Front Page Titles (by Subject) 191.: ON THE NECESSITY OF UNITING THE QUESTION OF CORN LAWS WITH THAT OF TITHES EXAMINER, 23 DEC., 1832, PP. 817-18 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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191.: ON THE NECESSITY OF UNITING THE QUESTION OF CORN LAWS WITH THAT OF TITHES EXAMINER, 23 DEC., 1832, PP. 817-18 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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ON THE NECESSITY OF UNITING THE QUESTION OF CORN LAWS WITH THAT OF TITHES
Mentioned in Mill’s letter to Carlyle of 27 Dec. (see No. 186), this article, headed as title, is the first leader in the “Political Examiner.” It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘On the Necessity of Uniting the question of Corn Laws with that of Tithes.’ Exam. 23d Dec. 1832.” (MacMinn, p. 23.) In the Somerville College copy of the Examiner, it is listed as title and enclosed (including the final footnote) in square brackets.
on looking round and surveying the attitude and movements of the constituencies, both new and reformed, which have been created by the late Act, we see reason to congratulate the friends of improvement upon the definiteness of their objects, and the zeal and unanimity of their exertions. Scarcely a voice has been raised for any causeless or fantastic change, nor has any captiousness been exhibited about mere forms and phrases. This, indeed, would have been inconsistent with the positive, practical, matter-of-fact character of the English mind. Almost as seldom has the advocacy of any act of individual wrong—of the plunder of any man’s property, or the blighting of his reasonable prospects,—met with encouraging reception from any body of electors. There is enough of integrity and self-control, and respect for the just rights of others, in the English character, to forbid this. The reforming spirit has fastened upon the real grievances, and with the greatest intenseness upon the most crying and barefaced of these. General rectitude of purpose has produced unity of purpose. The Reformers in all parts of the island proclaim the same objects, proclaim them as with one voice—a voice destined ere long to silence all other sounds except its own echo.
To this unanimity one question forms a solitary exception. That indeed is an alarming one, and may even yet become a firebrand of discord in the ranks of the sincere Reformers, unless disposed of soon and well,—not with the kind of prudence which is synonymous with indecision and cowardice, but with that true and statesman-like kind which can foresee as well as see, and of which the foremost ingredient is courage. This question, the only one within the compass of probability from which a Tory reaction, among any considerable part of our population, can ever again be apprehended, is the Corn Laws.
On this question alone, among the many which are now vehemently agitated, is Reformer at variance with Reformer. On all other subjects the contest will be solely between the Stationary principle and the Progressive: between the spirit of Toryism, whether under its own or under Whig colours, and the spirit of Reform. On this alone a division is manifesting itself between the two great sections of the people; and there is imminent (though not immediate) danger, that the representatives of the manufacturing and commercial towns, and the representatives of the counties, the agricultural towns, and Ireland, will, by the artifices of the common enemy, be set one against the other;—the agriculturists under a total misapprehension of the nature of their interest in the question, the manufacturers greatly over-estimating the degree of theirs.
We may be sure that nothing would serve the purposes of the Tories so well, as to be able to pick a quarrel between the two great divisions of the reforming host, on this the only subject of dissension ever likely to afford them such an opportunity.
So deeply are we impressed with the importance of frustrating these tactics of our enemies, that if a question which affects, be it ever in so slight a degree, the condition of the most numerous class, were not in our eyes important beyond any other, we would gladly put off the discussion of this question, until others, on which there is less difference of sentiment and of apparent interest, shall have been set at rest. We do not, indeed, think that the immediate interests of the working classes are so deeply concerned in this as in several other questions. The effects of the present Corn Laws1 in any way, be it for good or for evil, are in our estimation far short of what either party habitually assumes. But when we consider the transcendant importance of the principle which is at issue, where the dispute is (what it here is) between the drones of society and the bees; when we see that both the drones and the bees think, however erroneously, that it is a question of life and death between them—when, too, we perceive how generally the members, both for the counties and for the towns, are coming to the new Parliament, if not positively pledged, at least with a distinct expectation on the part of their constituents, that they will give their strongest support or opposition to any abatement of the existing “protection to agriculture;” we cannot doubt that this discussion must be among the earliest which will come on, and that it is not too soon to begin to consider by what means it may be prevented from becoming a source of disunion among the Reformers, and of strength to the Conservatives, by rallying round the standard of Anti-reform in general, the enemies of one particular Reform.
An opportunity now offers itself, such as does not occur once in a century, and which might seem as if sent on purpose to carry England safely through this difficult passage.
The cry is now irresistible for the extinction of Tithes. There is not a rational person throughout the country, whatever be his wishes, who thinks it possible that this odious impost can exist one year longer. Now, the way to make peace for ever between the agriculturists and the manufacturers would be this: Unite the question of the Corn Laws with the question of Tithes. Throw yourselves upon the country with the boon of relief, at one stroke, from the two most flagrant of its grievances, the two most keenly felt of its burthens. Come with the Tithe in one hand—the freedom of the Corn trade in the other: hold out the one to the farmer, the other to the manufacturer. A minister who should thus act, would save the country from its worst chance of prolonged intestine divisions, himself from a perilous shoal on which even a strong administration can with difficulty avoid being wrecked, and would obtain a new lease of public confidence, which would enable him, with ordinary good sense and good intention, to retain as long as he pleased the control of the Movement in his own hands.
These two questions, of which policy so strongly dictates the union, are besides in their own nature so intimately allied, that no philosophical statesman would ever think of looking at either of the two, except with immediate reference to the other.
The people of England are supplied with food by two channels—home production, and importation. Both are taxed: what is Tithe, but a tax on the home growth? What are the Corn Laws, but a tax on the importation? Now, it is not only admitted by every one whose opinion is worth counting, but is obvious to the merest tyro in the principles of commerce, that these two modes of procuring corn, if taxed at all, ought to be taxed exactly alike. To lay any burthen exclusively on either of the two, is to tax the community for the sake of a factitious encouragement to the other. If, for instance, there were a Tithe, and no Corn Laws, the effect would be to force an importation, when additional food might be grown with less labour from our own soil. If, again, there were Corn Laws, and no Tithe there would be virtually a bounty on home production; forcing cultivation on bad soils, to raise a portion of food which the nation could obtain with a less expenditure of labour and capital by importing.
Accordingly, the only argument among those urged in favour of Corn Laws, to which a thinking man would pay the slightest regard, is the existence of Tithe, or of other burthens on the cultivation of the soil, generally, but erroneously, supposed to be analogous to Tithe. Take away the Tithe, and there is not a word to be said for the Corn Laws; but take away the Tithe, leaving the Corn Laws, and you add just so much to their pressure. Every weight taken off the shoulders of one of two competitors is tantamount to laying an exactly equal burthen upon the other.
Only consider how all the practical difficulties of both questions will be alleviated by disposing of them in conjunction. What, in truth, is the leading objection felt by every one to the total extinction of Tithes? The fear lest what is taken from the clergyman should be merely given to the landlord. To obviate this (a consequence which all agree in deprecating), fifty cumbrous, and trouble-some, and uncertain contrivances have been thought of and propounded, for not abolishing but commuting the Tithe into a land-tax, or rent-charge, to be collected on account of the Church or on account of the State. All this operose machinery is but needless perplexity. For giving the benefit of the remission of Tithe to the consumer, instead of the landlord, there is a far simpler way. Abolish the Corn Laws. That is the true commutation of Tithe. Do away with both the bread-taxes, utterly and at once. Let the Tithe disappear and be no more heard of. A provision, of course, must be made for lay impropriators and existing incumbents; at present, too, the time has not yet come when the endowments of the Church of England will be cut down to the value of the Church lands: some equivalent, probably, will this time be given to the clergy, for at least a portion of the Tithe. Let these expenses, then, be borne by the nation at large. Let them be included in the estimates of every session, with the other yearly expenses; or let stock to the necessary amount be created for the purpose, and placed, as Lord Henley proposes, in the name of a Parliamentary Commission.2 To grudge such a price for the repeal of the Corn Laws, would be that penny-wisdom which is pound-foolishness. The penny, it is true, may be taken before your face, and the pound behind your back: yet a penny is but a penny, and a pound is a pound.
This course, it will be found, and no other, will do justice to all. Yet, instead of being intricate, it is the simplest—instead of being difficult of execution, it is the easiest and most commodious—of all means of adjustment which have been proposed. It has the advantage, rare among reforms, that it alienates no one, not even those who profited by the abuse, since the redress of one wrong is made to operate as an indemnity to those who would suffer by the removal of another.
The agriculturists, indeed, if the matter were propounded in the abstract, might question the sufficiency of the compensation. But they could scarcely do so when their attention was drawn to the fact, to how very low a fixed duty the present Corn Law is equivalent. The whole of the wheat which has been imported since the act of 1828 came into force, has paid, on an average, not more than 6s. 6d. per quarter. The Tithe, if it were exacted in full, would, at the present average prices, be about an equal sum. It is not so, we know, in fact; because much of the land of the United Kingdom is either tithe-free or under a modus, and because the parson seldom obtains his full dues. But the inconvenience, and annoyance, and litigation arising from the tax in its present form, are of themselves a substantive burthen upon the occupation of a farmer, at least sufficient, we cannot but suppose, to make up all that the Tithe falls short of a full tenth of the produce. The gain of the Tithe, then, would be a full equivalent, both to the landlord and the farmer, for the loss of the Corn Laws: while, in common with the entire community, they would gain in the cheapness of their food, and the impulse given to the industry and wealth of the country; and the farmer, as a capitalist, would gain in addition, along with other capitalists, in the greater facility of maintaining his labourers.
With the exception of Tithe, there are no peculiar burthens on the growth of food which can form a reasonable pretext for keeping up a peculiar tax upon its importation.
The poor-rates are often erected into such a pretext, but improperly; as is apparent for several reasons:—
In the first place, a free trade in corn, by cheapening food, will reduce the burthen of the poor-rates. Take away the Corn Laws, then, and you take away, to a very great extent, this argument for having Corn Laws.
Secondly, if the poor-rates press more severely on the agriculturists than on other people, why is this? Solely because in the purely agricultural parishes the condition of the poor is worst, and those abuses of the poor-laws which have pauperised and demoralised the labouring classes have there been carried to the highest pitch. But of these abuses the landlords themselves, in their capacity of magistrates, have been the authors. They have no right to come upon the general public for an indemnity from the consequences of their own ignorance and imprudence.
Then, too, as they have been the causes of their own burthens, which by means of Corn Laws they now strive to shift off upon other people, so it rests with them, by reversing the cause which did the mischief, to undo it: either by a more judicious exercise of their powers, or (and to that they must at last come) by abdicating their functions into the hands of wiser men. We know from the best authority, that the inquiries recently made by the Poor Law Commission have ascertained that, in the very worst districts of the worst counties in England, parishes exist, where the exertions even of one wise and energetic country gentleman or clergyman have sufficed not only to correct the maladministration, and greatly diminish the amount, of the rates, but in a few years actually to unpauperise the whole labouring population.3 If this can be done in one parish, it can in another. Let the landlords then bestir themselves, or make way for better men; and cease to plead, as an argument for taxing every one who lives by bread (and putting the money into their own pockets), the enormity of a burthen which owes its very existence to their mismanagement, and which will continue to press upon them so long and no longer than that mismanagement shall endure.
As for the county rates, to claim “protection” on that score is absurd: other people pay for roads, and gaols, and paving and lighting, and police, as well as the landlords, and are not disposed to pay for themselves and the landlords too. We shall be told, perhaps, of the land-tax; but the landlords have no more title to be indemnified for that than for their debts. It is not a tax taken from the landlords, for they never had it. They bought their estates subject to that deduction from the income. The land-tax is a rent-charge in favour of the State, which is to that extent a co-proprietor in the soil. Besides, if the landlords bring to account every trifle they pay to the State, we on our side must be permitted to raise up in judgment against them every thing that they do not pay. They have exempted their land from the legacy duty,—a heavy tax, which is levied upon all other property without exception.4 This fact ought to stop their mouths whenever they presume to talk of their peculiar burthens.
Our conviction is, that if Tithes were abolished, the simultaneous removal of the present import duties (which we regard as little if any thing more than an equivalent for the Tithe) would not increase the importation of corn in a perceptible degree—would not throw a single acre out of cultivation, or a single agricultural labourer out of employment. But if the event should prove otherwise, the course of good sense and justice would be plain. Let it be ascertained what are the parishes which, from the prevalence of poor soils or other causes, had suffered by the change. Let it be found out in what parishes the rates had greatly and suddenly increased, without any assignable cause except the repeal of the Corn Laws. Wherever this fact could be established, the State ought to relieve that parish from this artificial increase of its poor, and should either assist them to emigrate, locate them on waste lands, or provide for them other permanent employment, if any more eligible can be found. To do that for labourers pauperised by a salutary reform, which it has so often been in contemplation to do for the whole surplus labouring population, is what no person with any pretensions to reason will, we presume, object to.
There is thus every imaginable motive for joining in one great scheme of national policy these three measures—the extinction of Tithe, the total abolition of the Corn Laws, and a vote of credit for the emigration of unemployed labourers, with the alternative of home colonisation. And to this, as part of a suitable programme of the approaching session, we invite the attention of public men.
We are fully satisfied that it would be the part of true prudence to face all the three questions at once. Such, however, is rarely the prudence of practical legislators. From those in whose hands the destinies of England are for the moment placed (though they are not worse, but, on the contrary, far better, than the generality of public men,) we wish rather than hope for any of the wisdom of which boldness is an ingredient. We have our fears that, shrinking from the difficulty of dealing with more than one question at a time, they will look only at half a question at a time; will never see where one reform would impede, and where, on the contrary, it would help another; and so will never accomplish any thing but some paltry botching, which will require to be undone in a future session by themselves or others—something which, instead of calming agitation, will prolong it—instead of settling men’s minds, will keep them unsettled, until they insist upon settling every thing their own way. An exaggerated dread of innovation, at this crisis, will adjourn the possibility of a stable government in England for an indefinite period.
But let us, in all conscience, see before we decide: let no man be condemned untried. A great change in the constitution should make a tabula rasa5 of past conduct and professions, and give every statesman who chooses to claim it, a clean character to set up with. Such a character the present ministers shall have with our hearty good will: but beware the first spot!*
[1 ]9 George IV, c. 60 (1828).
[2 ]Robert Henley Eden (1789-1841), 2nd Baron Henley, barrister, M.P. 1826-30 and Master in Chancery 1826-40, made the proposal for a corporation (not a Parliamentary Commission) to be called “The Commissioners for the Management of Ecclesiastical Property,” in A Plan of Church Reform (London: Roake and Varty, 1832), pp. 32ff.
[3 ]The reports were just coming in to the Poor Law Commission, and it seems very likely that Mill got the information from Edwin Chadwick, Secretary to the Commission and a close friend. The evidence was that of the Reverend Thomas Whately at Cookham, eventually published in the report of C.H. Cameron and John Wrottesley (24 Apr., 1833), in “Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws,” PP, 1834, XXVIII, 151-64.
[4 ]Imposed by 55 George III, c. 184 (1815).
[5 ]A term evidently introduced by Robert South (1634-1716), in A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Nov. 9, 1662 (Oxford: Robinson, 1663).
[* ]Since this was written, Lord Althorp, in an election speech, has declared it to be his opinion that the Corn Laws ought not to be reconsidered in the approaching Session.