Richard Cobden outlines his strategy of encouraging more people to acquire land and thus the right to vote in order to defeat the “landed oligarchy” who ruled England and imposed the “iniquity” of the Corn Laws (1845)

Richard Cobden

In the Covent Garden Theatre in London on 15 January 1845 Richard Cobden (1804-1865) addressed a large crowd on the continuing struggle to abolish the Corn Laws (tariffs) which was eventually achieved when Sir Robert Peel announced their repeal on 27 January, 1846. In this New Year speech Cobden urged the better off members of the middle class to purchase land in the counties so that they could acquire the right to vote and thus defeat the “landed oligarchy”. In passing, he suggested that women should also have the right to vote:

We have begun a new year, and it will not finish our work; but whether we win this year, the next, or the year after, in the mean time we are not without our consolations. When I think of this most odious, wicked, and oppressive system, and reflect that this nation—so renowned for its energy, independence, and spirit—is submitting to have its bread taxed, its industry crippled, its people—the poorest in the land—deprived of the first necessaries of life, I blush that such a country should submit to so vile a degradation. It is, however, consolation to me, and I hope it will be to all of you, that we do not submit to it without doing our best to put an end to the iniquity.

At the beginning of 1845 Richard Cobden could sense that victory in the struggle to repeal the Corn Laws was imminent. As he realised, a great deal had been achieved politically in the 5 years the Anti-Corn Law League had been active and that “the old edifice” of the English establishment had been shaken by the movement he led. In the final push he urged the better off members of the middle class to purchase land in the counties in order to qualify to vote in the next election which might see the power of the “landed oligarchy” challenged and the Corn Laws finally abolished. In passing, he makes a remarkable admission about women and the right to vote, stating that he wished they had the franchise “for they would often make a much better use of it than their husbands.”