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Chapter LVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7


The Session of 1843 - Assassination of Mr. Drummond, Secretary of Sir Robert Peel - Prejudice against the League - Attack of the Quarterly Review on the Anti-Corn-Law Agitators - The Speeches of the League Orators condemned in the House of Lords - Charge of Sir Robert Peel against Mr. Cobden of encouraging Assassination - Excited Scene in the Commons - Mr. Cobden's Explanation - Mr. Villiers' Motion Renewed - Uproar in the House - Operations of the League - Meetings at Drury Lane Theatre - Mr. Kohl's Description of the League - Meetings at Covent Garden Theatre - Public Adhesion of the Marquis of Westminster to the League - Progressin the Agricultural Districts - The League's Freehold Land Scheme - Tie Times' Recognition of the League as a Great Fact - The Session of 1844 - Mr. Cobden's Motion for Inquiry into Effects of Protective Duties - Mr. Villiers' Motion in 1844 - Feeble Policy of Lord J. Russell - Parliamentary Progress of the League Movement.
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The year 1843 opened amid gloom and depression. The newspapers published the fact that the revenue for the quarter ending on the 5th of January, as compared with the corresponding quarter of the previous year, had decreased no less than 940,062, occasioned mainly by diminished consumption of articles used by the industrial classes of the community; and the Times remarked, " It appears to us very clear, whatever our free trade friends may say, that any alteration which may be made in the corn laws ought not to be made irrespective of financial considerations: we cannot at these times afford to throw away revenue." In the same paper appeared a statement that flour was 30 per cent, dearer in London than in Paris. The Queen opened Parliament on the 2nd of February, and the speech delivered from the throne regretted the diminished receipts from some of the ordinary sources of revenue, and feared that it must, in part, be attributed to the reduced consumption of many articles caused by that depression of the manufacturing industry of the country which had so long prevailed, and which Her Majesty had so deeply lamented. But it suggested no measure of relief for the people.

A debate which took place shortly afterwards was characterised by a memorable scene. In the month of January, 1843, Mr. Edward Drummond, the private secretary of Sir Robert Peel, had been shot in the street at Charing Cross, by an assassin, named M'Naughten. The unfortunate gentleman died of the wound, and the wildest rumours agitated the town as to the motive which had prompted the deed. Many asserted that it was a political one. M'Naughten had been seen loitering in Whitehall Gardens, and had followed his victim from Sir Robert Peel's residence in that locality. It was at once rumoured that the Prime Minister was the intended victim. M'Naughten had come from Glasgow, and it was said that when the Queen was in Scotland, Sir Robert Peel invariably rode in the royal carriage, and Mr. Drummond in Sir Robert's own carriage. If this was true, it was remarked, the assassin's confidence would have been complete when he saw Mr. Drummond actually leave the house of Sir Robert Peel. Although the assassin was afterwards proved to be insane, the fact, coupled with the political excitement of the time, made a painful impression upon the minds of public men.

In the eyes of the Conservatives the League was now the great cause of the political ferment which had spread throughout the land. In the Quarterly Review for December, a long and elaborate indictment had been published against the body, and all who were in any way connected with them, in which it was attempted to show that the means by which the League sought to attain their objects were of the worst kind. The writer of that article hinted that the League's system of levying money for the avowed purpose of forcing Parliament to alter the law of the land was criminally punishable. Jacobinism, it told its readers, was " a bold-faced villain, who avowed his real designs, and was therefore more easily dealt with than these hypocritical associations, which, grown, like Satan, 'wiser than of yore,' assumed more cautious forms and more plausible pretexts in pursuit of the same ultimate object. A Mr. Bailey had stated, at one of the League meetings, that he had heard of a gentleman, who, in private company, had said that if one hundred persons cast lots, and the lot should fall upon him, he would take the lot to deprive Sir Robert Peel of life." The teller of this injudicious anecdote added, that "he felt convinced that no such attempt ought to be made under any pretence whatever; but he was persuaded of this, that when Sir Robert Peel went to his grave, there would be but few to shed one tear over it." The speaker was a minister of the Gospel, and there could be no doubt that he intended his anecdote only as an illustration of the frenzy to which some persons had been wrought by the political circumstances of the time; but the fact circulated by the great Tory organs, together with all the most violent and excited passages which could be found in the innumerable speeches delivered at League meetings, and in the pamphlets and other publications of that body, tended to create a vague horror of the Leaguers in the minds of that large class who read only writers on that side which accords with their own views. The terrible Manchester men, with their big and little loaf, their Anti-Bread-Tax Journal, their horrible anecdotes of starvation, their public burnings of corn- bills and effigies of unpopular Ministers, haunted their dreams. The Minister himself was probably not altogether free from this antipathy towards the Anti-Corn-Law agitators, and on several occasions had replied to Mr. Cobden in Parliament in a tone and manner which savoured of the bitterness of his party towards them.

When the rumours of Mr. Drummond having been mistaken for Sir Robert Peel were spread abroad, it was impossible for zealous Conservatives to forget these things. If the assassin M'Naughten was mad, he was certainly mad about politics; one of the first utterances of his insane ravings when captured having been directed against the Tories of Glasgow. One witness, included, swore that on his being asked if he knew the gentleman shot at, M'Naughten replied, "It is Sir Robert Peel, is it not?" The Minister's life was not considered safe, and for some time two policemen in plain clothes followed him about in the street wherever he went. In the debate on the distress of the country in the House of Lords, Lord Beaumont had said, "It was impossible to disguise from oneself the rapid growth of that monstrous giant which had risen up in the form of the Anti-Corn-Law League; " and added that, " Although Ministers might despise the absurd proclamations of that body, they would be scarcely discharging their duty, unless they checked its onward career, and crushed in the shell the dragon which threatened to blight their fields. He knew not," he said, " if some of its acts were not illegal, as some of its circulars were blasphemous." Lord Brougham followed in terms of similar reprobation, and added: "If anything could retard the progress of their doctrines, if anything could raise obstacles to the course of improvement in the laws respecting provisions, and the general laws which they most justly oppose, it would be the exaggerated statements and violence of some of those connected with their body. I cannot discharge my duty to your lordships, and to my own conscience, if I do not express the utter abhorrence and disgust with which I have noted some men - men clothed with sacred functions, though I trust unconnected with the League - who have actually in this very metropolis of a British and a Christian community, and in the middle of the nineteenth century of the Gospel of grace and peace, not scrupled to utter words to which I will not at present for obvious reasons more particularly allude; but which I abhor, detest, and scorn, as being calculated to produce fatal effects - I will not say they have produced them, but calculated to produce the taking away of innocent life. My lords, your lordships are aware that I refer to a trial which is pending, and they who have used these expressions will, I hope and trust, be called on for an explanation in the course of its proceedings; and it is only because of the pendency of the trial that I abstain from more specially referring to those reverend gentlemen's observations." No one mistook the purport of this, or doubted that it meant that M'Naughten's attempt was connected with the ill-judged language of some of the speakers at the League meetings.

On the 17th of February, the fifth night of the debate on the same subject in the Commons, Mr. Cobden rose to speak, and in the course of his address alluded to an attempt made to identify the members of the Anti-Corn- Law League with a most odious, a most horrible transaction which had lately occurred; but in the conclusion of his speech, he said, " I tell the right honourable gentleman (Sir Robert Peel) that I, for one, care nothing for Whigs or Tories. I have said that I never will help to bring back the Whigs, but I tell him that the whole responsibility of the lamentable and dangerous state of the country rests with him. It ill becomes him to throw that responsibility on any one on this side. I say there never has been violence, tumult, or confusion, except at periods when there has been an excessive want of employment, and a scarcity of the necessaries of life." No outcry at these words, even among the Ministerial party, evinced that the House regarded them as overstepping the proper limits of debate. Loud cries for Mr. Bankes, the Dorsetshire landowner, who had been attacked in Mr. Cobden's speech, were the only party sounds uttered, but the Prime Minister was immediately seen to rise. It has been stated that he was " ill and harassed with public anxieties." He was certainly deeply moved by the loss of his valued and confidential friend Mr. Drummond. His countenance, it is said, indicated extreme agitation, while by gesticulations, and violently striking an empty box before him, he succeeded in obtaining the ear of the House. It was then that his audience perceived that the Minister regarded Mr. Cobden as pointing him out for the hand of the assassin.

Sir Robert Peel began by saying, " Sir, the honourable gentleman has stated here very emphatically, what he has more than once stated at the Conferences of the Anti-Corn-Law League, that he holds me individually responsible for the distress and suffering of the country; that he holds me personally responsible." This was pronounced with great solemnity of manner, and at the word "individually" the Premier was interrupted by a loud cheer from the Ministerial benches of a very peculiar and emphatic kind. It lasted a considerable time, and while it continued, and for some time afterwards, the House presented an appearance of extreme excitement, the members in the gallery standing up, and many of those below whispering eagerly to each other. Sir Robert then continued, " Be the consequences of those insinuations what they may, never will I be influenced by menaces to adopt a course which I consider --------" But the rest of the sentence was lost in renewed shouts from the Ministerial benches.

Mr. Cobden immediately rose and said, "I did not say that I held the right honourable gentleman personally responsible; " but he was interrupted by shouts from the Ministerial benches of, " You did, you did!" mingled with cries of "Order!" and "Chair!" The further remark from Mr. Cobden, " I have said that I hold the right honourable gentleman responsible by virtue of Jus office, as the whole context of what I said was sufficient to explain," brought renewed shouts from the same quarter of "No, no," accompanied by great confusion. When Sir Robert, says a newspaper of the day, gave the signal for this new light, then, and not till then, the sense so obtained burst forth with a frantic yell, which would better have befitted a company of savages who first saw and scented their victim, than a grave and dignified assembly insulted by conduct deemed deserving of condemnation. Sir Robert subsequently so far recovered from his excitement as to say, " I will not overstate anything. Therefore I will not say I am certain the honourable gentleman used the word ' personally; ' " but the debate created a painful impression, which was increased by an article in the Times of the following day, deliberately attempting to connect Mr. Cobden with the doctrine of assassination. The friends of the Anti-Corn-Law movement, however, immediately held meetings throughout the country at which they expressed their indignation at the attempt to fix a calumny upon the man, whose arguments in favour of free trade in food were unanswered and unanswerable.

Mr. Villiers' motion was again brought forward on the 9th of May. The debate lasted for five nights, and ended in a division which, though it showed a majority of 256 against inquiry, was encouraging as evidencing an increase in the number of the free traders. The minority numbered 125. The debate was chiefly remarkable for the violence of the monopolist party. Sir Robert Peel said that the subject was exhausted, and nothing new could be adduced. " The motion of Mr. Villiers was fairly stated and proposed - there was no subterfuge involved in it. But he thought that the principle must be applied generally and universally to every article on which a duty was levied. They could not stand on the single article of corn. By the adoption of the motion, they would sound the knell of protection, and they must immediately proceed to apply the principle to practice. This would at once upset the commercial arrangements of the last year. The whole of our colonial system must be swept away without favour and without consideration."

A contemporary writer describes the uproar which took place on this occasion as exceeding anything that had been witnessed since the night of the memorable division on the Corn Bill. "When the tempest was at its height, the leaders, Sir R. Peel and Lord J. Russell, left the house, and thus freed from all restraint, the belligerents became fiercer than ever. The blood of both parties was fairly up; for nearly two hours declamation roared while reason slept; and during the vociferous display, the voice of the Speaker was little more regarded than a whisper amidst a storm." The minority, it is said, were aware that the remaining speeches, even if delivered, could not be reported, and for that and other reasons, were in their resolves so resolute, that although outvoted 1 in some divisions, the question was just as often re-moved and seconded. At length Mr. Ross told Lord Dungannon, that if he were contented to sit till eight o'clock, he himself, and those who acted with him, would willingly sit till nine; and it was at this stage that Sir Charles Napier slyly suggested that they should divide themselves into three watches, after the fashion of a ship's crew. This arrangement would afford ease to all, excepting the Speaker, to whom he was sorry he could not afford the slightest relief. Worn out at length by the violence of their exertions, and despairing of victory, the majority yielded. On the whole, says this writer, the scene was one of the most absurd, uproarious, and degrading to the dignity of the House that ever yet took place in Parliament.

To the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers there was at least the consolation of finding that scarcely a speech was delivered by the Prime Minister which did not contain some distinct recognition of the great principles of political economy, showing how completely he had, in reality, embraced those doctrines. On one occasion he remarked, "We have reserved many articles from immediate reduction, in the hope that ere long we may attain that which we consider just and beneficial to all - namely, increased facilities for our exports in return. At the same time, I am bound to say that it is for our interest to buy cheap, whether other countries will buy cheap or no. We have a right to exhaust all means to induce them to do justice; but if they persevere in refusing, the penalty is on us, if we do not buy in the cheapest market."

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