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The Anti-Corn-Law League

Cobden and Bright

The 1815 Corn Laws failed to stabilise wheat prices but produced little agitation beyond petitions to parliament and a small crop of pamphlets: agitation for parliamentary reform overshadowed the Corn Laws but the period 1822-1828 was important in the anti-Corn Law movement in that it marked a union of industrial and commercial classes against "the lords and great proprietors of the soil" (John Bright).

The industrial revolution, which had exacerbated the problem, also provided a way of solving it by bringing into being a new middle class that included men such as Peel, Cobden and Bright, whose interest was with industry rather than land. The industrial/commercial class resented the landed political power monopoly; they also wanted cheaper bread, and to reduce their wages bill. Corn Law agitation became a moral issue, and therefore attracted support. Following the trade collapse of 1836, attention was turned to free trade. If the Corn Laws and the remaining tariffs could be removed, there would be an endlessly expanding market for goods.

The Anti-Corn-Law League was founded in Manchester in 1838 - the obvious centre, since Manchester depended on imported cotton and the Corn Laws were strangling trade. The approach of the Anti-Corn-Law League towards repeal was guided by the earlier Catholic Association, set up by Daniel O'Connell in 1823, and the Political Unions. Initially it was called the Anti-Corn-Law Association, as had an earlier movement which had been founded in London in 1836. In 1839 the Manchester Anti-Corn-Law Association changed its name to the Anti-Corn-Law League. The movement intended to pressurise parliament for repeal of the Corn Laws: As Prentice said in the Manchester Times, "Nothing was to be expected even from a reformed parliament, without such an outward pressure as carried the Reform Bill".

 The Anti-Corn-Law League had modest beginnings - at first, only seven men were involved. Perhaps the most famous of the founders of the movement was Richard Cobden. He was a Manchester manufacturer who came from a Sussex farming background. He was an economist; cool and politically shrewd. Also he was a tactician and a rationalist. He spoke logically against the Corn Laws: the 'head' of the Anti-Corn-Law League and proved to be "hard-headed". He refused to merge the Anti-Corn-Law League with wider programmes of reform because he saw the advantages of a single policy, and saw the appeal to new industrial areas. He became MP for Stockport in 1841. He was the only man ever to beat Peel in debate in parliament.

John Bright was a Quaker and a factory owner in Rochdale. He was an emotional speaker - the 'heart' of the Anti-Corn-Law League. He was a great orator who played on feelings by showing the Corn Laws creating poverty and distress. He was the epitome of Nineteenth Century liberalism. His followers regarded him as a prophet. He became MP for Rochdale in 1843. Asa Briggs said of Bright, "He related shifting practical politics to eternal truths of moral law". However, Bright's rôle in the leadership of the Anti-Corn-Law League has been called into question by Norman McCord who says, "The traditional view of Cobden and Bright as the leaders of the League is erroneous: Bright was an important member of the League Council, and Cobden's principal lieutenant as an orator in and out of Parliament, but he never acquired a position in the League as important as those of Cobden and Wilson. ... It is clear that Bright was by no means acceptable at this time to all Liberal groups and he had the good sense to realise this". In parliament, however, Cobden and Bright were a lethal combination.

George Wilson was President of the Anti-Corn-Law League in Manchester. He was one of the most able of contemporary campaigners and supervised and directed Anti-Corn-Law League activities and dealt with the administration from the League's headquarters at Newall's Buildings in Manchester. He also dealt with the election of free-traders as MPs, propaganda, public meetings, lecture tours, fund-raising activities and so on. CP Villiers was the mouthpiece of the Anti-Corn-Law League in parliament. He became MP for Wolverhampton in the late 1830s.

The Leaguers argued persuasively that repeal of the Corn Laws and subsequent free trade would:

The League expanded by winning the support of the Manchester liberals and businessmen and by corresponding with similar societies. League members were a mixture of manufacturing and trading classes; often they were Dissenters or humanitarians. These latter were important because they provided the 'moral' element.

The Sheffield Mechanics' Anti-Bread-Tax Society was founded in 1830 and survived into the 1840s. Ebenezer Elliott, the 'Corn Law Rhymer' attacked the middle-class image of the anti-Corn-Law movement in Sheffield: in 1833 he said,

The people will soon enough discover the frightful extent of the chasm which separates them from every man who has a decent coat on his back. If a meeting takes place on the corn laws, and no person above the rank of a small tradesman attend it, what will the ten thousand say?"

Sheffield's Anti-Corn-Law movement got more support from the artisan classes than from the middle classes. Elliott complained of middle-class apathy. Working-class hostility to the Corn Laws survived in Sheffield's trade unions.

In 1833, Trade Unions in Sheffield organised an anti-Corn-Law petition and in January 1839, Sheffield's middle classes re-established the Anti-Corn-Law Association. In September 1839 the Trade Unions decided to be non-political. They dissociated themselves from Chartism and Elliott abandoned Chartism because of Sheffield's advocacy of physical force. In November the Trade Unions agreed to support the anti-Corn-Law campaign. At the November meeting, Harrison of the edge tools trade said,

If the Corn Laws were abolished it would give the working man greater strength to resist other evils... Considering these things ... they were of the opinion that if they could overcome the Corn Laws first, other evils would fall before the persevering stroke of those who struggled for liberty.

The Anti-Corn-Law League gave great prominence to this meeting.

In 1841, Harney went to Sheffield as correspondent for the Northern Star and spoke of tradesmen there as 'repealers of the Corn Laws', not as Chartists. When at the end of his Chartist speech he asked the rhetorical question, "What do we want?" someone in the crowd shouted back, "Sommat t'eat" (something to eat).

Ebenezer Elliott and the Sheffield Iris, a liberal paper, initially were firm supporters of Chartism. Elliott was sent as Sheffield's delegate to the London Working Men's Association meeting in September 1838, and also presided at a public meeting in Sheffield at which the Charter was first brought forward.

In 1839 the Whig cabinet had allowed both the ballot and the Corn Laws to become open questions and C.P. Villiers' motion for an enquiry into the Corn Laws though defeated was supported by a number of leading Whig ministers. In 1841 the 'free trade' budget put forward by the government included the old Radical proposal for a moderate fixed duty on corn in place of the existing sliding scale. At the same time the formation of the Manchester Anti-Corn-Law Association in 1838 followed the next year by the national Anti-Corn-Law League brought the issue before a wider public than that reached by the small group of free trade Radicals in the House of Commons. Strictly speaking, the government and the opposition were only disputing in 1841 over different degrees and methods of protection, but at the general election the popular cries of "Free Trade", "Cheap Bread" and " Big Loaf or Little Loaf?", roused much feeling on both sides.

Finance was very important to the Anti-Corn-Law League. The Anti-Corn-Law League also presented their case in humanitarian and religious terms as well as on economic grounds: they said that supporters of the Corn Laws were murderers, for instance, and the language of both Cobden and Bright is dominated by Biblical metaphors.

In 1841 the decision was taken to start contesting elections and five Leaguers were elected, including Cobden. A great deal of energy was put into preparing for the general election of that year and the Anti-Corn-Law League used bribery, corruption and so on (just as did all the other candidates) and played a corrupt system to their own advantage. As Cobden said,

You speak with a loud voice when you are talking from the floor of the House, and if you have anything to say which hits hard, it is a very long whip and reaches all over the kingdom.

On the other hand, the Chartists lacked this foot-hold in parliament until much too late.

Two petitions were presented at the first meeting of the new parliament, one supporting and one opposing the maintenance of the Corn Laws. Of the two leading signatories of the former, James Bennett (1793-1872) of Cadbury House, Somerset, was a country squire and J.P.; Dr. Pye Smith (1774-1851) was a prominent Congregationalist Minister of moderate views who in previous years had tried to moderate Dissenting attacks on the Church of England.

One reason for the early success of the League was its ability to win the support of the Dissenters and radicals against the Church and aristocracy. As part of its activity during and after the general election of 1841 a conference of seven hundred ministers of religion carefully stage-managed by the League was held at Manchester in August which passed a strong resolution condemning the Corn Laws on moral and humanitarian grounds. Cobden already had become important in Manchester politics and became MP for Stockport in the general election of 1841. In his maiden speech in the debate on the Address opposed the Corn Laws. Lord John Russell gave it special praise to the Queen as 'a powerful speech from Mr Cobden, a manufacturer'. The use of the phrase 'Food-Tax' or 'Bread-Tax' was deliberately adopted by Cobden for its propaganda value.

I think it is better to use the word bread-tax than the corn law. A bread-tax is a good term to fix upon our opponents.

In 1842 the second Chartist Petition failed; Lovett and Place went into self-help. Some working class men joined the Anti-Corn-Law League because they saw the Charter had failed to achieve its aims. However, after the first successes the Anti-Corn Law League lost its momentum, especially when Peel introduced his free-trade budget, income tax, and the corn bill in the spring of 1842, all of which received a considerable amount of middle-class support. To keep up the agitation various extreme measures were considered by the League leaders. For example,

The severe industrial distress of the 1841-2 period provided temptation to the League to exploit working class disorder; the danger was greater since in many manufacturing towns the bulk of the magistrates were Leaguers. The Plug Plot of August 1842 was a strike by workmen against wage-reductions. However, League lecturers had been busy stirring up feeling in the affected areas and it was alleged both by Chartists and sections of the Tory press that the League had taken a hand in promoting the strikes and lockouts. There was no evidence of this, though Peel and Graham were dissatisfied at the conduct of some of the magistrates and held the League morally responsible for much of the disturbances. The Home Office collected a dossier on the activities of the League at Peel's request; eventually it was handed over to JW Croker to produce an article for the Conservative periodical, the Quarterly Review, which appeared in December 1842.

In 1842 the Anti-Corn-Law League extended its missionary efforts to the rural areas but this resulted in the League being attacked by the gentry and farmers. Agricultural Protection Societies were formed in many counties and in February 1844 they were given national leadership by the Central Agricultural Protection Society for the United Kingdom set up under the Duke of Richmond and the Duke of Buckingham. The main work of this 'Anti-League' was to agitate for the continuance of protection, counter the activities of the League in the country districts, and bring pressure to bear on MPs.

This network of associations provided the driving-force behind most of the opposition to Peel inside the Conservative party in 1846. A large number of pamphlets advocating protectionism appeared and the protectionists attempted to discredit their opponents by quoting the virulent language of League attacks on landowners and tenants. They also exposed the inconsistencies and contradictions in League statements about the effect of repeal on prices and wages. One pamphlet made effective use of this tactic and received so much publicity that by 1844 it had run into twelve editions.

On 12 March 1845, Cobden made a speech in the House of Commons on the Corn Laws that Peel was unable to answer. Peel left the chamber and Sidney Herbert had to answer in his stead. Also in 1845 the potato blight struck the United Kingdom but Ireland was the worst affected part of the country. It has been said that Peel repealed the Corn Laws to avert a total disaster in Ireland although such legislation would not have helped the Irish peasants.

Peel's decision to go for a repeal of the Corn Laws split the Conservatives, saw Peel's resignation as Prime Minister and proved to be the most important step towards almost total free trade in Britain. The campaign of the Anti-Corn-Law League has been successful and the organisation was dismantled.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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