Page images

by as questionable means as those which have been imputed by some who are their enemies to the proprietors of the soil. The Eadical asserts that the land has been acquired by plundering those who had a natural right to it. But how will the free - trader and Eadical account (on their hypothesis, that free trade is a good thing) for the capital acquired during the primary and prosperous period of free trade ?1 It is not our present object, however, to extend the nature of this interesting inquiry any further at this juncture.

What we propose to show is, that by effecting a free intercourse in corn, Cobden concluded that he had destroyed the source of the fluctuation in the price of corn. In that process the average price of corn would, as he acknowledged, be lowered. This would be to the farmer's disadvantage, and, by implication,2 to the disadvantage also of the landlord. But against this disadvantage he set (1) the paramount benefit the labourer would derive from a steady and cheap price of bread, which had for consequence that labour would

1 Free trade was only partly the cause of the so-called free-trade prosperity. Free trade induced some prosperity in one generation, and depression in the following. But the free-traders ascribe great powers to the free-trade principle. How did it act? By increasing the manufacturers' profits, and by cheapening the labourers' loaf. This was clearly the intention of Cobden and the manufacturers. What was the fact? Wages rose, bread remained nearly at the samo average price till 1860, and profits were greatly enhanced. But the discovery of gold acted with increased demand to raise wages. Did labour get its due share?

2 On this point Cobden was in error. A reduction in price of corn did not necessarily lead to a lower rent. Provided the same amount of wheat was grown, then with a low price of corn there would be a tendency to increase the prices of other agricultural products.

be by so much the cheaper as bread fell in value ;1 and (2) the stimulus which the foreign competition thus set up would supply to the farmer, by improving the amount of produce of the land, by compelling him to expend more capital upon its better cultivation.2 The honest agitator thought that he was in reality acting in the interests of the tenant-farmers by abolishing the Corn Laws. He set himself up as the farmer's friend, and wished him God-speed in the ideal prosperous course which he had marked out for him.

It is impossible to suppose that Cobden ever intended to destroy in the slightest degree the agricultural prospects of his country. All his assertions go to prove that he was the more sincere and wiser advocate of the farmer's cause than were the landlords who made political capital out of him. Did he expect that one acre of land would go out of cultivation by the encroachments of the foreign corn-grower upon the home markets ?3 Eather did he believe that the home-grown corn would be increased by the benign application of a mild but invigorating stimulus.4 We have consequently to compare the present circumstances of the home corn markets with those conditions which affected them in Cobden's times, and to inquire how the adverse state

1 The labourers would have more money to expend upon manufactured produce.

2 "There is no interest in this country which would receive so much benefit from the repeal of the Corn Laws as the farmer-tenant interest in this country."—P. 114, Cobden's Speeches.

3 P. 140: "I believe that the upholders of protection are pursuing the very course to throw land out of cultivation, and to make poor land unproductive."

4 P. 52: "All that is required to produce one-fourth more than they (the farmers) do now, is free trade in corn."

of our agriculture to-day has been brought about by Cobden's mistakes, and his want of foresight. Did he succeed in doing away with the fluctuation in the price of corn? Can any one consent to such a proposition when the price of corn in the home markets has gradually but surely been descending since the repeal of the Corn Laws?1 He found a state of things which he thought to be injurious to the best interests of the nation,—to the manufacturing interests, in so far as they made labour dear by making bread dear; and to the agricultural interests, by hindering further improvements. To advance those interests, he succeeded in removing, it is true, those temporary fluctuations, the causes of which he misunderstood; but did he gain thereby a steady price to the consumer, and a remunerative one to the grower of corn? For that was his object,2 as it was the object of Huskisson before him. Can this be affirmed of his policy? On the contrary, in the removal of one evil he sowed the seed of another. In the place of a minor evil we have another of far greater magnitude than the one destroyed, and one which we shall show was so from the evidence not only of Cobden, but also of those who advocate free trade, and yet are not blind to the

1 During the first ten years the fall was only to the extent of 2s. the quarter. This is to be accounted for by the unexpected stimulation afforded our agriculture by the war in the Crimea. Afterwards, with no counteracting transient influence at work, the decline in price went down from 54s. to 28s. lOd.

2 It was Cobden's intention that free trade in corn would effect a descent of price from 56s. to 50s., and would render the latter price permanent. Page 70: "Is this difference in price to throw land out of cultivation, annihilate rent, ruin the fanner, and pauperise the labourer?"

enormous importance of the agricultural industries of their country. Instead, then, of a constant price, we have a descending price. And what is the lowest limit of this, compatible with the maintenance of the national agriculture? It is said that wheat cannot be grown at a remunerative price to the farmer at a price less than 40s. a quarter or thereabouts. The contention of Cobden, who most probably derived his information from M'Culloch, was that the "natural" protection of transit to this country would raise the price of the wheat in the home markets from 36s., which was the average of a series of years, not very well chosen, at foreign ports, to 40s. Under such circumstances, and if the price was maintained at 40s. in the home markets, then, in very truth, the farmers would have nothing to fear from Cobden's proposal. Did Cobden, then, take away all protection from the farmer? By no means. Such a course would have been the very opposite of his intended policy. That policy consisted in changing what he took to be an artificial protection for a natural protection — the former was unnatural, the other bestowed by nature. His intention was clearly not to leave the home farmer completely at the mercy of his foreign competitor.1 Something intervened to favour the home producer. The free-traders of to-day may not like this species of protection—their notions of what

1 Besides this natural protection, another element prevailed with Cobden to effect a free trade in corn. It consisted in the circumstance that the whole amount of wheat capable of being exported from corn-growing States could not reach beyond two and a half million quarters at the utmost. It is obvious, however, that this is drawn from his experience of our occasional demands for corn. The reader will perceive that both these data have considerably varied.

free trade does and was intended to do may be different from Cobden's notions—but they are compelled to acknowledge that this natural protection was upheld by Cobden, their master.

We shall not here pursue the investigation of Cobden's relation to the Corn Laws. But it will at once seem to the reader that the original framers of that law proceeded exactly upon the same lines that Cobden did, and that the difference of effect consists merely in the different circumstances with which they had each of them respectively to deal.

Cobden, when he agitated the repeal of the Corn Law, proceeded upon the assumption, unfounded, that this law was the instrument by which the landlords were enabled to get high rents. But we can perceive now more clearly, since many conditions obscuring their true explanation have passed away, that the Corn Law was originally intended to act just like Cobden's "natural" protection. We make no reference to the statement that the Corn Laws were abused. We simply mention the principle upon which they were framed, and which referred to a state of things in which the farmers would not, under certain conditions, be able to supply all the wants of the country.1 And it is strange that the more exact working of this principle was just beginning to be felt when Cobden introduced his system of free intercourse in corn. He was not averse to protection, as we have seen, when it was natural. He desired to see the agriculture of the country in a more flourishing condition. If the Corn Laws were—and it

1 E.g., where the harvests were cither deficient in quality or reduced in quantity.

« PreviousContinue »