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


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A great free trade meeting was held in the Manchester Town Hall on the 23rd of December, and was attended by almost every important manufacturer and merchant in the town and neighbourhood, at the close of which the chairman announced that a sum of 59,165 had been subscribed in furtherance of the objects of the Anti-Corn-Law League, during the hour and a half the doors of the hall had been opened. In one month from the reinstatement of Sir Robert Peel, 150,000 had flowed into the League fund.

Parliament reassembled, according to the Minister's plan, at the unusually early date of the 22nd of January. The Queen's speech, read by Her Majesty in person, thus alluded to the topic most prominent in the public mind: -

"I have to lament that, in consequence of the failure of the potato crop in several parts of the United Kingdom, there will be a deficient supply of an article of food which forms the chief subsistence of great numbers of my people.

"The disease by which the plant has been affected has prevailed to the greatest extent in Ireland.

"I have adopted all such precautions as it was in my power to adopt for the purpose of alleviating the sufferings which may be caused by this calamity; and I shall confidently rely on your co-operation in devising such other means for effecting the same benevolent purpose as may require the sanction of the Legislature."

On the subject of the free trade measures generally, the speech continued: -

"I have had great satisfaction in giving my assent to the measures which you have presented to me from time to time, calculated to extend commerce, and to stimulate domestic skill and industry, by the repeal of prohibitory and the relaxation of protective duties.

"The prosperous state of the revenue, the increased demand for labour, and the general improvement which has taken place in the internal condition of the country, are strong testimonies in favour of the course you have pursued.

"I recommend you to take into your early consideration whether the principles on which you have acted may not with advantage be yet more extensively applied; and whether it may not be in your power, after a careful review of the existing duties upon many articles, the produce or manufacture of other countries, to make such further reductions and remissions as may tend to ensure the continuance of the great benefits to which I have adverted, and, by enlarging our commercial intercourse, to strengthen the bonds of amity with foreign powers."

Tri the House of Lords, the comments on the Ministerial measures were characterised by much bitterness, both against the Government and the League; and the Duke of Richmond asked why Mr. Cobden was not created a peer, and placed on the Treasury Bench in the House of Lords? In the Commons the excitement among the Protectionist party was no less manifest; but the crowded House waited impatiently for the Minister's explanations. Lord Francis Egerton moved the address, giving the key-note of the Ministerial plans by declaring that his own opinions on the corn laws had undergone a complete alteration, and imploring the House to come to "a full, satisfactory, and final settlement of the question." Mr. Beckett Denison, who seconded the motion, declared that experience had " driven " him to the same conclusion.

Sir Robert Peel then rose. He said that the immediate cause which had led to the dissolution of the Government was " that great and mysterious calamity which caused a lamentable failure in an article of food on which great numbers of the people in this part of the United Kingdom, and still larger numbers in the sister kingdom, depended mainly for their subsistence." But he added, "I will not assign to that cause too much weight. I will not withhold the homage which is due to the progress of reason, and to truth, by denying that my opinions on the subject of protection have undergone a change." This announcement was received in profound silence from the Ministerial benches, but with triumphant cheering from the opposition. Protection, he said, was not a labourer's question. High prices did not produce high wages, nor vice versa. In the last three years, with low prices and abundance of food, wages were comparatively high, and labour was in demand. In the three years preceding, with high prices and scarcity, wages were low, and employment was scarce. Experience thus proved that wages were ruled by abundance of capital and demand for labour, and did not vary with the price of provisions. Again, increased freedom of trade was favourable to the prosperity of our commerce. In three scarce and dear years, namely, from 1839 to 1841, our foreign exports fell off from 53,000,000 in value to 47,000,000. But in three years of reduction of duties and low prices, namely, from 1842 to 1844, the value of our exports rose from 47,000,000 to 58,000,000. Even deducting the amount of the China trade, a similar result was shown. Nor was the reduction in the customs' duties unfavourable to the revenue. In 1842 there was an estimated loss of 1,500,000; in 1843 a smaller one of 273,000; but in 1845 there was a reduction at an estimated loss to the revenue of no less than 2,500,000. The total amount of the various reductions effected in three years exceeded 4,000,000; and many of the duties were totally abolished; the loss, therefore, not being compensated by any increased consumption. Had 4,000,000 been lost to the revenue? He believed that on the 5th of April next the revenue would be found to be more buoyant than ever. Sir Robert Peel referred to other proofs of prosperity resulting from reduced import duties, and then adverted to his own position, and declared that " he would not hold office on a servile tenure."

The evening of the 27th of January was fixed for the Minister's general statement upon the commercial policy of the Government. Sir Robert proposed the reduction of the duty on Russian tallow from 3s. 2d. to Is. 6d.; the abolition of duty on the coarser fabrics of linen, cotton, and woollen, and the reduction on the finer from 20 to 10 per cent.; on French brandy and Geneva, a reduction from 22s. 10d. to 15s.; on foreign free-grown Muscovada sugar, a reduction from 9s. 4d. to 5s. 10d.; and on clayed 11s. 10d. to 8s.; the admission of Indian corn and buckwheat duty free; on butter, the duty to be reduced from 20s. to 10s.; and on cheese, from 10s. to 5s.; the duty on live animals, and fresh and salted meats, pork, and vegetables, to be abolished. As to corn, in lieu of the then sliding scale, he proposed that when the average price of wheat was 48s., the duty should fall by Is. with every Is. of rise in price, till on reaching 53s. the duty should be a fixed one of 4s.; that this mitigated scale should last for three years, and, by a positive enactment, to disappear on the 1st of February, 1849, leaving for the future only a nominal rate of duty; and that all British colonial wheat and flour should be forthwith admitted at a nominal rate.

The debate was fixed for the 9th of February, on which day it was moved that the House should resolve itself into a committee on the propositions of the Government. Mr. P. Miles moved, as an amendment, that the House should go into committee on that day twelvemonth. The debate occupied twelve nights, in the course of which every species of vituperation was hurled at the Minister by the monopolist party. Mr. Beresford Hope denounced him as an apostate. Major Fitzmaurice thought the farmers might as well die by the manly system of Mr. Cobden as by the mincemeal interference of the right hon. baronet. Another member compared the Minister to a counsel who, after taking a fee for advocating one side, took the other when the case came into court. Mr. Disraeli attacked with great vehemence and bitterness the Ministerial proposals, and pointed to the "sad spectacle" of the Minister surrounded by a majority who, while they give him their votes, protest in their speeches against his policy. Lord G. Bentinck, who, in the many years he had hitherto been in Parliament, had never before taken part in any debate of importance, surprised the House on the last night of the debate, by delivering a long and elaborate speech against the measure, in which he charged the Minister with "swindling" and deception - a speech which at once marked him out for one of the leaders of the new opposition.

On the fifth night of the debate Sir R. Peel rose to speak in defence of his policy against these attacks of his enemies. It was already ten o'clock, and the House listened to him for three hours. He spoke with remarkable warmth and energy, and overpowered his opponents with the unanswerable truths of political economy, and with humorous demonstrations of the fallacies in which the Protectionist speakers had indulged. In concluding, he said, " This night is to decide between the policy of continued relaxation of restriction, or the return to restraint and prohibition. This night you will select the motto which is to indicate the commercial policy of England. Shall it be ' Advance! ' or ' Recede! ' " But the last words of his speech, in which he exhorted the House to strengthen his hands on the grounds of humanity and justice to the people, are those which best deserve to be recorded in this history: -

" It seems," he said, "to be incident to great prosperity that there shall be a reverse - that the time of depression shall follow the season of excitement and success. That time of depression must, perhaps, return; and its return may be coincident with scarcity caused by unfavourable seasons. Gloomy winters, like those of 1841 and 1842, may again set in. Are those winters effaced from your memory? From mine they never can be. Surely, you cannot have forgotten with what earnestness and sincerity you re-echoed the deep feelings of a gracious Queen, when at the opening and at the close of each session she expressed the warmest sympathy with the sufferings of her people, and the warmest admiration of their heroic fortitude. These sad times may recur. ' The years of plenteousness may have ended,' and ' the years of dearth may have come;' and again you may have to offer the unavailing expressions of sympathy, and the urgent exhortations to patient resignation. Commune with your own hearts, and answer me this question: will your assurances of sympathy be less consolatory - will your exhortations to patience be less impressive - if, with your willing consent, the corn laws shall have then ceased to exist? Will it be no satisfaction to you to reflect, that by your own act you have been relieved from the grievous responsibility of regulating the supply of food? Will you not then cherish with delight the reflection that, in this the present hour of comparative prosperity, yielding to no clamour, impelled by no fear - except, indeed, that provident fear, which is the mother of safety - you had anticipated the evil day, and, long before its advent, had trampled on every impediment to the free circulation of the Creator's bounty? When you are again exhorting a suffering people to fortitude under their privations; when you are telling them, ' These are the chastenings of an all-wise and merciful Providence, sent for some inscrutable but just and beneficent purpose - it may be, to humble our pride, or to punish our unfaithfulness, or to impress us with the sense of our own nothingness and dependence on His mercy;' when you are thus addressing your suffering fellow-subjects, and encouraging them to bear without repining the dispensations of Providence, may God grant that, by your decision of this night, you may have laid in store for yourselves the consolation of reflecting that such calamities are, in truth, the dispensations of Providence - that they have not been caused, they have not been aggravated by laws of man restricting, in the hour of scarcity, the supply of food!

The division took place on the 27th (or rather on the 28th) of February, at twenty minutes to three in the morning, when the numbers for the motion were - 337; against it, 240; leaving a majority for going into committee of 97.

This great debate was interrupted by a motion brought on by Mr. O'Connell, on the impending famine in Ireland, which is chiefly memorable for a speech of Mr. Bright, in which, alluding to Sir R. Peel's last address to the House, he said, " I watched the right honourable baronet go home last night, and I confess I envied him the ennobling feelings which must have filled his breast after delivering that speech - a speech, I venture to say, more powerful and more to be admired than any speech ever heard in this House within the memory of any man in it." A further eloquent allusion to the Minister's newly acquired freedom from the enthralment of the bigoted among his party, had a powerful effect upon the House, and it was observed by those who sat near Sir R. Peel that the tears started to his eyes at this unexpected generosity from his old opponent.

On the 1st of March, Mr. Villiers adhering to his principle, brought forward the last of those annual motions for immediate repeal, which had contributed so powerfully to undermine the corn laws. After a spirited debate of two evenings, in the course of which Mr. Cobden warned the monopolist party that a protracted resistance would compel the Anti-Corn-Law League to maintain its agitation and concentrate its energies, the House rejected the motion by a majority of 267 to 78.

On the 27th of March, after a powerful address from Sir R. Peel, the Corn Importation Bill was read a second time - the House, on division, showing a majority for the second reading of 302 to 214. Three nights' debate took place on the third reading, in the course of which the Protectionists contended with undiminished obstinacy for the maintenance of the landlords' monopoly. The third reading was finally carried at four o'clock in the morning of Saturday, May 16th, the numbers being 327 for the bill; against it, 229; leaving a majority for the Government of 98.

During the course of this debate, Sir Robert Peel again delivered one of those effective addresses in favour of free trade which so largely increased his popularity throughout the country. "My earnest wish," he said, in concluding, " has been, during my tenure of power, to impress the people of this country with a belief that the Legislature was animated by a sincere desire to frame its legislation upon the principles of equity and justice. I have a strong belief that the greatest object which we or any other government can contemplate, should be to elevate the social condition of that class of the people with whom we are brought into no direct relationship by the exercise of the elective franchise. I wish to convince them that our object has been so to apportion taxation, that we shall relieve industry and labour from any undue burden, and transfer it, so far as is consistent with the public good, to those who are better enabled to bear it. I look to the present peace of this country; I look to the absence of all disturbance - to the non-existence of any commitment for a seditious offence; I look to the calm that prevails in the public mind; I look to the absence of all disaffection; I look to the increased and growing public confidence on account of the course you have taken in relieving trade from restrictions, and industry from unjust burdens; and where there was dissatisfaction I see contentment; where there was turbulence I see there is peace; where there Was disloyalty I see there is loyalty; I see a disposition to confide in you, and not to agitate questions that are at the foundations of your institutions. Deprive me of power to-morrow, you can never deprive me of the consciousness that I have exercised the powers committed to me from no corrupt or interested motives - from no desire to gratify ambition, or attain any personal object; that I have laboured to maintain peace abroad consistently with the national honour, and defending every public right - to increase the confidence of the great body of the people in the justice of your decisions, and by means of equal laws to dispense with all coercive powers - to maintain loyalty to the throne, and attachment to the Constitution, from a conviction of the benefit that will accrue to the great body of the people."

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Pictures for Chapter LIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 4

Lord George Bentinck
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Sir James Graham
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