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
12 of 34

Part II, Essay V



On Thursday, 28th September, 1843, the Anti-Corn-Law League held its first monthly meeting in Convent Garden Theatre; and, as the League newspaper inform us, 'the vast space was crowded in every corner half an hour before the time for commencing the business' (at 7 p.m.). A report was read, detailing the operations of the League, and stating that the subscriptions exceeded £50,000. Over nine million tracts and stamped publications had been distributed during the year, and 651 lectures delivered under the auspices of the League. The report—moved by Mr. Heyworth, and seconded by Mr. Scholefield, M.P.—was adopted. Mr. Cobden moved 'an address of the Council of the National Anti-Corn-Law League to the people of the United Kingdom.' It is recorded that when Mr. Cobden declared that the League would trust to its lecturers and its newspapers, and would no more petition the House of Commons, the vast audience rose and cheered for several minutes. In this address the League's plan of agitation was explained, and contributions to the extent of £100,000 invited for the ensuing year. In the course of his speech Mr. Cobden explained the object of the League as follows: 'The single and undisguised object of the League is to put down commercial monopoly; but that cannot be done by saddling upon our backs a fixed duty on corn, which means a differential duty on sugar, on coffee, and monopoly in every other article. The Corn Law is the great tree of Monopoly, under whose baneful shadow every other restriction exists. Cut it down by the roots, and it will destroy the others in its fall. The sole object of the League is to put an end to and extinguish at once, and for ever, the principle of maintaining taxes for the benefit of a particular class. The object is to make the revenue what it ought to be—a stream flowing into the Queen's Exchequer, and not a penny of it intercepted by the Duke of Buckingham, or Sir E. Knatchbull, to pay off their endowments or their settlements; by Lord Mountcashel to discharge his burthens or his mortgages; or by any other person, or for the maintenance of any object whatsoever.' The address, having been seconded by Mr. Bright, was spoken to as follows by Mr. W.J. Fox.


IN the able speeches of the mover and seconder of the address two points have been slightly passed over, or only incidentally mentioned, which I think tend very much to recommend that address to the adoption of the public, and the objects of its authors to their co-operation. One characteristic feature of the address is the plainness and frankness with which the plans of the League are told out. There are no claims of implicit confidence; there are no ambiguous promises; there is no endeavour to lead on the people towards results not specified; there is no saying, like a certain state physician. 'Let me into office, give me the fee, and then you shall see my prescription;' but a succession of measures are distinctly marked out, all tending towards a definite point, which point gained, the objects of the League must needs be accomplished, and towards which a movement is made as distinct, and, I apprehend—as these measures in succession are realized—as resistless, as the great operations of nature. They conduct us towards a result which no administration can resist, which no law can stand, to that declaration of the will of the possessors of the political power of a great empire, which must be respected by all who aspire to administer its affairs, which cannot be resisted but in the dissolution of society, and before which any opposing power, any law, any institution even, however time-honoured, must pass away, as the leaves fall before the winds of autumn, or a snow vanishes in the sunshine of spring. And the men who propose this course of measures are plainly as honest as they are earnest in that for which they ask your co-operation. They make, themselves, the largest sacrifices that are made; and the very fact which has been thrown in their teeth, that they have an interest in this object, is their best justification. The interests of honest industry are surely one of the objects of the policy of a great empire. They have an interest in it; so have you; so have we all. Who that lives by eating bread has not an interest in the repeal of the bread tax? Who that is endeavouring to support himself and his family by commerce has not an interest in Free Trade? Who has not an interest in what advances the general prosperity of the country, even though his pursuits are artistical or intellectual, ministering to the spiritual rather than the material portions of our nature? For as one thrives will all thrive—they react the one upon the other—the starving do not encourage literature and art—they are bound together by the ties which Providence formed to uphold society; and it is because they and we have an interest in this matter that we are determined the question shall not drop until it is satisfactorily settled.


I say all classes have an interest in this matter; even they who are represented as the great opposing class—the landlord class. For what has made England the paradise of landowners but its being the workshop of the world? In the progress of manufacture, if machinery has enabled one man to do the work of two hundred, it has also employed two hundred, and two thousand, where one was employed; all bread eaters, coming to the landowner for his produce. And while the manufacturers of this country have been thus advancing in the last century, its growth of wheat has been tripled, and the rents of the farmers have been in many cases quadrupled. The landlords gain by railways enhancing the worth of their property; they gain by the rich and flourishing community arising around them; and if for a while they should have to make some slight sacrifice—if at first their rents should fall in the change—why, they will still be gaining that which gold could never buy. By the graceful concession they would be gaining the goodwill and gratitude of their fellow-countrymen; they would gain for themselves an exemption from the execration that pursues their class—from the infamy of their names in history—from the reprobation of their consciences, and the pollution of their souls.


The confidence which the Council expresses in the successful operations of the measures they trace out is, I think, a well-founded one. For when have recognized principles failed of meeting with success—when in the world's history? Some affect to sneer at abstract principles; but abstract good is the real, practical good, after all; the exceptions made to it are some little, dirty contrivances of those who would have trade free for others, but would reserve the monopoly for themselves—would have free trade as to what they buy, but restrictions as to what they sell; and who tell us that those principles are sound and excellent things in reference to all other commodities whatever, but that there is some one exception left—the exception of that in which the exceptor deals; and each in turn will tell you that Free Trade is the noblest thing in the world, except for corn, except for sugar, except for coffee, and except for this, that, and the other, till once, even in the House of Commons, it came to an exception of second-hand glass bottles. I say this is a principle recognized by all—recognized even by the Government in its measures of last year, however paltry their nature and limited their operation; recognized in their Canada Corn Bill, recognized in the repeal of the laws against the exportation of machinery, the last rag of that form of monopoly; and the repeal of the duties on imports must follow that of restriction on exports. A principle thus practically recognized by foes, as well as by friends, is certain of success. Thus was it that the great principle of Negro liberty was recognized, and thus eventually carried. And did not the recognition of a principle emancipate the Roman Catholics of Ireland? Ask Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington whether this was not the secret of the success of that measure.


I say this anticipation of triumph is well founded. For have we not the eternal power of truth? have we not the agency of a press that cannot be restricted in its advocacy of such principles? Have we not meetings like these—not only such meetings as these, but meetings held in the rural districts, where the opposing class is challenged to the combat? and have we not that power to which the address specially points, which with great propriety is introduced on such an occasion as this, that power which has ever been the cradle and is the bulwark of liberty, political and commercial—the power of great cities, the agency of civilization?—of great towns and cities, that first reared their towers as landmarks when the deluge of barbarism in the middle ages was beginning to subside; that in the civil wars of this country afforded the self a refuge from his baronial oppressor, and gave him food and gave him freedom; towns and cities, that won the rudiments of representation, that formed our parliaments, that asserted the people's power of self-taxation, that gained one step after another in the progress of order and of human rights and enjoyments; where commerce throve, where the arts have flourished, where the poor serfs of the soil, that vainly struggled and shed their blood in the Jack Cade and Wat Tyler insurrections, at length had their emancipation achieved for them achieved for them. In cities flourish luxuries and arts which make it life to life. Cities are the heralds or progress, as they have been the safeguards of the past; there congregated multitudes shout for justice, and demand that the oppressed shall be emancipated, raising a cry at the sight of wrong which reverberates from earth to heaven, and makes the oppressive class, however strong in station and in power, quail as before the thunder of the day of retribution.


And this is the second point in the address upon which I wish to fix your attention—the importance that it assigns to town and cities. It looks to them as the machinery by which this great question is to be wrought out to its final, satisfactory, and triumphant decision. And well and rightly does it so, because it is in towns and cities that the wrong most deeply exists which it is the aim of the League in its noblest efforts to redress. It is in cities that the pressure is felt most extensively—that the iron enters most deeply into the soul. It is not merely in the expression and feeling of such an assemblage as this that I read the condemnation of the laws that uphold monopoly; it is in what you know—it is in what leads you here. It is something, it is much to many here in this vast and brilliant assemblage, that from day to day the pressure upon their circumstances is rendered more and more hard by the artificial limitations of trade; it is something, it is much to many here, that from time to time one hostile tariff after another makes its appearance, shutting us out of markets on the Continent which had been open; it is something, it is much to many here, that in the most frequented thoroughfares of this great metropolis house after house should be shut up, exhibiting a spectacle of desolation where once were thriving tradesmen and enjoying families; it is something, it is much to many here, that the pressure comes at each extremity, that the candle is burning at both ends—on one side they are exhausted by paying to the relief of the poor, and on the other side they are plundered by claims upon them for the income tax; it is something, it is much to many here' that through every station, in every rank of life, the pressure is felt—the demon seems to be omnipresent, and they cannot escape his pestiferous influence. But even this is not the deadliest evil of the corn laws. Did one want to exhibit it in this great theatre, it might be done; not by calling together such an audience as I now see here, but by going into the by-places, the alleys, the dark courts, the garrets and cellars of this metropolis, and by bringing thence their wretched and famished inmates. Oh, we might crowd them here, boxes, pit, and galleries, with their shrunk and shriveled forms, with their wan and pallid cheeks, with their distressful looks, perhaps with dark and bitter passions pictured in their countenances, and thus exhibit a scene that would appal the stoutest heart, and melt the hardest; a scene that we would wish to bring the prime minister of the country upon the state to see; and we would say to him, 'There, delegate of majesty! Leader of legislators, conservator of institutions, look upon that mass of misery! That is what your laws and power, if they did not create have failed to prevent, have failed to cure or mitigate.' And supposing this to be done, could this scene be realized, we know what would be said. We should be told, that 'there has always been poverty in the world; that there are numerous ills that laws can neither make nor cure; that whatever is done, much distress must exist.' He might say, 'it is the mysterious dispensation of Providence, and there we must leave it.' 'Hypocrite, hypocrite!' I would say to him, 'urge not that plea yet; you have no right to it. Strike off every fetter upon industry; take the last grain of the poison of monopoly out of the cup of poverty; give labour its full rights; throw open the markets of the world to an industrious people; and then, if after all there be poverty, you have earned your right to qualify for the unenviable dignity of a blasphemer of Providence; but until then, while any restriction whatever exists, while any impediment is raised to the well-being of the many for the sordid profit of the few—till then you cannot, you dare not, look this gaunt spectre of wretchedness in the face and exclaim, "Thou canst not say I did it."'


Why, the corn laws and the policy of our agricultural legislators hunt poverty and wretchedness from their own districts into ours. The landlord class call themselves feeders of the people. They speak of their ability, if properly encouraged and protected, to feed the nation. What feeds the people? Not the growing of corn, but the people being able to buy it. The people are no more fed, for all the wheat that is grown, than as if there were so many stones covering the rich valleys of the country. It is in the price required of the people who eat it; and if that is beyond the power of the multitude to give, the landlords become starvers instead of feeders pf the people. Agriculture cannot support its own population; it is not in the course of nature that it should, for one man is vested with the ability to raise food for the many. Twenty-eight per cent. Of the population are amply sufficient to cultivate the ground so as to yield food for the remainder of the hundred. How are the rest to be fed? By opening markets for the products of their industry, that they may obtain the means. In the natural growth of the population in the rural districts they find a superfluous population—that superfluity is continually on the increase. People talk much about machinery throwing hands out of employment; these very same people raise a cry of the evil results of corn-law repeal in throwing the cultivators of the ground out of employ. Why, are they not themselves throwing them out of employ every day? Have we not the Royal Agricultural Society and local agricultural societies all over the country, where premiums are offered of from £3 to £50, from £50 to £100 for the invention of machines to cheapen the tillage of the ground—to do that by mechanical ingenuity which had heretofore been wrought by human labour? Are there not machines for every process and operation?—machines for preparing and draining the ground for the reception of the seed, machines for ploughing and sowing, machines even for the splitting the beans that the cattle eat, machinery for reaping the produce, for thrashing the wheat, and for cutting the chaff—is there not machinery from the beginning to the end?—is there not mechanical power, chemical power, horse power, steam power?—and, what perverts it all, and lies at the back of all of the abuse, political power. These associations come forth with their splendid array of great names—some men who figure in one house and some who figure in another; some who are chiefly known as politicians, and others as warriors, until we find among them that great name whose judgment in machinery relates more to the sword than the plough, And who best understands the machinery by which battalions are mowed down, and the harvest of carnage is gathered in. And there is this remarkable difference between the employment of machinery in the one case and in the other, in which it has been so often assailed. When machinery is employed in manufacture, what is the natural result? Production is cheaper, goods, apparel of various kinds, are brought to market at a lower rate. The use of it is diffused more extensively in society; people have enjoyments and accommodation which they did not possess; the demand has increased, and this again reacts upon production; more hands are employed, and in the natural course of things there is found to be more work, more wages, and more enjoyment. But in the employment of agricultural machinery, the intention of the corn law is not to let those inventions affect the price—not to let them cheapen corn and to extend the enjoyment of wholesome food, but to keep up the price while the cost of production is cheapened, in order that the surplus may go into that great swamp of all, the receptacle of rent, still crying, 'Give, give,' and never satisfied.


Well, in this way there is more of the surplus population who go on in the natural course of wretchedness, who fall from, one stage to another, in the agricultural districts than anywhere else. Up they troop to some great town; they come, men, women, and children; they toil their way along the hard roads, and then, without friends or help, they look around them, they ask for work, they ask for alms: they endeavour in vain to find that for which they are seeking, for monopoly has been there beforehand; having driven them out of the country, it bars the occasion for their employment in the towns, and so they are beaten and battered from pillar to post; they have, perhaps, to incur the frown of power by some irregular attempt to support themselves, for the police hunt and hound them for endeavouring to sell apples or lucifers in the streets; they are sent to the station-house, they are brought out of that to be committed to goal; they go in beggars, they come out thieves; they pass through various stages of disease in the only factory into which they can get—in those great factories of typhus which abound in large towns. One union workhouse sends them to another, the overseers send them to the magistrates, and the magistrates send them back to the overseers; and at last, in this hopeless and heartless strife, they drop by the way. Death completes what monopoly began; and we; inhabitants of great towns, know that all this is passing around us, and we quiet and acquiescing, and conscience never demands, 'Are not you accessory to these murders?'


Wisely has the Council appealed to the great towns, for there is the power. What can the poor farmer do? His money is in his landlord's ground, and the man who has money in another man's ground must needs be a slave. His freedom is buried there with it, not, like the grain, to germinate but only to not and dissolve in corruption. It is where great bodies are congregated that they can stand by one another; where not the importance of the individual, but the importance of the many, is the great thing for all. And how independent are such places, if they but knew their position, of all the aristocracy is, or can do! Landlords! They built not this magnificent metropolis; they covered not these forty square miles with the great mass of human dwellings that spread over them; they crowd not our ports with shipping; they filled not your city with its monuments of science and art, with its institutions of literature and its temples of religion; they poured not that stream of commercial prosperity into the country which during the last century has made the grandeur of London, Quadrupling its population, and showing that it has one heart with the entire community. They! Why, if they were to spend—if you could impose on them the laws which they would impose upon you, and they were bound to spend—in this metropolis all they received in their rents; if there were no toleration for French wines or foreign luxuries; if they were prohibited from storing and locking up in their remote galleries works of art, real or pretended, which they prize as property; if here, amongst the shopkeepers of London, they were bound to spend that which they had obtained by their rents—it would be wretched repayment to you for what you have forfeited by the absence of free trade. It is, as it were, to make war upon towns and cities, and to cut off their supplies of food, to limit their resources, to levy upon them other taxation; for in the vast spread of this metropolis, where there are nearly two millions of inhabitants, probably not less than six or eight millions sterling is wrung from your resources in different ways, not going into the pockets of the landlords, but being lost by the way, a great portion of it, in order that their extortion may keep up a veil on its horrid countenance, and have something of the show of legitimate taxation, instead of being apparent and downright plunder.


The time is opportune for the appeal which has been made to the inhabitants of this metropolis, and for the appeal to those among you who enjoy the franchise of the city of London. There will, in a very short period, be an opportunity for you to show decidedly that the principle of Free Trade is consecrated in your hearts and guides your votes. I trust the contest will be by no means a personal one, but one wholly of principle, and that no ambiguous pretensions, no praise of Free Trade, with certain qualifications and accommodations necessary to the hustings, will be tolerated for an instant; but that the plain and simple test will be tolerated for an instant; but that the plain and simple test will be the complete, total, and immediate abolition of the monopoly of food. I know not why one should hesitate to say, upon such an occasion as this, that the placards which I see round about this theatre express the feeling and preference that I think may be honestly entertained for Mr. Pattison as the representative of that great city...*69 Here, then, I hope, will one of the first great electoral experiments to be tried, that not merely even member of the League, but every inhabitant of London, who can honourably influence the result of that election, should feel himself bound to do so, as amongst his earliest pledges of adherence to this great cause—the commencement of his answer to the appeal which has now been made to him for support. Other ways will soon open themselves; and I trust that its past backwardness will be amply redeemed by the metropolis in the readiness with which it will respond to the great call now made for its pecuniary liberality, and in the ardour which many will manifest in other modes of co-operating in this great work, showing that we look to yet higher principles and considerations than any that belong either to rural districts or to particular classes, and that we regard this as the common cause of humanity. And so it is; for Free Trade principles are the dictates of Nature plainly written on the surface of land and ocean, so that simplest may read them and imbibe their spirit. For that power which stretched abroad the land, poured forth the ocean, and piled up the mountains; that power which gave Western America its broad prairies, and reared the gigantic and boundless forests of the north; that Power which covered with rich vineyards the smiling hills of France, which wafts sweet odours from the 'spicy shores of Araby the blest,' which has endowed this country with its minerals and its insular advantages, and its people with their indomitable Saxon energy, with their skill, their hardihood, their perseverance, their enterprise;—that Power which doth all this, evidently designed it for the common good, for the reciprocal advantage of all; it intended that all should enrich all by the freest interchange, thus making the world no longer the patrimony of a class, but the heritage and the paradise of humanity.

Notes for this chapter

A vacancy in the City of London was occasioned by the death of Sir Matthew Wood: the candidates were Mr. Pattison and Mr. Thomas Baring. The former was elected by a majority of 165.

Part II, Essay VII

End of Notes

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