Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XV.: the autumn of 1845. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XV.: the autumn of 1845. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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the autumn of 1845.
The story of the autumn of 1845 has often been told,1845.
In his powerful speech in 1844 Cobden had reminded the House of Commons, for men were apt to forget it, he said, that in Ireland there was a duty at that day of eighteen shillings a quarter upon the import of foreign wheat. Will it be believed in future ages, he cried, that in a country periodically on the point of actual famine—at a time when its inhabitants subsisted on the lowest food, the very roots of the earth—there was a law in existence which virtually prohibited the importation of bread?1 The crisis had now arrived. The session was hardly at an end before disquieting rumours began to come over from Ireland. As the autumn advanced, it became certain that the potato crop was a disastrous failure. The Prime Minister had, in his own words, devoted almost every hour of his time, after 1845.
A skilful enemy was intently watching their proceedings from the northern metropolis. On the 22nd of November Lord John Russell launched from Edinburgh his famous letter to his constituents in the City of London. He had seen in the public prints that Ministers had met; that they had consulted together for many days; and that nothing had been done. Under these circumstances he thought that the Government were not performing their duty to their Sovereign and their country. The present state of the country could not be viewed without apprehension. Pro crastination might produce a state of suffering that was1845.
The Edinburgh Letter was the formal announcement that Lord John Russell had come round to Cobden’s programme, the winning of Free Trade by agitation. Sir Robert Peel’s conversion, as everybody knows, was very freely imputed both at the time and afterwards to interested and ambitious motives. It is hard to understand on what ground the same imputation might not have been sustained in the case of the corresponding conversion of Lord John. The obvious truth is that they were both of them too clear-sighted not to perceive that events had, at last, shown that Cobden and his friends were in the right, and that the time had come for admitting it. Lord John Russell’s adhesion made the victory of the League certain. Mr. Bright happened to be on the platform at a railway station in Yorkshire, as Lord John Russell passed through on his way from the north to Osborne. He stepped into the carriage for a few moments. “Your letter,” said Mr. Bright, “has now made the total and immediate repeal of the Corn Law inevitable; nothing can save it.” The letter had in fact done no less than this.
Immediately on its publication Sir Robert Peel summoned his Cabinet. His view had been that Parliament ought to be called together, on the assumption that the measure of relief which he was prepared to introduce would virtually 1845.
The share of the League in this startling catastrophe did not escape Cobden’s eye. The prospect of famine in Ireland had no sooner become definite, than the League at once prepared for action. Before the end of October, and before the first of the Cabinet Councils, they held a great meeting of many thousands of persons at Manchester, and announced a series of meetings in the other great towns of the kingdom. The Ministers were quite aware what this meant, and that they could not face it. Sir James Graham warned Peel that the Anti-Corn-Law ferment was about to commence. It would, he said, be the most formidable movement in modern times. There was a pause for a few days during the deliberations of the Government, because everybody expected that each successive mail would carry to him the welcome decision of the Cabinet that the ports had been already opened. And why were they not opened? asked Cobden. Because the League was known to be strong enough to prevent them from being shut again. If there had been no Anti-Corn-Law League in the middle of November, the ports would have been opened a month ago. It was because1845.
The activity of the League was incessant. Now that their question had become practically urgent, and an occasion for the fall of ministries and the strife of parties, 1845.
“Bristol, Dec. 5, 1845.—I slept last night at James Rhoades’s, and had many kind inquiries and invitations. We had a very delightful meeting at Bath in a splendid Town Hall, the Mayor in the chair. We are having meetings every night, and I see no other prospect now but to run the gauntlet every night till the meeting of Parliament. But I hope we are getting to the death-struggle. Have you seen1845.
“London, Dec. 15, 1845.—We have had a good meeting in the City to-day. The knowing people say that they have never seen so large and unanimous a gathering. There is no doubt that the City will return four Free-traders at the next election. By the way I don’t hear anything decided about the decision of the Government question. People begin to doubt whether Lord John will form an Administration after all. Some knowing folks say Peel will be sent for again.”
“London, Dec. 13. (To George Combe.)—Politics are like a magic-lantern just now, every day brings some new and unlooked-for change. What a righteous retribution has fallen upon the late Ministry! The men who passed the present Corn Law in the face of starving millions in the spring of 1842 have been driven from power and place by their own sliding scale! May their successors profit by the example! There is still a great struggle before us, but we will beat the unrighteous few who wish to profit by the sufferings of the many.”
Two days after Cobden had been talking to the people of Birmingham in a triumphant strain about the League standing erect amid the ruins of the factions, he had an opportunity of measuring the estimate in which he was held by one at least of the factions. Sir Robert Peel resigned on the 5th of December. The Queen sent for Lord John Russell, and commissioned him to form an Administration. Lord John wrote two letters to Cobden on the same day. In the first, he gave the leader of the body which had shaken down a great Ministry and compelled an important revolution in policy, a provisional 1845.
Dec. 19, 1845.
“Dear Sir,—I do not expect that I shall be able to form an Administration. If I should, however, on this occasion or a future one, I shall ask you to assist me by accepting the office of Vice-President of the Board of Trade, Lord Clarendon being the President, and the Vice-President having to represent the department in the House of Commons.
I remain, yours faithfully,
The reader will smile at this proposal, when he thinks of the composition of Liberal Governments since the death of Lord Palmerston. The difference between then and now marks the decay of Whig predominance within the five-and-thirty years that have intervened. Cobden’s reply to the unflattering offer might have been foreseen. There is little doubt that it would have been the same, even if the offer had been of a more serious kind.
Dec. 20, 1845.
“Dear Lord John,—I feel greatly honoured by the offer of the office of Vice-President of the Board of Trade, in the event of your being able to form an Administration. In preferring to remain at my post as the out-of-doors advocate of Free Trade, I am acting from the conviction that I can render you more efficient assistance in carrying out our principle by retaining my present position, than by entering your Government in an official capacity. Again assuring you how highly I esteem this expression of your confidence,
I remain, dear Lord John,
Most faithfully yours,
This reply crossed the second note which Lord John1845.
“Dec. 19, 1845.
“Dear Sir,—In consequence of what I wrote this morning, I now write to inform you that I have not been able to form a Ministry.
“All those who were to be my colleagues had agreed to the total repeal of the Corn Laws. Other differences on another subject have caused our failure.
I remain, yours faithfully,
The differences which were the cause of failure were with Lord Grey.5 He objected to Lord Palmerston as Foreign Secretary. The intrigue, says one who was very competent to judge such matters, was neither contrived with dexterity nor conducted with temper, but it extricated the Whig leader from an embarrassing position.6 Lord John Russell’s plea was not only that in face of the risks to be encountered unity was indispensable, but that as Lord Grey was among the first of his party who declared for complete Free Trade in corn, it would be unjustifiable to attempt to carry it without him. Viewed from this distance of time, and in the light of the present decline of the Whig caste, the plea, it must be confessed, is one of singular tenuity. No one doubts the sincerity either of Lord John’s attempt to form a government, or of his honest acquiescence in its failure. It was obviously much easier for Sir Robert Peel to settle the Corn question, because he would have the votes of the Whigs and 1845.
On the failure of his rival, Sir Robert Peel went to Windsor, withdrew his resignation, and returned to London, having already resumed the functions of the First Minister of the Crown. He hoped by speaking to his colleagues from the point of a definitely accepted position, to secure the support of those who had dissented from him at the beginning of the month. One at least of the survivors, who was in a position to know Peel’s mind at this moment, holds it for certain that the Minister returned to town in the afternoon of the 20th, in full confidence that he would carry his party with him in the tremendous step which he had resolved to take. Lord Stanley withdrew at once,7 but Peel persisted in thinking that the schism would end there. It was not many weeks before he found out his mistake. Thirty years after these events, when Peel’s bitterest assailant had by a singular destiny raised himself to the height of power from which Peel was now looking down upon him, he made an interesting remark on a criticism that had been published upon his career. “The writer,” said Lord Beaconsfield, “fails to do justice to a striking distinction in my political history. The Duke of Wellington in passing Catholic Eman cipation, and Sir Robert Peel in repealing the Corn Laws,1845.
“I have reason to believe,” said Cobden afterwards, “that some discussions which I raised in the House with a view to proving that the agriculturists themselves were, as a whole, injured by Protection, gave him some confidence in the practicability of a change of policy.” This may well have been so. The speech in which Peel announced and vindicated the new policy, is little more than an echo of Cobden’s Parliamentary speeches of 1844 and 1845, and this accounts for the extraordinary prominence which he afterwards gave in so remarkable a manner to Cobden’s share in what was done. Peel has explained the course along which his mind was travelling. His confidence in the necessity of Protection was lessened by the experiment of 1842. He felt from the first the increasing difficulty of applying to articles of food the principles which had been applied to so many other articles. Later experiments pointed in the same way. Certain important articles of agricultural produce were now admitted at low rates. Among these were oxen, sheep, cows, salted and fresh meat. A chorus of sinister prophecy rose from the injured interests. There was even a panic. Forced sales of stock took place. It would be impossible to compete with the foreign grazier. Meat 1845.
Then he perceived an increase of consumption of articles of first necessity, much more rapid than the increase in population, and this greatly augmented the responsibility of undertaking to regulate the supply of food by legislative restraints. It greatly aggravated, moreover, the peril of these restraints in the case of any sudden check to prosperity.4
Besides these considerations, Peel says that his faith in restrictions on the importation of corn had been weakened by general reasoning; by many concurring proofs that the wages of labour do not vary with the price of corn; by serious doubts whether, in the present condition of the country, the present plenty were not ensured for the future in a higher degree by free intercourse in corn, than by restrictions for the purpose of protecting domestic agriculture. Clear as all this is to a generation whose vision is not obscured by the passions of contemporaries, resentment and suspicion at the time were emotions that might have been expected. It speedily became certain that they were violent enough to endanger the new policy, to wreck the party, and to overthrow for ever the great Minister who had been its chief.
Meanwhile the League made ready to give him effective support. Whatever may have been the case with Sir Robert Peel himself, it is certain that other people were afraid of the operations of the League. It was this con federation which kept both the Whig advocates of a fixed1845.
At this time circumstances naturally began to work a complete change in Cobden’s attitude towards Sir Robert Peel. Three weeks before, when the Minister left office, Cobden had allowed the excitement of the hour to betray him into public expressions of exultation, which were almost ferocious in their severity. Miss Martineau has explained how this fierce outburst shocked some of his friends. They appear, as has already been mentioned in another connexion (p. 207), 1845.
“It was wrong to exult in Peel’s fall, and yet the scene of my indiscretion was calculated to throw me off my guard, and give my feelings for a moment the mastery of my judgment. I was speaking in the face of nearly the entire adult male population of Stockport, whose terrible sufferings in 1841, when Peel took the government from the Whigs to maintain the very system which was starving them, were fresh in my memory. The news of the retirement of the Peel Ministry reached Stockport a couple of hours before the meeting took place. When it was announced, the whole audience sprang up, and gave three times three cheers. I was quite taken aback, and out came that virulent attack upon Peel, for which I have been gently rapped on the knuckles by Miss Martineau, yourself, and many other esteemed correspondents. It was an unpremeditated ebullition. Tell your good brother I will keep a more watchful guard over the old serpent that is within me for the future. You must not judge me by what I say at these tumultuous public meetings.”6
The rest of this letter, describing his feelings about public life, has been given in a preceding chapter (pp. 207–8). In a second letter, replying we may suppose to a request of Combe’s that he might be allowed to show the first to some of their common friends, Cobden referred fiercely enough, as he had previously done in public, to the extremely painful incident of 1843: it has been already described in its place.7
“You are at liberty to make any use you please of that1846.
No nature was ever less disposed for the harbouring of long resentments, and it was not many weeks from this time before a curious incident had the effect of finally effacing the last trace of enmity between these two honoured men. A vulgar attack happened to be made in the course of debate on the Chairman of the League, which drew a rebuke 1846.
Speeches, i. 164.
Speeches, i. 328. Nov. 13, 1845.
Speeches, i. 349 Dec. 17.
The publication of the Cabinet secret made a wonderful stir at the time. The Standard and the Herald denounced it as an atrocious fabrication. But the Times stuck to its text, and laughed at the two “melancholy prints” who had been “hobbling about the Corn Laws to the very last,” unconscious that the repeal of the Corn Laws was “a thing for statesmen to do, not for old women to maunder about.”
The Lord Howick of the previous Chapter. He had become a peer on the death of his father in July, 1845. The seat which he then vacated at Sunderland was won by Mr. Hudson, the Railway King, against Colonel Perronet Thompson. Cobden spoke with sufficient pungency of the victorious candidate soon afterwards. See Speeches, i. 312–3.
Mr. Disraeli’s Lord George Bentinck, p. 23.
Lord Stanley’s place at the Colonial Office was taken by Mr. Gladstone, who had left the Ministry under circumstances already described (p. 326). He had no seat in Parliament during the important session of 1846, having resigned Newark, for which he had been returned by the Duke of Newcastle. The Duke was one of the stoutest opponents of Free Trade, successfully using all his influence to secure the defeat in North Notts of his own son, whom Peel now promoted to the office of Irish Secretary and a seat in the Cabinet.
Letter to J. Parkes, May 26, 1856.
“Allowing for differences in grasp and experience,” he went on, “the Prince Consort was in this respect of the same type.”
Mr. Disraeli dwelt much on a certain inconsistency on this point. Peel always said that he felt that he was not the person who ought to propose repeal; and he repudiated as a foul calumny the assertion that he wished to interfere in the settlement of the question by Lord John Russell. But, asked Mr. Disraeli, what was it but your wish to interfere in this manner which broke up your Cabinet at the beginning of December? As Peel expressly said that it was only the refusal of his colleagues to assent to repeal which prevented him from remaining in office on the platform of the Edinburgh Letter, Mr. Disraeli’s charge, so far as it goes, cannot be satisfactorily met.
Tamworth Letter, 1847. For other reasons see Peel’s letter to Cobden, below, p. 397.
Memoirs, ii, 103.
Tamworth Letter of 1847, in Memoirs, ii. 105.
See Prentice’s History of the League, ii. 415.
To G. Combe. Manchester, Dec. 29, 1845. See Miss Martineau’s Autobiography, ii. 259–262.
Above, chap. xii., pp. 256–261.
To Geo. Combe. Manchester, Feb. 1846.