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4: The Campaign for Repeal - William Dyer Grampp, The Manchester School of Economics 
The Manchester School of Economics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960).
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The Campaign for Repeal
When the Manchester people assumed the leadership of the free-trade movement, its prospects were not bright. It had greater resolution and spirit in it than ever before, because it enlisted most of the middle-class radicals, and because the businessmen had at last come to oppose the laws in an unequivocal way and had put their money into the movement. But the power on the other side was more formidable: the landed aristocracy, the farm tenants and laborers, and the Tory party, which on the issue of total and immediate repeal was joined by most of the Whigs. The Chartists, the most effective section of the working class, were most of them still opposed to the laws, but as they saw the employers come around to their view they began to leave it. The economists were either opposed or indifferent to the campaign.
Among the interested observers were Carlyle, who published Chartism, in which the corn laws were denounced, a year after the campaign began; Ruskin, whose writings were to become a force in the decline of the Manchester School; and Engels, who for about two years during the campaign was in Manchester in the firm of Erman and Engels (which seems to have taken no part in it).
The regulating of the corn trade was so well established that it is understandable the early free traders in the years immediately after Waterloo should not have tried to repeal the laws entirely or even have wished to. In 1820, Thomas Tooke, the author of the noted History of Prices, drafted a petition for free trade for a group of London merchants, and it was presented to the House of Commons by Alexander Baring, a spokesman for classical economic policy. It was “greeted with loud cheers from all sides,” on one of which Ricardo sat.1 He rose to say that he concurred in its principles, and regretted they had not been presented before. However, he continued, there were legitimate vested interests in agriculture, and immediate action would be unjust. He then alluded to the position described in Chapter 2. For the next 18 years there was continuing controversy over the laws, and they frequently were denounced by the radicals in the House. Joseph Hume, their leader, moved for repeal in 1834, and was defeated. In 1836, the Philosophic Radicals formed the Anti-Corn Law Association of London, and it was the model which the Manchester people had before them when they formed an association two years later.
There were great differences between the Manchester people and their predecessors. The early free traders, all of them more eminent men, had accumulated a record of failure, eccentricity, and frustration which was so dispiriting that they no longer believed it possible to repeal the laws entirely; they tried only to soften the effects, trusting meanwhile to time, the drift toward a more liberal commercial policy, and the enlightenment of the public to bring their work to a successful end. Some must have found comfort in Smith’s remark that the public’s prejudice to free international markets was too strong ever to be overcome. The Manchester people looked at the matter differently. The businessmen among them, as Francis Place later noticed, brought to the campaign the enterprise and money that had made the English textile industry the largest in the world. They put the process of creative destruction to work in politics. The middle-class radicals fired the movement with their energy and brashness before established institutions, and in reading their exploits one is reminded of Pancks in Little Dorrit: “For as to Pancks, he does, he really does, he does indeed.” Finally, the school had Cobden and Bright who, although their abilities were not apparent at the start, soon became its leaders. To their very great ability can be added their inexperience in politics, the fact that they were unpracticed in compromise and were not inhibited by the experience of their predecessors.
The organization of the school was the National Anti-Corn Law League, and it was formed in 1839. Before then, it was the Manchester Chamber of Commerce that put forward the manufacturers’ views on commercial policy. Its way was much different from the League’s, and its failure on the issue of corn laws was what provoked the Lancashire radicals to organize. Its history is important for that reason. The Chamber was started in 1820, as the successor to the Commercial Society, which between 1794 and 1801 had represented the interests of the businessmen who traded with the Continent. Still earlier, the Manchester businessmen had a friend in Pitt who had been much influenced by The Wealth of Nations, one evidence being his negotiating of a commercial treaty with France in 1786. It was put aside by the wars after 1789, and its purpose was not realized until 1860 when Cobden negotiated a reciprocal trade treaty with Napoleon III. Pitt also was responsible for the Act of Union with Ireland; one of its provisions was the abolition by 1820 of duties on trade between the two countries. Its operation later was deferred, and one of the first petitions of the Chamber was to oppose any further delay. On such a point and still more on the duties on raw cotton, Brazilian coffee, Baltic timber, and so on, the Chamber demanded complete and immediate repeal. In so demanding, it did not antagonize any interest in Britain as important as that protected by the corn laws. On those laws, the Chamber was cautious, restrained, and equivocal.
The evolution of its policy on them shows how reluctant the businessmen were to contend with the conservative power even when they stood to gain enormously from a victory, and their behavior indicates it was not economic interest alone that established free trade. The laws seem to have been mentioned first in March 1824, when the Chamber instructed its Board of Directors to call the attention of the government “to the overwhelming restriction under which the commercial interests of this country are placed by the present state of the Corn Laws,” which tend “to throw obstacles in the way of mercantile operations by materially augmenting the difficulty of procuring returns,” i.e., the difficulty foreigners had of obtaining British currency with which to buy British goods. The annual meeting of 1825 adopted a resolution “praying for a complete revision of the Corn Laws, with a view to the removal of the restrictions on importation.” The resolution was sent to commercial groups in the principal towns asking their concurrence, and petitions were presented that year on behalf of a free trade in corn. The Chamber did not, however, call upon Parliament for complete and immediate repeal, leaving that to be inferred. It felt that even its limited stand required an explanation, and in the annual report for that year the Board expressed the hope that the Chamber “will not be thought to have travelled out of its proper sphere, in having recorded its opinions.”2
In 1828 the sliding scale replaced the fixed duty, and the Chamber supported the change as being “founded upon just and salutary principles,” even though, it said, the duties were higher than necessary. The report implies that the alternative to either the flexible or fixed duty was the complete prohibition of imports. The annual report for 1833 states that the Board had not opposed the laws, as bad as they were, because there had been no occasion during the year when the opinion of the manufacturers would have been listened to; but it did that year secure a 50 per cent reduction of the duty on raw cotton. The Board in 1835 again excused itself for not having spoken out, explaining that there had been “no favorable opportunity”; it did, however, adopt a resolution favoring a low and fixed duty in place of the sliding scale which by then had proved worse than the fixed duty it was meant to improve. By 1837, its position had become oblique indeed. The report for that year observed that the corn laws “afford direct encouragement and undue advantage to the Foreigner in a valuable branch of trade,” which was the milling of flour. It also observed that the nation need not fear a dependence on foreigners for food, and expressed an idea which the school later was to make an important part of its case: “There is a security against this in the ordinary workings of self-interest. Sellers profit along with buyers, and have an interest not less strong to prevent any rupture of the connection.” It is of some interest that in the report, in which the pacific economic man is described (conceived, it will be recalled, by Ricardo), the Board also stated that it had asked the government to intercede with France in order to lift its blockade of Mexico and Argentina which had brought “serious evils” to British commerce. The Chamber could be sufficiently aggressive when its interests did not conflict with those of agriculture.3
During its years of timidity, there were a few people in the Chamber who persistently urged it to demand complete and immediate repeal, and they did so at a time when the idea was certain to be ignored by the government and to be regarded by others as utterly foolish. J. B. Smith presented such a motion at each annual meeting from 1828 to 1835. His single-mindedness got him the names of “Corn Law Smith” and “Mad Smith.” It was characteristic of the radicals. Earlier, John Fielden, a tireless advocate of the Factory Acts and at one time of corn law repeal, got to be known as the “Self-Acting Mule.” Archibald Prentice was one of Smith’s allies; he left the Chamber in disgust in 1834, and carried on the fight for free trade (and other radical causes) in the Manchester Times which he then published. He was one of the first to notice Cobden’s ability, and printed long notices of this early writings, which were on foreign policy.
It was not only the radicals among them who deplored the timidity of the businessmen. C. P. Villiers and the London group urged them to be more demanding. Manchester’s representative in the House, Poulett Thomson, excused his inactivity by saying he got no support from his constituents, and when asked what would arouse them said, “Such is the state of public feeling, the want of interest experienced, that I have no hope of any repeal of the corn laws, but through a famine.”4 Their timidity may have been in Carlyle’s mind when he wrote that the new wealthy class had no capacity for leadership and said the country needed a class of Captains of Industry. Actually, the businessmen were not indifferent to repeal, and they certainly were not silent about it. They were equivocal and uncertain, and the reason was their fear of challenging the landed aristocracy to a decisive contest. When the corn law issue was raised in the ’twenties, the landed interest said it would support repeal if the manufacturers would support the repeal of the duties on their goods. The businessmen declined, as the landlords very well knew they would. By 1838, most of the protective duties on manufactured goods had been abolished, but the timidity remained. It seems to have been sustained by those among the businessmen whose political fortunes were dependent on the Whig party which still was solicitous of agriculture. To have struck out on a clear course for complete and immediate repeal would have thrown the businessmen into public agitation, excitement, and would have imperiled the respectability to which they were so attached.
In time the businessmen did just this, and in the Chamber the occasion of the change was the annual meeting on December 13, 1838. A few months before, the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association had been started, and there was speculation over whether the businessmen at last had been aroused. At the Chamber meeting a draft petition on the corn laws was presented on behalf of the directors by the president, G. W. Wood, a cautious businessman and M.P. for nearby Kendal. Even before submitting the petition, he indicated his willingness to compromise when he alluded to the common claim that agriculture was more heavily taxed than manufacturing and hence it was entitled to protection. He did not think the burden was as great as it had been, but if he was mistaken he would support a fixed duty equal to additional tax burden. The petition then was read, and it was meant both to marshal support from the businessmen and to impress the government with their intentions. It was a general discourse, moving from polite expressions of injury to sententious remarks about the rights of free exchange. It did not call either for complete and immediate repeal or for any other explicit change; the appropriate action was left to the government to infer. It alluded to the controversial question of whether or not repeal would lower money wages:
If from mistaken notions of unassailable supremacy, we are indifferent about the price of human food, and require our manufacturers [workers] to eat dear bread, whilst our foreign competitors procure theirs at a cheaper rate, our industrious population will unavoidably be driven back in the scale of civilization, to a level with those whom they have hitherto excelled in physical comforts, and we shall speedily undermine the foundations on which both our agricultural and manufacturing industry repose.5
The implication is that without repeal both money and real wages will fall, while with it only money wages will fall. The idea was not made explicit however. In the ensuing debate only two speakers did make it explicit, and they were not contradicted.
6 The radicals appeared in force at the meeting, and strongly objected to the petition. J. B. Smith, dissociating himself from the other directors, spoke at length. So did Cobden. Both made the same point: The corn laws were promoting the growth of manufacturing abroad, and if not repealed they would destroy Britain’s manufacturing superiority. Smith cited figures showing the increase in exports of manufactured goods from Prussia, France, and the United States, and figures showing that the annual money value of British exports in the ’thirties was less than it had been in the ’twenties. He wanted to prove that Britain was directly assisting this change. He said there was an increase in its exports of coal, iron, and of semi-finished manufactures, like yarn and cotton twist, which were made into finished textiles abroad. Moreover, British textile machinery was being exported, in violation of an export prohibition, and skilled British workers were emigrating to show foreign workers how to copy it. The workers were leaving, he said, because food was cheaper abroad. Finished textiles on the Continent and in the United States often sold at a lower price than similar goods in Britain, and some British manufacturers were not only losing their export market but also their domestic sales. Smith was supported by W. Rawson, a hosiery manufacturer of Nottingham, who said his firm was being driven to the wall by German competition, and that the Lancashire people would come to the same end in time. Smith asked: “But were gentlemen insensible to the handwriting on the wall? (Loud cries of ‘hear, hear.’) Might not what had been raised by the superior skill and industry of our countrymen be destroyed by bad legislation? (‘Hear, hear.’)”
Cobden said the petition failed to present the case for repeal in a way that would impress men of affairs in business and government, and that it read as the work of “a mere tyro in political economy” who had just and only read Adam Smith. The government, he said, must be called to account for failing to redeem its pledge to move toward free trade; it had promised as much in 1825 when Huskisson had introduced the principle in his budget. The government then had said it would not provide any protection in excess of 30 per cent; but it now provided landlords with an effective 100 per cent duty on wheat. He cited figures (taken from G. R. Porter’s The Progress of the Nation) to show that the per capita consumption of corn was decreasing.
The meeting, and the one that followed, were curious, because neither the leaders of the radicals nor those of the moderates would declare themselves on two key issues: whether or not repeal should be total and immediate, and whether or not the manufacturers could expect money wages to decline. Wood asked Cobden if “the removal of the protective duty on grain should be gradual or instantaneous.” Cobden answered, “I should not deem it necessary to express any opinion on that point; and none was expressed in the former petition.” Archibald Prentice, writing the history of the free-trade movement some 15 years later, said that the point was the entire issue separating the two factions, and that the radicals had believed the moderates were willing to accept a fixed duty for an indefinite time. He did not say anything about the wage question. One radical and one moderate were fairly explicit, but their leaders neither approved nor repudiated their frankness. Rawson said that foreign manufacturing “would continue to advance so long as the cheap food of foreigners enabled them to work at half the money price of labour.” G. Sandars, a moderate, cited the injustice of immediate and complete repeal to the landlords and to the workers whose money wages, he said, would fall. (His novel remedy for foreign competition was to cause food prices in some way to rise abroad until costs there were equal to those in Britain.) R. H. Greg, an influential supporter of the radicals, said that repeal “would give us cheaper food; . . . give the foreign manufacturer dearer food.” But he did not wish to emphasize cheap food, because “it was more important to have a return for our goods than even to have cheap food.”7
Cobden submitted a substitute petition, and much of it was forthright and vigorous. But on the wage question it said: “Our impolitic and unjust legislation, which, by preventing the British manufacturer [worker] from exchanging the produce of his labour for the corn of other countries, enables our foreign rivals to purchase their food at one-half the price at which it is sold in this market.”8 The remainder of the petition incorporated Smith’s argument for repeal, and it was designed to alarm the businessmen by the growing competition from abroad and the government by the prospect of Britain’s losing its industrial supremacy. It did not, however, call for complete and immediate repeal or propose any other specific change in the laws. The omission was less significant in the radicals’ petition, because they were at that time promoting the League and it did demand complete and immediate repeal.
The businessmen’s view of the wage question changed later, and the significance is described in Chapter 5. In 1838, the lowering of money wages was the greatest advantage most of them saw in repeal, and those who did not hold this view were nevertheless alive to its power and held it before the others. It is implied in the arguments of Smith and Cobden, viz., repeal would arrest the growth of foreign manufacturing. Only Cobden alluded to wages openly, implying that manufacturing abroad was increasing because cheaper food there made lower money wages possible. Smith explained the growth differently and less convincingly. The corn laws, he said, caused foreign countries to raise tariffs against British goods, and caused British workers to emigrate. Neither development was sufficient to explain the entire growth of manufacturing, and neither explained why foreign manufactures could be sold cheaper in Britain than goods produced there. Lower costs abroad were the only explanation, and it was Cobden—in his wage argument—who set forth the presumed reason for them.
The radicals’ argument was effective, and their petition was adopted. Wood resigned the presidency, and left the Chamber with other moderates to form the rival Manchester Association of Commerce. Smith was made the new president. There is something whimsical in the spectacle of radicals organizing to seize a Chamber of Commerce, but at the time the issues were anything but that.
Yet even when the radicals were in power, the Chamber did not shed its circumspection entirely or lose its fondness for circuity. In 1839, the Board said it had not petitioned Parliament that year because there had been no public demonstration which would have given force to its representations. Actually the League staged numerous public demonstrations that year, and there was a great assembling of free traders all over the country. In 1841, the Board issued a special report, “On the Injurious Effects of Restrictions on Trade,” and it said more about the duties on sugar and coffee, which were not produced at home, than about corn, which was. The report said, “our commerce will be irretrievably lost, unless the present system [of restriction] be speedily and effectually amended.” That “amended” should have been used instead of “eliminated” is noteworthy. It was just this difference that separated the Manchester School from everyone else on the issue of free trade, and up to this time the Chamber had not once called for complete and immediate repeal. It may have been that the radicals hoped “speedily and effectually amended” would be understood to mean that. However, when they took the issue outside the Chamber, they did not practice circumlocution on this point. One of the last expressions of the Chamber on the corn laws contains an idea for which Manchester is celebrated. The annual report for 1844 stated: “Whatever law interferes with the arrangements of Divine Providence to supply the necessary food of man is an infringement at once of natural and divine right.”9
Such notions are a part of the school’s miscellany, but they are not representative of the ideas that directed it. Those ideas can be taken from what was said and done during the free-trade campaign. It was directed by the National Anti-Corn Law League, in which the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association was the major power.10 The Manchester Association was begun in September 1838—by the same men who a few months later acquired control of the Chamber—on the occasion of a meeting of businessmen and radicals that was called to hear John Bowring, one of the Philosophic Radicals who two years earlier had formed the Anti-Corn Law Association of London. Bowring had been one of the young men around James Mill and Bentham, and later had edited the first collection of Bentham’s writings. Having just returned from the Near East, he described the hand of Manchester that he had noticed there. “What a satisfaction,” he said about his ascent of Mount Lebanon, “to find one of the ancient Druses clothed in garments with which our industrious countrymen have provided him.” He also explained two ideas that became important as the League carried its campaign forward. Repeal, he said, would raise wages by causing the demand for textile exports to increase; and universal free trade would give all nations an economic interest in preserving peace.11 Bowring’s speech is worth recalling, because in the variety of ideas it expressed it was a suitable beginning for the League and it typified the conglomeration of ideas which the League propagated. There is the fanfare of rhetoric about laisser faire, then a solid idea borrowed from Ricardo, and, finally, a shrewd guess about the wage effect of repeal. It is noteworthy that the League began with the prediction that free trade would raise, not lower, wages. There was still another element in the League’s collection of ideas, and it was the wickedness of self-interest. One of the most important lecturers was A. W. Paulton, and a month after the Manchester Association was formed, he is reported as saying: “There was a class of political economists in this country whose only object seemed to be the creation of wealth. But this ought not to be.” The proper object should be “to equalize, on just principles, its distribution.” That, he said, is just what the corn laws did not do. Instead, they distributed wealth in favor of the aristocracy, and the free-trade movement was a contest between “30,000 landowners and 26,000,000 of men.” He added that the laws also restricted exports.12
The Manchester Association announced in October a provisional committee, on which Smith had the important position of treasurer. It included Bright, but not Cobden who at that time was returning from a trip abroad. By January 1839, it was able to summon free traders from all over Britain to Manchester, including representatives of repeal groups in Glasgow, London, Leeds, and other cities. It was then that the National Anti-Corn Law League was formed, and it was a federation of local associations. It was ruled almost entirely by the Manchester group. The chairman was George Wilson. The great meeting was less a demonstration of numbers than of financial power, intellectual quality, traditional radicalism and dissent, and “middle-class respectability” (a phrase of which the Manchester people were fond). There was an astonishing number of speeches, and they represented the diverse purposes of the free traders. R. H. Greg explained the manufacturers’ interest in repeal (which was not identical with his own). He said that England would not increase its exports until it imported more corn and timber, that the textile industry was growing at an alarming rate in America and on the Continent, and that European textiles were being offered on the English market at prices lower than those of domestic textiles. Villiers, then leader of the free traders in the House, praised the businessmen for having taken action at last and regretted that hitherto they had been “timid to a fault.” He went on to explain how the corn laws were promoting the growth of manufacturing abroad. Sir William Molesworth, another Philosophic Radical, urged the League to be aggressive in carrying its campaign to Parliament, and advised it to secure debate on the laws as often as possible. Bowring also spoke, and so did Perronet Thompson, the radicals Joseph Brotherton and Joseph Dyer, and many others. But neither Cobden nor Bright did, as they were not thought notable enough at the time. Cobden drew up a petition to be presented to the House. Thompson suggested that compensation might be offered to the landlords, which caused Benjamin Pearson, of Manchester, to recall that during the antislavery movement the proposal had been made to compensate the slaveowners and he had thought it was the slaves who should have been compensated.
It was Molesworth’s advice that in time became the strategy of the League, namely, to bring the greatest possible pressure upon Parliament by electing as many free traders as it could and then furnishing them with massive public support enlisted by agitation in whatever form it was effective. The method was not quite that of marshaling public opinion to support representatives who wanted to repeal a law. It was something more, and the difference lay in the independent conduct of the free-trade members (the leaders refused to submit even to the limited party discipline of the time) and in the methods used to secure public support. By the standards of the mid-twentieth century, they are not remarkable, and that is because our standards themselves are. A disregard for the legitimate privileges of the opposition, an unrestrained assault upon the public’s ear, the exciting of the masses to violence, were neither as common nor as respected nor as admired for their effectiveness as they are today. Those who engaged in such behavior naturally made themselves noticed. They did not always choose their methods gladly, and often were forced to use them by the restrictions placed on the power of public opinion.
Repeal was one of a number of reform movements that had to organize massive pressure in order to make itself noticed. Others were the antislavery movement, Catholic Emancipation, and the movement for parliamentary reform. The leading free traders sometimes deplored in private the postures they struck in public. Harriet Martineau rebuked Cobden for a savage attack on Peel in 1845. He took it genially, and said, “You must not judge me by what I say at these tumultuous public meetings.” There have not been many popular figures as forceful, relentless, and compelling as he, and yet one comes away from the record of his life with the belief that he was one of the gentlest and best of men.
He was elected to the House in 1841, and his constituency was Stockport instead of Manchester, because Potter and the other Whig leaders did not want so independent a figure to represent them. Bright was elected in 1843. They were welcomed by Brotherton and Edward Miall, prominent nonconformists, and Milner Gibson, all of Lancashire constituencies, by the London radicals, Villiers, Molesworth, Bowring, and Roebuck, and a relatively small number of other free traders. At no time between 1839 and 1846 were there more than 125 declared free traders in a total membership of more than 600. Peel said that there were no more than half a dozen members who believed in applying the idea of laisser faire to all questions of economic policy, and his estimate probably was too high. One reason for the small show of strength in the early ’forties was the fact that neither among the public nor in the House was there substantial support for repeal. Another reason was that the support was greatest in the manufacturing districts, and there representation was less in proportion to the population than in the agricultural, and protectionist, districts.
The League sought to turn the agricultural vote to free trade (as improbable as that sounds) and to increase the number of voters in the industrial areas by the use of the 40-shilling freehold provision. Where each failed, it meant to force the protectionist members to vote for repeal by creating mass discontent. In the end, it was the pressure of discontent which forced repeal; and two-thirds of the final vote in favor of repeal was cast by landowners.13 In the early days there was an attempt to entice the Tories into supporting free trade (shown in the attempt to buy the support of the Duke of Buckingham), and there were numberless efforts to form a bloc with the working class. Some of the League members who had long been associated with the radical Whigs tried to bring the entire party around to a stand for complete and immediate repeal; eventually it was brought around but only after nearly everyone else, including the Tory Prime Minister, had come to that conclusion. The leaders of the League were less interested in converting the Whigs, perhaps because the party was hopelessly equivocal on the issue of repeal, having for so long declared itself on the side of the principle of free trade and continuously supporting a duty of one kind or another.
For about three years after 1839, the League tried to enlist the support of the working class. Not only were the Chartists opposed to the corn laws but the specifically political purposes of the Chartists appealed to the middle class in several ways. Parliamentary reform was an objective of the radicals in London and elsewhere. There were those in the League, such as Bright, who were interested less in free trade than in increasing the political power of the lower middle class and the workers. They believed the repeal campaign could be used to bring about a major redistribution of political power which would reduce the aristocracy and upper middle class to a minority position in Parliament. They tried to add some of the Chartists’ objectives—equal electoral districts and an extension of the franchise—to the explicit purposes of the League. Its constitution prohibited it from seeking any objective other than the repeal of the corn laws, and they were overruled by Cobden. The prohibition did not, however, prevent him from trying to incorporate the League with the pacifist movement, unsuccessfully as it turned out.
Radical political reform was an issue on which Cobden and Bright disagreed, and Cobden never went as far as Bright wanted to take him, much to Bright’s regret and annoyance. “You seem to take the working class sometimes too exclusively under your protection,”14 he once told Bright, and Bright told him that with his help the franchise movement could be as successful as the repeal movement had been. Cobden however was lukewarm about the working class and at times was antagonistic. When promoting the incorporation of the city of Manchester in 1838—a quite important change—he had been opposed by a coalition of the Tories and left-wing leaders of the workers. He faced the same coalition later in the free-trade movement. After repeal, he occasionally was drawn into efforts to extend the franchise, and in 1865, a few months before his death, he was president of a provisional committee formed to inaugurate a campaign. It invited the First International to participate, and the letter found its way to Marx, who was both gratified and suspicious.15 He need have been neither, for Cobden never committed himself entirely to the working class; and when he participated in franchise movements his purpose was to increase the power of the lower middle class, which was his origin and was the object of his fondness always and the class to which he was attached. Although he will forever be associated with Manchester, he didn’t care for the political and social texture of that city. He deplored its class distinctions, and, in a letter in 1857, compared it with Birmingham where industry
is carried on by small manufacturers, employing a few men and boys each, sometimes only an apprentice or two; whilst the great capitalists in Manchester form an aristocracy, individual members of which wield an influence over sometimes two thousand persons. The former state of society is more natural and healthy in a moral and political sense. There is a freer intercourse between all classes than in the Lancashire town, where a great and impassable gulf separates the workman from his employer. The great capitalist class formed an excellent basis for the Anti-Corn-Law movement, for they had inexhaustible purses, which they opened freely in a contest where not only their pecuniary interests but their pride as “an order” was at stake. But I very much doubt whether such a state of society is favourable to a democratic political movement.16
There were episodes in Cobden’s career which suggest he felt the same about the working class as Bright did, but on examination they seem to be clouded over by disingenuousness. After the first issue of The Economist, he wrote to Wilson that he regretted “the view you take . . . upon the danger to property consequent upon giving the working people the suffrage,” because the view placed Wilson “in an unfavorable position in the eyes of a class which must exercise more and more power in the legislation.”17 The letter was written in 1843 when the League dared not antagonize the working class. It was the League, more than Wilson, that was placed in an unfavorable position, because The Economist was presented as an authoritative organ of the campaign. Cobden’s attitude toward the working class was that of the petit bourgeois who doesn’t want to forget what he was. He didn’t show the condescension of an aristocrat or the uneasy superiority of a business magnate. It was best expressed by himself: “Mine is the masculine species of charity which would lead me to inculcate in the minds of the labouring classes the love of independence, the privilege of self-respect, the disdain of being patronized or petted, the desire to accumulate and the ambition to rise.”18
Bright was different. He was plainly sympathetic to the working class, and he was as plainly unsympathetic to wealth in manufacturing as that derived from the land. In 1843, he addressed a group of businessmen in Manchester:
I confess I have more sympathy with the millions of the working classes of Yorkshire and Lancashire than I have with the merchants and manufacturers of England. The latter are able to help themselves, and if they choose to invite upon their necks the hoofs of the landed oligarchy, they deserve the trampling. But the millions who toil, and who for years have been craving to be permitted to toil for their daily food, they have little power of influence over the Government. They are an enormous but a disorganized mass, and for them I have a sympathy, more intense than it is possible to describe.19
To Bright, the League was an organization for making the discontent articulate, and once the masses realized their power they would direct it to other reforms. When the League was disbanded, he said that only the unthinking could believe its purpose was accomplished when the corn laws were repealed. He was of the opinion that its purpose included “many other points and many other things, beyond the repeal of a particular statute.”20 Those “other things” were the extension of political power to the working class. During the period of the League, numerous efforts were made to advance that purpose. The most successful effort was the registration of voters under the 40-shilling freehold provision. When it was first used, Bright was enormously enthusiastic. He wrote to his sister, “I regard it as the ulterior measure of our contest.”21 He was enthusiastic, because he saw in it the beginning of an extension of the franchise. He never would content himself with using only it, because in itself it gave the vote only to the middle class, the 35- to 60-pound cost of a piece of property yielding that income being beyond the means of workers.
Some in the League (Bright seems not to have been among them) wished to form an alliance with the working class by collaborating with the Chartists. The latter agreed to support repeal if the League would support the six points of the Charter: universal manhood suffrage, annual sessions of Parliament, equal electoral districts, no property qualifications for Members, pay for Members, and voting by ballot. The terms of the offer were too stiff. Although the radicals among them were willing, most of the other free traders were not: the businessmen, to whom repeal was to be a paying proposition; the respectable middle class, which believed the Chartists were subversive; the humanitarian employers, who wished to do things for the workers but not with them; those in the League who did not wish to weaken its power by adding to its objectives; and those who simply were not in favor of the Charter even though they did not believe it was revolutionary. On the Chartist side, there was opposition to making common cause with the League because the businessmen were not trusted. There were grinding employers among them, and many had fiercely opposed the Factory Acts. Almost all of the businessmen had been too timid to stand up before the aristocracy on the corn law issue. Then, suddenly, they had become champions of repeal, denouncing the “bread-tax,” acting as brave as lions before the landed interest, and conducting themselves with all the irritating enthusiasm of a convert. The skepticism of the Chartists hardened into opposition when the League refused to make the Charter one of its objectives.
Between 1839 and 1842, the League nevertheless set out to win over the working class, and after that time many of the free traders were still friendly with the Chartists. It addressed two kinds of arguments to the workers. One was political: the duty on corn was unjust, because it fell heavily on the poor, and was the more unfair because there was no income tax on the rich. The corn laws, the League declared, were the work of the very men who perpetuated the inequitable representation in the House and who were the greatest enemies of the Chartists. The other argument was economic, and less persuasive. It was that repeal that would raise both money and real wages. The money wages would rise because the demand for manufactures, and hence for labor, would increase. Real wages would rise because the cost of food would fall; and the League made the point clear by itemizing the additional quantity of manufactured goods which the workers would be able to buy with their existing money wage if corn were duty free. The probable wage effect of repeal was rather carefully thought out. The free traders assumed (and correctly) that a decrease in the price of food would cause expenditure on it to decrease (i.e., that the demand for food was inelastic), and that the additional expenditure on non-food items would increase the domestic demand for manufactured goods; that increase, together with the greater export demand, would increase the demand for labor and money wages. A special appeal was made to the workers in the original publication of the League, The Anti-Corn Law Circular, which in its second issue began a column addressed specially to them.
The free traders tried to bring over the working class by action as well as by argument. In the summer of 1842—a year of great distress and the hungriest of the ’forties—there was a strike in the textile industry. The League’s conduct then is more instructive than its other actions, and shows how misleading it is to look upon the free-trade movement simply as an expression of laisser faire doctrine. The episode was a thunderstroke. It generated fierce controversy and the gravest accusations; although the histories of the period have recorded it, they have omitted what appear to be its singular features. It was called the turn-out, and began among the better paid workers, thereafter gathering force until the entire industry was closed down. An effort to broaden it into a general strike over the country, however, failed. In Lancashire, there was rioting and bloodshed, machinery was destroyed, gates were smashed and windows broken, factories were invaded to drive out the scabs, and some property was seized (more often a pub than a mill). There were mass meetings which declared the Charter to be the law of the land (as the great Peterloo meeting had done 20 years before). This much is known from contemporary accounts, most of them in the Manchester newspapers, both those which supported and those which opposed the League. Some referred to the strike as “the insurrection.” About the other relevant facts, there is disagreement. The protectionists everywhere in the country charged that a few employers provoked the strike and that others urged their men to join it. The employers’ purpose, it was asserted, was to give the workers’ discontent a forcible expression and to turn it against the government in order to force the repeal of the corn laws. Whether or not that is true can never be shown with certainty. It is certain that the employers attributed the discontent and the strike to the corn laws, and that they told their men that employment and wages would increase if the government repealed the laws. It also is certain that some members of the League in their capacity as city authorities in Manchester did not enforce order, and were unusually lenient with the strikers who were arrested. The newspapers report that most cases were remanded, and that is the last one reads of them, and that in some the striker was dismissed upon promising to return to work. Most of the cases were heard as the strike was coming to an end of itself. The Chartists were active, and when the strike ended they accused the free traders of having turned against it when it got out of their control.22 Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader, said that he was told by one of the League’s principal agitators, James Acland, that it intended to stop all the mills in order to force the government to repeal the laws. The Manchester Courier, an anti-League paper, quoted an employer as saying he would go on cutting wages until his men had not “a cabbage a day” to live on.23
During the strike some of the free traders formed the Manchester Complete Suffrage Union, and it differed from the Chartists only in formally adjuring the use of physical force. (This indeed is what some of the Chartists themselves had done.) The Union appears to have been a movement quite similar to Chartism and to have been controlled by the middle class radicals. John Brooks, a leading figure in the League, was president; Charles Cobden, a brother of Richard, was vice-preisdent; and another brother, Frederick, was a founder along with Prentice and Potter.
The protectionists promptly made a great issue of the strike. A few months after it ended, the conservative Quarterly Review published a savage indictment of the League. The principal charge was that the League was prepared to use physical force even to the point of a general insurrection. Some of the supporting evidence was quite specific. The article, written by J. W. Croker, said the strike started when some of the employers locked out their workers and others had provocatively cut wages, that the League had formed an alliance with the Chartists early in 1842 at a meeting which resolved upon a number of presumably subversive objectives, one being to pledge that all present would exchange their currency for gold (which is what the radicals had done in 1832 to force the passage of the Reform Bill). Croker quoted League statements which called upon Parliament to refuse to appropriate money for Peel’s government until it repealed the corn laws, and which proposed the deletion of the words, “legal and constitutional,” in the statement describing the means the League would use to secure repeal. He accused the League of trying to carry the strike into the coal mines, and the Manchester authorities of willfully refusing to put down the violence. Taken all in all, Croker declared in characteristic style, the League was “the foulest, the most selfish, altogether perhaps the most dangerous combination of recent times.”24
It is not sedition for which the Manchester School is celebrated, nor is the establishment of laisser faire usually thought to require mass violence. Nor are long-headed businessmen usually seen in the company of militant strikers. The League disclaimed all responsibility for the turn-out, and professed a strict adherence to peaceable persuasion. Yet the League in fact did engage in action so aggressive that it could not have stopped short of physical force, even if it had wanted to, which it did not always want. Its meetings were sometimes assaulted by protectionists or their hirelings, and the free traders answered in kind. The son of Absalom Watkin, a founder of the League, became practiced at setting a guard around its meetings, and so enthusiastic about his work that his father sent him out of the country to cool off.25 Direct action was not confined to the rank and file members. They had before them the rough-and-tumble methods of the leaders of the League. Bright wrote with satisfaction to Cobden about an impromptu meeting which he and other free traders staged near the Manchester Corn Exchange. “The master of the room took me by the collar and pulled me down; his red-coated familiar or porter was with him, but they were thrown off by my friends and threatened the police, etc.” Cobden himself had no taste for such behavior, and indeed was repelled by physical violence in any form, but he replied to Bright that the episode was “a striking illustration of the progress we have made.” At one time, he said, “the whole of the people on ’Change would have kicked you from Ducie Place to the Police Office.” Of Bright it was said that “if he had not been a Quaker he would have been a prize-fighter.”26 Cobden’s pugnacity was less apparent and usually more telling. He held Peel “individually” responsible for the distress of the country in a speech in the House. During the same session, Peel’s private secretary was killed by a lunatic who, some believed, mistook him for the Prime Minister. Cobden was accused of having provoked the attempt by his inflammatory speech. The accusation was intemperate, but so was the speech; and Cobden deliberately and admittedly harassed Peel in order to drive him to repealing the laws, or out of office.
In the midst of the turn-out he came to Manchester and made a speech that was circulated through the country. He categorically denied the League was responsible for the strike, and declared he would stake his “reputation as a public man and as a private citizen” on its innocence.27 It was a powerful speech then, but it isn’t today. He knew of the plan to shut down the factories and lock out the workers because Bright had proposed it to him in March. “The idea has struck me, and I wish thy opinion upon it.” Cobden himself had concurred in a plan to call upon the manufacturing districts to refuse to pay taxes.28 He knew that at the time of the strike his brothers and friends were fraternizing with the workers and trying to bring them into a suffrage organization. He warned them against it. “Depend upon it, nothing can be got by fraternizing with trades unions,” he wrote to Frederick a few days before protesting the League’s innocence. “They are founded upon principles of brutal tyranny and monopoly.”29 Yet earlier that year he had considered a scheme for enlisting the support of the workers and other advocates of the suffrage. In February he wrote to William Stokes, a Baptist minister, that it was “important to consider whether the time had not arrived in which the League should dissolve itself and assume a new form, for other and more extensive purposes.” What he meant was a union of the League with the Birmingham suffrage group of Sturge and the Chartists under O’Connor. Stokes reported this in a letter to The Non-Conformist published during the strike, and the letter was quoted by The Manchester Chronicle to embarrass Cobden. Stokes regretted that Cobden had dropped the plan.30
A year before the strike Cobden had told the House there would be trouble in Manchester if the laws were not repealed, that it would be useless for the government to threaten bayonets “unless they carried bread with the bayonets.” At that time, an opponent rose to say that the freetrade campaign was “a vain attempt of the mill-owners to divert the attention of the people from the grievances which their own practises had brought upon them.”31 Prentice laid the troubles to “the deep designing wickedness of some, acting upon the despair of the multitude.”32 In his History of the Anti-Corn Law League, published 11 years later, he said the destruction of property was much less than had been reported. It was reported to be large by The Manchester Times, of which he was publisher at the time of the strike. The most appropriate comment was made by one of the protectionist newspapers in Manchester, and it was gotten from The Wealth of Nations: “In the public deliberations the labourer’s voice is little heard and less regarded, except on particular occasions, when his clamour is animated, set on, and supported by his employers, not for his, but their own particular purposes.”33
What seems to have happened is that the League, as such, took no action to provoke or to restrain the strike, while members of the League did try to use it to sharpen the repeal movement and to make it more menacing. Cobden’s disclaimer, then, is literally true, but in its implications is not.
The Chamber of Commerce, steeped as it was in propriety, lamented the incident. Its annual report for 1842 concluded with a long, unprecedented discourse on the condition of labor in Lancashire. The statement is neither for nor against the workers; it is written as by fellow victims of the cause of their distress, which, the Board stated, was clearly the commercial policy that restricted trade and employment. The statement said that in “the late, lamentable commotions” the workers had been driven by hardship and suffering (not by the “wickedness of some”) and that in the past they had borne their lot with “heroic fortitude.” They were praised for respecting the property of the masters, there having been “not even a thread of yarn broken.” They had, however, made one grave mistake, which was to believe that the masters had the power to raise wages. The belief was “a novel and alarming addition to the difficulties of the capitalists whose condition was previously sufficiently discouraging.” It then stated, somewhat beseechingly, the predicament of the businessman:
To be placed in the midst of a population who regard them as responsible for their well-being, and to be unable, however willing, to employ them at adequate wages—to dread even the prospect of being made the instrument of curtailing still further their hard earnings—and as a return for all this odium to incur large annual losses of property—such for several years has been the anxious fate of our capitalists.34
The workers did not respond. After the strike, which was a failure, they moved farther from the free traders, into open opposition, and it was exploited by the protectionists who at times were able to persuade the Chartists to come into an open alliance with them. In time, the Chartists developed their case against the League, and it was most impressive when argued by James Leach. He claimed that the middle class had deceived the workers over the Reform Bill, and said they probably would do the same over repeal (which the middle-class radicals promised would lead to an extension of the franchise); that it was machinery, not agricultural protection, which caused the impoverishment of the working class; that not the worker but the manufacturers would benefit if there were an expansion of exports; that in fact exports would not increase noticeably because the lower wages abroad made the prices of most manufactured goods lower there and the others would be protected by a tariff; that the secret and ruling object of the League was to cut money wages; that there could be no permanent improvement in the condition of the workers until the Charter was enacted; and that the only solution to unemployment was the settling of the workers on the land. John Campbell, secretary of the National Chartist Association, added another point to its case, and many workers believed it. He said that free trade would drive thousands of laborers off the land and into the cities to compete with the industrial workers and lower their wages.
Failing to enlist the workers, the League turned to the agricultural districts where, one would suppose, they would have found even less support and probably would have been driven out. That occasionally happened, and in other ways the farmers from time to time expressed their opposition to free trade. But eventually the tenants, the farm laborers, and the small landowners listened with great attention. Cobden was particularly effective, more especially because he was preceded by a reputation which had made him into a demagogic ogre. His effect on a rural audience was described by Walter Bagehot: “They were surprised at finding that he was not what they thought; they were charmed to find that he was not what they expected; they were fascinated to find what he was”—which seems to say, they were pleasantly surprised.35
They were not, however, charmed into wanting the repeal of the laws meant to protect them. They were brought to it by being convinced that the corn laws did not in fact protect them—the small farmers, the tenants, and farm hands—but instead protected only the landlords whose work the laws were and who in so many other ways were responsible for the difficulties of others in agriculture. The League contended that when corn prices rose there was an increase in rents but that when prices fell there was little change in them. It promised that under free trade corn prices would be both stable and reasonable and that rents would be lower. There was continuous difficulty between tenants and landlords, principally because many landlords refused to give leases; and the tenants then were unable to make improvements in the land from which they themselves would benefit. The League declared that all tenants who wanted leases should be given them, and said that under free trade the landlords would be forced to grant them. It proposed also that rent be made a fixed quantity of corn, so that if there were price fluctuations they would be borne by the landlords. The argument was effective, because after 1842 prices fell substantially.
The farm laborers were told that free trade would make their wages more certain, because it would make prices more stable and employment more secure. The landlords often told the farm laborers that free trade was a wicked scheme of manufacturers who exploited their workers, and the League replied by telling the farm hands how much the workers in the mills were paid, which by agricultural standards was richness indeed. To the farmers who owned and worked their land, the League said that free trade would be to their advantage because it would diminish the power of the great landlords.
Its conquest of agriculture was the chef-d’œuvre of the League. One reason was that the corn laws did not provide an income adequate and certain enough to satisfy the majority of the population in agriculture; that is, the laws did not protect it. Another reason was the failure of the agricultural interest to marshal its forces in time to prevent their falling away to the free traders. When the effort was made, it was made too late, and it was reluctant, and altogether too gentlemanly.36 Indeed, it was not begun by the landlords at all, but by a tenant farmer, Robert Baker, and for support he had to rely on other tenants. He formed the Essex Agricultural Protection Society in January 1844. It was followed by other local societies, and they came together in a loose national body which got to be known as the Anti-League (which made it the anti-anti-corn law league). Its chairman was the Duke of Richmond, but even his great name did not rally the landed interest, which, when it did work with the tenants, almost always counseled restraint. The tenants wanted to make it into an organization as effective as that of the free traders, but they could not. Its meetings usually were small, soft-spoken, and conducted in an atmosphere of manly gentility which would have pleased Jane Austen but did not impress the House of Commons. Baker and the tenants wanted to stage great demonstrations, and to make the power of protection more articulate and effective in the House. They were overruled, although they were permitted to accept the challenges of the League to debate the corn laws. Even this the gentry found distasteful. The tenants wanted to add voters to the rolls, and again they were overruled. They were permitted to challenge the names added by the free traders, who, however, promptly challenged the protectionist names. In the end, there were fewer protectionist voters on the lists than at the start. No tenants were elected to the House, which was a grave handicap because the landed interest there was not as articulate, ingenious, combative, and resolute as the free traders. At the start it had the power of tradition on its side. As the strength of the League grew, the protectionist power needed a great leader if it was to be effective. Peel was not he, because Peel had come into office uncommitted on the corn laws; and the uneasiness which a few felt in 1841 grew into an extensive anxiety as the country saw Peel giving way before the pressure of the League. When he went over to repeal, the protectionists did not have a leader in the House, and it was only after the abolition of the laws that they at last found leadership, in Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck. In May 1846, after the third and final vote for repeal, the two met with the central body of the Society for the first time. In that vote, 203 of the members representing the landed interest voted aye and 197 voted no.37
The history of the protectionist Society is similar in some important ways to that of the Chamber of Commerce of Manchester. In neither was the cause put forward vigorously by those who stood to gain most by its success. In both, the rich were timid, hesitant, much inhibited by notions of propriety, and were invariable counselors of moderation and restraint. The tenants in the Society, as the radicals in the Chamber, sought to overcome the prudence of the richer and presumably the wiser. The radicals succeeded, the tenants did not. They had in common a strong taste for vigorous action.
They did indeed come together—the radicals and the tenants—and their union was one of the reasons why the League was successful in agriculture. Its success was the more remarkable in view of its failure to persuade the workers. They did stand to gain from the greater employment and higher wages which free trade would bring, while the farm tenants, the laborers, and the small owners would be injured by it just as the landlords would be. If each group had acted on its economic interest, as at the start Cobden expected each of them would, the forces in the campaign would have been quite different, and its course would have been different also; it would have been a contest between manufacturing and agriculture, and of city against country. In its greater part, it was not that at all. Each group acted against its economic interest, and joined with those who opposed the dominant class in its area, the workers making common cause with the landlords against the employers in manufacturing, and the tenants, laborers, and small farmers joining with the businessmen to oppose the landlords. The reason may have been sheer perversity, and if it was each was willing to pay dearly to settle old scores.
The protectionists accused the League of being disingenuous about the effect of repeal on the price of corn. It was. It told the workers that repeal would lower the price of bread, and it told the farmers (a) that corn prices would not decrease at all, or (b) that if they did the decrease would not be appreciable (five or six shillings a quarter, at the most), or (c) that if the decrease was appreciable it would be borne by the landlords. “Manchester rubbish,” James Wilson called the reasoning, and tried to improve it. At one of the Covent Garden meetings of the League in 1844, Wilson presented one of the best (and one of the few) statements about the economic effects of the laws and of their repeal. He said that the price of corn then was about what it was in 1800, that there had been a decrease in the income of tenants and in the wages of farm laborers, that the number of cultivators was about the same, and that total food consumption, hence the output of corn, had increased. This meant, he said, that the total income of agriculture was greater, and that landlords’ income had increased by an amount greater than the increase in total agricultural income because the income of tenants and farm laborers had fallen. Moreover, the prices of manufactured goods had decreased, and the real income of the landlords had increased still more than their money income. The tenants and laborers, however, spent only a small part of their income on such goods and spent most of it on food. Their real income therefore had fallen.
Wilson’s speech is an example of how well a few of the free traders could work the limited facts available to them into a cogent argument. On one point, the increase in total food consumption, his facts could be questioned. Porter in The Progress of the Nation presented figures to show that per capita consumption of corn had declined, and one cannot determine whether that decrease was proportionately more or less than the increase in population. But even if it were more, and total food consumption had declined, an important part of Wilson’s argument would have been unaffected, namely, the redistribution of real income in favor of the landlords.
The least persuasive—though none the less convincing—portion of his speech was its conclusion: “Now what we contend is, that if agriculturalists were exposed to the same principle as manufacturers are—to free competition—the same improvements might have taken place in agriculture which have been witnessed under competition in manufactures.”38 That is, repeal would lower the price of corn, but that would not harm the tenants and laborers because corn was the principal item of consumption for them. Had they viewed themselves only as consumers, they might have been impressed. But thinking of themselves as the people who produced corn (as well as bought it), they must have known they were being told they would have to become more efficient or get out of farming. A chill counsel indeed, and characteristic of the merciless way in which Wilson and The Economist applied the doctrine of laisser faire. In his defense, it has to be said that the counsel was not of his making but was a reflection of a very common psychological notion. The notion was that economic policy should not only make men wealthier but, even more, that it should make them self-reliant, diligent, and enterprising. If they were not all this, they soon would become so, or perish by being exposed to the rigors of the free market. The idea was an important part of Ricardian doctrine, it was elaborately developed by the Utilitarians, especially John Stuart Mill, and it was carried on by Marshall. In another version, it is the notion that laisser faire puts iron into a man’s character. If it doesn’t, and he perishes, he presumably hasn’t a character worth putting iron into.
The idea was not noticeably effective in winning over the farmers. Its harshness was softened by the less cogent and more cajoling of the free traders who took the line that whatever damage was done to agriculture by supply and demand would be borne by the landlords. To the tenants they promised lower rents; to the laborers, higher wages; and to the small farmers they said that if land were forced out of cultivation it would not be theirs but the large estates’. The incident is another that shows that laisser faire doctrine did not rule the Manchester School. Some of the members spoke and wrote enthusiastically about it, although they were not willing to apply it in all its harshness. They were like the English whom Mill describes: those who cling to a baleful idea long after they have acquired sense enough not to act upon it.
To say that the Manchester School did not put before the nation a consistent and comprehensive argument for free trade is quite different from saying that its economic ideas had no effect. They had a very great effect, and were, in fact, chosen for their effectiveness rather than for their cogency. The League sent its “lecturers” all over Britain, and they spoke to millions between 1839 and 1846. In London it held meetings almost daily, and it rented Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre for periods of weeks. Cobden, Bright, and Fox became national figures as they made repeal into a national issue. Bagehot relates that he and other students followed Cobden around London to hear him speak every night he was there. There probably never was an age when economics was as popular, when its ideas and language informed so large a part of the public, from the poor who were aroused by the injustice of “the bread tax” to the aristocracy which smarted under the label of “monopolist.” Petitions were circulated over the country, and signed by millions. Delegations went continually to members of the House and to interview ministers. The ladies held bazaars and tea parties, went to Covent Garden to hear Mr. Cobden, and were complimented by him. Letters went through the mail bearing tiny blue stickers showing a child praying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” No class, no group, no part of society was neglected, nor any means of appealing to it. The dissenting clergymen held conferences to consider repeal in relation to their duties, and their conclusions were reported in the House by the free traders. One of the League’s tracts was broadcast to the churches. It said: “Remember that you will decide [at the next parliamentary election] for Life or Death, to many thousands of immortal beings. Remember, above all, that your decision will be recorded on high, and that you will be called on to account for your vote at that dread tribunal when all mankind will be judged.”39
All this agitation was directed toward increasing the power of the free traders in the House. Behind it lay a very solid, measurable, and not at all flamboyant purpose: to increase the number of votes that could be secured on Villier’s annual motion on behalf of repeal. Along with the agitation went a very specific campaign among the electorate. The voting weakness of the free traders was apparent when they failed to stop Peel’s corn law of 1842 (which removed some of the instability of the sliding scale). Thereafter, one of the League’s principal objectives was to increase its political power in specific ways. In 1842, it made up a sheaf of tracts on repeal, and sent it to every registered voter in Great Britain. There were 800,000, and the cost of the effort was £20,000. Cobden then proposed the following program: (1) that the League correspond with 300,000 of the voters once a week; (2) that it hold meetings in every borough; (3) that it put up a free trade candidate in every borough where there was not already one; (4) that it promote the enfranchisement of those favorable to repeal by use of the 40-shilling freehold provision; and (5) that it challenge the protectionists on the voting lists wherever an error could be alleged. It was on points (4) and (5) that the league was most successful.40
It was in the House of Commons that the issue of repeal had to be decided. In Cobden’s view, expressed in one of the first articles he wrote for the League’s newspaper, the House after 1815 had committed itself to a course that must lead to the repeal of the corn laws and of all other restrictions on foreign trade including the Navigation Acts. That course had been set by the majorities of the Whig and Tory parties, and the House would have moved forward more rapidly had it not been for the restraining power of the landed interest. The League’s strategy was to split the majority of each party away from the protectionists in it so that each would go ahead swiftly; and the League used the traditional technique of exerting pressure on the center in order to split it away from the right, or restraining, wing. The Tories felt the power of the League more than the Whigs did because they were in office and because the Whigs (apart from the radical wing) had equivocated for so long that they were more difficult to manage. It had to coerce the majorities because it was unable itself to elect enough members who were reliable free traders. Its efforts on the voting lists and in elections added only 35 free traders to the 90 who were there when the campaign started. When Peel took office, he continued the program of liberalizing commercial policy, and although he did not commit himself to maintaining the corn laws neither did he promise entire freedom of trade. He became the personal object of the League’s pressure, and Cobden the person who exerted it. Each came to respect the formidable character of the other. As the free-trade pressure grew, it was Peel who was looked to for resisting it, and he was expected to answer Cobden in the House. Cobden’s speech on March 13, 1845, is usually thought to be his finest. As he made it, Peel prepared a reply; but when Cobden finished, Peel put aside his papers and, turning to an aide, said, “You must answer this, for I cannot.” When he yielded shortly after, the Tories split—the Whigs having gone over to free trade almost in their entirety—and the right went off with Disraeli and Lord Bentinck. Disraeli then tried to recapture the Peel Tories by using the same methods Cobden had used.
When Cobden was elected to the House in 1841, he had become a national figure, not quite of the dimensions of a commanding personality but of those of an agitator, and he was in fact called “the spoiled child of agitation.” His maiden speech was not received with the tolerance, let alone the encouragement, usually shown to that of a member; it was in the agreeable, persuasive manner at which he excelled. But it was received with ridicule and anger. The House may have believed something great and menacing had happened when it had to wait anxiously for the first speech of a representative from an industrial district. In it Cobden alluded to an argument he later was to make a telling one: that the corn laws imposed a tax on bread and so were an injustice to the poor. Hansard records laughter. Cobden remarked that he did not know whether it was he or the injustice that the House found amusing, “but still he did state that the nobleman’s family paid to this bread-tax but one half-penny in every £100 as income tax, while the effect of the tax on the labouring man’s family was 20 per cent.”41 Then he challenged the Conservatives to bring in an income tax law with such rates and to put it to the House for a vote. He told the House that in the previous week the dissenting clergymen of Lancashire had met and declared that the corn laws were an injustice to the poor. Again he was jeered, and for some time after he was referred to as the Methodist parson who was the Member for Stockport. The reactions were promptly reported to the working class and the dissenting churches, and the House later found it paid dearly for its amusement. After another of Cobden’s early speeches, a Conservative objected to his wasting the time of the House, declaring that the free traders had not “the least prospect of carrying any measure which they might propose.”42 When the free traders made their annual motion in 1842, calling for the House to form itself into a committee of the whole to inquire into the effects of the corn laws—a motion which if passed would have led to repeal—it was defeated 393 to 90.
“By the spring of 1843, how changed was the tone of the House! There was no laughing now at or about the Lancashire leaguers,” Harriet Martineau recorded.43 Now, Cobden was one of the most “dangerous men” in the country, and the Tories demanded that the League be suppressed as a seditious organization. When the annual motion for repeal was made that year, it again was defeated but by a much smaller margin, and Cobden was received differently. The Morning Post described his speech:
Melancholy was it to witness, on Monday, the landowners of England, the representatives by blood of the Norman chivalry, the representatives, by election, of the industrial interests of the empire, shrinking under the blows aimed at them by a Manchester money-grubber.44
The growing power of the League was in part attributable to its repeating certain arguments until they became a part of the common thought of the time. The corn laws, it maintained, were bad, because they raised the price of food and lowered real wages; they created unemployment by restricting the export of manufactured goods and their sale on the domestic market; they encouraged manufacturing abroad, and they protected inefficiency in agriculture at home. On political grounds too they were objectionable because they perpetuated the unjust domination of the House by the landed interest and because, by impoverishing the poor, they produced discontent and exposed the country to revolution. The laws imperiled Britain’s security by antagonizing foreign powers, and the League contended that the “monopolists” also were imperialists, as Palmerston’s behavior, it claimed, showed clearly. On moral grounds, the laws were even more deplorable. They not only imposed an unjust tax on the poor, but also unnaturally limited the supply of food and prevented nations from developing by free exchange the particular resources with which Providence had endowed them. It was the moralizing that elicited the most rhetoric, far more than the economic or political arguments, and it seems to have been effective. On occasion Cobden would declare that the only question was whether or not any government had the right to restrict the supply of food, and he made his declaration during the hungry ’forties.
The protectionists themselves were not unskillful, and moreover they had a substantial majority. Their major coun-terstroke was the introduction of additional factory acts, which in time would have come anyway but were hastened by the protectionists’ wishing to retaliate for the repeal campaign. They were another paradox of the period: As Britain moved toward complete freedom of foreign trade, it also moved toward greater control of the domestic market, and by 1854, when it removed the most ancient and honorable of all trade restrictions, the Navigation Acts, it had acquired an elaborate set of regulations over the conditions of work; and they were the lineal descendant of the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices, an amendment to which, in 1802, had been the first Factory Act.
The Tories expected the businessmen in the League to force it to oppose the passing of additional factory acts. It did. Yet there was much more to the issue, and to say the League opposed the regulation of factory labor is as informative as to say it was in favor of free trade. Indeed as complex as its behavior was on the free-trade issue, that behavior was straightforward compared to its behavior on the Factory Acts. The position of the Manchester School on the acts never has been described completely, and cannot be here; but it needs to be summarized.
1. There were differences over the acts among the businessmen, some opposing any regulation of labor whatever, a few favoring fairly extensive regulation of adult as well as child labor, and some favoring only the regulation of the labor of children and women or only that of children. The single point on which all were agreed was that if labor in the textile mills was to be regulated in any way it should be regulated in the same way in all manufacturing, mining, and other industrial enterprises.
2. In its public declarations, the Chamber of Commerce was evasive, and behind them it probably was opposed to all regulation, including that of child labor, while being resigned to its eventually being introduced. However, a case has been presented to show that the Chamber was not completely opposed to regulation, and from that it has been inferred that the Chamber was sympathetic to the acts.45 The case rests on a quotation from a statement the Board made in 1825 to the effect that the introduction of machinery gave the employers an incentive “to work their people to excess.” Actually, this phrase is a part of a sentence that has a quite different meaning. The sentence begins, “That should it nevertheless be thought that [there is] a stronger inducement to Masters, than formerly existed, to work their people to excess . . .” and this conditional phrase is followed by the proposition that if there is to be regulation it should be general. The entire statement, of which the sentence is a part, expresses opposition to the factory acts, and the obvious inference is that the Chamber did not declare that there was an incentive for employers “to work their people to excess.”46 At that time and later, the Board refused to petition Parliament to pass additional factory acts, which it had been requested to do by delegations of workers, and also by some employers who believed that overproduction would be avoided if nightwork were prohibited. The Chamber’s refusal was expressed in a way that suggested (a) it was opposed to the principle of the acts, as when in 1830 it “declined at present to express any opinion on the policy of further restrictions on free labour”; and (b) it believed that the principle would be enacted in time, however much opposition might be expressed to it.47
3. The Manchester arguments against the acts were presented most often by Joseph Hume, Bright, and Cobden. Hume said (1845) the acts reduced the freedom of the adult worker and decreased employment by raising production costs; and he also said that they were unnecessary because the worker “might work for whomever he pleased and on whatever agreement he liked as to the hours of his labour.”48 He did not go so far as to say that the acts took away the right of children to “the free disposal of their labour”—as the Earl of Roselyn once had done—nor did he contend that they might work much or little or not at all, as they pleased; but he did say that there was no need for the state to look after them, because that was the job of their parents. In 1846 he asked the House if it had not been “admitted on all hands that every man was the best and fittest judge of the manner in which his time should be employed, and of the object to which it should be applied.”49
The House had not admitted any such thing. Not even Bright, who on the Factory Acts was nearer to pure laisser faire than he was on any other issue, had gone that far. He was in favor of regulating the labor of children and opposed to regulating that of men and women. He held to that position all of his life. It was traditional in the Bright family. His father had attracted much attention, some of it derisive and antagonistic, when he abolished the whip that hung on the walls of mills that employed children and was used to smarten them up when they became lax after eight or ten hours of labor: he also introduced schools for the children and other amenities. When John Bright opposed regulating the labor of men and women, he prefaced his argument by stating his regret at having to differ with the workers on this point. He admitted that in the factory districts there were “great and serious evils.” But, he said, they were not caused by the factories themselves but by the urban environment, and could be found in every large city, whether it was industrial or not. Moreover, conditions were much better than they had been, and in time would become still better as the country became more prosperous, as the workers and employers made “a rational union among themselves,” and as a general improvement in manners and politics suffused itself through all classes.50 He agreed with Hume on the economic effects of the acts, and was in limited agreement about their political effects. But in place of Hume’s fantasy about the freedom of the laborer, it was Bright’s view that regulation would return the state to “something like the political economy of 100 years back.” Actually, he was not much interested in abstract economic policy, and he was extremely interested in the partisan consequences of the acts. He accused the Tories of supporting them in order to separate the workers of the north from the employers there, and he despised the sympathy the Conservative party professed to have for the workers. He invited the party to prove its sincerity by making bread cheaper for them. Always sympathetic to the working class, he always was sensitive to the charge that his stand on the factory acts was hostile to it. Near the end of his life, a Tory accused him of being anti-labor. “You may remind the writer,” he said, “that I sought to give the worker two loaves, when his party wished to give him only one.”51
Both Bright and Cobden viewed the sponsors of the legislation differently from the way they regarded those who rallied to support them—just as they made a similar distinction among the ranks of the free traders. They did not, for example, see partisan motives in the work of Lord Ashley, the great sponsor of the acts. They deplored his “socialistic doctrines,” regretted his “mere sentimentalities,” and they urged him to bring to the problem “a little head as well as heart.” That, in fact, is just what they themselves did in their own mills. When Bright asked Ashley to be realistic, he was not acting out the cliché of the hardheaded businessman who encounters a visionary reformer with no idea of what it is to meet a payroll. Both men wanted to improve the condition of the lower classes, and their conduct proves the sincerity of their professions. Bright was wrong in believing the improvement could come outside the law, but he was right in believing it could go no faster than real income increased. To place him and others like him among the Gradgrinds is foolish. Dickens was right about many employers; he was wrong about the leading figures. Bright appealed to Ashley to do something about the corn laws, and said that while Ashley was trying to help the poor, his party was making food scarce for them. Ashley replied that he did not see how the repeal of the corn laws would alter the conditions in which children worked in factories.52
One comes, finally, to Cobden’s attitude toward the acts. It is bewildering. Less interested in the welfare of the working class, per se, than Bright was, he expressed less sympathy with its specific problems and he admitted less about the squalor of factories. He was less tolerant of Ashley, and was more eager to turn the issue of regulation against the Tories in order to advance the repeal movement. This aspect of Cobden’s career reveals at best his parliamentary skill and rhetorical ability. It does not disclose the consistency and candor of which he was capable on other issues (most particularly, on pacifism). It was while he sought election to the House for Stockport in 1836 that he first expressed himself on the factory acts, and his ideas then were no more or less intelligible than later. He told the constituents of this factory district that he favored limiting the working hours of children because their health required it. The issue was for medicine to decide, not economics, he said. Then he asked them to consider what might happen if the working hours of adults were controlled. Could they not be set at 20 instead of 10? There was great danger to them in placing their welfare in the hands of the state. It was a return to medieval and Elizabethan practices. It also was unmanly. He thought too highly of them to think they needed the protection of the state. Returning to child labor, he said that those who favored regulation must have a poor opinion of parental responsibility. He thought highly of the parents, and would trust them not to expose their children to factory work. He concluded by saying that anyone who wished to be free of factory labor could liberate himself by saving twenty pounds, which would pay his passage to America where wages were higher. The next year he opposed the amendments to the acts, which were introduced by Poulett Thomson (the member for Manchester). The changes would have weakened Ashley’s bill of 1833 and would have increased the hours of work for children. So Cobden favored regulating their hours, whereas a year earlier his circumlocutions brought him around to opposing it. In Parliament, he usually spoke against the acts, and his economic and political arguments were similar to Bright’s. However, he did support Ashley’s act of 1842 which prohibited child labor and limited the working hours of women—in the mines. He might have acted this way because he wished to apply to mining the laws that regulated manufacturing labor; on the other hand, this law was the first to single out the labor of women for specific control, and in 1844 the principle was applied to manufacturing for the first time. In 1864, the acts were extended to potteries and other manufacturing establishments, and Cobden took no part in the debate. What is even stranger about his behavior is that he never voted on any of the acts presented while he was in Parliament. His conduct must have puzzled his colleagues. The historians of the factory acts have said contradictory things about it. Hutchins and Harrison, for example, state that by 1860 he was in favor of regulation, but there is no evidence of it in Hansard.53 The only point on which he clearly stated a different opinion was emigration, and very likely he did not in 1836 believe what he said then. When it was proposed in 1863 in order to relieve the distress of the cotton famine, he dismissed it on grounds that the poor had not enough to live on, let alone to travel on. “My experience,” he said, “is that almost everybody wants everybody else to emigrate.”54
The new factory acts were passed over the opposition of the League. Yet even in defeat it made capital for free trade. When the protectionists proposed to investigate the condition of workers in the factories, the League countered with the proposal to investigate the agricultural population. When the Conservative party condemned the low wages paid in the textile mills, the League compared them with the wages paid in agriculture, and invited the party to bring in a bill to raise farm wages. Was the raising of all farm income the purpose of the corn laws? Why then was the income of farm laborers and tenants so low? Was it because the laws were meant to protect only the landlords? If not, if the laws raised the income of no one, of what possible value were they? Simply to make food scarce? For almost eight years, the Tories were hammered in this way. On one occasion when Peel proposed to increase the duty on corn, Cobden demanded that he also introduce a bill to raise the wages of all workers. Peel replied that, acting on the best advice he could secure, it was not in the power of the government to raise wages or fix prices. Why then, Cobden demanded, was the House wasting its time with laws which meant to increase food prices and rents?
In reading Hansard, one has to remind one’s self that the object of each side was to win the argument, not to provide later generations with a report of its economic policy. It is useless to look into the record for a statement by the free traders that will substantiate the belief that it stood for laisser faire. MacGregor found that the word itself was not used at all in the House debate over repeal in 1846 (although he found it once in translation).55 And the absence of the word indicates that the idea itself was absent in any meaningful form. The debates were not won by the power of any single idea but by the adroitness of each side in deploying many of them. The egregious example was the debate over whether or not repeal would reduce the price of corn. The protectionists demanded that Cobden say exactly what would happen to the price: if the League was truthful in the cities, it was also proposing to injure the farmers, and if it did not mean them injury, then it was being false to the cities. In a speech in Manchester in 1843, Cobden replied variously that if the price of bread fell, city buyers could purchase more of the other farm products, and what the farmer lost in one way would be made up in another; that free trade would, by forcing British agriculture to become more efficient, lower costs more than prices; and that he was not one to believe the moral universe was so constructed that if one class, say the city consumers, were to benefit by an act there must be suffering in another, and he left it to the Tories to explain an economic system in which that must be. Conquests of this order made the intellectuals in the League restive, and caused James Wilson to develop his argument, which was an elaboration of one point in Cobden’s miscellany, namely, that foreign competition would force agriculture to reduce its costs.
The League finally was victorious in 1846. The domestic wheat crop in 1845 was a poor one, and the potato crop in Ireland was a failure. The Irish faced starvation, and the English faced high food prices. In the circumstances no government could have perpetuated the restrictions on imports. By October 1845, Peel had decided to support repeal, but in view of his party’s traditional support of protection he resigned in order that it would not have to initiate the action. Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whigs, announced his conversion to free trade: “I used to be of opinion that corn was an exception to the general rules of political economy; but . . .”56 Russell tried to form a government, and was unable. Melbourne had to be recalled to prevent the Whig leaders from opposing repeal. Peel resumed office, and with great difficulty brought the cabinet to his view. The greatest resistance came from the Duke of Wellington: “Damned rotten potatoes put Peel in his fright,” he said, but at length agreed. Wellington, by one report, was put in his fright on being told that Peel otherwise would have to advise the Queen to call on Cobden to form a government.57 The Tory party was split between those loyal to Peel and the intractable protectionists. While the debate was on, corn was released from bond, the corn laws were suspended by executive order in January 1846, and almost three million quarters were imported between August 1845 and August 1846, which kept the price below 55 shillings. Final approval was given the bill in June 1846 by the House of Lords, and it was to become effective in 1849, up to which time however the operation of the old laws was suspended. There was, therefore, free trade in corn from 1846 onward. The repeal measure provided for a duty of one shilling a quarter, and the duty may have been a parting shot at Cobden, who always had maintained he would tolerate not one day’s delay and not one shilling’s duty. Some of the intransigents of the League wanted to make an issue of it, but Cobden would not.
[1.] William Smart, Economic Annals of the Nineteenth Century, 1801-1820 (London, 1910), I, 747.
[2.]Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures at Manchester (MS., Manchester Central Library), I, 227-28, 295, 399.
[3.]Ibid., II, 58; III, 124, 310, 532, 620, 663.
[4.]The Corn Laws. An Authentic Report of the . . . Discussions in the Manchester Chamber of Commerce on the Destructive Effects of the Corn Laws, etc. (London, 1839), p. 83.
[5.]Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce, III, 621.
[6.]The Corn Laws, pp. 94-95.
[7.]Ibid., pp. 48-49, 104, 82.
[8.]Ibid., pp. 68-69.
[9.]Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce, IV, 27, 174, 331.
[10.] For a detailed description of the organization of the League and a chronology of its development, see the illuminating history by Norman McCord, The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838-1846 (London, 1958).
[11.]The Manchester Times, Sept. 22, 1838.
[12.]Ibid., Oct. 27, 1838.
[13.] J. A. Thomas, “The Repeal of the Corn Laws, 1846,” Economica, IX (Old Series, 1929), 56-57.
[14.] John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London, 1881), II, 347.
[15.] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Correspondence 1846-1895 (London, 1934), pp. 179-80.
[16.] Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden, II, 199-200.
[17.] Barrington, The Servant of All, I, 73.
[18.] Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden, I, 37.
[19.] G. M. Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright (London, 1913), p. 53.
[20.] Henry Ashworth, Recollections of Richard Cobden, M.P., and the Anti-Corn-Law League (London ), pp. 324-25.
[21.] Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright, p. 123.
[22.]The Manchester Courier, Aug. 20, 1842.
[23.]Ibid., Aug. 13, 1842.
[24.]The Quarterly Review, LXXI (1842), 244.
[25.] E. W. Watkin, Alderman Cobden of Manchester (London ), pp. 75, 93.
[26.] Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright, pp. 75-76, 88.
[27.]The Manchester Times, Aug. 27, 1842.
[28.] Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright, pp. 77-78, 88.
[29.] Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden, I, 299.
[30.]The Non-Conformist, Aug. 17, 1842; The Manchester Chronicle and Salford Advertiser, Sept. 3, 1842.
[31.]Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 59, pp. 581-82, 583.
[32.] Archibald Prentice, History of the Anti-Corn Law League (London, 1853), I, 371.
[33.]The Manchester Chronicle and Salford Advertiser, Aug. 13, 1842.
[34.]Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce, IV, 259, 260, 262.
[35.] Walter Bagehot, Biographical Studies (London, 1907), p. 361.
[36.] See George L. Mosse, “The Anti-League: 1844-1846,” The Economic History Review, XVII (1947-48), Nos. 1 and 2.
[37.] Thomas, “The Repeal of the Corn Laws,” pp. 56-57.
[38.] Ashworth, Recollections of Richard Cobden, p. 269.
[39.] The leaflet is in the Place Collection in the British Museum. The collection does not have a manuscript number, and the volumes are not paginated.
[40.] H. D. Jordan, “The Political Methods of the Anti-Corn Law League,” Political Science Quarterly, XLII (1927), 66-67.
[41.]Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 59, pp. 236-37.
[42.]Ibid., Vol. 59, p. 796.
[43.] Harriet Martineau, The History of England during the Thirty Years’ Peace: 1816-1846 (London, 1849), II, 610.
[44.] Prentice, History of the Anti-Corn Law League, II, 89.
[45.] Students in the Honours School of History in the University of Manchester and Arthur Redford, Manchester Merchants and Foreign Trade 1794-1858 (Manchester, 1934), p. 229.
[46.]Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce, I, 323.
[47.]Ibid., II, 195.
[48.]Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 77, p. 660.
[49.]Ibid., Vol. 85, p. 1236.
[50.]Ibid., Vol. 73, pp. 1133, 1149; Vol. 83, p. 408.
[51.]The Public Letters of . . . John Bright, ed. H. J. Leech (London, 1885), p. 292.
[52.]Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 73, p. 1151.
[53.] B. L. Hutchins and A. Harrison, A History of Factory Legislation, 3d ed. (London, 1926), p. 122.
[54.]Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 171, p. 1080.
[55.] D. H. MacGregor, Economic Thought and Policy (London, 1949), p. 89.
[56.] Lord John Russell, “Letter to the Constituents of the City of London,” in Free Trade and other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School, p. 192.
[57.]The Manchester Examiner and Times, April 4, 1865.