time he must say that, as there would be a great deal of discussion relating to facts, when a mode was proposed which he thought was conformable to precedent, and not inconvenient to the House, by which these facts could be ascertained, he should be willing, although not ready to propose it himself, to support a motion so as to ascertain the facts.' This might have been taken as a matter of course from Sir Robert Peel in those days - this speech about propriety and precedent, and the convenience of the House, in regard to a matter about which 3,000,000 of the best subjects in the empire had sent up representatives to London, and a message to Parliament. Such a speech would have suited Sir R. Peel's then position and views with regard to the corn laws. But Lord John Russell had declared to his Stroud constituents that the existing corn laws were indefensible; and he declared on this very night that he believed the time to be come for a change. The delegates who were analysing the House now knew where to place Lord John Russell on their lists. He disapproved the corn laws in the abstract - just as the Carolina planters disapprove slavery in the abstract. In both cases, when an opportunity for acting upon that disapprobation occurs, the action goes over to the other side."

It had been intended that Earl Eitzwilliam, one of the few members of the House of Peers who stood by the people in this struggle, should move for a similar object in the Upper House; but he was prevented by an attack of illness. It was soon found that the cause of the Manchester party, however, lost nothing by the fact. The position was taken by Lord Brougham, who, on Monday, the 18th of February, delivered a speech of remarkable eloquence and clearness of reasoning, and one which was long remembered in that assembly of great landowners. "His impressive delivery," says a contemporary, who pronounces the speech "a fine display of rhetorical power, sustaining Lord Brougham's reputation as the first orator of his day," gave force to his well- combined arguments, which came with the air of novelty as well as strength on the hearer. Though he stood the solitary supporter of his side of the question in the House of Lords, it seemed as if all they could achieve was a mere nibble to the elaborate and energetic statement which he had produced. His reply was an adroit mixture of courteous sarcasm with cutting reproof. "His opponents," observes the writer just quoted, "exhibited a bull-headed resolution to maintain the rent- raising laws." This, however, describes but mildly the excitement which prevailed in that usually calm assembly, as the orator was occupied nearly three hours in demolishing, one by one, their favourite fallacies. He reminded them of the extraordinary interest which the subject was exciting throughout the country; and that the House was not asked in the first instance to decide for or against the continuance of the existing laws, but merely to consider and examine the case which the opponents of those laws were anxious to lay before them. He addressed them especially as the highest court of judicature in the realm. As grave, calm, deliberate men, they were entreated to hear - only to hear - before rejecting the prayers of numerous wealthy and intelligent classes of their fellow- subjects. He appeared, he told them, as advocate for the country - for all classes and all interests; and no word against any one class or condition of men should escape his lips. He then proceeded to state the case, which, if permitted, he was prepared to prove by evidence or oath at their lordships' bar. He told, among other strange evidences of the evil working of these pernicious laws, how one Newcastle house alone had purchased foreign grain to the amount of 100,000, but their cargo arriving just as the duty was raised, by one of those sudden and unexpected jerks which were the result of the present law, they had been compelled to put 'it in bond, where, within sight of a half-fed people, it had laid for years, until interest and expenses had swallowed up its value. The orator then, rising with his subject, exclaimed: - " I earnestly implore that you will not reject my request; for, believe me, my lords, if you do reject it, the day will come when you will say, ' Better had it been for us if we had thought twice.' The day will come when this reflection will be too late, and when your repentance will not supply the place of a wise compliance now. When I say this, I am quite conscious that your lordships are a body of men the last in the world likely to be influenced by anything bearing the most remote semblance of menace, and I am the last man to advance anything which could bear that construction; but, at the same time, I know that advice is not lost on your lordships, but that you are ever disposed candidly to take it into your best and most serious consideration. I shall add but one word more to induce your lordships to listen to the prayer of the petitioners, who earnestly implore to be heard, not by counsel, but by evidence at your lordships' bar. Whatever resolution you ultimately come to, supposing, even, that it be to do nothing against the present corn laws, stick to them, if you will, in the minutest detail; re-enact them, if you will; resolve not to hear a word against them: but, for God's sake, do not form this resolution till after you have heard the evidence I tender you. I protest to you that if I were the most strenuous advocate of these laws, if I were the most unalterably fixed in my resolution that nothing should make me judge against them; if I were determined beforehand - though this would hardly be a rational determination; though this would hardly be a proceeding worthy of a judge, whose business it is to hear before he decides - but even were I thus pre-determined that nothing whatever should induce me to give up the corn laws, I should deem this predetermination on my part, not as an argument for refusing to go into the inquiry, but, on the contrary, as the strongest inducement I could have for permitting the investigation before I published my final resolution to the country. My lords, let me put it most seriously to you, what will be the consequences of such a fact going forth to the manufacturers, as that, when evidence was offered at the bar of your House in proof of eight propositions, every one of them vitally affecting the interests of the trade, the manufactures, the commerce, the well-being of the country - the deep importance of which no man denies, the possibility of proving which no man can reasonably call in question, the truth of which is so solemnly asserted, the proof of which is tendered on oath - what will be said, I ask, if those propositions are arbitrarily thrown to the winds - are put down by the mute eloquence of numbers, by the mere force of an overwhelming Parliamentary majority, and the people of England are told, ' Parliament has made up its mind about the matter. Go your way, return to your empty shops, repair to your ruined manufactories, or hie away to foreign countries; do what you like, we want none of your evidence, we care not for your testimony, we despise your facts. We have made up our minds to this foregone conclusion; and, lest your evidence might shake our determination, we won't run the risk of listening to it at all?' Rely upon it, my lords, that a refusal on your part would be accompanied by the most unwelcome suspicions and comments on the part of the country. It is a much more pleasing task to contemplate the happy effects of the opposite case - of your acceding to my request that you hear this evidence. I can conceive no earthly event which would tend more to reconcile - if there has ever been a falling out - the people of this country to the established order of things, to the order to which your lordships belong, than your candid consideration of, your paternal listening to the application of those petitioners; your opening wide your doors to the people's prayers; your not shutting out the proffered evidence as to their distresses, and the remedy which they propose for them."

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