May 5, 2008

Hundredth Post and Disconinuation of the Post a Day Rule

This is about my hundredth post! Yay! Also, I'm probably not going to be posting any speeches regularly for a while... Read more!

May 3, 2008

The Effects of Protection on Agriculture

SIR, the object of this motion is to appoint a select committee to inquire into the present condition of the agricultural interests; and, at the same time, to ascertain how the laws regulating the importation of agricultural produce have affected the agriculturists of this country. As regards the distress among farmers, I presume we can not go to a higher authority than those honorable gentlemen who profess to be the farmers’ friends and protectors. I find it stated by those honorable gentlemen who recently paid their respects to the prime minister, that the agriculturists are in a state of great embarrassment and distress. I find that one gentleman from Norfolk [Mr. Hudson] stated that the farmers in the county are paying their rents, but paying them out of capital, and not profits. I find Mr. Turner of Upton, in Devonshire, stating that one-half of the smaller farmers in that county are insolvent, and that the others are rapidly falling into the same condition; that the farmers with larger holdings are quitting their farms with a view of saving the rest of their property; and that, unless some remedial measures be adopted by this House, they will be utterly ruined.

Richard Cobden (1804–65)


Born in 1804, died in 1865; entered Parliament in 1841; negotiated a commercial treaty with France in 1859; supported the Union cause in the Civil War; noted as an advocate of free trade and the chief supporter of the Anti-Corn-Law League in 1839–46.

SIR, the object of this motion is to appoint a select committee to inquire into the present condition of the agricultural interests; and, at the same time, to ascertain how the laws regulating the importation of agricultural produce have affected the agriculturists of this country. As regards the distress among farmers, I presume we can not go to a higher authority than those honorable gentlemen who profess to be the farmers’ friends and protectors. I find it stated by those honorable gentlemen who recently paid their respects to the prime minister, that the agriculturists are in a state of great embarrassment and distress. I find that one gentleman from Norfolk [Mr. Hudson] stated that the farmers in the county are paying their rents, but paying them out of capital, and not profits. I find Mr. Turner of Upton, in Devonshire, stating that one-half of the smaller farmers in that county are insolvent, and that the others are rapidly falling into the same condition; that the farmers with larger holdings are quitting their farms with a view of saving the rest of their property; and that, unless some remedial measures be adopted by this House, they will be utterly ruined.

The accounts which I have given you of those districts are such as I have had from many other sources. I put it to honorable gentlemen opposite, whether the condition of the farmers in Suffolk, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, is better than that which I have described in Norfolk and Devonshire? I put it to county members, whether—taking the whole of the south of England, from the confines of Nottinghamshire to the Land’s End—whether, as a rule, the farmers are not now in a state of the greatest embarrassment? There may be exceptions; but I put it to them whether, as a rule, that is not their condition in all parts?

The distress of the farmers being admitted, the next question which arises is, What is its cause? I feel a greater necessity to bring forward this motion for a committee of inquiry, because I find great discrepancies of opinion among honorable gentlemen opposite as to what is the cause of the distress among the farmers. In the first place there is a discrepancy as to the generality or locality of the existing distress. I find the right honorable baronet at the head of the government [Sir Robert Peel] saying that the distress is local; and he moreover says it does not arise from the legislation of this House. The honorable member for Dorsetshire declares, on the other hand, that the distress is general, and that it does not arise from legislation.

Now, there are these very different opinions on the other side of the House; but there are members upon this side representing very important interests, who think that farmers are suffering because they have this legislative protection. There is all this difference of opinion. Now, is not that a fit and proper subject for your inquiry? I am prepared to go into a select committee, and to bring forward evidence to show that the farmers are laboring under great evils—evils that I would connect with the legislation of this House, tho they are evils which appear to be altogether dissociated from it. The first great evil under which the farmer labors is the want of capital. No one can deny that. I do not mean at all to disparage the farmers. The farmers of this country are just the same race as the rest of us; and, if they were placed in a similar position, theirs would be as good a trade—I mean that they would be as successful men of business—as others; but it is notorious, as a rule, that the farmers of this country are deficient in capital; and I ask: How can any business be carried on successfully where there is a deficiency of capital?

I take it that honorable gentlemen opposite, acquainted with farming, would admit that 10l. an acre, on an arable farm, would be a sufficient amount of capital for carrying on the business of farming successfully. I will take it, then, that 10l. an acre would be a fair capital for an arable farm. I have made many inquiries upon this subject in all parts of the kingdom, and I give it you as my decided conviction, that at this present moment farmers do not average 5l. an acre capital on their farms. I speak of England, and I take England south of the Trent, tho, of course, there are exceptions in every country; there are men of large capital in all parts—men farming their own land; but, taking it as a rule, I hesitate not to give my opinion—and I am prepared to back that opinion by witnesses before your committee—that, as a rule, farmers have not, upon an average, more than 5l. an acre capital for their arable land. I have given you a tract of country to which I may add all Wales; probably 20,000,000 of acres of cultivable land. I have no doubt whatever that there are 100,000,000l. of capital wanting upon that land. What is the meaning of farming capital? There are strange notions about the word “capital.” It means more manure, a great amount of labor, a greater number of cattle, and larger crops. Picture a country in which you can say there is a deficiency of one-half of all those blessings which ought to, and might, exist there, and then judge what the condition of laborers wanting employment and food is.

But you will say, capital would be invested if it could be done with profit. I admit it; that is the question I want you to inquire into. How is it that in a country where there is a plethora of capital, where every other business and pursuit is overflowing with money, where you have men going to France for railways and to Pennsylvania for bonds, embarking in schemes for connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific by canals, railways in the valley of the Mississippi, and sending their money to the bottom of the Mexican mines; while you have a country rich and overflowing, ready to take investments in every corner of the globe, how is it, I say, that this capital does not find its employment in the most attractive of all forms—upon the soil of this country? The cause is notorious—it is admitted by your highest authorities; the reason is, there is not security for capital in land. Capital shrinks instinctively from insecurity of tenure; and you have not in England that security which would warrant men of capital investing their money in the soil.

Now, is it not a matter worthy of consideration, how far this insecurity of tenure is bound up with that protective system of which you are so enamored? Suppose it can be shown that there is a vicious circle; that you have made politics of Corn Laws, and that you want voters to maintain them; that you very erroneously think that the Corn Laws are your great mine of wealth, and, therefore, you must have a dependent tenantry, that you may have their votes at elections to maintain this law in Parliament. Well, if you will have dependent voters, you can not have men of spirit and capital. Then your policy reacts upon you. If you have not men of skill and capital, you can not have improvements and employment for your laborers. Then comes around that vicious termination of the circle—you have pauperism, poor-rates, county-rates, and all the other evils of which you are now speaking and complaining.

Now, sir, not only does the want of security prevent capital flowing into the farming business, but it actually deters from the improvement of the land those who are already in the occupation of it. There are many men, tenants of your land, who could improve their farms if they had a sufficient security, and they have either capital themselves or their friends could supply it; but with the absence of leases, and the want of security, you are actually deterring them from laying out their money on your land. They keep everything the same from year to year. You know that it is impossible to farm your estates properly unless a tenant has an investment for more than one year. A man ought to be able to begin a farm with at least eight years before him, before he expects to see a return for the whole of the outlay of his money. You are, therefore, keeping your tenants-at-will at a yearly kind of cultivation, and you are preventing them carrying on their businesses in a proper way. Not only do you prevent the laying out of capital upon your land, and disable the farmers from cultivating it, but your policy tends to make them servile and dependent; so that they are actually disinclined to improvement, afraid to let you see that they can improve, because they are apprehensive that you will pounce upon them for an increase of rent.

Now, I do not know why we should not in this country have leases for land upon similar terms to the leases of manufactories, or any “plant” or premises. I do not think that farming will ever be carried on as it ought to be until you have leases drawn up in the same way as a man takes a manufactory, and pays perhaps a thousand pounds a year for it. I know people who pay four thousand pounds a year for manufactories to carry on their business, and at fair rents. There is an honorable gentleman near me who pays more than four thousand pounds a year for the rent of his manufactory. What covenants do you think he has in his lease? What would he think if it stated how many revolutions there should be in a minute of the spindles, or if they prescribed the construction of the straps or the gearing of the machinery? Why, he takes his manufactory with a schedule of its present state—bricks, mortar, and machinery—and when the lease is over, he must leave it in the same state, or else pay a compensation for the dilapidation. [The chancellor of the exchequer: “Hear, hear!”]

The right honorable gentleman, the chancellor of the exchequer, cheers that statement. I want to ask his opinion respecting a similar lease for a farm. I am rather disposed to think that the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers will very likely form a joint-stock association, having none but free-traders in the body, that we may purchase an estate and have a model farm; taking care that it shall be in one of the rural counties, one of the most purely agricultural parts of the country, where we think there is the greatest need of improvement—perhaps in Buckinghamshire,—and there shall be a model farm, homestead, and cottages; and I may tell the noble lord, the member for Newark, that we shall have a model garden, and he will not make any boast about it. But the great object will be to have a model lease. We will have as the farmer a man of intelligence and capital.

I am not so unreasonable as to tell you that you ought to let your land to men who have not a competent capital, or are not sufficiently intelligent; but I say, select such a man as that, let him know his business and have a sufficient capital, and you can not give him too wide a scope. We will find such a man, and will let him our farm; there shall be a lease precisely such as that upon which my honorable friend takes his factory. There shall be no clause inserted in it to dictate to him how he shall cultivate his farm; he shall do what he likes with the old pasture. If he can make more by plowing it up he shall do so; if he can grow white crops every year—which I know there are people doing at this moment in more places than one in this country—or if he can make any other improvement or discovery, he shall be free to do so. We will let him the land, with a schedule of the state of tillage and the condition of the homestead, and all we will bind him to will be this: “You shall leave the land as good as when you entered upon it. If it be in an inferior state it shall be valued again, and you shall compensate us; but if it be in an improved state it shall be valued, and we, the landlords, will compensate you.” We will give possession of everything upon the land, whether it be wild or tame animals; he shall have the absolute control.

Take as stringent precautions as you please to compel the punctual payment of the rent; take the right of reentry as summarily as you like if the rent be not duly paid, but let the payment of rent duly be the sole test as to the well-doing of the tenant; and so long as he can pay the rent, and do it promptly, that is the only criterion you need have that the farmer is doing well; and if he is a man of capital, you have the strongest possible security that he will not waste your property while he has possession of it.

Now, sir, I do not stop to connect the cause and effect in this matter, and inquire whether your Corn Laws or your protective system have caused the want of leases and capital. I do not stop to make good my proof, and for this reason, that you have adopted a system of legislation in this House by which you profess to make the farming trade prosperous. I show you, after thirty years’ trial, what is the depressed condition of the agriculturists; I prove to you what is the impoverished state of farmers, and also of laborers, and you will not contest any one of those propositions. I say it is enough, having had thirty years’ trial of your specific with no better results than these, for me to ask you to go into committee to see if something better can not be devised. I am going to contend that free trade in grain would be more advantageous to farmers—and with them I include laborers—than restriction; to oblige the honorable member for Norfolk, I will take with them also the landlords; and I contend that free trade in corn and grain of every kind would be more beneficial to them than to any other class of the community. I should have contended the same before the passing of the late tariff, but now I am prepared to do so with tenfold more force.

What has the right honorable baronet [Sir R. Peel] done? He has passed a law to admit fat cattle at a nominal duty. Some foreign fat cattle were selling in Smithfield the other day at about 15l. or 16l. per head, paying only about seven and one half per cent. duty; but he has not admitted the raw material out of which these fat cattle are made. Mr. Huskisson did not act in this manner when he commenced his plan of free trade. He began by admitting the raw material of manufactures before he admitted the manufactured article; but in your case you have commenced at precisely the opposite end, and have allowed free trade in cattle instead of that upon which they are fattened. I say give free trade in that grain which goes to make the cattle. I contend that by this protective system the farmers throughout the country are more injured than any other class in the community.

I will go further and say, that farmers with thin soil—I mean the stock farmers, whom you will find in Hertfordshire and Surrey, farmers with large capitals, arable farmers—I say those men are deeply interested in having a free importation of food for their cattle, because they have thin, poor land. This land of its own self does not contain the means of its increased fertility; and the only way is the bringing in of an additional quantity of food from elsewhere, that they can bring up their farms to a proper state of cultivation. I have been favored with an estimate made by a very experienced, clever farmer in Wiltshire—probably honorable gentlemen will bear me out, when I say a man of great intelligence and skill, and entitled to every consideration in this House. I refer to Mr. Nathaniel Atherton, Kingston, Wilts. That gentleman estimates that upon 400 acres of land he could increase his profits to the amount of 280l., paying the same rent as at present, provided there was a free importation of foreign grain of all kinds. He would buy 500 quarters of oats at 15s., or the same amount in beans or peas at 14s. or 15s. a sack, to be fed on the land or in the yard; by which he would grow additional 160 quarters of wheat, and 230 quarters of barley, and gain an increased profit of 300l. upon his sheep and cattle. His plan embraces the employment of an additional capital of 1,000l.; and he would pay 150l. a year more for labor.

Now, I undertake to say, in the name of Mr. Atherton, of Wiltshire, and Mr. Lattimore, of Hertfordshire, that they are as decided advocates for free trade in grain of every kind as I am. I am not now quoting merely solitary cases. I told honorable gentlemen once before that I have probably as large an acquaintance among farmers as any one in the House. I think I could give you from every county the names of some of the first-rate farmers who are as ardent free-traders as I am. I requested the secretary of this much dreaded Anti-Corn-Law League to make me out a list of the farmers who are subscribers to that association, and I find there are upward of one hundred in England and Scotland who subscribe to the league fund, comprising, I hesitate not to say, the most intelligent men to be found in the kingdom. I went into the Lothians, at the invitation of twenty-two farmers there, several of whom were paying upward of 1,000l. a year rent. I spent two or three days among them, and I never found a body of more intelligent, liberal-minded men in my life. Those are men who do not want restrictions upon the importation of grain. They desire nothing but fair play. They spy: “Let us have our Indian corn, Egyptian beans, and Polish oats as freely as we have our linseed cake, and we can bear competition with any corn-growers in the world.” But by excluding the provender for cattle, and at the same time admitting the cattle almost duty free, I think you are giving an example of one of the greatest absurdities and perversions of nature and common sense that ever was seen.

Upon the last occasion when I spoke upon this subject, I was answered by the right honorable gentleman, the president of the Board of Trade. He talked about throwing poor lands out of cultivation, and converting arable lands into pasture. I hope that we men of the Anti-Corn-Law League may not be reproached again with seeking to cause any such disasters. My belief is—and the conviction is founded upon a most extensive inquiry among the most intelligent farmers, without stint of trouble and pains—that the course you are pursuing tends every hour to throw land out of cultivation, and make poor lands unproductive. Do not let us be told again that we desire to draw the laborers from the land, in order that we may reduce the wages of the work-people employed in factories. I tell you that, if you bestow capital on the soil, and cultivate it with the same skill as manufacturers bestow upon their business, you have not population enough in the rural districts for the purpose. I yesterday received a letter from Lord Ducie, in which he gives precisely the same opinion. He says: “If we had the land properly cultivated, there are not sufficient laborers to till it.” You are chasing your laborers from village to village, passing laws to compel people to support paupers, devising every means to smuggle them abroad—to the antipodes, if you can get them there; why, you would have to run after them, and bring them back again., if you had your land properly cultivated. I tell you honestly my conviction, that it is by these means, and these only, that you can avert very great and serious troubles and disasters in your agricultural districts.

On the last occasion when I addressed the House on this subject, I recollect stating some facts to show that you had no reasonable ground to fear foreign competition; those facts I do not intend to reiterate, because they have never been contradicted. But there are still attempts made to frighten people by telling them: “If you open the ports to foreign corn, you will have corn let in here for nothing.” One of the favorite fallacies which are now put forth is this: “Look at the price of corn in England, and see what it is abroad; you have prices low here, and yet you have corn coming in from abroad and paying the maximum duty. Now, if you had not 20s. duty to pay, what a quantity of corn you would have brought in, and how low the price would be!”

This statement arises from a fallacy—I hope not dishonestly put forth—in not understanding the difference between the real and the nominal price of corn. The price of corn at Dantzic now, when there is no regular sale, is nominal; the price of corn when it is coming in regularly is the real price. Now, go back to 1838. In January of that year the price of wheat at Dantzic was nominal; there was no demand for England; there were no purchasers except for speculation, with the chance, probably, of having to throw the wheat into the sea. But in the months of July and August of that year, when apprehensions arose of a failure of our harvest, then the price of corn in Dantzic rose instantly, sympathizing with the markets of England; and at the end of the year, in December, the price of wheat at Dantzic had doubled the amount at which it had been in January; and during the three following years, when you had a regular importation of corn,—during all that time, by the averages laid upon the table of this House, wheat at Dantzic averaged 40s. Wheat at Dantzic was at that price during the three years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Now, I mention this just to show the fact to honorable gentlemen, and to entreat them that they will not go and alarm their tenantry by this outcry of the danger of foreign competition. You ought to be pursuing a directly opposite course—you ought to be trying to stimulate them in every possible way, by showing that they can compete with foreigners; that what others can do in Poland, they can do in England.

But we are told that English agriculturists can not compete with foreigners, and especially with that serf labor that is to be found somewhere up the Baltic. Well, but flax comes from the Baltic and there is no protective duty. Honorable gentlemen say we have no objection to raw materials where there is no labor connected with them; but we can not contend against foreigners in wheat, because there is such an amount of labor in it. Why, there is twice as much labor in flax as there is in wheat; but the member for Shoreham favors the growth of flax in order to restore the country, which is sinking into this abject and hopeless state for want of agricultural protection. But the honorable baronet will forgive me—I am sure he will, he looks as if he would—if I allude a little to the subject of leases. The honorable gentleman on that occasion, I believe, complained that it was a great pity that farmers did not grow more flax. I do not know whether it was true or not that the same honorable baronet’s leases to his own tenants forbade them to grow that article.

Now, I have alluded to the condition of the laborers at the present time; but I am bound to say that while the farmers at the present moment are in a worse condition than they have been for the last ten years, I believe the agricultural laborers have passed over the winter with less suffering and distress, altho it has been a five-months’ winter, and a severer one, too, than they endured in the previous year. [Hear!] I am glad to find that corroborated by honorable gentlemen opposite, because it bears out, in a remarkable degree, the opinion that we, who are in connection with the free trade question, entertain. We maintain that a low price of food is beneficial to the laboring classes. We assert, and we can prove it, at least in the manufacturing districts, that whenever provisions are dear, wages are low; and whenever food is cheap, wages invariably rise. We have had a strike in almost every business in Lancashire since the price of wheat has been down to something like 50s.; and I am glad to be corroborated when I state that the agricultural laborers have been in a better condition during the last winter than they were in the previous one. But does not that show that, even in your case, tho your laborers have in a general way only just as much as will find them a subsistence, they are benefited by a great abundance of the first necessaries of life? Altho their wages may rise and fall with the price of food, altho they may go up with the advance in the price of corn, and fall when it is lowered; still, I maintain that it does not rise in the same proportion as the price of food rises, nor fall to the extent to which food falls. Therefore in all cases the agricultural laborers are in a better state when food is low than when it is high.

Now, I hold that this duty begins nearer home, and that the landed proprietors are the parties who are responsible if the laborers have not employment. You have absolute power; there is no doubt about that. You can, if you please, legislate for the laborers, or yourselves. Whatever you may have done besides, your legislation has been adverse to the laborer, and you have no right to call upon the farmers to remedy the evils which you have caused. Will not this evil—if evil you call it—press on you more and more every year? What can you do to remedy the mischief? I only appear here now because you have proposed nothing. We all know your system of allotments, and we are all aware of its failure. What other remedy have you? For, mark you, that is worse than a plaything, if you were allowed to carry out your own views. [Hear!] Aye, it is well enough for some of you that there are wiser heads than your own to lead you, or you would be conducting yourselves into precisely the same condition in which they are in Ireland, but with this difference—this increased difficulty—that there they do manage to maintain the rights of property by the aid of the English Exchequer and 20,000 bayonets; but divide your own country into small allotments, and where would be the rights of property? What do you propose to do now? That is the question. Nothing has been brought forward this year, which I have heard, having for its object to benefit the great mass of the English population; nothing I have heard suggested which has at all tended to alleviate their condition.

You admit that the farmer’s capital is sinking from under him, and that he is in a worse state than ever. Have you distinctly provided some plan to give confidence to the farmer, to cause an influx of capital to be expended upon his land, and so bring increased employment to the laborer? How is this to be met? I can not believe you are going to make this a political game. You must set up some specific object to benefit the agricultural interest. It is well said that the last election was an agricultural triumph. There are two hundred county members sitting behind the prime minister who prove that it was so.

What, then, is your plan for this distressing state of things? That is what I want to ask you. Do not, as you have done before, quarrel with me because I have imperfectly stated my case; I have done my best, and I again ask you what you have to propose? I tell you that this “Protection,” as it has been called, is a failure. It was so when you had the prohibition up to 80s. You know the state of your farming tenantry in 1821. It was a failure when you had a protection price of 60s., for you know what was the condition of your farm tenantry in 1835. It is a failure now with your last amendment, for you have admitted and proclaimed it to us; and what is the condition of your agricultural population at this time?

I ask, what is your plan? I hope it is not a pretense—a mere political game that has been played throughout the last election, and that you have not all come up here as mere politicians. There are politicians in the House—men who look with an ambition—probably a justifiable one—to the honors of office. There may be men who—with thirty years of continuous service, having been pressed into a groove from which they can neither escape nor retreat—may be holding office, high office, maintained there probably at the expense of their present convictions which do not harmonize very well with their early opinions. I make allowances for them; but the great body of the honorable gentlemen opposite came up to this House, not as politicians, but as the farmers’ friends, and protectors of the agricultural interests. Well, what do you propose to do? You have heard the prime minister declare that, if he could restore all the protection which you have had, that protection would not benefit agriculturists. Is that your belief? If so, why not proclaim it? And if it is not your conviction, you will have falsified your mission in this House by following the right honorable baronet out into the lobby, and opposing inquiry into the condition of the very men who sent you here.

With mere politicians I have no right to expect to succeed in this motion. But I have no hesitation in telling you that, if you give me a committee of this House, I will explode the delusion of agricultural protection! I will bring forward such a mass of evidence, and give you such a preponderance of talent and of authority, that when the blue book is published and sent forth to the world, as we can now send it, by our vehicles of information, your system of protection shall not live in public opinion for two years afterward. Politicians do not want that. This cry of protection has been a very convenient handle for politicians. The cry of protection carried the counties at the last election, and politicians gained honors, emoluments, and place by it. But is that old tattered flag of protection, tarnished and torn as it is already, to be kept hoisted still in the counties for the benefit of politicians; or will you come forward honestly and fairly to inquire into this question? I can not believe that the gentry of England will be made mere drumheads to be sounded upon by a prime minister to give forth unmeaning and empty sounds, and to have no articulate voice of their own. No! You are the gentry of England who represent the counties. You are the aristocracy of England. Your fathers led our fathers; you may lead us if you will go the right way. But, altho you have retained your influence with this country longer than any other aristocracy, it has not been by opposing popular opinion, or by setting yourselves against the spirit of the age.

In other days, when the battle and the hunting-fields were the tests of manly vigor, your fathers were first and foremost there. The aristocracy of England were not like the noblesse of France, the mere minions of a court; nor were they like the hidalgos of Madrid, who dwindled into pigmies. You have been Englishmen. You have not shown a want of courage and firmness when any call has been made upon you. This is a new era. It is the age of improvement; it is the age of social advancement, not the age for war or for feudal sports. You live in a mercantile age, when the whole wealth of the world is poured into your lap. You can not have the advantages of commercial rents and feudal privileges; but you may be what you always have been, if you will identify yourselves with the spirit of the age. The English people look to the gentry and aristocracy of their country as their leaders. I, who am not one of you, have no hesitation in telling you that there is a deep-rooted, an hereditary prejudice, if I may so call it, in your favor in this country. But you never got it, and you will not keep it, by obstructing the spirit of the age. If you are indifferent to enlightened means of finding employment to your own peasantry; if you are found obstructing that advance which is calculated to knit nations more together in the bonds of peace by means of commercial intercourse; if you are found fighting against the discoveries which have almost given breath and life to material nature, and setting up yourselves as obstructives of that which destiny has decreed shall go on,—why, then, you will be the gentry of England no longer, and others will be found to take your place.

And I have no hesitation in saying that you stand just now in a very critical position. There is a wide-spread suspicion that you have been tampering with the best feelings and with the honest confidence of your constituents in this cause. Everywhere you are doubted and suspected. Read your own organs, and you will see that this is the case. Well, then, this is the time to show that you are not the mere party politicians which you are said to be. I have said that we shall be opposed in this measure by politicians; they do not want inquiry. But I ask you to go into this committee with me. I will give you a majority of county members. You shall have a majority of the Central Society in that committee. I ask you only to go into a fair inquiry as to the causes of the distress of your own population. I only ask that this matter may be fairly examined. Whether you establish my principle or yours, good will come out of the inquiry; and I do, therefore, beg and entreat the honorable independent country gentlemen of this House that they will not refuse, on this occasion, to go into a fair, a full, and an impartial inquiry.

Note: Delivered in the House of Commons, March 13, 1845, and described by John Morley as “probably the most powerful speech he ever made.” Men on the Tory benches whispered to one another, “Peel must answer this.” But Peel crushed in his hand the notes he had made and remarked, “Those may answer him who can.” Abridged.
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May 2, 2008

On the “Trent” Affair

TWO years ago we looked south, to the plains of Lombardy, and saw a great strife there, in which every man in England took a strong interest; and we have welcomed, as the result of that strife, the addition of a great kingdom to the list of European states. Now our eyes are turned in a contrary direction, and we look to the west. There we see a struggle in progress of the very highest interest to England and to humanity at large. We see there a nation which I shall call the transatlantic English nation—the inheritor and partaker of all the historic glories of this country.

John Bright (1811–89)


Born in 1811, died in 1889; prominent in the Anti-Corn-Law League in 1838–1846; entered Parliament in 1854; supported the Union cause in the American Civil War of 1861–1865; President of the Board of Trade in 1868–70; Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1873–74, and again in 1880–82; Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow in 1883.

TWO years ago we looked south, to the plains of Lombardy, and saw a great strife there, in which every man in England took a strong interest; and we have welcomed, as the result of that strife, the addition of a great kingdom to the list of European states. Now our eyes are turned in a contrary direction, and we look to the west. There we see a struggle in progress of the very highest interest to England and to humanity at large. We see there a nation which I shall call the transatlantic English nation—the inheritor and partaker of all the historic glories of this country. We see it torn with intestine broils, and suffering from calamities from which for more than a century past—in fact, for more than two centuries past—this country has been exempt. That struggle is of especial interest to us. We remember the description which one of our great poets gives of Rome—

“Lone mother of dead empires.”

But England is the living mother of great nations on the American and on the Australian continents, which promise to endow the world with all her knowledge and all her civilization, and with even something more than the freedom she herself enjoys.

Eighty-five years ago, at the time when some of our oldest townsmen were very little children, there were, on the North American continent, colonies, mainly of Englishmen, containing about three millions of souls. These colonies we have seen a year ago constituting the United States of North America, and comprising a population of no less than thirty millions of souls. We know that in agriculture and manufactures, with the exception of this kingdom, there is no country in the world which in these arts may be placed in advance of the United States. With regard to inventions, I believe, within the last thirty years, we have received more useful inventions from the United States than from all the other countries of the earth. In that country there are probably ten times as many miles of telegraph as there are in this country, and there are at least five or six times as many miles of railway. The tonnage of its shipping is at least equal to ours, if it does not exceed ours. The prisons of that country—for, even in countries the most favored, prisons are needful—have been models for other nations of the earth; and many European governments have sent missions at different times to inquire into the admirable system of education so universally adopted in their free schools throughout the Northern States.

If I were to speak of that country in a religious aspect, I should say that, considering the short space of time to which their history goes back, there is nothing on the face of the earth besides, and never has been, to equal the magnificent arrangement of churches and ministers, and of all the appliances which are thought necessary for a nation to teach Christianity and morality to its people. Besides all this, when I state that, for many years past, the annual public expenditure of the government of that country has been somewhere between 10,000,000l. and 15,000,000l., I need not perhaps say further that there has always existed among all the population an amount of comfort and prosperity and abounding plenty such as I believe no other country in the world, in any age, has enjoyed.

This is a very fine, but a very true picture; yet it has another side to which I must advert. There has been one great feature in that country, one great contrast, which has been pointed to by all who have commented upon the United States as a feature of danger, as a contrast calculated to give pain. There has been in that country the utmost liberty to the white man, and bondage and degradation to the black man. Now rely upon it, that wherever Christianity lives and flourishes, there must grow up from it, necessarily, a conscience hostile to any oppression and to any wrong; and therefore, from the hour when the United States Constitution was formed, so long as it left there this great evil—then comparatively small, but now so great—it left there seeds of that which an American statesman has so happily described of that “irrepressible conflict” of which now the whole world is the witness. It has been a common thing for men disposed to carp at the United States to point to this blot upon their fair fame, and to compare it with the boasted declaration of freedom in their Deed and Declaration of Independence.

Well, the United States Constitution left the slave question for every State to manage for itself. It was a question too difficult to settle then, and apparently every man had the hope and belief that in a few years slavery itself would become extinct. Then there happened a great event in the annals of manufactures and commerce. It was discovered that in those States that article which we in this country now so much depend on, could be produced of the best quality necessary for manufacture, and at a moderate price. From that day to this the growth of cotton has increased there, and its consumption has increased here, and a value which no man dreamed of has been given to the slave and to slave industry. Thus it has grown up to that gigantic institution which now threatens either its own overthrow or the overthrow of that which is a million times more valuable—the United States of America.

The crisis at which we have arrived—I say “we,” for, after all, we are nearly as much interested as if I was making this speech in the city of Boston or the city of New York—the crisis, I say, which has now arrived, was inevitable. I say that the conscience of the North, never satisfied with the institution of slavery, was constantly urging some men forward to take a more extreme view of the question; and there grew up naturally a section—it may not have been a very numerous one—in favor of the abolition of slavery. A great and powerful party resolved at least upon a restraint and a control of slavery, so that it should not extend beyond the States and the area which it now occupies. But, if we look at the government of the United States almost ever since the formation of the Union, we shall find the Southern power has been mostly dominant there. If we take thirty-six years after the formation of the present Constitution—I think about 1787—we shall find that for thirty-two of those years every president was a Southern man; and if we take the period from 1828 until 1860, we shall find that, on every election for president, the South voted in the majority.

Last year the ceremony of this great election was gone through, and the South, which had been so long successful, found itself defeated. That defeat was followed instantly by secession, and insurrection, and war. In the multitude of articles which have been before us in the newspapers within the last few months, I have no doubt you have seen it stated, as I have seen it, that this question was very much like that upon which the Colonies originally revolted against the crown of England. It is amazing how little some newspaper writers know, or how little they think you know. When the War of Independence was begun in America, ninety years ago, there were no representatives there at all. The question then was, whether a ministry in Downing Street, and a corrupt and borough-mongering parliament, should continue to impose taxes upon three millions of English subjects who had left their native shores and established themselves in North America. But now the question is not the want of representation, because, as is perfectly notorious, the South is not only represented, but is represented in excess; for, in distributing the number of representatives which is done every ten years, three out of every five slaves are counted as freemen, and the number of representatives from the slave States is consequently so much greater than if the freemen, the white men only, were counted. From this cause the Southern States have twenty members more in the House of Representatives than they would have if the members were apportioned on the same principle as in the Northern free States. Therefore you will see at once that there is no comparison between the state of things when the Colonies revolted, and the state of things now, when this wicked insurrection has broken out.

I will not discuss the guilt of the men who, ministers of a great nation only last year, conspired to overthrow it. I will not point out or recapitulate the statements of the fraudulent manner in which they disposed of the funds in the national exchequer. I will not point out by name any of the men, in this conspiracy, whom history will designate by titles they would not like to hear; but I say that slavery has sought to break up the most free government in the world, and to found a new State, in the nineteenth century, whose corner-stone is the perpetual bondage of millions of men.

Having thus described what appears to me briefly the literal truth of this matter, what is the course that England would be expected to pursue? We should be neutral as far as regards the mingling in the strife. We were neutral in the strife in Italy, but we were not neutral in opinion or sympathy; and we know perfectly well that throughout the whole of Italy at this moment there is a feeling that, tho no shot was fired from an English ship, and tho no English soldier trod their soil, yet still the opinion of England was potent in Europe, and did much for the creation of the Italian kingdom.

With regard to the United States, you know how much we hate slavery—that is, some years ago we thought we knew; that we have given twenty millions sterling—a million a year, or nearly so, of taxes for ever—to free eight hundred thousand slaves in the English colonies. We knew, or thought we knew, how much we were in love with free government everywhere, altho it might not take precisely the same form as our government. We were for free government in Italy; we were for free government in Switzerland; and we were for free government, even under a republican form, in the United States of America; and with all this, every man would have said that England would wish the American Union to be prosperous and eternal.

Now, suppose we turn our eyes to the East, to the empire of Russia, for a moment. In Russia, as you all know, there has been one of the most important and magnificent changes of policy ever seen in any country. Within the last year or two, the present emperor of Russia, following the wishes of his father, has insisted upon the abolition of serfdom in that empire; and twenty-three millions of human beings, lately serfs, little better than real slaves, have been raised to the ranks of freedom. Now, suppose that the millions of the serfs of Russia had been chiefly in the south of Russia. We hear of the nobles of Russia, to whom those serfs belonged in a great measure, that they have been hostile to this change; and there has been some danger that the peace of that empire might be disturbed during the change. Suppose these nobles, for the purpose of maintaining in perpetuity the serfdom of Russia, and barring out twenty-three millions of your fellow creatures from the rights of freedom, had established a great and secret conspiracy, and that they had risen in great and dangerous insurrection against the Russian government—I say that you, the people of England, altho seven years ago you were in mortal combat with the Russians in the south of Europe—I believe at this moment you would have prayed Heaven in all sincerity and fervor to give strength to the arms and success to the great wishes of the emperor, and that the vile and atrocious insurrection might be suppressed.

I want to know whether it has ever been admitted by politicians, or statesmen, or the people, that a great nation can be broken up at any time by any particular section of any part of that nation. It has been tried occasionally in Ireland, and if it had succeeded history would have said that it was with very good cause. But if anybody tried now to get up a secession or insurrection in Ireland—and it would be infinitely less disturbing to everything than the secession in the United States, because there is a boundary which nobody can dispute—I am quite sure that the Times would have its “special correspondent,” and would describe with all glee and exultation in the world the manner in which the Irish insurrectionists were cut down and made an end of.

Let any man try in this country to restore the heptarchy, do you think that any portion of the people would think that the project could be tolerated for a moment? But if you look at a map of the United States, you will see that there is no country in the world, probably, at this moment, where any plan of separation between the North and the South, as far as the question of boundary is concerned, is so surmounted with insurmountable difficulties. For example, Maryland is a slave State; but Maryland, by a large majority, voted for the Union. Kentucky is a slave State, one of the finest in the Union, and containing a fine people; Kentucky has voted for the Union, but has been invaded from the South. Missouri is a slave State; but Missouri has not seceded, and has been invaded by the South, and there is a secession party in that State. There are parts of Virginia which have formed themselves into a new State, resolved to adhere to the North; and there is no doubt a considerable Northern and Union feeling in the State of Tennessee. I have no doubt there is in every other State. In fact, I am not sure that there is not now within the sound of my voice a citizen of the State of Alabama, who could tell you that in his State the question of secession has never been put to the vote; and that there are great numbers of men, reasonable and thoughtful and just men, in that State, who entirely deplore the condition of things there existing.

Then, what would you do with all those States, and with what we may call the loyal portion of the people of those States? Would you allow them to be dragooned into this insurrection, and into the formation or the becoming parts of a new State, to which they themselves are hostile? And what would you do with the City of Washington? Washington is a slave State. Would anybody have advised that President Lincoln and his cabinet, with all the members of Congress, of the House of Representatives and the Senate, from the North, with their wives and children, and everybody else who was not positively in favor of the South, should have set off on their melancholy pilgrimage northward, leaving that capital, hallowed to them by such associations—having its name even from the father of their country—leaving Washington to the South, because Washington is situated in a slave State?

There is one more point. It has been said, “How much better it would be”—not for the United States, but—“for us, that these State should be divided.” I recollect meeting a gentleman in Bond Street one day before the session was over. He was a rich man, and one whose voice is much heard in the House of Commons; but his voice is not heard when he is on his legs, but when he is cheering other speakers; and he said to me: “After all, this is a sad business about the United States; but still I think it very much better that they should be split up. In twenty years”—or in fifty years, I forget which it was—“they will be so powerful that they will bully all Europe.” And a distinguished member of the House of Commons—distinguished there by his eloquence, distinguished more by his many writings—I mean Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton—he did not exactly express a hope, but he ventured on something like a prediction, that the time would come when there would be, I do not know how many, but about as many independent States on the American continent as you can count upon your fingers.

There can not be a meaner motive than this I am speaking of, in forming a judgment on this question: that it is “better for us”—for whom? the people of England, or the government of England?—that the United States should be severed, and that the North American continent should be as the continent of Europe is in many States, and subject to all the contentions and disasters which have accompanied the history of the states of Europe. I should say that, if a man had a great heart within him, he would rather look forward to the day, when, from that point of land which is habitable nearest to the Pole, to the shores of the Great Gulf, the whole of that vast continent might become one great confederation of States—without a great army, and without a great navy—not mixing itself up with the entanglements of European politics—without a custom house inside, through the whole length and breadth of its territory—and with freedom everywhere, equality everywhere, law everywhere, peace everywhere; such a confederation would afford at least some hope that man is not forsaken of Heaven, and that the future of our race may be better than the past.

Now I am obliged to say—and I say it with the utmost pain—that if we have not done things that are plainly hostile to the North, and if we have not expressed affection for slavery, and, outwardly and openly, hatred for the Union—I say that there has not been that friendly and cordial neutrality, which, if I had been a citizen of the United States, I should have expected; and I say further, that, if there has existed considerable irritation at that, it must be taken as a measure of the high appreciation which the people of those States place upon the opinion of the people of England.

But there has occurred an event which was announced to us only a week ago, which is one of great importance, and it may be one of some peril. It is asserted that what is called “international law” has been broken by the seizure of the Southern commissioners on board an English trading steamer by a steamer of war of the United States. Now, what is international law? You have heard that the opinions of the law officers of the crown are in favor of this view of the case—that the law has been broken. I am not at all going to say that it has not. It would be imprudent in me to set my opinion on a legal question which I have only partially examined, against their opinion on the same question, which I presume they have carefully examined. But this I say, that international law is not to be found in an act of Parliament—it is not in so many clauses. You know that it is difficult to find the law. I can ask the mayor, or any magistrate around me, whether it is not very difficult to find the law, even when you have found the Act of Parliament, and found the clause. But when you have no Act of Parliament, and no clause, you may imagine that the case is still more difficult.

Now, maritime law, or international law, consists of opinions and precedents for the most part, and it is very unsettled. The opinions are the opinions of men of different countries, given at different times; and the precedents are not always like each other. The law is very unsettled, and, for the most part, I believe it to be exceedingly bad. In past times, as you know from the histories you read, this country has been a fighting country; we have been belligerents, and as belligerents, we have carried maritime law by your own powerful hand, to a pitch that has been very oppressive to foreign, and especially so to neutral, nations. Well, now, for the first time, unhappily—almost for the first time in our history for the last two hundred years—we are not belligerents, but neutrals; and we are disposed to take, perhaps, rather a different view of maritime and international law.

Now, the act which has been committed by the American steamer, in my opinion, whether it was legal or not, was both impolitic and bad. That is my opinion. I think it may turn out, almost certainly, that, so far as the taking of those men from that ship was concerned, it was an act wholly unknown to, and unauthorized by, the American government. And if the American government believe, on the opinion of their law officers, that the act is illegal, I have no doubt they will make fitting reparation; for there is no government in the world that has so strenuously insisted upon modifications of international law, and been so anxious to be guided always by the most moderate and merciful interpretation of that law.

Now, our great advisers of the Times newspaper have been persuading people that this is merely one of a series of acts which denote the determination of the Washington government to pick a quarrel with the people of England. Did you ever know anybody who was not very nearly dead drunk, who, having as much upon his hands as he could manage, would offer to fight everybody about him? Do you believe that the United States government, presided over by President Lincoln, so constitutional in all his acts, so moderate as he has been—representing at this moment that great party in the United States, happily now in the ascendency, which has always been especially in favor of peace, and especially friendly to England—do you believe that such a government, having now upon its hands an insurrection of the most formidable character in the South, would invite the armies and the fleets of England to combine with that insurrection, and, it might be, to render it impossible that the Union should ever again be restored? I say, that single statement, whether it came from a public writer or a public speaker, is enough to stamp him forever with the character of being an insidious enemy of both countries.

What can be more monstrous than that we, as we call ourselves, to some extent, an educated, a moral, and a Christian nation—at a moment when an accident of this kind occurs, before we have made a representation to the American government, before we have heard a word from it in reply—should be all up in arms, every sword leaping from its scabbard, and every man looking about for his pistols and his blunderbusses? I think the conduct pursued—and I have no doubt just the same is pursued by a certain class in America—is much more the conduct of savages than of Christian and civilized men. No, let us be calm. You recollect how we were dragged into the Russian war—how we “drifted” into it. You know that I, at least, have not upon my head any of the guilt of that fearful war. You know that it cost one hundred millions of money to this country; that it cost at least the lives of forty thousand Englishmen; that it disturbed your trade; that it nearly doubled the armies of Europe; that it placed the relations of Europe on a much less peaceful footing than before; and that it did not effect on single thing of all those that it was promised to effect.

Now, then, before I sit down, let me ask you what is this people, about which so many men in England at this moment are writing, and speaking, and thinking, with harshness, I think with injustice, if not with great bitterness? Two centuries ago, multitudes of the people of this country found a refuge on the North American continent, escaping from the tyranny of the Stuarts and from the bigotry of Laud. Many noble spirits from our country made great experiments in favor of human freedom on that continent. Bancroft, the great historian of his own country, has said, in his own graphic and emphatic language, “The history of the colonization of America is the history of the crimes of Europe.”

At this very moment, then, there are millions in the United States who personally, or whose immediate parents have at one time been citizens of this country. They found a home in the Far West; they subdued the wilderness; they met with plenty there, which was not afforded them in their native country; and they have become a great people. There may be persons in England who are jealous of those States. There may be men who dislike democracy, and who hate a republic; there may be even those whose sympathies warm toward the slave oligarchy of the South. But of this I am certain, that only misrepresentation the most gross, or calumny the most wicked can sever the tie which unites the great mass of the people of this country with their friends and brethren beyond the Atlantic.

Now, whether the Union will be restored or not, or the South achieve an unhonored independence or not, I know not, and I predict not. But this I think I know—that in a few years, a very few years, the twenty millions of freemen in the North will be thirty millions, or even fifty millions—a population equal to or exceeding that of this kingdom. When that time comes, I pray that it may not be said among them, that in the darkest hour of their country’s trials, England, the land of their fathers, looked on with icy coldness and saw unmoved the perils and calamities of their children. As for me, I have but this to say: I am but one in this audience, and but one in the citizenship of this country; but if all other tongues are silent, mine shall speak for that policy which gives hope to the bondmen of the South, and which tends to generous thoughts, and generous words, and generous deeds, between the two great nations who speak the English language, and from their origin are alike entitled to the English name.

Note: Delivered at a banquet in Rochdale, December 4, 1861, and recognized at the time as having stemmed the tide of exasperation which had set in among the English over what is known as the “Trent” Affair. This affair was the forcible seizure (on board the English vessel Trent) in the Bahama channel November 8, 1861, of the Confederate commissioners to Europe, Mason and Slidell, by a United States captain named Wilkes. Serious international complications were prevented only by a disavowal of Wilkes’s act by the United States government. Abridged.
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Apr 30, 2008

For a Repeal of the Corn Laws

I BELIEVE it is now nearly three months since I first proposed, as the organ of her majesty’s government, the measure which I trust is about to receive to-night the sanction of the House of Commons; and, considering the lapse of time—considering the frequent discussions—considering the anxiety of the people of this country that these debates should be brought to a close, I feel that I should be offering an insult to the House—I should be offering an insult to the country, if I were to condescend to bandy personalities upon such an occasion.

Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850)


Born in 1788, died in 1850; elected to Parliament as a Tory in 1809; Secretary for Ireland in 1812–18; Home Secretary in 1822 and again in 1828; Prime Minister in 1834; and again in 1841; became a Free-trader in 1846, and secured the repeal of the Corn Laws.

I BELIEVE it is now nearly three months since I first proposed, as the organ of her majesty’s government, the measure which I trust is about to receive to-night the sanction of the House of Commons; and, considering the lapse of time—considering the frequent discussions—considering the anxiety of the people of this country that these debates should be brought to a close, I feel that I should be offering an insult to the House—I should be offering an insult to the country, if I were to condescend to bandy personalities upon such an occasion.

Sir, I foresaw that the course which I have taken from a sense of public duty would expose me to serious sacrifices. I foresaw, as its inevitable result, that I must forfeit friendships which I most highly valued—that I must interrupt political relations in which I felt a sincere pride; but the smallest of all the penalties which I anticipated were the continued venomous attacks of the member for Shrewsbury. (Note: Benjamin Disraeli, afterward Lord Beaconsfield.) Sir, I will only say of that honorable gentleman, that if he, after reviewing the whole of my public life—a life extending over thirty years previously to my accession to office in 1841—if he then entertained the opinion of me which he now professes; if he thought I was guilty of these petty larcenies from Mr. Horner and others, it is a little surprising that in the spring of 1841, after his long experience of my public career, he should have been prepared to give me his confidence.

It is still more surprising that he should have been ready—as I think he was—to unite his fortunes with mine in office, this implying the strongest proof which any public man can give of confidence in the honor and integrity of a minister of the Crown.

Sir, I have explained more than once what were the circumstances under which I felt it my duty to take this course. I did feel in November last that there was just cause for apprehension of scarcity and famine in Ireland. I am stating what were the apprehensions I felt at that time, what were the motives from which I acted; and those apprehensions, though they may be denied now, were at least shared then by those honorable gentlemen who sit below the gangway [the Protectionists]. The honorable member for Somersetshire [Sir T. A. Acland] expressly declared that at the period to which I referred he was prepared to acquiesce in the suspension of the Corn Laws. An honorable member also, a recent addition to this House, who spoke with great ability the other night, the honorable member for Dorsetshire [Mr. Seymer], distinctly declared that he thought I should have abandoned my duty if I had not advised that, considering the circumstances of Ireland, the restrictions on the importation of foreign corn should be temporarily removed.

I may have been wrong, but my impression was, first, that my duty toward a country threatened with famine required that that which had been the ordinary remedy under all similar circumstances should be resorted to—namely, that there should be free access to the food of man from whatever quarter it might come. I was prepared to give the best proof which public men generally can give of the sincerity of their opinions, by tendering my resignation of office and devolving upon others the duty of proposing this measure; and, sir, I felt this—that if these laws were once suspended, and there was unlimited access to food, the produce of other countries, I, and those with whom I acted, felt the strongest conviction that it was not for the public interest, that it was not for the interest of the agricultural party, that an attempt should be made permanently to reimpose restrictions on the importation of food.

And now, after all these debates, I am firmly convinced that it is better for the agricultural interest to contemplate the final settlement of this question, rather than to attempt the introduction of a law giving a diminished protection. My belief is that a diminished protection would in no respect conciliate agricultural feeling; and this I must say, nothing could be so disadvantageous as to give an ineffectual protection and yet incur all the odium of giving an adequate one. What have we been told during this discussion?

I am told that it would have been possible to continue this protection; but after the suspension of it—for I now assume that the suspension would have been assented to on account of the necessities of Ireland—the difficulty of maintaining it would have been greatly increased; because it would have been shown, after the lapse of three years, that, although it had worked tolerably well during the continuance of abundance, or at least of average harvests, yet at the moment it was exposed to the severe trial of scarcity it then ceased to effect the object for which it was enacted, and that, in addition to the state of public feeling with reference to restrictions on imports generally, would have greatly added to the difficulty of maintaining the law. There would have been public proof of its inefficiency for one of the great objects for which it was enacted.

But let me say, although it has not been brought prominently under consideration, that, without any reference to the case of Ireland, the working of the law, as far as Great Britain is concerned, during the present year has not been satisfactory. You would have had to contend not merely with difficulties arising from suspension on account of the case of Ireland, but it would have been shown to you that the rate of duty has been high on account of the apparent lowness in the price of corn; while that lowness of price has arisen not from abundance in quantity, but from deficient quality. It would have been shown, and conclusively, that there are greater disparities of price in most of the principal markets of this country—between corn of the highest quality and of the lowest—than have ever existed in former periods. It would have been proved that there never was a greater demand than there has been during the present year for wheat of fine quality for the purpose of mixing with wheat of inferior quality, which forms the chief article brought for sale into our domestic markets. It would have been shown you that had there been free access to wheat of higher quality than they have assumed, the whole population of this country would for the last four months have been consuming bread of a better quality.

My belief therefore, is that in seeking the reenactment of the existing law after its suspension you would have had to contend with greater difficulties than you anticipate. Still I am told, “You would have had a majority.” I think a majority might have been obtained. I think you could have continued this law, notwithstanding these increased difficulties, for a short time longer; but I believe that the interval of its maintenance would have been but short, and that there would have been, during the period of its continuance, a desperate conflict between different classes of society; that your arguments in favor of it would have been weak; that you might have had no alternative at an early period, had the cycle of unfavorable harvests returned—and who can give an assurance that they would not?—that you might at an early period have had no alternative but to concede an alteration of this law under circumstances infinitely less favorable than the present to a final settlement of the question.

It was the foresight of these consequences—it was the belief that you were about to enter into a bitter and, ultimately, an unsuccessful struggle, that has induced me to think that for the benefit of all classes, for the benefit of the agricultural class itself, it was desirable to come to a permanent and equitable settlement of this question.

These are the motives on which I acted. I know the penalty to which I must be subject for having so acted; but I declare, even after the continuance of these debates, that I am only the more impressed with the conviction that the policy we advise is correct.

My firm belief is—without yielding to the dictation of the League, or any other body—subjecting myself to that imputation, I will not hesitate to say my firm belief is that it is most consistent with prudence and good policy, most consistent with the real interests of the landed proprietors themselves, most consistent with the maintenance of a territorial aristocracy, seeing by how precarious a tenure, namely, the vicissitudes of seasons, you hold your present protective system—I say, it is my firm belief that it is for the advantage of all classes, in these times of comparative comfort and comparative calm, to anticipate the angry discussions which might arise, by proposing at once a final adjustment of this question.

I have stated the reasons which have induced me to take the present course. You may no doubt say that I am only going on the experience of three years and am acting contrary to the principles of my whole life. Well, I admit that charge—I admit that I have defended the existence of the Corn Laws—yes, and that up to the present period I have refused to acquiesce in the proposition to destroy them. I candidly admit all this; but when I am told that I am acting inconsistently with the principles of my whole life by advocating free trade, I give this statement a peremptory denial. During the last three years I have subjected myself to many taunts on this question, and you have often said to me that Earl Grey had found out something indicating a chance in my opinions.

Sir, I will not enter at this late hour into the discussion of any other topic. I foresaw the consequences that have resulted from the measures which I thought it my duty to propose. We were charged with the heavy responsibility of taking security against a great calamity in Ireland. We did not act lightly. We did not form our opinion upon merely local information—the information of local authorities likely to be influenced by an undue alarm. Before I and those who agreed with me came to that conclusion, we had adopted every means—by local inquiry and by sending perfectly disinterested persons of authority to Ireland—to form a just and correct opinion. Whether we were mistaken or not—I believe we were not mistaken, but even if we were mistaken—a generous construction should be put upon the motives and conduct of those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting millions of the subjects of the Queen from the consequences of scarcity and famine.

Sir, whatever may be the result of these discussions, I feel severely the loss of the confidence of those from whom I heretofore received a most generous support. So far from expecting them, as some have said, to adopt my opinions, I perfectly recognize the sincerity with which they adhere to their own. I recognize their perfect right, on account of the admitted failure of my speculation, to withdraw from me their confidence.

I honor their motives, but I claim, and I always will claim, while entrusted with such powers and subject to such responsibility as the minister of this great country is entrusted with and is subject to—I always will assert the right to give that advice which I conscientiously believe to be conducive to the general well-being. I was not considering, according to the language of the honorable member for Shrewsbury, what was the best bargain to make for a party. I was considering first what were the best measures to avert a great calamity, and, as a secondary consideration, to relieve that interest which I was bound to protect from the odium of refusing to acquiesce in measures which I thought to be necessary for the purpose of averting that calamity. Sir, I can not charge myself or my colleags with having been unfaithful to the trust committed to us. I do not believe that the great institutions of this country have suffered during our administration of power. The noble lord [Lord John Russell] says he hopes that the discussions which have threatened the maintenance of amicable relations with the United States will be brought to a fortunate close.

Sir, I think I can appeal to the course which we have pursued against some obloquy, against some misconstruction, some insinuations that we were abandoning the honor of this country—I think I can appeal to the past experience of this government that it has been our earnest desire, by every effort consistent with the national honor to maintain friendly relations with every country on the face of the globe.

I have a strong belief that the greatest object which we or any other government can contemplate should be to elevate the social condition of that class of the people with whom we are brought into no direct relationship by the exercise of the elective franchise. I wish to convince them that our object has been to apportion taxation, that we shall relieve industry and labor from any undue burden, and transfer it, so far as is consistent with the public good, to those who are better enabled to bear it.

I look to the present peace of this country; I look to the absence of all disturbance—to the non-existence of any commitment for a seditious offense; I look to the calm that prevails in the public mind; I look to the absence of all disaffection; I look to the increased and growing public confidence on account of the course you have taken in relieving trade from restrictions, and industry from unjust burdens; and where there was dissatisfaction I now see contentment; where there was turbulence I see there is peace; where there was disloyalty I see there is loyalty; I see a disposition to confide in you, and not to agitate questions that are at the foundations of your institutions.

Deprive me of power to-morrow, you can never deprive me of the consciousness that I have exercised the powers committed to me from no corrupt or interested motives—from no desire to gratify ambition or attain any personal object; that I have labored to maintain peace abroad consistently with the national honor and defending every public right—to increase the confidence of the great body of the people in the justice of your decisions; and by the means of equal law to dispense with all coercive powers—to maintain loyalty to the Throne and attachment to the Constitution, from a conviction of the benefit that will accrue to the great body of the people.

Note: The last of a series of speeches made by Peel expounding the theory and practice of free trade. Delivered in the House of Commons May 15, 1846, Abridged. On June 25, 1850, the Repeal Bill passed both Houses. Three days later Peel spoke in the House for the last time, and on June 29 announced his resignation. His fatal accident (a fall from his horse) happened the next day.
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