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On the Repeal of the Corn Laws

[Speech delivered February 8, 1844. Reprinted in The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes (1957).]

I am a manufacturer of clothing, and I do not know why, in this climate, and in the artificial state of society in which we live, the making of clothes should not be as honorable — because it is pretty near as useful — a pursuit as the manufacture of food.

Well, did you ever hear any debates in the House to fix the price of my commodities in the market? Suppose we had a majority of cotton-printers (which happens to be my manufacture) in the House. Let us suppose that you were reading the newspaper some fine morning, and saw an account of a majority of the House having been engaged the night before in fixing the price at which yard-wide prints should be sold: ‘Yard-wide prints, of such a quality, 10d. a yard; of such a quality, 9d.; of such a quality, 8d.; of such a quality, 7d.,’ and so on.

Why, you would rub your eyes with astonishment! Now, did it ever occur to you that there is no earthly difference between a body of men, manufacturers of corn, sitting down in the House, and passing a law enacting that wheat shall be so much, barley so much, beans so much, and oats so much?

Why, then, do you look at this monopoly of corn with such complacency? Simply because you and I and the rest of us have a superstitious reverence for the owners of those sluggish acres, and have a very small respect for ourselves and our own vocation. I say the Corn-Law monopolists, who arrogate to themselves power in the House of Commons, are practicing an injustice on every other species of capitalists. Take the iron trade, for example — a prodigious interest in this country. Iron of certain qualities has gone down in price, during the last five or six years, from £15 10s. to £5 10s. per ton. Men have seen their fortunes — ay, I have known them — dwindle away from £300,000 till now they could not sit down and write their wills for £100,000.

Well, did any man ever hear in the House of Commons an attempt made to raise a cry about these grievances there, or to lodge a complaint against the Government or the country because they could not keep up the price of iron? Has any man come forward there proposing that by some law pig iron should be so much, and bar iron of such a price, and other kinds of iron in proportion? No; neither has this been the case with any other interest in the country.

But how is it with corn? The very first night I was present in the House this session, I saw the prime minister get up, having a paper before him, and he was careful to tell us what the price of corn had been for the last 50 years, and what it was now. He is employed for little else but as a kind of corn steward, to see how the prices may be kept up for his masters.

Our opponents tell us that our object in bringing about the repeal of the Corn Laws is, by reducing the price of corn, to lower the rate of their wages. I can only answer upon this point for the manufacturing districts; but, as far as they are concerned, I state it most emphatically as a truth, that, for the last 20 years, whenever corn has been cheap wages have been high in Lancashire; and, on the other hand, when bread has been dear wages have been greatly reduced.

Now, let me be fully understood as to what Free Traders really do want. We do not want cheap corn merely in order that we may have low money prices. What we desire is plenty of corn, and we are utterly careless what its price is, provided we obtain it at the natural price. All we ask is this, that corn shall follow the same law which the monopolists in food admit that labor must follow; that ‘it shall find its natural level in the markets of the world.’

To pay for that corn, more manufactures would be required from this country; this would lead to an increased demand for labor in the manufacturing districts, which would necessarily be attended with a rise of wages, in order that the goods might be made for the purpose of exchanging for the corn brought from abroad. I observe there are narrow-minded men in the agricultural districts, telling us, ‘Oh, if you allow free trade, and bring in a quarter of corn from abroad, it is quite clear that you will sell one quarter less in England.’

What! I would ask, if you set more people to work at better wages — if you can clear your streets of those spectres which are now haunting your thoroughfares begging their daily bread — if you can depopulate your workhouses and clear off the two millions of paupers which now exist in the land, and put them to work at productive industry — do you not think that they would consume some of the wheat as well as you; and may not they be, as we are now, consumers of wheaten bread by millions, instead of existing on their present miserable dietary?

With free trade in corn, so far from throwing land out of use or injuring the cultivation of the poorer soils, free trade in corn is the very way to increase the production at home, and stimulate the cultivation of the poorer soils by compelling the application of more capital and labor to them. We do not contemplate deriving one quarter less corn from the soil of this country; we do not anticipate having one pound less of butter or cheese, or one head less of cattle or sheep: we expect to have a great increase in production and consumption at home; but all we contend for is this, that when we, the people here, have purchased all that can be raised at home, we shall be allowed to go 3,000 miles — to Poland, Russia or America — for more; and that there shall be no let or hindrance put in the way of our getting this additional quantity.

This article is excerpted from The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes, chapter 32, “On the Repeal of the Corn Laws” (1957). It was originally given as a speech by Richard Cobden in February 8, 1844.

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