OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The Corn Laws page 4

Pages: 1 2 3 <4>

This eloquent appeal was in vain. The House, doubtless, saw nothing in it but the view of the recently-created peer, who had not sat long enough in the atmosphere of aristocratic prejudice to forget the old arts of the popular orator and self-made man. They heard in his warning no solemn utterance of the people's wishes; and they believed themselves too firmly entrenched in the privileges of their class to dread the excitement which he had foretold. The Duke of Buckingham curtly announced his firm resolution to oppose the motion. Lord Stanhope refused to be a party to " a mere compliment to the political economy of England, or to gratify the inordinate grasping after gain which distinguished the English manufacturers. "The Duke of Richmond, long one of the most conspicuous of the Protectionist party in that House, declared, with a sneer, that he was surprised to hear that the manufacturing interest was at a low ebb, as it appeared that they had abundance of money for the construction of railroads, docks, and other purposes; and added that he " felt it his duty, though it was an unpopular course, to meet the motion to hear evidence by a direct negative." The Prime Minister, as before, treated the question with well-balanced antithetic and meaningless phrases; while the Duke of Wellington warned the House that this was a deep-laid conspiracy to entrap them, and that the real object of the motion was not, as Lord Melbourne supposed, to create delay, but to accelerate the attainment of the repeal of the corn laws; " an object," he added, " to be attained rather by clamour than by fair reasoning and inquiry."

When Lord Brougham rose to reply, the House was in some disorder. Several peers were ostentatiously displaying their resolution not to be persuaded, by rising from their places to go. The orator, however, was not to be daunted by this scene. Rising from his place, and looking towards the disturbers, he said: " I perceive that you have already made up your minds, and that you think it unnecessary to hear both sides." Then turning to Lord Wynford, who, like himself, had risen by his talents as a lawyer, he said, "The noble and learned lord opposite, I see, is allowing his old judicial habit of hearing before he decides to prevail over him " - a remark which brought forth a loud cheer from his brother peer. Then to the peers who were still interrupting, Lord Brougham observed, somewhat angrily, " You don't wish to hear the reply, don't you? Ay, but you shall, whether you like it or not." Laughter followed this expression of dogged resolution; but the speaker continued: "Why, I have been accustomed to this all my life. It is nothing to the House of Commons. But there," he added, in a significant tone, " we were always heard." This reproach had the effect of somewhat abating the laughter which had broken out afresh at the noble lord's allusion to his experiences as a member of the Lower House, on which the undaunted orator quietly remarked, " Ay, now you have gained your judicial dignity, and show more willingness to hear." The motion, as might be expected, failed. The Lord Chancellor decided that " the non-contents have it," and there was no division.

The discussion in the Commons took place on the fol lowing day. It was preceded by the presentation of a great number of petitions - the Speaker having taken the chair at three o'clock, in order to afford members an opportunity of bringing them up before the debate began. As in the Lords, the petitions in favour of the corn laws were most numerous; but the signatures they bore were few in comparison with the names attached to the free- trade petitions, and the places they came from, with few exceptions, were obscure in a remarkable degree. Lord Sandon, son of the Earl of Harrowby, presented one of these petitions from Liverpool; but with no statement of the numbers signing it. His colleague, Mr. Cresswell, had charge of the Liverpool petition for total repeal, signed by 26,000 persons. Mr. Mark Philips presented twenty-five petitions, signed by 27,366 inhabitants of Manchester; and another from 4,380 hand-loom weavers, complaining that in consequence of the high price of bread they were compelled to work fifteen hours a day, and could not obtain the necessaries of life. Mr. Villiers then laid upon the table an imposing heap of petitions, including the one on which he founded his motion: - " That J. B. Smith, B. H. Greg, and others, be heard at the bar of this House by their witnesses, agents, or counsel, in support of the allegations of their petition presented to the House on the 15th day of this instant February, complaining of the operation of the corn laws." "Mr. Villiers's speech that night," says Miss Martineau, "was not lost. It was a statement of singular force and clearness, and the occasion was destined to great celebrity." He appealed to the members as men of business, and confined himself chiefly to illustrations of the injurious effect of the corn laws on the commerce and manufactures of the country, and to arguments in favour of the mode of proving their cause which the petitioners had selected. He began by describing the petitioners. They represented Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and the Tower Hamlets - places, the sum of whose population exceeded two millions, and which would be at once recognised as the seats of the great staple manufactures of the country. He dwelt upon the importance of the cotton, woollen, linen, and hardware manufactures, the immense capital invested, and the large number of persons employed in their production. He called the attention of the House to the striking change in the character of English dealings with foreigners which had lately been observed. Customers were becoming rivals. The process was constantly going on. The petitioners wished to apprise the Legislature of the indications of approaching evils, which, though they would feel them at first, must finally be shared by millions of the people. He was prepared, he said, to prove that these evils might be in a great measure averted; that it was not until they had lost hope of the English market for their raw produce, that the continental nations submitted to the retaliatory tariff imposed by their governments. He told them, with a moderation which might have won assent from a body less resolved, that the petitioners would not ask the House at once to repeal these laws; but they stated that these important consequences of the laws, so deeply affecting their interests, were not fully within the range of specific and distinct proof. There was nothing in the completion of their case that required more than a limited period of time, and they only repeated that which experience had forced on them, and which experience, when known to the House, might influence its judgment in discussing the general policy of maintaining those laws. They did not come there to detail a sad story of general distress, to excite pity for their losses, or to influence the passions of the people. They only came to the House to apprise honourable members, as reasonable men, haying a sense of the obligation of the trust reposed in them, of the coming evil, which when it came would be shared by them as by millions of their fellow-countrymen. " They cannot," he continued, " be told that they are desirous of changing a law of which there has not been sufficient experience, or that they ever approved of. They come here to prove that all they predicted of its consequences nearly a quarter of a century since has been verified, and that they have suffered all they expected from it; and now, when they are hourly feeling its effects in a stronger degree, they ask you only to hear the evidence of facts which would show it. Upon what possible ground," he asked, in continuation, "can you refuse them this request? This is really no trifling matter, and I trust it will not be lightly dismissed. It is the application of the great body of the middle classes, and the most reflecting portion of the working class who appeal to this House. They approach you in a manner the least objectionable that is possible. They offer you no intimidation; they come here with no menace, with no violence; but even with consideration for, and deference to, your supposed opinions. It is the same Parliament that refused to alter the law last year, and they do not come now to you at once and hastily, to ask you to repeal the law; but they request you to hear the grounds on which they made the demand, and on which they think that you ought to re-consider your decision."

Mr. Strutt, in seconding the motion, said that his constituents, the silk manufacturers of Derby, had stated in their petitions that they willingly relinquished protection for their own trade if the trade in corn were set free. Of the ministers, Sir J. Hobhouse, Lord Morpeth, and Mr. Poulett Thompson took advantage of the question being deemed an open one, to speak for the motion. The other ministers who voted, including Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell, were against it. It was on this occasion that Lord Stanley offended the earnest men who had determined to overthrow these unjust laws, by a foolish joke on a subject so deeply affecting the interests of his constituents. He had heard the manufacturers, he said, compared by a gentleman of his acquaintance to a match-girl who solicited his charity in the street, and who, having obtained it, remarked, " Bless you, sir, I lose on every match I sell; but, God be praised, I sell a great many of them; " and so said the manufacturers, " We lose on every article we sell, but, God be praised, our manufactures have increased amazingly, and the only mischief is, that other nations are increasing theirs too;" an illustration which is reported to have 'occasioned much laughter. But the picture drawn by Lord Howiek of the proposed examination of the petitioners at the bar, was the most effective joke of the occasion. He sketched the variety of subjects bearing on the question, which would be touched on by thirty or forty cross-examiners, each anxious to draw forth views in support of his own opinions. "Let members," he said, "figure to themselves the picture which the House would present at half-past seven o'clock. There would be their unhappy Chairman in his seat - whether he would be listening to the evidence, or whether he would be writing verses, or whether he might occasionally indulge in a little repose, it was not for him to say. The great majority of members would be scattered in different places, and it would be a very good evening on which members might be able to form engagements to dine out, which it was not much in their power to do usually. The honourable member for Manchester had presented a petition, praying that this inquiry might take place. He should, therefore, feel it to be his duty to attend in his place on such occasions; but he would be occupying the bench, on which he usually sat, nearly alone, and he would be rather inclined to follow the example of the worthy Chairman, than to attend to the business which was going on."

The motion was defeated, the Commons deciding by a majority of 361 to 172 that they would not even hear evidence on the subject. It was angrily remarked by the newspapers that the Lords, who had resolved that they had " no time to inquire " on Monday, did not sit at all on Wednesday; and that the Commons, who thought one night enough for the discussion of a question affecting the vital interests of the people, assembled at fous o'clock on the following day, and adjourned at six. The association met on the following day, their numbers swelled by a numerous attendance of free traders of the metropolis. There were some who had hoped that they would, at least, have been granted a hearing, and these were loud in their expressions of indignation. Others, who had taken a less sanguine view, and had not been deceived into a belief that their battle was about to be an easy one, were excited by the contemptuous manner in which their petitions had been received. But there was no sign of a falling off in their determination to persevere to the end. At that meeting the newspapers favourable to the cause for the first time noticed a speaker whose name was afterwards to become so familiar to them in connection with this struggle. This was Mr. Cobden. He told his brother delegates that "there was no cause for despondency. They were the real representatives of three millions of people - a far greater number of constituents than the House over the way could boast of. They well knew that no great principle was ever indebted to Parliament for success - the victory must be gained out of doors. The great towns of Britain had extended the right hand of fellowship to each other; and their alliance would be a Hanseatic league against their feudal corn law plunderers. Let them remember the result of the union of the Hanse Towns. He had sailed up the Rhine, the Danube, and the Elbe, and had exulted over the ruins of the castles once inhabited by the feudal landlords, but which now only served to make a landscape picturesque. Instead of these baronial residences, there were now fertile vineyards, cultivated by a prosperous peasantry. Repeal the corn laws, and then, and not till then, England would have a contented, a prosperous, and a rich peasantry, such as there was in other countries." He then continued: - "Sir Robert Peel had said that this would be a labourer's question: he should find it so - an agricultural labourer's question. They would go each and lay before the agricultural labourers the information they had intended to lay before the House of Commons; and even if they were compelled to go into every village, those facts should be known. They had been told by Mr. Cayley that they had the power to regulate wages; why, they had no more the power of regulating the price of labour than they had the power of regulating the catch of mackerel. But Mr. Cayley had forgotten that that was an argument which acted two ways; if they had the power of regulating the wages of the operative spinners or weavers, surely the landlords had the power of regulating the wages of the agricultural labourers; and what were the wages the agricultural labourers got, in comparison with the manufacturing labourers? He and his partner had in their employment upwards of 1,000 men; they paid 400 of these men, upon an average of years, 22s. a-week, and they had no person in their manufactories so badly paid, in proportion to his work, as many labourers in the country."

A public dinner at one of the theatres had been offered to the chief members of the association, but was declined. They were going back to Manchester, to give an account of their proceedings, and to concert measures for a more extensive movement. They had seen the futility of petitions to a House of landowners, against the landlords' laws; and they resolved to set to work in earnest to create that full tide of public opinion in their favour without which the prime minister himself had told them that nothing could be done. "This expression of the predominant opinion in the House of Commons," says the " Annual Register " for 1839, "had the effect of putting the question to rest." And such was, no doubt, the opinion of the landlords themselves, who, secure in their Parliamentary majority, troubled themselves but little with the association, which continued to hold its meetings in the little room in Ne wall's Buildings, Manchester. Wheat had again fallen; and, with the increased employment for the people which the summer generally brings with it, the corn law agitation appeared to have subsided. The evil effects of the provision laws, however, were sure, ere long, to manifest themselves again; and, meanwhile, the Manchester men laboured with a zeal which made their success only a question of time.

<<< Previous page <<<
Pages: 1 2 3 <4>

Pictures for The Corn Laws page 4

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About