Anti-Corn Law League.
Agitation against the Corn Laws
, which imposed duties on imported foodstuffs to protect British producers, increased after the Corn Law of 1815, and peaked in 1838–46. The creation of a Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association in 1838 led in 1839 to the establishment there of a national league. In 1839–40, it functioned solely as a propaganda organ, publishing attacks on the Corn Laws and sending out agents to preach free trade. This achieved nothing; the movement was short of money and had little prestige. Its leader, Richard Cobden
, advocated direct political involvement, and the league contested a by-election at Walsall early in 1841. Its candidate was beaten, but his intervention forced the withdrawal of a moderate Whig opponent of free trade, gave the seat to a Conservative, and showed that the league did have some muscle. In the general election of 1841, a few free traders were returned, including Cobden himself, who proved a competent parliamentary spokesman. The league's organization became increasingly sophisticated, and in 1843 The Times
described it as ‘a great fact’ and claimed that ‘a new power has arisen in the State’. Centred in Manchester, despite a nominal move to London early in 1843, the league, under the chairmanship of an able organizer, George Wilson, became a model for later political agitations. It fought elections, and sought to multiply supporters on the electoral registers and expel opponents, by exploiting the registration provisions of the 1832 Reform Act. Propaganda continually increased in scope and variety. Considerable sums of money were raised, much of it from industrial interests who resented the dominance of the landed aristocracy and believed that protection of agriculture was an impediment to other commerce. In 1843 Cobden was joined in Parliament by John Bright
, and their rhetorical partnership proved effective in and out of Parliament. Prevailing economic doctrines advocated the removal of impediments to trade, while the league mobilized moral and even religious arguments against the Corn Laws, which allegedly increased the price of ‘the poor man's bread’. The irruption of the league into electoral politics quickened Whig conversion to free trade. The Conservative leader Peel
won the 1841 election, but his commitment to the Corn Laws weakened. Peel's budgets of 1842 and 1845, together with other measures such as the Canada Corn Act of 1843, cut tariffs and increased the isolation of the Corn Laws. No disaster followed this sequence of reforms, but instead a substantial recovery from the depression years of 1838–42. In 1845 and again in 1846, the potato crop, on which many Irish had become dependent, suffered a catastrophic failure, threatening widespread starvation. Peel decided that all obstructions to the import of food must go, including the Corn Laws. This split the governing Conservative Party, but with the aid of opposition forces, including Whigs and the league, Peel was able to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846. The league would never have been able to secure repeal by its own power, and its role in the final crisis was exaggerated at the time and later.