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dealing. The Manchester Calico Printer, and his coadjutors, were not to be silenced by noise, nor diverted from their object by contempt. They determined to teach their rulers better manners and better doctrines. On motion of Mr. Cobden, the deputies organized an association, to be called “THE NATIONAL Anti-Corn-Law LEAGUE.” The central council
, or executive committee, of the body, was located at Manchester. The sagacious and indefatigable George Wilson was chosen its chairman. The League immediately prepared to enter upon a system of popular agitation throughout the country, through the medium of small pamphlets and public addresses. It established as its organ, an Anti-Corn-Law Circular, the first number of which appeared in April. The
gage of battle was now fairly thrown in the face of the protectionists. The issue was made up—Cheap Bread versus Land Monopoly. On the one hand, were a small but resolute band of men, who had based their cause on solid principles of political economy. They had facts and logic, eloquence and humanity, on their side. They were sustained by a constancy which no discouragements could abate, and a courage which no opposition could daunt. On the other hand, were governmental power, hereditary station, boundless patronage, ancient precedent, and arrogant assumptions of superior wisdom and inherent right. The landlords boasted that they would crush the League in the bud. Nor was their boasting the mere effervescence of vanity. In 1773, when Burke introduced his Corn Law, the owners of the cultivated soil of England were computed at two hundred and forty thousand. The agricultural monopoly which prevailed from that time, had tended to produce a steady diminution of the number of landholders. When the League was organized, some thirtyfive thousand persons owned the entire agricultural soil of England. They were united by the closest ties of interest; acted together on all matters affecting their cherished monopoly, almost as one man; and wielded immense patronage and power, both in church and state. Speaking of the time when the League was formed, an English writer says :
“ Protection had shot its roots into the soil.. Capital had been invested; mortgages made; incumbrances created; settlements assigned ; leases contracted-all on the faith of the unjust and exclusive possession of the home market. A strong self-interest was the foundation of protection; and that foundation had become concrete. The 'agricultural mind' sat in its arm-chair of statutable law; and the daughters of fraud and delusion, whose names are fallacy, clap-trap, and sentiment, waited upon the portly personage. When public opinion came into the presence of the agricultural mind,' fallacy stepped forward, and spoke of capital invested in the soil, of laborers employed, of great incomes spent, of money circulated, and of a home market, the loss of which would bring ruin to millions.”
Behind such defences as these were the landlords entrenched, when the anti-monopolists entered into a “league” against them.
At the commencement of the movement, the discussions had sole reference to a repeal of the Corn Laws. The leading doctrines enforced by the repealers were, that, though the acts regulating the importation of foreign bread-stuffs might be, and probably were, beneficial to the large landholders, they were injurious in the long run to the great body of agriculturists; that the sliding scale of duties was the main source of the frequent and ruinous fluctuations in the market value of breadstuffs; that by preventing the natural influx of corn from other countries, to meet the varying home demand, the system enhanced the price of that article at all times, and therefore was a burden upon all classes of consumers, and especially the laboring poor; and that, by protecting the few at the expense of the many, it rested on an unsound basis of political economy,
and was therefore hostile to the best interests of all, branches of industry.
But, though the League aimed only at the abolition of the Corn Laws, the principles on which the controversy was conducted on both sides necessarily provoked a discussion and comparison of the relative merits of free commerce and restrictive duties, irrespective of the commodities to which these hostile systems were applied. The real issue, therefore, between the contending parties, and especially during the last three or four years of the struggle, was Free Trade versus Protection.
To return to the thread of our narrative. The League entered so vig. orously upon the prosecution of its work, by sending out lecturers, and holding public meetings, and scattering tracts and publications in various parts of the country, that the close of the year 1839 saw upwards of one hundred auxiliary associations organized in the principal towns of the kingdom. In January of the following year, Manchester held the first of that series of large Free-Trade meetings, (for thus early did the assemblages of the League begin to assume this name,) which gave that town such prominence in the Corn Law agitation. At this meeting, besides the a feast of reason " dispensed to listening throngs by eloquent lips from the platform, the “flow of soul” was enjoyed at a well-stored board, spread under a vast canopy, where four thousand members and friends of the Association, gathered from the three kingdoms, regaled themselves. This festive scene was followed the next day by a public dinner, given by the League to 5,000 operatives of Manchester and the neighboring towns, who ate and drank confusion to the land monopolists.
Simultaneously with the opening of parliament in February, the AntiCorn Law deputies met in London, at Brown's Hotel ; and Mr. Villiers, who was now recognized as their leader in the House of Commons, renewed his motion of the previous session, supported it by an elaborate speech, and had the gratification of hearing himself replied to by one of her Majesty's ministers, and of provoking quite a little debate. Hopeful progress, this! The discussion closed without a division. The deputies adjourned to meet again in March. At the appointed time, Palace Yard swarmed with influential members of the trading and manufacturing classes, with here and there a country squire and member of parliament sprinkled among them. The persevering Villiers renewed his motion, aroused quite an animated and protracted discussion, and was beaten on the division by a vote of 300 to 177. After prosecuting the campaign with considerable vigor in the provincial towns, during the summer and autumn, the delegates held another important convention in November. These marchings and counter-marchings of the League, tended to supple its limbs preparatory to the severe struggles of the coming year.
Though Mr. Villiers had been twice beaten in the House of Commons, the year 1840 was not wholly barren of results in parliament. Mr. Joseph Hume made a report from a committee of the house, on import duties. It was characteristic of this industrious and sagacious reformer. It embodied much valuable information on the subject of trade and commerce, and furnished a magazine of facts, to be used by Anti-Corn Law writers and orators, who were less patient than he in gathering statistics from the dry wilderness of parliamentary documents and kindred sources. Rumor says, it was carefully studied by Sir Robert Peel, and was among the causes which produced the subsequent change in the mind of that eminent statesman on the subject of protective duties.
At the opening of the session of 1841, the Melbourne-Russell ministry gave signs of speedy dissolution. The impulse received by the whig party at the passage of the Reform Bill, nine years before, had spent its force. In the estimation of thousands of influential men, constituting the life and soul of whig liberalism, that party had proved false to its trust by faltering in the path of reform; while other thousands, who had imbibed the radical doctrines of the times in respect to religious liberty, electoral suffrage, and free trade, either occupied only a nominal place in its ranks, or had abandoned them altogether. On the question of the Com Laws, Lord John Russell had, for some time, tried to find a middle position between the total repealers and the unyielding protectionists. Flirting first with one class, and then with the other, he had been discarded by both. Before dissolving parliament and appealing to the country, he endeavored to trace out a line of policy, which would be regarded as a fair compromise between the anti-monopolists and the landlords. He gave notice of a motion preliminary to the introduction of a bill, that should abolish the complex and unpopular sliding scale, and establish a fixed duty of eight shillings per quarter on imported wheat. This great concession to the principles of free trade, though falling far short of the test-doctrine of the League, indicated a favorable change of sentiment in an influential direction. Lord John delivered an able
speech in defence of his measure, closed the doors of St. Stephen's, and went down to the constituencies on that issue.
An exciting campaign followed, such as the country had not seen since the general election which secured the passage of the Reform Bill. The League brought forward candidates in several localities, and the free traders entered warmly into the contest. A large majority of the nation was not ready to go as far as Russell proposed to lead them, and an inflexible minority was determined on going much farther, or not at all. Between this cross-firing of the protectionists and the repealers, Lord John and his friends were badly cut to pieces. Such gallant lieutenants as Morpeth and Howick fell in the conflict; while the livery of the metropolis were barely able to save the whig leader from a similar fate. The landlords swept most of the counties. The whigs carried many of the important towns. The free traders proper secured but few members.
At the opening of the new parliament, Lord John faced the house with a courage worthy of a Russell. He made a bold speech in support of the measure proposed by him on the eve of the dissolution, was beaten on a division, resigned the seals of office into the hands of Peel, and in an address to his immediate constituents, expressed the conviction, that, though the people of England had repudiated the principles of commercial legislation proposed by the whigs, yet they would discuss, hesitate, pause, deliberate over again, and finally adopt them.
The result of the elections of 1841 seemed a complete route of the free traders. The most sanguine of them could not then have dreamed, that, in less than four years, that very parliament would award them a perfect triumph, when Peel and Russell would vie with each other in bestowing the honors of the victory upon one whose voice, and hardly his name, had now never been heard within the walls of St. Stephen's.
Though the trained vassals of the landlords, in the agricultural counties, had sent to the house a large majority of the representatives of monopoly, the manufacturers and artisans of the little town of Stockport had given to free trade a champion in the person of Richard Cobden. Though Cobden was appreciated by commercial men, in and around Manchester, as an intelligent and enterprising manufacturer, and though his lucid speeches at several Anti-Corn Law meetings, during the past two years, had widened the circle of his influence, and shown that he had studied other subjects besides his immediate calling, yet, when he took his seat in parliament, he was almost unknown to the statesmen of the country, and wholly unrecognized as belonging to their “order.” They had heard of him only as a calico-printer, who delivered lectures in the provincial towns, before manufacturers and operatives, on the blessings of cheap bread." They never dreamed, and we doubt whether his most intimate friends were then aware, of the magazine of varied knowledge, intellectual strength, and practical eloquence, which lay concealed under his modest and unassuming exterior. The new arena in which he suddenly found himself, furnished foemen worthy of his steel ; and his blade proved a match for those of his doughtiest antagonists.
Before passing to the stirring events of 1842, we must not omit to state, that during the severe and calamitous winter of 1841-2, the ladies of Manchester forwarded a memorial to the Queen, bearing upwards of 100,000 signatures, imploring her Majesty to instruct her ministers to bring in a bill for the relief of the suffering classes of the country. They gave still more substantial proofs of their zeal in the cause, by holding a free-trade bazaar in the Manchester theatre, from which was netted, for the use of the League, the coming year, the splendid sum of £10,000. Previous to the meeting of parliament, the dissenting ministers held a four days' convention, to consider the effects of the Corn Laws upon the well-being of society, and deputed a committee of their body to lay their views before the new premier. These events showed that the free trade spirit was permeating all classes of the community.
Heretofore, with the exception of an occasional skirmish in the commons, the battle had been mainly waged out of doors. At the opening of the session of 1842, it was transferred to parliament. Sir Robert Peel found himself at the helm of affairs at a period of unexampled distress. The manufacturing districts were in a frightful condition. The poorer classes had scarcely been able to subsist through the winter of 1841-2. Stockport was abandoned by many of its operatives, because of their inability to procure either work or bread. Hundreds in Paisley lived from week to week on charity. Bolton was fed by public bounty. Thousands in Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds, and other large manufacturing towns, were thrown out of employment, and wandered, idle and hungry, from the scanty fare of the provinces, till they crowded into the metropolis, hoping to find labor and food in the wealthy capital of the kingdom. The effect was, to swell the poor-rates of London beyond all former precedent. A royal “letter," from Buckingham Palace, exhorted those whom Providence had blessed with abundance, to aid in giving relief to the unfortunate. Contributions were gathered in the churches, private subscriptions were opened, and, though thousands were collected and
speedily dispensed, they scarcely alleviated the pressing necessities of the hour. Such was the condition of the nation when parliament opened in 1842.
Of course, no reasonable man supposed all the causes of this appalling state of things originated in the Corn Laws. But the League was able to convince influential portions of the people, that a considerable share of these calamities were attributable to that source. The nation was impatient for a development of Peel's policy. On the 9th of February he indicated it, by proposing, at a future day, to modify the tariff by slightly reducing the duties on many articles, including breadstuffs and provisions, but leaving the sliding scale untouched. A crowd of agriculturists, representing the landlord interest, was in attendance upon parliament, and were greatly relieved at the ministerial expose. They felt that their monopoly was in safe hands. The only voice raised, on that occasion, in opposition to the measure, was Cobden's. In pungent tones, he denounced
an insult to a suffering country.” In March, the premier introduced his tariff bill. The measure occupied the attention of parliament through the greater part of the session. Com. pared with the existing tariff, the new act was a moderate concession to the principle of free trade. Indeed, Sir Robert more than once declared, during the debates, that he would not pledge himself to a perpetual maintenance of the sliding scale of duties, nor advocate the abstract doctrine of protection, nor urge it in any case for the mere purpose of shielding home productions against foreign competition. The discussions were exciting and protracted on all sides, and the amendments proposed by the freetraders numerous and important. Mr. Villiers made and supported his annual motion for total and immediate repeal. Though the leadership, on that side of the question, was, by courtesy, yielded to him, the brunt of the battle was sustained by Cobden. On Villier's motion, we think it was, he delivered a profound speech in defence of the proposition, that, as it was beyond the power of parliament to regulate the wages of labor, it was unjust to pass an act to regulate, with a view unnaturally to raise the price of food; and, in this way, indirectly regulate the wages of labor. Cobden won a high place in the estimation of the thinking portion of the house, was always treated with respect by the premier, and thenceforward was recognized throughout the country as the ablest of the opponents of the waning doctrine of protection.
Some portions, and, indeed, the general drift of the entire policy of the act of 1842, pointed to the prime axiom of the League, of" buying in the cheapest, and selling in the dearest market." This, with the occasional admissions of Peel and Gladstone, in favor of free trade theories, foreshadowed the events of 1846, alarmed the protectionists, and nearly led to a disruption of the tory party. Some of the landlord representatives in the commons declared that the agriculturists had been deceived in the premier; others openly denounced him as a deserter from their standard ; while a few of the great landed dukes and earls, in the debates in the upper house, poured out objurgations, lamentations and warnings against the pending measure, uttering ghostly prophecies concerning the ruin they saw in store for their " order," if the son of the cotton-spinner was per. mitted to hold the key of the treasury. But the magic influence of Peel over his friends, and the conviction which penetrated the entire mass of the conservative party, that he alone was able to weather the radical storm,