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The Redress of Wrongs I page 3

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The unjust acquisition by the powerful and the cunning of advantages which were the rightful property of the weak, occu-pies a large space in human history. In the darker ages, the persons of the victims were seized and compelled to labour for the profit of the spoiler. When this grosser form of outrage was discredited by advancing civilization, the aggressors followed their designs by process of law, and were contented to possess themselves of the fruits of the labourer's toil. They passed laws compelling him to pay high prices for the articles which he required to purchase, and the poor man's scanty comforts were abridged that the affluence of the rich landowner or manufacturer might increase. And many long years passed before men seemed to suspect that such laws were unjust or hurtful.

In 1776, Adam Smith, a Glasgow professor, and the son of an officer of customs in the small Scotch town of Kirkcaldy, published a book on the Wealth of Nations. In this book he argued with irresistible force that it was an exceedingly foolish thing for a nation to make the commodities which it consumed artificially dear, in order to benefit the home producers of these articles. William Pitt read the "Wealth of Nations" with care. The reasonings of the wise Scotchman were an economical revelation to the great minister. It is certain that he intended to embody them in his own commercial policy, and the era of free trade seemed about to dawn. The Man had come, but not the Hour. Pitt was drawn, reluctantly at first, into the war with France, and the opportunity of commercial reform was never given to him again. Henceforth, during all his life and for years after, enormous war expenditure compelled the indiscriminate levy of taxes, without regard to any result but the immediate possession of money. Pitt's mantle did not fall on his successors in office, nor even upon his great rival. Fox owned frankly that he could not understand Adam Smith (Edmund Burke, whose mastery in every department of thought and knowledge was so marvellous, was a free-trader before the "Wealth of Nations" was published. Adam Smith spoke of him as the only man he had met who had just views regarding commercial freedom.).

Another generation of Englishmen had to bear as they best might the disabling restrictions with which the incapacity and selfishness of the governing class had loaded them.

The protected interests - the landlords, the farmers, and the shipowners - were naturally blind to the mischief wrought by protection. But the classes whose business it was to manufacture and to distribute commodities were quick to discover the evils of a system which limited consumption by making commodities artificially dear. The mercantile class was now becoming powerful by wealth and intelligence, and although yet scarcely represented in the legislature, was able to command respectful attention to its wants. The merchants of Great Britain were first to perceive that restriction was injurious to the nation; and the merchants of London, in a petition to the House of Commons, were the first to give forth an authoritative condemnation of the system. Their petition is a most full and clear statement of that great doctrine of freedom of trade, the excellence of which was not yet to gain legislative sanction for a quarter of a century.

Under the influence of Mr. Huskisson, various steps in the direction of a free trade policy were taken. A preference for unrestricted commercial intercourse continued steadily to gain ground in all parts of the country. In 1836, and for two or three succeeding years, the harvest was defective, and much suffering prevailed. Enough had been said about freedom of trade to guide the hungry people to monopoly as the origin of their sorrows. Supported by a growing concord of opinion in all the cities, an Anti-Corn Law League was formed in Manchester, and an organized agitation was begun such as no government could long resist.

The soul of the free trade agitation was Richard Cobden, a man unmatched in the sagacity with which he discerned the true interests of nations, and unmatched, too, in the calm, irresistible clearness and power with which he presented to the minds of the people the truths which he himself perceived. Those who give themselves to the cure of the moral evils which afflict man are apt to look upon Cobden as if he occupied a lower platform of usefulness than they; as if he strove merely to bring larger gains to the trader, and the means of a more extravagant expenditure to the labourer. It is an impression founded on most imperfect acquaintance with the circumstances. Among moral reformers, no man can challenge a higher place than Richard Cobden. No mission loftier than his, or fulfilled more purely and nobly, was ever undertaken by man. When Cobden, at the opening of his career, surveyed the abuses of his time, that he might determine where his service could be most usefully bestowed, he had almost chosen to devote himself to the cause of education. But he saw that the masses of the people were kept poor by unjust laws, and he knew that poverty brings moral degradation. Material welfare, he believed, was the indispensable foundation of moral progress; or as Sir Robert-Peel expressed it after his conversion to free trade - "I am perfectly convinced that the real way to improve the condition of the labourer, and to elevate the character of the working-classes of this country, is to give them a command over the necessaries of life." He devoted himself to the removal of laws which, by estranging nations, lead to war, and by creating poverty create vice. He chose freedom of trade as his life-work; he chose John Bright as his fellow-workman. For his choice of a mission and a colleague al] future generations may well be grateful.

The Anti-Corn Law League applied itself to its task with energy unsurpassed in the annals of political agitation. The wealthy mercantile class supplied lavishly the funds required. Tracts were circulated by the million. Skilled lecturers overran the country. The speeches of Cobden and Bright in Parliament and elsewhere were universally read, and lodged in all impartial minds the conviction that restriction of commerce was at once impolitic and unjust. The enlightenment which resulted to the people from the efforts of the League was, apart from all material gain, a magnificent educational triumph.

In 1845, Sir Robert Peel was at the head of a Conservative government, the supporters of which understood that it was pledged to defend the monopoly of the landed interests. Sir Robert had been forced to make concessions to the free trade party. He had modified somewhat the duties on corn, and he reduced or abolished duties on seven hundred and fifty other articles which were taxed by the intolerable tariff of the time. But these concessions, so far from being accepted by the free-traders, merely stimulated them to greater efforts.

The summer had been ungenial, and during the autumn months rain fell unceasingly. In August an alarm was whispered as to the condition of the Irish potato crop. There was a daily interchange of notes between Sir Robert and his Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, who was then at Netherby. Peel's tone was one of deep and ever-deepening alarm. His reports from Ireland, which had been from the first gloomy, soon became tragical from the intensity of the peril which they disclosed. The entire potato crop was rapidly perishing, and still the pitiless rain fell incessantly. The people of Ireland were visibly to suffer loss of their whole supply of food for the approaching winter. The grain crops of England and Scotland were seriously injured too. Winter was at hand. The supply of food was miserably insufficient, and laws were in force which must have the effect of keeping it so.

Sir Robert Peel summoned his cabinet to the consideration of these appalling circumstances. He would not incur the guilt of maintaining laws which within a few weeks must inflict the horrors of famine upon the people (Sir Robert's conversion to a free trade policy, although only now disclosed, had been for some time in progress. Lord Aberdeen told the Queen ("Life of Prince Consort,"), "If it had not been for the famine in Ireland, which rendered immediate measures necessary, Sir Robert would have prepared the party gradually for the change." So early as 1842 he avowed himself a supporter of free trade in all article^ excepting corn and sugar). The corn law must be, at the very least, suspended. But if suspended, there was no prospect, in the present temper of the public mind, that it could ever be reimposed. He preferred, therefore, that it should be at once repealed.

He failed to convince some of his colleagues, and therefore he resigned. But there was no other man in England strong enough to guide the nation in this hour of danger. Peel was recalled, and surrounded himself with men who were in full sympathy with his views. He proposed the total repeal of the corn law. A fierce contest in the House of Commons ensued, in which Mr. Disraeli earned fame and the leadership of the Tory party by his envenomed resistance to a measure without which it is difficult to imagine how the national existence could have been preserved. But Peel triumphed by a majority of 327 to 229. The House of Lords received ungraciously a measure which was deemed adverse to the interests of the landed class. But the Duke of Wellington was still the autocrat of that House, and his grace, with a wisdom beyond that of his party, recognized and yielded to the inevitable. "When peers who received their law from his venerable lips asked permission to vote against the bill, the duke said to them, "You cannot dislike it more than I do; but we must all vote for it." They did vote for it in sufficient numbers to secure its enactment.

Immediately after, the Tories were able to avenge themselves on Peel by so outvoting him that he at once resigned. His closing words, on leaving office for the last time, were very pathetic. After speaking of the hostility which he had aroused among defeated monopolists - "It may be," he said, "that I shall be sometimes remembered with expressions of good-will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour and earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. I trust my name will be remembered by those men with expressions of good-will, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food - the sweeter because no longer leavened with a sense of injustice."

The party which placed Sir Robert Peel in power, expecting that he would preserve for them the monopoly which they enjoyed, never forgave him for destroying it. His defence against their vehement accusations of treason is very simple. He was not the servant of the Tory party; he was the servant of the nation. When he became satisfied that the welfare of the nation called for the overthrow of the corn law, there was but one course open to him. The British people, having no sympathy with the rage of defeated monopolists, will long hold in honour the man who, in obedience to his convictions and at the cost of great personal sacrifice, delivered the country from laws which were undermining its greatness and leading it to ruin (The whole foreign commerce of the United Kingdom-imports and exports together-was in 1846 no more than 134,000,000. Thirty years later it had grown to the enormous aggregate of 655,000,000.).

The corn law was the key-stone of the protective system. When free trade in corn was gained, the other protected industries knew well that their hour was at hand. It was a vast work which the legislature had undertaken, and it was done boldly and swiftly. In 1842 there were twelve hundred articles on which duty was levied at British ports. A few years later there were only twelve, and these were retained merely for revenue. The idea of affording protection by means of duties imposed on imported articles was now completely and finally abandoned. Henceforth the artificial regulation of prices was to cease, and the great natural law of demand and supply was to exercise its uninterrupted, and in the end universally beneficent, dominion.

Two of the favoured industries were able to plead special reasons why the protection which they enjoyed should be spared in the general overthrow.

In the time of Oliver Cromwell, when the Dutch were our rivals upon the sea, it was considered necessary to repress the growing competition of that enterprising people. An act was passed, which by a variety of ingenious restrictions excluded foreign ships from participating in the larger part of our carrying trade. Mr. Huskisson introduced an important modification of this law, by offering to remove the restrictions imposed by our navigation laws from the ships of any nation which would extend to our ships a corresponding liberty. Subject to that qualification, the laws enacted two centuries before, from antipathy to the Dutch, still regulated the carrying trade of Great Britain.

Adam Smith, who reasoned so powerfully against all other restrictions on commerce, bestowed upon the navigation laws his unqualified approval. They proceeded, he thought, from national animosity; but yet, strange to say, they were "as wise as if they had all been dictated by the most consummate wisdom." They were unquestionably injurious to commerce, but inasmuch as they kept up a large supply of sailors, they were necessary to the safety of the country; and as defence is of more value than opulence, it was held by this great economist that the benefits conferred by the navigation laws outweighed their disadvantages.

The plea of the shipowners was, therefore, that their trade would be destroyed by the withdrawal of protection; that the supply of sailors would cease; and that Great Britain would in the end lie helpless before any naval power which had been wise enough to sustain its shipping. But the British people were by this time very familiar with unfulfilled predictions of commercial decay. The navigation laws shared the common doom of monopolies; and the shipowners learned in course of time that their share in the general prosperity which flowed from an unrestricted commerce was immeasurably more valuable than the paltry advantage which they had gained at the cost of evil inflicted upon the community. The shipping of Great Britain, which in 1849 was only four million eight hundred thousand tons, increased in a quarter of a century to six million, navigated by crews numbering two hundred and fifty thousand.

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