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The Corn Laws

The Manchester School of Economics and the Anti-Corn-Law League were the end product of 60 years of evolution of the idea of free trade. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, first advocated the principle of free trade as the basis for the development of a nation's 'natural economy', especially an industrial nation. Pitt the Younger made initial moves towards free trade in the 1780s and 1790s, mainly to combat smuggling and hence the loss of Customs and Excise revenue. The Vergennes Treaty of 1786 is, perhaps, the best example of this.

The war years 1793-1815 arrested economic developments in free trade. Much marginal land was enclosed to produce grain for the home market and to supply Britain's allies: 1,934 Enclosure Acts were passed in this period. The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.

Napoleon introduced the Continental System by the Berlin Decrees in 1806 and the Milan Decrees in 1807. This gave British farmers a virtual monopoly of domestic markets because all trade with Europe was ended. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices almost halved, causing panic among the farmers - many of whom were also voters. Consequently, the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815. Various men justified the legislation in parliament. Lord Binning spoke for the landowners and farmers:

In the depressed state of agriculture for the last twelve months, some relief was absolutely necessary. Numbers of persons had been turned out of employment, and the pressure of the poor rates was become intolerable... Most enormous losses had been suffered in the last year; and if some speedy remedy was not administered by the wisdom and firmness of the legislature, the agricultural interest of the country might soon be completely ruined. (Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, vol.29, (l8l5) Col. 984)

Another M,P. said that

Nothing could be more obvious than that the reduction of the price of corn was attributable to the importation of foreign grain. (ibid, col.1222)

Samuel Whitbread, a Radical Whig and member of the brewing family, agreed, saying

The proposition was not that rents were too high, but that corn was too low, and that it ought to be raised to such a price as to enable the farmer to cultivate his land with advantage, without reducing the landlord to the necessity of lowering his rents. (ibid., col.1240)

F.J. Robinson spoke as a member of the Government, saying that

He was of the opinion, on the whole, not only that our security would be greater, but even that the price of corn might in the end be cheaper, by home cultivation, than by depending on foreign countries. (ibid., col.802)

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. No foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the expanded grain farms and failed to solve the problem of high prices: what they did do was to subject food prices to violent fluctuations at high levels and encouraged the hoarding of corn. This in turn had an averse effect on domestic industry and foreign markets and really only served the interests of the landowners. The Lancashire cotton industry was particularly badly hit as it relied on raw imports and on the export market for its finished goods. However, parliament was unreformed and represented only landowners; all MPs had to be landowners to sit in parliament.

The high price caused the cost of food to increase and consequently depressed the domestic market for manufactured goods because people spent the bulk of their earnings on food rather than commodities. The Corn Laws also caused great distress among the working classes in the towns. These people were unable to grow their own food and had to pay the high prices in order to stay alive. Since the vast majority of voters and Members of Parliament were landowners, the government was unwilling to reconsider the new legislation in order to help the economy, the poor or the manufacturers who laid off workers in times of restricted trade.

There were MPs who opposed the passing of the Corn Laws. For example, G. Philips said

The committee are invited to adopt measures intended expressly to raise the price of corn, and in his judgement to raise it permanently... If you raise the price of provisions without proportionably raising that of labour, to what privations and evils must you necessarily expose the labourer! ,.. The labourer must go to the parish, or turn to some more profitable employment, if by chance any can be found, or he must emigrate, or work himself out by overstrained exertion.

If we artificially raise the price of provisions, we shall raise the price of labour, and in the same proportion we shall assist our rivals against ourselves. Is it possible to suppose, that the richest nation in the world . . . is to be starved, if it does not provide a sufficiency of corn for its subsistence; because, forsooth, other nations, wanting its commodities, and having more corn than they can consume, will refuse to relieve its deficiency out of their own superfluity?. . . An importation of corn cannot take place without a corresponding export of commodities on which British industry has been employed. That export will increase your natural wealth, that wealth will increase your population, and that increased population will provide an increased demand for your agricultural produce. (ibid., cols. 811-817)

William Cobbett wrote (Political Register, 21 May 1814)

I deny that it is in the power of even A body of men, who have been called omnipotent, to cause the farmer to have a high price; the price depending on the crop, and not upon any law or any regulation... I am no advocate for law that is now pending. I know, that the thing will, and must, regulate itself.

There were popular agitations against the Corn Laws, including a radical meeing in Manchester in January 1819. At this meeting, which preceded the meeting at St Peter's Field in August 1819, the following Declaration was drawn up:

The conduct of the late Parliament in passing the Corn Bill, which was obtained under false pretensions and passed at the point of the bayonet, in defiance of the united groans and supplications of the People, was oppressive in its design and cruel in its operation; being neither more nor less than a vile conspiracy between the great Landholders and the Ministers, to extort from the industrious labourer and mechanic, through the very bread they eat, an immense portion of Taxes for the support of the Borough system, and to enrich themselves and their pensioned minions, by the sweat of the poor man's brow.

In 1815 there was a series of riots against the Corn Laws: the Annual Register (vol. 57, 1815, p. 6), commented on the results of the legislation:

The consequences of this measure were by no means such as were expected either by its promoters or opposers. The effects either of former importations, or, more probably, of two plentiful harvests, and a greatly extended culture of grain, were to produce a gradual steady reduction of price, so that, instead of approaching the limits fixed for importation, it sunk to a level below that of several years past. The farmers, who were labouring under exorbitant rents, in addition to other increased expenses, were general sufferers; and the landlords found it necessary in many instances to make great abatements in their dues. In the result, many leases have been voided, and farms have been left without tenants.

In 1828 the Corn Laws were revised by the Duke of Wellington's government. Huskisson introduced a sliding scale which allowed foreign corn to be imported duty-free when the domestic price rose to 73/- per quarter. When he considered the effects of the legislation passed in 1815,

he lamented, from the bottom of his soul, the mass of evil and miseries and destruction of capital which that Jaw, in the course of its twelve years' operation, had produced. And he did believe that ... the effect of the bill, as far as regarded the agriculturists themselves, had been to keep the prices of produce lower, for those twelve years, than they would have been, even if the corn trade had been entirely open.

The more the price of domestic grain fell below that figure, the higher the duty became. The sliding scale still did not really help the poor or the manufacturers. sliding scale which was a partial improvement on the situation.

Foreign imports prohibited


Imports by regulated degrees


Free entry of foreign grain

The 1820s also saw the growth of the 'Manchester School' of free traders. The Manchester Times and the Manchester Guardian (a free trade journal) were established to spread the economic doctrine of the new middle class industrialists. Free trade ideas were strong in Manchester because of the cotton industry's reliance on imports and exports.

The 1832 Reform Act came as a result of much political activity from the Political Unions and enfranchised much of the middle class. This, and the Catholic Association, provided models and a lever with which to pressurise parliament. In 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to a sizeable proportion of the industrial middle classes and meant that the manufacturers now had more importance in the governance of Britain, so some notice had to be taken of their opinions. The Whig government seemed to have little idea about economics: however, it did set up a Select Committee to investigate 'the Several DUTIES levied on imports into the United Kingdom'. Sir Robert Peel asked on 18 May 1841:

"Can there be a more lamentable picture than that of a Chancellor of the Exchequer [Sir Francis Baring] seated on an empty chest, by the pool of bottomless deficiency, fishing for a budget?".

The 1830s was also a time of economic depression which gave an edge to the free traders' arguments, especially since it followed an upturn in the economy in the period 1822-28. The 1830s saw the start of the railways: the pride of the middle classes, and the start of the second industrial revolution. The potential of the railways was strangled by tariff impositions which in many ways restricted productivity. An increased volume of industry meant that there was a greater need for free trade to create the incentive for people to put capital into the railways and to use the railways as a means of transport. There was a need also for greater sales both at home and abroad.

The Anti-Corn-Law League was a plea for more political power and a criticism of the landed, aristocratic parliament. The Corn Laws were the king-pin of protectionism and free trade had been a "stop-go" policy since the days of Pitt. Free trade would only work if a nation was economically supreme or holding a specialist monopoly - or both, as Britain did.

After 1835, the new Conservative Party sought an alliance of land and industry in a planned programme of socio-economic reform, as opposed to constitutional Whiggery. Peel was from a cotton background and in his Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 he said , "Our object will be ... the just and impartial consideration of what is due to all interests - agriculture, manufacturing and commercial". This was a fundamental break with high Toryism and served to encourage middle-class agitation.

The Whig governments of 1830-4 and 1835-41 were challenged by many different groups of agitators including the Chartists, the Anti-Poor Law movement, the Ten Hour Movement, and the Anti-Corn-Law League.

The Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London in 1836 but had little success there; it was re-formed in 1838 in Manchester and in 1839 was re-named the Anti-Corn-Law League (ACLL). The members of this movement were mainly middle-class manufacturers, merchants, bankers and traders and included Richard Cobden and John Bright. They wanted the Corn Laws to be repealed so that they could sell more goods both in Britain and overseas. The keystone of the protectionist system was thought to be the Corn Laws: once they were repealed, the ACLL thought that free trade would follow. The ACLL headed a nation-wide campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws which ended in success in 1846 when the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel repealed the legislation.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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