Corn Laws, Repeal of

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campaign for repeal
results of repeal

Regulations on the import and export of grain can be dated in England to as early as the twelfth century, but the best known of the corn laws was passed in 1815, when Parliament had to address the profound economic slump that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. A number of arguments weighed in favor of protecting the agricultural sector. Protection would stimulate domestic agriculture, preventing famine and guaranteeing national independence in wartime. It would also promote a smooth transition to peacetime by reducing the impact of falling demand. And agriculture was a vital component of the nation's overall economic health because it influenced other sectors of the economy, such as labor and domestic manufacture. While economic arguments in favor of the Corn Law entered the political debate, there was a class interest at work as well because many aristocrats were large landowners who would benefit from special protection. To protect British agriculture, the 1815 Corn Law banned foreign imports of grain into British markets as long as the domestic prices per quarter (twenty-eight pounds or eight bushels) fell below a certain level: twenty-seven shillings for oats; forty for barley and beer; fifty-three for rye, peas, and beans; and eighty for wheat. The last was the most bitterly resented because during the nineteenth century wheaten bread was the staple of the average Briton's diet. Loaves made with other grains were considered inferior.

No one was especially pleased with the results of the 1815 law. Landlords and farmers never saw the high prices they expected while consumers (especially urban laborers and manufacturers) saw no benefit from cheaper grains marketed elsewhere in Europe. Modifications to the 1815 law came in 1822, 1828, and 1842. In 1828, for example, sliding scales of duties replaced the total ban on grain imports below the set price. As the price of domestic grains went up, the duty paid on foreign grains went down. Overall, the Corn Laws were damaging to consumers. Historians have calculated that without the special protection for British agriculture, wheat would have cost between 17 and 33 percent less during the first half of the nineteenth century. Moreover, merchants learned how to maximize profits by withholding foreign wheat from the market until the highest price, and thus the lowest duty, applied. The market worked differently for foreign barley and oats, which farmers used to feed cattle and horses and which tended to be released onto the market sooner. Consequently, as one historian has observed, animals did somewhat better than people.

campaign for repeal

What made the Corn Laws so remarkable was not the fact of their existence but the manner in which they were eventually repealed in 1846. Before then, there had been sporadic opposition to the laws. But they soon became a rallying point for a new middle-class form of politics. Effective and sustained opposition to the Corn Laws began with the establishment of the London Anti–Corn Law Association in 1836, the Manchester Anti–Corn Law Association in 1838, and finally the Anti–Corn Law League, into which a number of associations were organized, in 1839. The League was headquartered in Manchester, signaling a shift in political momentum away from London and the landed elite and toward a new moneyed elite based in the urban manufacturing centers of the north. The best known of the League's leaders were Richard Cobden (1804–1865) and John Bright (1811–1889), both of whom were elected to Parliament (Cobden in 1841, Bright in 1843), where they pushed for repeal.

Why did the Corn Laws become the focus of middle-class attacks? First, a single-issue campaign was politically prudent; resources could be concentrated to chip away at the nation's landed, vested interests. Second, many reformers saw repeal as beneficial for the entire nation: with the Corn Laws repealed, bread prices would drop, which in turn would lower labor costs, encourage domestic manufacturing, decrease unemployment, and boost international trade. Third, the 1840s saw deep economic distress, including the Irish potato famine, which intensified cries for economic reform. And lastly, the refrain of "Free Trade" attracted many reformers who embraced Adam Smith's (1723–1790) economics. Arguments like these gained support especially among the middle classes who believed that the sacrifices of British manufacturers and workers benefited only the aristocracy, whose economic relevance in an industrializing economy was seen as increasingly marginal. Significant support for repeal could also be found among dissenters, who equated attacks on the Corn Laws with attacks on the established church, yet another bastion of elite interests. Irish nationalists, too, appropriated the language of repeal in their efforts to promote independence.

Despite the enfranchisement of the middle classes in the 1832 Reform Act, their votes were not enough to secure repeal of the Corn Laws, which many had come to believe were harming Britain's economic, social, and moral well-being. Other means were required. The tactics employed by the Anti–Corn Law League established a successful and influential model for future extra-parliamentary campaigns. Funds were collected, mass meetings organized. The League sent traveling lecturers, assisted by an expanding railroad network, into local communities. Women supporters sponsored tea parties and bazaars. The League churned out publications of every description—pamphlets, periodicals, petitions, circulars, addresses, handbills, almanacs, newspapers (the Anti–Bread Tax Circular, succeeded by The League, first appeared in 1841)—to educate, pressure, and persuade. Other proponents of free trade increased the flow of ink, like James Wilson (1805–1860), a Scottish hat manufacturer, who in 1843 founded The Economist.

The anti–Corn Law campaign was heavily tinged with a religious fervor and drew on a well-worn rhetoric of religious freedom. If Protestantism had rightly crushed religious monopolies, why then were economic monopolies allowed to stand? Hundreds of ministers converged on Manchester in 1841 and Scotland in 1842 to support repeal while Anglican clergymen numbered among its most prominent opponents. The League also developed an electoral strategy that achieved mixed but sometimes impressive results with its emphasis on voter registration, by-elections, and county elections. All of the League's

techniques shared a strong rejection of violent protest (although Cobden proposed acts, never carried out, of civil disobedience) because Leaguers wanted to distance themselves from those working-class and Chartist activists who favored physical force. Chartists, who campaigned for political reforms that would open the electorate to the working classes, in turn often opposed repeal, which they viewed as a disguised attempt to lower workers' wages.

results of repeal

The League's connection to formal party politics was complex. Although supporters of repeal tended to support Whigs, there was good reason to keep repeal a nonpartisan issue. After all, protectionists and free traders could be found among the ranks of both Whig and Conservative members of Parliament. The Whig leader, John Russell (1792–1878), eventually embraced the immediate and total repeal of the Corn Laws, while the Conservative prime minister, Robert Peel (1788–1850), who had drastically reduced duties on foods and raw materials, resigned from office in 1845 when his cabinet proved unwilling to support some version of repeal. When Russell failed to form a new government, Peel returned to office committed to repealing the Corn Laws. Immediately after repeal was achieved in June 1846, Peel resigned again and the Conservatives split, unable to mount a serious challenge to the Liberals until Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) reversed his party's fortunes. Peel thus enjoyed the reputation of having sacrificed political ambition as well as partisan advantage for the greater good of the nation.

The repeal of the Corn Laws can be assessed in a number of ways. It was undoubtedly a political triumph for the League and for middle-class interests, but it did not destroy the political power of the British aristocracy. In fact, it can be argued that repeal helped to preserve its power; the next major electoral reform came only in 1867, the Church of England remained an established institution, and the House of Lords stayed intact for the rest of the nineteenth century. Nor did repeal bring a dramatic drop in grain prices, although it did blunt the price rise that Britain would have witnessed because of increased demand. The repeal that Leaguers secured was neither immediate nor total. Under Peel's plan, repeal would be gradually implemented over three years, and even then, a small duty of one shilling per quarter on foreign grain was retained. Some scholars have suggested that repeal would have occurred even if the League had never formed. Others have questioned to what extent the campaign for repeal should be described in class terms. The League attracted members from across the social spectrum, aristocrats as well as handloom weavers, whereas among opponents of repeal, agricultural interests may have trumped purely aristocratic ones.

Despite these important claims, the Anti–Corn Law League had a profound effect on British politics. The League inspired subsequent political movements and also secured an iconic status for free trade within the expanding British electorate. For many, a vote against free trade came to be seen as a vote against democracy itself.

See alsoCapitalism; Industrial Revolution, First; Protectionism; Trade and Economic Growth.


Primary Sources

Kadish, Alon, ed. The Corn Laws. The Formation of Popular Economics in Britain. 6 vols. London, 1996. A documentary collection of reprints.

Schonhardt-Bailey, Cheryl, ed. The Rise of Free Trade. 4 vols. London, 1997. The first two volumes are the most relevant.

Secondary Sources

McCord, Norman. The Anti–Corn Law League, 1838–1846. 2nd ed. London, 1968. Still the best narrative account of the League's institutional history.

Pickering Paul A., and Alex Tyrrell. The People's Bread: A History of the Anti–Corn Law League. London and New York, 2000. A social and cultural history of the League.

Prest, John. "A Large Amount or a Small? Revenue and the Nineteenth-Century Corn Laws." The Historical Journal 39 (1996): 467–478. A detailed account of how the Corn Laws operated.

Elisa R. Milkes