History of the English Corn Laws

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 1845


MIA-bannière.gif
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 4, p. 656;
Written in the autumn of 1845;
First published: in Telegraph für Deutschland Nos. 193 and 194, December 1845.

The article was sent to the Hamburg journal Telegraph für Deutschland through Reichardt’s Newspaper-Correspondence Bureau in Brussels, which provided the progressive German press with reports by German émigrés. Engels himself contributed to this paper only in his younger years, from 1839 to 1841 (see MECW, Vol. 2); he discontinued his collaboration because he was dissatisfied with the ideological and political stand and especially the liberal half-measures of the literary group of “Young Germany”, whose press organ this journal was. In publishing the article the editors accompanied it with a note revealing its source. “As the author of this interesting article,” the note said, “we can name the well-known Engels.” In content the article coincides in part with the corresponding passages in the chapter on the labour movements in The Condition of the Working-Class in England (characterisation of the workers’ unrest in Lancashire in summer 1842,--see pp. 520-21 of this volume), and in part supplements some other sections of that book.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 193, December 1845[edit source]

Until the middle of the last century England exported grain almost every year and very seldom needed to import this foodstuff from abroad. Since that time, however, the situation has been reversed. Under these circumstances the price of grain, on the one hand, was necessarily low and that of meat, on the other, was high, much arable land was converted into cattle pasture, while at the same time industry, and with it the population, owing to the invention of important machines, experienced an unprecedented growth. Hence England was first compelled to give up exporting corn and later had to import it from abroad. The twenty-five years’ war against France during the revolution, which made imports difficult, compelled England more or less to restrict itself to its own soil. The obstacles which the war put in the way of imports had the same effect as a protective tariff. Grain prices rose, ground-rents likewise rose, in most cases to double the previous figure, and in some cases even fivefold. The result was that a large part of the area that had recently been converted into pasture was again used for corn. This increase in their incomes tempted the English landowners, who, incidentally, consist of a few hundred lords and some 60,000 baronets and squires not belonging to the nobility, to adopt an extravagant mode of living and a mutual emulation in luxury for which very soon even their increased rents no longer sufficed. Before long the estates were encumbered with a heavy burden of debt. When in 1814 peace removed the obstacles to import, the price of corn fell and the tenant-farmers, in view of the high rents, could no longer cover the cost of producing their corn. Only two ways out were possible: either that the landowners should reduce the rent or that a real protective tariff should be imposed instead of the nominal one. The landowners, who not only dominated the Upper House and the Ministry but also (prior to the Reform Bill [1]) possessed fairly unrestricted power in the Lower House, naturally chose the latter course and in 1815 introduced the Corn Laws amid the furious outcry of the middle classes and the people, at that time still guided by the latter, and under the protection of bayonets. The first Corn Law of 1815 prohibited import of corn altogether as long as the price of corn in England remained under 80 shillings g quarter. At this price or over, foreign corn could be imported freely. But this law was not in accord with the interests of either the industrial or the agricultural population, and in 1822 it was somewhat modified. However, this modification never came into practical effect, for during the next few years prices always remained low and never reached the level at which the import of foreign corn was allowed. Despite all the improvements in the law and despite the investigations of several parliamentary committees, the tenant-farmers were unable to cover their production costs. Finally, therefore, Huskisson and Canning invented their famous sliding scale, which their successors in the Ministry embodied in the law. [2] By this scale, the import duty rose as the price of home-produced corn fell and vice versa. By this means the English farmer was to be ensured a high and constant price for his corn, so that he could comfortably cope with his high ground-rent. But this measure was of no avail either. The system became increasingly untenable; the middle classes, whose representatives were predominant in the Lower House after the Reform Bill, became more and more opposed to the Corn Laws, and within a year after Sir Robert Peel’s entry into the Ministry he found himself compelled to lower the import tariff.

Meanwhile, opposition to the Corn Laws had become organised. The industrial middle class, which had to pay its workers higher wages because of the increase in the price of corn, resolved to do its utmost to secure at any cost the abolition of these hated laws — the last survivals of the old dominance of the agricultural interests, which at the same time facilitated foreign competition against English industry. Towards the end of 1838, some of the leading Manchester manufacturers founded an anti-Corn Law association, which soon spread in the neighbourhood and in other factory districts, adopted the name of Anti-Corn law League, started a subscription fund, founded a journal (the Anti-Bread-Tax Circular), sent paid speakers from place to place and set in motion all the means of agitation customary in England for achieving its aim. During its first years, which coincided with a four-years’ slump in business, the Anti-Corn-Law League was extremely active. When, however, at the beginning of 1842, the business slump turned into a downright commercial crisis which threw the working class into the most atrocious poverty, the Anti-Corn-Law League became definitely revolutionary. It took as its motto the saying of Jeremiah: “They that be slain with the sword are better than they that be slain with hunger.” [Lamentations of Jeremiah, 4:9] Its journal in clear language called on the people to revolt and threatened the landowners with the “pick-axe and the torch”. Its itinerant agitators ranged the whole country and preached in a language no way less forceful than that of the journal. Meeting after meeting was held, petition after petition to Parliament was circulated, and when Parliament opened its session, a Congress of League representatives assembled simultaneously in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament. When, in spite of all this, Peel failed to abolish the Corn Laws, but only modified them, the Congress declared:

“The people has nothing more to expect from the government; it must rely only on itself; the wheels of the government machinery must be halted all at once and on the spot; the time for talking is over, the time has come for action. It is to t>e hoped that the people will no longer he willing to starve for the benefit of an aristocracy living in luxury; and if naught else avails, there is still a means by which the government can be compelled to give way: we must” (stated this Congress of leading manufacturers and municipal officials of the great factory towns) “we must throw the people on to the agricultural districts which have produced all the pauperism; but the people must not go there like a crowd of humble ‘paupers’, but as if they had to ‘quarter themselves on a mortal enemy’.”

This great means in the hands of the manufacturers, by which they wished in 24 hours to bring together a meeting of 500,000 persons on the Manchester racecourse and to raise an insurrection against the Corn Laws, consisted in closing down their factories.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 194, December 1845[edit source]

In July, business began to improve. The manufacturers received increased orders and they noted that the crisis was coming to an end. The people was still in a highly excited state and distress was universal; but if anything was to happen, it was high time for action. And so, when an increase in wages was to be expected owing to the improvement in business a manufacturer in Stalybridge suddenly reduced the wages of his workers, thereby compelling them to strike in order to maintain their wages at the previous level. The workers, to whom the signal for an insurrection was thus given, brought all the factories in the town and its environs to a standstill, which was easy for them to do since the manufacturers (all members of the Anti-Corn Law League), contrary to their custom, offered no resistance at all. The workers held meetings presided over by the manufacturers themselves, who tried to draw the people’s attention to the Corn Laws. On August 9, 1842, four days after the outbreak of the insurrection, the workers marched to Manchester, where they met with no resistance at all, and brought all the factories to a standstill. The only manufacturer who opposed them was a conservative and hostile to the League. The insurrection spread to all the factory districts; nowhere did the urban authorities (on whom everything depends in England in such cases, as is well known), who were all members of the Anti-Corn [Law] League, offer any resistance. So far everything proceeded as the League wanted. But in one respect it had miscalculated. The people, whom it had driven into insurrection in order to. force the abolition of the Corn Laws, did not care in the least about these laws. They demanded the wages of 1840 and the People’s Charter. [3] As soon as the League noticed this, it turned against its allies. All its members were sworn in as special constables and formed a new army for the suppression of the insurrection, at the service of the government that was hostile to them. The involuntary insurrection of the people, who were not yet at all prepared for anything of the sort, was soon suppressed; the Corn Laws remained in force, and both the middle class and the people were given a profitable lesson. The Anti-Corn Law League, in order to furnish conspicuous proof that it had not been defeated by the failure of the insurrection, started a new large-scale campaign in 1843, with the demand for contributions from its members amounting to £50,000, and it amassed more than this sum in the course of a year. It began its agitation afresh, but it soon found itself compelled to seek a new audience. It always made a great boast that it found nothing more to do in the factory districts after 1843 and could therefore turn to the agricultural districts. But there was a snag to this. After the insurrection of 1842 it could no longer hold any public meetings in the factory districts without its representatives being most ignominiously driven from the platform and literally beaten up by the angry people whom it had so shamefully betrayed. Consequently, if it wanted to propagate its doctrines, it was compelled to go to the agricultural districts. Here the League was of some real service by arousing among the tenant-farmers a certain feeling of shame at their dependence hitherto on the landowners, and by making the agricultural class aware of more general interests. In 1844, encouraged by its success with previous contributions, the League opened a new subscription list of £100,000. On the following day the manufacturers in Manchester assembled and within half an hour had subscribed £12,000. By November 1844, £82,000 had been collected, of which £57,000 had already been spent. A few months later the League opened an exhibition in London, which also must have brought in enormous sums. If now one asks what has been the motive of this colossal movement, which has spread from Manchester to the whole of England and has carried with it the vast majority of the English middle class, but which — we repeat — has not received an atom of sympathy from the working class, it must be acknowledged that this motive is the private interest of the industrial and commercial middle class of Great Britain. For this class it is of the greatest importance to have a system which, as it believes at least, ensures it for all time a world monopoly of trade and industry by enabling it to pay just as low wages as its competitors and to exploit all the advantages that England possesses as a result of its 80 years’ start in the development of modern industry. From this point of view the middle class alone, and not the people, benefits from. the abolition of the Corn Laws. Secondly, the middle class demands this measure as a supplementary law to the Reform Bill. Through the Reform Bill, which introduced suffrage based on a property qualification and abolished the old electoral privileges of particular individuals and corporations, the monied middle class had come, in principle, to power. In reality, however, the landowning class still retained a considerable preponderance in Parliament since it sends there directly 143 members for the counties and indirectly almost all the members representing small towns, and is represented in addition by the Tory members from the towns. In 1841, this majority of the agricultural interest brought Peel and the Tories into the cabinet. The abolition of the Corn Laws would deal a fatal blow to the political power of the landowners in the Lower House, and hence in fact in the whole English legislature, since it would make the tenant-farmers independent of the landowners. It would proclaim capital to be the supreme power in England, but at the same time it would shake the English Constitution to its foundations; it would rob an essential constituent of the legislative body, viz. the landed aristocracy, of all wealth and all power, and thereby exert a different and greater influence on the future of England than many other political measures. Once again, however, we find that from this aspect too the abolition of the Corn Laws’ offers no advantage to the people.

  1. What is meant is the Reform Act of 1832, see Note 123
  2. The Bill introducing the sliding scale was drafted by Canning’s Tory cabinet in 1827 and carried through Parliament the following year in a Somewhat revised form by the Tory cabinet under Wellington
  3. The People’s Charter, containing the demands of the Chartists, was published on May 8, i838, as a Bill to be submitted to Parliament. It Consisted of six points: universal suffrage (for men on reaching the age of 21), annual elections to Parliament, secret ballot, equal electoral areas, abolition of the property qualification for Parliamentary candidates, a salary for Members of Parliament