Great Free Trade Demonstration at Liverpool

views updated

Great Free Trade Demonstration at Liverpool

Magazine article

By: The Economist

Date: September 2, 1843

Source: "Great Free Trade Demonstration At Liverpool." The Economist (September 2, 1843).

About the Author: The Economist is a news magazine, owned by The Economist Group, which has been published weekly since 1843. It is produced in London, but has a worldwide readership. It mainly covers international affairs, politics, business, and finance issues, and maintains an editorial stance in support of free trade and fiscal conservatism.


The public meeting in support of free trade reported on in this 1843 article was organized in Liverpool, England, by the Anti-Corn Law League. It was addressed by one of the movement's leading figures, John Bright. The Anti-Corn Law League, formed in the northeast of England in 1839, was a political pressure group. Its main objective was to bring about the repeal of the English Corn Laws and the establishment of free trade between England and other countries.

The Conservative (Tory) government had passed a series of new Corn Laws in 1815 in response to pressure from landowners who were concerned about falling profits. These laws restricted the import of grain from other countries to protect the price of locally produced grain in the interest of English farmers and landowners. The import of wheat was banned completely if the average price of domestically produced grain fell below a certain level, and a sliding scale of duties was imposed on all wheat imports.

Enactment of the Corn Laws coincided with a time of rapid population growth, as England made the transition from an agricultural to an industrial country, and they put severe pressure on the ability of the country to produce enough food to feed its population. The effect was to substantially increase the price of bread, the staple food of the poor agricultural and industrial workers.

The Anti-Corn Law League's active membership consisted mainly of industrialists, manufacturers, merchants, and Liberal politicians, led by John Bright and Richard Cobden. Bright was the son of a Lancashire cotton manufacturer. A Quaker by religious background, he held strong laissez-faire capitalist views, and his powerful oratory skills were instrumental in gaining support for the League among many different groups, including industrial workers, agricultural laborers, and tenant farmers. Demonstrations and public meetings were held throughout the country, and the League published many books and pamphlets promoting its views. These had strong religious under-tones, which may have helped to increase their appeal to the population.

The Anti-Corn Law movement came to represent the focus of a general campaign against the Conservative government and the landowner classes, who were regarded by League members and Liberal politicians as having a monopoly on power that was harmful to England's industrial progress. It was part of a Liberal political movement that placed a high value on individual freedom from state control. At this time, there were still many medieval restrictions on trade and manufacturing, and the ruling landowner classes held many aristocratic privileges. Freedom of trade and economic activity, and a reduction in the privilege and power of the ruling classes, were seen as necessary for advancement and the economic well-being of the nation. Free trade was needed, it was argued, so that other countries could obtain the capital they needed to buy British manufactured goods. In the absence of free trade, other countries would develop their own products and the British manufacturing industry would be threatened.

Although the main focus of the League's campaign was free trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws, monopoly in any form was opposed. The League spoke out against not only the landowners and the politicians, but against the established church, the military, and the universities, all of which were seen as having vested interests in preserving the status quo and hampering economic progress.

The League also focused its efforts on highlighting the poor conditions of both agricultural and industrial workers under the prevailing social structure, conditions that were blamed on the effect of the Corn Laws. It campaigned for improved conditions for workers, including changes in the land tenure system, abolition of the game laws, and fair housing rents.

In response to these arguments, Tory politicians countered that the League members were campaigning for their own interests. If the price of bread was lower, the profits of industrialists and manufacturers would increase, since they could pay their workers lower wages, and people would have more money to spend on their products.

Eventually, however, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel was convinced by the arguments of the League, and repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. In doing so, he acted against the wishes of many members of his own party, who soon dismissed him from power. The Conservative Party itself lost a great deal of support as a result of the Anti-Corn Law Campaign and the growing popularity of free trade principles. They were ousted from control of the government by the Whigs and did not win another election until 1866.


One of the greatest, if not the greatest public demonstration ever made in Liverpool in favour of free-trade principles, was made on the evening of Wednesday last, on the occasion of the regular monthly meeting of the Liverpool Anti-Monopoly Association.… Long before the hour at which the doors of the theatre were announced to be opened, the street opposite the house was densely crowded by persons eager to obtain admittance, and soon after the doors were thrown open the pit and gallery, to which the admission was free, were completely packed in every corner with individuals. The boxes, which were principally reserved for ladies, and to which there was a charge of sixpence for admission, were quite filled, but not inconveniently crowded. The stage was crammed, although there was also a charge of sixpence for admission to that part of the house. Never has it been our lot to see a more numerous or more enthusiastic meeting. Thousands were obliged to go away without obtaining admission, although every available corner of the capacious building was filled up. Even from the ventilating aperture in the centre of the ceiling there were numbers of individuals to be seen peering upon the animated and densely crowded assembly below. The theatre was appropriately fitted up with banners, bannerets, and free-trade devices.

About half-past seven o'clock William Rathbone, Esq., entered the house, and was received with the most enthusiastic cheering. He was followed shortly afterwards by John Bright, Esq., M.P., who was welcomed with deafening applause. As soon as the cheering had subsided, James Mellor, Esq., proposed that William Rathbone, Esq., take the chair, which was seconded by Lawrence Heyworth, Esq., and carried by acclamation.

The Chairman, who was warmly received, addressed the meeting, after which Mr. John Smith, in an effective speech, proposed the first resolution, which was as follows:—

"That, as the distress which all classes of the community have long been suffering, and the exemplary patience with which it has been endured, have been fully acknowledged by her Majesty's Ministers, this meeting desires to record their extreme dissatisfaction that another session of Parliament has been permitted to close without a single attempt to apply a remedy; and this dissatisfaction is aggravated by the knowledge of the fact that such guilty neglect of all just legislation has neither the excuse of ignorance on the one hand, nor the want of power on the other; but that, while constantly acknowledging the truth of the principles of free trade, and possessed of a large majority in both Houses of Parliament, her Majesty's Ministers still continue to sacrifice the national prosperity to a selfish, but shortsighted, system of monopoly."

Mr. James Mulleneux supported the resolution, which was then put by the chairman, and literally a forest of hands were held up in its favour. Not one was extended in opposition, and it was declared as passed unanimously.

Richard Sheil, Esq., considered himself particularly fortunate in having to propose a resolution which needed no recommendation from him, and which only required to be read to ensure its adoption. It was:—

"That the Anti-Corn-law League, by their energetic and unwearied exertions in proving to the community generally, and especially to the agriculturalists, the evils of the so-called protective system, have well earned the gratitude of their countrymen; and this meeting testify their high gratification in being honoured by the presence of John Bright, Esq., a distinguished member of that body, and, thanking him most earnestly for his past exertions, rejoice that his sphere of usefulness is enlarged by his triumphant election of the city of Durham."

That was the resolution he had to propose, and all he begged was, that they would reflect a little upon it. Just let them consider what effect the election of John Bright for the city of Durham must necessarily have upon the community at large, on the great change which had taken place in that city, a change which was rapidly spreading throughout the country, a change which would soon place the representatives of the people in the House of Commons in the position from which they ought never to have been removed. (Loud cheers.)

… John Bright, Esq., M.P., then rose, and his reception was most enthusiastic. When the repeated rounds of cheering had subsided, he addressed the audience in his able and eloquent style, dwelling with great point on topics similar to those urged in the Preliminary Number of THE ECONOMIST, touching on sugar, coffee, wool, etc., and then addressed himself to the question of the opinions of the Liverpool constituency. He knew that the 10l. householders of Liverpool were in favour of free trade. (Hear, hear.) He would not make a speech on party politicshe would not say a word of any man as the representative of any constituency whatever, on any ground whatever, except as being for or against free trade. The 10/. householders of Liverpool would declare in favour of free trade if an election took place tomorrow morning. (Great cheering.) But their borough had been handed over, bound hand and foot, to the monopolists, by that portion of the electors who were themselves the greatest sufferers by this system—men who were the first crushed by it, and who would be plunged into the intensest suffering unless this system were abolished. (Hear, hear.) He had a right to speak to freemen. He was almost going to say that he had no claim to sit in Parliament, except as the representative of the freemen and working classes of the city of Durham. (Great cheering.) He had canvassed them over and over, and over again. They had always been asked to vote for either red or for blue, he believed that was the other colour, they had always voted for either Whig or Tory without thinking that it was of any sort of consequence to them what sort of opinions were held by the one or the other. But he had sat with them in their cottages; he saw them taking their breakfast and their tea; he showed them how monopoly robbed them of their coffee and sugar, and of bread and butter for their children; he showed them how stonemasons, shoemakers, carpenters, and every kind of artisan suffered if the trade of the country were restricted; he showed them that if their families increased, if the population increased, and trade did not increase, those who had no property but their labour, who must have work or must starve, suffered most; he showed them how the fierce competition for labour thus created reduced the rate of wages; he showed them that the foul fiend of monopoly stood upon, and had been called into existence by the law of England, that law which they by their conduct at former elections had assisted to make, and he proved to them that that fiend deprived them of one-third or one-half of the miserable pittance of wages that they earned. They never made a single party speech at that election; the words Whig and Tory were never used; they talked of free trade—of the rights of industry, of the trampling of the poor under the hoof of monopoly; there was no sinister interest there, no West India monopolists there—they had their labour only to depend upon; they were honest men and had intelligence, and when their intelligence and their sympathies were thus appealed to, it was not possible for all the intimidation, all the influence of the rich and the powerful, to prevent them from voting for a man of whom they knew nothing excepting as connected with the Anti-Corn-law League, and as an advocate for the abolition of all monopolies. (Great cheering.) He wished that all the freemen of Liverpool were then present at that meeting; he would stay till twelve o'clock at night—nay, he would stay till twelve o'clock to-morrow night to discuss with them all points connected with this great question; he wished he could have one shake of the hand with the whole body of the freemen of Liverpool. There was no class of people for whom he had so sincere a sympathy as for those who lived by their labour, well knowing that the effects of bad laws must come into every cottage, and that good laws would send some sunshine and some comfort to every cottage and to every heart in the land. (Much cheering.) There was no remedy for the existing distress amongst the working classes but the abolition of those laws which restricted their trade and which bound down an increasing population to restricted employment and an insufficient supply of food. At another election, he called upon them to think no more of party, which was but a miserable bone of contention thrown amongst them to distract their attention, whilst somebody else was running away with all that was worth contending for. He was glad to see that last session had destroyed the adherence to party objects in Parliament. The ministry had found out that by strict adherence to their party they could do nothing for the people: on the one hand they found that if they attempted to do much for the people, their party would forsake them, on the other, that if they adhered strictly to party objects they could not withstand the opposition of the people. The Whig party dared not march with their principles; they had been the most powerless opposition that ever confronted a government; they knew what the people wanted; but somehow or other there was a clinging to aristocratic prejudices; and he (Mr. Bright) told the people that they had nobody to rely upon but themselves. (Hear, hear.) Tell him that Whig or Tory, or any other aristocracy could save England! It was a foolish and a hopeless tale; their salvation must come from themselves, and it must come from them at the polling booth. (Enthusiastic cheering.) There were two methods only, one by the sword, the other by the vote. He had nothing to do with the sword. Take away the sword; the state might be saved without it; but let them think of their votes; the vote of the working man was as good as the man who owned a county. (Hear, hear.) Let not the working man think himself merely an atom in the political machine; his vote might turn the election for Liverpool, and the one vote for Liverpool might destroy for ever this odious corn law. (Great cheering.) When he thought what Liverpool was, what it would be if this law were abolished, he was anxious that that night should not pass away without producing some effect. When he thought of their noble, their exulting river, he saw in it a source of great and increasing prosperity. A friend of his left this river on the 4th of this month, and in twenty-five days he had a letter from him from Halifax, Nova Scotia; in six hours they could travel from London to Boulogne; and was it to be tolerated, that a people who could effect such wonders as these should submit any longer to such an imbecile system as that of monopoly? (Loud cheers.) Talk not of the continuance of such a childish and wicked system, a system to which there was no parallel in any age or nation. (Continue cheering.) The people of Egypt, who built pyramids to last till the end of time, were a people so ignorant and imbecile as to worship monkeys: why the people of Liverpool bore some resemblance to the people of Egypt in that. (Much laughter and cheering.) If he were an inhabitant of Liverpool he should be ashamed to acknowledge in foreign countries that he belonged to it, for the people of Liverpool did something as absurd as the worshipping of monkeys. They did things to endure for ages, they had led the world in many a grand career, and yet they bowed down to this miserable creature monopoly, compared with which the monkey of the Egyptians was indeed a god. (Great cheering.) He asked them on behalf of the people of Rochdale, who sent their produce through the port of Liverpool, who imported their cotton and their wool through the port of Liverpool, he asked them, on behalf of that industrious population, amongst whom he lived, to vote for the abolition of the corn laws; and on behalf of that constituency who had entrusted him with the representation of their city, because he came fearlessly amongst them to advocate the abolition of all monopolies, on their behalf, and on behalf of the suffering people of this country, and on behalf of the great principles of justice and humanity all the world over, and on behalf of that Christianity for which they professed to be willing to make some sacrifices, he called upon them to think on this question, and having thought upon it to decide, and give their voices and their votes in favour of the abrogation of the worst law that any human legislature ever passed to the misery and misfortune of any people. The Hon. Gentleman resumed his seat amidst enthusiastic and prolonged acclamations, having spoken exactly an hour and twenty minutes.

The Chairman said, that after what they had heard, and they had heard a great deal, the next thing was to go and remember what they had heard, and act upon it. The meeting was now dissolved, and he felt proud in seeing such an assembly as the one before him that evening; one so well conducted, and free from any of that clap-trap by which they had been so often allured. He trusted they would remember what they had heard and act upon it.

A vote of thanks to the Chairman was then moved by Mr. Charles Edward Rawlins, jun., which was put to the meeting and carried.

The Chairman briefly returned thanks for the honour conferred upon him, and hoped that the people of Liverpool would show, not only in word, but in deed, that which would tell on the next generation and on children yet unborn.

Three cheers having been given for Mr. Cobden, and the same for Mr. Bright, the meeting separated at a quarter to ten o'clock.


The Anti-Corn Law movement was a manifestation of the massive social and economic changes that were taking place in Great Britain at the time. The country was undergoing rapid industrialization and the break up of traditional rural society. As a result, long-established customs and beliefs were being weakened. New groups, such as the industrialists, were emerging whose interests were in direct conflict with those of the landowning ruling classes, but who needed the support of the masses to challenge the political system and advance these interests. At the same time, many of the Anti-Corn League campaigners were genuinely in favor of better living and working conditions for the poor, and believed that this could best be achieved if the economy were allowed to regulate itself, free from state interference.

The repeal of the Corn Laws was a major milestone in British history in two important respects. First, it represented a watershed, at which point the legacy of Britain's feudal past was finally broken, with the landowners no longer able to assert the same power as they had in the past. Second, it was the first example of mass public opinion being successfully mobilized against the government, and it remains one of the most striking examples of democratic governance.



Pickering, Paul A., and Alex Tyrell. The People's Bread; A History of the Anti-Corn Law League. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 2000.


Spall, Richard F. "Landlordism and Liberty: Aristocratic Misrule and the Anti-Corn-Law League." Journal of Libertarian Studies 8 (1987).

Ward, Tony. "The Corn Laws and English w\Wheat Prices, 1815–1846." Atlantic Economic Journal (September 1, 2004).

About this article

Great Free Trade Demonstration at Liverpool

Updated About content Print Article