Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School
Part IV, Essay III
BY RICHARD COBDEN
This remarkable letter, which has never been reprinted since its publication in the Anti-Corn-Law Circular, testifies to the statesmanlike sagacity of the leader of the Manchester School and contrasts with the narrow ignorance that has so often dominated our Foreign Office especially in regard to commercial movements abroad. The customs laws of Prussia were consolidated and simplified in 1818, and ten years later Hesse-Darmstadt joined the Prussian Union, to be followed in 1833 by Bavaria and Würtemberg and (reluctantly) by Saxony and the smaller states. The formation of the Zollverein was in itself, as Cobden saw, very advantageous not only to Germany but to all countries which traded with her, the customs tariff being lower than most of the separate tariffs which previously existed in thirty-eight different states and cities. His prediction that tariff reductions in England would lead to a more liberal policy in Germany was also verified, and for many years Germany became one of our principal sources of food supply, sending us in 1877 no less than 7,000,000 cwt. of wheat and flour. And at the present time the empire of Germany appears among the three or four best customers of British manufactured goods.
Seventh letter from a member of the Anti-Corn-Law League, on the Continent.
ON leaving Basle to come by land to this city, I found myself within the territory of the German Union, commonly called the Prussian Commercial Union. Before the revolutionary wars Germany was divided into more than three hundred independent states and upwards of fifty-three free cities, all enjoying the privileges of so many distinct sovereignties. The greater part of these were swept away by the tempest of the French revolution. Germany, however, still contains thirty-eight independent states, eighteen of which have less than 100,000 inhabitants each. Until the recent formation of the Commercial League, these states were allied only by a union of the governments under the name of the German Confederation, whilst the intercourse of the people was obstructed by separate custom house regulations, and travellers were liable to be searched, several times in the course of a day's journey, at the frontiers of these insignificant territories. But, thanks to the enlightened labours of Prussian statesmen, these impediments no longer exist. From the confines of the Tyrol to the shores of the Baltic, and from the frontiers of Belgium to the borders of Russia, no custom house or duties now obstruct the free course of trade, or the progress of the traveller.
Much misapprehension still exists in England as to the nature and objects of the Prussian Commercial League. Whilst in the course of formation, this union was held up to the jealousy and dislike of the British people, as having been conceived in a spirit of hostility to their commercial interests. Our ministers were frequently questioned in parliament upon the subject, and, amongst other efforts of a similar kind, our representative here was instructed to exert his influence (which he did, but of course unsuccessfully) to prevent these free cities from joining the league. The policy of our aristocracy has always been to divert the attention of the people from the evils arising from their own selfish laws. The same legislators who have dammed up a thousand streams of commerce by their Corn Law, are ever ready with the offers of their services to remove some alleged impediment to our trade abroad.
The motives which influenced the authors of the League may be easily understood from the preamble of the treaty of 1833, which begins thus: 'The contracting powers, penetrated with a lively solicitude for whatever may contribute to the freedom and extension of commerce and industry in their respective states,' etc. And the first article gives a sufficient explanation of the objects contemplated by the treaty—
'Article I.—The various associations of custom houses, already existing in the said states, shall for the future form, by virtue of a common system of custom houses and of commerce, a general association, which shall include all countries comprised in such associations.'
Whatever other motives may have influenced the Prussian cabinet, no rational mind now believes that it was actuated by any feelings of hostility to British interests. It has been surmised, and very plausibly, that in putting herself at the head of a commercial union, Prussia sought to acquire a political influence among the German states, to counteract the ascendancy which Austria (not included in the League) possessed as the acknowledged head of the German confederation. The question of importance, however, to you and to your readers is, what will be the probable effects of this union of upwards of 26 millions of people within one line of custom houses upon the interests of the British Empire? Can we increase our commerce with these rich and cultivated nations, and how? In the course of my travels on a late occasion in every part of the union, I made especial inquiries upon the latter point, and the result was a confirmation of the opinion given by Doctor Bowring, that with a modification of our own Corn Laws, we may insure a reciprocal reduction of the duties upon British goods, and a proportionate extension of our commercial relations with the countries of the League. My inquiries extended to individuals of every class—to those who are interested in trading with us, and those who would benefit by shutting us out—to the agriculturists of Prussia and Bavaria, the manufacturers of Saxony and Westphalia, and the merchants and bankers of Frankfort, and I have found the unanimous opinion of intelligent men to be that we have the power in our own hands of lowering the tariff upon our manufactures in Germany, and they uniformly pointed to a reduction of duty upon corn as the indispensable preliminary to any modification of the duties upon our commodities.
Being one of those who composed the Anti-Corn-Law deputation that waited on Lord Melbourne in the spring, I have not forgotten the easy assurance with which the pleasant premier delivered his opinion, that there was no chance of increasing our trade with the countries of the German League. In the course of a conversation yesterday, with one of the public men here, he reminded me of his lordship's characteristic sally, and observed, shrewdly enough, that it was a pity he did not arrive at that conclusion before sending Doctor Bowring, at some expense, to Berlin to bring back a contrary opinion. 'If his lordship will give me a carte blanche,' said he, 'upon the corn question, I will undertake to secure to the English manufacturers a vast extension of their trade with Germany.'
The most conclusive proof, however, that the people of Germany would be glad to extend their commercial relations with us, is to be found in the simple fact that it is their interest so to do. The principal states of the League, as Prussia, Bavaria, Baden, Wurtemberg, etc., are agricultural rather than manufacturing. In Prussia the agricultural population are to the manufacturers as more than five to one; and of the 26 millions of people contained in the Commercial League, nearly 17 millions are dependent on agriculture. The benefits derived from the present high protecting duties upon manufactured goods fall principally to the lot of Saxony; but it is not reasonable to suppose that the other States would voluntarily and gratuitously sacrifice themselves for the benefit of one of the members of the Union; more especially as it was no part of the original design of the League to levy high duties for protection. The duty originally put upon cotton manufactures, for instance, was 10 per cent. only; but, as it is levied by weight, and not ad valorem, the diminished value of the goods has raised the duty in some instances to 70 or 80 per cent. Any negociation for increasing our commerce with this important Union must be addressed to the Government of Berlin, which has every motive for meeting us in the most amicable spirit. Her Polish provinces, now so much behind the rest of Prussia in wealth, intelligence, and civilization, would derive peculiar and incalculable benefits from a trade in corn with England. With a repeal of our corn law, indeed, Pomerania might speedily become the most valuable of the Prussian provinces, yielding, as it does in the greatest abundance, the finest wheat in Europe. The Prussian ports on the Baltic would be the scene of an active commerce in corn, in which native vessels might be expected to share largely; and Dantzig would undoubtedly become the Liverpool of the corn trade. With these paramount motives for extending its commercial relations with England, we may feel certain that so wise a Government as that of Berlin would gladly embrace the opportunity of effecting such an object. But the sine qua non of any such arrangement must be the repeal or modification of our corn law. It is folly to attempt to enlarge our trade with the countries of northern Europe, unless we are prepared to take in payment for our manufactures their staple product—grain.
Whatever may be its ultimate effect upon the interests of foreign countries, the union of the Germans within one line of custom houses is calculated for the almost unmixed benefit of the people. Speaking one language, and having a uniformity of weights and measures, and of money (the latter are now in course of assimilation), they will form, for almost all practical and beneficial ends, one nation. This union is the first in the annals of empires that has been formed exclusively for the promotion of the material interests of the people; formed, too, peaceably, and without even the intervention of diplomatic intrigue. Unlike most other instances of the amalgamation of European territory, the claims of legitimacy, or the lust of extended dominion, have had no share in the formation of the League; and one of its most interesting features, bearing, as it does, powerfully upon the future destinies of the Germans, is, that whereas their Commercial Union affords the strongest motive for refraining from oppression or conquest, it confers upon them a growing defensive power, which will be the best safeguard against the wanton attacks of other nations.
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