Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School

Edited by: Hirst, Francis W.
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First Pub. Date
London: Harper and Brothers
Pub. Date
Collected essays and speeches by various writers, including Richard Cobden and John Bright, 1820-1896
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Part V, Essay IV




This letter was addressed by John Bright to a member of the Hackney Liberal Association, during the by-election which ensued on the death of Fawcett. Professor Stuart, the Liberal candidate, was returned by a large majority.


I OBSERVE that your Tory candidate and his friends are seeking support as fair traders in opposition to free traders. They complain that we are allowed by our Government and our tariff, to buy freely all the products of foreign countries, and that, owing to some foreign tariffs, we cannot sell our own products as freely as we wish to do. We can fix the duties in our own tariff and on our imports, but we cannot fix the duties in the tariffs of foreign countries and on their imports. All this is true enough and plain enough, but what is not plain and not true is the strange belief held by fair traders that being injured by not being able to sell so freely as we wish to do, owing to duties in foreign tariffs, we should remedy the evil by giving up the power to buy freely by putting duties on our own tariff.


To sell freely would be a great advantage, as to buy freely is a great advantage; but neither to buy freely nor to sell freely, as the fair traders recommend, would, in my view, enormously increase the injury to our trade arising from the foreign tariffs which now obstruct our foreign trade.


Let your workmen reflect on the change in their condition which free trade has wrought within the last forty years since the reform of our tariff. The corn law was intended to keep wheat at the price of 80s. the quarter; it is now under 40s. the quarter. The price of tea is now less than the duty which was paid upon it in former days. Sugar is not more than one-third of its cost when a monopoly of East and West India sugar existed. As to wages in Lancashire and Yorkshire, the weekly income of thousands of workers in factories is nearly if not quite double that paid before the time when free trade was established. The wages of domestic servants in the county from which I come are, in most cases, doubled since that time. A working brick-setter told me lately that his wages are now 7s. 6d. per day; formerly he worked at the rate of 4s. per day. Some weeks ago I asked an eminent upholsterer in a great town in Scotland what had been the change in wages in his trade. He said that thirty or forty years ago he paid a cabinet-maker 12s. per week; he now pays him 28s. per week. If you inquire as to the wages of farm labourers, you will find them doubled, or nearly doubled, in some counties, and generally over the whole country advanced more than 50 per cent., or one-half, whilst the price of food and the hours of labour have diminished. It may be said that milk and butter and meat are dear, which is true; but these are dear because our people, by thousands of families, eat meat who formerly rarely tasted it, and because our imports of these articles are not sufficient to keep prices at a more moderate rate. The fair traders tell you that trade in some branches is depressed, which is true, though their statements are greatly exaggerated. We have had a great depression in agriculture, caused mainly by several seasons of bad harvests, and some of our traders have suffered much from a too rapid extension in prosperous years. I have known the depression in trade to be much greater than it is now, and the sufferings of traders and workmen during our time of protection, previous to 1842, when the reform of our tariff began, were beyond all comparison greater than they are now. In foreign countries where high tariffs exist, say in Russia, in France, and in the United States, the disturbance and depression of manufacturing industries are far greater at this moment than with us. Their tariffs make it impossible for them to have a larger foreign trade; we have a wide field for our exports, which they cannot enter. We have an open market for the most part in South America, in China, in Japan, and with a population of more than 200,000,000 in our Indian Empire, and in our colonies, with the exception of Canada, and the province of Victoria in Australia. The field for our manufacturing industry is far wider than that for any other manufacturing nation in the world, and I cannot doubt that we shall gradually rise from the existing depression, and shall reap even greater gain from our policy of free trade in the future than we have reaped in the past. In 1846, when the cruel corn law was repealed, we did not convert our landowners and farmers, we only vanquished them. Even now there remains among them a longing for protection; they cling still to the ancient heresy, and, believing in the ignorance or forgetfulness of our working men, they raise their old cry at every election of members of Parliament. If I have any influence with your own or any electors, let me assure them that for centuries past there has been no change of our national policy which has conferred and will confer so great good on our industrious people as that policy of free trade which the two greatest ministers of our time, Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Gladstone, have fixed, I cannot doubt for ever, on the statute-book of our country.


The recent contest in the United States has overthrown the party of protection and monopoly. It may prove a great blessing to the English nation on the American continent. When England and America shall have embraced the policy of free industry the whole fabric of monopoly the world over will totter to its fall.

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