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REPEAL OF THE BRITISH CORN LAWS. CAREFUL observers of “ the signs of the times” in this country, see, that the conflict between the antagonistic doctrines of Protection and Free Trade, is gradually verging towards a final trial of strength. No doubt, many years will elapse before either will achieve a complete victory. In the mean time, the discussion of these rival theories of political economy will go on in Congress, through the public press, and before the forum of the masses. Inasmuch as the causes and effects of the repeal of the British Corn Laws will hereafter, for obvious reasons, as they have done heretofore, mingle in these discussions, we propose to give an outline-sketch of the movement which resulted in the abolition of that system. In the present article, we shall only incidentally allude to the origin, objects and consequences of that system; confining ourselves mainly to a notice of the measures which led to its final overthrow,
Governmental protection to the products of the soil, by means of im. posts on importations from other countries, was the favorite policy of England from an early period. Lord Stanley, in a speech on the Corn Laws, stated, that the principle of landlord protection had been recognized in that country five centuries. Adam Smith was among the ablest, if not among the earliest British writers, who propounded the doctrine, that free trade was the highway to commercial prosperity. It has been questioned by some, whether this celebrated author advocated the universal application of the principle of absolute freedom of trade; but, we think, no student of his works can doubt, that the doctrines he advanced tend very directly to that conclusion in regard to all articles of commerce, and positively reach it in respect to breadstuffs.
From the days of Dr. Smith downward to our times, some of the most distinguished writers and statesmen of Great Britain have enrolled themselves amung his disciples. In the front rank of these, we may place the brilliant men who, during the first thirty years of the present century, made the Edinburgh Review their literary organ of communication with the reading public, while Brougham, Romilly, Macintosh, and their associates, spread their sentiments before the industrial classes, through the discussions which so often arose in parliament, during the same period, on the subjects of commercial, manufacturing, and agricultural “ distress.
In the year 1773, the plastic hand of Edmund Burke gave to the British Corn Laws the general character which, with occasional modifications, they retained till their abolition in 1846. They were altered, or, perhaps, VOL. XXIX.-NO. V.
we should say, revised, in 1791, in 1804, in 1815, and in 1828. The enactments of 1815 and 1828 embodied the system usually referred to, in our day, when we speak in general terms of " the Corn Laws." The object of all these enactments was, to afford to the agriculturists of the kingdom, as perfect a monopoly as possible in the raising and sale of breadstuffs, and still allow foreign grain and flour to be imported whenever a deficiency in the home production, arising from bad harvests or other causes, created a scarcity of that species of food. The system was adjusted on the basis of a sort of compromise between the profits of the producers, and the wants of the consumers; the repletion of the pockets of the former only ceasing when it would necessarily exhaust the stomachs of the latter.
The tendency of public sentiment in respect to the principles of protection and free trade, during the forty or fifty years following the enactment of Mr. Burke's law, is shown by the fact, that at each revision of the Corn Laws, from 1773 down to and including that of 1815, the duties were made more and more protective. As an illustration of our remark, we will state, that the price to which wheat must rise in the British market, ere it could be introduced from abroad at a nominal důty, was fixed, by the law of 1773, at 48 shillings per quarter, the quarter being eight bushels. In 1791, it was fixed at 54 shillings; in 1804, at 66 shillings ; in 1815, at 80 shillings. This high point-and, it doubtless sometimes proved to be “the starvation point” to the squalid operatives of Manchester and Glasgow, and other manufacturing towns—this high point, coupled with the frequent seasons of " distress" in all branches of industry, and the energy with which liberal commercial doctrines began to be urged in parliament, ultimately produced a reaction in the current of public opinion. When the system was under revision in 1828, Mr. Huskisson exerted great sway over the politico-economical sentiment of the country. He entertained broad and comprehensive views respecting commercial freedom. It was partly through his influence, that the act of 1828 fixed the home price at which foreign wheat could be introduced into the country, on paying a nominal duty, at 73 shillings per quarter. Personally, he was in favor of setting a lower standard ; and he declared that he should, thereafter, advocate a gradual reduction of the duties till they finally reached the free-trade level. But the landlord interest was then too strong to be made to yield a greater reduction from the maximum standard of 1815, than 7 shillings per quarter.
The act of 1828 had its “sliding scale" of duties, by operation of which, the duties on breadstuffs fell as the prices rose, and rose as the prices fell. It has some 25 degrees in its scale. We specify three or four as examples of the whole. For instance, when wheat commanded an average price throughout the kingdom of fifty-two shillings per quarter, the duty on the foreign article was thirty-four shillings and eight pence-practically a prohibition. When the price rose to sixty shillings, the duty fell to twentysix shillings and eight pence—almost a prohibition. When the price mounted up to seventy shillings, the duty went down to ten shillings and eight pence-a point at which the importer could introduce the article and realize a small profit. When the price ascended to seventy-three shillings:
a or upwards, the duty sunk to one shilling.
The average price which regulated the duty, was determined as follows. On Saturday of each week, the prices of grains (wheat for example) were noted at one hundred and fifty of the chief towns of the united kingdom, and returned to the Exchequer at London. These varying prices were there averaged. To this average were added the averages of the five immediately preceding weeks, (obtained in the same manner,) and then the Exchequer struck" the general average" of the six weeks, and this, on each Thursday, was announced by the proper authorities as the standard price for regulating the duty on foreign wheat for the subsequent week.
This complicated and ever-shifting scheme, was regarded by its authors as an exquisitely perfect specimen of protective legislation. It was intended to afford a complete monopoly in breadstuffs to fifty thousand landlords, except at periods when high prices would doom the poorer class of consumers to starvation, unless supplies came in from other countries. As they approached the starvation point, the ports were to be kindly opened, a little ways, for the admission of foreign grain, when temporary relief might be obtained-provided, there were any grain in bond to be admitted—and provided further, that if there were, its sudden introduction did not so reduce the price as to cause the duty to slide upward to the prohibitory point-and provided still further, that the unnatural system had not already so impoverished the squalid, starving wretches, that they were unable to purchase bread at any price !
The law of 1828 remained in force, subject to some modifications made in 1842, until its abolition in 1846. The repealing act of 1846 was not, however, to go into full operation, till the year 1849. We will now hastily sketch the origin, progress, and triumph of the movement which resulted in the final prostration of this system.
The movement for the repeal of the Corn Laws commenced in 1838. About the beginning of the previous year, severe commercial depression pervaded the United Kingdom. It originated partly in the influence upon British trade produced by the monetary collapse occurring in America in 1836-7. The foreign exchanges turned against England, and heavy exportations of bullion were demanded. This compelled a great contraction of the usual accommodation extended to commercial men, and caused the failure, or temporary suspension, of many of the large English houses. These evils were aggravated by a deficiency in the harvest of that year. The country struggled against these calamities through 1837, and was slowly recovering from its depression in the spring and summer of 1838, when the bad harvest of that year plunged its monetary and commercial affairs into a still more disastrous condition.
Merchants, manufacturers, and shippers, declaimed much about the disarrangement of the currency and the illiberality of the bank of England, but scarcely dreamed of attributing any of their disasters to the disorganizing effects of an unnatural system of political economy, imposed upon the country under the delusive name of "protection.” A few thinking men, however, charged the prime cause of these evils to the restrictive policy of the British tariff, and the prohibitory features and slippery sliding scale of the Corn Laws. Among the most sagacious and energetic of these, were Dr. Bowring, a distinguished disciple of Jeremy Bentham, and for some time the editor of the Westminster Review ; Col. P. Thompson, a radical reformer, also a Benthamite, who, twelve years before, had published an able pamphlet, called " The Catechism of the Corn Laws;" and Richard Cobden, an enterprising calico manufacturer of Manchester.
At a small meeting, held at Manchester, in September, 1838, an Anti
Corn Law Association was formed. This was the germ whence
the mighty enterprise, which, after a severe and exciting contest of seven years, revolutionized the politico-economical theories and practices of the most intelligent and opinionated people in Europe; broke the power of the richest and most haughty landed aristocracy of modern times; converted to its doctrines and taught to do its bidding, the most prejudiced and omnipotent legislature in the world ; and overthrew a system which, by the growth and culture of centuries, had entwined its roots around the interests of the monetary, trading, and agricultural classes, of the first commercial and manufacturing nation of the age.
Shortly after the formation of this association, a meeting of merchants and manufacturers of Manchester, voted a subscription of £3,000 to sustain its operations, which was subsequently increased to £6,000. In December following, the Manchester Chamber of Commerce sent a petition to parliament, praying for the total and immediate repeal of the corn and provision laws. In both these proceedings, Mr. Cobden bore a prominent part. Thus aided and encouraged, the association caused a meeting of deputies, or, as we should term it in this country, a convention of delegates, to assemble at Manchester, in January, 1839, to consider the question of Corn Law repeal, and adopt measures for the prosecution of the work. This meeting, after consultation, authorized the association to convene a similar assemblage in London, at the opening of the approaching session of parliament, for the purpose of watching and operating upon its proceedings.
The London meeting assembled in February, and was numerously attended, by influential persons, from various parts of the kingdom, mostly of the mercantile and manufacturing classes. They prepared a petition to the House of Commons, asking that they might offer evidence at its bar, in proof of the injurious effects of the Corn Laws. Their petition was presented, and the requisite motion made by Mr. Charles Pelham Villiers. His speech in its defence was treated with silent contempt, and his motion emphatically negatived. The deputies returned home, but re-assembled, in larger numbers, in the next month, parliament being still in session. They convened at Brown's Hotel, Palace-yard-a spot which became somewhat celebrated for the Anti-Corn Law measures which there originated. The protectionists nicknamed the meeting, “The Free Trade Parliament.” During their sittings, they chose a committee to collect evidence on the subject of the Corn Laws, at whose head Dr. Bowring was placed, and deputed Mr. Villiers to open the battle in the House of Commons. He moved a resolution, "That this house will immediately resolve itself into a committee of the whole, to take into consideration the act regulating the importation of foreign corn.” His logical speech, well stored with important facts, was not treated with even the decency of silent contempt. The scion of the ancient house of Villiers spoke under such a running accompaniment of coughings and scrapings, as the first assembly of gentlemen in Europe” are only competent to tender to one wbose opinions they dislike, or whose arguments they cannot answer. Hardly waiting for him to close, a division was called for amidst the wildest hootings and outcries, when 344 members against 197, rushed into the ante-rooms of the house, to stifle, by their clamor, a great national demand, made in behalf of sound principles and suffering humanity.
But the commons mistook the metal of the men with whom they were