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
[On Jan. 27, 1846, Sir Robert Peel announced the policy of the Government on the Corn-laws. In three years they were to be repealed. From the passing of the Act, and until Feb. 1, 1849, the maximum duty was to be 10
s., which could be levied when corn was under 48
s., but should diminish by a shilling per quarter till the price reached 53
s., when it should remain at 4
s. The duty on barley and oats were to be proportionate; colonial corn to be free, and maize only at a nominal duty. The debate on this proposal lasted twelve nights, and the resolutions were carried on Feb. 27 by a majority of 97 (337 to 240). On June 23, 1846, the Corn Importation Bill was passed in the House of Lords, without a division; and on the same day, Sir Robert Peel’s Ministry was defeated on an Irish Coercion Bill, by a majority of 73 (292 to 219).]
I assure the House that it is impossible for me to trespass long upon their notice, but I am anxious to say a few words before the close of this long debate. I have had the good, or the ill, fortune, to listen to many debates upon this subject in this House; and although it has not been my fortune to listen to this, at all events I have had the pleasure of perusing every word of it.
On former occasions I have had to complain, that although the great object and purpose of the Anti-Corn-law motion was to discuss the principle of the Corn-laws, yet that hon. Gentlemen always evaded the question, and tried to discuss every other rather than the particular question before the House; but however much I may have had to complain of that on former occasions, I think it will be admitted that extraneous matter has been introduced into this debate by hon. Gentlemen opposite to a much greater extent than before. It appears to me that one half of the debate has turned upon the conduct of her Majesty’s Ministers, and nearly the whole of the other upon the necessity of a dissolution and an appeal to the country. Now, though there may be ground—I will not say there may be just ground—for hon. Gentlemen below the gangway assailing the Ministers for the course they have pursued, yet the country, I assure them, will not sympathise with them in their quarrel with their leaders, nor will it be without some suspicion that the quarrel has been got up to avoid a discussion of principle; for I wish you to bear in mind that, on former occasions, by similar means, hon. Gentlemen did try to avoid that discussion. In 1841 they denounced the leaders of the Whigs as furiously as they denounce the leaders of their own party now; and when I came into Parliament, in the spring of 1841, I must say that I myself, and the members of the Anti-Corn-law League, were as much the objects of their vituperation as the Ministers are
now. The country, therefore, will not sympathise with them; and, on the other hand, it will learn whether or not they have introduced these personal topics because they cannot justify the present law.
Now, if hon. Gentlemen opposite have any fear that their present leaders contemplate, after the repeal of the Corn-laws, doing something else which they may think injurious to their party interests, I beg to assure them that they are taking the most effectual means of arming the present Ministers with the power of accomplishing something else, if they wish it; for the more they attack them—the more obloquy they load them with—the more will the country sympathise with them out of doors. Why, you are making the present Ministry the most popular men in the country. If the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Treasury were to go into the manufacturing districts of the north, his journey would be one continued triumph. The right hon. Home Secretary was not personally very popular two or three years ago. It is a difficult thing for a Home Secretary in troublesome times to become popular; but the magnificent contribution the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) has given to our good cause, by his able speeches and authoritative statements of facts, has sunk deep into the mind of the country; and, spite of the martyrdom you are inflicting upon him, he has rendered himself so popular that I do not think we could parade any one in Manchester or Liverpool who would meet with a more cordial reception. I do not think you (the protectionists) are pursuing a good party course. I think you are as badly off, on the score of good judgment and tactics, as ever you were.
I will now, however, draw your attention to the second topic to which I have referred, and which is of still more importance. If I understand your position rightly, it is this—you say, ‘We wish for an appeal to the country; if the country decides that Free Trade shall be the national policy, we will bow to that decision. I believe I am fairly interpreting your meaning. I tell you then, in the first place, that if you are believers in the truth and justice of your principles, you are unworthy advocates of those principles if you would think of abandoning them on such grounds. If you believe in the truth of your principles, you should not bow to the decision of a temporary majority of this House. When I came into Parliament, in 1841, I met you with a majority of 91 in your favour. Did I then bow to that majority, and submit to the Corn-law? No; I said I would never cease my exertions till you abrogated that law. If you have confidence in the truth and justice of your principles, you should use the same language. You should say, ‘It is not one defeat that shall make us abandon those great principles, which we consider essential to the welfare and prosperity of the great mass of the people. No; if we are thrown to the ground now, we will spring up with renewed determination and vigour.’ You may ‘Yes, yes,’ that sentiment, but you have already told me, by your cheers, that you do not intend to do anything of the kind; and I am conscientiously of opinion that you are unbelievers in the doctrines you advocate.
But I will assume that you carry out your principles; that you can force a dissolution; and to this point I wish particularly to draw your attention, and, what is of still more importance, the attention of persons in another place. We have had some pretty frank allusions—especially in the peroration of the speech of the hon. Member for Dorsetshire—to what is to be done in another place, where there is no representative of the middle classes—no merchant, no manufacturer, no spinner, no farmer. In that other place, however, what I now say on the subject of a dissolution may probably be read. You want a dissolution in order to ascertain the opinion of the country. Have you ever thought, or considered, or defined what ‘the opinion of the country’ means? Do you think it means a numerical majority
of this House? We shall have that to-night. You are not satisfied with that. You are preaching the democratic doctrine, that this question must be referred to the people. Now I want to have well defined what you mean by ‘public opinion.’ You will perhaps say, ‘We will abide by the decision of a numerical majority in this House,’ and you will consider that the decision of the country.
Well, I totally disagree with all those who consider for a moment that you would obtain a numerical majority in this House in the event of a dissolution. I ought to know as much about the state of the representation of this country, and of the registration, as any man in the House. Probably no one has given so much attention to that question as I have done; and I distinctly deny that you have the slightest probability of gaining a numerical majority in this House, if a dissolution took place tomorrow. Now, I would not have said this three months ago; on the contrary, at a public meeting three months ago I distinctly recognised the great probability of a dissolution, in consequence of your having a numerical majority. But your party is broken up. Though you may still have a firm phalanx in Dorsetshire and Buckinghamshire, what has been the effect of the separation from you of the most authoritative and intelligent of your friends? What has been the effect, also, of the defection in the boroughs, and among the population of the north?
I told you, three years ago, that the Conservatives in the towns in the north of England were not the followers of the Duke of Richmond. They were, almost to a man, the followers of that section of the Government represented by the First Lord of the Treasury and the right hon. Home Secretary. Every one acquainted with the towns in the north of England will bear me out when I say that those Conservatives who follow the right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) comprise at least four-fifths of the party, while the remaining one-fifth look up to the Duke of Richmond as their leader, and sympathise with the section below the gangway. That large portion of the Conservative party in the north of England has ever been in favour of Free Trade. The language they have used to Free-traders like myself has been this:—’Sir Robert Peel will do it at the proper time. We have confidence in him, and, when the proper period arrives, he will give us Free Trade.’ Then, I say, that in this state of your party I wholly deny the possibility of your gaining a numerical majority.
But I will assume, for the sake of argument, that, in the event of a dissolution of Parliament, you obtained a numerical majority: let us see of what that majority and the minority opposed to you would consist. There are eighteen Representatives in Parliament for this metropolis, and there are two Members for the metropolitan county. We have the whole twenty. They represent 110,000 electors; they represent a population of 2,000,000 of souls. They are the most intelligent, the most wealthy, the most orderly, and, notwithstanding my acquaintance with the business habits of those in the north of England, I must add, with respect to business and mechanical life, the hardest-working people in England. Do those people express public opinion think you? Why, this metropolis assumed to itself, centuries ago, the power and privilege of closing its gates in the face of its Sovereign—a power which is still retained, and which is exercised on State occasions. This metropolis is now twenty times as populous, twenty times as wealthy, twenty times as important in the world’s eye as it was then; and do you think it will be content that you count it as nothing in your estimate of public opinion?
But turn elsewhere. What says the metropolis of Scotland, Edinburgh? Do you reckon on having a Member for that city to vote in the glorious majority you anticipate? Turn to Dublin. Will you have a Representative for that city with you? Go to Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and Liverpool; take
every town containing 20,000 inhabitants, and I defy you to show that you can reckon on a single Representative for any town in the kingdom which has a population of 20,000, or, at all events, of 25,000. I tell you that you have not with you now a town containing 25,000 inhabitants in Great Britain. No, no, no; you have neither Liverpool nor Bristol. That shows you have not weighed these matters as you are bound to weigh them. Do not be led away by the men who cheer and halloo here, like the school-boy whistling in the church-yard to keep up his courage. Examine these facts, for your leaders that were have weighed them already; and there are none among you deserving to be your leaders, unless they have well considered these important matters.
I repeat that you cannot reckon upon any town of 25,000 inhabitants sending up a Representative to vote with the great majority you expect to obtain. True, you will have your pocket boroughs, and your nomination counties. And I will say a word or two directly as to the county representation; but I now place before you broadly the situation in which you will find yourselves after a dissolution. I will assume that you have a majority, derived from pocket boroughs and nomination counties, of twenty or thirty Members. But on this side you will see the Representatives for London, for South Lancashire, for West Yorkshire, for North Cheshire, for North Lancashire, and the Members for all the large towns of Scotland—nay, not one Member will come from any town in Scotland to vote with you.
Now, what would then be your situation? Why, you would shrink aghast from the position in which you would find yourselves. There would be more defections from your ranks, pledged as you are—steeped to the chin in pledges. So much alarmed would you be at your position, that you would cross the floor to join us in larger numbers than you have ever yet done. I tell you, there would be no safety for you without it. I say that the Members who came up under such circumstances to maintain the Corn-laws, from your Ripons and Stamfords, Woodstocks and Marlboroughs, would hold those opinions only until they found out what has been determined by public opinion. They would not hold them one week longer; for if the country found that they would not give way to moral force, they might think it requisite to place them in another Schedule A. Had there been such an amount of public opinion, as now exists in favour of the repeal of the Corn-laws, in support of Charles Stuart in 1745, the dynasty of the Stuarts would now have occupied the throne of these realms. That amount of public opinion is sufficient to change the constitution of this country; to alter your forms of Government; to do anything, in short, that public opinion is determined to effect.
But you may probably tell me, that though we have the electors of the great constituencies I have mentioned in our favour, the great mass of the people are not with us. That is a rather democratic sentiment. You never heard me quote the superior judgment of the working classes in any deliberations in this assembly. You never heard me cant about the superior claims of the working classes to arbitrate on this great question; but you say the mass of the people are not with us. What evidence is there that this is the case? Will you shut your eyes to proofs? Will you go blindfold against a stone wall? You say the petitions presented to this House have not been honestly signed. I cannot disprove that assertion: it must go for what it is worth; but we have ten times as many signatures to our petitions for Corn-law repeal as you have to your protection petitions. You may assume that the signatures to those petitions are fictitious. Do so, if you please. I will give you another test: I will challenge you to the old Saxon mode of ascertaining what are the opinions of the country, by calling public meetings. Now, if you really entertain democratic opinions, this is the way in which to elevate the working man to an equality with his
master—ay, to an equality with the Peer of the realm. Bringing them out into public assemblies, where every man has an equal vote—assemblies which make laws for the conduct of their own proceedings, and elect their own chairman. Call your public meetings to support the Corn-laws. I challenge you to call one anywhere. Why, it is not in the manufacturing districts alone that meetings have been held since the 1st of November last. Public meetings convened by the authorities have been held in every large town—meetings not confined to a particular class, or consisting of men pledged to particular opinions, but convened to determine, ay or no, whether the people should petition for Free Trade or not. These meetings have not been confined to the manufacturing districts alone; they have been held at Exeter, Brighton, and Oxford, and the opinion of the people was as unanimous at those places as at Bolton, Stockport, and Manchester. Now, cannot you call a public meeting and test the opinions of the people? Would not one meeting, at all events, be something like a proof that you are practical men, and not disposed to be misled by the chimeras of those hot-headed, halfwitted people, who try to deceive you?
I have seen some of your notices calling protection meetings. One was forwarded to me from Epworth in Lancashire, by a gentleman who complained that the notice was so framed that protectionists only could attend, and that no amendment could be proposed. Why, in the purely agricultural district of Haddingtonshire, in the centre of the Lothians, a protection meeting was called about six weeks ago. All the neighbouring nobility and landed proprietors attended; they talked of the British Lion, and of the nation being with them. Soon after, another meeting was held, to petition for the repeal of the Corn-laws. The protectionists fled from the room, the largest room in the place; but it was quite full without them, and resolutions in favour of repeal were adopted. Was this evidence of public opinion? Was it not? Then what will teach you what public opinion is? Must you be tossed in a blanket? Must you be swept out of this House into the Thames? What must be done to convince you that the feeling of the nation is not with you? You will be abandoned to fatuity and destruction if you are left to persons who have so little mercy upon you as to delude you on this question.
I said that I would refer to the county representation. You are pluming yourselves on the result of the recent county elections, and you are reckoning, no doubt, on the attainment of great strength from your purely agricultural counties in the event of a dissolution; but I beg to remind hon. Gentlemen that the county representation under the 50
l. tenant-at-will clause of the Reform Act is not the old county representation. We never heard twenty years ago of requisitions being got up to candidates by tenant-farmers. The requisitions were then got up by freeholders. You introduced into the Reform Act, by a great mistake on the part of those who then had the power to have prevented it, a clause innovating on the old constitutional custom, and giving tenants-at-will a vote for counties. Do you mean to tell me that the votes of these tenants-at-will are an evidence of public opinion? We heard a definition of tenant-at-will votes, which, with the permission of the House, I will read. The hon. Member for Dorsetshire (and I congratulate the Free Traders on his advent here), told us with great
‘He [Mr. Seymer], with his hon. colleague, came forward at the recent election for Dorset, in consequence of a requisition signed by the great body of the tenant-farmers. Three or four of the largest properties in the county were in the hands of Free-traders, and naturally the tenants on those estates held back, and refused to sign the requisition, till they knew what were the wishes of their landlords; for it was notorious that English tenants generally wished to consult the feelings of their landlords. He did not think tenants to blame for that. Knowing that their land
lords were Free-traders, the tenants in question made inquiry, previous to signing, whether those landlords would object to their taking the course their consciences dictated; the landowners, very much to their credit, said, that this being a farmer’s question, they would not interfere; and then, almost without exception, the farmers on those properties signed the requisition.’
Yes, yes; it is all very well for those who get the consent of their landlords to vote, but recollect what the hon. Gentleman says at the commencement of his remarks. He tells us that he and his colleagues were put in nomination in consequence of a requisition signed by tenant-farmers,—that is, in consequence of a requisition got up by command of the landlords and signed by the farmers. Now, I put it to you candidly,—Is it not an understood etiquette in counties that one proprietor who is a candidate should not canvass the tenants on the estate of another till he has obtained the sanction of the owner? Am I to understand that the protectionist gentlemen in a body below the gangway contradict me when I state that as a point of etiquette in counties, one proprietor, who is a candidate, does not think it proper to canvass the tenantry on the estate of another proprietor without first intimating to the landowner his intention and desire to do so? Well, there are only two or three faint noes; I think the ayes have it. But, however, this point, at all events, is admitted, that as a rule the farmers vote with the landlords; that the vote goes with the land; nobody denies that the farm carries the vote. What right, then, have you to call this the opinion of the farmer? You cannot have it both ways. It cannot be both the opinion of the landlord and the opinion of the tenant. What becomes, then, of all those interesting romances in which the Duke of Richmond has indulged in public about the bold, independent, and gallant yeomanry of the country? Why, these are the men who have not the right of using their suffrages. It is your own statement. This country certainly will not be governed by a combination of land-lords and tenants. Probably you are not aware on what a very narrow basis this power of yours rests. But I can give you some information on the subject. There are about 150,000 tenants who form the basis of your political power, and who are distributed throughout the counties of this country. Well, let it come to the worst;—carry on the opposition to this measure for three years more; yet there is a plan in operation much maligned by some hon. Gentlemen opposite, and still more maligned in another place, but which, the more the shoe pinches, and the more you wince at it, the more we like it out of doors. Now, I say, we have confronted this difficulty, and are prepared to meet it. We are calling into exercise the true old English forms of the Constitution, of five centuries’ antiquity, and we intend that it should countervail this innovation of yours in the Reform Bill. You think that there is something very revolutionary in this. Why, you are the innovators and the revolutionists who introduced this new franchise into the Reform Bill. But I believe that it is perfectly understood by the longest heads among your party that we have a power out of doors to meet this difficulty. You should bear in mind, that less than one-half of the money invested in the savings’-banks, laid out at better interest in the purchase of freeholds, would give qualifications to more persons than your 150,000 tenant-farmers. But you say that the League is purchasing votes and giving away the franchise. No, no; we are not quite so rich as that; but be assured that if you prolong the contest for three or four years (which you cannot do)—if, however, it comes to the worst, we have the means in our power to meet the difficulty, and are prepared to use them. Money has been subscribed to prepare our organisation in every county, and we are prepared to meet the difficulty, and to overcome it. You may think that there is something repulsive to your
notions of supremacy in all this. I see a very great advantage, even if the Corn-laws were repealed to-morrow. I think that you cannot too soon widen the basis of our county representation. I say, with respect to a man, whether he be a small shopkeeper or a mechanic, who by his prudence has saved 50
l. or 100
l., and is willing to lay it out in the purchase of a cottage or land bringing in 40
s. a-year as a freehold,—I say that it is to that man of all others that I would wish to entrust the franchise.
Let it be understood that all this extraneous matter is not of my introducing, for your debate has turned on the question of dissolution. No one can complain of my having, on this question, been guilty of often introducing irrelevant matter; I generally keep close to the argument; but you have chosen to say now that you will not settle the question by argument, and by an appeal to facts and reason in this House; that you will have nothing to do with this House, but that you will go to the country. Now, I have given you some idea of what is your prospect in the country. I do not ask you to take my opinion for it; but as mischief may be averted more from yourselves—more from another place to which allusion has been made, than from others—I do ask you to take these facts home, to study them for yourselves, to look over the registry, to count the population of the towns, and then to come down and say whether you think the public opinion of the country is with you or against you.
So much of the argument has turned on this extraneous question, and what little argument has been addressed to the merits of the case has been so abundantly answered by other persons, that it would be impertinent in me to trespass at too great length on the time of the House. Well, I will tell you what my thoughts were as I sat at home patiently reading these debates. As I read speech after speech, and saw the fallacies which I had knocked on the head seven years ago re-appearing afresh, my thought was, what fun these debates will afford to the men in fustian jackets! All these fallacies are perfectly transparent to these men, and they would laugh at you for putting them forward. Dependence on foreigners! Who in the world could have supposed that that long-buried ghost would come again to light? Drain of gold! Wages rising and falling with the price of bread! Throwing land out of cultivation, and bringing corn here at 25
s. per quarter. You forget that the great mass of the people now take a very different view on these questions from what you do. They formerly, seven years ago, did give in, to a certain extent, to your reiterated assertions that wages rise and fall with the price of bread. You had a very fair clap-trap against us (as we happened to be master manufacturers), in saying that we wanted to reduce wages. But the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, and the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary, are not suspected by the English people of having such motives on these questions. The English people have no disinclination to refer to high authorities on these matters. They assume that men high in office have access to accurate information, and they generally suppose that those men have no sinister motive for deceiving the great body of the people on a question like the present. You see I do not underrate the importance of your leaders having declared in favour of Free Trade. On the contrary, I avow that this has caused the greatest possible accession to the ranks of the Free-traders. Well, then, the working classes, not believing that wages rise and fall with the price of bread, when you tell them that they are to have corn at 25
s. a quarter, instead of being frightened, are rubbing their hands with satisfaction. They are not frightened at the visions which you present to their eyes of a big loaf, seeing that they expect to get more money and bread at half the price. And then the danger of having your land thrown out of cultivation! Why, what would the men in smock-frocks in the south of England say to that? They would say,
‘We shall get our land for potato ground at ½
d. a lug, instead of paying 3
d. or 4
d. for it.’ These fallacies have all been disposed of; and if you lived more in the world—more in contact with public opinion, and less with that charmed circle which you think the world, but which is really anything but the world—if you gave way less to the excitement of clubs, less to the buoyancy which arises from talking to each other as to the effect of some smart speech, in which a Minister has been assailed, you would see that it was mere child’s-play to attempt to baulk the intelligence of the country on this great question, and you would not have talked as you have talked for the last eleven days.
Now, with respect to the farmers, I will not deny that you have a large portion of the farmers clinging to you landlords on this question. They have been talked to and frightened by their landlords, as children by their nurses, and they dread some hideous prospect, or some old bogie, ready to start up before their eyes. They do not know what is to happen, but they have not strict and implicit faith in you. They are afraid lest anything should happen to render them unable to make terms with the landlords in the matter of rent; or otherwise they are perfectly easy, and willing to receive Free Trade to-morrow. They are afraid of how the adjustment might be conducted; and the question, therefore, I have no hesitation in saying, is a landlords’ question. On this subject the farmers have had some hints given them in the following paragraph, which appeared some time ago in the
‘Under what head, then, is the farmer to look for relief? Under the head “rent.” The landlord must reduce rent; but the farmer knows, by rather bitter experience, the process by which this reduction must be effected. He must be first himself rendered unable to pay rent, and then the landlord will give way, and not before.’
This is the character given by the
Standard newspaper of the landlords, and in this consists the great difficulty with the farmers. I do not think that the farmers generally believe all that you have told them. I believe that farms let as high now as ever they did. There is something remarkable in this. Since the right hon. Baronet has proposed his measure, I have directed my attention to this point, because I conceive that it solves much of our difficulty. I have inquired of land agents, land proprietors, lawyers, &c., as to whether land has suffered any depreciation in value in consequence of the proposition on this subject made by the Government. Now, it is remarkable, that though silks have been rendered almost unsaleable, and though the proposed change has produced almost a paralysis in every trade touched, yet land is letting and selling for higher prices than ever. I will give you an example. I will mention a case, and I am at liberty to mention the name. The hon. Member for Somerset will corroborate what I am going to state. Mr. Gordon, a near neighbour of that hon. Member, has had sixty farms, and he made the tenants an offer that he would take their land off their hands on equitable terms at Lady-day; yesterday was the last day for giving notice of accepting his offer, and not one farmer proposed to do so. I think it is not very complimentary to the hon. Member for Somerset. Mr. Gordon is a near neighbour of his, and his tenants of course have been favoured to hear some of those eloquent addresses which the hon. Member has made in Somerset, wherein he has told them that land will not be worth cultivation at all, or, at least, that there will be such an avalanche of corn from the Continent and from America as will quite supersede the cultivation; and yet these farmers seem to have so little alarm that they are willing to hold their farms at their present rents. Let me read you, too, the account that is given me by a gentleman in the City, an eminent solicitor, whom I have known for some years, and who is largely interested in landed property:—
‘I have for many years been connected with the management of landed property
and with the purchase and letting of estates in several different counties, and am at this time negotiating for the renewal of leases and letting of lands in Bedfordshire, Herts, and Essex. In the latter county, the tenant, who has occupied a farm of 500 acres for fourteen years, under a lease, and who has always spoken of his rent as somewhat high, and of his own farming as the best in his own neighbourhood, has now offered a considerable increase of rent (15 per cent.) for a new lease of fourteen years, and to covenant to underdrain two-thirds of the farm, the landlord finding drainingtiles; now acknowledging that the cultivation may be greatly improved, so as to meet the increase of rent. The farmer has another occupation, and is not, therefore, under any fear of being without a farm. He is a protectionist in words, and a supporter of Sir John Tyrell. Under the rumour that this farm might be given up, there were eight or ten most respectable applicants for it.
‘In Hertfordshire, I am at this moment renewing leases upon two large farms, both with the offer of increased rents, and with covenants for greatly improved cultivation, particularly as to underdraining.
‘In Bedfordshire, upon two moderatesized farms, the same has been the result; and on the application for one of them, which the farmer is quitting in consequence of age and infirmity, the following conversation took place, on the application to me by an intelligent farmer for the farm:—
‘ “I understand, Sir, that you have the letting of Mr. L.’s farm, as he is quitting?”
‘ “I have.”
‘ “I should like to have the offer of it. My name is—, and I can refer you to the clergyman of my parish, and to several gentlemen, for my character and responsibility.”
‘ “You are, I presume, a farmer?”
‘ “Yes, Sir; I have one farm, and I should like another, to extend my occupation, as I have sufficient capital.”
‘ “You know the farm, I presume, and the rent which the present tenant pays?”
‘ “Yes, Sir, I know the farm and the rent; and as we are no longer to have any protection, and the Corn-laws must now be repealed, I hope you will consider that point in the rent.”
‘ “Pray, as you say that the Corn-laws must be repealed, what, in your judgment, will be the effect?’
‘ “Why, Sir, the first thing will be the waking up of thousands of farmers who have hitherto been asleep; and we must look to increased efforts and increased production.”
‘ “With respect to rent, I must have a small increase, and I must require covenants for better cultivation, more especially as to underdraining, which must be done very extensively.”
‘ “Sir, my intention is, if I have the farm, to underdrain the whole of it, being allowed tiles.”
‘ “Well, as you are a man of observation, and acquainted with different districts in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Herts, tell me whether I am right (so far as your observation goes) in saying that, under improved cultivation, one-third more corn can be grown, and the sample much better?”
‘ “I have no doubt that you are right.”
‘ “Then, if I am right, what have you to fear from the abolition of the Cornlaw?”
‘ “Nothing at all, Sir.”
‘This person has hired the farm at an increased rent, and undertaken to underdrain the whole, if required by the landlord so to do.’
Now, hon. Gentlemen must, of course, be better able than I can be to judge from their own experience whether this be a fair statement of the case or not; but I would put it to them, Are any of them prepared to sell their own estates for one farthing less now than they were twelve months ago? But if farmers will take the land at the same rent, and if you will not take less than thirty years’ purchase now upon the present rental, where are the proofs that you are in earnest in all that you predict as the consequences of the repeal of the Corn-laws?
Nay, this is a proof that there has been a system of mutual self-delusion, or mutual deception, between you and the farmers. You have preached doctrines which the farmers have affected to believe, but which neither of you have believed at heart. Either you have been doing this jointly, doing it that you might practise upon the credulity of your countrymen, or else you are now
pursuing a most unworthy and inconsistent course, because, after telling the farmers at your protection meetings that wheat is to be sold at 30
s. to 35
s. a quarter, and that they cannot carry on their business in competition with the Russians and the Poles, even if they had their land rent free, with what face can you now let your land to farmers at existing rents?
But the truth is, that you all know—that the country knows—that there never was a more monstrous delusion than to suppose that that which goes to increase the trade of the country and to extend its manufactures and commerce,—that which adds to our numbers, increases our population, enlarges the number of your customers, and diminishes your burdens by multiplying the shoulders that are to bear them, and giving them increased strength to bear them,—can possibly tend to diminish the value of land. You may affect the value of silks; you may affect the value of cottons or woollens: transitory changes of fashion may do that—changes of taste; but there is a taste for land inherent in human kind, and especially is it the desire of Englishmen to possess land; and therefore, whilst you have a monopoly of that article which our very instincts lead us to desire to possess, if you see any process going on by which our commerce and our numbers are increased, it is impossible to suppose that it can have the effect of diminishing the value of the article that is in your hands.
What, then, is the good of this ‘protection’? What is this boasted ‘protection’? Why, the country have come to regard it, as they do witchcraft, as a mere sound and a delusion. They no more regard your precautions against Free Trade than they regard the horseshoes that are nailed over the stables to keep the witches away from the horses. They do not believe in protection; they have no fear of Free Trade; and they are laughing to scorn all the arguments by which you are trying to frighten them.
How can protection, think you, add to the wealth of a country? Can you by legislation add one farthing to the wealth of the country? You may, by legislation, in one evening, destroy the fruits and accumulations of a century of labour; but I defy you to show me how, by the legislation of this House, you can add one farthing to the wealth of the country. That springs from the industry and intelligence of the people of this country. You cannot guide that intelligence; you cannot do better than leave it to its own instincts. If you attempt by legislation to give any direction to trade or industry, it is a thousand to one that you are doing wrong; and if you happen to be right, it is a work of supererogation, for the parties for whom you legislate would go right without you, and better than with you.
Then, if this is true, why should there be any difference of opinion between us? Hon. Gentlemen may think that I have spoken hardly to them on this occasion; but I want to see them come to a better conclusion on this question. I believe, if they will look the thing in the face, and divest themselves of that crust of prejudice that oppresses them, we shall all be better friends about it. There are but two things that can prevent it: one is, their believing that they have a sinister interest in this question, and therefore not looking into it; and the other is, an incapacity for understanding political economy. I know there are many heads who cannot comprehend and master a proposition in political economy; I believe that study is the highest exercise of the human mind, and that the exact sciences require by no means so hard an effort. But, barring these two accidents—want of capacity, and having a sinister interest—I defy any man to look into this question honestly, and come to any other than one conclusion. Then why should we not agree? I want no triumph in this matter for the Anti-Corn-law League; I want you to put an end, from conviction, to an evil system. Come down to us, and let us hold a Free-trade meeting in our hall at Manchester. Come to us now, protectionists, and let
us see whether we cannot do something better for our common country than carrying on this strife of parties. Let us, once for all, recognise this principle, that we must not tax one another for the benefit of one another.
Now, I am going to read to you an authority that will astonish you. I am going to read you an extract from a speech of the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords on the 17th of April, 1832: it is his opinion on taxation:—
‘He thought taxes were imposed only for the service of the State. If they were necessary for the service of the State, in God’s name let them be paid; but if they were not necessary, they ought not to be paid; and the Legislature ought not to impose them.’
Now, there, that noble Duke, without having had time to study Adam Smith or Ricardo, by that native sagacity which is characteristic of his mind, came at once to the marrow of this question. We must not tax one another for the benefit of one another. Oh, then, divest the future Prime Minister of this country of that odious task of having to reconcile rival interests; divest the office, if ever you would have a sagacious man in power as Prime Minister, divest it of the responsibility of having to find food for the people! May you never find a Prime Minister again to undertake that awful responsibility! That responsibility belongs to the law of nature; as Burke said, it belongs to God alone to regulate the supply of the food of nations. When you shall have seen in three years that the abolition of these laws is inevitable, as inevitable it is, you will come forward and join with the Free-traders; for if you do not, you will have the farmers coming forward and agitating in conjunction with the League. You are in a position to gain honour in future; you are in a position, especially the young members among you, who have the capacity to learn the truth of this question, they are in a position to gain honour in this struggle; but as you are going on at present your position is a false one; you are in the wrong groove, and are are every day more and more diverging from the right point. It may be material for you to get right notions of political economy; questions of that kind will form a great part of the world’s legislation for a long time to come.
We are on the eve of great changes. Put yourselves in a position to be able to help in the work, and so gather honour and fame where they are to be gained. You belong to the aristocracy of the human kind—not the privileged aristocracy,—I don’t mean that, but the aristocracy of improvement and civilisation. We have set an example to the world in all ages; we have given them the representative system. The very rules and regulations of this House have been taken as the model for every representative assembly throughout the whole civilised world; and having besides given them the example of a free press and civil and religious freedom, and every institution that belongs to freedom and civilisation, we are now about giving a still greater example; we are going to set the example of making industry free—to set the example of giving the whole world every advantage of clime, and latitude, and situation, relying ourselves on the freedom of our industry. Yes, we are going to teach the world that other lesson. Don’t think there is anything selfish in this, or anything at all discordant with Christian principles. I can prove that we advocate nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity. To buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest. What is the meaning of the maxim? It means that you take the article which you have in the greatest abundance, and with it obtain from others that of which they have the most to spare; so giving to mankind the means of enjoying the fullest abundance of earth’s goods, and in doing so, carrying out to the fullest extent the Christian doctrine of ‘Doing to all men as ye would they should do unto you.’