Part II, Essay IX
Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School
Part II, Essay VII
In October, 1845, alarm began to be felt at the extent of the mischief caused by the potato disease in Ireland. The newspapers were filled, with details of the ravages of an 'enemy whose history and habits' were, in the language of the Government Commissioners, 'as yet but imperfectly known.' A general cry was raised to 'open the ports,' in order that famine might be averted by the admission of food. Sir Robert Peel's administration was tottering, and Lord John Russell issued a letter to the electors of the City of London, dated from Edinburgh, November 22, 1845, declaring for Free Trade. As this document possesses historical interest, it shall be quoted here in full:—'Gentlemen,—The present state of the country, in regard to its supply of food, cannot be viewed without apprehension. Forethought and bold precaution may avert any serious evils—indecision and procrastination may produce a state of suffering which it is frightful to contemplate.
THESE stupendous meetings are altogether unprecedented in history; but they are not more unprecedented than the condition of the country which has called them forth and demands their repetition. We are, indeed, in a position not only peculiar, but absolutely singular. The pressure of coming scarcity is upon us; and yet, as a nation, we turn back food from our shores that has been purchased, stored, paid for, and was there awaiting our own consumption, and was in readiness for the approaching season of exigency. Such conduct in an individual would be utter insanity; it would be so in a nation, if the nation and its government were thoroughly identical—if there were not a contrariety of interest, feeling, and purpose, real or supposed, betwixt the great masses of the people and the classes that have for a time got possession of legislative power. They have enforced upon the country this absurdity; they have stained the national character; they are making at this moment our apparent conduct as a people as preposterous as that of the Frenchman in the well-known story of his failing grammar—his misplaced 'will' and 'shall'—'I will be drowned—nobody shall save me;' and so they make the nation say, by its practical condition, 'We will be starved, and nobody shall feed us.'
And not only is the position of the country a curious one in the incongruities thus enforced upon its conduct, but also in the darkness in which we are kept from day to day as to the extent of the calamity, and the means which her majesty's advisers, or the people's rulers, have to propose for the mitigation of that calamity. Her Majesty herself is said to have learned something of the intentions of her own servants from an opposition journal, which in a day or two is contradicted by a ministerial journal, leaving us only in the midst of perplexity and bewilderment, and that on the most important of all topics—the very means of existence for a great people through a trying period. There is scarcely an object so remote, or a transaction so trifling,—nothing in the material world, or beyond the bounds of this world of ours—nothing so peculiar or individual, but what we can get more authentic information about than we can about our own supplies of provisions for the coming months. We have authentic information by my Lord Rosse's great telescope of the number of stars that compose certain clusters hitherto regarded as nebulæ. We have accurate information by Dr. Buckland's scientific researches of the saurians and megatheria of bygone ages. We know what the fossil lizards, forty feet long, used to feed upon in their time, many millions of years ago, but we know not what we ourselves are to feed upon next month. Every fashionable arrival at Brighton, every dinnerparty in May Fair, finds its place in accurate and authoritative statement; and even, thanks to the diligence and the far-sightedness and the communicativeness of the gentleman who writes the Court Circular, we know more about the royal baby that will be born in the month of April than we know about the food on which the people shall feed in the month of February.
The perplexity extends through all ranks of society, from the lowest to the highest. Not only is the willing mechanic and the poor labourer in this dense ignorance, but a royal duke tells the world—not that he knows anything of the scarcity; he does not come near that point—not that he knows anything of the panic or alarm of that scarcity; he does not probe the matter so far as that—but he "has heard something of a report of a panic of a scarcity," and he has private information that that report is not altogether to be credited. These confessions of ignorance are ill adapted to excite the confidence of the ignorant mass of the community in those who are raised to eminence by office or by rank. They may stand idle, but time moves on, and whatever of good or evil time has in reserve for us. The inexorable course of events is before us; and too much of bitter experience in past years has taught us what to think of the events that are on their way. Sir Robert Peel has said he will never forget Paisley, we will not forget it either. We take warning by the recollection of those years; and being forewarned, by the exertion of whatever peaceful energy the people may have, will be forearmed as well as forewarned against the circumstances of the coming period. And it seems we are to have a conflict for that very simple and obvious remedy which the necessities of the time dictate. Individual despotism has never hesitated as to its course; it at once says, 'Let food come in from what ever quarter it may.' Other countries, not under despotism, but more assimilated with our own, have also set the example. Belgium threw open its ports at once, and from day to day came arrivals of grain from a great variety of countries, very many indeed from this country,—exhibiting the extraordinary spectacle of the foreign grain which we had in our own possession leaving our shores, much of it in foreign vessels, steering to a foreign port, to feed the subjects of a foreign country; and then we call all this the protection of native industry!
Why are not those whose business it is to advise up and doing? If they delay, it is for us to urge them on. And as to the hostility that is threatened, why, let monopoly, if it will, as it boasts, nail its colours to the mast; the only result will be, that the colours will go down with the mast and the vessel altogether. And I would admonish them, too, to take some heed to the language they use. The honourable gentleman*70 who just addressed you adverted to that very undutiful godson of mine, 'the coroneted fishmonger.' I gave him his name, and he answers to it: I have given him much good counsel,—and I wish he would attend to that also. He learns his catechism, I am afraid, much as did the tax-gatherer's boy. 'My child, what is your duty to your neighbour?' Thinking of his father's avocation, the boy says: 'To surcharge him as often as you can.'
In this mode does he exercise his duties; and in the course of the hostility he now announces, he has dared to brand with opprobrium the patriotic conduct of perhaps the most patriotic nobleman in this country. He accuses Lord Morpeth of giving his money to an association, meaning the League, for the purpose of creating fictitious votes, and libelling in the newspapers those who differ from him in opinion. And yet he says, withal, that of the integrity, the honourableness, and the sincerity of that noble lord's character there can be no doubt. From which what we gather is this, that, in the Duke of Richmond's opinion, a very sincere, a very honourable, and a very upright man may, nevertheless, be a party to the creation of fictitious votes, and to the libelling in newspapers of those who differ from him in opinion. It was not for a man who himself for a considerable period of his life, if he be not now, was a pensioner on the public; for one whose naïve confession will not be forgotten, when discriminating between timber and glass,—'We grow timber, but we do not grow glass'—a man who had amused even the House of Lords by his 'tariff' lamentations, who confessed virtually that he had been pocketing £2000 a year for his salmon more than it was worth—a parliamentarily created price—and grieved over the loss; a man who quarters the younger branches of his family upon the public purse, instead of upon his own property—it was not, I say, for such a man as this to dare to raise his tongue against the purity or the consistency of Lord Morpeth; nor is he in a condition, with his own name appended to pamphlets convicted of grossly falsifying quotations from works of authority, to talk of the falsehood or the libellousness of the press.
The League, I believe, has never libelled his grace of Richmond; but it differs from him in opinion, according to his own dainty phraseology in this matter. The League is of opinion that wealthy proprietors have no business to abuse their legislative powers to private advantage. It differs from him in opinion, and thinks, that the wealthy man's hand ought not to be in the poor man's pocket, nor the wealthy man's knife to be slicing off a third from the poor man's loaf. I trust, however, the machinery is at work which will silence the Duke of Richmond. If matters go on as is conjectured in many quarters, he may about the time of the meeting of Parliament receive one of those pithy, laconic notes, with the style of which the public have been pretty well familiarized, from the specimens which have got into the papers, running something in this way: 'Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington desires the Duke of Richmond to be quiet. Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington is obliged either to part with the Corn Laws or to part with Sir Robert Peel. Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington cannot govern the country without Sir Robert Peel; let the Corn Laws be abolished.' An interesting correspondence of this kind will, no doubt, beam light into the convictions of many of that venerable House, and help us over what otherwise might have been insurmountable difficulties. But, however that may be, we look not to this or that leader—to this or that House, even; the country looks to you, who are marching in its van in this great advance—you, men of Manchester, who have hitherto braved the foe and led on the struggle. Your grip is now firm upon the neck of the serpent: hold it there. Hold it there; hold it hard; and however the venomous creature may writhe and wriggle, if you do but persevere and keep as you are, with the same tenacity of purpose, at length its convulsions will be over, and the country delivered for ever from the poison and the sting of that mighty reptile.
Of all the impertinent pieces of advice which the present time has brought forth, I think the most so is one that is reiterated in sundry monopolist journals—that if there be a scarcity, we should still be submissive and content. We are told—and this is the statement of the Protection Society themselves—that the crop is an average crop; they say nothing of quality; but they report that as to quantity. Now, take their own statement—say that the wheat is up to the average of the harvest: do the people keep down to the average? Have we not been told by authority of 360,000 or 380,000 additions every year to the mouths that are to be fed? What is to become of these 380,000, if our supplies of food are to be kept down to an average of past years? and is it to be matter of congratulation that we have as much food now as we had when we were so many hundred thousands fewer in number? The people grow, and the supplies must grow too; that agency must be employed which is capable of sustaining them. Providence puts this power into our hands. I had almost said it was impious to tell the people they must submit to scarcity—go without food, or get what modicum they can at an exorbitant and monopoly price, and call all they are enduring a dispensation of Providence!
Why! Providence makes ports, stretches the bold curve of the bay, and rolls in the billows, so that they may bear in safety vessels bringing supplies of necessaries and luxuries. Providence makes ports—Providence does not close ports. It was Providence that grew the very corn, the foreign corn, that had arrived in this country, that was in our possession; Providence placed it within our reach: the Corn Laws turn it back, and fly in the face of Providence. Providence endows the banks of the Mississippi and the Missouri with their abundant fertility, making them capable of becoming the granaries of Europe, and of supplying the wants of our industrial myriads, who provide for the cultivators there the clothing which they need. Providence never sends universal scarcity—there is no such thing on record in all history; where one portion of the world fails in its crops, another succeeds, and there is a general superabundance. Providence gives for all; and the lesson from its conduct is, that all should feel their common interest, and administer to each other's common wants. Providence is accountable for none of these things. Providence lays no rate; Providence takes no tax; and Providence tars no butter.
Wicked, we might say blasphemous, teachers are they who would transfer their own iniquitous doings to the Divine government, representing that as not less oppressive and tyrannical than themselves. Why, if it were as they tell us—if Providence indeed willed that a class should gain profits by a nation's sufferings—the only moral would be that of the tempter of old—to curse God and die. Such is the tendency of their teaching in the holy name, which they abuse, and in despite of the instructions of a book everywhere replete with admonitions that we should relieve the poor and the needy, that 'he who withholdeth corn, the people shall curse him,' and which, in the various illustrations of the connection of seemingly small events with great, gives us a better notion of Providence under present circumstances than all their teachers exhibit. It shows us the momentary interruption of our own supply tending to the prompt abolition of an enormous iniquity that parts us from the rest of the world; it shows us, in the failure of a crop of the lowest vegetable used for human food, the occasion of the destruction of the mightiest monopoly that ever plundered humanity, and revelled in its sufferings; and as it tells the tale of old, how the shepherd-boy, with his sling and with a smooth stone from the brook, brought down the Philistine giant, so it shows us now the more profane giant of monopoly laid prostrate by the blow of a rotten potato.
If our condition is not rightly represented as an afflictive dispensation of Providence, to which we have nothing to do but submit unmurmuringly, so neither can it be fairly ascribed to the progress of manufactures—to the commercial system by which, in fact, the country has been aggrandized. This has been a favourite topic with monopolist advocates. They have spoken of our overgrown establishments for producing goods. They once ventured to suggest that the greater portion of London, Manchester, and Liverpool might as well be rased to the ground, and the inhabitants distributed over the country, in parishes, on small allotments, each with a squire and a parson to take care of them. They are frequently reminding us that commerce is 'more unfaithful than the southern gale,' that she 'may shift to other shores her sail.'
Now, what does all this mean? There may have been ages in history when the operations of commerce appeared to change their localities capriciously; but what was the commerce of ancient times? Merely the interchange of natural products. It is only in modern history that real commerce has sprung up; it is one of the last results of civilization, and amongst the grandest. It has sprung up, not in consequence of caprices, but of wants; not for the interchange of merely natural products, but for the distribution of art and capital and industry throughout the world; uniting the nations by the peculiar abilities of different people to contribute different results to the great common sum of good. It is a system that in its very nature implies advance; and I see no reason to imagine that any number of years which our figures can express will find it arrived at a point beyond which there is no progress. Commerce grows like the oak; it may seem a mere sapling, which the passing breeze may level with the ground, but its roots strike this way and that, as if instinctively in search of their proper nutriment; its leaves unfold themselves to the air, to imbibe from it the nourishment it affords; and year after year adds to the rings that circle it, and denote its age, and show the steadiness and equality of its growth. As it strikes deep into the earth, so it extends high up into the air, it spreads abroad a grateful shade and shelter, and the birds of heaven sing among its branches. Commerce flows like the river; it may be confined for a time, when it is yet but small and feeble, by rocky barriers, but it goes on deepening and widening, and fertilising its banks on either side, and towns and cities rise upon its shores, and it bears upon its bosom the wealth of provinces, carrying it along to meet the ocean, where they are to find nature's broad highway to every region of the globe.
And such is the growth, and such the natural flowing, of the commercial power and principle. Why, at this very moment, when articles of cotton clothing seem to be among the prime necessities of life to so many civilized nations of the 900 millions of the earth's inhabitants, not above 120 millions are provided with them. There are seven to one that use your cotton manufactures spread all over the surface of the earth, and all of them able to contribute something from their own regions, which, in return for what you furnish, shall enlarge your wealth, shall add to your enjoyments, shall provide for your multitudes, shall stimulate your arts and industry, and aggrandize the British name by linking it with the world's advancement and the comfort and progress of its inhabitants. See how it advances with us, even here, in this little isle of ours; now intersected, or about to be intersected, from end to end, and across its breadth, with those lines of locomotion that annihilate time and space. Throughout the land the barrier of distance is thrown down, and the galvanic telegraph lends its instantaneous communication. The spirit of commerce does all this. It seizes the elementary powers; it harnesses them; it makes their mighty energies minister to the production of human good and the gratification of human wishes. It bridges the mighty ocean; it extends from our own country to all Europe; it is at work everywhere.
This system of more rapid communication, and with it eventually—however prejudices may obstruct—of free interchange, is extending throughout the whole length and breadth of Europe. Railroads will run ere long, transversing the course of every mighty stream; as the rivers flow in one direction, the iron lines will be laid down in another, until, throughout all the nations of Europe, there will be the means of a rapid transit from the Ebro to the Rhine, from the Rhine to the Danube, from the Danube to the Vistula, from the Vistula to the Volga. All along with these mighty natural arteries of Europe will the iron muscles be laid down, aiding and co-operating with the energy of the human frame; and augmenting the strength of all these nations for their mutual good, their mutual enjoyment. And not Europe merely: the New World and the Old are thus linked together; and even the ancient nation, so long secluded, whose inhabitants learnt their wisdom from Confucius, and who have kept aloof for ages from others—they are becoming one with us; the barriers of space and time, the barriers of superstition and prejudice, all are destined to succumb before the growing spirit of commerce. It puts its belt around the globe, and it is itself as firm and solid as that globe; a portion, too, of mighty nature; a part of the great providential system that formed worlds and suns and systems, and rolls them along in their harmonious motions.
The power that governs our country suffices not at the present moment to save it from the prospect of calamity; but this is owing to the accident, to the unnatural and preposterous circumstance, that those who enrich the country are not those who have a decisive voice in ruling the country. A class interposes, and for a time throws doubt and suspicion even on the workings of Nature and of Providence. It is a momentary obscurity; and the League may warn the monopolists in the words of Gray's bard to the tyrant of his country:
'Fond, impious man! Think'st thou yon gloomy cloud,
And such will be the gladdening sunlight of Free Trade, and its joy-giving force, after this temporary obscuration.
Other counsellors of the public say, 'We have got through times of alarm before, and therefore let us hope we may get through again.' We have got through them before, but how? In 1825-26-27—the last three years of the former Corn Law—in every one of those years the Government was obliged to let foreign corn in bond out at a reduced and almost nominal duty; they also asked and obtained the power of admitting half a million quarters of foreign corn in 1826. In April of that year they declared—as some ministers and legislators have of late declared—that they had no such purpose, the Cabinet had come to no decision on the Corn Laws; and on the 1st of May afterwards they came down to the House with their proposition, to throw open the warehouses, and to allow of that extent of importation. We got through in those years, but how? How in a later period? We got through with multiplied bankruptcies, with increased committals for crime, with want extending through the streets of our towns, with incendiary fires blazing all over the rural districts. We got through, but we did so at a fearful expense of privation and suffering, of disease and of mortality.
In the name of Heaven, let us try to get through better the next time! And there is something to encourage the hope; the question is better understood now than it was then; the ways of getting through which were then submitted to will not now be endured. In 1815 there was a sort of instinctive blind outbreak against the passing of these Corn Laws: there were riots, blood was shed in the streets; the people struggled like blind Samson, and like blind Samson were sent back to toil in their prison-houses for the benefit of their taskmasters. But the lancet of knowledge has couched blind Samson's eyes. The physical power of the many and the moral power are now in unison, in an alliance that cannot be broken. There is wisdom to direct the guidance of that strength; and thus put forth, where is the power that shall stand before it? It is coming, we know it is coming; be you but firm, unrelaxing, unbending, in every exertion—every legal and peaceful exertion—that may promote this good cause. New allies are announced every day. Mr. Labouchere, in this morning's Times, adds his name to the converts from a fixed duty. They are all coming in, but it is somewhat misnamed to call this leading. Much has been made of Lord John Russell's name as the Liberal leader, because twenty years' consideration has led him to the point which the intelligence of the country had arrived at so long before. We welcome him gladly. I believe he has come amongst us because the cry was so loud and strong. Being made a little louder and a little stronger, it may bring us another Liberal leader, in the person of Sir Robert Peel; and raise it to its loudest pitch, and we may have that great Liberal leader, the Duke of Wellington, in our ranks.
While we remember all this, let us never forget who they are that have done this, and who in the day of triumph should wear the laurels. There has been at times a practice of dealing with works of art that I think ought not to be tolerated. Julius Cæsar is said to have been so pleased with the statue of Alexander the Great by Aristippus, that he ordered the head to be taken off and his own countenance to be put on its shoulders. And I myself once lived in a cathedral town where there was a statue of St. Paul over the great western entrance of the church. The men at work in the repairs knocked St. Paul's head off; the dean and chapter, being too stingy to employ a sculptor, went to some old stonemason's shop in the town, where they found a judge's head, with a long wig on; and there St. Paul stands to this day, with a judge's wig and curls on his head! Now, as preposterous a transformation as this would it be, when in a coming time—I hope in the new Houses of Parliament—the statues shall be erected to the founders of Free Trade, if on those statues should be placed the heads of Russell, Peel, and Wellington, instead of those of Cobden, Bright, and Villiers. Great as may be the political advantage—the advantage of parliamentary tactics—of those eminent names, that is all we can plead for them. The work has been done; the chariot of Free Trade has been driven within sight of the goal; and Russell, Peel, and Wellington at best are only yoked to it to drag it along the few remaining paces to its final destination.
But trust them not. Lord John Russell may not have the power, the Duke of Wellington may not have the will, and Sir Robert Peel, having played the monopolists a slippery trick one way, may play the free-traders a slippery trick another way. Trust in yourselves, under the guidance of that Power which ever smiles propitiously on the true, the just, and the right. There is a piece of advice which was given some time ago, with no very charitable intent, perhaps, to the Orangemen of Ireland: ' Trust in Providence, and keep your powder dry.' We don't use gunpowder; our weapon is of a very different and a much more potent description. Bayonets cannot pierce it, balls cannot level it. Opinion is a power which no form of physical force—multitudinous or military—can eventually prevail against. But means must be employed; and I say to you: 'Trust in Providence, and keep your names upon the registration; trust in Providence, and multiply your 40s. freeholds; trust in Providence, and win cities and counties, and show parliament and the world your unalterable determination that the shackles of trade and industry shall be knocked off for ever.' In that confidence you cannot be disappointed. The time is coming—it is clearly coming.
'Powder dry!' No, our cause is not like a cannon; it is more like a steam-engine. It is preparing for its journey, the hour of starting is come, the bell rings, and it rings the death-knell of monopoly. There is a steady hand (pointing to the chairman) to steer the engine. There are active stokers to keep up a bright fire (pointing to Cobden and Bright). On it then moves. Out of the way, calves and pigs! out of the way, or you will be veal and pork in no time! Booted squires and sportsmen, clear the line, or down you go, horse and rider, in spite of all your game laws! Such a train as that would dash through a house if it stood in the way, though it should be a house as old and as strong for its age as the House of Lords itself. On it goes, brightened in the sun, careless of the storm; all good spirits in heaven and earth in sympathy with its progress. Nor shall it rest until it reach its final destination; until we are home—in the people's home—a home made happy by freedom, peace, plenty, and progress!
Notes for this chapter
Milner Gibson had observed:—'The Duke of Richmond says, that if the ministers are so perfidious as to propose the repeal of the corn laws, he must look to hereditary wisdom, to the hereditary peerage, as his only safety. In 1839 I remember when his grace said that if the corn laws were repealed he would depart from England for ever,—would leave his native soil, and wander remote and unfriended over the world.' Fox had called the Duke of Richmond 'the coroneted fishmonger,' in a speech of the previous year (May 22, 1844), because the duke had complained of the operation of Peel's tariff on the value of his salmon streams in Scotland—the rent of which had, he said, been reduced by £2000 in consequence.
Part II, Essay IX
End of Notes
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