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CHAPTER X.: the new corn law. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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the new corn law.
In the interval between the prorogation and the great1842.
“I do not like your idea,” he said, “of getting the deputies to pass a vote for dismissing the Ministry. That would be taken as a partisan movement—which it really would be—and we should lose moral influence by it. Let us not forget that we were very tolerant of the Whig Ministers, even after Melbourne had laughed in our faces and called us madmen. The present Government will do something. It is the House of Commons, and not the Ministers, that we ought to attack. I do not see how with decency we can worry the Queen to change her Ministers, whilst the people’s representatives have made her take to Peel against her consent. And amongst the representatives who have done this are those from Liverpool, Warrington, Wigan, Leeds, Blackburn, 1842.
“I have been thinking a good deal of the plan of district meetings alluded to in a former letter to Mr. Rawson, and am more and more favourable to it. I am convinced that spontaneous efforts through the country would tell more powerfully upon the aristocracy, than another great meeting in Manchester. The question has been too much confined to Manchester. The cotton lords are not more popular than the landlords.”1
Although he deprecated the agitation of impatience, Cobden was as eager and as active as anybody else in the agitation of persuasion. He spoke at a great conference, held at Derby, of the merchants of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Leicestershire, where he made a vigorous onslaught upon what he called the Land-tax fraud. Form the Trent he found his way to the Clyde, while Mr. Bright went to Dublin, as well as to every place nearer home where he could get men to listen to him. In all the centres of industry people were urged to form associations, to get up petitions, and to hold district meetings of deputies. They were to collect information as to the state of trade, the rate of wages, the extent of pauperism, and other facts bearing upon the food monopoly, as all these things affected their local industry; the woollen trade at Leeds, the iron trade at Wolverhampton, the earthenware trade in the Potteries, the flax trade at Dundee, the cotton trade at Manchester and Glasgow.
The lecturers continued their work. One of them went among the farmers and labourers on Sir James Graham’s estate, where he did not forget the landlord’s idyllic catalogue of the blessings of the rural poor. “What!” cried the lecturer, “six shillings a week for wages, and the morning’s sun, and the singing of birds, and sportive lambs, and winding streams, and the mountain breeze, and a little1842.
Among other devices this autumn was that of a great bazaar, which should both add to the funds of the League, and bring the friends of its objects into closer personal contact. The bazaar was held in the beginning of the following February, in the Royal Theatre at Manchester. It was a great success, and produced nearly ten thousand pounds. The following may serve to show Cobden’s eye for the small things of agitation, and the unconsidered trifles that affect public opinion:—
“I have just got your letter, and am delighted that you are satisfied with the bazaar prospects. Really I wonder how you and your four coadjutors endure the immense exertions called for in this undertaking. You must not look upon the mere money return as the sole test of success. It will give us a position in the public eye worth all the outlay. I remember twelve months ago feeling apprehensive that the monopolist papers would have deterred the ladies from appearing as sellers at the stalls by their blackguardism. Certainly three years ago that would have been the tone of the Herald, Post, and Bull. Now what a marked change is seen in those papers; not a joke or attempt at ribald wit. All is fair and even laudatory. In this fact alone I see the evidence of a great moral triumph of the league. Could 1842.
Their newspaper deserves a word. Its energy was as striking as the energy of their speakers. Its leading articles, many of them written by Cobden and Bright themselves, were broad and weighty statements of the newest aspect of their case. Any unlucky phrase that fell from a monopolist was pounced upon and made the text of a vivacious paragraph. No incautious admission from the other side was ever allowed to escape, until all the most damaging conclusions that could be drawn from it had been worked out to the very uttermost. All the news of the day was scanned with a vigilant eye, and no item that could be turned into an argument or an illustration was left unimproved. This ingenuity and verve saved the paper from the monotony of most journals of a single purpose. Its pages were lighted up by reports of the speeches of Cobden, Bright, and Fox. The pictures with which it abounds of the condition of the common people, are more graphic than the most brilliant compositions of mere literary history. It does not affect us as the organ of a sect; though it preaches from one text, it is always human and social. There were Poor Men’s Songs, Anti-Corn-Law Hymns, and Anti-Bread-Tax Collects. Nor did the editor forget Byron’s famous lines from the Age of Bronze, a thousand times declaimed in this long war:—
A volunteer in Preston this winter began to issue on his own account a quaint little sheet of four quarto pages, called The Struggle, and sold for a halfpenny. It had no connexion with any association, and nobody was responsible for its contents but the man who wrote, printed, and sold it. In two years eleven hundred thousand copies had been circulated. The Struggle is the very model for a plain man who wishes to affect the opinion of the humbler class, without the wasteful and, for the most part, ineffectual machinery of a great society. It contains in number after number the whole arguments of the matter in the pithiest form, and in language as direct if not as pure as Cobbett’s. Sometimes the number consists simply of some more than usually graphic speech by Cobden or by Fox. There are racy dialogues, in which the landlord always gets the worst of it; and terse allegories in which the Duke of Buckingham or the Duke of Richmond figures as inauspiciously as Bunyan’s Mr. Badman. The Bible is ransacked for appropriate texts, from the simple clause in the Lord’s Prayer about our daily bread, down to Solomon’s saying: “He that withholdeth the corn, the people shall curse him; but blessings shall be 1842.
Cobden had, at the beginning of the movement, been very near to securing the services, in the way of pictorial illustration, of a man who afterwards became very famous. This was Thackeray, than only known to a small public as the author of the Hoggarty Diamond. “Some inventor of a new mode of engraving,” Mr. Henry Cole wrote to Cobden, “told Mr. Thackeray that it was applicable to the designs for the Corn Laws. Three drawings of your Anglo-Polish Allegory have been made and have failed. So Thackeray has given up the invention, and wood engraving must be used. This will materially alter the expense..... I hope you will think as well of the accompanying sketch—very rough, of course—as all I have shown it to, do. It was the work of only a few minutes, and I think, with its corpses, gibbet, and flying carrion crow, is as suggestive as you can wish. We both thought that a common soldier would be better understood than any more allegorical figure. It is only in part an adaptation of your idea, but I think a successful one. Figures representing eagerness of exchange, a half-clothed Pole offering bread, and a weaver manufactures, would be idea enough for a design alone. Of course, there may be any changes you please in this present design. I think for the multitude it would be well to have the ideas very simple and intelligible to all. The artist is a genius, both with his pencil and his pen. His vocation is literary. He is full of humour and feeling. Hitherto he has not had occasion to think much on the subject of Corn Laws, and therefore wants the stuff to work upon. He would like to combine1842.
“He will set about Lord Ashley when we have heard your opinion of the present sketch. Thackeray is the writer of an article in the last number of the Westminster Review, on French caricatures, and many other things. For some time he managed the constitutional newspaper. He is a college friend of Charles Buller. We think the idea of an ornamental emblematical heading of the Circular good. The lower class of readers do not like to have to cut the leaves of a paper. Another, but a smaller class, like a small-sized page, because it is more convenient for binding. Corn Law readers lie, I suppose, chiefly among the former. Will you send your circular to Thomas Carlyle, Cheyne Street, Chelsea? He was quoted in last week’s Circular, and is making studies into the condition of the working class.”3
The approach of the time for the assembling of Parliament drew men’s minds away from everything else, and expectation became centred with new intensity on the scheme which the Minister would devise for the restoration of national prosperity. The retirement of an important member of the Cabinet during the recess had greatly quickened public excitement among both Protectionists and Free Traders. Both felt that their question was at stake, and that the Prime Minister would not allow the duty on corn to stand as it was. Peel has told us, in the Memoirs published after 1842.
The Duke of Buckingham, whose name figures so often in the sarcasms and invectives of the League, at once resigned his seat in the Cabinet rather than be a party to any meddling with the Corn Law of 1828. Even those who remained, seem to have pressed for an understanding, as was afterwards openly done in Parliament, that whatever amount of protection was set up by the new law should be permanently adhered to. This guarantee, Peel was far too conscientious to consent in any form to give. The Cabinet at length, with many misgivings, assented to their chief’s arguments, and for the time the party was saved.
I may as well quote here a passage from one of Cobden’s1842.
“Whilst I was with McGregor, he showed me a copy of the scale of duties which he had prepared under Peel’s directions, and which he proposed to the Cabinet, causing Buckingham’s retirement, and nearly leading to a break-up altogether. The scale was purposely devised to be as nearly as possible equal to an 8s. fixed duty. It was 8s. at 56s., rising a shilling of duty with a shilling fall of prices till it reached 16s., which was the maximum duty, and falling a shilling in duty with the rise of a shilling in price. With the exception of Ripon, he could get no support in the Cabinet. Lyndhurst, like an old fox, refused to vote (as I am told), not knowing whether Peel or the monopolists might be conqueror, and being himself equally happy to serve God or Mammon. The Duke of Bucks got hold of Richmond, who secured Wellington, who by the aid of Stanley and Graham frustrated Peel’s intentions. The later told them that no other prime minister after him would ever take office to give the landlords even an 8s. maximum duty. I learn from several quarters that Stanley is one of Peel’s stoutest opponents against any alterations of a beneficial character in the monopolies. Last autumn I remember writing to Langton (at Heywood’s) a letter for Birley’s eye, in which I told him that if Peel’s Cabinet were pressed for a liberal corn law by the Lancashire Conservatives, it would aid Peel in forcing his colleagues to go along with him, and be the very thing he would like. McGregor now confirms my view.”5
The League resolved that they at any rate would leave 1842.
The ministerial plan was soon known, and brought scanty comfort to the men of the north, as their friends rushed down the corridors to tell them what it was to be. Sir Robert Peel could not accept their explanation of the prevailing depression and distress. That was due, he contended, to over-investment of borrowed capital in manufactures; to the displacement of hand-loom weaving by steam power; to1842.
When the Minister sat down, Lord John Russell said a few formal words, and Peel added some explanation which took a moment or two. Cobden, according to a hostile reporter, had been “looking very lachrymose all the evening,” and he now rose—it is interesting to notice contemporary estimates of important men whose importance has not yet been stamped—“for the purpose of inflicting one of his stereotyped harangues on the House.” He did not do this, but he wound up the proceedings by a short and1842.
Cobden’s reception of the Ministerial plan was loudly re-echoed in the north of England. The news of the retention of the sliding scale was received with angry disgust throughout the manufacturing districts. Thousands of petitions, with hundreds of thousands of signatures, were sent up to Cobden and other members to lay before Parliament. The ordinary places of public meeting were not large enough to hold the thousands of exasperated men, who had just found from the newspapers that the Government would not give way. In cold and rain they assembled in the open spaces of their towns to listen to speeches, and to pass resolutions, denouncing Sir Robert Peel’s measure as an insult and a mockery to a distressed population. The Prime Minister was formally accused of offering indignity and contempt to the working classes; of sacrificing the rights of the poor to the selfish interests of an unfeeling and avaricious aristocracy; of creating wealth, luxury, and splendour for a class, out of the abject misery of the millions. His effigy was carried on gibbets in contumely through the streets of towns like Stockport and Rochdale, to the sound of drums and fifes, and then, amid the execration of multitudes, hurled into the flames. In some places the fierce ceremony was preceded by a mock trial, in which the criminal was swiftly condemned, sentenced, and thrown into the bonfire as a traitor to his country, while the crowd shouted their prayer that so might all oppressors of the people perish.
Considering Cobden’s untiring promptitude in seizing every occasion of enforcing his cause upon the House, it is odd that he should not have spoken in the debate in which 1842.
An excellent point was made by the exposure of the fallacy, that low wages are the same thing as cheap labour. And this proved to be of the highest importance, as an element in Sir Robert Peel’s conversion. He admitted afterwards that he had accepted this fallacy without proper examination, and that its overthrow was one of the things which most powerfully affected his opinions on a protective system. Apart from his general demonstration of the truth in this respect, Cobden now showed that the highly paid labour of England was proved to be the cheapest labour in the world. The manufacturers might have credit for taking a more enlightened view of their own interest than to suppose that the impoverishment of the multitude—the great consumers of all that they produce—could ever tend to promote the prosperity of the manufacturers. “I will tell the House, that by deteriorating the population, of which they ought to be so proud, they will run the risk of spoiling, not merely the animal, but the intellectual creature. It is not a potato-fed race that will ever lead the way in arts, arms, or commerce.”
In the course of his speech, which was not in the strong vein that greater experience soon made easy to him, Cobden had talked of the ignorance on the question which prevailed among the Tory members. “Yes,” he exclaimed, when his adversaries cried out against this vigorous thrust, “I have never seen their ignorance equalled among any equal number of working men in the north of England.” And he reminded them that when the Corn Law of 1815 was passed, and when eminent men of both parties honestly thought that wages followed the price of corn, the great multitude of the nation, without the aid of learning, “with that intuitive saga 1842.
For these taunts, the House took a speedy revenge. When Cobden sat down, the benches were crowded, and the member for Knaresborough got up. In a speech ten days before Mr. Ferrand had said that the member for Stockport had during the last twelve years accumulated half a million of money; and that when night after night, during the last session, he was asserting that the Corn Laws had ruined the trade in Lancashire, he was actually at that very time running his works both night and day. This was only one item in a gross and violent attack on the whole class of northern manufacturers. He now returned to the charge with greater excitement than before. He quoted a great number of instances, where the system of truck was forced upon the helpless workmen. The artisans, he said, were compelled to live in cottages belonging to the employer, and to pay rent higher by one-tenth than their proper value. They were poisoned by the vile rags and devil’s dust with which they had to work, and which the masters used for the fraudulent adulteration of their cloths. As for scarcity of flour, it arose from the consumption of that article by the manufacturers, in a paste with which they dishonestly daubed the face of their calicoes.
The country gentlemen shouted with exultation. They were ill qualified to judge the worth of these extravagant denunciations. The towns of Lancashire were more unfamiliar to them in those days than Denver or Omaha are in our own, and any atrocity was credible of those who lived and worked within them. The whole conception of modern manufacturing industry was as horrible as it was strange in1842.
Cobden was not cowed by the furious scene. Amid cries of “explain,” he rose to tell the House very quietly, that it was not his mission to indulge in gross personalities. He assured the members who desired a partisan warfare of this kind, that nothing should drive him into a personal altercation; and he considered the dignity of the House in some danger when he found language such as they had been listening to for the last half-hour, received with so much complacency by the Ministers, and with such cheers by the party at their back.
There was violent irritation among his friends at the attack on him and their class, caused less by the exaggeration of the attack itself, than by the exultant spirit in which it was received by the House. Neighbours in Lancashire 1842.
“You never witnessed such a scene as that in the House of Commons when Ferrand was speaking the other night. The Tories were literally frantic with delight. Every sentence he uttered was caught up and cheered by a large majority, far more vehemently than anything that ever fell from Peel or Macaulay. It was not ironical cheering, but downright hearty approbation. I have not the least doubt that the M.P. for Knaresborough spoke the honest convictions of a majority of the members present. The exhibition was premeditated and got up for the occasion. I was told several days before at the club that Ferrand was to follow me in the debate. He was planted (to use a vulgar phrase) upon me by his party. I finished speaking at about a quarter-past eleven, and it was remarked by two or three on our side that just before I sat down, Sir George Clerk of the Treasury went and whispered to Green, the chairman of committee, and directed his eye towards Ferrand, so that notwithstanding that others tried to follow me, he called straight for the Knaresborough hero. Away he went with the attitudes of a prize-fighter, and the voice of a bull..... Just at the time when I was speaking the members swarmed into the House from the dinner-tables, and they were in a right state for supporting Master Ferrand. Colonel S——plied the fellow with oranges to suck, in an affectionate way that resembled a monkey fondling a bear. What do your Tories1842.
“From all that I hear, your people in Lancashire seem to be swayed to and fro like the grass by a summer’s wind, without any particular progress. I suppose it will settle down into more quiet work in the way of tracts and lectures. I should like to have carried it by a coup, but that is not possible. It seems generally admitted up here by all parties that it is now only a question of time. Lord Lowther said to a friend of Villiers the other day, after the division of ninety, that he did not think it would take more than three years to abolish the Corn Laws; and Rawson and I were taking tea at Bellamy’s, when a party of Tory members at another table agreed that it would come to a 5s. fixed duty in about three years. The Tories have not liked the debate. Peel feels that he has not come out of it well. He looks dissatisfied with himself, and I am told he is not in good health. What will he be by the end of the session?” 2
The truth seems to be that the Leaguers, in spite of their moderate expectations, were taken aback by the heavy blow which the Minister had just dealt them. They had hoped against hope, and had been too full of faith in their own arguments to doubt their effect upon others. The ways of parliaments were as strange to them, as the ways of mill-owners were to the House of Commons. For a single moment they were staggered; Cobden was for an instant or two fired by a violent impulse, which soon, however, yielded 1842.
“Now as respects any great demonstration of numbers against the passing of the present law. It has been suggested that we ought to hold a meeting on Kersall Moor. But I presume that would be a joint Suffrage and Corn Law meeting, which would not aid our cause at present. The middle class must be still further pinched and disappointed before they will go to that. I quite agree with you that we must keep the League as a body wholly distinct from the1842.
“After all, I hardly entertain a hope that we shall effect our object by old and regular methods; accidents may aid us, but I do not see my way in the ordinary course of things to beating down the power of aristocracy.”3
Mr. Bright made various suggestions, and Cobden replied to them with provisional assent:—
“I am afraid you must not calculate on my attending at your tea-party. During the recess I shall have some private matters to attend to, and I shall endeavour to avoid public meetings as far as possible. I have been thinking of our future plans, and am more and more convinced of the necessity of keeping ourselves free from all other questions. I am much more of opinion upon reflection, of the necessity of some such bold demonstration in the way of organization and the securing a large fund, as you were alluding to. Something must be done to secure the ground, and thus prevent its being occupied by any other party. Nothing would so much attain that object as to get a large fund secured. I like the idea of an anti-Corn-Law rent. Unless some such demonstration of renewed life and resolution be made immediately after the passing of the Corn Law, it will be suspected that we are giving up the cause.”4
Cobden seems to have cooled down to a sober view of the situation when he wrote to his brother, a fortnight after the affair of Mr. Ferrand:—
“There is a curious symptom breaking out in the Tory 1842.
No new line of action was hit upon until the end of the session. In the meantime, so far as the agitation out of doors went, Cobden’s mind was incessantly turning over plans for strengthening the connexions of the League. To Mr. Ashworth he wrote:—
“It has struck me that it would be well to try to engraft our Free Trade agitation upon the Peace movement. They are one and the same cause. It has often been to me a matter of the greatest surprise, that the Friends have not taken up the question of Free Trade as the means—and I believe the only human means—of effecting universal and permanent peace. The efforts of the Peace Societies, however laudable, can never be successful so long as the nations maintain their present system of isolation. The colonial system, with all its dazzling appeals to the passions of the people, can never be got rid of except by the indirect process of Free Trade, which will gradually and imperceptibly loose the bands which unite our Colonies to us by a mistaken notion of self-interest. Yet the Colonial policy of Europe has been the chief source of wars for the last hundred and fifty years. Again, Free Trade, by perfecting the intercourse, and securing the dependence of countries one upon another,1842.
Besides these tentative projects of new alliances, he watched vigilantly every chance of suggesting a point to his allies outside. To Mr. Bright he wrote:—
“If you have a leisure hour, I wish you would write an article upon the subject of the Queen’s Letter to the parsons, ordering collections in the churches for the distressed. Here is a good opportunity for doing justice to the Dissenting ministers, who met last year to proclaim the miseries of the people, and to propose a better remedy than almsgiving. The Church clergy are almost to a man guilty of causing the present distress by upholding the Corn Law, they having themselves an interest in the high price of bread, and their present efforts must be viewed as tardy and inefficient, if not hypocritical.
“Again, show how futile it must be to try to subsist the manufacturing population upon charitable donations. The wages paid in the cotton trade alone amount to twenty millions a year. Reduce that amount even ten per cent., and how could it be made up by charity? If you have also leisure for another article, make a swingeing assault upon the last general election, and argue from the disclosures 1842.
With reference to the first of the two themes which is here suggested, Cobden always felt keenly the wrong part taken throughout the struggle by the clergy of the Establishment. The rector of the church which he was in the habit of attending, Saint John’s, in Deansgate, appealed to him for help towards an Association for providing ten new churches in Manchester. Cobden in reply expressed his opinion of the project with wholesome frankness:—
“It will be always very gratifying to me to second your charitable efforts to relieve the distresses of our poor neighbours; and if I do not co-operate in the plan for benefitting the destitute population on a large scale by erecting ten new churches, it is only because, in the words of the appeal, I ‘differ about the means to be adopted.’ You, who visit the abodes of poverty, are aware that a great portion of the working population of Manchester are suffering from an insufficiency of wholesome nourishment. The first and most pressing claim of the poor is for food: all other wants are1842.
To G. Wilson. Leamington, Oct. 12, 1841.
To G. Wilson, November, 1841.
H. Cole to R. Cobden, June 22, 1839.
Memoirs, ii. 29.
To F. Cobden, June 22, 1842.
See above pp. 165–6.
As this became the Corn Law denounced by Cobden during the agitation from 1842 to 1846, it is well to describe the difference between the new scale and that of the Act of 1828 in Peel’s own words:—“When corn is at 59s. and under 60s., the duty at present is 27s. 8d. When corn is between those prices, the duty I propose is 13s. When the price of corn is at 50s. the existing duty is 36s. 8d., increasing as the price falls; instead of which I propose, when corn is at 50s. that the duty shall only be 20s., and that that duty shall in no case be exceeded. (Hear, hear.) At 56s. the existing duty is 30s. 8d.; the duty I propose at that price is 16s. At 60s. the existing duty is 26s. 8d.; the duty I propose at that price is 12s. At 63s. the existing duty is 23s. 8d.; the duty I propose is 9s. At 64s. the existing duty is 22s. 8d.; the duty I propose is 8s. At 70s. the existing duty is 10s. 8d.; the duty I propose is 5s.”
February 9, 1842.
Cobden’s Speeches, Mr. Rogers’s edition. Vol. i. 15–28. [Edition of 1870.]
Quoted in Prentice’s History of the League, i. 284.
To F. Cobden, Feb. 28, 1842.
To G. Wilson, Feb. 27, 1842.
To Mr. Bright, March 7, 1842.
To F. Cobden, March 10, 1812.
To Henry Ashworth, April 12, 1842.
To Mr. Bright, May 12, 1842. In the following number of the Anti-Bread-Tax Circular (May 19), articles on the two subjects here suggested by Cobden, duly appeared. “The clergy of the establishment,” says the writer, with good strong plainness of speech, “would do well to reflect upon their position in this matter. They have, with very few exceptions, upheld to the uttermost the unnatural system, which, after working during a period of twenty-seven years, causing more or less of suffering throughout the whole of its existence, has at length brought the nation to the verge of ruin. They have almost to a man been the ever-active agents and allies of the monopolist party, and their restless energy in the worst of causes has been mainly instrumental in carrying into office a Ministry whose only pledge was that the interests of the nation should be held subservient to the interests of the land and colonial monopolists.... We fear that any attempt to raise contributions from the clergy, or by their agency, can only subject that body to the charge of gross ignorance or gross hypocrisy..... Their conduct contrasts strongly with the noble efforts of the Christian ministers who last year assembled in Manchester, in Carnarvon, and in Edinburgh, to declare their entire abhorrence of the unjust and murderous system by which multitudes of honest and industrious men are made to suffer wrongs more grievous than can easily be described.”