Anti-Corn Law League

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A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Exeter Hall in 1846

The Anti-Corn Law League was a successful political movement in Great Britain aimed at the abolition of the unpopular Corn Laws, which protected landowners’ interests by levying taxes on imported wheat, thus raising the price of bread at a time when factory-owners were trying to cut wages. The League was a middle-class nationwide organization that held many well-attended rallies on the premise that a crusade was needed to convince parliament to repeal the corn laws. Its long-term goals included the removal of feudal privileges, which it denounced as impeding progress, lowering economic well-being, and restricting freedom. The League played little role in the final act in 1846 when Sir Robert Peel led the successful battle for repeal. However, its experience provided a model that was widely adopted in Britain and other democratic nations to demonstrate the organization of a political pressure group with the popular base.

Corn Laws

The Corn Laws were taxes on imported grain designed to keep prices high for cereal producers in Great Britain. The laws indeed did raise food prices and became the focus of opposition from urban groups who had far less political power than rural Britain. The corn laws imposed steep import duties, making it too expensive for anyone to import grain from other countries, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported by Conservative landowners and opposed by Whig industrialists and workers. The League was responsible for turning public and elite opinion against the laws. It was a large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade with a utopian vision. Its leading advocate Richard Cobden, according to historian Asa Briggs, promised that repeal would settle four great problems simultaneously:

First, it would guarantee the prosperity of the manufacturer by affording him outlets for his products. Second, it would relieve the 'condition of England question' by cheapening the price of food and ensuring more regular employment. Third, it would make English agriculture more efficient by stimulating demand for its products in urban and industrial areas. Fourth, it would introduce through mutually advantageous international trade a new era of international fellowship and peace. The only barrier to these four beneficent solutions was the ignorant self-interest of the landlords, the 'bread-taxing oligarchy, unprincipled, unfeeling, rapacious and plundering.'[1]

The League

The League was founded in 1838 by Richard Cobden and John Bright. Cobden was the chief strategist; Bright was its great orator. A representative activist was Thomas Perronet Thompson, who specialized in the grass-roots mobilisation of opinion through pamphlets, newspaper articles, correspondence, speeches, and endless local planning meetings.[2] The League was based in Manchester and had support from numerous industrialists, especially in the textile industry.[3] The main tactic of the League was to defeat protectionists at by-elections by concentrating its financial strength and campaign resources. The idea was that it would gain nationwide publicity from a handful of election campaigns every year. The strategy resulted in numerous defeats, which the League blamed on the tyrannical power of the landlords. The tactic also required very expensive subsidies so that League supporters would have a 40 shilling freehold and thus become enfranchised. [4]

The League borrowed many of the tactics first developed by the anti-slavery crusaders, while also attempting to replicate its mantle of moral reform.[5]

One of the most nationally visible efforts came in the 1843 election in Salisbury. Its candidate was defeated and it was unable to convince voters regarding free trade. However, the League did learn lessons that helped to transform its political tactics. It learned to concentrate on elections where there was a good expectation of victory.[6]

The League played little role in the final act in 1846. It had no capability of contesting 150–200 seats in a general election. Furthermore, Sir Robert Peel neutralized the League's strategy by ramming repeal through Parliament without a general election.[7] It then dissolved itself.[8] Many of its members continued their political activism in the Liberal Party, with the goal of establishing a fully free-trade economy.

W.H, Chaloner argues that the repeal in 1846 marked a major turning point, making free trade the national policy into the 20th century, and demonstrating the power of "Manchester-school" industrial interests over protectionist agricultural interests. He says repeal stabilized wheat prices in the 1850s and 1860s; however other technical developments caused the fall of wheat prices from 1870-1894.[9]

Model for other lobbying organisations

The League marked the emergence of the first powerful national lobbying group into politics, one with a centralized office, consistency of purpose, rich funding, very strong local and national organization, and single-minded dedicated leaders. It elected men to Parliament. Many of its procedures were innovative, while others were borrowed from the anti-slavery movement. It became the model for later reform movements.[10]

The model of the League led to the formation of the Lancashire Public School Association to campaign for free, locally-financed and controlled secular education in Lancashire. It later became the National Public School Association. It had little success because national secular education, was a divisive issue even among the radical groups However it did help convert the Liberal Party from its laissez-faire philosophy to that of a more interventionist character.[11]

Historian A. C. Howe argues:

Although historians remain divided on the impact of the league on Peel's decision to abandon the corn laws it was undoubtedly, in appearance, the most successful of nineteenth-century single-issue pressure groups, in its ability to generate enthusiasm, support, and unparalleled financial backing. Although its potential was not realized, it had shown the capacity for an extra-parliamentary middle-class organization to reshape politics so as to reflect the anti-aristocratic objectives of a determined band of entrepreneurial politicians.
It remained the model for many diverse pressure groups, for example the United Kingdom Alliance, the National Educational League, the Navy League, the Tenant League in Ireland, and the National Society in Piedmont, as well as those specifically related to free trade, including the Edwardian Tariff Reform League and Free Trade Union, and in the 1950s S. W. Alexander's Anti-Dear Food League. It also inspired imitators in France, Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and the United States. The league had only temporarily reshaped the landscape of parliamentary politics but it had helped create a vibrant popular attachment to free trade within British political culture that would last well into the twentieth century.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England 1783–1867: The Age of Improvement (1959) p. 314
  2. ^ Michael J. Turner, "The ‘Bonaparte of free trade’ and the Anti-Corn Law League." Historical Journal 41.4 (1998): 1011-1034.
  3. ^ Spall, 1988.
  4. ^ Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783–1870 (2nd ed. 1996, pp. 280–81)
  5. ^ Simon Morgan, "The Anti-Corn Law League and British anti-slavery in transatlantic perspective, 1838–1846." Historical Journal"" 52.1 (2009): 87-107.
  6. ^ Ronald K. Huch, "The Anti-Corn Law League and the Salisbury Election of November 1843." Canadian Journal of History 6.3 (1971): 247-256.
  7. ^ Norman Gash, Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830 (1972) pp. 575–76.
  8. ^ «As no other gentleman has anything to address to this meeting, it is now my duty to say that the Anti-Corn-Law League stands conditionally dissolved» [George Wilson at a meeting of the Council of the Anti-Corn Law League held in Manchester Town Hall (Thursday 2 July 1846)]
  9. ^ W. H. Chaloner, "The Anti-Corn Law League," History Today (1968) 18#3 pp 196-204
  10. ^ Briggs, The Making of Modern England, p. 116
  11. ^ Donald K. Jones, "The Educational Legacy of the Anti‐Corn Law League." History of Education 3.1 (1974): 18-35.
  12. ^ A. C. Howe, ‘Anti-Corn Law League (act. 1839–1846)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. accessed 8 Nov 2017

Further reading

Scholarly studies

  • Briggs, Asa. The Making of Modern England 1783–1867: The Age of Improvement (1959) pp. 312–25, short interpretive history
  • Edsall, Nicholas C. Richard Cobden, independent radical (Harvard University Press, 1986)
  • Halévy, Elie. Victorian years, 1841–1895 (Vol. 4) (Barnes & Noble, 1961) pp. 3–150; narrative history
  • Hinde, Wendy. Richard Cobden: A Victorian Outsider (Yale University Press, 1987.)
  • Howe, Anthony. Free Trade and Liberal England. 1846–1946 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
  • Lawson-Tancred, Mary. "The Anti-League and the Corn Law Crisis of 1846." Historical Journal (1960) 3#2 pp. 162–83.
  • McCord, Norman: The Anti-Corn Law League 1838–1846. (Allen & Unwin, 1958)
  • Mosse, George L. "The Anti-League: 1844–1846." Economic History Review (1947) 17#2 pp. 134–42. in JSTOR; the organized opposition to the League
  • Pickering, Paul A and Alex Tyrrell. The people's bread, a history of the Anti-Corn Law League. (Leicester University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-7185-0218-3)
  • Spall, Richard Francis Spall Jr. "Free Trade, Foreign Relations, and the Anti-Corn-Law League," International History Review 10#3 (1988), pp. 405-432 online
  • Steelman, Aaron (2008). "Anti-Corn Law League". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 14–15. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n9. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Trentmann, Frank. Free Trade Nation. Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press, 2008).


  • Loades, David Michael, ed. Reader's guide to British history (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2003) vol 1. pp. 56–57, 185–86, 283–84

Contemporary publications

  • Ashworth, Henry: Recollections of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League, 2 editions, London 1876 and 1881
  • Bright, John: Speeches of John Bright, M.P., on the American Question. With an introduction by Frank Moore. [With a portrait.]. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1865.
  • Leech, H. J. (ed.): The public letters of the Right Hon. John Bright. London: Low, Marston & Co., 1895. Reprint New York, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1969.
  • Prentice, Archibald: History of the Anti-cornlaw-league. (London. 1853, 2 vol.). 2. ed. with a new introduction. by W. H. Chaloner. London: Cass, 1968.
  • Rogers, Thorold (ed.): Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, by John Bright, M.P.. 1868.
  • Rogers, Thorold (ed.): Public Addresses. 1879.
  • Archibald Philipp Primrose (Earl of Rosebery): Lord Rosebery's Speech on the Anti-Corn Law League and Free Trade, Manchester 1897. London: Cobden Club, 1898.
  • Smith, George Barnett: The Life and Speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., 2 vols., 1881.
  • Vince, Charles: John Bright (1898); Speeches on Parliamentary Reform by John Bright, M.P., revised by Himself (1866).

External links

  • The Online Library of Liberty
    • 66 contemporary British ilustrations about free trade, 1830s-1910s
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