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Chapter LVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

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The Morning Post said: "But the manufacturing people exclaim, ' Why should we not be permitted to exchange the produce of our industry for the greatest quantity of food which that industry will anywhere command? ' To which we answer, ' Why not, indeed? Who hinders you? Take your manufactures away with you by all means, and exchange them anywhere you will, from Tobolsk to Timbuctoo; but do not insist on bringing your foreign corn here untaxed, to the ruin of your countrymen engaged in the production of corn. If nothing will serve you but to eat foreign corn, away with you, you and your goods, and let us never see you more. We do not want to drive you away. You are welcome to stay if you will; but remember, if you do, that "live and let live" is a fair, and honest, and English mode of proceeding.' " The London Standard wrote still more violently: " The present cry against the corn laws," remarked that journal, " is, at bottom, the work of a few commercial swindlers, though aided, no doubt, by the exertions of political swindlers, who see the benefit of an agitation calculated to distract public attention from the misconduct of the (Whig) Government. It is well, however, to remember that the commercial swindlers are the prime movers; because the honest class of traders, who would be the very first victims of a repeal of the corn laws, may be entrapped into joining the suicidal movement by what they believed to be good commercial names."

Government obstruction xo the labours of the League was not wanting. After a few numbers of the Anti-Corn-Law Circular had appeared, the Government officer intimated that it would be considered as a newspaper, and must bear a stamp on every copy. That the Circular conveyed news to the people was true enough; but it was certainly not a newspaper in the ordinary sense of the term, but one of those special journals not devoted to general information on public events, which in other instances had not been held liable to stamp duty. The Government, however, insisted, and the 15,000 copies of each number of the Circular came out burdened with what in those early days of the League agitation was a serious drawback - a tax of 15,000 pence. Herein, however, was shown the beneficial working for the people's welfare of the then recent changes in the stamp laws, and particularly of the postal reforms of Mr. Rowland Hill. A few years earlier the duty of 15,000 pence would have been 60,000 pence, an amount which must have crushed the new organ of popular rights, or, at least, limited its circulation so greatly as to have reduced its influence to a mere trifle. But the payment of the penny was not all loss to the League. Fortunately, under the new postal law, it enabled the stamped journal to be sent free to any part of the kingdom - a fact which contributed powerfully to the dissemination of the joyful tidings of the approaching downfall of monopoly throughout the kingdom. This, however, was not the only advantage which the movement derived from these beneficial changes. " If the League," says Mr. Prentice, " were to send its tracts and letters to every village in the kingdom, in the work of enlightening its obscurest corners, it was desirable that there should be a cheap postage. Richard Cobden, and other free traders of Manchester, had earnestly forwarded, by their evidence and their labour, the scheme of an uniform penny postage, originated and most admirably worked out by Mr. Rowland Hill, Mr. Charles Knight, Mr. W. H. Ashurst, and others, in London. It triumphed over the opposition of the Government officials; and even the experiment of an uni-form fourpenny rate, to precede the wider postal reform, was greatly favourable to the operations of the League, now in close correspondence with the leading friends of free trade in every large town. When the penny postage rate came, the correspondence of the League increased a hundredfold."

The opening of the year 1840 saw no flagging in the efforts of the Manchester men to bring forward the question, which the "Annual Register" had just regarded as finally set at rest. It had been determined that a great meeting of delegates should be held in that city. There was no hall large enough to hold half of the then members even of the local association, and it was therefore resolved to construct one. Mr. Cobden owned nearly all of the land then unbuilt on in St. Peter's Field - the very site of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, when the people who were met together for the discussion of the bread laws and of reform in Parliament had been cut down by the soldiers in a way which even to this hour is remembered in that part. In eleven days one hundred men constructed on this spot a temporary pavilion, which afterwards gave place to the permanent Free-trade Hall, which still stands, and is the favourite scene of great political meetings. The Manchester Times described the pavilion as comprising an area of nearly 16,000 square feet. It contained seats for dining 3,800 persons, and 500 more were admitted after the dinner. Above the president's chair there was a device in gas upon the wall, consisting of the word "Justice," id letters of a yard in length. Along the principal gallery, and extending the whole length of the pavilion, were the words, "Landowners! Honesty is the best policy." On one of the galleries the words, "Total and immediate repeal!" and on another, "A fixed duty is a fixed injustice!" The names of Eitzwilliam, Radnor, Westminster, Brougham, Clarendon, and Durham, members of the House of Peers who had been conspicuous exceptions to their class in the treatment of this question, were also inscribed in large letters on the draperies. Among the most conspicuous speakers at the banquet were Daniel O'Connell, Mr. Cobden, and Mr. Milner Gibson; but perhaps the most interesting feature in the proceedings was the operative banquet, which took place on the following day. Five thousand working men, overlooked by their wives, sisters, and daughters in the galleries, sat down on that occasion. The services of chairman and speakers - in fact, the whole business of the meeting - was arranged by themselves. It was evident that the people were emancipating themselves from the advice of evil counsellors, and were beginning to see the importance to their interests of the movement of the League. The Chartist convention of the previous year had declared its approval of the corn laws, and its hostility to those who advocated cheap bread; but the Manchester operatives at this interesting meeting put forth no uncertain voice.

Shortly after this, and on the eve of Mr. Villiers's annual motion, two hundred delegates assembled in London, and waited on Lord Melbourne. Among them was the philanthropist, Joseph Sturge; but the time was not yet ripe for moving the Government. The Minister would not pledge himself. He declared himself, both in practice and theory, opposed to total repeal; and the deputation departed with the words, "My lord, we leave you with the consciousness of having done our duty; the responsibility for the future must rest upon the Government." A deputation to Sir Robert Peel and Sir James Graham, the leaders of the Opposition, was not more fortunate; and a similar deputation to Lord John Russell drew forth only the avowal that his lordship was favourable to " a fixed moderate duty up to the famine point" - a phrase which a contemporary states his lordship, with some hesitation and stammering, withdrew, substituting the expression, "vanishing" point. At this meeting the Mayor of Carlisle gave a lamentable account of the state of the working classes in that city. He said that its peace was preserved mainly by the hope that the Anti- Corn-Law deputation would be able to effect something for their relief, and that if that hope should be disappointed, an agitation of a very different kind might be expected. The Borough-reeve of Manchester drew an affecting picture of the distresses of the working classes, and described one particular family, the members of which, after a life of economy and industry, had been compelled to pawn articles of furniture and clothes, one after another, till nothing was left but bare walls and empty cupboards. The emotion of the speaker finally choked his utterance, and his agitation was largely shared in by others present, while the Ministers, it-is stated, looked with astonishment at a scene so strange to statesmen and courtiers. Mr. Joseph Sturge made a powerful appeal to the Ministers, placing the whole question upon the eternal principles of justice and humanity, which he said were shamefully outraged by a tax on the food of the people. The conference was closed by some eloquent remarks from Mr. Cobden, who told the Ministers that their decision would become matter of history, and would " stamp their characters as either representatives merely of class interests or the promoters of an enlightened commercial policy." " They chose the former," says Mr. Prentice, "and five years of further deep national distress and symptoms of consequent danger were required to convince them, out of office, that the promotion of general rather than of class interests was the legitimate business of legislation."

Mr. Villiers's motion again failed to move the serried phalanx of the upholders of the landowners' laws. Lord Morpeth acknowledged that the people were in deep distress r and said that, looking at the increasing prevalence and power of their demands, he thought the time was not far distant "when a freer and more unrestricted access of foreign corn would more amply repay the efforts of our domestic industry, and secure and extend the harmony of nations; " but the party headed by Sir Robert Peel were uncompromising in their opposition. Again that able leader opposed the motion with all his power, and owing to the manœuvres of the obstructive party, it became what is in parliamentary language called "a dropped order." Mr. Villiers renewed his motion on the 26th of May, 1840, after the presentation of petitions in support of his views bearing a quarter of a million of signatures. These signs of the growth of public opinion, to which Lord Morpeth had alluded, had no effect upon the House. There was a fixed determination to give neither Mr. Villiers nor the petitioners a fair hearing. He was assailed with a volley of every kind of uncouth sounds. The Speaker's calls to order were utterly disregarded, and it was not until, losing patience, he commanded the bar to be cleared, and members to take their seats, that the advocate of free trade could be heard by the reporters. It was useless to carry on the discussion amid this deafening clamour. Lord John Russell weakly demanded what the Government could do, when a majority of the House was against any alteration in the law, and said he would vote for the motion, but not with a view to total repeal, as his own opinion was in favour of a moderate fixed duty. The House again divided, when 300 members voted for the landlords' monopoly, against only 177 in favour of inquiry.

While these events were occurring in London, renewed signs of that terrible Irish difficulty which, in the end, played so prominent a part in hastening the conversion of the party who had opposed free trade, began to be forced upon the attention of public men. On the 6th of June the Limerick Reporter stated that at Listowell the state of the poor was awful and deplorable, potatoes being sixteen-pence a stone, and there being no employment. One morning a boat, containing 560 barrels of oats, while waiting for the steamer at Garry Kennedy harbour, on its way to Limerick, was boarded by a large body of the populace, who possessed themselves of part of the grain. The police were sent for, but did not arrive in time to save the property. The Dublin Pilot reported that the people of Limerick, prompted by the cravings of hunger, had broken out in violent attacks on the flour stores and provision shops throughout the city, sparing none in their devastation. Flour was openly seized and distributed by the ringleaders among the populace. The crowd were at length dispersed by the military, and the mayor called a meeting of the inhabitants, to provide some means of meeting the distress. In the meanwhile, ten tons of oatmeal had been distributed an long the most wretched, which was Stated for the present to have satisfied their cravings. These things, it was remarked, took place while corn and flour, to the amount of four or five millions sterling, might, in a few weeks, be had in exchange for our manufactured goods. The League at this period held a public examination of a number of agricultural labourers in London, to meet the allegations of the landlords that, whatever might be the distress in the towns, the farm-labourers were enjoying the benefits of the protective system. By this public examination, reported in the newspapers of the time, it was proved that the wages of the agricultural labourer in the summer were barely sufficient to procure the common necessaries of life; that in winter, even those could not be had without aid from private charity or the parish; that clothes were worn year after year, till the numerous patches entirely covered the original texture; that wages did not rise with the price of food, and that consequently their condition was improved in cheap and greatly deteriorated in dear years.

When such facts as these, again and again urged upon the attention of the legislators, failed to produce any practical result, it became evident to the leaders of the League that they must do something more than be the educators of the people in the principles of free trade. One of the ablest of the London newspapers, which was friendly to their cause, had warned them that nothing could be done in the House of Commons until they could send members there expressly to support their views. It was noticed that the House would not listen to the question of the corn laws - a dry question, no doubt; but the question of Irish registration, which the House had the patience to discuss, night after night, was certainly not more amusing. The fact was that the party which had an interest in opposing the Registration Bill returned some forty or fifty members; while the Corn-Law Leaguers, as yet, returned not one. The day had not come when any one thought it likely that the Manchester manufacturer, and the Rochdale weaver, who had spoken so eloquently at the tavern in Palace Yard, would transfer their eloquence to that House which scarcely deigned to notice the echo of their distant voices; but the Leaguers were now aroused to the importance of this branch of their tactics. The first fruit of this policy was seen in December, when the borough of Walsall being declared vacant, led to a contest long after remembered in the history of the movement. The Leaguers failed; but their failing was not barren. Captain Lyttelton, a Whig, and Mr. Gladstone, brother of the distinguished statesman, were the two candidates on this occasion. The League sent a deputation to test the candidates on the question of corn law repeal, intending to give all their influence to the Whig candidate, if he pledged himself to advocate their objects. There was then no hope for assistance from Tory statesmen; and the League determined to bring forward a new candidate, in the person of Mr. J. B. Smith, one of the most prominent of their own body, and then President of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. The contest did not come to an issue till January, 1841, and the whole intervening period was one of public meetings. Every newspaper and political publication in the kingdom made the contest the leading text for commentary. Addresses from nearly every town, from public meetings and public men throughout the country, were forwarded to the electors of Walsall. For the first time in the history of elections, issue was fairly joined on the question of free trade, all other party distinctions being forgotten. The contest was extremely narrow, and great efforts were made by the Tory party to secure the return of the Protectionist candidate. The Chartists, who, in all parts of the kingdom, then acted on the suggestion of Mr. Feargus O'Connor to oppose the Anti-Corn-Law meetings, were conveyed from Manchester. Amid disturbances during which the military were called in, Mr. Gladstone was returned, but by the narrow majority only of 362, against 335 votes given for the League candidate. This event created a strong impression; but it was but the beginning of the efforts of the League in this field, which were destined again and again to be crowned with a more successful issue.

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Pictures for Chapter LVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

Ebenezer Elliott
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