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Thompson, two distinguished Benthamites, started the AntiCorn-Law crusade, by forming, in a small meeting at Manchester, an Anti-Corn-Law Association. Shortly after, a large assembly of the merchants and manufacturers of that town, in which Mr. Cobden bore a leading part, resolved to aid the Association with £3,000. In December, the Manchester Chamber of Commerce adopted a petition to Parliament, praying for an immediate and total repeal of the laws. Thus encouraged, the Association convened a meeting of delegates from all parts of the kingdom, at Manchester, in January, 1839. This body empowered the Association to assemble a meeting of deputies in London at the opening of the approaching session of Parliament. They met in February, and petitioned the House of Commons for leave to present evidence at its bar in regard to the injurious effects of the corn laws, and selected Mr. Villiers to bring forward a motion to that end. It was negatived with contempt, and the delegates separated. A month elapsed, and they again met at Brown's Hotel, in Palace Yard-the Protectionists, in derision, giving them the name of "The AntiCorn-Law Parliament”—a name which they at once adopted, and which they ultimately taught the landlords to fear, if not respect. Their organ, Mr. Villiers, moved that the Commons take into consideration the act regulating the importation of foreign corn. He spoke in defense of his motion amidst coughings and hootings, when a large majority of members, shouting, “Divide ! divide !" rushed into the lobbies, silencing for the moment the demand for cheap bread. They had yet to learn the character of the men they were dealing with.
On motion of Mr. Cobden, the Palace-Yard Convention now organized "THE NATIONAL ANTI-CORN-LAW LEAGUE," with a Central Council, to be located at Manchester. In that hour, the landlords of Great Britain insolently boasted of their ability to cope with all the other property-holders of the kingdom combined. There was cause for their boasting. Their possessions were vast, their union was perfect, their power
hitherto irresistible. During a period of fifty-five years, the number of land-owners in the realm had fearfully diminished. In 1774, when Mr. Burke's corn law was enacted, the estimated number was 240,000 in England proper. In 1839, 40,000* persons, acting together, with the unity and efficiency of a close corporation, owned the agricultural soil of England. With this monopoly, the League joined issue. Richard Cobden, in the name of Free Trade, threw his gauntlet in the face of Protection, and challenged the feudalists to trial by battle before the people of the three kingdoms. The struggle was one of the severest, the victory one of the completest, of the present century.
The leading principles maintained by the League were, that the corn laws were not beneficial to the whole body of agriculturists, but only to a privileged few; that they depressed other branches of industry; caused frequent and ruinous fluctuations in the market value of breadstuffs, greatly enhanced the price at all times, and, therefore, were injurious to the community generally, and especially to the laboring poor. The promulgation of these principles excited a discussion of the broader question of the relative merits of Protection and Free Trade in their widest aspects.
The League entered so vigorously into the contest, that, by the close of the year 1839, upward of one hundred important towns had formed kindred associations. In 1840, Manchester, which bore so conspicuous a part in originating the movement, commenced the series of large Free-Trade meetings, which made that town so famous in the corn-law struggle. In January, a public dinner was spread for the friends of the League, under a huge pavilion, at which 4,000 persons sat down.
* Our lamented countryman, Mr. Colman, estimated the number at 30,000. I think the text is quite low enough. And an enterprise is now started for the purchase of small freeholds by landless men, which, if vigorously prosecuted, will do much to break up the landmonopoly of England.
The next day, 5;000 operatives were feasted. In February, at the opening of the Royal Parliament, the "Anti-Corn Law Parliament' met in London. Mr. Villiers renewed the motion of the previous year, and was defeated. In March, the Palace-Yard Parliament again assembled; Mr. Villiers again brought forward his motion, and was again defeated. The delegates returned home to arouse their constituents. The cry for cheap bread" reverberated through the summer from Pentland Frith to Eddystone Light-from the Giant's Causeway to the Cove of Cork. Palace Yard again swarmed with delegates in November, and the persevering Villiers again moved, spoke, and was defeated. But the warm agitations of the League were gradually ripening public opinion. Whigism was tottering to its fall. It cast about for a crutch. Early in the session of 1841, Lord John Russell, foreseeing the necessity of a dissolution of Parliament or a dissolution of the Ministry, resolved on the former; and, wishing for "a cry" with which to rally the country, gave notice of his motion for the abandonment of the sliding scale, and for a fixed duty of 8s. per quarter on imported wheat. He made an able speech, closed the doors of St. Stephen's, and opened the campaign for a new House of Commons.
The Tories swept the kingdom, the Whigs falling between the "totality" of the Leaguers and the "finality" of the Protectionists. Lord John faced the New Parliament, his motion was defeated, and Sir Robert Peel, after an exclusion of eleven years, returned to power. But, though the landlords gave the Queen a sliding-scale House of Commons, the operatives of Stockport gave the People "a fixed fact" in the person of Richard Cobden. And now, said the feudalists, Cobden will find his level. He may sway a turbulent mob of unwashed Manchester artisans, but he will not dare to brave the starred and gartered aristocracy of England. Little did they dream, in this hour of their exultation, that in four years and a half the Manchester calico-printer would convert the Premier to his
views, who, carrying over half the Tories to the League, would give victory to its standard, generously saying, as he retired with grace and dignity from the field, ¿C Not to the Tory party nor to the Whig party, not to myself nor to the noble Lord at the head of the Opposition, is this change to be attributed; but the People of this country are indebted for this great measure of relief to the rare combination of elements which center in the mind and heart of Richard Cobden."
To return from this digression. The session of 1842 was opened at a period of unexampled distress in the manufacturing districts. Sir Robert Peel proposed a modification of the corn laws, which considerably reduced the duties. Mr. Villiers met the Government with a motion that the laws ought immediately to cease and determine. During the debate, Sir Robert announced that he would not pledge himself to a permanent maintenance of the sliding scale, and he distinctly abandoned the principle of protection as mere protection. This foreshadowed the events of 1846. Cobden's lucid speeches in defense of the motion won him a high place in the House. Villiers was defeated by a large majority, and the Government measure adopted.
Near the close of the year, the League proposed to raise £50,000, and deputed Messrs. Cobden, Bright, Col. Thompson, and others, to traverse the country and address the people. The great Free-Trade Hall was built at Manchester, and at its consecration, in January, 1843, it was announced that £44,000 had been raised. An attack was next made on London. After filling first the Crown and Anchor, and then Freemasons' Hall, the League was invited by Mr. Macready to occupy Drury-Lane Theater. Night after night, that spacious building was more densely packed, and rung with louder cheers, than in the days when Edmund Kean burst upon the metropolis, and carried it with a whirlwind of excitement. Thus far, the meetings of the League had been held in towns and cities. Mr. Cobden now challenged the Monopolists to
meet the Free Traders on their chosen ground. He attended open meetings of agriculturists in thirty-two counties, encountered the advocates of protection, and with the aid of his associates, defeated them on a show of hands in every case but
The year 1844 was opened with a proposal to raise £100,000, and to distribute ten millions of anti-corn-law tracts. Free Trade Hall gave a lead to the country, by subscribing £20,000 at a single meeting. In March, Mr. Cobden attacked the landlords in their farmyards. He moved the Commons for a committee to inquire into the effects of protective duties upon tenant farmers and agricultural laborers. His speech on that occasion, one of the ablest he ever delivered, gave a new aspect to the controversy, and a fresh impulse to the national intellect. And more than all, as was afterward acknowledged, that speech sunk into the soul of Sir Robert Peel, and prepared the finale of the corn laws. During the session, Sir Robert carried through a bill reducing the duties on several important articles; but he did not touch corn. The " pressure from without" was becoming, month by month, more difficult to be resisted. As fast as vacancies in Parliament occurred, they were filled by the candidates of the League. Early in 1845, Sir Robert proposed sweeping financial reforms, repealing the duties on four hundred and fifty articles, reducing the duty on the important article of sugar, and otherwise modifying the tariff. The corn laws still remained inviolate, but the landlords began to be alarmed. The panic was not diminished when the League placed its choicest orators on the stage of Covent Garden. For weeks, that theater was crowded from pit to dome, with audiences more earnest and enthusiastic than the muse of Shakspeare or the wit of Sheridan could command. Distinguished Parliamentarians, and even Earls and Barons, were swept into the throng, and mingled their voices in the chorus for "cheap bread," with Cobden, Bright, Fox, and Thompson. The ladies crowned the fete by opening