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 II, Essay III



The events which led up to this petition may be very shortly summarized. Cobden's great pamphlet, the first document in this volume, had appeared in 1835. In the following year an Anti-Corn Law Association was formed in London by Francis Place, and joined by Joseph Hume, Grote, Molesworth, John Temple Leader, Colonel Peronet Thomson, John Marshall of Leeds, Archibald Prentice of Manchester, and others. But, like so many London organizations, it did nothing.

In the autumn of 1837 (a year of severe distress) the British Association met in Liverpool. Porter and other economists took part in the discussions. Cobden was there, and after one of the meetings he said to his friend Henry Ashworth: 'I'ill tell you what we'll do; we'll use the Manchester Chamber of Commerce for an agitation to repeal the Corn Laws.'

In the August of 1838, wheat rose to 77s., and then at last Lancashire and Yorkshire began to move in earnest.

An Anti-Corn Law Association was formed in Manchester, which was to become the Anti-Corn Law League in the spring of 1839. Meanwhile Cobden's idea was acted upon. After some skirmishing with half-hearted members, he, J. B. Smith, and Henry Ashworth, drew up the following petition, which was accepted almost unanimously by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce:—


To the Honourable the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled:—
The Petition of the President, Vice-President, Directors and Members of the Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures of Manchester, agreed to in a Special General Meeting, held on the 20th day of December, 1838,
Humbly showeth,


That your petitioners deem it their imperative duty to call the immediate attention of your honourable house to the consideration of the existing laws affecting the free importation of food.


That your petitioners would premise that you are already acquainted with the nature and extent of the cotton trade; combining, as it does, a larger amount of capital, with greater enterprise and skill, and giving more extensive and better regulated employment than any other branch of manufacturing industry. This source of increasing population and wealth, which is now become essential to our well-being as a nation, owes no sort of allegiance to the soil of England; and if it has grown up with a rapidity unparalleled in the annals of trade, history affords us many examples to show how speedily it may, by misgovernment, be banished to other shores.


That your petitioners view, with great alarm, the rapid extension of foreign manufactures, and they have, in particular, to deplore the consequent diminution of a profitable trade with the Continent of Europe; to which, notwithstanding the great increase in population since the termination of the war, the exports have been actually less in value during the last five years than they were during the first five years after the peace, and whilst the demand for all those articles, in which the greatest amount of the labour of our artisans is comprised, has been constantly diminishing, the exportation of the raw material has been as rapidly increasing.


That several nations of the Continent not only produce sufficient manufactures for their own consumption, but they successfully compete with us in neutral foreign markets. Amongst other instances that might be given to show the formidable growth of the cotton manufacture abroad, is that of the cotton hosiery of Saxony, of which, owing to its superior cheapness, nearly four times as much is exported, as from this country; the Saxons exporting annually to the United States of America alone, a quantity equal to the exports from England to all parts of the world; whilst the still more important fact remains to be adduced, that Saxon hose, manufactured from English yarn, after paying a duty of 20 per cent., are beginning to be introduced into this country and sold for home consumption, at lower prices than they can be produced for by our manufacturers.


That further proof of the rapid progress in manufacturing industry going on upon the Continent is afforded in the fact that establishments for the making of all kinds of machinery for spinning and weaving cotton, flax, and wool, have lately been formed in nearly all the large towns of Europe, in which English skilled artisans are at the present moment diligently employed in teaching the native mechanics to make machines, copied from models of the newest invention of this country, and not a week passes in which individuals of the same valuable class do not quit the workshops of Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham, to enter upon similar engagements abroad.


That the superiority we have hitherto possessed in our unrivalled roads and canals is no longer peculiar to this country. Railroads to a great extent, and at a less cost than in England, are proceeding in all parts of Europe and the United States of America, whilst, from the want of profitable investment at home, capital is constantly seeking employment in foreign countries; and thus supplying the greatest deficiency under which our rivals previously laboured.


That whilst calling the attention of your honourable house to facts calculated to excite the utmost alarm for the well-being of our manufacturing prosperity, your Petitioners cannot too earnestly make known that the evils are occasioned by our impolitic and unjust legislation, which, by preventing the British manufacturer from exchanging the produce of his labour for the corn of other countries, enables our foreign rivals to purchase their food at one half the price at which it is sold in this market; and your petitioners declare it to be their solemn conviction, that this is the commencement only of a state of things which, unless arrested by a timely repeal of all protective duties upon the importation of corn and of all foreign articles of subsistence, must eventually transfer our manufacturing industry into other and rival countries.


That deeply impressed with such apprehensions, your petitioners cannot look with indifference upon, nor conceal from your honourable house the perilous condition of those surrounding multitudes, whose subsistence from day to day depends upon the prosperity of the cotton trade. Already the million have raised the cry for food. Reason, compassion, and sound policy demand that the excited passions be allayed, otherwise evil consequences may ensue. The continuance of the loyal attachment of the people to the established institutions of the country can never be permanently secured on any other grounds than those of universal justice. Holding one of these eternal principles to be the unalienable right of everyman, freely to exchange the results of his labour for the productions of other people, and maintaining the practice of protecting one part of the community at the expense of all other classes, to be unsound and unjustifiable, your petitioners earnestly implore your honourable house to repeal all laws relating to the importation of foreign corn and other foreign articles of subsistence, and to carry out to the fullest extent, both as affects agriculture and manufactures, the true and peaceful principles of free trade, by removing all existing obstacles to the unrestricted employment of industry and capital.

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