Tariffs Are an Attack on Natural Rights

[Adapted from “Landlordism and Liberty: Aristocratic Misrule And the Anti-Corn-Law League” by Richard F. Spall in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.]

From the time of its formation in 1839 until the repeal of the corn laws seven years later, the Anti-Corn-Law League agitated virtually without interruption for the total and immediate repeal of those laws which restricted by high import duties the importation of foreign grain into Britain. Headed by prominent northern industrialists including Richard Cobden, J. B. Smith, George Wilson, and John Bright, and centered in the cloth-manufacturing capital of Manchester, the League was the best financed and the most highly organized political pressure group that Britain had ever witnessed. It made its appeals not only to middle-class manufacturers but also to industrial workers, agricultural laborers, and tenant farmers as well. The League sent lecturers and delegations all across the country to proselytize, raise funds, organize, and petition. It published and distributed scores of tracts, pamphlets, handbills, circulars, and books, and regularly issued a succession of its own newspapers: The Anti-Corn-Law Circular, Anti-Bread-Tax Circular, and The League. The ACLL organized debates, public lectures, conferences of ministers of religion, mass meetings, highly successful petition drives, and canvasses of constituencies in numerous parliamentary elections. Though the ACLL concentrated its efforts upon repeal of the corn and provision laws, the League, as individuals and as an organization, look considerable interest in a great many other reform issues of the 1830s and 1840s.1

The members of the Anti-Corn-Law League were very much interested in liberty though they did not often discuss the concept in abstract philosophical terms. The members of the League were practical men, better able and more willing to identify and condemn specific political, social, or economic impediments to freedom than to enumerate its philosophical hallmarks. One of the themes found most frequently among the reform ideas of the ACLLers is their abiding distrust and disdain for what they termed aristocratic misrule and class legislation. The members of the League regarded the corn laws as the most glaring example of aristocratic misrule, but in their opposition to this perceived foundation of landlordism, they often found themselves expressing opposition more broadly to what they termed the vestiges of feudalism or the legacy of the so-called Norman Yoke. Their desire to rid Britain of aristocratic misrule and class legislation prompted many Leaguers to oppose not just the corn laws but landlordism, the established church, and all the traditions and privileges that in their view restricted liberty.

The members of the Anti-Corn-Law League tended to view aristocratic privilege and influence in political and social institutions as well as economic relationships as forms of monopoly, and monopoly was something Leaguers opposed in all its variations. This fact is central to an understanding of the nature and scope of opposition to aristocratic misrule by the ACLL. Leaguers were pan of an emerging liberal consensus that placed a very high value on freedom from the constraints of the state, particularly with respect to economic affairs; they opposed the legacy of medieval restrictions and regulations on manufacturing and trade, and deeply resented the continued influence of a privileged landed aristocracy. This developing and cardinal liberal doctrine is in many ways summed up in opposition to monopoly in all its manifestations, and the ACLL was no small contributor to this tradition. Leaguers sometimes recognized monopoly in facets of life that seemed removed from economics.

The Anti-Corn-Law League regarded free trade as an issue of liberty no less than as a matter of economic practicality. Edward Baines, a prominent spokesman for the ACLL and editor of the Leeds Mercury, linked free trade and liberty in The League when he declared:

“Free Trade” means perfect freedom for every kind of industry; and it includes liberty to every man to employ his money or his labour in the way that he himself thinks most advantageous, and to buy and sell wherever he can do so with the greatest profit.

This freedom is man’s natural right. Of course it ought not to be invaded in society, unless such invasion can be shown to be necessary for the general good of the community. … It is obvious that this must be the general rule and practice in every community. … And upon this rule all Governments do and must act in 999 out of 1000 cases. This rule of Freedom of Industry — which contains in it, when practically applied. an admirable self-regulating and self-adjusting principle — determines how many men shall engage in each particular employment, so as to keep the wants of the community duly supplied.2

In his argument Baines advanced two important and related ideas: that freedom was a matter of natural right and that it was economically sound. He accused landed protectionists of inflicting a great and oppressive evil upon the country by violating the principle of freedom of industry with the continuation of the corn laws.3 In his declarations Baines echoed the assertions of Adam Smith who had concluded that protectionism was harmful economically, internationally, and socially. Smith had argued that Britain’s protectionist policies were posited upon two fallacies: (1) the balance-of-trade fallacy or the notion that it was always better to make goods at home, and (2) the political assumption that a government-led economy would progress more rapidly than a natural one.4 Smith believed that mercantilism not only slowed economic progress but also produced domestic social inequalities. In his view, the solution to an intolerable system of privilege was a self-regulating system of natural liberty.5

Richard Cobden, J. B. Smith, and Joseph Brotherton were other League leaders who shared the views of Baines on the relation between natural right and natural law. As early as 1837 J.B. Smith expressed on behalf of Brotherton, who was then a candidate in the Salford parliamentary election opposition to the entire “system of the Corn Laws,” as well as “all other monopolies which interfere with & obstruct the general prosperity of the country.”6 Cobden emphasized the inexorable power of freedom of trade as a matter of natural law in his early pamphlet, England, Ireland, and America, arguing that “violence and force never prevail against the natural wants and wishes of mankind; in other words that despotic laws against freedom of trade can never be executed.”7 Cobden not only equated restrictions on commerce with tyranny but also believed that free trade marked the rebirth of man’s right to exchange freely the products of his labor, intelligence, and capital rather than serving the interests of the privileged classes.8

The agitation against the corn laws embodied by the Anti-Corn-Law League gave a focus to the sentiment opposing all forms of monopoly; many Leaguers believed that the corn laws were the foundation of an entire system of economic, social, and political privilege and that the whole edifice of aristocratic misgovernment and landlordism would be undermined if the corn laws were removed.9 The Bread Eater’s Advocate, the organ of the short-lived National Daily Bread Society, which the League attempted to launch in 1841, made explicit the view that the corn law was “the keystone by which other monopolies are upheld, monopoly in trade, monopoly in legislation, monopoly in religion,”10 and hailed the repeal of the corn laws as “the first of a series of deep and searching reforms.”11

The League regarded free trade as being ordained by both natural and divine law, which superseded the artificial restrictions of selfish aristocratic lawmakers. At one League meeting the corn laws were described as outmoded and contrary to the one principle of nature that would ensure harmony: “Freedom — universal freedom.”12 Reflecting the widest possible application of the principles of laissez faire in an unmistakably male fashion, the League speaker, Mr. Bayley, implied that use of such artificial restrictions as the corn laws impeded the operation of natural law in such a way as to obstruct the divine will, and he suggested that the corn laws were ridiculous as the belief once held by “our ladies” that “their bodies would not grow out to their proportions, unless squeezed in here and enlarged there, (Laughter) just as the Chinese have adopted.”13

The League regarded the corn laws as an instrument of despotic power, and Thomas Milner Gibson argued before an aggregate meeting of the League in 1843 that Leaguers had taken up their struggle not under the pressure of momentary distress of the country,

but on the solemn conviction that the Corn Law is that invasion of our civil rights as free citizens, that whether there be poverty or plenty, we have an equal right to demand their repeal. (Loud Cheers.)14

Gibson told his listeners that the cause of the ACLL was more than the revival of trade; it was the cause of the citizens of England and of liberty itself.15

Perhaps the clearest statement by a member of the League on the fundamental nature of freedom of industry and trade came from John Bright in a speech before the Liverpool Anti-Monopoly Association during the summer of 1843. Bright asserted that the freedom to exchange the produce of one’s labor for that of his fellows anywhere in the world was the most fundamental of rights. Bright argued that

there was no liberty without this liberty, which was simply the liberty to live. The right of voting for members of parliament, the right of electing members of the legislature, the right of electing even the crown, if that were so, — all this liberty was a very small value without the liberty to live by their industry. (Cheers.) Civil liberty was nothing, religious liberty was nothing; the liberty of the press was nothing, for so long as an increasing population was allowed to labour under restrictions on the means of living, all this liberty would be insufficient to give them prosperity. to enable them to advance in the career of improvement, to enable them to become what they were destined to be. …16

The Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers associated their cause with the cause of liberty. To many opponents of the corn laws, political, religious, and civil liberties were to some extent dependent upon freedom of exchange, or at the very least, they were liberties that could not be fully enjoyed without freedom of industry and exchange.17 Leaguers opposed monopoly in all its variations, and monopoly was the antithesis of freedom of exchange. The Leaguers’ opposition to the corn law monopoly led them to oppose landlordism wherever it was to be found: in the military, the universities, the established church, the traditional relations between landlord and tenant, and the political life of the nation. In the eyes of the members of the Anti-Corn-Law League the battle for the repeal of the corn laws was a fight against aristocratic misrule and class legislation; it was a crusade against the vestiges of feudal privilege which restricted progress, economic well-being, and freedom.

  • 1. Works frequently cited have been identified by the following abbreviations:
         ABTC  Anti-Bread-Tax Circular.
         ACLC  Anti-Corn-Law Circular.
         AD-MCRL  Archives Department, Manchester Central Reference Library.
         SSL-MCRL  Social Science Library, Manchester Central Reference Library.
         WS-PRO  West Sussex County Public Record Office.

    The organizational structure, parliamentary tactics, and methods of propaganda of the Anti-Corn-Law League were the subject of Norman McCord’s The Anti-Corn-Law League, 1838-1846 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1958), and for these features of the ACLL, McCord’s study remains the standard work. Archibald Prentice’s History of the Anti-Corn-Law League, 2 vols. (London: Cash, 1853), an insider’s account written just after the dissolution of the ACLL, is devoted to explaining in considerable detail how the League triumphed in getting the corn laws repealed in 1846. Much of Prentice’s account is given over to a narrative of election and agitation tactics, and there is very little discussion of issues apart from free trade. Several other studies, including Augustus Mongredien’s History of the Free Trade Movement in England (London: Cassell, 1881) and G. Armitage-Smith’s Free Trade Movement and Its Results (London: Victorian Era Series, 1898), focus on parliamentary activity and methods of agitation rather than on the reform ideas of the ACLL. Surveys of the corn laws in English history, such as those by Donald Barnes in History of the English Corn Laws from 1660 to 1846 (New York: Routledge, 1930) and Charles Ryle Fay’s Corn Laws and Social England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), are so broad in scope as to devote only a single brief chapter to the issue of repeal; they do not consider corollary issues. Studies of the ACLL have given too much attention to the structure of the organization and the nature of its agitation activities at the expense of examining more closely the meaning of the doctrine of free trade in its implications and corollaries.
         Biographies of prominent members of the Anti-Corn-Law League including Cobden and Bright — John Morley, Life of Richard Cobden (London: Chapman and Hall, 1881); G. M. Trevelyan, Life of John Bright (London: Constable, 1913); Herman Ausubel, John Bright: Victorian Reformer (New York: Wiley, 1966); Keith Robbins, John Bright (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979); and Donald Read, Cobden and Bright: A Victorian Political Partnership (New York: St. Martin’s, 1968) — properly treat the participation of their subjects in the activities of the ACLL as only one aspect of the public lives of these men, and several do not have the period of the ACLL as their central focus. Biographies of league leaders have from time to time taken up the theme of aristocratic misrule and class legislation, but such discussions have been generally intended to provide insights into personal character or as part of a general context rather than as an outgrowth of free-trade ideology or as an explanation of the views on liberty held by members of the Anti-Corn-Law League. The present discussion is intended to outline the main elements of aristocratic misrule and landlordism as seen by members of the League and to illustrate how opposition to the foundation of landlordism-monopoly-led quite naturally to criticism of a “system” of landlordism itself.

  • 2. “To the Right Honourable The Earl of Harewood, President of the Yorkshire Society,” The League, 16 March 1844.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Frank Fish Walker, Jr., “British Liberalism: Some Philosophical Origins: The Contributions of Adam Smith, Thomas Robert Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and Herbert Spencer” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1957), pp. 35-38. Walker provides an analysis of Smith’s Lectures of Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms.
  • 5. Ibid., pp. 37-38.
  • 6. “To the Inhabitants of the Borough of Salford,” Election Address of Joseph Brotherton, 28 June 1837, J. B. Smith Papers, AD-MCRL. The manuscript is in Smith’s hand, and his daughter, Lady Durning-Lawrence, states that her father wrote the address on behalf of Brotherton.
  • 7. Richard Cobden, England, Ireland, and America (London: Simpkin, 1835), p. 3. Cobden provides an analysis of the effectiveness of Napoleon’s Continental System. See also John MacCunn, Six Radical Thinkers (New York: Russell, 1907), pp. 88-95. The League expressed a quite similar view in “Exportation of Machinery. Effects of the Corn Laws,” ACLC, 2 July 1840.
  • 8. “Liberte et protection, lettres de M. Richard Cobden,” offprint from Journal des économistes, pp. 235-39, Cobden Papers, WS-PRO.
  • 9. On the general theme of the corn laws as the focus of a variety of reform interests, see William Cunningham, Rise and Decline of the Free Trade Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905), pp. 67-74; Alexander Llewellyn, The Decade of Reform: The 1830s (New York: St. Martin’s 1971), pp. 142-43; and McCord, Anti-Corn-Law League, pp. 15-21.
  • 10. “Address to the Council of the National Anti-Corn-Law League,” Bread Eater’s Advocate, 1  September 1841; see also Fay, Corn Laws and Social England, pp. 402-3.
  • 11. Ibid. See R. B. McCallum, The Liberal Party from Earl Grey to Asquith (London: Gollancz, 1963), pp. 46-47; G. S. R. Kitson Clark, “The Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Politics of the Forties,” Economic History Review, 2nd Series, 4 (1951-1952): 12-13; Fay, Corn Laws and Social England, pp. 396-402; and the contemporary pamphlet, Joseph Barker, Blessings of Free Trade . . . and How They May Be Increased and Made Lasting (N.P.: n.p., 1846), pp. 10-11. Opponents of repeal feared the truth of such assertions; see, for example George Calven Holland, Suggestions Towards Improving the Present System of Corn Laws (London: Ollivier, 1841), p. 3. Referring to the corn law, Holland wrote, ”It is the keystone of the arch on which rest the present orders of the state, and to disturb its position would ultimately introduce insecurity and anarchy.” See also Robert M. Stewart, The Politics of Protection: Lord Derby and the Protectionist Party, 1841-52 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), passim. Opponents of the Anti-Corn-Law League charged that the organization regarded repeal as the first step toward the redistribution of property and republicanism. The League denied such charges, which had appeared in the Berkshire Herald, in “Groundless Alarms, Who’s Afear’d?” ABTC, 5 May 1841.
  • 12. ”Weekly Meeting of the League,” ABTC, 27 December 1842. The speaker was identified only as Mr. Bayley; it is not clear whether this was Henry, William, or Charles Bayley, all of whom resided in Stalybridge and were members of the League Great Fund General Committee.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. “The National Anti-Corn-Law League,” The League, 28 October 1843; and “Monopoly Viewed in Connexion with Despotism,” The League, 25 November 1843.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. “Great Free Trade Demonstration in Liverpool Amphitheatre,” ABTC, 5 September 1843.
  • 17. “To the Right Honourable The Earl of Harewood, President of the Yorkshire Society,” The League, 16 March 1844; “Review,” The League, 30 March 1844; and “The Anti-Corn-Law Conference,” ABTC, 14 July 1842. For a discussion of the primacy of liberty in all things in the mind of P. A. Taylor, see J. Morrison Davidson, Eminent Radicals In and Out of Parliament (London: Stewart, 1880), pp. 29-38. For a discussion of Cobden’s belief in individual liberty, free markets, freedom of opinion, and free exchange, see Francis W. Hirst, Richard Cobden and John Morley (Swindon: Swindon Press, 1941), pp. 36-37. For an assertion of the Christian origins of Joseph Sturge’s views on liberty, see Stephen Hobshouse, Joseph Sturge: His Life and Work (London: Dent, 1919), pp. 51-56. See also the interesting contemporary treatise by John Francis Bray, Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy: Or, The Age of Might and the Age of Right (Leeds: David Green, 1839), esp. pp. 12-18.

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