Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
I was thinking, as I sat here, that probably there never have been so many persons assembled under a roof in England, or in Europe, as we have at this great League meeting. And the occasion and the circumstances under which we meet afford the most encouraging symptoms—encouraging, inasmuch as they prove that it is from no transient motive that you have joined together in this great cause—that it is not from the pressure of distress, temporary distress, that you have banded yourselves together—that the cause of Free Trade is, in your minds, something more than a remedy for present evils—that you look at it, under all circumstances, as a great and absorbing truth—and that your minds crave for it with an intellectual and moral craving, which has made it almost a part of the religion of your souls.
I venture to say that this meeting, held under these circumstances, with no pressure or excitement to call you together, will have more weight, more effect upon public opinion, than a score of those assemblies we used to hold, when we were driven together, as it were, under the pressure of local and temporary distress. And quiet as have been those statistical tables that you have heard from our chairman, I venture to say that they will strike more terror into the ranks of the monopolists than the loudest demonstrations or the most brilliant declamation with which we have ever tried to interest you. Upon the subject of this registration there is one thought that occurred to me as our chairman was giving you an account of the proceedings in the county revision. It is this, that the counties are more vulnerable than the small pocket boroughs, if we can rouse the Free Traders of the country into a systematic effort such as we have exercised in the case of South Lancashire. In many of the small boroughs there is no increase in the numbers; there is no extension of houses; the whole property belongs to a neighbouring noble, and you can no more touch the votes which he holds through the property than you can touch the balance in his banker's hands. But the county constituency may be increased indefinitely. It requires a qualification of forty shillings a-year in a freehold property to give a man a vote for a county. I think our landlords made a great mistake when they retained the forty-shilling freehold qualification; and, mark my words, it is a rod in pickle for them. I should not be surprised if it does for us what it did for Catholic emancipation, and what it did for the Reform Bill—give us the means of carrying Free Trade; and if it should, the landlords will very likely try to serve us as they did the forty-shilling freeholders in Ireland, when we have done the work.
The forty-shilling franchise for the county was established nearly five centuries ago. At that time a man, in the constitutional phraseology of the time, was deemed to be a 'yeoman,' and entitled to political rights, provided he had forty shillings a-year clear to spend. That was at that time a subsistence for a man; probably it was equal to the rental of one hundred acres of land. What is it now? With the vast diffusion of wealth among the middle classes, which then did not exist, and among a large portion, I am happy to say, in this district of the superior class of operatives too, that forty-shilling franchise is become merely nominal, and is within the reach of every man who has the spirit to acquire it. I say, then, every county where there is a large town population, as in Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, South Staffordshire, North Cheshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, and many other counties I could name—in fact, every other county bordering upon the sea-coast, or having manufactures in it—may be won, and easily won, if the people can be roused to a systematic effort to qualify themselves for the vote in the way in which the South Lancashire people have reached to the qualification. We find that counties can be won by that means, and no other. It is the custom with 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 your confidence in that security, but I say there is no investment so secure as the freehold of the earth, and besides 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 interest of his money, he has the property to sell when he wants it, and he has his vote in 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 60l. an equal in the polling-booth to Mr. Scarisbrick, with his eleven miles in extent of territory, or to Mr. Egerton. This-must be done. In order to be on the next year's register, it requires only that you should be in possession of a freehold before the 31st of next January.'
We shall probably be told that 'this is very indiscreet—what is the use of coming out in public and announcing such a plan as this, when your enemies can take advantage of it as well as you?' My first answer to that is, that our opponents, the monopolists, cannot take advantage of it as well as we. In the first place, very few men are, from connection or prejudice. monopolists, unless their capacity for inquiry or their sympathies have been blunted by already possessing an undue share of wealth. In the next place, if they wish to urge upon others of a rank below them to qualify for a vote, they cannot trust them with the use of the vote when they have got it. But, apart from that, I would answer those people who cavil at this public appeal, and say, 'You will not put salt upon your enemy's tail—it is much too wise a bird.' They have been at this work long ago, and they have the worst of it now. What has been the conduct of the landlords of the country? Why, they have been long engaged in multiplying voters upon their estates, making the farmers take their sons, brothers, nephews, to the register; making them qualify as many as the rent of the land will cover: they have been making their land a kind of political capital ever since the passing of the Reform Bill. You have, then, a new ground opened to you which has never yet been entered upon, and from which I expect—in the course of not more than three years from this time—that every county (if we persevere as we have in South Lancashire) possessing a large town population may carry Free Traders as their representatives to Parliament.
Now, gentlemen, with just these preliminary remarks, I was going to notice a common objection made to us during the last two or three months—that the League has been very quiet of late—that we have been doing nothing. Many people have said to me, 'When are you going out into the agricultural districts again? I think they will be quite ripe for you now, for most of your predictions have fallen true, and the farmers will come and listen.' My answer has been, 'We are better employed at present at home, and the landlords are doing our work very well for us at their agricultural meetings.' What have been the features of the agricultural meetings we had heard of in the last two months? Here is one very striking circumstance, that, from the Duke of Buckingham downwards, every president of an agricultural association has always begun the proceedings of the day by saying, 'We must not introduce political topics in the discussions of this association.' That means, 'It is not convenient to us, the political landlords, to talk about the Corn-laws just now to the farmers'—and so they talk of everything else but the Corn-laws, and a very pretty business they make of their discussions. We hear, in every case in which I have read their reports, of the deplorable state of the agricultural labourers. Now, I beg to premise, from my own personal observation, and much inquiry, that the agricultural labourers, as a class, are better off now than they were when corn was 70s. the quarter in 1839 and 1840. I watched the Poor-law returns during those years, when we had such deep distress in this district, and I found that able-bodied pauperism was increasing faster in the corn-growing counties of Sussex and Kent than it was in these manufacturing districts.
When we called together the conference of ministers from all parts of the country, the accounts they brought from the rural villages were as heartrending as anything we had ever known in these manufacturing districts. You did not hear the clamours from the agricultural districts then, because they were drowned in the concentrated cry from these populous regions; but they were suffering as much as you were suffering. And now, when in this district employment and comparative prosperity have returned upon us, we hear of the state of the agricultural labourers, which has been always bad, always at the lowest level of wretchedness, only because you have ceased to occupy the public mind with your complaints and your distresses. But, if what they tell us is true, that the agricultural labourers are so distressed, what becomes of their plea in the House of Commons, that the Corn-law was passed and is kept up for the benefit of the agricultural labourers? After what I have heard from these gentlemen, the squirearchy in the House of Commons, I should have expected that they ought to have been the last, upon the institution of agricultural associations, to complain of distress and of the dangers impending over them in the future—to have said, 'I have a nostrum in my pocket that will quite prevent distress among agricultural labourers: have we not got the Corn-law; did we not pass it upon the pretence of remedying the distress of the agricultural labourers? Here it is—we have our sliding-scale, and depend upon it our agricultural labourers have nothing to fear.' But, instead of that, in no instance do they ever allude to the Corn-law as either a cause of employment or as a means of remedying the evil. They never allude to any Act of Parliament of the kind at all; and they seek, wide and far, for some other remedy for these distresses.
What are their remedies? One of the latest declared is the allotment of land. To hear the outcry that we hear from the landlords of the country, who, glorifying themselves for having the idea of giving a patch of land to the labourer, you would have thought they had resolved all at once to make a present of a little slice of their estates to the labourers around them; but what does it amount to? It is proposed that each cottage should have a garden attached to it! The general advice is, I see, that it should be not more than half an acre, and some are recommending but a quarter of an acre in extent! It amounts to this, that the landlords, benevolent souls, are going to allow the peasantry that live upon their land to have a garden to their cottages! Why, there was a law passed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth ordering that no cottage should be built in this country without a garden being attached to it. I do not believe that that law has ever been repealed to this day; and the landlords, after violating the law, are now taking credit to themselves, and glorifying each other, that they are going to allow their labourers to have a garden to their cottages!
Now, what is the mode in which these gentlemen go to work to benefit the agricultural labourers? They call them together for a ploughing match, then they bring them into the room and give them a glass of wine, and they give a reward of thirty shillings to one man who has ploughed best! Then they inquire who has served twenty-five years in the same place, and, perhaps, they condescend to give him thirty shillings as a reward for good conduct. Then the farmers—the farmers who sit at the table—have their names read over, and prizes are awarded: to one for successfully cultivating turnips, to another for having produced a good fat ox, and to another for having accumulated the greatest quantity of lard upon a pig. And this is the way in which agriculture is to be improved! What should you think if a similar plan was adopted to assist you in your business? Let us suppose that a number of monopolists came down once a year—once a year, mind you, for the lesson is only given once a year, and then it is only about two hours and a half long—that they held a meeting, in which they would have a spinning match or a weaving match. And after they had been into some prize mill to see this spinning and weaving match, they sat down to dinner; and Job Hargreaves or Frank Smith is brought in, stroking his head down all the while as he comes before the squirearchy, and making his very best bow, to receive from the chairman thirty shillings as a reward for having been the best spinner and the best weaver! And, this being disposed of, imagine such a manufacturer getting a prize of five pounds for the best piece of fustian! And another 'ditto, ditto,' for the best yard-wide calico! Then imagine a shopkeeper rising from his seat to the table while the chairman puts on a grave face, and, addressing him in complimentary terms, presents him with five pounds for having kept during the past year his shop-floor and his counters in the cleanest state! Then they call up a manufacturer, and he has an award of five pounds, because the inspectors had found his mill to be in the best working condition. Then the merchant rises up, and gets his reward of five pounds for having been found by the inspectors to have kept his books in the best order by double entry.
You laugh at all this, and well you may; you cannot help it. Where is the difference between the absurdity, the mockery of bringing up men in round frocks to a dinner-table and giving them thirty shillings, because they had ploughed well, or hoed well, or harrowed well—bringing up farmers to give them prizes for having the cleanest field of Swedish turnips, or for having managed their farm in the best way? Where is the difference, I ask, between offering these rewards and the giving out here of such rewards as I have just now alluded to? Let us suppose, if you can keep your countenances, that such a state of things existed here. Now what must be the concomitant order of things? It would argue, in the first place, that the prizemen who were so treated were an abject and a servile class. It would argue that the trader who could condescend to be treated so would himself be little better than a slave. And if you needed such stimulants as these to make you carry on your business as you ought to do, where do you think you would be found in the race of industry as compared with other classes? Where would you be if you were so childish as to be fondled and dandled by a body of Members of Parliament? Why, there would not be a country on the face of the world that you could compete with—that is evident. You would, like them, be going to these same parliamentary men, begging them to be your dry nurses, in order that they might pass an Act of Parliament to protect you in your trade.
The landlords do not give themselves prizes, but they hold up their conduct as something deserving of the reward of public admiration, because they can come forward and tell us that they make the most of their land, forsooth! I was reading just now in this morning's paper a report of Lord Stanley's speech at the Agricultural Society's meeting on Tuesday, which, by the magic power of steam, has been carried to London and brought back to us here in Manchester in two days; and Lord Stanley tells us what must be done with land. He says:—
'And I repeat what I have already said on a former occasion in this room, that there is no investment in the world in which a landlord can so safely, so usefully, or so profitably invest his capital as in the improvement of his own farm, by money sunk in draining on security of the land which belongs to himself.'
Well, what does this amount to? That it is the interest of the landlord to make the most of his land. And he goes on to say—and he takes some little credit to himself and to his father for what had been done with his land here in Lancashire. He says:—
'In this last year we have laid down in deep draining somewhere about 300 miles of drains, at an expense of between 5000l. and 6000l., and, I think, employed about a million and a half of draining-tiles.'
I believe my friend Mr. Bright here, who has been building a mill, has during the same time been laying down about a million and a half of bricks in erecting it; but you would be astonished, would you not, and I am sure the squirearchy would be rather puzzled, if Mr. Bright were to get up here and talk of that as something for which he might glorify himself, having first of all asserted it to be the most profitable investment any man could make. By the way, I wish my friend here would calculate how much duty his million and a half of bricks pay to the Government, from which duty my Lord Stanley and his fellow-landlords have managed to exempt draining-tiles.
Now, gentlemen, I do not want to say anything rude or uncivil, and I will not apply my remarks personally to Lord Stanley; but I will say this, that the whole course of the conduct of these gentlemen in their exhibitions—the land-lords—when they parade to the world what they condescend to do with their land, is just a gratuitous piece of impertinence to the rest of the community. What do we care what they do with their land? Whether they put down draining-tiles or not, all we say is this, 'If you do not make the most of your land, it is no reason why we should be starving that you may grow rushes.' It is a gross humbug, to use no milder term, on the part of those who come forward at the agricultural meetings, to glorify themselves about the mode in which they choose to dispose of their private property. There is an absurd delusion lurking under it. It is intended to make us believe that we are indebted to them, and must wait until they choose to supply us with our food; that it is something like a condescension, or at least an act of favour, on their part, that they give us their food in exchange for our manufactures. Now, what is the reason that the land has not been improved before? Lord Stanley tells us here when these great improvements began, and mark what he says:—
'Even within the last few years—within a much shorter time than that which I have named, within the last four or five years—I see strides which, small as they may be compared with what might be done, are gigantic when compared with what was done before.'
What was 'done before'? What has there been done 'within the last four or five years'? Lord Stanley gives the credit to the agricultural associations. Why, what have they been doing? Up to within the last year, when did they condescend to talk about the Corn-law? From one end of the kingdom to the other they were nothing but political clubs, created for the purpose of drawing the poor tenant-farmers together, in order that they might be drilled by the land-agent to be made subservient at a future voting day; and the whole talk of these agricultural associations was, not about improving the land, but maintaining protection to British agriculture.
And now, what can these agricultural associations do for agriculture? They meet once a year; they generally have a man in the chair who begins, as Lord Stanley does, by admitting his practical ignorance of the question upon which he is going to dilate; and the chairman is generally the man who occupies three-fourths of the time of the meeting by his speeches. I have watched the proceedings of these associations, and I have observed they have had all sorts of people except farmers in the chair: upon one occasion, in a part of Middlesex, I observed that the late Attorney-General, the present Chief Baron Pollock, was in the chair as president; and I must do him the justice to say (for he is a most candid and excellent man) that he began his opening address by declaring he did not know anything concerning what they had met about. What have these associations done for agriculture? They assemble men together once a year; they bring prize cattle to be exhibited; they bring agricultural implements to be examined. Are improvements only to be sought for once a year in agriculture? Would that do for manufactures? Only think of a commercial meeting once a year to see what our neighbours are doing, where there was any new machinery invented, or which of the hands had discovered some new process in calico printing! Could not farmers see what superior farming was to be seen by riding out any day in the week to look over their neighbours' hedges? Could they not learn where the best breeds of cattle were to be had from the advertisements of those who had them to sell? and could they not get the best agricultural implements by writing for them any day by the penny post, whether they were to be found in Manchester, London, or Ipswich? The thing is a farce; and when my Lord Stanley takes credit to these agricultural associations for having improved agriculture during the last five years, I say it is not due to those agricultural associations, but to the Anti-Corn-law League. It is owing to that that the agriculturists and the land-owners have been roused from their lethargic sleep. They are buckling on their armour to meet the coming competition, which competition will do for them what nothing else will do, and what it has done for manufactures—it will make the agriculturists of this country capable of competing with the farmers of any part of the world. They give up the whole case when they talk in this way.
When they tell us what the land might do—and what it ought to do they admit it has not done—they plead guilty to all we have ever alleged against them and their system of Corn-law. I ask them this: can they bring a Member of Parliament, a theorist, into Manchester, with his books in hand, and can he suggest a single improvement in any of our processes of manufacture, whether they are connected with mechanical or chemical science? No. I went the other day into several establishments with one of the most eminent French chemists—a man renowned in Europe: he had nothing to say in visiting the dye-works or the print-works of this neighbourhood, but to express his unqualified admiration of the perfection to which they had brought these arts among us. Can they come here and say, as they say of themselves, in connection with their industry, 'You ought to produce three times as much as you do produce from your machinery, for it is already done in other places which we can name to you?' No. But what do they say of their own land. I have heard Mr. Ogilvy, who was engaged by Mr. Brooke, of Mere, and other landlords of this and the neighbouring county as superintendent of their estates, declare—and he is willing to go before a Committee of the House of Commons to prove it—that Cheshire, if properly cultivated, is capable of producing three times as much as it now produces from its surface; and he is willing the statement should be made public upon his authority—and there is not higher authority in the kingdom.
I say, whatever improvement has been made in this respect it is to the Anti-Corn-law League we are indebted for it; and more—the most bigoted of our opponents have made the admission. Whilst they abhor the League and detest its principles, they have made the admission—'At all events,' they say, 'you have done good, and are doing good' to agriculture. I passed last year about this time over to Knutsford, where I held a public meeting close to the gates of Mr. Egerton, of Tatton. As I went from the railway station across to Knutsford, I rode, at least for five or six miles, through the estate of that large proprietor, and I saw the land was in the same state as I believe it was at the time of the Conquest, growing just about as plentiful a supply of rushes as of grass. It so happened that, upon the day I was addressing the meeting upon the racecourse at Knutsford, Mr. Egerton, of Tatton, was paying a visit to Manchester, to preside at the Manchester Agricultural Association, and I took the opportunity of saying, in the course of my remarks, that I thought a gentleman who had such an extent of territory as he had might be better employed in exterminating his rushes, and setting a better example to his neighbours at home, than in travelling to Manchester to preach up improvements in agriculture. The other day I met a gentleman who happened lately to be at Knutsford, and he told me that while sitting at the inn there came in a number of the neighbouring farmers, whose conversation turned upon agriculture. In the course of their conversation one of them remarked, 'What a deal of draining has been going on here since Cobden was here blackguarding him about the rushes!' We have indeed given them a fillip; we have stirred them up a little; but, gentlemen, if the mere alarm of the approach of Free Trade has done so much for agriculture, what will free trade in corn itself do for it? 'Why,' they say, 'we should be an exporting country if we only grew as much as we may grow.' I have no objection to it; if, beside feeding the whole of the people as they ought to be fed—no short commons—if, besides feeding them well, they should send four or five millions of quarters of corn abroad, and bring us back tea and sugar, and such like matters in addition, we shall have no reason to complain of the British agriculturist. But we do complain, that whilst they stop our supplies from other countries, under pretence of benefiting agriculture, they at the same time come before us at these meetings of their own, and plead guilty to our charge, that under this system of protection they are not making the most of their land.
I speak my unfeigned conviction—and we have the very best agriculturists with us in that conviction; men like Lord Ducie and others, who are agriculturists by profession—when I say I believe there is no interest in this country that would receive so much benefit from the repeal of the Corn-laws as the farmertenant interest in this country. And I believe, when the future historian comes to write the history of agriculture, he will have to state:—'In such a year there was a stringent Corn-law passed for the protection of agriculture. From that time agriculture slumbered in England, and it was not until by the aid of the Anti-Corn-law League the Corn-law was utterly abolished, that agriculture sprang up to the full vigour of existence in England, to become what it now is, like her manufactures, unrivalled in the world.' It is a gloomy and most discouraging thought that, whilst this system of Corn-laws alternately starves the people in the manufacturing districts and then ruins the farmers, it really in the end confers no permanent benefit upon any class. I told you in the beginning I did not believe the agricultural labourer was now so badly off as he was when corn was 70s. a quarter; but I will tell you where distress in the agricultural districts is now. It is among the tenant-farmers themselves. They are paying rents with wheat at 45s. a quarter, which they have bargained for at a calculation of wheat being 56s., and, in many cases, 60s. a quarter. It is owing to this discrepancy in the prices that the tenant-farmers are now paying rent out of capital; they are discharging their labourers, unable to employ them—and theirs is the real distress now existing in the agricultural districts.
This state of things will not continue, either here or in the agricultural districts. What is the language that drops from the landlords at some of their meetings? It is, 'We shall not very likely have higher prices for corn this year; we must wait for better times; we will give you back ten per cent. this year.' No permanent reduction; and why? Because they know that, by the certain operation of this system, in less than five years from this time, this wheel of fortune, or rather misfortune, will go round again; you will be at the bottom and the farmers at the top, and you will have wheat again at 70s. or 80s. a quarter, causing thus a pretended prosperity among the farmers. As sure as you have had this revolution before, so sure will you have it again. There is nothing in Sir Robert Peel's Corn-law to prevent the recurrence of similar disasters. The law is as complete a bar to legitimate trade in corn as the old law was. I speak in the presence of merchants shipping to every quarter of the globe—men who bring back the produce of every quarter of the globe—and I put it to them whether, with this slidingscale, they dare to order from a foreign country a single cargo of wheat in exchange for the manufactures which they sell? This being the case—and it is the whole case—you are not stimulating other countries to provide for your future wants, you are laying up no store here or stores abroad, and there will again be a recurrence of the disasters we have so often passed through before.
Return to top