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


Mr. Goulburn's Financial Statement in 1844 - Great Debate on the Sum Duties - Defeat and Re-instatement of the Ministers - Mr. Disraeli's Attack on Sir E. Peel - Schism in the Tory Party - Temporary Revival of Prosperity - Rick-burning and "Richmondism" - 'The Landowners' "Anti-League League" - Speech of Mr. Bright at Covent Garden Theatre-Parliamentary Session, 1845 - The Second Great Free Trade Budget - Increased Estrangement between Sir Robert Peel and the Ultra-Conservatives - Mr. M'Cullagh Torrens' Description of the League - Mr. Miles's Motion - Debate on Mr. Villiers' Motion, 1845 - Significant Speech of Sir J. Graham - The Potato Disease - Crisis in the Cabinet - Lord J. Russell's Letter to the Electors of the City of London - Resignation of Sir Robert Peel - Lord J. Russell's Failure to form a Government - Recall of Sir R. Peel - Immense Subscriptions to the League Fund - Re-assembling of Parliament - The Queen's Speech - Excitement in the House of Lords - Debate on the Address in the Commons - Sir R. Peel's Statement of his Commercial Policy - Great Debate on the Corn-Law Importation Bill - Final Triumph of Free Trade - Lord Stanley's Prediction of the Downfall of the Peel Administration - Farewell Speech of Sir R. Peel - Dissolution of the League- Conclusion of the Struggle.
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Mr. Goulburn' s financial statement was made on the 8th of May, 1844. It comprised some small reductions of taxation, and the foretaste of an important modification of the sugar duties. As a money account it was encouraging, and showed some progress in diminishing the disastrous effects of Whig finance. The past financial year had witnessed a gross surplus of revenue over expenditure of more than 4,000,000; or, after paying the deficiency of the previous year, 2,400,000; and after making other deductions there was, for the first time for many years, an available surplus, amounting to 1,400,000. The anticipated good effects of relieving industry from burdensome taxes had been more than realised. The estimate of the revenue had actually been exceeded by 2,700,000. The Budget, therefore, fully justified the policy of 1842; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer ventured only on a small and timid extension of the principles then laid down, with the reduction or abolition of duty on flint glass, currants, wool, and come other minor matters. The abolition of the wool duty provoked new hostility to the impolitic duty on cotton. The concession to free trade principles was small; but the movement was kept up, and there was at least no sign of reaction.

Although announced with the Budget, the proposed change in the sugar duties formed a separate and more momentous question. At that time, strictly foreign sugar was virtually prohibited by the excessive differential duties - British plantation sugar paying a duty of 25s. 3d. per cwt. foreign, of 66s. 2d. When the Whig Administration had proposed to diminish this enormous difference, the Tories had pleaded the injustice to the West India landlords of taking away their slaves, and then exposing them to competition with countries still possessing slave labour. The question had thus become one of party. The Whigs were pledged to consult the interests of the British consumer; the Tories to protect the West Indies; and beating the Whigs on this very point, the Tories had turned them out of office. The British consumer had, however, happily some voice in the elections, and the problem was now to conciliate him without a glaring breach of consistency. Accordingly, the tax on our colonial sugar was to be left untouched, as was the tax on foreign sugar, the growth of slave countries; but henceforth it was proposed that the duty on foreign sugar, the produce of free labour, should pay only 10s. more than colonial. Thus was the first great blow struck at the protective sugar duties, and that West Indian party which had so long prevailed in Parliament over the interests of the people. But the battle had yet to be fought.

The West India interest in the city held great meetings, and instructed their parliamentary representatives for the coming contest. The free traders argued that the Government proposition was simply that the West India proprietors should receive 10s. per cwt. more for the sugar they sent here than the growers in any other part of the world could get. This was equivalent to a tax of 2,000,000 upon the people of England, because the West India landlords were alleged to be in distress, and could not cultivate their estates. It was, indeed, the old question of protection for the landed interest on the ground of peculiar burdens. The white population of the West Indies amounted only to about a tenth of the whole; and it was admitted that the free coloured people, forming the bulk of the community, had no interest in the proposed monopoly. Moreover, it had been shown by repeated experiment that these differential duties always defeated their own objects. The slave-grown sugar was simply exported first to the free country, and then to England - the English people paying in the enhanced cost of the article all the cost of this circuitous mode of supply.

The opposition, however, was powerful. When Mr. Goulburn brought forward his resolution by which sugar certified to be the growth of China, Manilla, Java, or other countries where no slave labour was employed, should be admitted at a duty of 34s., the colonial duty being 24s., the danger of the position of the Ministers was soon perceived. Lord John Russell proposed an amendment in favour of admitting all foreign sugars at 34s., a proposal which, though calculated to maintain the price of sugar at a higher point than the Government proposition, was less distasteful to the free traders, as abolishing the differential principle. This amendment was rejected by a majority of only 69.

On the 14th of June the Government bill came on for a third reading, and the contest then began in earnest.

Mr. Miles, the representative of the West India party, moved an amendment proposing a reduction of the duty on colonial sugar to 20s., instead of 24s., and the raising of the duties on foreign to 30s. and 34s. The free trade party were not entrapped by this offer of a reduction of 4s. on colonial sugar. They saw that Mr. Miles's amendment would only establish a differential duty of 14s. instead of 10s., the difference going to the West India planters. They now, moreover, at least hoped more from Sir Robert Peel than from any minister likely to succeed him. Mr. Cobden and the League party therefore supported the Government; but so powerful was the combination against them, that the division, which took place on the 14th of June, left the Ministers in a minority of 20.

The events which followed form part of the general history of that time. The Government well knew that they were more popular in the country than their opponents. In the few days that succeeded, during which men were doubtful whether they would resign, the Minister had had time to feel the power of that popularity, and the value of the support of the free trade party. To satisfy the selfish expectations of the more bigoted of his own supporters must have seemed to him more and more hopeless. To break with them, and to look elsewhere for the support which their vindictiveness would inevitably render necessary - to become less a leader of a class, and more a statesman seeking the true foundations of power in a steady regard to the welfare of the great bulk of the community - were ideas naturally present to the Minister's mind.

When he met Parliament again to announce the determination of the Government to ask the House to reconsider its decision, his tone was observed to be more bitter than before. His allusions to the defections of his own followers were significant; but they plainly indicated that his course was taken. " We cannot conceal from ourselves," he said, "that in respect to some of the measures we have proposed, and which have been supported, they have not met with that cordial assent and agreement from those for whose character and opinions we entertain the highest and sincerest respect. But I am bound to say, speaking here of them with perfect respect, that we cannot invite their co-operation and support upon the present occasion by holding out expectations that we shall take a middle or other course with regard to those measures which we believe to be best for the interests of the country, and consistent with justice." This modest but firm defiance of the ultra- protectionist party was not lost upon the free traders in the House; neither were the Minister's further remarks - " We have thought it desirable to relax the system of protection, and admit into competition with articles of the domestic produce of this country articles from foreign lands. We have attempted to counsel the enforcement of principles which we believe to be founded in truth, and with every regard for existing institutions, and with every precaution to prevent embarrassment and undue alarm."

The League party forgave an occasional allusion to the necessity for maintaining and protecting the great existing interests of the country, for the sake of the conclusion in which Sir R. Peel said, "We think the course we took the right one; that a gradual, safe, and circumspect relaxation of the sugar duties, which would have prevented undue competition in the domestic produce of this country, was best. We cannot profess any repentance. We cannot declare our conversion to a different principle. We are prepared to abide by the engagements we have made and the principles we profess, and the same course of gradual improvement is the course we must continue to pursue." The question was now recognised to be one between the Minister and the extreme protection party. Nor were the latter long in finding a spokesman who aspired to be the leader of that secession which the far-seeing perceived to be inevitable.

It was on this occasion that Mr. Disraeli, rising from the benches filled with the ordinary supporters of the Government, delivered one of those bitter and sarcastic diatribes which thenceforward proved so effective in arousing the revengeful feelings of those of the party who believed their interests to have been betrayed in deference to the League. " I remember," he said, " in 1841 the right hon. baronet used these words: he said, ' I have never joined in the anti-slavery cry, and now I will not join in the cry of cheap sugar.' Two years have elapsed, and the right hon. gentleman Aas joined in the anti-slavery cry, and has adopted the cry of cheap sugar. But," he continued, appealing to the rebellious supporters of the Government, whom the Minister had just defied, "it seems that the right hon. baronet's horror of slavery extends to every place except the benches behind him. There the gang is still assembled, and there the thong of the whip still resounds. The right hon. gentleman," he added, " came into power upon the strength of our votes, but he would rely for the permanence of his ministry upon his political opponents. He may be right - he may even be to a certain degree successful in pursuing the line of conduct which he has adopted, menacing his friends, and cringing to his opponents; but I, for one, am disposed to look upon it as a success neither tending to the honour of the House nor to his own credit. I therefore must be excused if I declare my determination to give my vote upon this occasion as I did in the former instance; and as I do not follow the example of the hon. and gallant member near me (Sir H. Douglas), it will not subject me to the imputation of haying voted on the former occasion without thought or purpose." The appeal of the Ministers, however was, fortunately for the free trade movement, for a time successful. The Government were reinstated by a vote of 255 to 233, in a House in which both parties had evidently done their utmost.

The party which, under the guidance of Mr. Disraeli, Lord Stanley, and Lord George Bentinck, was destined to present so formidable an opposition to the Minister's policy, and to render his labours in the interests of the people so full of pain and anxiety, as yet only marked its existence by murmurs along the Conservative benches. As usual, the somewhat revived prosperity of the country was the chief pretext for resisting change. People with this view did not see the danger of opposing reforms, until a sudden storm compelled the Legislature to face them with mischievous haste. It had again and again been shown that the evils of the old system of restrictions lay chiefly in the fact, that they led to violent fluctuations in the circumstances of the people. Nothing, therefore, could be more certain than that, even had the prosperity been tenfold greater, one of those alternations of depression which brought so much misery to the people would not be long in making its appearance. The monopolist party, however, seldom looked beyond the day or the hour. There had been rick-burning in the country, and an agricultural labourer, named Joseph Lankester, had declared that his object in committing this crime was to raise the price of wheat, and so bring about those high wages which the political farmers and landlords were always saying came from good prices in the corn market. The Protectionist lords declared, nevertheless, that the Anti-Corn-Law League, with their mischievous agitation, their models of the big and little loaf, their lectures and meetings, their music and banners, their poisonous tracts and pamphlets, were sit the bottom of these disturbances; while the League rejoined by declaring that Joseph Lankester's views were only " Richmondism put in practice;" that the destruction of bonded wheat, when the duties became more than it was worth, was but another phase of "Lankesterism;" and that, indeed, the whole theory of the Corn Law, the object of which was to render corn dear by artificial means, was closely akin to the ignorant notions of the deluded rick-burners. In the towns, however, political agitation was comparatively silent. To some agriculturists it appeared a fair compromise to maintain the protective laws in consideration of their being content to put up with the low prices of the day. Any way, the dreaded League seemed to them to be checked.

The landowners had established an Anti-League League, for counteracting the Manchester men with -their own weapons - an association which the satirists of the day represented by a slightly modified picture from the fable of the frog and the bull. To those, however, who read only the tracts of the Anti-League League, it doubtless appeared that the torrent was to some degree arrested. It began to be asserted that the League was extinct, that the country was sick of its incessant agitation, and that Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright were about to "back out." These, however, were not the views of the League men. Like the mariner, who has work appropriate for foul weather as well as for fine, and all equally conducive to his ultimate object of taking his vessel into port, the Manchester men, and their friends and supporters throughout England, worked harder than ever. The lists of voters, the freehold land scheme, and the gathering in of that 100,000 fund which was now fast approaching completion, furnished them abundant employment for their hands, and it was carried on with a success which gave sure promise of the final undermining of the stronghold of the enemy.

" My hope," said the greatest orator of the movement at one of the League meetings at this period, " is brighter than ever; my faith is undimmed by the smallest shadow of a doubt. There is everything throughout the whole country which betokens the speedy and final triumph of this question. And why should it not triumph? We seek only that which the good and the just in all ages have sought; we are seeking for freedom and justice. This is a struggle which has been going on upon the earth for thousands of years. Our forefathers have carried it on, and they have gone to their rest; we are working out the same object in our day and generation. Many of us will live to see the accomplishment of this great work, and those who come after us will have something else to do. And I trust that in all this labour we shall leave them an example of steady determination and unflinching perseverance on behalf of that which we believe to be right and just. In a great struggle, in the long run, the just always wins. He must have read very little of history who does not know that liberty is triumphing. There is more freedom and justice in the world now by far than there ever was at any former period. There are more men having a love of what is just and right; the oppressor is cowed and abashed; he does not come amongst us with force and violence, but he works insidiously and treacherously; he wraps his chain in chaplets of flowers, and thus he tyrannises over his countrymen. Yes, freedom is Heaven's first gift to man. But bear in mind that, precious and excellent as this liberty is, there are certain conditions upon which alone it can be obtained and secured. You must rely upon yourselves for it. Liberty is too precious and sacred a thing ever to be entrusted to the keeping of another man. Be the guardians of your own rights and liberties. If you are not, you will have no protectors, but spoilers of all that you possess. You can only hold it on the condition of perpetual vigilance. You must look at it as though it were a matter of business; you must consider this question of defending your rights as a concern no less important than that of providing for your family. What is it but this, if we come to look narrowly into it P This freedom for which you struggle is the freedom to live; it is the right to "eat your bread by the sweat of your brow." It is the freedom which was given to you even in the primeval curse; and shall man make that curse more bitter to his fellow-man? No; instead of despairing, I have more confidence and faith than ever. I believe that those old delusions and superstitions which, like verminous and polluted rags, have disfigured the fair form of this country's greatness, are now fast dropping away. I think I behold the dawn of a brighter day; all around are the elements of a mighty movement. We stand as on the very threshold of a new career; and may we not say this League - this great and growing confederacy of those who love justice and hate oppression - has scattered, broadcast throughout the land, seed from which shall spring forth, ere long, an abundant, a glorious harvest of true greatness for our country, and of permanent happiness for mankind?"

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Pictures for Chapter LIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7

Lord George Bentinck
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Sir James Graham
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