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Chapter LVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3


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In contrast to these facts, one nobleman, as stated in the League newspaper, turned the poor labourers on his estate to work on the roads, as a punishment for having admitted one of the League writers into their miserable hovels, and answered some of his questions about their condition, which was but too manifest in their ragged clothing, their furnitureless rooms, and their unthatched roofs which let in the rain.

But the League did more than attempt to convert the country party. They determined to create a country party of their own. They had already taken up the registration of voters in the boroughs, from which they proceeded, with that practical common sense which had distinguished nearly all their movements, to inquire into the position of the country constituencies, where hitherto the landowners had held undisputed sway. The scheme which resulted from this incursion into the dominions of the enemy was developed by Mr. Cobden. at a meeting in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on the 24th of October, 1844. The Chandos clause in the Reform Act, giving the tenant-farmers votes for county members, had so strengthened the landlords' influence in the county that opposition at most of the county elections was hopeless. But Mr. Cobden showed his hearers that the counties were really more vulnerable than the small pocket boroughs. In many of these there was no increase from year to year in the number of voters - no extension of houses. The whole property belonged to a neighbouring noble, and as Mr. Cobden said, "You could no more touch the votes which he held through the property than you could touch the balance in his banker's hands." But the county constituency might be increased indefinitely, for there it required but a freehold property of the value of forty shillings a year to give a man a vote. This sum had been adopted from an ancient regulation, when money was of far greater value, and land of far less money worth than it was then; but the forty-shilling qualification existed, and was a powerful engine for the creation of voters. Up to that time it had had but little effect. The laws of England, but more especially the habits and prejudices of landowners, have always kept the land of the county in so few hands as to present an extraordinary contrast with the condition of things in all other nations of Europe. The danger of the forty- shilling clause to aristocratic influence in the county was not perceived, simply because forty-shilling freeholders were rare. But there was no reason why they should be rare. The passion for possessing freehold land is widely spread, and a few facilities offered for purchasing it would soon create a large number of small holders.

The chief difficulty in the way of this had hitherto been the great cost of transferring land. Owing to the complicated laws of real property, the land, unlike other articles, could only be bought and sold after a minute investigation into the owner's title, which necessitated an historical account of the ownership extending back over many years. This was extremely costly; but without it, no man could be secure from being ousted from his purchase after he had duly paid his money. Deeds of transfer, too, with their lengthy legal phraseology and Government stamps, were extremely expensive, and such charges could not be sustained upon a small purchase. All this, however, the League could easily obviate. They could buy land in the lump, register its title once for all, and part it into small pieces for small buyers. " It is the custom," said Mr. Cobden in explaining his scheme, "for many to put their savings into the savings banks. I believe there are fourteen or fifteen millions or more so deposited. I would not say a word to lessen the confidence in that security; but I say there is no investment so secure as the freehold of the earth, and it is the only investment that gives a vote along with the property. We come then to this. It costs a man nothing to have a vote for the county. He buys his property; sixty pounds for a cottage is given - thirty or forty pounds in many of the neighbouring towns will do it. He has then the property to sell when he wants it, and he has his vote into the bargain. Sometimes a parent wishing to teach a son to be economical and saving, gives him a set of nest-eggs in a savings bank; I say to such a parent, Make your son, at twenty-one, a freeholder. It is an act of duty, for you make him thereby an independent freeman, and put it in his power to defend himself and his children from political oppression; and you make that man with 60 an equal in the polling-booth to Mr. Scarisbrick, with his eleven miles in extent of territory, or to Mr. Egerton. This," remarked Mr, Cobden, " must be done," and it was done. The Conservative party sneered at the Manchester men's proposition of serving land over a counter, like calico, by the yard; but the movement soon began to tell upon elections, and to alarm the great landed proprietors. They had been long engaged in multiplying voters on their estates, under the Chandos clause, making their farmers take their sons, brothers, and nephews to the register - making them qualify as many as the rent of the land would cover ever since the Reform Bill. The means, therefore, could not be complained of. The law of the land had placed the possession of the county franchise within the reach of all working men earning good wages, or willing to practise a little self- denial, and they could hardly be blamed for seeking to have a voice in the election of their representatives by means so legitimate. That movement has continued to the present time, and has resulted in benefits to the people far beyond the mere vote which the land confers. Nor have the old opponents of the free traders been able to devise any means of counteracting it other than that of imitating their policy. We have long had " Conservative" as well as "Liberal" freehold land societies; but it is manifest that the former, instead of counteracting, must really in the end serve the same purpose as the original schemes. The prejudices of primogeniture, of Toryism generally, are almost inseparable from large properties. Tory forty-shilling freeholders may be created to-day; but aristocratic selfishness is a plant which cannot be grown on strips of land worth only 20 each. Sooner or later the possessor of the small parcel, or his descendant, or transferee, must necessarily share the sympathies of the humbler class to which he belongs.

Not the least significant effect of the striking progress of the League was the appearance of an article in the Times newspaper, of the 18th of November, 1843, in which, although sneering, as was the wont of that journal, at "gregarious collections of cant and cotton men," the writer announced the League as " a great fact." "It would be foolish," he continued, "nay, rash, to deny its importance. It is a great fact that there should have been created in the homesteads of our manufactures a confederacy devoted to the agitation of one political question, persevering at it year after year, shrinking from no trouble, dismayed by no danger, making light of every obstacle. It demonstrates the hardy strength of purpose - the indomitable will - by which Englishmen, working together for a great object, are armed and animated.... These are facts important and worthy of consideration. No moralist can disregard them; no politician can sneer at them; no statesman can undervalue them. He who collects opinions must chronicle them. He who frames laws must to some extent consult them. It matters not that you tell us, as you may tell us with truth, that the League has another character, and other objects, than those which it now professes. The League may be a hypocrite, a great deceiver, a huge Trojan horse of sedition. Be it so. But we answer - the League exists. We ask, tell us this: Who created the League? Who found the ribs and planks of this ' infandum monstrum? ' Who filled it with armed men, and introduced its perilous presence within the walls of the constitution? We answer, Experience set at nought, advice disregarded, warnings neglected. These brought the League into existence - these gave it power, and motion, and vital energy. These gave it an easy and unresisted ingress into the very sanctuaries of our domestic life. A new power has arisen in the State; and maids and matrons flock to theatres, as though it were but a new ' translation from the French.' " When such was the manifestly reluctant view of the Times, many thought that the triumph of the League was now not far distant.

The year 1844 brought little progress to the free traders in Parliament. The members of the House of Commons had been elected in 1841, in the teeth of the free trade cry raised by the Whigs, and before the League had made its power felt in the elections. Unless the Minister were compelled to dissolve Parliament, they were irremovable for four years longer, and could safely wait. Parliament met on the 1st of February. The Queen's speech congratulated the country on the improved condition of the trade and manufactures of the country, and the increased demand for labour, from which it was easily prognosticated that no further concessions were intended that session. Sir Robert Peel declared that the Government "did not contemplate and had never contemplated any change in the existing corn laws." At recent public meetings influential members of the Tory party had openly threatened the Minister with expulsion, unless he maintained those laws for their benefit - a fact which drew from Mr. Villiers the remark that he regretted that the Prime Minister had not "the spirit to turn round upon these people, and show them their utter helplessness without him, their utter inability to administer, without him, the government upon their own system." Indeed, it began now to be assumed by all persons favourable to free trade, that the Minister's opinions were really far in advance of his own party, and that he needed only a favourable opportunity to declare himself openly at variance with their views. The great meetings at Covent Garden Theatre, immediately before the opening of Parliament, kept the subject before the public.

On the 11th of March the Earl of Radnor presented a petition adopted at a great meeting of inhabitants of the county of Somerset, which led to a long debate, in the course of which the Duke of Wellington earnestly recommended their lordships to leave the Corn Law as it was, and to continue to maintain the system which it was the object of that law to carry into effect; and the Duke of Richmond declared that he was surprised that any doubt could exist that "the farmers were, almost to a man, hostile to the delusions of free trade." On the following evening Mr. Cobden brought forward a motion to inquire into the effects of protective duties on the interests of the tenant- farmers and labourers of the country, promising that he would not bring forward a single witness who should not be a tenant-farmer or a landed proprietor; but the debate concluded with a division which negatived the motion by 244 votes to 153.

On the 17th of March, a few nights after Mr. Cobden's motion, Mr. Miles brought forward a motion for relief to the agricultural interest in the reduction or remission of taxation. He complained that there had been an importation of wheat during the last thirty-two months seven or eight times greater in amount than in the thirty-six months immediately subsequent to the introduction of the corn law of 1828. The abundance of meat in Leadenhall, Smithfield, and Newgate markets, through the importation of foreign cattle, was also made a subject of reproach against the Ministry, and he told the House, as the spokesman of the agricultural party, "that they had no confidence in the measures which the Government proposed." They thought that anything would be better than their present position. They saw that the tariff which was passed three years ago was now going to be revised again, and that the shield of protection which was thrown over some of the productions of their industry was about to be removed still further from them. Under such circumstances they could not refrain from asking themselves what there was to prevent the corn laws going next? Mr. Disraeli then, in a strain of sarcasm which is stated to have elicited cheers and laughter from the House, proceeded to assail the consistency of the Premier, and the tone in which he rebuked the mutinous and rebellious members of his party. He believed (he said) protection to be in the same condition now as Protestantism had been in 1828, and he, who honoured genius, would rather see the abolition of all protection proposed by Mr. Cobden than by any right honourable gentleman or by any noble lord on either side of the House. It might be necessary, before such an abolition was accomplished, for the Premier to dissolve the Parliament for the benefit of the party which he had betrayed, and to appeal to the country, which universally mistrusted him. His solemn and deliberate conviction was that a Conservative Government was an organised hypocrisy.

Progress was again shown in a speech of Lord John Russell in the debate on the condition of the people on the 26th of May. Still clinging to his idea of a fixed duty, he said, " If I had a proposition to make, it would not be the 8s. duty which was proposed in 1841." An exclamation of "How much, then?" from Sir James Graham drew forth the further remark - " No one, I suppose, would propose any duty that would be less than 4s.; and 4s., 5s., or 6s., if I had a proposition to make, would be the duty that I should propose." The awkward anomalies of Sir Robert Peel's position were the frequent subject of the attacks of his enemies at this time; but the country felt that there was a littleness in the Whig leader's paltry and vacillating style of dealing with a great question, beside which, at least, the position of the Minister exhibited a favourable contrast.

Mr. Villiers' annual motion, brought forward on the 25th of June, was scarcely more successful than that of Mr. Cobden. Lord John Russell still harped upon his fixed idea of a fixed duty. In his view the country suffered not from the Corn Law, but only from the form in which it was administered. He said he was not prepared to say either that the Corn Law should be at once abolished, or that the existing law should be maintained. "There were inherent vices in the present system, which indicated its premature decay; and when Mr. Gladstone appealed to the last two years, he merely proved that the present Government, instead of being wiser, had only enjoyed much better weather than their predecessors. Would the existing Corn Law stand two successive bad harvests? It violated the commercial principle, while a fixed duty, whatever might be its amount - six, eight, or ten shillings - enabled the merchant to make his calculations with certainty. But he apprehended that a sudden repeal of the corn laws would cause panic, affect the employment of capital in agriculture, and lead to a greater importation than was consistent either with the profits of the importing merchant or the security of the home cultivator. The only portion of the proposition of the Anti-Corn-Law League which had the slightest claim to originality was the immediate abolition; all their other arguments had been anticipated by the masters of the science - Adam Smith, Ricardo, or such statesmen as Mr. Huskisson or Lord Grenville, who, however, guarded their views by great caution as to the mode of arriving at their accomplishment. He regretted that he could take no part in the present motion, and heartily- wished that some compromise could be effected which might have the effect of subduing agitation; " adding, "If trade and commerce flourished, the landed interest need not be afraid of decay. The better way would be to revise the whole system of our protective duties, instead of dealing in perpetual harangues against the corn laws, the maintenance of which was more desired by the farmers than by the landlords themselves. But he could see no end to agitation, so long as the Government were determined to maintain the existing law."

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