Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School

Edited by: Hirst, Francis W.
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London: Harper and Brothers
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Collected essays and speeches by various writers, including Richard Cobden and John Bright, 1820-1896
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Part II, Essay X



On December 20th, 1845, Peel had accepted office again upon the failure of Lord John Russell to form an administration. Peel announced his policy of repealing the Corn Laws on January 27th, 1846. The repeal was to be brought about gradually, and was to take final effect in 1849. After twelve nights' debate the resolutions were carried (February 27th) by a majority of 97, and at the end of June the Corn Importation Bill passed in the Lords and received the Royal assent. At this meeting, held in the Town Hall of Manchester on July 4th, the Council of the League decided that the League 'stand conditionally dissolved;' that is to say, that the action of its organization should be suspended so long as no attempt was made to revive protection. When an attempt was threatened by the Derbyites and Disraelites six years later the League was revived, until the danger had passed. The following speech was made by Cobden:—


IF this were a meeting for any other purpose than that of business, in the strictest sense of the word, I am quite sure that I should feel more embarrassed at meeting you on this occasion than I have done at any previous time; for I feel myself almost oppressed with the consciousness of the importance of the events we have been passing through lately, and of the great interest which is involved in the present meeting; and I am sure I could not do justice to the feelings which are now affecting me.


We are met here on the present occasion as a meeting of the Council of the League. We have, in the working of this body, as you are aware, an executive committee of gentlemen living in Manchester, and also the Council of the League, consisting of the subscribers of £50 and upwards. The Executive Council of the League have called you, the Council, together, for the purpose of taking your opinion as to the course we shall now pursue; and I think the importance of that question is such, that I shall confine myself as strictly as possible to business details in what I have to say, because I do not wish to prevent the many gentlemen who have come from distant parts the opportunity of giving their advice and assistance on this occasion. The Executive Council of the League in Manchester have talked over the matter repeatedly, and are now prepared to submit their views; and, as I may as well put you in possession of what the general purport of all the resolutions is, I will just explain the substance of the whole.


We propose to recommend, not that the League shall be absolutely dissolved in the strict sense of the word, and yet we propose to take such steps as amount to a virtual dissolution of the League, unless the protectionist party compel us again to revive our agitation. We propose to ask from you the authority and instruction to wind up and suspend the affairs of the League. We recommend that you should pass a resolution, absolving all those gentlemen who have put their names down to the large guarantee fund, and paid their first instalment, from any further liability. We propose that you shall pass a resolution, authorizing the gentlemen in Manchester, who have acted on the Council of the League, in case they should see any serious efforts made by the monopolists to revive the system of protection, or to induce Parliament to retrace its steps, then to request these gentlemen again to call the League into active existence. Gentlemen, we have thought that the course by which we shall fulfil our duty to the general body of subscribers, and likewise our pledges to the public. We have pledged ourselves not to retire from this agitation, or disband the League, until the corn laws were totally and immediately abolished. We are, therefore, not competent to dissolve this League. At the same time I ought to say, that with reference to our practical operations, it would be exceedingly difficult to draw a line between a total suspension of the League and a partial suspension. If we continue active operations at all, it must be on a large scale, and at an enormous expense. I do not think you can draw a distinction between £500 a week and nothing. We have been spending the last three years at least £1000 a week. Under these circumstances, I think it is a fair practical question to consider, what can be the object gained if we continue the active agitation of the League. In two years and a half the corn laws will be abolished by an Act now upon the statute-book; and let us entertain the supposition that our efforts in agitation out of doors should be ever so successful, it is hardly possible that in less than two years and a half we should succeed in altering the law which now exists; therefore I do not see that any practical good can result from continuing the agitation in any form whatever.


Now, many people may say, "Are you safe in disbanding this great organization? Are you safe in taking off your uniform (if I may use the expression), of casting aside your weapons of moral warfare? Will not the protectionists gain strength and confidence if they see you abandon the field?" I am of opinion that there is no danger of anything of the kind. I look upon it that the mere boasting and vapouring of a few of the less wise part of the protectionist party may be very well excused by us. It is quite natural that men who felt worsted in an argument, and in all the tactics of political action during the last seven years, should console themselves with the promises of what they will do the next seven years. But I hold that you may as soon abolish Magna Charta, or do away with Trial by Jury, or repeal the Test and Corporation Act, or the Catholic Emancipation Act, as ever re-enact protection as a principle again in this country.


Some people say we go back in this country. I maintain that we never go back after a question has been discussed and sifted as ours has. You have never gone back in any of the great questions; if settled once, they have been settled altogether. People do say that we went back after the Reform Act was passed. I will tell you what we did. We got hold of a machine which we did not know how to use, and the proper use of which we are now learning, but we never went back. Nobody ever proposed the repeal of one enactment of the Reform Act. Therefore I hope our friends everywhere will bear this in mind; and if they should hear a noble lord, or even a noble duke, talking of what they will do, not let their nervous system be excited or alarmed. They must raise a fresh crop of statesmen to carry out their principles, for we have all the statesmen now on our side of the question. Such being our position, we have very good grounds for congratulation on the present occasion. I confess I hardly know whom to thank, or how to account, for our present position; there has been such a combination of fortunate accidents, that I must confess that I am disposed to thank that Providence which has overruled so many apparently conflicting incidents for this great and mighty good. I believe we, at all events, may say, that, humanly speaking, we owe a debt of gratitude to our gracious Sovereign the Queen. I believe it is not in strict etiquette to allude to our Queen's personal views and feelings in any matter, but it is well known that her Majesty's predilections are strongly in favour of the cause we have been agitating. Then, there is her late first minister; along with our success, we have seen the downfall of that minister. Some people say he has lost office by giving us free trade. Well, if he has lost office, he has gained a country. For my part, I would rather descend into private life with that last measure of his, which led to his discomfiture, in my hand, than mount to the highest pinnacle of human power. Among the statesmen, we owe a debt of gratitude to Lord John Russell. Individually, I believe, we owe to him and his firmness, to his letter, and to his firmness during the intrigues of the last six months in London—I believe we owe it to his individual firmness that we had the support of the Whig aristocracy at all in this measure. I am anxious as an individual on this occasion, that I should lose sight of nobody to whom the country is indebted for the passing of these measures, because I do feel there has been a disposition to make one of us a great deal more a monopolist in this matter than he deserves. ['No, no.'] I speak of myself, and I say, that when I entered upon this career we found the road very much prepared; the mighty impediments had been removed by the labours of others; we had had men preceding us who had been toiling to beat down great prejudices, and destroy fallacies, and prepare a path for us which we had simply to macadamize to win our way to victory. There are many of these men here around me. I would not forget men who, like the late Mr. Deacon Hume, Mr. Macgregor, and Mr. Porter, in the privacy of their closets, furnished the world with statistics, arguments, and facts, which, after all, have swayed mankind more than any declamation or appeals to the passions can possibly do. There is one man especially whom I wish not to forget: it is Colonel Thompson. Colonel Thompson has made more large pecuniary sacrifices than any man living for Free Trade, and we all know his contributions in an intellectual point of view, which have been invaluable to us—we will not forget the worthy colonel amidst our congratulations amongst each other.


I said I should not detain you with a long speech, and in fact I cannot do it, for I do feel oppressed with the feelings which now pervade my mind. I believe we are at an era which in importance, socially, has not its equal for the last 1800 years. I believe there is no event that has ever happened in the world's history, that in a moral and social point of view—there is no human event that has happened in the world more calculated to promote the enduring interests of humanity than the establishment of the principle of Free Trade—I don't mean in a pecuniary point of view, or as a principle applied to England, but we have a principle established now which is eternal in its truth and universal in its application, and must be applied in all nations and throughout all times, and applied not simply to commerce, but to every item of the tariffs of the world; and if we are not mistaken in thinking that our principles are true, be assured that those results will follow, and at no very distant period. Why, it is a world's revolution, and nothing else; and every meeting we have held of this League, and this its last meeting probably, may be looked back upon as the germ of a movement which will ultimately comprehend the whole world in its embrace. I see and feel, and have always felt, the great social and moral importance of this great question. I believe many who have taken an active part in this question have been influenced solely by its moral and social consequences.


We have amongst us on this occasion a gentleman who has come from a neighbouring country, France, an eloquent advocate of Free Trade there, Mons. Duffour Dubergier, the Mayor of Bordeaux. It is gratifying that we should attract by a kindred sympathy the visit to our meeting of so distinguished a man; and I know he will go back, not with fresh emotions of sympathy towards our cause, for those he has entertained already, but I have no doubt he will go back inspirited by what he sees here, and that he will be anxious that France should not stand long apart from England in this glorious career, but that we join hand to hand in setting nations the example of the mutual advantages of peace and prosperity.


Well, this League must dissolve—it must suspend. Our elements must be scattered. I cannot help saying personally for myself, that the greatest pleasure I have found in the course of those proceedings has been in the acquaintances I have formed with, and the kindness I have received from, the men connected with this association. If I could ever have despaired of this country, after the acquaintances which I have made with the men in connection with this question—men who will be found the salt of this land in whatever good is to be accomplished—having known what I do of my fellow-countrymen in this agitation, I shall never despair of this moral power to conduct this good ship through whatever storm may arise, which will save us from anarchy at one end or tyranny at the other end of society. I am going to be egotistical; but I will say that, so far as I myself am concerned—so far as my tastes go—a release from an active life of agitation will not be unacceptable to me. I ought, in order to enjoy the full pleasure of an agitator, to be differently constituted; and I don't think nature ever intended me for that line. I say it most unaffectedly, that I entered upon the career of agitation without the slightest idea that it would ever have conducted me to the point to which I have arrived. I had not the most distant idea of it. I don't think circumstances would have warranted myself in taking the step eight years ago, if I could have seen what it would lead to. We got into the groove, and were pushed along, and we found ourselves carrying a train of good hardy spirits who would not leave us; and having given us their support, we were impelled forward in the groove at an accelerated speed, and with a constantly increased sympathy.


Well, for myself, you will hardly credit it, when I say that with regard to myself, I have precisely the same feeling now with respect to the ordeal of public meetings that I had when I began this agitation. It is a matter of great reluctance and difficulty for me to appear before an audience at all. Many people would think that we had our reward in the applause and éclat of public meetings; but I declare upon my honour that it is not so with me, for the inherent reluctance I have to address public meetings is so great, that I don't even get up to present a petition in the House of Commons without reluctance. I therefore hope I may be believed when I say that if this agitation terminates now, it will be very acceptable to my feelings; but if there should be the same necessity, the same feeling which has impelled me to take the part I have will impel me to a new agitation—ay, and with tenfold more vigour, after having had a little time to recruit my strength.


We are going to dissolve; those good spirits must disband, and I am not quite sure that it is not wise and proper that it should be so. We have been kept together for seven years without one single dispute, without anything to cause the slightest alienation. We have had the bond of freemasonry and brotherhood so closely knit about us, that I don't think there has been a keen word in the happy family of the Anti-Corn-Law League. That is the spirit in which we should break off. Were we to continue our agitation, when the object for which we associated is gone, I am afraid that the demon of discord would be getting in among us. It is in nature so. It is in our moral nature necessary that when an organized body has performed its functions, it must pass into a new state of existence, and become differently organized. We are dispersing our elements to be ready for any other good work, and it is nothing but good works that will be attempted by good Leaguers. Our body will, so to say, perish; but our spirit is abroad, and will pervade all the nations of the earth. It will pervade all the nations of the earth because it is the spirit of truth and justice, and because it is the spirit of peace and good-will amongst men.

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