Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIII.: the session of 1844—factory legislation—the constituencies. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XIII.: the session of 1844—factory legislation—the constituencies. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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the session of 1844—factory legislation—the constituencies.
“I wish I could have a little talk with you and Wilson about the removal of the Circular to London. James Wilson1 has a plan for starting a weekly Free-trader by himself and his friends, to be superintended by himself. But he does not intend this unless he can have the support of the League, or at least its acquiescence. He has a notion that a paper would do more good if it were not the organ of the League, but merely their independent supporter. But then what is the League to do for an organ? If we start another weekly paper, it would clash with his. Villiers seems to have been rather taken with James Wilson’s plan, and it would undoubtedly be desirable to have Wilson’s pen at work. It is quite clear that the League must have its organ. The question for us to decide is what kind of paper shall we have? Is it to be simply a removal of the Anti-Bread-Tax Circular to London with the change of the title to the League Circular and to be still confined exclusively to the one object and movement of the 1844.
In the long-run Mr. Wilson started his own newspaper, which he called the Economist. The Circular was suppressed, and the League was published in its stead, conveying, as Cobden said, every syllable of their speeches to twenty thousand people in all the parishes of the Kingdom. Before describing a more important move in the Manchester tactics, I have to say something of Cobden’s action in Parliament, where a very momentous subject presently engaged attention.
In the session of 1844 the Corn Laws fell into the background. Mr. Cardwell, in seconding the motion on the Address, made a marked impression by a collection of evidence that trade was reviving. The revival of trade weakened the strongest argument of the agitators, because it diminished the practical urgency of their question. Parliament is always glad of an excuse for leaving a question alone, and the slightest improvement in the markets was welcomed as a reason for allowing the Corn Law to slumber. The Prime Minister took advantage of such a state of things to quell the sullen suspicion of the agricultural party, by emphatic declarations that the Government had never contemplated, and did not then contemplate, any alteration in the existing law. Repeal he hardly deigned to notice; it would, he said, produce the greatest confusion and distress. There was, no doubt, the alternative of a fixed duty; but if it should happen that the agriculturists should come to prefer that to his sliding scale, then he was inclined to think that, not he, but Lord John Russell would be the proper person1844.
In consequence of this declaration of the Minister, and of the improvement in the condition of the population, comparatively slight attention was paid to the discussion on Mr. Villiers’s annual Motion (June 25). The League was violently abused by the Mileses, Bankeses, Ferrands, and Sir John Trollopes. It was again and again asserted that the rate of wages was regulated by the price of corn, and that the avowed object of the agitators was to lower wages by lowering corn. Cobden replied to such serious arguments as he could find in the course of the debate, but the front bench on the side of the Opposition was empty for most of the evening; Lord John Russell declined to vote; Mr. Bright was listened to with so much impatience that he was forced to sit down; and a very hollow performance ended with a majority of 204 against the Motion.3
In the earlier part of the session (March 12), Cobden had moved for a Select Committee to inquire into the effects of protective duties on agricultural tenants and labourers. This was a new approach. The main argument for repeal had hitherto been from the side of the manufacturing population. In what way, save by the admission of foreign corn in exchange for British manufactures, could we secure extended markets; or, in other words, extended demand for the industry of the people? Cobden now turned to the agricultural side of the question, and asked the House of Commons, as he had asked the farmers during the previous year, to examine what advantage the Corn Law had brought to the agriculturists themselves. He described the condition of the labourer, morally, socially, and economically; said that it was the fear of falling into this con 1844.
This bad division had perhaps less than the general feeling of the House, as gathered from talk in the lobbies, to do with the changed view which Cobden now took of the prospects of the cause. The ardour of his hopes was relaxed, though not the firmness of his resolution. He gave expression to this in writing to his brother:—
“It is now quite certain that our Free Trade labours must be spread over a larger space of time than we contemplated at one time. The agitation must be of a different kind to what we have hitherto pursued. In fact we must merely have just so many demonstrations as will be necessary to keep hold of public attention, and the work must go on in the way of registration labours in those large constituencies where we can hope to gain anything by a change of public opinion. The little pocket boroughs must be absolutely given over. They will not weigh as a feather in the settle ment of the question. Time can alone effect the business.1844.
The following passage relates to a subject which kindled more excitement in the country than any other question before Parliament. It was an episode in the endless battle between bigotry and the sense of justice. The judgment in the famous case of Lady Hewley’s bequest, finally delivered after fourteen years of litigation, exposed endowments which had been for several generations in the hands of Unitarians, to the risk of appropriation by Trinitarian Dissenters. The Ministry brought in a Bill to confirm religious bodies, whether Trinitarian or Unitarian, in the possession of property of which they had been in the enjoyment for twenty years. This measure was regarded by fanatics, alike of the Episcopalian and the independent churches, as favouring the deadly heresy of Unitarianism. The storm raged with furious violence; but the Ministry held firm, and the Bill, which was conservative of the rights of property in the right sense, happily became law. Sir W. Follett’s speech broke down the opposition. We may be sure on which side in the controversy Cobden was found.
“I never entertained an idea of voting for the monopolists in matters of faith. Nor have I had a line from anybody at Stockport to ask me to do so. As at present advised, I shall certainly vote for the Bill. What a spectacle we shall present, if the intolerance of the Commons should reject a measure which the Lords and the Bishops have passed! It 1844.
“Lord Duncan’s reply to a deputation was not amiss. He told them drily, ‘It may be a question whether the founders of the chapels in question intended them for the benefit of Unitarians or Trinitarians, but one thing is certain, they did not intend them for the lawyers, who will have every kick of them, unless the Bill is passed into a law? This young chip of the old block who stood such hard knocking at Camperdown, said an equally good thing to the short-time delegates who called on him to abuse the factory masters. He told them to go home and thank God they had not the landlords for masters, for if they had, their wages would be reduced one-half.”5
It is now time to turn briefly to a subject which sprang as directly as Free Trade itself from the great Condition of England Question. Throughout this memorable parliament, which sat from 1841 to 1847, we are conscious of a genuine effort, alike on the part of the Prime Minister and of independent reformers and philanthropists of all kinds, to grapple with a state of society which threatened to become unmanageable. We see the Parliament diligently feeling its way to one piece after another of wise and beneficent policy, winding up with the most beneficent of all. The development of manufactures, and the increase and redistribution of population which attended it, forced upon all the foremost minds of that time a group of difficulties with which most of them were very inadequately prepared to deal. One fact will be enough to illustrate the extent of the change. In 1818 it was computed that 57,000 persons were employed in cotton factories. Within twenty-one years their numbers had increased to 469,000. How was this vast and rapid influx of population into the cotton towns, with1844.
Cobden answered the question on the economic side. You must, he said, accept and establish the conditions of free exchange. Only on these terms can you make the best use of capital, and ensure the highest attainable prosperity to labour. But at this point—they were then close upon the ever-memorable date of ‘48—the gigantic question of that generation loomed on the horizon. How are you to settle the mutual relations of capital and labour to one another? Abolition of restriction may be excellent in the sphere of commodities. It is so clear that the same condition suffices for the commonwealth, when the commodity to be exchanged is a man’s labour? Or is it palpably false and irrational to talk of labour as a commodity? In other words, can the relations between labour and capital be 1844.
Cobden, as we have already seen (pp. 115–16), when he was first a candidate for Stockport, dissented from these theories. He could not adjust them to his general principle of the expediency of leaving every man free to carry his goods to whatever market he might choose, and to make the best bargain that he could. The man who saw such good reasons for distrusting the regulation of markets by Act of Parliament, was naturally inclined to distrust parliamentary regulation of labour. In the case of children, Cobden fully perceived that freedom of contract is only another name for freedom of coercion, and he admitted the necessity of legislative protection. He never denied that restrictions on the hours of labour were desirable, and he knew by observation, both at home and abroad, that the hours of labour are no measure of its relative productiveness. What he maintained was that all restrictions, however desirable, ought to be secured by the resolute demands and inde pendent action of the workmen themselves, and not by1844.
Singularly enough, while he thus trusted to the independence of the workmen, he objected to workmen’s combinations. “Depend upon it,” he said to his brother, “nothing can be got by fraternizing with trades unions. They are founded upon principles of brutal tyranny and monopoly. I would rather live under a Dey of a Algiers than a Trades Committee.”8 Yet without combination it is difficult to see how, on the great scale of modern industries, the workmen can exert any effective influence on the regulation of their labour. That in the first forms of combination there was both brutality and tyranny, is quite true. That these vices have almost disappeared is due in no small degree to an active fraternization, to use Cobden’s own word, with the leaders of the workmen by members of the middle class, who represented the best moral and social elements in the public opinion of their time.
The protection of the labouring population had in various forms engaged the serious attention of Parliament for several years. So far back as 1802 there was a Factory Act, which was sanitary in its main intention, but also contained clauses regulating hours. Others followed in 1819 and 1825, and a very important factory law, containing the earliest provisions for education, was passed in 1833, by which time the workmen were partially able to make themselves heard in Parliament. In 1842 Lord Ashley had procured the passing of the Mines and Collieries Act, a truly admirable and beneficent piece of legislation, excluding women from labour underground, and rescuing children from conditions hardly less horrible than those of negro slavery. In 1843, still under the impulse of Lord Ashley, Sir James Graham brought 1844.
In 1844 Sir James Graham reintroduced it, without the education clauses, simply as a Bill for regulating the labour of children and young persons. The definition of a child was extended to mean children between nine and thirteen; a child was only to be employed half time, that is to say, not more than six and a half hours each day. The definition of young persons remained as it was, covering persons from thirteen to eighteen; their hours in silk, cotton, wool, and flax manufactories were not to exceed thirteen and a half in each day; and of these one hour and a half were to be allowed for meals and rest, leaving twelve hours as the limit of actual labour. Lord Ashley moved that the hours should be not twelve but ten, and on this issue the battle was fought. The factory question from this time, down to the passing of1844.
Charles Buller defended Lord Ashley’s proposal in what 1844.
“I did not vote upon the Factory question,” Cobden wrote. “The fact is the Government are being whipped with a rod of their own pickling. They used the ten hours’ cry, and all other cries, to get into power, and now they find themselves unable to lay the devil they raised for the destruction of the Whigs. The trickery of the Government was kept up till the time of Ashley’s motion, in the confident expectation that he would be defeated by the Whigs and Free Traders. They (the Government) were calculating upon this support, and so they gave liberty to Wortley and others of their party to vote against the Cabinet in order to get favour at the hustings. The Whigs very basely turned round upon their former opinions to spite the Tories. The only good result is that no Government or party will in future like to use the factory question for a cry. The last year’s education question, and this year’s ten hours Bill, will sicken the factions of such a two-edged weapon. One other good effect may be that men like Graham and Peel will see the necessity of taking anchor upon some sound principles, as a refuge from the Socialist doctrines of the fools behind them. But at all events good must come out of such startling discussions.”3
It cannot be seriously denied that Cobden was fully justified in describing the tendencies of this legislation as socialistic. It was an exertion of the power of the State in its strongest form, definitely limiting in the interest of the labourer the administration of capital. The Act of 18441844.
The reader will observe that Cobden’s design was free from the sinister quality of manufactured voting. He supposed that men would acquire property in their own neighbourhood, the natural seat of their political interests and activity. What is politically mischievous in this franchise only happens when a number of strangers in possession of a factitious qualification invade a district and help to nullify the wishes 1844.
It was to be an immense enfranchisement, on old constitutional lines and secured by the spontaneous effort and civil spirit of the population itself. “Wherever there is a man above the rank of an unskilled labourer, whether a shopkeeper, a man of the middle class, or of the skilled working class that has not got a county vote, or is not striving to accumulate enough to get one, let us point the finger of scorn at him; he is not fit to be a freeman. It is an avenue by which we may reach the recesses of power, and possess ourselves of any constitutional rights which we are entitled to possess.” In one of his speeches of that date, Cobden allowed it to be perceived that this great process had come into his mind not simply as a means of quickening the triumph of Free Trade, but as an agency for effecting a deep and permanent political transformation.1844.
Cobden’s eloquent colleague, Fox, placed the movement deeper still, by dwelling on the moral elements that lay beneath it. If it was wise and good, he said, to endeavour to make all who could save their pittance become fund-holders, it must be at least as prudent and just to induce them according to their proportion to become landholders also—joint shareholders in this lovely and fruitful country, which is their country as much as it is that of the wealthiest nobleman whose lands cover half a county. It would give them a tangible bond of connexion with society; it would put them in a position which was deemed necessary to citizenship in the republics of ancient days; and it was better adapted than anything else to cherish in them those emotions which best accord with consistency and dignity of character.
Afterwards Secretary to the Treasury, and Financial Member of the Council of India. A most interesting account of Mr. Wilson is to be found in the Literary Studies of the late Walter Bagehot (vol. i. pp. 367–406.)
To Mr. Bright, June 21, 1843.
328 against 124.
To F. W. cobden, London, June 4, 1844.
To F. W. Cobden, London, June 5, 1844.
J. S. Mill’s Political Economy was not begun until 1845, but it bears abundant traces how closely he watched the course of legislation during the years immediately preceding.
See Appendix A, at the end of the volume.
To F. W. Cobden, August 16, 1842.
The provisions for trustees of the schools were undeniably and deliberately calculated to give the clergy of the Established Church a predominant power on every board.
To. F. W. Cobden, London, March 16, 1844.
To F. W. Cobden, March 23, 1844.
Speech at Covent Garden, Dec. 11, 1844.
Speeches, i. 256. Jan. 15, 1845.