« PreviousContinue »
According to the maxims of free-trade and ideal economists, under the then circumstances of the case, this rise in price was inevitable, and its rise was greater than was required by the addition of the necessary amount of arable soil. But when speculators begin to act, it is difficult to prescribe limits. All will agree, however, even at this distance of time, as to the paramount importance of agricultural extension. As to the manner and intensity with which this was carried out, any differences which may be entertained ought certainly to be adjusted by those most competent to the task-business men. Their interests were bound up with this increased agricultural activity. Till the element of speculation was introduced by these business men, the British farmers knew not what it was to speculate. The uniformly steady rate of prices up to 1795 is the proof of this. But their enlarged interests, the ultimate product of a cause over which the nation had for many years no control, solicited a due and proper maintenance, and obtained it. And thus the Corn Law, which was one of the final consequences, in this country, of the French Revolution, was established as much to protect the capital of these manufacturers, now become farmers, as to enhance the value of land. Thus the manufacturers who had become farmers in 1815 perceived the necessity of a Corn Law. Their self-interest dictated it. For without such a
of the soil ? Not from the pockets of the landlords, but from the capitalists and the public. If, then, after so much capital had been expended upon the soil, a free intercourse without protection had been permitted, it is clear there would have been a serious fall in the value of agricultural stock. The capitalists, corn merchants, and farmers would have been the losers.
means of protection, a great deal of their capital, which had become fixed, would have been lost, and this loss would have been disastrous to the labour interests of the country. But the manufacturers 1 in 1845 did not become farmers, nor did they identify themselves (as they ought justly to have done) with the prosperity of the agricultural industry. Let them have but changed places with their discredited brothers, and what would have been the result? They would have felt their selfinterest then to have been attacked without any just reason. The manufacturers could not, except by contradicting the statements of Sir Robert Peel, assert that their progress was on the whole (1845) retarded, or was likely to be retarded. But they could express an opinion that they were suffering a virtual retardation, and that the cause of their virtual grievance resided in the high price of bread. But it was equally their duty to the nation to calculate the immediate consequences and remote results of any reform bearing upon the price of bread. Was the repeal of the Corn Law, tending as it did to reduce the price of corn—but even here they could not predict when the tendency would be sufficiently powerful to have an adverse result upon prices—likely to be associated at any future time with danger to the agricultural interest ? If it came about, then the sum of the prosperities of our manufacturing and agricultural industries would be diminished. But the sum of the welfare of all the industries of the country expresses what is called “the national well
i Cobden tells us that, at the commencement of the agitation, it was the common belief among the manufacturers that free trade would be adverse to British agriculture. Vide p. 49.
being.” Did the manufacturers in their eager anxiety to repeal the Corn Laws intrench upon this wellbeing —not perhaps as far as they could see, or as long as they should live—but at some remote time?
We fancy the response to such a question would have been as follows: “Even supposing the national agriculture to suffer, and the supposition is one that we do not for a moment entertain, the rise in manufacturing activity will more than balance the decline in agricultural pursuits. We shall become one large workshop. Our people will make a great stride in improvement. They will become morally better, socially better, and politically better adapted to take their undoubted position in the government of the country. We mean to force our labourers to reach that higher and nobler state of society which is now denied them."
Thus it was that the manufacturers, with one eye closed, by their influence, but more by their wealth, attacked the Corn Laws; and Richard Cobden was their spokesman. His noble enthusiasm rose to a high tension when he displayed the causes of the degradation of the people. And it was worthy of a far more noble object than the mere enrichment of a particular class. When we perceive this, it is curious to collate it with this effort to destroy the influence and wealth of the aristocracy, by sapping the sources whence their unjust rents sprang. But he failed to recognise how that influence and that wealth rightly came into exist
1 Observe, in 1837 the agricultural interest was to be injured by
stimulated. Cf. Cobden's Speeches, pp. 49 and 63.
ence; as also their national importance. He did not see that, had there been no manufacturers' capital diverted into agriculture in the long war, there would have been no restrictions on the importation of wheat other than those which precedent justified. And therefore he did not see why it was that a Corn Law was framed at all. He made a telling allusion to the violent factions of those days, which culminated in the House of Commons being surrounded with soldiers to keep, as he said, an angry and starving populace at bay. But we can now measure the importance of such demonstrations. The rational treatment of some complicated questions has so far developed since Cobden's days as to prevent most men deriving several and sweeping conclusions—except in those few instances where political expediency seems to demand it—from particular cases. No matter how beneficial a measure, there always will be a varying degree of animosity evinced against it by those who are, or who think they will be, its victims. The study of human nature would have informed Cobden of the truth of this had he not had the actual fact before him. But he protested against the opposition to the Corn Law repeal. Why? Because he first of all believed that a universal free trade was best for the interests of the world at large : this was his ulterior motive. But his present motive was the conviction that the aristocracy grew rich at the expense of the national labour. This belief was based upon two grounds. The ground that the Corn Law of 1815 enhanced the value of land, and this none can deny; but it is cruelly unjust to assert that the aristoc
Cobden's Speeches, p. 27.
racy drew all the benefits from such increased value, for if the laws of economy have any weight, and the ideal political economists propound these laws, the landlords could only take their due share of the profits arising from an increased value in land. And as capital
if the aristocracy had not found in this enhanced value the means of materially improving their fortunes, they must, according to “ideal” doctrines, have discovered some other means of adding to their wealth. The other ground of Cobden's enthusiastic belief was that rents were raised in order to enhance the value of corn. Thus he denounced the aristocracy for directly encroaching upon the rights of labour. But, as matter of fact, the aristocracy increased in wealth by those opportunities which legislation and the laws of economy created. High rents do not cause high price of corn. It is the increasing price of corn which results, from competition, in an increase in rent.
The question, then, turns upon the legislation of 1815. And in the treatment of this, if you argue the matter according to the sequence of phenomena as they occurred, and not according to an imaginary description, designed to forward this or that particular view, you have to inquire—(1) why such legislation was judged to be needed ? and (2) what was the determining element in that legislation? In the first inquiry, we
* The value of agricultural stock was also maintained.
2 Some might censure Cobden for displaying real ignorance concerning this part of the question. But it is the writer's opinion that Cobden's views of things were marred by a prejudice, which turned all his energy towards the objects themselves, and not to the means by which they were to be attained.