Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
By Richard Cobden
The Speeches contained in these two volumes have been selected and edited at the instance of the Club which was established for the purpose of inculcating and extending those political principles which are permanently identified with Cobden’s career. They form an important part of the collective contribution to political science, which has conferred on their author a reputation, the endurance of which, it may be confidently predicted, is as secure as that of any among the men whose wisdom and prescience have promoted the civilization of the world…. [From the Preface by James E. Thorold Rogers]
James E. Thorold Rogers, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
In two volumes. Collected speeches, 1841-1864. First published as a collection in 1870. 3rd edition. Includes biographical "Appreciations" by Goldwin Smith and J. E. Thorold Rogers.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Richard Cobden: frontispiece of Cobden's Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, courtesy of Liberty Fund, Inc.
- Preface, by J. E. Thorold Rogers
- An Appreciation by Goldwin Smith
- An Appreciation by J. E. Thorold Rogers
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 1
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 2
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 3
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 4
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 5
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 6
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 7
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 8
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 9
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 10
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 11
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 12
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 13
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 14
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 15
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 16
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 17
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 18
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 19
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 20
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 21
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 22
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 23
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 24
- Vol. I, Free Trade, Speech 25
- Vol. I, Letter from Mr. Cobden to the Tenant Farmers of England
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 1
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 2
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 3
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 4
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 5
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 6
- Vol. I, Finance, Speech 7
- Vol. II, Russian War, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Russian War, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Russian War, Speech 3
- Vol. II, American War, Speech 1
- Vol. II, American War, Speech 2
- Vol. II, China War, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 3
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 4
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 5
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 6
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 7
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 8
- Vol. II, Foreign Policy, Speech 9
- Vol. II, India, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Peace, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Peace, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Policy of the Whig Government, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 3
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 4
- Vol. II, Parliamentary Reform, Speech 5
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 1
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 2
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 3
- Vol. II, Education, Speech 4
After the narrative which our friend Mr. Villiers has given of the past proceedings of himself and others in the House of Commons, in connection with that great question, the Repeal of the Corn-laws, I am sure it will be as acceptable to you as it will be pleasant to my own feelings to express my gratitude, as I am sure you will allow me to do yours, towards that gentleman especially, who, fortunately for us and the country, took possession six years ago of this question in the Legislature, and who has so nobly and manfully supported it in spite of all sinister influences, in defiance of all those associations which he himself, as a member of the aristocracy, must have had brought to bear upon him. I thank him in your name and in behalf of the country for the consistent course he has followed in advocating this question. He has told us that the progress which he has marked in the House of Commons has been measured by the progress of our agitation out of doors.
Really, when I look back and remember what the Anti-Corn-law League was six years ago, and when I consider the progress which the movement has made since that time, I cannot help thinking it affords a still greater hope and far more encouragement to us to proceed than even those more obvious gains which the figures he has given you respecting the divisions in the House of Commons are able to demonstrate. I remember quite well, that six years ago we could have mustered all the members of the Anti-Corn-law League in one of those stage boxes, and even then I am afraid that at most of our meetings we should have had a great deal of vacant space. Our funds were small, collections of 5
s., and even at that low sum there were not very numerous contributors. Year after year I have seen the progress of this movement, not merely in Manchester, but in every provincial town, until I find we are at length landed here in the midst of this mighty metropolis, and have been during the last six months holding weekly assemblies in this vast theatre, filled on every occasion, and to-night as crowded as on any previous meeting. If this unabated interest of London and the Londoners, in the midst of so many distracting engagements, such numerous and inviting temptations—if this attention to our cause is not proof of the hold which Free-trade principles have on the public mind, I know not where to go to find evidence which can possibly prove the fact. Our friend has told you some of the arguments that are used in the Houses of Parliament, in opposition to our cause. Now, I am not so jealous of any of their assertions or arguments as I am of one which I see was used in the House of Lords last night by his Grace of Richmond. I find he is now continually stating in that august assembly, that the tenantry of this country arose as one man to oppose the League. I have myself heard the same assertions
from the squirearchy in the House of Commons, and I have heard it asserted so often, that I confess the repetition itself, if I had known nothing else upon the subject, would have made me rather suspect its authenticity; for it very much reminds me of the schoolboy, whistling his way through the churchyard to keep his courage up. Why the necessity for these assertions? Wherefore do the landlords and the dukes now state so continually that the farmers are with them? This must, I suspect, have arisen from some doubts which pervade their minds as to whether the farmers really are to be beguiled and hoodwinked by their professions of protection. But when they tell us that the tenant-farmers rose spontaneously and formed the Anti-League Association, I tell them here, in the most public place in the world, that what they say is not true.
I do not wish to be offensive, and therefore I will use the words ‘it is not true, in a logical sense. I say it is untrue’ and I will prove my assertion by facts. I will take, for example, the meeting which his Grace of Richmond attended at Steyning, in Sussex, and I will mention facts which cannot be controverted. I know that that meeting was got up by the aristocracy and squire-archy of Sussex, and that if they themselves did not personally go round, and canvass and entreat the farmers to attend, that their land-agents, and land-stewards, and law-stewards did so; that the tenant-farmers were canvassed and pressed to come up to that meeting with just the same earnestness with which they are canvassed for a general election. Nay, more; the carriages and horses,—the vehicles of the landlords, down even to the deer-cart,—were put at the disposal of the farmers, to carry them up to the Steyning meeting. What I say of the Sussex meeting, of my own knowledge, is, I am well assured, a fact as regards almost every assemblage which has been held, purporting to be a spontaneous meeting of the farmers to oppose the League. In some instances dinners were provided for the tenantry at the expense of the landlord. The tenant-farmers were moved by the landlords; they were canvassed by the law-agents and land-agents in every part of the kingdom, often not knowing the business they were going upon, and in much more frequent cases not caring for the object for which they were summoned together. And what I am telling you now is patent to the whole community; there is not an individual here from any county in England where those meetings have been got up, who will not immediately respond to the truth of what I have stated. [A voice: ‘I can bear you out.’] The land-agent—mark the tribe—is the finger of the landlord. He has but to point, and the farmer acts according to his direction, knowing that it is the bidding of his landlord at secondhand. And who are the men who have attacked the League at these meetings? Can you show me one specimen of a
bonâ fide intelligent, substantial farmer, like my friend Mr. Lattimore, whom I see sitting behind me; or like Mr. Josiah Hunt, who addressed us here a short time back; or those two worthy men who came from Somersetshire for the same purpose? Can you show me in all the instances of their meeting,
bonâ fide respectable, intelligent men, known to be good farmers in their own locality, men of capital in the world, who have taken a lead in the movement? You cannot show me a man of that stamp who has attended a meeting, and taken the leading part in their proceedings. But if you ask who the men are that have been placed in the chair, or put forward to speak upon such occasions, you will find that a hundred to one they are either agents, auctioneers, or land-stewards. Who is Mr. Baker, of Writtle, in Essex? He is the man who has been put forward as the great leader of the protectionists in that county; it was he who originated the first meeting, who has written pamphlets and made speeches upon the subject of protection; and yet, who is this Mr. Baker, of Writtle? I will undertake to say that he makes more money by agency and auctioneering than by farming. You
may have seen his name advertised in newspapers, in one column as the author of a pamphlet or the writer of a letter for the protection societies in favour of the Corn-law, and in another column advertised as the auctioneer who is going to sell up some unfortunate farmer who has been ruined by the Corn-law.
Does his Grace of Richmond or the squirearchy in the House of Commons, after the enlightenment and education which our great peripatetic political university—the League—has diffused through the country, think for a moment that the public will be so gulled by these unfounded assertions in either House of Legislature, as to really believe that the tenant-farmers spontaneously and voluntarily rose up to form anti-league associations, when the facts which I have mentioned are generally known in every county in the kingdom? Why, how can they get up and talk so foolishly! It appears to me that they must be about as cunning as the ostrich, which hides its head in the sand, and thinks that no one can see its unfortunate body because it cannot see it itself. I am jealous of this practice of taking the tenant-farmers’ name in vain. They tell us that we have been abusing the farmers, and therefore they have turned against us; but, if there has been one individual in the country who has more constantly stood up for farmers’ interests and rights than another, I am the man. I have a right to do so. All my early associations—which we do not easily get rid of—lead me irresistibly to sympathise with the farmers. I was bred in a farm-house myself, and up to the time of my going to school I lived amongst farmers and farm-labourers, and witnessed none other than farming pursuits. I should beutterly unworthy of the class from which I have sprung if I voluntarily entered upon a crusade against one of the most industrious, pains-taking, and worst-used classes in the community. I have said scores of times, in all parts of the country, that I believe the tenant-farmers have been more deeply injured by the Corn-laws than any other class of the community. The history of the tenant-farmers—oh, that we could have the history of that class in this country for the last thirty years! Would we could procure a report to be presented to the House of Commons of the number of tenants in this country who have been sold up and ruined during the last thirty years under the blessed protection of the Corn-laws! It would form a dark calendar of suffering, not to be equalled by the history of any other class of men in any other pursuit in this world. An enemy to farmers! If I am an enemy to the farmers, at all events I have not feared to trust myself amongst them. The monopolists did not come to meet me when I went into the farming districts, and they will not come to meet me if I go there again: that is the reason why I have not been lately; and I have often put this question to the protectionists in the lobby of the House of Commons: ‘Will you meet me in your own locality? Will you let your high-sheriff call a county meeting in any part of the country; I care not where it is; you shall choose your own county? Will you meet me in a public meeting in any county in the kingdom, and there take a vote for or against the Corn-laws?’ No; they will not meet me, because they know they would be out-voted if they did. The Corn-laws protect farmers! Why, the farmers pay their rent according to the price of the produce of their land; and after that well-known fact you need not say another word upon the subject. If Corn-laws keep up the price of food, they maintain the amount of rents also. The Corn-law is a rent law, and it is nothing else. But I am jealous of these noble dukes and squires attempting to make it appear that we are enemies to the farmer. In fact, I feel it is paying no great compliment to our own knowledge and intelligence if they suppose that we should have gone on lumping the landlords along with farmers altogether in the way in which they lump them. No, no; I began my career in the House of Commons by a definition of this kind:—You landlords have called yourselves
‘agriculturists;’ mind, I do not denominate you such: you are no more ‘agriculturists’ because you own land than a shipowner is a sailor because he owns ships. When the noble Duke of Richmond gets up in the House of Peers and says, ‘Oh, the Anti-Corn-law League by their abuse of the agriculturists have set the farmers against them,’ he does not know the language of his own country, and requires to study an English grammar, if he is not aware that an agriculturist means a cultivator of the land. That term may be applied to the tenant-farmer and the farm-labourer; but his Grace of Richmond must change his pursuits, and become a more useful member of society, before he will be entitled to be called an agriculturist.
Now, it is not only in the way you have heard pointed out that the Corn-law injures the farmer—it is not merely that the Corn-law has tempted him to make bad bargains by expecting high Act-of-Parliament prices, and then deceived and disappointed him in those prices—that is not the only way in which the Corn-law has worked mischief to the farmer. It has injured him by distracting his attention from other grievances which lie nearer home—which are really of importance—keeping his attention constantly engaged with an
ignis fatuus, which perpetually escapes his grasp, and which would not benefit him even if he could clutch it. What are the grievances which the farmer feels? He requires a fair adjustment of his rent; he wants a safe tenure for his land; he requires a lease; he must get rid of the game which are nourished in those wide hedge-rows which rob him of the surface of the land, whilst the game devours the produce of his industry and his capital. The farmer wants improvement in his homestead; he requires draining, and a variety of concessions from his landlord: and how is he met when he endeavours to obtain them? He cannot approach the landlord, agent, and steward, and ask for a settlement of any of those grievances; those parties are all in a plot together, and they forth-with tell him, ‘This is not the matter you should trouble yourself with: go and oppose the Anti-Corn-law League, or else they will ruin you.’ Is there any other class of men who are dealt with in a manner like this? They cannot come to a
bonâ fide settlement upon any existing grievance, because there is an Act of Parliament pointed to which they are told they must maintain, or else they will all be ruined.
I have often illustrated the folly of this practice to farmers; I do not know whether I have ever done so to you; but if you will allow me, at all events, I will hazard the chance of its being a repetition; for I have found the illustration come home forcibly to the apprehensions of the farmers in the country. I have pointed out the folly of this system in the following manner:—You, as a farmer, deal with your landlord in a manner different from the way in which I transact business with my customers, and they with me. I am a manufacturer, having extensive transactions with linen-drapers throughout the country. I dispose of a bale of goods to a trades-man; I invoice it to him, stating it to be of a certain quality and price, and representing it as an article which he may fairly expect to sell for a certain sum. At the end of half-a-year, my traveller—who is my ‘agent,’ similar to that of the landlord—goes round to the draper and says, ‘I have called for this account;’ presenting the invoice. The linen-draper replies, ‘Mr. Cobden sold me these goods, promising they were all sound, and they have turned out to be all tender: he stated they were fast colours, and they have every one proved to be fugitive. From what Mr. Cobden stated, I expected to get such-and-such a price, and I have only obtained so-and-so; and, consequently, have incurred a great loss by the sale of the article.’ Suppose my traveller—who, as I said before, is my ‘agent’—replied to the linendraper, ‘Yes, all which you have said is perfectly true; it has been a very bad bargain, and you have lost a great deal of money; but Mr. Cobden is a
real linendraper’s friend, and he will get a Committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the matter.’ Then, still following up the simile of the land-agent, if the commercial-traveller were to present his account, and say, ‘In the mean time, pay Mr. Cobden every farthing of that account, for if not, he has got another Act of Parliament, called the law of distress, by which he is enabled to come upon your stock, and clear off every farthing in payment of himself, although no other of your creditors should get a farthing; but, notwithstanding, Mr. Cobden is a real linendraper’s friend, and he will get a Committee of the House to inquire into the subject.’ That is precisely the mode in which farmers deal with their landlords. Do you think that linen-drapers would ever prosper if they dealt with manufacturers in that way? They would very soon find themselves where the farmers are, in fact, too often found—in the hands of an auctioneer, agent, or valuer. Linendrapers are too sagacious to manage their business in such a manner as that. I never will despair that the farmers—the real
bonâ fide tenant-farmers—of this country will not find out—I say they shall find it out, for we will repeat the fact so often that they shall know it—how they have been bamboozled and kept from the real grievances, the real bargains, and actual transactions by which they should govern their intercourse with landlords by this hocus-pocus of an Act of Parliament which professes to benefit them.
What is it that these political landlords tell the farmers at the present time to do? Is it to petition Parliament to give them anything different from what they now possess? They are in distress. Their labourers, numbers of them in every parish, are standing idle in the market-place, wanting work and getting none. They find themselves threatened with being devoured with poor-rates, and they cannot meet their half-year’s rent. What is it which the political landlords tell the farmers to do in order to remedy all these grievances? Present petitions to Parliament, praying them to keep things exactly as they are! That is really what the speeches at the protection meetings amount to. This attempt at deluding the farmers is a masterpiece of audacity compared with any previous pretext of the landlords; for in former times, when farmers were recommended to go to Parliament with a petition for a Committee to inquire into their condition, it was invariably with a view of discovering a remedy for their evils; but now all which these political impostors profess to do, is to persuade the farmers to keep themselves in the same downward course and hopeless state in which they at present find themselves. No, no; I do not despair that the farmers will yet find out this miserable delusion which has been practised upon them. The landlords tell me that at the meetings I have held in the counties I have not had the voice of the farmers with me. I am perfectly well aware that, in holding a meeting in a county town, even in the most purely rural district—such as Wiltshire and Dorsetshire—you cannot prevent the townspeople from assembling along with the farmers. I am quite ready to admit that many farmers may have attended those meetings without holding up their hands one way or the other. They came, however, and heard our statements, and that was all I wanted. But mark the inconsistency of these landlords: one day they come and tell me that the whole population of the agricultural districts,—the shopkeepers, mechanics, artisans,—that every man in a county town like Salisbury, for instance, depends upon the Corn-laws, and benefits by this protection; and then when, I say, I go down to such a place and take the voice of the community, including the tradesmen of the town as well as farmers and farmlabourers, they immediately separate that class of the community which consists of shopkeepers and residents in towns, and state, ‘We will not take their voices and votes as decisive in this matter,’ though they live in their own
county; but they say, ‘It is the farmers and farm-labourers who alone must be judges between us.’
There is one other argument which has also been employed, and which I did not expect to hear, even from a duke. I see that a noble duke tells the House of Lords that the Anti-Corn-law League wish to repeal the Corn-laws in order that they may reduce the wages of their workmen. He asserts that the price of corn governs the rate of wages in this country; that when bread is high wages are raised, and when it is low wages are depressed. I say, I did not expect ever to have heard this allegation made again, even in the House of Lords. Such, however, was the statement made in that assembly last night, but which was promptly met by our noble and patriotic friend Lord Radnor, who is always at his post. It requires a great amount of moral courage, in an atmosphere like that in which he was then sitting, in an assembly possessing very little sympathy for men holding patriotic views and taking an independent course, to take such a course as he has always taken; and yet that nobleman is always to be found in the right place; his courage never fails him; and I must say that he meets the noble dukes with their fallacies in a most clear and concise way, and puts his extinguisher upon them in a most admirable manner. Lord Radnor gave the noble duke an axiom which should always be borne in mind by you,—that if the labourer is already sunk so low in wages that he cannot subsist upon a less sum, that then the price of labour must rise and fall with the value of corn, because otherwise your labourers would starve and die off; that, in fact, where labour has reached its minimum, the labourer is treated upon precisely the same principle as a horse or beast of burden: the same quantity of bread is given to him in dear years as in cheap seasons; just in like manner as you would give as much oats to a horse when they were dear as you would when they were cheap, because it is necessary to do so in order to keep him in working condition, otherwise you would not obtain his labour. Now, what does this fact prove, except that the man is reduced to the condition of a slave, where the wages are not the result of a free bargain between the employer and the labourer, but where, like the negro in Cuba and Brazil, he has his rations served out to him—his red herring and rice—no more and no less, whatever its price may be.
But will they venture to tell us that this is the condition of the working classes in the manufacturing districts or in the metropolis? [A person in the pit: ‘Yes.’] I ask that man who answered ‘Yes,’ whether he ever knew an instance in London in which the price of labour followed the price of bread? [The person in the pit: ‘Yes, in the manufacturing districts.’] I said ‘in London.’ I will come to the manufacturing districts presently; but let us begin with the metropolis, for I see there are some persons here who require instruction upon this point. In 1839 and 1840 bread was nearly double in price that it was in 1835 and 1836; did the shoemakers, painters, tailors, masons, joiners, or any other operatives in London get an advance of wages in the dear years? Did the porters of London, even, obtain any increase of remuneration? You have in London 100,000 men employed in the capacity of porters in shops and warehouses, in the streets, or upon the river: did any of these 100,000 men ever hear in their lives, or their fathers before them, of wages rising along with the price of bread? What is the mode of proceeding in your Corporation? They fix the wages of many people, such as ticket-porters and watermen, and the rate of hackney-coach fares is also determined either by their orders or by Act of Parliament. Did you ever know of their being altered because there had been a change in the price of corn? Who ever heard of a man stepping into a boat and requesting to be rowed from Westminster to Blackfriars-bridge, and upon arriving at the latter place asking the waterman what his fare
was, and being told in reply, ‘Why, Sir, it is a dear year; the quartern loaf is up two-pence, and therefore we charge more than we did when bread was cheaper?’
As regards the manufacturing districts, I will tell you what the rule is there. You know that every word of what I am saying is taken down; and I am not speaking here to you only, but for publication, and, if untrue, refutation, in the north of England. If they can contradict my statement, there are plenty of good friends who would rejoice to do so; we have, perhaps, one of them now here—I do not think there are more—who would be glad, if he could, to pick a hole in my argument. I repeat here what was recently stated by Mr. Robert Gardner in Lancashire. That gentleman, be it remembered, is a Conservative; the treasurer of a fund for building ten churches in Manchester, and himself a subscriber of 1000
l. to that object; but who, on the Free-trade principle, nobly threw aside party, and at the last county election himself proposed Mr. Brown as a candidate for South Lancashire. What did Mr. Robert Gardner say? Bear in mind he is one of our largest and oldest manufacturers in Lancashire. He stated on the hustings there, in the midst of men of his own order, but of different political views, and who, therefore, would have denied his statement if they could have done so,—
‘I have been engaged extensively in this district for thirty years past, and I here state as the result of my experience, that, so far from the wages in this part of Lancashire rising and falling with the price of bread, that there never has been an instance during my experience when the bread has become dear and scarce, that wages and employment have not gone down; but whenever bread has become plentiful and provisions cheap, wages have as constantly risen, and employment has become more abundant.’
I quote that upon Mr. Gardner’s authority; but I pledge my reputation as a public man and private citizen of this country to the truth of what that gentle man has stated.
That these scandalous misstatements should have ever again been repeated, even in the House of Lords—that any one should have dared to venture upon such a worn-out, miserable fallacy—surpasses my comprehension. I say here, deliberately, that instead of the price of corn governing the rate of wages in the way our opponents state, so far as the north of England is concerned, the effect is the very opposite; and, therefore, to say that the Anti-Corn-law League wants a reduction in the price of food in order to reduce wages, and acts upon the supposition that wages can be reduced when food is cheap in the manufacturing districts, is to charge it with going contrary to all experience. I do not content myself with arguing upon possibilities. I am not a duke, you know, and therefore I cannot content myself, like a duke, with arguing always in the future tense, and saying what will happen, and then take it for granted that common plebeians must take my assertions for prophecy or argument; but I mention facts and experience, the only ground upon which fallible men can form a judgment of anything; and therefore I say, if the members of the Anti-Corn-law League who are manufacturers—although now a very small minority of that body are manufacturers, I am happy to say—but if those who are manufacturers want a repeal of the Corn-laws with the idea that to cheapen food would enable them to reduce wages, they are the most blind, and apparently the most besotted class of men that ever existed; for, if one may trust all experience, the effect of a free trade in corn must inevitably be to raise the money rate of wages in the north of England, at the same time that it will give to the working class their enjoyments, comforts, and the necessaries of life at a cheaper rate than they have hitherto had them.
You remember our first appearance in London in 1839 and 1840. You did not take much notice of us then: we were assembled in Brown’s Hotel in Palace
Yard, in a comparatively small room. The reception you then gave us was a very cold one. If you had then known as much about the Corn-laws as you do now, or rather if you had felt as keenly—for I believe that at that time you knew quite as much as your fellow-countrymen—if you had felt as you do now, I believe that by this time we should have had a repeal of the Corn-laws. What was the state of the north of England when we first came up to London? Bread was dear enough to please even his Grace of Richmond. Good wheat, such as Christians ought to consume, was selling at about 80
s. a quarter. What was then the condition of our manufacturing districts? Did we come up to London because we wanted labour cheapened, that we might get men out of the agricultural districts, and pull down their wages? Why, a large portion of our own population were in the workhouse or the streets wanting employment, and offering their labour at any rate. One-half the manufactories in Stockport were shut up; and men who were bred to skilful pursuits, worked upon the road at stonebreaking for 7
s. or 8
s. a week. Such was the state of things in the manufacturing districts when we first came to London. What was our object in coming here, and what remedy did we propose for that distress? By a free trade in corn to cheapen its price, to lower it materially from the price at which it then was—20
s. per quarter higher than it now is. Our object then was by this means to enable us to employ our people at good wages. If we had wanted to lower the price of labour, we should have come up to Parliament and asked your noble dukes and squires to keep on the Corn-law; for that was the most effectual way of doing it. No; in London and the manufacturing districts, in all your cities, large towns, and villages, mechanics and operatives, blacksmiths, carpenters, and every class of people, are above that state at which they have rations served out to them like the negroes in Brazil or Cuba: they are superior to that low condition when wages rise and fall with the price of food. If the Duke of Richmond tells me that agricultural labourers are in that state, then I say that this class has reached the lowest point of degradation which men, nominally free but really enslaved by circumstances, ever reached in any Christian country.
For myself, I repudiate the motives falsely attributed to us, of seeking by the repeal of the Corn-laws to reduce wages. I do not urge motive as argument, or as a ground for your confidence. We know nothing of men’s motives: they may often be the very worst when we suppose them to be the very best. I say, from the facts I have told you, that the effect of the repeal of the Corn-laws, if it cheapen the price of food, will be to lighten distress, and to give a demand for labour by extending our foreign trade. If it reduce the price of bread, looking to all past experience, the effect in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and all the manufacturing districts, must be to raise the money rate of wages; in London and the large towns of agricultural districts leaving the wages at least where they are now, seeing that wages do not follow the price of food; and it will give all the people the necessaries of life as cheap as by nature they were intended to enjoy them.
There was another duke, his Grace of Cleveland, who applauded a pamphlet written by Mr. Cayley, in which the writer has taken great liberties with Adam Smith—as Lord Kinnaird, I think, recently pointed out to you from this place. Mr. Cayley and his party have taken Adam Smith and tried to make him a protectionist, and they have done it in this manner: they took a passage, and with the scissors snipped and cut away at it, until by paring off the ends of sentences, and leaving out all the rest of the passage, they managed to make Adam Smith appear in some sense as a monopolist. When we referred to the volume itself, we found out their tricks, and exposed them. I tell you what their argument reminds me of. An anecdote is told of an atheist who once asserted that there was no God,
and said he would prove it from Scripture. He selected that passage from the Psalms which says, ‘The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.’ He then cut out the whole of the passage, except the words ‘there is no God,’ and brought it forward as proof of his statement. As the Dukes of Richmond and Cleveland have found out that there is such a work as that of Adam Smith, I wish they would just read the eighth chapter of his First Book, where he speaks of wages of labour. I will read an extract from it to you:—
‘The wages of labour do not, in Great Britain, fluctuate with the price of provisions. Wages vary everywhere from year to year, frequently from month to month. But in many places the money price of labour remains uniformly the same, sometimes for half a century together. If in these places, therefore, the labouring poor can maintain their families in dear years they must be at their ease in times of moderate plenty, and in affluence in those of extraordinary cheapness.’
But I will not confine myself to Adam Smith: I will neither take him nor any other writer, but will be guided by experience and facts within our own knowledge, and then we cannot go wrong. I do not think we need argue this matter here to-night; we have come together upon this occasion almost as for a leavetaking. We have had so many delightful meetings in this place, that I cannot help feeling regret that I should have heard our chairman whisper that our weekly meetings are drawing to a close. Depend upon it, we have given an impetus to this question, not merely in England; for in Europe, in America, and every part of the civilised globe, our meeting have excited the greatest attention.
I should not like that we should separate without a distinct enunciation of what our intention is, and, if opponents wish it, what our motives are. In the first place, we want free trade in corn, because we think it just; we ask for the abolition of all restriction upon that article, exclusively, simply because we believe that, if we obtain that, we shall get rid of all other monopolies without any trouble. We do not seek free trade in corn primarily for the purpose of purchasing it at a cheaper money-rate; we require it at the natural price of the world’s market, whether it becomes dearer with a free trade—as wool seems to be getting up now, after the abolition of the 1
d. a pound—or whether it is cheaper, it matters not to us, provided the people of this country have it at its natural price, and every source of supply is freely opened, as nature and nature. God intended it to be;—then, and then only, shall we be satisfied. If they come to motives, we state that we do not believe that free trade in corn will injure the farmer; we are convinced that it will benefit the tenant-farmer as much as any trader or manufacturer in the community. Neither do we believe it will injure the farm-labourer; we think it will enlarge the market for his labour, and give him an opportunity of finding employment, not only on the soil by the improvements which agriculturists must adopt, but that there will also be a general rise in wages from the increased demand for employment in the neighbouring towns, which will give young peasants an opportunity of choosing between the labour of the field and that of the towns. We do not expect that it will injure the land-owner, provided he looks merely to his pecuniary interest in the matter; we have no doubt it will interfere with his political despotism—that political union which now exists in the House of Commons, and to a certain extent also, though terribly shattered, in the counties of this country. We believe it might interfere with that; and that with free trade in corn men must look for political power rather by honest means—to the intelligence and love of their fellow-countrymen—than by the aid of this monopoly, which binds some men together by depressing and injuring their fellow-citizens. We are satisfied that those landowners who choose to adopt the improvement of their estates, and surrender mere political power by granting long leases to the farmers—who
are content to eschew some of their feudal privileges connected with vert and venison—I mean the feudal privileges of the chase—if they will increase the productiveness of their estates—if they choose to attend to their own business—then, I say, free trade in corn does not necessarily involve pecuniary injury to the landlords themselves.
If there be a class in the community who may be said to have a beneficial interest in the Corn-laws—to whom there would be no compensation from their repeal, if the price of corn were a little reduced—that class is the clergy of this country, and they alone. The Tithe Commutation Act has fixed their incomes at a certain number of quarters of corn per annum. Suppose a clergyman gets 200 quarters of corn for his tithe, if that corn fetch in the market 40
s. a quarter, it yields him as his annual stipend 400
l, as the produce of his tithe; but if the price of wheat be 50
s. a quarter, then the clergyman obtains 500
l. per annum, instead of 400
l. as formerly. I am willing to admit, that if the result of Free Trade causes a reduction in the price of corn to the amount of 10
s. per quarter—though I by no means use it as an argument—that it will be productive to him, upon such a supposition, of an uncompensated diminution of his income as a tithe-owner. He does not spend so much of his stipend in bread as to obtain from the decrease of its price compensation for the diminution of his income arising from the same source. But, I would ask, is this a right position for the clergy of this country to be placed in? Is it reasonable that they who pray for ‘cheapness and plenty’ should have an interest in maintaining scarcity and dearness? I will put it to the clergy of this country whether, with this one fact apparent to the world, they can, consistently with the retention of their character of respectability, be found in future assisting Anti-League meetings in upholding the Corn-laws? Why they would not be fit to sit upon a jury for the trial of the question; you might challenge them as interested parties, and they would, upon the commonest principles of justice, be excluded the box upon that ground. I appeal to them, as they love their own reputation, and for the sake of decency, at least to stand neutral upon the question: that is all I require of them.
We believe that Free Trade will increase the demand for labour of every kind, not merely of the mechanical classes and those engaged in laborious bodily occupations, but for clerks, shopmen and warehousemen, giving employment to all those youths whom you are so desirous of setting out in the world. O, how anxiously do fathers and mothers consult together upon this point! What letters do they write soliciting advice and assistance! I have frequently had such epistles addressed to me: ‘There is our boy, John, just come from school; he is now fifteen years of age; we do not know where to put him, every trade is so full, we’re quite at a loss what to do with him; we can get nothing from Government, for they give everything they have to bestow to the aristocracy.’
Finally, we believe that Free Trade will not diminish, but, on the contrary, increase the Queen’s revenue.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is our faith; these our objects; and this the ground upon which we stand. We believe that we are right: our opponents have acknowledged that we are so; they have confessed that our principles are true; and we will, therefore, stand by the justice of our system. Do not let us be disheartened by the apparent difficulty of our position: I never felt less discouragement in our cause than I do at this moment. Our labours for the next few months may not be quite so noisy as they have been; probably we have had too much talking; but if they are not so loud, be assured they shall be quite as efficient as any labours in which we have hitherto engaged upon this question. The registration throughout the country shall be well and systematically worked. In every locality where you may happen to mix, press upon your fellow-citizens the importance of watch
ing the registration, that your own and your neighbours’ names may be placed upon the register, and that you may strike off those irreclaimable monopolists who are not to be brought to the authority of reason upon this question. Let us attend diligently to this duty, and, if they will give us another registration or even another after that, I have no doubt we shall give a very different account of matters in the House of Commons.
One word more and I have done. In order to keep our question in its true position, do not let us be used, however we may be abused, by any of the existing political parties. I have no objection at all to an alliance, offensive and defensive, with anybody who adopts our principles; but if some men are engaged in the pursuit of one object, and we of another, do not let us think of shutting our eyes, and entering into an arrangement which promises to be a partnership, in which the very first step we take will find us diverging, the one going one way and the other another.
Political parties are breaking up in this country: I mean the old factions. There never was a period in the history of England when an attempt was made to carry on an opposition with a more intangible line of demarcation than that which separates Whig and Tory at the present moment. I venture to say, looking back upon the history of this country for two hundred years—to the time of Charles I., when party spirit ran so high that men drew their broadswords to decide political questions,—from that time down to the present there never has been a period when there was such an attempt to keep up an opposition against a party in power, without, apparently, one atom of principle or any one great public question on which to support an opposition. There are many other subjects which the politicians of this country take an interest in besides Free Trade; but for none of those questions has the Opposition, as led on now by one nominal chief, the support of the people out of doors. If we give up the ground we have taken upon the Free-trade principles, or surrender one iota of our principles, I know the temper and character of those who have nursed this agitation from its commencement, and by whom it is at this moment carried on, too well to doubt that, if there be the slightest evidence of anything which amounted to a compromise of our principles with any political party, that moment the right arm of every true friend of the League will be paralysed. I ask you, upon this occasion, whatever may happen in party papers, or be spoken in public against us, as Free Traders—and in no other capacity do I prefer the request—that you who have watched over this organisation, who have helped—as you have so continually done by your numbers—to sustain it with your sympathies,—I ask you, whatever you may see, notwithstanding anything which may be put out by a party press—the pens of whose writers are often guided by the intriguers of political faction—to apply but one test to us, namely, are we true as a League to the principles we advocate? If we are, depend upon it, whatever obstacles there may be, if we cling to that truth, we have only to persevere as men have ever done in all great and good objects, and it will be found, that being true to our principles, we shall go on to an ultimate and not very distant triumph.