The Worlds Famous Orations. Great Britain: II. (17801861). 1906.
The Effects of Protection on Agriculture
Richard Cobden (180465)
Born in 1804, died in 1865; entered Parliament in 1841; negotiated a commercial treaty with France in 1859; supported the Union cause in the Civil War; noted as an advocate of free trade and the chief supporter of the Anti-Corn-Law League in 183946.
SIR,1 the object of this motion is to appoint a select committee to inquire into the present condition of the agricultural interests; and, at the same time, to ascertain how the laws regulating the importation of agricultural produce have affected the agriculturists of this country. As regards the distress among farmers, I presume we can not go to a higher authority than those honorable gentlemen who profess to be the farmers friends and protectors. I find it stated by those honorable gentlemen who recently paid their respects to the prime minister, that the agriculturists are in a state of great embarrassment and distress. I find that one gentleman from Norfolk [Mr. Hudson] stated that the farmers in the county are paying their rents, but paying them out of capital, and not profits. I find Mr. Turner of Upton, in Devonshire, stating that one-half of the smaller farmers in that county are insolvent, and that the others are rapidly falling into the same condition; that the farmers with larger holdings are quitting their farms with a view of saving the rest of their property; and that, unless some remedial measures be adopted by this House, they will be utterly ruined.
The accounts which I have given you of those districts are such as I have had from many other sources. I put it to honorable gentlemen opposite, whether the condition of the farmers in Suffolk, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, is better than that which I have described in Norfolk and Devonshire? I put it to county members, whethertaking the whole of the south of England, from the confines of Nottinghamshire to the Lands Endwhether, as a rule, the farmers are not now in a state of the greatest embarrassment? There may be exceptions; but I put it to them whether, as a rule, that is not their condition in all parts?
The distress of the farmers being admitted, the next question which arises is, What is its cause? I feel a greater necessity to bring forward this motion for a committee of inquiry, because I find great discrepancies of opinion among honorable gentlemen opposite as to what is the cause of the distress among the farmers. In the first place there is a discrepancy as to the generality or locality of the existing distress. I find the right honorable baronet at the head of the government [Sir Robert Peel] saying that the distress is local; and he moreover says it does not arise from the legislation of this House. The honorable member for Dorsetshire declares, on the other hand, that the distress is general, and that it does not arise from legislation.
Now, there are these very different opinions on the other side of the House; but there are members upon this side representing very important interests, who think that farmers are suffering because they have this legislative protection. There is all this difference of opinion. Now, is not that a fit and proper subject for your inquiry? I am prepared to go into a select committee, and to bring forward evidence to show that the farmers are laboring under great evilsevils that I would connect with the legislation of this House, tho they are evils which appear to be altogether dissociated from it. The first great evil under which the farmer labors is the want of capital. No one can deny that. I do not mean at all to disparage the farmers. The farmers of this country are just the same race as the rest of us; and, if they were placed in a similar position, theirs would be as good a tradeI mean that they would be as successful men of businessas others; but it is notorious, as a rule, that the farmers of this country are deficient in capital; and I ask: How can any business be carried on successfully where there is a deficiency of capital?
I take it that honorable gentlemen opposite, acquainted with farming, would admit that 10l. an acre, on an arable farm, would be a sufficient amount of capital for carrying on the business of farming successfully. I will take it, then, that 10l. an acre would be a fair capital for an arable farm. I have made many inquiries upon this subject in all parts of the kingdom, and I give it you as my decided conviction, that at this present moment farmers do not average 5l. an acre capital on their farms. I speak of England, and I take England south of the Trent, tho, of course, there are exceptions in every country; there are men of large capital in all partsmen farming their own land; but, taking it as a rule, I hesitate not to give my opinionand I am prepared to back that opinion by witnesses before your committeethat, as a rule, farmers have not, upon an average, more than 5l. an acre capital for their arable land. I have given you a tract of country to which I may add all Wales; probably 20,000,000 of acres of cultivable land. I have no doubt whatever that there are 100,000,000l. of capital wanting upon that land. What is the meaning of farming capital? There are strange notions about the word capital. It means more manure, a great amount of labor, a greater number of cattle, and larger crops. Picture a country in which you can say there is a deficiency of one-half of all those blessings which ought to, and might, exist there, and then judge what the condition of laborers wanting employment and food is.
But you will say, capital would be invested if it could be done with profit. I admit it; that is the question I want you to inquire into. How is it that in a country where there is a plethora of capital, where every other business and pursuit is overflowing with money, where you have men going to France for railways and to Pennsylvania for bonds, embarking in schemes for connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific by canals, railways in the valley of the Mississippi, and sending their money to the bottom of the Mexican mines; while you have a country rich and overflowing, ready to take investments in every corner of the globe, how is it, I say, that this capital does not find its employment in the most attractive of all formsupon the soil of this country? The cause is notoriousit is admitted by your highest authorities; the reason is, there is not security for capital in land. Capital shrinks instinctively from insecurity of tenure; and you have not in England that security which would warrant men of capital investing their money in the soil.
Now, is it not a matter worthy of consideration, how far this insecurity of tenure is bound up with that protective system of which you are so enamored? Suppose it can be shown that there is a vicious circle; that you have made politics of Corn Laws, and that you want voters to maintain them; that you very erroneously think that the Corn Laws are your great mine of wealth, and, therefore, you must have a dependent tenantry, that you may have their votes at elections to maintain this law in Parliament. Well, if you will have dependent voters, you can not have men of spirit and capital. Then your policy reacts upon you. If you have not men of skill and capital, you can not have improvements and employment for your laborers. Then comes around that vicious termination of the circleyou have pauperism, poor-rates, county-rates, and all the other evils of which you are now speaking and complaining.
Now, sir, not only does the want of security prevent capital flowing into the farming business, but it actually deters from the improvement of the land those who are already in the occupation of it. There are many men, tenants of your land, who could improve their farms if they had a sufficient security, and they have either capital themselves or their friends could supply it; but with the absence of leases, and the want of security, you are actually deterring them from laying out their money on your land. They keep everything the same from year to year. You know that it is impossible to farm your estates properly unless a tenant has an investment for more than one year. A man ought to be able to begin a farm with at least eight years before him, before he expects to see a return for the whole of the outlay of his money. You are, therefore, keeping your tenants-at-will at a yearly kind of cultivation, and you are preventing them carrying on their businesses in a proper way. Not only do you prevent the laying out of capital upon your land, and disable the farmers from cultivating it, but your policy tends to make them servile and dependent; so that they are actually disinclined to improvement, afraid to let you see that they can improve, because they are apprehensive that you will pounce upon them for an increase of rent.
Now, I do not know why we should not in this country have leases for land upon similar terms to the leases of manufactories, or any plant or premises. I do not think that farming will ever be carried on as it ought to be until you have leases drawn up in the same way as a man takes a manufactory, and pays perhaps a thousand pounds a year for it. I know people who pay four thousand pounds a year for manufactories to carry on their business, and at fair rents. There is an honorable gentleman near me who pays more than four thousand pounds a year for the rent of his manufactory. What covenants do you think he has in his lease? What would he think if it stated how many revolutions there should be in a minute of the spindles, or if they prescribed the construction of the straps or the gearing of the machinery? Why, he takes his manufactory with a schedule of its present statebricks, mortar, and machineryand when the lease is over, he must leave it in the same state, or else pay a compensation for the dilapidation. [The chancellor of the exchequer: Hear, hear!]
The right honorable gentleman, the chancellor of the exchequer, cheers that statement. I want to ask his opinion respecting a similar lease for a farm. I am rather disposed to think that the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers will very likely form a joint-stock association, having none but free-traders in the body, that we may purchase an estate and have a model farm; taking care that it shall be in one of the rural counties, one of the most purely agricultural parts of the country, where we think there is the greatest need of improvementperhaps in Buckinghamshire,and there shall be a model farm, homestead, and cottages; and I may tell the noble lord, the member for Newark, that we shall have a model garden, and he will not make any boast about it. But the great object will be to have a model lease. We will have as the farmer a man of intelligence and capital.
I am not so unreasonable as to tell you that you ought to let your land to men who have not a competent capital, or are not sufficiently intelligent; but I say, select such a man as that, let him know his business and have a sufficient capital, and you can not give him too wide a scope. We will find such a man, and will let him our farm; there shall be a lease precisely such as that upon which my honorable friend takes his factory. There shall be no clause inserted in it to dictate to him how he shall cultivate his farm; he shall do what he likes with the old pasture. If he can make more by plowing it up he shall do so; if he can grow white crops every yearwhich I know there are people doing at this moment in more places than one in this countryor if he can make any other improvement or discovery, he shall be free to do so. We will let him the land, with a schedule of the state of tillage and the condition of the homestead, and all we will bind him to will be this: You shall leave the land as good as when you entered upon it. If it be in an inferior state it shall be valued again, and you shall compensate us; but if it be in an improved state it shall be valued, and we, the landlords, will compensate you. We will give possession of everything upon the land, whether it be wild or tame animals; he shall have the absolute control.
Take as stringent precautions as you please to compel the punctual payment of the rent; take the right of reentry as summarily as you like if the rent be not duly paid, but let the payment of rent duly be the sole test as to the well-doing of the tenant; and so long as he can pay the rent, and do it promptly, that is the only criterion you need have that the farmer is doing well; and if he is a man of capital, you have the strongest possible security that he will not waste your property while he has possession of it.
Now, sir, I do not stop to connect the cause and effect in this matter, and inquire whether your Corn Laws or your protective system have caused the want of leases and capital. I do not stop to make good my proof, and for this reason, that you have adopted a system of legislation in this House by which you profess to make the farming trade prosperous. I show you, after thirty years trial, what is the depressed condition of the agriculturists; I prove to you what is the impoverished state of farmers, and also of laborers, and you will not contest any one of those propositions. I say it is enough, having had thirty years trial of your specific with no better results than these, for me to ask you to go into committee to see if something better can not be devised. I am going to contend that free trade in grain would be more advantageous to farmersand with them I include laborersthan restriction; to oblige the honorable member for Norfolk, I will take with them also the landlords; and I contend that free trade in corn and grain of every kind would be more beneficial to them than to any other class of the community. I should have contended the same before the passing of the late tariff, but now I am prepared to do so with tenfold more force.
What has the right honorable baronet [Sir R. Peel] done? He has passed a law to admit fat cattle at a nominal duty. Some foreign fat cattle were selling in Smithfield the other day at about 15l. or 16l. per head, paying only about seven and one half per cent. duty; but he has not admitted the raw material out of which these fat cattle are made. Mr. Huskisson did not act in this manner when he commenced his plan of free trade. He began by admitting the raw material of manufactures before he admitted the manufactured article; but in your case you have commenced at precisely the opposite end, and have allowed free trade in cattle instead of that upon which they are fattened. I say give free trade in that grain which goes to make the cattle. I contend that by this protective system the farmers throughout the country are more injured than any other class in the community.
I will go further and say, that farmers with thin soilI mean the stock farmers, whom you will find in Hertfordshire and Surrey, farmers with large capitals, arable farmersI say those men are deeply interested in having a free importation of food for their cattle, because they have thin, poor land. This land of its own self does not contain the means of its increased fertility; and the only way is the bringing in of an additional quantity of food from elsewhere, that they can bring up their farms to a proper state of cultivation. I have been favored with an estimate made by a very experienced, clever farmer in Wiltshireprobably honorable gentlemen will bear me out, when I say a man of great intelligence and skill, and entitled to every consideration in this House. I refer to Mr. Nathaniel Atherton, Kingston, Wilts. That gentleman estimates that upon 400 acres of land he could increase his profits to the amount of 280l., paying the same rent as at present, provided there was a free importation of foreign grain of all kinds. He would buy 500 quarters of oats at 15s., or the same amount in beans or peas at 14s. or 15s. a sack, to be fed on the land or in the yard; by which he would grow additional 160 quarters of wheat, and 230 quarters of barley, and gain an increased profit of 300l. upon his sheep and cattle. His plan embraces the employment of an additional capital of 1,000l.; and he would pay 150l. a year more for labor.
Now, I undertake to say, in the name of Mr. Atherton, of Wiltshire, and Mr. Lattimore, of Hertfordshire, that they are as decided advocates for free trade in grain of every kind as I am. I am not now quoting merely solitary cases. I told honorable gentlemen once before that I have probably as large an acquaintance among farmers as any one in the House. I think I could give you from every county the names of some of the first-rate farmers who are as ardent free-traders as I am. I requested the secretary of this much dreaded Anti-Corn-Law League to make me out a list of the farmers who are subscribers to that association, and I find there are upward of one hundred in England and Scotland who subscribe to the league fund, comprising, I hesitate not to say, the most intelligent men to be found in the kingdom. I went into the Lothians, at the invitation of twenty-two farmers there, several of whom were paying upward of 1,000l. a year rent. I spent two or three days among them, and I never found a body of more intelligent, liberal-minded men in my life. Those are men who do not want restrictions upon the importation of grain. They desire nothing but fair play. They spy: Let us have our Indian corn, Egyptian beans, and Polish oats as freely as we have our linseed cake, and we can bear competition with any corn-growers in the world. But by excluding the provender for cattle, and at the same time admitting the cattle almost duty free, I think you are giving an example of one of the greatest absurdities and perversions of nature and common sense that ever was seen.
Upon the last occasion when I spoke upon this subject, I was answered by the right honorable gentleman, the president of the Board of Trade. He talked about throwing poor lands out of cultivation, and converting arable lands into pasture. I hope that we men of the Anti-Corn-Law League may not be reproached again with seeking to cause any such disasters. My belief isand the conviction is founded upon a most extensive inquiry among the most intelligent farmers, without stint of trouble and painsthat the course you are pursuing tends every hour to throw land out of cultivation, and make poor lands unproductive. Do not let us be told again that we desire to draw the laborers from the land, in order that we may reduce the wages of the work-people employed in factories. I tell you that, if you bestow capital on the soil, and cultivate it with the same skill as manufacturers bestow upon their business, you have not population enough in the rural districts for the purpose. I yesterday received a letter from Lord Ducie, in which he gives precisely the same opinion. He says: If we had the land properly cultivated, there are not sufficient laborers to till it. You are chasing your laborers from village to village, passing laws to compel people to support paupers, devising every means to smuggle them abroadto the antipodes, if you can get them there; why, you would have to run after them, and bring them back again., if you had your land properly cultivated. I tell you honestly my conviction, that it is by these means, and these only, that you can avert very great and serious troubles and disasters in your agricultural districts.
On the last occasion when I addressed the House on this subject, I recollect stating some facts to show that you had no reasonable ground to fear foreign competition; those facts I do not intend to reiterate, because they have never been contradicted. But there are still attempts made to frighten people by telling them: If you open the ports to foreign corn, you will have corn let in here for nothing. One of the favorite fallacies which are now put forth is this: Look at the price of corn in England, and see what it is abroad; you have prices low here, and yet you have corn coming in from abroad and paying the maximum duty. Now, if you had not 20s. duty to pay, what a quantity of corn you would have brought in, and how low the price would be!
This statement arises from a fallacyI hope not dishonestly put forthin not understanding the difference between the real and the nominal price of corn. The price of corn at Dantzic now, when there is no regular sale, is nominal; the price of corn when it is coming in regularly is the real price. Now, go back to 1838. In January of that year the price of wheat at Dantzic was nominal; there was no demand for England; there were no purchasers except for speculation, with the chance, probably, of having to throw the wheat into the sea. But in the months of July and August of that year, when apprehensions arose of a failure of our harvest, then the price of corn in Dantzic rose instantly, sympathizing with the markets of England; and at the end of the year, in December, the price of wheat at Dantzic had doubled the amount at which it had been in January; and during the three following years, when you had a regular importation of corn,during all that time, by the averages laid upon the table of this House, wheat at Dantzic averaged 40s. Wheat at Dantzic was at that price during the three years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Now, I mention this just to show the fact to honorable gentlemen, and to entreat them that they will not go and alarm their tenantry by this outcry of the danger of foreign competition. You ought to be pursuing a directly opposite courseyou ought to be trying to stimulate them in every possible way, by showing that they can compete with foreigners; that what others can do in Poland, they can do in England.
But we are told that English agriculturists can not compete with foreigners, and especially with that serf labor that is to be found somewhere up the Baltic. Well, but flax comes from the Baltic and there is no protective duty. Honorable gentlemen say we have no objection to raw materials where there is no labor connected with them; but we can not contend against foreigners in wheat, because there is such an amount of labor in it. Why, there is twice as much labor in flax as there is in wheat; but the member for Shoreham favors the growth of flax in order to restore the country, which is sinking into this abject and hopeless state for want of agricultural protection. But the honorable baronet will forgive meI am sure he will, he looks as if he wouldif I allude a little to the subject of leases. The honorable gentleman on that occasion, I believe, complained that it was a great pity that farmers did not grow more flax. I do not know whether it was true or not that the same honorable baronets leases to his own tenants forbade them to grow that article.
Now, I have alluded to the condition of the laborers at the present time; but I am bound to say that while the farmers at the present moment are in a worse condition than they have been for the last ten years, I believe the agricultural laborers have passed over the winter with less suffering and distress, altho it has been a five-months winter, and a severer one, too, than they endured in the previous year. [Hear!] I am glad to find that corroborated by honorable gentlemen opposite, because it bears out, in a remarkable degree, the opinion that we, who are in connection with the free trade question, entertain. We maintain that a low price of food is beneficial to the laboring classes. We assert, and we can prove it, at least in the manufacturing districts, that whenever provisions are dear, wages are low; and whenever food is cheap, wages invariably rise. We have had a strike in almost every business in Lancashire since the price of wheat has been down to something like 50s.; and I am glad to be corroborated when I state that the agricultural laborers have been in a better condition during the last winter than they were in the previous one. But does not that show that, even in your case, tho your laborers have in a general way only just as much as will find them a subsistence, they are benefited by a great abundance of the first necessaries of life? Altho their wages may rise and fall with the price of food, altho they may go up with the advance in the price of corn, and fall when it is lowered; still, I maintain that it does not rise in the same proportion as the price of food rises, nor fall to the extent to which food falls. Therefore in all cases the agricultural laborers are in a better state when food is low than when it is high.
Now, I hold that this duty begins nearer home, and that the landed proprietors are the parties who are responsible if the laborers have not employment. You have absolute power; there is no doubt about that. You can, if you please, legislate for the laborers, or yourselves. Whatever you may have done besides, your legislation has been adverse to the laborer, and you have no right to call upon the farmers to remedy the evils which you have caused. Will not this evilif evil you call itpress on you more and more every year? What can you do to remedy the mischief? I only appear here now because you have proposed nothing. We all know your system of allotments, and we are all aware of its failure. What other remedy have you? For, mark you, that is worse than a plaything, if you were allowed to carry out your own views. [Hear!] Aye, it is well enough for some of you that there are wiser heads than your own to lead you, or you would be conducting yourselves into precisely the same condition in which they are in Ireland, but with this differencethis increased difficultythat there they do manage to maintain the rights of property by the aid of the English Exchequer and 20,000 bayonets; but divide your own country into small allotments, and where would be the rights of property? What do you propose to do now? That is the question. Nothing has been brought forward this year, which I have heard, having for its object to benefit the great mass of the English population; nothing I have heard suggested which has at all tended to alleviate their condition.
You admit that the farmers capital is sinking from under him, and that he is in a worse state than ever. Have you distinctly provided some plan to give confidence to the farmer, to cause an influx of capital to be expended upon his land, and so bring increased employment to the laborer? How is this to be met? I can not believe you are going to make this a political game. You must set up some specific object to benefit the agricultural interest. It is well said that the last election was an agricultural triumph. There are two hundred county members sitting behind the prime minister who prove that it was so.
What, then, is your plan for this distressing state of things? That is what I want to ask you. Do not, as you have done before, quarrel with me because I have imperfectly stated my case; I have done my best, and I again ask you what you have to propose? I tell you that this Protection, as it has been called, is a failure. It was so when you had the prohibition up to 80s. You know the state of your farming tenantry in 1821. It was a failure when you had a protection price of 60s., for you know what was the condition of your farm tenantry in 1835. It is a failure now with your last amendment, for you have admitted and proclaimed it to us; and what is the condition of your agricultural population at this time?
I ask, what is your plan? I hope it is not a pretensea mere political game that has been played throughout the last election, and that you have not all come up here as mere politicians. There are politicians in the Housemen who look with an ambitionprobably a justifiable oneto the honors of office. There may be men whowith thirty years of continuous service, having been pressed into a groove from which they can neither escape nor retreatmay be holding office, high office, maintained there probably at the expense of their present convictions which do not harmonize very well with their early opinions. I make allowances for them; but the great body of the honorable gentlemen opposite came up to this House, not as politicians, but as the farmers friends, and protectors of the agricultural interests. Well, what do you propose to do? You have heard the prime minister declare that, if he could restore all the protection which you have had, that protection would not benefit agriculturists. Is that your belief? If so, why not proclaim it? And if it is not your conviction, you will have falsified your mission in this House by following the right honorable baronet out into the lobby, and opposing inquiry into the condition of the very men who sent you here.
With mere politicians I have no right to expect to succeed in this motion. But I have no hesitation in telling you that, if you give me a committee of this House, I will explode the delusion of agricultural protection! I will bring forward such a mass of evidence, and give you such a preponderance of talent and of authority, that when the blue book is published and sent forth to the world, as we can now send it, by our vehicles of information, your system of protection shall not live in public opinion for two years afterward. Politicians do not want that. This cry of protection has been a very convenient handle for politicians. The cry of protection carried the counties at the last election, and politicians gained honors, emoluments, and place by it. But is that old tattered flag of protection, tarnished and torn as it is already, to be kept hoisted still in the counties for the benefit of politicians; or will you come forward honestly and fairly to inquire into this question? I can not believe that the gentry of England will be made mere drumheads to be sounded upon by a prime minister to give forth unmeaning and empty sounds, and to have no articulate voice of their own. No! You are the gentry of England who represent the counties. You are the aristocracy of England. Your fathers led our fathers; you may lead us if you will go the right way. But, altho you have retained your influence with this country longer than any other aristocracy, it has not been by opposing popular opinion, or by setting yourselves against the spirit of the age.
In other days, when the battle and the hunting-fields were the tests of manly vigor, your fathers were first and foremost there. The aristocracy of England were not like the noblesse of France, the mere minions of a court; nor were they like the hidalgos of Madrid, who dwindled into pigmies. You have been Englishmen. You have not shown a want of courage and firmness when any call has been made upon you. This is a new era. It is the age of improvement; it is the age of social advancement, not the age for war or for feudal sports. You live in a mercantile age, when the whole wealth of the world is poured into your lap. You can not have the advantages of commercial rents and feudal privileges; but you may be what you always have been, if you will identify yourselves with the spirit of the age. The English people look to the gentry and aristocracy of their country as their leaders. I, who am not one of you, have no hesitation in telling you that there is a deep-rooted, an hereditary prejudice, if I may so call it, in your favor in this country. But you never got it, and you will not keep it, by obstructing the spirit of the age. If you are indifferent to enlightened means of finding employment to your own peasantry; if you are found obstructing that advance which is calculated to knit nations more together in the bonds of peace by means of commercial intercourse; if you are found fighting against the discoveries which have almost given breath and life to material nature, and setting up yourselves as obstructives of that which destiny has decreed shall go on,why, then, you will be the gentry of England no longer, and others will be found to take your place.
And I have no hesitation in saying that you stand just now in a very critical position. There is a wide-spread suspicion that you have been tampering with the best feelings and with the honest confidence of your constituents in this cause. Everywhere you are doubted and suspected. Read your own organs, and you will see that this is the case. Well, then, this is the time to show that you are not the mere party politicians which you are said to be. I have said that we shall be opposed in this measure by politicians; they do not want inquiry. But I ask you to go into this committee with me. I will give you a majority of county members. You shall have a majority of the Central Society in that committee. I ask you only to go into a fair inquiry as to the causes of the distress of your own population. I only ask that this matter may be fairly examined. Whether you establish my principle or yours, good will come out of the inquiry; and I do, therefore, beg and entreat the honorable independent country gentlemen of this House that they will not refuse, on this occasion, to go into a fair, a full, and an impartial inquiry.
Note 1. Delivered in the House of Commons, March 13, 1845, and described by John Morley as probably the most powerful speech he ever made. Men on the Tory benches whispered to one another, Peel must answer this. But Peel crushed in his hand the notes he had made and remarked, Those may answer him who can. Abridged. [back]