Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII.: the corn laws. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER VII.: the corn laws. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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the corn laws.
It will perhaps not be inconvenient if I here pause in my narrative, to introduce a short parenthesis setting forth what actually were the nature and working of the Corn Laws at this time. Their destruction was the one finished triumph with which Cobden’s name is associated. The wider doctrines which he tried to impress upon men still await the seal of general acceptance; but it is a tolerably safe prophecy that no English statesman will ever revive a tax upon bread.
Cobden was much too careful a student of the facts of his question to fall into the error of the declaimers on his own side, who assumed that none but the owners of the soil had ever claimed protection by law for their industry. In the first number of the little organ which was issued by the Association,1 he wrote a paper on the modern history of the Corn Laws, which began by plainly admitting, what it would have been childish to deny, that down to 1820 manufacturers probably enjoyed as ample a share of legislative protection as the growers of corn. Huskisson’s legislation from 1823 to 1825 reduced the tariff of duties upon almost every article of foreign manufacture. This stamped that date, in Cobden’s words, as the era of a commercial revolution, more important in its effects upon society, and pregnant with weightier consequences in the future, than many of those1825.
These enlightened opinions, and the measures which followed from them, were the first rays of dawn after the long night of confusion and mediocrity in which the Castle-reaghs, Sidmouths, Bathursts, Vansittarts, had governed their unfortunate country. Even now political power was so distributed that, though the new school thus saw the better course, they dared not to venture too rapidly upon it. There was one mighty and imperious interest which, as the parliamentary system was then disposed, even Canning’s courage shrank from offending. The Cabinet, which had radically modified a host of restrictive laws, was logically and politically bound to deal with the most important of them all—that which restrained the importation of food. 1825.
Two years elapsed before the Ministry ventured to touch the burning subject. The new measure was not brought forward by Huskisson. It was officially given out as the reason for this that he was ill, but this was only one of the peculiar blinds that serve to open people’s eyes. Everybody suspected that Huskisson’s illness was in reality the chagrin of the good economist at a bad measure. It was Canning who, in the spring of 1827, introduced the new Corn Bill.3 It proceeded on the plan of making the duty vary inversely with the price of the grain in the home market. When the price of wheat in the home market reached sixty shillings a quarter, foreign wheat was to pay on importation a duty of one pound. For every rise of a shilling in the home price the duty was to go down two shillings; for every fall of a shilling in the home price the duty was to go up two shillings1827.
After the bill had passed the Commons, the Liverpool Ministry fell to pieces, and a season of odious intrigue was followed by the accession of Canning. The Corn Bill went up to the Lords in due course. The Duke of Wellington, though he had been a member of the Liverpool cabinet by which the bill had been sanctioned, now moved an amendment on it, and the new Ministry was defeated. Canning and Huskisson let the bill drop. The event which so speedily followed is one of the tragic pages in the history of English statesmen. Canning died a few weeks after the close of the session; Lord Goderich’s abortive Ministry flickered into existence for four or five months, when it flickered out again; and before the end of the year the Duke of Wellington was prime minister. The great soldier was a narrow and sightless statesman, and with his accession to power all the worse impulses of the privileged classes acquired new confidence and intensity. In every sphere the men of exclusion and restriction breathed more freely.
The Duke introduced a new Corn Bill. This bad measure accepted Canning’s principle, if we may give the name of principle to an empirical device; but it carried the principle further in the wrong direction. In the bill of 1827, the starting-point had been the exaction of a twenty shilling duty, when the home price was sixty shillings the quarter. According to the bill of 1828, when the price in the home market was sixty-four shillings, the duty was twenty three shillings and eightpence. The variations in the amount of 1828.
So far back as 1815, when that important measure had been passed restraining the introduction of wheat for home consumption unless the average price had reached eighty shillings for the quarter, the mischief of such legislation had been understood and described in Parliament. In the House of Lords the dissentients from the measure, only ten in number, had signed a protest, drawn up, as it has always been believed, by that independent and hard-headed statesman, Lord Grenville. The grounds of dissent were these: That all new restraints on commerce are bad in principle; that such restraints are especially bad when they affect the food of the people; that the results would not conduce to plenty, cheapness, or steadiness of price; that such a measure levied a tax on the consumer, in order to give a bounty to the grower of corn. This was a just and unanswerable series of objections. Within six years (1821) a parliamentary committee was appointed to inquire into agricultural depression.
If we turn to the effect of our regulations upon foreign countries, there too they brought nothing but calamity. When grain rose to a starvation price in England, we entered the foreign markets; the influx of our gold disturbed their exchanges, embarrassed their merchants, and engendered all the mischief of speculation and gambling. As it was put by some speaker of the day, the question was—“Are you to receive food from a foreign country quietly, reasonably, in payment for the manufactures which1828.
There was no essential bond between the maintenance of agricultural protection and Conservative policy. Burke, the most magnificent genius that the Conservative spirit has ever attracted, was one of the earliest assailants of legislative interference in the corn trade, and the important Corn Act of 1773 was inspired by his maxims.5 There is no such thing, Burke said, as the landed interest separate from the trading interest; and he who separates the interest of the consumer from the interest of the grower, starves the country.6 Five and twenty years after this, in a luminous tract often praised by Cobden, he again attacked a new form of the futile and mischievous system of dealing with agriculture as if it were different from any other branch of commerce, and denounced tampering with the trade in provisions as of all things the most dangerous.7 Although however, Conservative policy was not necessarily bound up with protection, the Tory party were committed to it by all the ties of personal interest.
The Whigs ruled the country, save for a few months, for eleven years from 1830 to 1841. In Lord Melbourne’s Cabinet, in 1839, the Corn Laws were, as we have already 1841.
Besides such considerations as these, there were the considerations of party strength. Macaulay’s biographer quotes a significant passage from his diary. “The cry for free trade in corn,” he wrote in 1839, and Macaulay was in the Cabinet, “seems to be very formidable. If the Ministers play their game well, they may now either triumph completely, or retire with honour. They have excellent cards, if they know how to use them.9 Unluckily for themselves, they did not know how to use them; and everybody was quite aware that their conversion towards Free Trade was not the result of conviction, but was only the last device of a foundering party.
In 1840 a committee on import duties had sat, and produced a striking and remarkable report, recommending an abandonment of the illiberal and exclusive policy of the past, and a radical simplification of the tariff by substituting for a multitude of duties, imposts on a small number of the most productive articles, the amount of the impost being1841.
The proposals which the government had hit upon were these. They returned to the general principle of the budget which Lord Althorp had brought forward at the beginning of the Whig reign (1831)—the boldest budget, as it has justly been called, since the days of Pitt.1 The main object of the commutation of duties, Lord Althorp had said, is the relief of the lower classes. “The best way of relieving them is by giving them employment; and this can only be secured by reducing the taxes which most interfere with manufacturing industry.” Among other devices for carrying this principle into practice, Lord Althorp had proposed to regulate the timber duties.2 He had failed to carry that measure against Peel’s opposition, which was aided by a general opinion that the budget was unsound—an opinion mainly due to the starting proposal to levy a tax of a half per cent. on transfers of funded property. Lord Althorp’s successor now came back to some of his ideas. The ques tion1841.
In a debate on a vote a confidence in 1840, Peel seemed to have advanced a step from the position which had irritated the Leaguers in 1839. He still considered a liberal protection to domestic agriculture indispensable, both in the special interests of agriculture, and the general interests of the community. He did not tie himself to the details of the existing law; but he maintained that a graduated duty, varying inversely with the price of corn, was far preferable to a fixed duty. He objected to a fixed duty on two grounds: first, on account of the great difficulty of determining the proper amount of it on any satisfactory data; secondly, and chiefly, because he foresaw that it would be impossible to maintain that fixed duty under a very high price of corn, and that if it were once withdrawn, there would1841.
He now, in 1841, repeated what he had said the previous year. “Notwithstanding the formidable combination which has been formed against the Corn Laws,” he said, “notwithstanding the declarations that either the total repeal or the substitution of a fixed duty for the present scale, is the inevitable result of the agitation now going forward, I do not hesitate to avow my adherence to the opinion which I expressed last year, and now again declare, that my preference is decidedly in favour of a graduated scale rather than any fixed duty.”
Lord Melbourne had foreseen the fate of his Chancellor’s budget. He was shrewd enough to be sure that a half-measure could never raise up so many friends among the manufacturers as to outweigh the united force of the agricultural and colonial interests.4 In fact, no friends were raised up. No great body was conciliated, nor attracted, nor even touched with friendly interest; and the chief reason for this stubborn apathy was, as Sir Robert Peel said, that nobody believed that the proposals of Ministers sprang from their spontaneous will, or that they had been adopted in consequence of the deliberate convictions of those who brought them forward. The conversion was too rapid. Only two years had gone since the Prime Minister had declared in his place that the repeal of the Corn Laws would be the most insane proposition that ever entered a human head. Lord Palmerston made a fine speech against the system of protective duties; but men remembered that, two years before, he had voted against Mr. Villiers’s motion to hear the members of the Manchester Association at the bar of the House. And the motives of so speedy a change were too plain.
The Ministers could not believe that the House of Commons represented the wishes of the country, and to the country they now appealed.
April 16, 1839.
April 28, 1825.
March 1, 1827.
9 Geo. IV., c. 60.
This was the most liberal piece of legislation until the Act of Repeal in 1846. When the home price was at or above 48s., imported wheat paid a nominal duty of 6d., and the bounty on exportation ceased when the home price was 44s. “The Act of 1773 should not have been altered,” says McCulloch, “unless to give greater freedom to the trade.”
Feb. 28, 1771.
Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. 1795.
Above, pp. 143 and 148.
Trevelyan’s Life, ii. 87.
Walpole’s History of England, ii. 634.
The 10s. duty on Canadian timber was to be raised to 20s., and the 55s. duty on Norwegian and other European timber lowered to 20s.
5s. on rye; 4s. 6d. on barley; 3s. 4d. on oats.
Torrens’s Life of Melbourne, ii. 358.