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Cobden's Maiden Speech in Parliament, against the Corn Laws, 25 August 1841

Richard Cobden was one of the founder members of the Anti-Corn-Law League. After he became an MP he made many important speeches against the Corn Laws. Below is part of his Maiden Speech as a Member of Parliament.

He would take up but a moment of their time while he glanced at that great and paramount question which had been attempted to be cast aside. He alluded to the food-tax. The people of this country had been petitioning for three years. They were anxious for a total repeal of the food-tax. He spoke, too, in the utmost sincerity - he was also for a total and unconditional repeal of that tax. He would not allow an aspersion to be cast upon the three millions who had been petitioning for four years on this subject - he could not permit it to be said that they were not sincere in what they sought for. He knew that they were, because he knew that what they asked for was just. What was this bread-tax - this tax upon food and tax upon meat?...

He had heard that tax called by a multitude of names. Some designated it as a 'protection'; but it was a tax after all, and he would call it nothing else. The bread tax was levied principally upon the working classes. He called the attention of the House to the working of the bread tax. The effect was this - it compelled the working classes to pay 40 per cent more, that is, a higher price than they should pay if there was a free trade in corn. When hon. Gentlemen spoke of 40s. as the price of foreign corn, they would make the addition 50 per cent. He would not over state the case, and therefore he set down the bread tax as imposing an additional tax of 40 per cent. He had now to call their attention to facts contained in the report of the Committee on the hand-loom weavers. It was a report got up with great care, and singular talent. It gave, amongst other things, the amount of the earnings of a working man's family, and that was put down at 10s. Looking at the metropolitan and rural districts, they found that not to be a bad estimate of the earnings of every labouring family. The hand-loom committee then stated that out of the 10s. every family expended in the week 5s. in bread. Their tax upon that was 2s. weekly, so that every man who had 10s. weekly, gave out of that 2s. to the bread-tax. That was twenty per cent. out of the income of every labouring family. But let them proceed upward, and see how the same tax worked. The man who had 20s. a week, still paid 2s. a week to the bread tax; that was to him ten per cent, as an income tax. If they went further - to the man who had 40s. a week - the income tax upon him in this way was five per cent. If they mounted higher - to the man who had £5 a week, or £250 a year - it was one per cent. income tax. Let them ascend to the nobility and the millionaires, to those who had an income of £200,000 a year. His family was the same as that of the poor man, and how did the bread-tax affect him? It was one halfpenny in every £100. And yet there was the tax which was actually levied, not for the purposes of the state, but for the benefit of the richest of the community. This, he apprehended, was a fair statement of the working and effect of the tax on bread..

The House had heard of the condition of the labouring population in the north. He had lately had an opportunity of seeing a report of the state of our labouring population in all parts of the country. Probably hon. Gentlemen were aware that a very important meeting had lately been held at Manchester, he alluded to the meeting of the ministers of religion. [A laugh.] He understood that laugh, but he should not pause in his statement of facts, but might perhaps notice it before concluding. He had seen a body of ministers of religion of all denominations - 650, and not thirty in number - assembled from all parts of the country, at an expense of from three to four thousand pounds, paid by their congregations. At that meeting most important statements of facts were made relating to the condition of the labouring classes. He would not trouble the House by reading those statements, but they shewed, that in every district of the country - and these statements rested upon unimpeachable authority - the condition of the great body of her Majesty's labouring population had deteriorated woefully within the last ten years, and more especially within the last three years, and that in proportion as the price of food increased, in the same proportion the comforts of the working classes had diminished. One word with respect to the manner in which his allusion to this meeting was received. He did not come there to vindicate the conduct of these Christian men in having assembled in order to take this subject into consideration. The parties who had to judge them were their own congregations. There were at that meeting members of the Established Church, of the Church of Rome, Independents, Baptists, members of the Church of Scotland, and of the Secession Church, Methodists, and, indeed, ministers of every other denomination, and if he were disposed to impugn the character of those divines, he felt he should be casting a stigma and a reproach upon the great body of professing Christians in this country.... Those reverend Gentlemen had prepared and signed a petition, in which they prayed for the removal of those laws - laws which, they stated, violated the Scriptures, and prevented famishing children from having a portion of those fatherly bounties which were intended for all people: and he would remind honourable Gentlemen that, besides these 650 ministers, there were 1,500 others, from whom letters had been received, offering up their prayers in their several localities to incline the will of Him who ruled princes and potentates to turn your hearts to justice and mercy. When they found so many ministers of religion, without any sectarian differences, joining heart and hand in a great cause, there could be no doubt of their earnestness. He begged to call to their minds whether these worthy men would not make very efficient ministers in this great cause? They knew what they had done in the anti-slavery question, when the religious public was roused; and what the difference was between stealing a man, and making him labour, and robbing a man of the fruit of his industry, he could not perceive. The noble Lord, the Member of North Lancashire, knew something of the abilities of those men. The noble Lord had told the House that from the moment the religious community and their pastors took up the question of slavery, from that moment the agitation must be successful. He believed this would be the case in the present instance.

Hansard, LIX, 235-42

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