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Chapter LVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 4

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In the face of such facts, it was clear that something must be done, even by a Protectionist Ministry, to diminish the effect of the growing belief that bad legislation was at the bottom of the country's difficulties. In the spring, men had looked eagerly for the budget of the new Ministry. It had been bitterly remarked that at the time when Parliament was prorogued, there were nearly 21,000 persons in Leeds whose average earnings were only 11 3/4d. per week - that in one district in Manchester alone a gentleman had visited 258 families, consisting of 1,029 individuals, whose average earnings were only 7§d. per head a week; and that while millions were in this deplorable condition, the duty on wheat stood at 24s. 8d. a quarter; and Sir Robert Peel and his colleagues demanded four months' leisure at their country abodes before they would permit the Legislature to take the distress of the people into consideration. At length came the meeting of Parliament, at which the Queen in person read the speech prepared by her Ministers. It acknowledged with deep regret " the continued distress in the manufacturing districts," and that the sufferings and privations which had resulted from it had been " borne with exemplary patience and forbearance." Finally, Her Majesty recommended to the consideration of both Houses " the laws which affect the import of corn and other articles." What was the intention of the Ministers was not then known; but it was already understood that, unlike their rivals, who had proposed a fixed duty, the new Government would attempt some modification of the sliding scale. In the account of these transactions, which Sir Robert Peel left to be published by his executors after his death, he says: - " One of the first acts of the Government over which I presided (the Government of August, 1841) was to propose a material change in the corn law of 1828. I brought the subject under the consideration of my colleagues by means of written memoranda, in preference to proposals made verbally. In the first of these memoranda, I recommend my colleagues to undertake the revision of the corn laws of 1828, as an act of the Government. In the second, after I had procured their assent to the principle of revision, I submit a proposal in respect to the extent to which such revision should be carried, and to the details of the new law." Then were seen the first symptoms of that estrangement from his party which reached its climax in 1846. Glaring as was the necessity for change, and evident as it was, even to the body of the landowners, that they must choose between the mild reform of Peel and the more objectionable measure of his antagonists, there were members of the Cabinet who would still have held out for no concession. The Duke of Buckingham retired from the Ministry, and the Duke of Richmond refused to allow his son to move the address.

The statement of the Ministerial measure on the corn laws was fixed for the 9th of February, and the freetraders were prepared for the occasion. A great gathering of deputies from conferences and anti-corn-law associations took place in London, comprising, with metropolitan delegates, nearly 600 persons. The Minister, in a letter to the secretary of the delegation, had declined to see them as a deputation; but their presence became known to him in another way. On the morning of the debate, the whole of the deputies walked in procession to the House of Commons. The spectacle of nearly 600 gentlemen, walking arm-in-arm to the House, caused considerable excitement. Arrived at the entrance, their request to be admitted into the lobby was refused, and the delegates were somewhat roughly treated by the police. Still undaunted, however, they ranged themselves on each side of the door leading to the lobby, and saluted the members as they passed with cries of "Cheap food!" "A total repeal!" and the like. They then retreated to Palace Yard, where one of their body, mounting to an elevated situation, addressed his fellows with the words: "The doors of the lobby are closed against us by the order of those in power. It is impossible for us to get in to address the members as they pass. The Corn Laws were passed under the protection of the bayonet, and the Tories now ensconce themselves behind the truncheons of the police. But the time is fast coming when the voice of the people will be heard, and their oppressors will quail before it. Let us give three hearty cheers for the cause of free trade." The cheers were given, and the deputies proceeded up Parliament Street. At the entrance to Privy Gardens they met Sir Robert Peel coming in his carriage to the House. He appeared, it is said, to think at first that the crowd were about to cheer him; but at the loud shouts of " No Corn Law!" " Down with monopoly!" "Give us bread and labour! " he leaned back in his carriage, grave and pale. In the House the excitement was considerable. It was filled in every part long before the usual time of commencing business. Below the bar were seen a number of distinguished strangers, among whom was the Duke of Cambridge. At five o'clock the Ministers moved that the paragraph in the Queen's speech relating to the Corn Laws be read by the clerk. This having been done, and the House having resolved itself into a committee to consider the laws relating to corn, Sir Robert Peel proceeded to explain the measure which he was about to introduce for their modification. "His manner," says one of the newspapers of the time, "was anxious, uneasy. "We never saw him address the House with so little confidence." The reception of the Premier's] statement was not flattering. Listened to in watchful silence till he unfolded the details of the new sliding scale, he was then hailed from the Opposition bencher with shouts of triumphant derision. The Whigs were relieved at finding that at least his measure was not calculated to be more popular out of doors than the fixed duty which they had proposed; but from his own side Sir Robert received little support. His customary cheerers were mute, and round him were black faces when he spoke of not wishing corn prices to range higher than 54s. to 58s. Towards the close of his speech there was a painful inattention, to which he could not refrain from alluding. The dead silence which prevailed while he was reading the proposed scale was followed, when he had concluded, by a great deal of laughter along the line of the Opposition benches, and a loud buzz of conversation on both sides of the House ensued, which did not quite subside during the remainder of the speech. The details of the measure were recapitulated by the Minister as follows: -

"When corn is at 59s., and under 60s., the duty at present is 27s. 8d. When corn is between those prices, the duty I propose is 13s. When the price of corn is at 50s. the existing duty is 36s. 8d., increasing as the price falls; instead of which I propose, when corn is at 50s. that the duty shall only be 20s., and that that duty shall in no case be exceeded. At 56s. the existing duty is 30s. 8d.; the duty I propose at that price is 16s. At 60s. the existing duty is 26s. 8d.; the duty I propose at that price is 12s. At 63s. the existing duty is 23s. 8d.; the duty I propose is 9s. At 64s. the existing duty is 22s. 8d.; the duty I propose is 8s. At 70s. the existing duty is 10s. 8d.; the duty I propose is 5s. Therefore it is impossible to deny, on comparing the duty which I propose with that which exists at present, that it will cause a very considerable decrease of the protection which the present duty affords to the home grower, a decrease, however, which in my opinion can be made consistently with justice to all the interests concerned."

In the comments with which he concluded his speech there were some signs of progress in the development of free trade ideas in the mind of the perplexed and trammelled minister, which are interesting to read by the light of what is now known of his subsequent career. He still maintained, in deference to the views of those who surrounded him, that it was the duty of the Legislature to take precautions to ensure that the main source of our supply of food should be derived from domestic agriculture; but he admitted that any protection, beyond what would compensate for the alleged special burdens upon agriculture, could only be vindicated on the ground that it was for the interest of all classes of the community. Mr. Cobden, who in the autumn of the previous year had been returned for Stockport, said a few words after the speech. He declared himself not surprised at the position, constituted as the Government was; for he had not, he said, expected to gather grapes of thistles; but he denounced the sliding scale as an insult to a suffering people. Following him, Lord John Russell gave notice that he should, move a resolution to the effect that it was not advisable in any alteration of the corn laws to adopt the principle of a graduated sliding scale; and Mr. Villiers gave notice that, on going into committee, he should take the sense of the House on the policy of imposing any duty whatever on the foreign corn or food imported into the country.

The measure gave little satisfaction to the landowning party, and still less to the people. The Minister's declaration of opinion, that the people did not want corn in ordinary years, and that they only wanted enough, and had better not have a surplus, sounded in the ears of earnest men like a cruel jest. It was asked, who was to judge when corn was wanted? who to decide when the people who ate corn, had enough? The debate on Sir Robert Peel's proposition began on Monday, the 14th of February, and reached the close of its first stage on "Wednesday, when Lord John Russell's motion was negatived by a majority of 123, in a House of 575. Mr. Villiers's motion was debated for five nights more, and finally negatived by a majority of 393 to 90. The Whigs now gave the people to understand that the eight shilling duty of the year before was abandoned, and that if they were again in power, they would propose a lower sum. But the people were beginning to feel that all their plans of duty, old and new, meant only that there should be less corn in England - less in the market, and less eaten by the people than if there were no duty at all. In the manufacturing towns the dissatisfaction was wide-spread. A preliminary meeting of merchants and manufacturers, and tradesmen at Manchester, agreed to a series of resolutions, energetically denouncing the Ministerial scheme, and calling upon the representatives of the borough, and such other members of the House of Commons as considered themselves the guardians of the rights of the people, to oppose by all the means with which the Constitution armed them, the granting of any supplies to Her Majesty until such time as the Corn Laws should have been totally and unconditionally repealed. At Salford a similar meeting was held. At Nottingham a large meeting, presided over by Lord Bankin, and at Staleybridge and Stockport, meetings passed resolutions condemnatory of the Government plan. In Manchester, Leicester, Rochdale, Huddersfield, Northampton, at Hawick in Scotland, Carnarvon, Derby, and at Hanley and Shelton in the Potteries, and many other towns, Sir E. Peel was burned in effigy. At the last place placards had been put up in several windows, bearing the words," "No more taxes will be paid here till the Corn Laws are repealed." At Derby some members of the Conservative party made oath betöre the magistrates during the burning of the representation of the Minister, that they considered their lives in danger, and the magistrates were induced to call out a troop of dragoons. At Northampton the police rescued the counterfeit Sir Robert from the flames, and a riot ensued, which was not quelled until the soldiers were called out and about one hundred persons were arrested. In Parliament the position of the Minister was by no means an enviable one. The free-traders pressed him closely with questions which must have made him feel still more strongly the embarrassing part which he was compelled to play. Mr. Cobden, for instance, asked him whether he was going to lay before the House a specific statement of those peculiar burdens on land by which alone he had justified his measure of protection to the landowners. Sir Robert replied, evasively, that these burdens were matters of controversy, and that even writers on political economy differed about them. Mr. Cobden then asked for a statement of what, in the Minister's own opinion, constituted the alleged burdens; to which Sir Robert replied, sharply, that honourable members usually delivered their opinions in their speeches. To a flood of other questions, the Minister could only reply that great inconvenience might result from answering particular interrogatories of that kind. In the House of Lords, the Corn Importation Bill was passed with slight opposition. Lord Brougham proposed a resolution in favour of a perfectly free trade in corn, which was negatived. A resolution, moved by Lord Melbourne, in favour of a fixed duty, was also negatived by a majority of 117 to 49. Before this, however, the financial statement for the year had been made, and for awhile the corn law question was suspended for the country to recover from its astonishment at finding in the Minister of the Conservative party one of the boldest reformers of our tariff who had ever occupied the Ministerial benches. His position had only yesterday appeared one of the greatest difficulty, in which a cautious hold upon the established sources of revenue, with some well-balanced proposals for additional taxes, was all that could be expected. He had not the good fortune of Mr. Goulburn or Lord Althorp in having a surplus to dispose of. The Whig Government had bequeathed to their successors a deficit, which had been increasing from year to year, with a revenue falling off even in the face of new taxes. How was the deficit to be met was the question which filled the mouths of public men; a question which was answered by the famous financial statement of Sir Robert Peel on the 11th of March.

After showing that the deficiency for the coming year would be little short of £2,500,000, and that this deficiency might be expected to be considerably augmented by the position of affairs in India and China, the Minister declared that he would not consent to resort to the miserable expedient of continual loans. He declared that he would not attempt to impose burdens upon the labouring classes, and that if he did, recent experience had shown that they would be defeated. In fact, the country had arrived at the limits of taxation upon articles of consumption. After ridiculing the various suggestions of people who were constantly sending him projects for taxes on pianofortes, umbrellas, and other articles, accompanied with claims of very large percentages upon the proceeds, he acknowledged the principle laid down by financiers that increased revenue may be obtained by taking off the taxes which pressed upon industry, but declared that the first effect was always a diminution in revenue, and that time was found necessary to restore the amount. Under these circumstances, he stated what the measure was which, under a deep conviction of its necessity, he was prepared to propose, and which, he was persuaded, would benefit the country, not only in her pecuniary interests, but in her security and character. His scheme was this: he proposed, for a period to be limited, an income tax of not more than 3 per cent., from which he would exempt all incomes under £150, and in which he would include not only landed but funded property. Rising then to the height of his subject, the Minister addressed the House in a strain of lofty appeal to great principles, which constitutes one of the most striking passages in his printed speeches. " There are," he said, " occasions when a Minister of the Crown may, consistently with honour and with good policy, pause before he presses upon the Legislature the adoption of measures which he believes to be abstractedly right. He may have to encounter differences of opinion amongst colleagues whom he esteems and respects. He may sincerely believe it to be for the public interest that the Government, of which he is a member, should retain power, and that, therefore, he should not hazard its existence by proposing a measure which might not ultimately succeed, and thereby endanger the safety and security of his Government. He may, on comparing the consequence of exciting and agitating the country by discussion upon a measure in which he may not ultimately succeed, think it possible that there is a disadvantage in proposing that which he believes to be abstractedly right, for the evil of fruitless agitation may possibly countervail the enunciation of a right principle. But there are occasions, and this is one of them, upon which a Government can make no compromise - there are occasions, and this is one of them, upon which it is the bounden duty of a Government to give that counsel to the Legislature which it believes to be right - to undertake the responsibility of proposing those measures which it believes to be for the public advantage, and to devolve upon the Legislature the responsibility of adopting or rejecting those measures. I have performed, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, my duty. I have proposed, with the full weight and authority of the Government, that which I believe to be conducive to the public welfare. I now devolve upon you the duty, which properly belongs to you, of maturely considering and finally deciding on the adoption or rejection of the measures I propose. We live in an important era of human affairs. There may be a natural tendency to overrate the magnitude of the crisis in which we live, or those particular events with which we are ourselves conversant; but I think it is impossible to deny that the period in which our lot and the lot of our fathers has been cast - the period Which has elapsed since the first outbreak of the first French revolution - has been one of the most memorable periods that the history of the world will afford. I am now addressing you after the duration of peace for twenty-five years. I am now exhibiting to you the financial difficulties and embarrassments in which you are placed; and my confident hope and belief is, that following the example of those who preceded you, you will look those difficulties in the face, and not refuse to make similar sacrifices to those which y oui' fathers made for the purpose of upholding the public credit. You will bear in mind that this is no casual and occasional difficulty. You will bear in mind that there are indications amongst all the upper classes of society of increased comfort and enjoyment - of increased prosperity and wealth - and that, concurrently with these indications, there exists a mighty evil which has been growing up for the last seven years, and which you aie now called upon to meet. If you have, as I believe you have, the fortitude and constancy of which you have been set the example, you will not consent with folded arms to view the annual growth of this mighty evil. You will not reconcile it to your consciences to hope for relief from diminished taxation. You will not adopt the miserable expedient of adding, during peace, and in the midst of these indications of wealth and of increasing prosperity, to the burdens which posterity will be called upon to bear. You will not permit this evil to gain such gigantic growth as ultimately to place it far beyond your power to check or control. If you do permit this evil to continue, you must expect the severe but just judgment of a reflecting and retrospective posterity. Your conduct will be contrasted with that of your fathers, under difficulties infinitely less pressing than theirs. Your conduct will be contrasted with that of your fathers, who, with a mutiny at the Nore, a rebellion in Ireland, and disaster abroad, yet submitted, with buoyant vigour and universal applause (with the funds as low as 52), to a property tax of ten per cent. I believe that you will not subject yourselves to an injurious or an unworthy contract. It is my firm belief that you will feel the necessity of preserving inviolate the public credit - that you will not throw away the means of maintaining the public credit by reducing in the most legitimate manner the burden of the public debt. My confident hope and belief is, that you will prove yourselves worthy of your mission - of your mission as the representatives of a mighty people; and that you will not tarnish the fame which it is your duty to cherish as the most glorious inheritance; that you will not impair the character for fortitude, for good faith, which, in proportion as the empire of opinion supersedes and predominates over the empire of physical force, constitutes for every people, but above all for the people of England, the main instrument by which to repel hostile aggressions, and maintain extended empire."

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