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The Corn Laws were import tariffs designed to support domestic British corn (in Britain, the term "corn" means "grain" (the kernel), and implies the primary grain crop of a country, which in England was wheat) prices against competition from less expensive foreign-grain imports, between 1815 and 1846. The tariffs were introduced by the Importation Act 1815 (55 Geo. 3 c. 26) and repealed by the Importation Act 1846 (9 & 10 Vict. c. 22).
These laws are often viewed as examples of British mercantilism and their abolition marked a significant step towards free trade. The Corn Laws enhanced the profits and political power associated with land ownership.
In 1813, a House of Commons Committee recommended excluding foreign-grown corn until domestically grown corn reached 80 shillings per quarter-hundredweight. The political economist Thomas Malthus believed this to be a fair price, and that it would be dangerous for Britain to rely on imported corn as lower prices would reduce laborers' wages, and manufacturers would lose out due to the fall in purchasing power of landlords and farmers. However David Ricardo believed in free trade, arguing that Britain could use its capital and population to her comparative advantage. With the advent of peace in 1814, corn prices dropped, and the Tory government of Lord Liverpool passed the 1815 Corn Law. This led to serious rioting in London and the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester.
This forestalled a growing tide of radicalism which was repressed by such measures as the Six Acts.
In 1820, the Merchants' Petition, written by Thomas Tooke, was presented to the Commons demanding free trade and an end to protective tariffs. Lord Liverpool claimed to be in favor of free trade, but argued that complicated restrictions made it difficult to repeal protectionist laws. He added, though, that he believed Britain's economic dominance grew in spite of, not because of, the protectionist system. In 1821, the President of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson, drew up a Commons Committee report which called for a return to the "practically free" trade of the pre-1815 years. The Importation Act 1822 decreed that corn could be imported when domestically harvested corn reached 80 shillings but imported corn was prohibited when the price fell to 70 shillings per quarter. From the passage of this Act until 1828, however, the corn price never rose to 80 shillings. In 1827, the landlords rejected Huskisson's proposals for a sliding scale and in the next year Huskisson and the new Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, devised a new sliding scale for the Importation of Corn Act 1828. The plan called for a duty of 34 shillings, 8 pence when domestic corn was 52 shillings per quarter or less, with the duty declining to 1 shilling when the price rose to 73 shillings.
The Whig governments in power for most of the years of 1830-41 decided not to repeal the Corn Laws. In 1841, Sir Robert Peel became Conservative Prime Minister and Richard Cobden, a leading free trader, was elected for the first time. Peel had studied the works of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Ricardo, and proclaimed in 1839: "I have read all that has been written by the gravest authorities on political economy on the subject of rent, wages, taxes, tithes." In 1842, he modified the sliding scale, reducing the top duty rate to 20 shillings when the price fell to 51 shillings or less.
The landlords claimed that manufacturers like Cobden wanted cheap food so they could drive down wages and, thus, maximize their profits, a view shared by the socialist Chartist movement. Karl Marx said: "The campaign for the abolition of the Corn Laws had begun and the workers' help was needed. The advocates of repeal therefore promised, not only a Big Loaf (which was to be doubled in size) but also the passing of the Ten Hours Bille" (that is, to reduce working hours).
The Anti-Corn Law League, founded in 1838, began peacefully agitating for repeal. They funded writers like William Cooke Taylor to travel the manufacturing regions of northern England to research their cause. Cook Taylor published a number books as an Anti-Corn Law propagandist, most notably, The Natural History of Society (1841), Notes of a Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1842) and Factories and the Factory System (1844). Cobden and the rest of the Anti-Corn Law League believed that cheap food meant higher wages and Cobden praised a speech by a working man who said:
When provisions are high, the people have so much to pay for them that they have little or nothing left to buy clothes with; and when they have little to buy clothes with, there are few clothes sold; and when there are few clothes sold, there are too many to sell, they are very cheap; and when they are very cheap, there cannot be much paid for making them: and that, consequently, the manufacturing working man's wages are reduced, the mills are shut up, business is ruined, and general distress is spread through the country. But when, as now, the working man has the said 25s. left in his pocket, he buys more clothing with it (ay, and other articles of comfort too), and that increases the demand for them, and the greater the demand…makes them rise in price, and the rising price enables the working man to get higher wages and the masters better profits. This, therefore, is the way I prove that high provisions make lower wages, and cheap provisions make higher wages.
In February 1844, the Duke of Richmond, founded the Central Agricultural Protection Society (CAPS, commonly known as the "Anti-League") to campaign in favor of the Corn Laws.
During 1844, the agitation subsided, as there were fruitful harvests. The situation changed in late 1845, with poor harvests and the potato blight in Ireland; Britain faced scarcity and Ireland faced starvation. Peel argued in Cabinet that tariffs on grain should be rescinded by Order-in-Council until Parliament assembled to repeal the Corn Laws. His colleagues resisted this. The Leader of the Opposition and soon to be Whig leader Lord John Russell declared in favor of repeal. On December 4, 1845, there appeared in The Times an announcement that the government had decided to recall Parliament in January 1846 to repeal the Corn Laws. Lord Stanley resigned from the Cabinet in protest. The next day, Peel resigned as Prime Minister because he did not believe he could carry out his policy and so the Queen sent for Russell to form a government. Russell offered Cobden the post of Vice-President of the Board of Trade but he refused, preferring to remain an advocate of free trade outside the government. By December 20, Russell was unable to form a ministry and so Peel remained Prime Minister.
After Parliament was recalled, the CAPS started a campaign of resistance. In the counties, the CAPS was practically supplanting the local Conservative associations and in many areas the independent free holding farmers were resisting the most fiercely.
On January 27, 1846, Peel gave a three-hour speech saying that the Corn Laws would be abolished on February 1, 1849, after three years of gradual reductions of the tariff, leaving only a 1 shilling duty per quarter. Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck, both Conservatives, emerged as the most forceful opponents of repeal in Parliamentary debates, arguing that repeal would socially and politically weaken the traditional landowners and therefore destroy the "territorial constitution" of Britain by empowering commercial interests.
On the third reading of Peel's Bill of Repeal (Importation Act 1846) on May 15, MPs voted 327 votes to 229 (a majority of 98) to repeal the Corn Laws. On June 25, the Duke of Wellington persuaded the House of Lords to pass it. On that same night, Peel's Irish Coercion Bill was defeated in the Commons by 292 to 219 by "a combination of Whigs, Radicals, and Tory protectionists." On June 29, Peel resigned as Prime Minister. In his resignation speech, he attributed the success of repeal to Cobden:
In reference to our proposing these measures, I have no wish to rob any person of the credit which is justly due to him for them. But I may say that neither the gentlemen sitting on the benches opposite, nor myself, nor the gentlemen sitting round me—I say that neither of us are the parties who are strictly entitled to the merit. There has been a combination of parties, and that combination of parties together with the influence of the Government, has led to the ultimate success of the measures. But, Sir, there is a name which ought to be associated with the success of these measures: It is not the name of the noble Lord, the member for London, neither is it my name. Sir, the name which ought to be, and which will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of a man who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, has advocated their cause with untiring energy, and by appeals to reason, expressed by an eloquence, the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned—the name which ought to be and will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of Richard Cobden. Without scruple, Sir, I attribute the success of these measures to him.
As a result the Conservative Party split and the Whigs under Russell formed a government. Those Conservatives who were loyal to Peel were known as the Peelites and included the Earl of Aberdeen and William Gladstone. In 1859 the Peelites merged with the Whigs and the Radicals to form the Liberal Party. Disraeli became overall Conservative leader in 1868, although as Prime Minister he did not attempt to reintroduce protectionism.
The price of corn in the two decades after 1850 averaged 52 shillings. Due to the development of faster transportation through rail and steamboat and the modernization of agricultural machinery, the prairie farms of North America were able to export vast quantities of cheap corn. Every corn-growing country decided to increase tariffs in reaction to this, except Britain and Belgium. In 1877, the price of English-grown corn averaged 56 shillings, 9 pence a quarter but for the rest of the nineteenth century it never reached within 10 shillings of that figure. In 1878, the price fell to 46 shillings, 5 pence. By 1885, corn-growing land declined by a million acres (4,000 km²) (28½ percent) and in 1886, the corn price fell to 31 shillings a quarter. Britain's dependence on imported grain in the 1830s was 2 percent; in the 1860s it was 24 percent; in the 1880s it was 45 percent, for corn it was 65 percent. The 1881 census showed a decline of 92,250 in agricultural laborers since 1871, with a 53,496 increase of urban laborers. Many of these were previously farm workers who migrated to the cities to find employment, despite agricultural laborers' wages, which were the highest in Europe. The influx of new urban laborers was a key development in the rise of the Industrial Revolution, which was by then in full swing.
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