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
I could not help thinking, as my friend the chairman (Mr. G. Wilson) was giving you those interesting and somewhat novel statistics, that I am following him at some disadvantage, inasmuch as I fear there is little chance of my being able to communicate anything so new, or even so agreeable, to you as he has done. He has just returned from the north, where he has been making up his accounts; I have just come from a Railway Committee, where I have been on the tread-wheel for the last three weeks—as much a prisoner as though I were in Newgate, and with the disadvantage of being conscious that I am in a place where there is more time wasted than even in that distinguished gaol. Yet even under the roof of St. Stephen’s there has been something of late passing of rather a cheering character, and I think I may say, I do bring good news from the House of Commons. It is not such a bad place, after all, especially for agitation. Last year we made a little mistake at the beginning of the session; we laid our heads together, and came to the conclusion that we could employ ourselves better out of doors in visiting come of the counties and rural districts, and agitating a little in the country; this year we have changed our tactics, and we thought that Parliament, after all, was the best place for agitating. You speak with a loud voice when talking on the floor of that House; you are heard all over the world, and, if you have anything to say that hits hard, it is a very long whip, and reaches all over the kingdom.
We determined to confine ourselves during this session to Parliament, and I think the result has shown that it is the best field for our labours. We brought forward a succession of motions. We began with one, in which we challenged our opponents to meet us in Committee and examine the farmers and landowners, to show what benefit the Corn-laws had done them; they refused our proposal,—and I have no doubt the country put the right interpretation upon their motives. Then my friend Mr. Bright, who is an active-minded man, looked about, and thought that, amongst all these burdens upon land, he did not think there was one greater than the game that was eating up its produce. He felt anxious, if possible, to point out to the landowners where they could find a margin in their account-books to turn a penny, and compensate themselves for repealing the Corn-laws by abolishing the Game-laws. And, therefore, he moved for his Committee, and was more lucky than I have been, for he has got it; and I have no doubt that in due time, when the secrets of that prison-house come out at the end of the session, he will be able to show you, from the mouths of the most intelligent farmers in the country, that there is one burden which they consider heavier than all their local taxes, county-rates, highway-rates, and even their poor-rates—and that is the burden of these excessive
game preserves. Then we had our friend Mr. Ward’s motion, by way of sweeping the ground clear for Mr. Villiers to pass over with his great annual motion. Mr. Ward proposed that they should give a Committee to inquire what was the amount of these special burdens of which we had heard so much, in order that we might compensate them, pay them off, and have done with them. They said they would not have any inquiry made into it.
Now, you who are Londoners know an old trick, called a `dodge,’ which is sometimes practised on the credulous and the philanthropic in your streets. A mendicant is sometimes seen walking about with his arm bandaged up; he has a special burden; it is a grievance, and he makes money by it. But sometimes, if one of the Mendicity Society’s officers come and ask him to let him undo the bandage to see what this special damage is, you find these artful dodgers very loth to comply. Now that is the case with our landlords—I mean the protectionist landlords—only the protectionists; they have been going about exciting the benevolent feelings of the community upon the plea that they are labouring under some serious disadvantage, or great and heavy burden; and when Mr. Ward comes forward and offers to undo the burden to let them go free, and take the bandage away, they are like the impostors in your streets—they take to their heels and run away.
Those were our motions in the House of Commons; that was our place of agitation: but I must admit that we have not done so much for our cause as has been done by our opponents. I must say that I think their motions, resolutions, and amendments have been of much more importance to us than anything we could have done. They had the great and immortal grease debate; and they brought forward their motion for the relief of farmers by repealing their local burdens;—and what do you think one of them was? I heard it with my own ears, or I would not have believed it—that in the maritime counties, where shipwrecks and accidents occur, dead bodies are washed on shore, and they have to hold inquests on them, and the expense is charged to the county-rate. Well, that is an argument of the great landed interest. Then came the annual debate, brought forward by Mr. Villiers with his accustomed talent and earnestness. Now, we heard a rumour in the House,—for these things are always known, because they are concocted at clubs—we always know what the dodge is in the House,—we heard a rumour, before the debate began, that they did not intend to have any discussion on the other side: it was determined they would not talk; and I believe, if my friend Mr. Villiers had not dexterously alluded in the course of his speech—pointedly alluded—to three of their county members in such a way that they were forced to stand up and speak,—I really believe not one of them would have opened his mouth. But, however, there were three or four of them that spoke. The most significant part of what they said was, as an Irishman would say, what they did not say. They did not say a word about the farmers upon this occasion; not a syllable about the farmers being interested in the Corn-laws. But what a change! Three or four years ago, to my knowledge, they talked of nothing else but the farmers; how they would stand by them, and how they came there to protect the interest of the tenant-farmers. I do not know whether it was our challenge to discuss that point in Committee, or whether it was from the fact that we happen to have some of the best and most extensive farmers with us,—for I find myself just now seated between Mr. Houghton on one side and Mr Lattimore on the other,—I do not know whether we may take credit to ourselves, or whether we ought to give the honour to our excellent agricultural friends who have come amongst us; but so it is, that nothing is now said in the House of Commons about the farmers having an interest in the Corn-laws; nothing is said about special burdens, for fear we should ask them to undo the bandage.
But the most significant part of that discussion was in the declarations of opinion by the leading men on both sides of the House—by Sir Robert Peel and Sir James Graham on one side, and Lord John Russell on the other. I was very curious to know what Sir James Graham would say upon the occasion. He had spoken a few nights before on Lord John Russell’s motion, and he then brought out in a most gratuitous manner,—I feel deeply indebted to him for it, though I did not see that it was quite relevant to the occasion,—but he then brought out voluntarily, from official sources, some of the most startling proofs that I have ever met with in my experience, showing the extensive evils, physically and morally, that arise from scarcity of food, and the great blessings that overspread the country when food is abundant and cheap. He showed, by the statistics of pauperism, crime, disease, and mortality, that all the best interests of our nature are indentified with an abundance of the first necessaries of life. My friend Mr. Villiers followed him, and with that promptitude for which he excels, and in which he has no rival, I would venture to say, in the House, he turned to account every fact that the Home Secretary had dropped, and applied them instantly and with immense force as proof of the truth of the doctrine which he had so long been arguing. And when my friend brought forward his motion a few nights afterwards, he again pinned the Home Secretary to the inference which naturally followed from the speech of the previous evening. I was curious to hear what Sir James Graham would say: I listened with great anxiety to what he would say to the public when he spoke upon the subject. I thought he must draw back a little, to please those who sat with blank faces behind him; but no: he got up and reiterated all he had said before. He stated that he did not withdraw one word of what he had uttered; that he did not recant one syllable of what he had said; that those were his principles, and he would abide by them.
Sir Robert Peel followed; and though he has been going at rather a quick pace lately—I hear somebody calling out ‘
Punch;‘ well, he is an admirable authority to quote—an excellent commentator, an admirable critic, is
Punch—he is never wrong, he is infallibly right:
Punch represented Sir R. Peel as going fast ahead of Lord John Russell on this occasion;—but I must say that, fast as he had been travelling before, he seemed now to have quickened his pace. What a contrast did the speech of Sir Robert Peel present to that which he delivered last year on the same occasion! Then everything was said for the purpose of conciliating the men behind and below him on the same benches; and everything that could be uttered was said to insult the Free-traders: but he had not then had the grease debate, nor had he found out the quality of the men then. He has had a twelvemonths’ experience: they have set up for themselves; they have found out their weakness, and, what is more, they have let Sir Robert Peel find it out also; and now he can afford to treat them as he likes. The right hon. Baronet tells them that he intends to carry out the principles of Free Trade gradually and cautiously; but still that they must be carried out.
We had Lord John Russell, and he voted with us. I wish he had done so without any qualification; but, however, as we have got him amongst us, I hope we shall amend him. Lord John Russell proposes a very little fixed duty; but in the same speech in which he propounds this, he tells us he does not approve of a tax on corn: he thinks it is one of the most objectionable taxes that could be raised. Then why does he propose it? He does not intend to keep it; he merely proposes it just to put those people in the wrong who refuse even to put a little tax on corn. I have no doubt next year he will give up that inconsistency, and will be in favour of total repeal.
Well, we came to our vote; and though we had the verdict in our favour, as far as words could convey it, the
votes were against us. But that cannot last long. In this country you must be governed by one of two methods; you must be ruled either by moral or physical force. Moral force means governing according to right principles, when those principles are acknowledged to be true. They may govern by a species of moral force when they can manage to persuade men that, while they are governing wrong, they are governing right; but you never can rule by moral force when you yourselves avow that you are carrying on principles which you believe to be unjust and untrue.
I think we ought to feel deeply indebted to such meetings as this, which have stood by this question; which have cheered on public men in its advocacy; which have aided in disseminating the knowledge that has gone forth from this vast building, in which we have brought the public mind on both sides so far to defer to the expression of public opinion as to show that they are bound to acknowledge the justice of our principles.
Now, there is but one universal opinion—that it is a question of time. Three or four years ago everybody used to tell me that it was a species of insanity to think of carrying this principle of total repeal. Now everybody says, ‘There is no doubt you will effect the total repeal; the only question is as to the time.’ We have narrowed the controversy; we have reduced it down to one little word. The whole question hinges upon one monosyllable—’when?’ I think the
Times newspaper put out a very fair challenge to the League of the day before yesterday, in a very beautiful article, in which it said we were called upon to argue this question upon that ground; to show the justice, expediency, and policy of our doctrine of ‘immediate repeal.’ I have no objection to answer that appeal; and in doing so, if I am matter-of-fact and dull, you must bear with me, and that patiently, because I shall be followed by those who can treat the subject with greater interest. Mark me, it is quite right, if I am to lay the basis of a matter-of-fact argument, that I should come first. I will be the heavy foundation-stone; and here behind me are the Corinthian capital and the gorgeous pedestal—the architectural beauties that are to grow upon this foundation. It is right, too, that we should have this kind of variety; because one of the boasts of the League is this, that we can find audiences such as could only be assembled in ancient Rome to witness the brutal conflicts of men, or that can now be found in Spain to witness the brutish conflicts of animals;—we can assemble multitudes as great to listen to the dry disquisitions of political economy.
That is our boast. Now to our argument. As Sir Robert Peel would say, ‘there are three ways of dealing with this question.’ Firstly, you may acknowledge the justice of the principles of total repeal, and you may defer it until it suits your party, or until circumstances compel you to abolish the Corn-laws totally and immediately. Secondly, you may abolish it gradually by a vanishing duty, putting an 8
s. tax, and sliding off 1
s. a year till it comes to nothing; that may be done by an Act of Parliament, and would involve the principle of a total repeal. Or, thirdly, you may adopt our principle of total and immediate repeal. Now, firstly of the first. The policy of our present Government appears to be this:—’We will acknowledge the principle; that will stave off debate. We could not meet them in debate if we did not acknowledge the principle; if we took the same ground as the Members for Essex, Somerset, and Sussex, we should be rolled over and over in the mud in debate by these Leaguers, and be hooted and hissed at the corners of the streets, when we walked out of the House.’ Well, they give up the principle of protection. But they say, ‘We will not apply our principle of Free Trade; we will tell them, this is not the time; and more, we will not tell them (we will take care of that) what is the time; that shall be as it suits our party.’ What would be found in the innermost hearts of these men? or, if you could get to their private conferences when they are behind the
scenes, what are they thinking about as to the repeal of the Corn-law? I know it as well as though I were in their hearts. It is this: they are all agreed that this Corn-law cannot be maintained—no, not a rag of it—during a period of scarcity prices, of a famine season, such as we had in 1839, 1840, and 1841. They know it. They are prepared, when such a time comes, to abolish the Corn-laws, and they have made up their minds to it. There is no doubt in the world of it. Is that statesmanlike, think you?
First, for the farmers. They have told them, with all the high authority that belongs to their life and station, that the Corn-laws will be abolished; they tell their tools, the papers, like Grandmamma, to deal out in their diurnal twaddle, the argument that if the Corn-laws are abolished the farmers would be ruined even if they paid no rent. That is the language of Grandmamma of to-day. That is the sort of slip-slop in answer to the admirable article in yesterday’s
Times. How does this work? In the first place, the farmers are told by Sir James Graham and Sir Robert Peel that the Corn-laws must be abolished and Free Trade be established; but it must be done gradually and cautiously. Now, I appeal to my friends Mr. Lattimore and Mr. Houghton, both experienced and able men, whether they could put the farmers in a more disadvantageous position than that in which they are now, under the pretence of benefiting them? They hang them up on the tenter-hooks of suspense. These party newspapers are alarming them with all sorts of raw-head-and-bloody-bone stories of what Free Trade is going to inflict on them; and the Prime Minister is telling them that, notwithstanding all that, he is prepared to carry out Free Trade. Nothing could be worse for the interests of the agriculturists, whether farmers or labourers—for the welfare of any class of capitalists, especially for one having such a vast amount of capital and so large an interest at stake as the farmers—to place them in the position which these pretended friends of theirs do by their present policy. Now, what is that policy morally? They will not deal with this question now, when they can do it calmly and deliberately: they wait for a period of excitement and clamour. They are calculating on repealing these Corn-laws some day when Palace-yard is crowded with famishing thousands. What is the effect morally of such a proceeding as that? It is to induce the belief among the people of this country, that moral influence has no effect whatever on their legislation. May they not, after such an example as that, appeal to their countrymen upon any future occasion, when a body of men shall be found willing to exert themselves through a period of years, as the League has done, to effect a great and benign change in our laws,—may they not appeal to such an example as that, and say, ‘What is the use of your agitation? or what is the use of your printing, passing resolutions, and sending petitions to Parliament? The League tried that for years; they persevered for seven, eight, or nine years; but when 10,000 people met in the street, called aloud in the voice of menace, and threatened with danger the persons of their legislators, then they yielded, but never dreamt of doing so till then.’
Now, the second plan of doing this work is the passing a fixed duty of 8
s., and diminishing it 1
s. every year. What is the effect of such a change as that on the farmers? They begin with a fixed duty of 8
s., or any sum you please. The farmer is told by the land-agent or by the landlord himself, ‘Well, we have passed a duty of 8
s., but you know you have only been getting an average protection of 6
s. or 7
s. for the last ten years for corn imported; we must try and see what the effect of this will be. We need not talk anything about game-laws, under-draining, sub-soil ploughing, clearing away these hedge-rows, or adjusting rents: wait and see how this law operates.’ The consequence is, nothing is done, but all must wait. The farmer goes on; next rent-day comes; the landlord or his agent says, ‘Well, Farmer Hobbins, I don’t think much harm is done by this change
in the Corn-laws: it does not seem to have been of so much good to us, after all. We will wait a year or two; I don’t think there will be much harm.’ And so nothing is done: the farmer goes on, in the mean time, exerting himself to meet the coming danger which is apprehended when duty is low. What is going on abroad in the mean time? Why, the foreigner is told, as soon as that 8
s. duty comes down to 2
s. to 3
s., then there will be a wide door opened for grain in England. The foreigner is induced to increase the production every year more and more, expecting to find a market, and when the low duty does come, he is prepared to pour into this country corn, swamping the farmer at the end of this seven or eight years, just as he is now swamped in the month of May or June by an inundation of corn under this sliding scale.
Then we come to our principle of total and immediate repeal. In answer to the word ‘when,’ we say ‘now. The landlord says it will create a panic, and, in order that that argument may not wear out, they set their newspaper organs to frighten the farmers and keep the argument alive. Well, but what is there to be feared from this total and immediate repeal? We are told there are vast quantities of corn lying somewhere abroad ready to be poured into this market when we repeal the Corn-laws. I think this argument was dealt with so admirably by the
Times newspaper, that I will just read an extract from its columns of the day before yesterday:—
‘Count up every quarter of corn in every one of earth’s richest granaries; track all her winding shores, penetrate every creek and every stream; measure every diluvial delta and every sheltered valley, the natural fertility of the plains and the artificial productiveness of the hills; take the sum of all the warehouses, all the heaps, and all the standing crops; and we entertain no doubt whatever that reasonable and candid men will be astonished above measure at the “universal nakedness of the land.” The Baltic and the Euxine, the Gulf of Genoa, the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, and even the rivers that flow under our feet, are names of terror to some minds, as if they flowed with corn. But rivers of corn are as pure and impossible a fiction as rivers of gold. Once you begin to investigate, to measure, and to count, you find the most formidable accumulations dwindle into a few months’ or a few weeks’ sustenance for such living and growing multitudes as London, Manchester, or Glasgow. There is not too much corn on earth, nor will there ever be till the saddest and awfullest words that ever were spoken are finally unsaid, which they never will be in this mortal world.’
Now, there is the profoundest philosophy presented in all the charms of poetic language. But I like to go to experience: I never like to deal in the future, or to argue on what will happen; but let us take the lights of experience to guide us in our paths for the future. We have had occasions in this country, when we have had as sudden a demand for corn all over the world for this country as though we had a total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws. In 1839, 1840, and 1841, during all those three years, the average price of corn in this country was 67
s. We ransacked the world for corn during those three years; our merchants sent everywhere for it; we swept over the face of the earth, bribing every nation to send their corn to this rich market, and gain this high price for their produce. I will give you a list of places from which we received corn in one year during that period: from Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Prussia, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Italy, Malta, Ionian Islands, Turkey, Egypt, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Morocco, Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius, East India Company’s territory, Australia, Canada, United States, Chili, and Peru. Every region on the face of the globe—Europe, Asia, America, Africa, and even Australia—were ransacked for corn. How much do you think we got in the course of that year,—bribing the nations of the earth with the high price of 67
s. a quarter? In 1839 we received in wheat and flour together equivalent to 2,875,605 quarters,
about one-eighth of the annual consumption of the wheat of this country. In 1840, when we had given them a year’s stimulus, the imports were 2,432,765 quarters of corn. In 1841, 2,783,602 quarters. During those three years we imported 8,091,972 quarters, being an average each year of 2,700,000 quarters. Now, mark me, that corn was sent out for by our merchants with a knowledge that the price in this country for corn was nearly 70
s. a quarter, and was brought here with the belief and under the conviction that every quarter of it would be admitted into this country under a 1
s. duty. There was, therefore, during those three years virtually a total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws; and you see the result in the supply for this market.
Now, we say, pass an Act for the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws, and you do not put us in the same position that we were in during those years in stimulating other countries to send us corn; for now our corn is 46
s. a quarter instead of 67
s., as it was then; and, therefore, if you were not inundated with corn in those dear seasons, where is the corn to come from that is to inundate you now? No; there is no such thing as a store of corn abroad in the world; there is no provision made by people for a contingency that they do not expect to arise. There is no cultivator on the face of the earth that has ever put a plough into the ground, or a yoke upon his horse, with the idea of producing one bushel of wheat in order to meet the demands of this country consequent on the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws. There is no stock abroad, therefore no supply, except that which has been provided for a known and expected market; and if we repealed our Corn-law to-morrow, there is literally not a quarter of wheat provided in order to meet the demands in consequence of such an abolition of our Corn-laws.
But it is our opponents who want to introduce an unnatural and artificial inundation of corn in this market: they, by withholding the time, by promising that it shall come, by telling foreigners abroad that when it does come they can compete with our farmers, though they do not pay a shilling of rent,—or, who say to the foreigners, ‘Wait until Sir Robert Peel is pressed on by the cry of distress to repeal the Corn-laws, and then you may supply all England with corn, for our farmers cannot compete with you,’—those are the men who are inviting this inundation of corn; who, not content with circulating fallacies at home, are trying to spread delusion through the Ukraine and in the valley of the Mississippi, over all the face of the habitable globe, and wherever their false and delusive fallacies can reach.
I have argued this question as though there were only farmers concerned in it; I have dealt with it with a view to the interests of the parties supposed to be likely to be injured by it: but are there no other parties to this question? Why do we advocate the removal of this bad law?—because it is destructive to the interests of the great body of the people. This movement has not taken place—this agitation has not had its origin or been sustained by the vast proportion of the intelligent and humane population of this country, because it is an error in political economy—it is opposed because the Corn-law is intended to restrict the supply of the food of this country and to put the nation on short commons. That is why we oppose this Corn-law; and we do so in the name, not merely of farmers and landowners, but of the great body of the people.
If we can show that the law is unjust as respects the interests of the great majority of the people, then, though its total and immediate repeal did involve injury to that class for whose benefit it has been unjustly maintained, it is not an argument that would weigh one instant with me in opposing its total repeal. Who ever said this law was passed for the great body of the people of this country? We have never heard any attempt to show that. We have heard it urged that it was good for the landlords, to compensate them for the peculiar bur
dens that I have described just now; but you know we have found out that that was an imposture: we sent the Mendicity Society officer after them. We have heard it maintained that it was for the benefit of the farmer; but farmers are only 250,000 people out of the 27,000,000 inhabitants of these islands; that is their proportion in Great Britain; but who ever heard them argue that it was for the benefit of the great body of the people? They have given up that case, when they say the law ought to be abolished at some time; for I maintain that if this law, which has been in existence for the last thirty years, is not a law for the benefit of the people, they never ought to have passed it; and it is a shame to themselves, and they ought to hide their faces for ever, for having maintained it, if it is not for the benefit of the great body of the people.
I say, if it is not for their benefit—and it never was—why on earth should they come forward and say that it should ever be repealed? And if it is to be repealed at all, I say, let it be repealed immediately, as it is an unjust law. They may set up other interests. I believe Sir R. Peel is frequently talking of a due consideration to the great and important interests that have grown up under this law. I plead for the vastly greater and more important interests that have been crushed to the earth under this law. If they want any proof of this, I bring their own Home Secretary, with his Prison Report and the statistical tables, into the witness-box, to prove what the law has done. Now, then, for the sake of that class—the most numerous of all—for the sake of all the unprivileged classes of this country—I plead for the total and immediate repeal of this Corn-law. I do it upon the ground of expediency, as being better at this moment than any other time in which you could repeal the law. I do it on the ground of justice, because I say, if it is not a good law you have not a right to retain it one instant.
What will be the effect on the great body of the people when the time comes at which we believe Government contemplate the repeal of the Corn-law? They are going to repeal it, as I told you—mark my words—at a season of distress. That distress may come; ay, three weeks of showery weather when the wheat is in bloom or ripening would repeal these Corn-laws. But how? We had a taste of it in 1839, 1840, and 1841. Are the people of this country to be subjected to another ordeal before this Corn-law is repealed? What provision is made against that calamity? For here is probably the most important consideration for us at the present moment. Divine Providence has repealed the Corn-laws for this year by an abundance at home. He has in a great degree repealed the Corn-laws; but He has not given us the benefit we should have if we had an unlimited range over all which He designed for the good of His creatures over this earth’s fair surface; but still we have a mitigation by His bounty of the rigours of the landowners’ Corn-law.
Suppose another such reverse to take place as we have witnessed in this country within the last six years—such a revolution as the youngest man amongst us has beheld during the period of his life—or supposing it to come this year, what provision is made against such a calamity? I have told you how much corn could be got here in 1839 after our failing harvest of 1838; but there is no such supply available now, as those nations are increasing in numbers along the whole of the maritime districts of Europe. They are wanting more and more of the corn of the interior. The Atlantic States of America are increasing, and consuming more and more of the corn of their interior; and we offer them no inducement to spread themselves out from the cities—to abandon their premature manufactures—in order to delve, dig, and plough for us; and they are more and more in a condition to consume all that they produce.
I heard in the House of Commons, from Mr. Mitchell, a gentleman himself practically acquainted with the subject, who in an admirable speech that riveted
the attention—as all practical speeches in that place do, where men will content themselves with speaking only upon what they do understand—I say, in an address which riveted the attention of every one in that House, Mr. Mitchell exposed the bankrupt condition of this country, so far as its future provision of food goes, looking to the whole world as our resource. We have now 300,000 quarters of foreign corn in this country. Where is the supply to come from? Ought we to be called upon to answer that question? No! but it ought to be answered by our Government. That is a question which ought to be thrust upon them. I do not believe they have nerve enough to bear the responsibility that will be cast upon their shoulders, if that argument is pressed upon them.
Then look at the position in which our unprivileged middle classes and capitalists will be placed, as well as the poor, who first suffer from famine, for want of bread. They are not allowed to starve in this country: they have a right to claim relief, and justly so, from those above them; and, if you have a scarcity, it is the middle classes who will have to support the lower and working classes, and at the same time maintain themselves, with a very inferior business to do it with. Look at our capitalists spreading out their wings. Go down to the House of Commons; look into the lobbies; go into one of those groups where I have the misfortune to be at present. There they are contemplating railways all over the length and breadth of the land. What would be the effect of a bad harvest upon those men who have subscribed their thousands and tens of thousands to some new railway scheme, and have signed the parliamentary contract? It is all very fine and plain sailing now when everything is at a premium, everything is up; get shares to-day, sell them to-morrow, pay for them the next day, and get 20 per cent. But these shares will be held by somebody; and if we have a failing harvest, whenever it comes, then the day of reckoning for the holders of these shares and scrips will arrive. I would advise every speculator in railway shares to keep a sharp eye on the barometer. He should take in two papers—a railway paper, and the
Mark-lane Express; and when he has seen the price of shares, then let him go and observe the price of wheat in Mark-lane. But if a bad harvest comes, and a rise in prices takes place, they are a class that will suffer; and not merely they and their families, but it will entail misery and disasters on every section of the community. Now, these are the points that I want to see urged upon the Government at the present moment. Throw on the Government—as a Government, do not let us be misunderstood—throw on them the whole of the responsibility of this state of things.
That is about the completion of my case at present in favour of the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws. As the lawyers say,—’Gentlemen, that is my case.’ But I want to know, if there is nothing to be said in answer to this, why we should not carry the repeal of the Corn-laws, and carry it now? It is merely partisanship. These men cannot make up their minds to admit that they may have been wrong at some former time. What I want to do is this,—to open a door as wide as possible for the conversion—the avowed conversion—of our opponents. I wish we could burn
Hansard, and all the debates that have ever taken place, in order to let these statesmen be at liberty to adopt a new course of policy, dictated by their present convictions. But they are afraid of being taunted with having said something different before from what they are ready to say now. We have all said something different before from what we have said now. Have we not all grown wiser? Have we not all learned something by the discussions for seven years? I want to see these men get up in the House of Commons and avow that they have learned something by our discussions in that assembly. I set myself up to teach people years ago; I have been learning more than anybody else every
day since; and why should not they make that frank and free admission? If they would make an admission and make a clean breast, and confess that they did not know so much formerly as they do now, they would never be taunted afterwards.
I have only one word to say, before I sit down, upon another subject. I want to see the people of this country feel alive to the ensuing registration. This next registration will, in all probability, decide the fate of the Corn-laws. Most likely we shall have a dissolution next year. I want every man to make that his business as much as he makes his ledger or his counter his business—every man who is convinced that the Corn-law ought to be abolished to feel it his paramount duty to look after his votes and the votes of his neighbours before the next registration. The work begins on the 20th of this month for the counties. This is the time for men to look after their own votes, and to find everybody else they can that have got votes and will support Free Trade. There is another duty: there are a great number of bad votes on the list for counties. Some say we want to disfranchise the people. I do not want to disfranchise any one; but this I do say, that if we are to fight fairly we must fight on equal terms. If we put on false votes, our opponents strike them off: we cannot fight them with our legal votes against their illegal votes, and, therefore, we must strike them off.
I have no hesitation in telling you that there are counties where there are many bad votes. I will be bound to say that in Buckinghamshire, for instance, you will find at the very least 1,000. I have heard competent people give a surmise that there are 2,000 spurious votes on the register in that county. There they are; nobody looks after them; nobody ever thinks of going and objecting to them. Everybody is afraid, because they hear there is some man they call the Duke of Buckingham. Why, if they would only consider these things a little more rationally, they would see that the Duke of Buckingham, as I assure you, is not a more formidable man in the registration court than any of you here. You, who are Leaguers, consider yourselves as united with a body that can protect you morally, legally, and pecuniarily, against 150 dozen Dukes of Buckingham.
Now, there is East Surrey; what a scandal it will be if that county should return two monopolists at its next election! There is not one man in 100 in Southwark and Lambeth that is upon county lists, and yet, if you go down into the agricultural districts, you will find one in 30 or 40. It is one in 30 in the agricultural parts of East Surrey, but only one in 100 in the metropolitan districts. I say it is the duty of every man to get himself on the list, and his neighbours likewise. There are thousands, I believe, qualified to be there who have not thought of it: it will be a scandal to the people on that side of the river if they do not see to this. We will take care of Middlesex; we have it in hand, and will look after it. There are a few more counties which we will give you a good account of in due time. I do not consider any county hopeless.
I will tell you that we have something else in view besides registration: we will apply our organisation to contesting counties as well as registration. Why should not the principle of co-operation that we have exercised so long and so usefully be carried out in the work of contesting counties where there is a chance of winning them? Why not have in each parish in every populous county an earnest man who will devote himself, as far as he can, to bringing persons to vote, and appealing to their patriotism and good feeling to vote, without putting the candidate to one shilling expense? I say we can contest counties, ay, at one per cent. of the expense of that which it costs our opponents, if we adopt our organisation. How can monopolists contest a county without expense? What motives can they appeal to? Where is their organ
isation? It is gone. They are all backbiting each other in their counties. One of their Members is accused of voting with Sir Robert Peel, and another voting against him. When they meet in Committee they are all pulling each other to pieces just like so many village gossips.
Bear in mind that the League has a plan in store, by which we intend to prepare the counties and to contest them; and I entreat from this place every man interested in this question, that he will make it his paramount duty, from this time, for the next two months, to give his attention to the subject of registration. If we do this, we shall totally repeal the Corn-laws yet, before a famine comes. In doing so, you will set a glorious example to all future times of the way in which such questions ought to be carried. I really hardly regret, though it has been attended with very heavy sacrifice, that the agitation has lasted so long. If we had carried the repeal of the Corn-laws by a multitudinous shout in 1839, 1840, and 1841, it would have been something like yielding to brute force and clamour; but now, besides the advantage of repealing the Corn-laws—our agitation will have been attended with many other advantages. We have been teaching the people of this country something more, I hope, than the repeal of the Corn-laws.
We have taught the farmers, I trust, to begin to think for themselves; we have made landlords and farmers think of improving their lands; we have taught the middle classes, I hope, that they have a moral power, if they choose to exercise it, and a power of applying it as great as the monopolists, if they will avail themselves of it; but I hope, in addition, that we shall set an example of truth to the working classes, showing them that these questions can be carried by moral means, and that, if they will accomplish anything for their benefit, then they will adopt precisely the same organisation which we have before done to accomplish our object.