Speech of Sir Hussey Vivian, Bart. M.P. on the Corn Laws, Thursday March 14, 1839

Speech of Sir Hussey Vivian, Bart. M.P. on the Corn Laws, Thursday March 14, 1839
by Richard Hussey Vivian




&c. &c. &c.










Poppin's Court, Fleet Street.






I have already, in my Letters to Mr. Bluett and Mr. Brown, expressed the very great regret I felt at not being able to comply with the request of a large and respectable portion of your body, from whom petitions to the House of Commons, praying that no alteration should be made in the present Corn Laws, had been presented by Lord Eliot.

As a mark of respect, I now submit to you the observations I ventured to make on the question of the House going into a Committee on the subject. Very many of you will, I fear, differ from me; but I trust I shall suffer in the estimation of none, from having thus openly avowed and supported principles, the adoption of which would, I sincerely and honestly believe, tend to the greater prosperity, both of our agricultural and commercial interests.

I have the honour to remain,
Your obedient and humble Servant,

Ordnance Office, London,
March 16, 1839.


&c. &c.


I am at all times most reluctant to trespass on the indulgence of the House, sensible how unequal I am to do justice to any subject on which I may desire to address you; but I am most especially reluctant on the present occasion, when suffering under an impaired state of health: and nothing, I do assure the House, but my feeling it due to myself, and to a large body of those I have the honour to represent, who through my Noble Colleague have petitioned against any alteration in the present Corn Laws, to explain the grounds on which I differ from them, would induce me to trouble the House on the present occasion.

I confess I have been somewhat surprised at the manner in which this question has been treated by several of those who have advocated the continuance of the present laws. I have been surprised at the tenacity with which they have adhered to and supported those laws, as if for a long series of years they had been in existence, and been found the most effectual and best possible, and that from the time of their being enacted up to the present hour no inconvenience, no difficulty, no distress had been experienced by the agriculturists. Those who have taken this view of the question, those who now object so strenuously to any alteration, appear to me entirely to have forgotten the several Committees that, within the last few years, have sat on Agricultural Distress the many times it has been noticed in the Speech from the Throne the taxes that have been taken off with a view to the relief of the agriculturists and most of all, they appear to have forgotten that those laws have failed to answer one of their promised ends, and to secure to us a constant and ample supply of home-grown corn; thus preventing our being again driven to depend on the foreign grower, and on the importation of foreign corn, to preserve us from a famine in our land.

Sir, I am happy to find the agriculturists are at last so well satisfied. One advantage at least will, I trust, be the result of this discussion, supposing even that we do not attain our Committee (of which, I regret to say, 1 have no expectation): the advantage on which I calculate is, that we shall hear no more of agricultural distress, no more be called on for agricultural committee? to take into consideration the depressed state of the agricultural interests. The landed proprietors, who now refuse inquiry into the prayer of the manufacturer, can never hereafter venture to appeal to this House, in case (which I trust may never come to pass) they should again become subject to those difficulties which have heretofore led to so many discussions and inquiries both in this House and before Committees appointed for the purpose.

I heard also, with some degree of regret and astonishment, the conclusion of the long and elaborate speech of my honourable friend the Member for Lincolnshire; when he appealed to the House in favour of the agricultural labourers, and spoke of the part they had taken in fighting the battles of their country, and in keeping the enemy from our shores, and when he so impressively and so earnestly entreated the House, not by any alteration of the Corn Laws, to hazard driving these men from the healthy occupation of their fields, to become the wretched and squalid inmates of our manufactories. Now, Sir, in regard to the parties who fought the battles of their country, without desiring, in the slightest degree, to detract from the claims to consideration of England's bold peasantry, the Honourable Member must allow me to observe, and this at least is a subject with which I may venture to claim some acquaintance, that the manufacturers took their full share in contributing to fill the ranks of our army, and I suspect more than their share in proportion to their numbers; they were never found wanting, by the side of their friends and comrades, the agriculturists, when called on in the field, to face their country's enemies. In regard to the squalid misery that is to be found in the manufactories, holding such an opinion of the state of those who labour in them, it does seem to me, I confess, rather extraordinary that my honourable friend refused to inquire into their petition, and thus negative the first step even towards bettering their situation. Sir, I lament much that inquiry was refused. I think, on every account, we ought to have gone into it. My noble friend the Secretary at War objected to it, and stated that he had evidence sufficient to enable him to say a change was necessary. The right honourable Baronet the Member for Tamworth objected to it, inasmuch as that he had also made up his mind on the evidence furnished by the returns of exports and imports; but his opinion was, that no change was necessary. Now, Sir, the very circumstance of two such high authorities having founded on the same premises two opinions so distinctly at variance, afforded, in my mind, sufficient grounds for going into the inquiry. But there were other and still stronger reasons for so doing. The petition of the manufacturers set forth, that various branches of our manufactures were being transferred to other countries, in consequence of the high price of corn. Now, I should like to have had some evidence on this subject. I should have liked to ascertain, supposing the fact to be that other countries were underselling us in certain articles of manufacture, how far this had been occasioned by the high price of corn. I should like to have ascertained whether there were not some local circumstances peculiarly favourable to the migration of such manufactures; and before I made an alteration in the laws, I should have liked to see how far it was possible that alteration would have the effect of arresting the evil. Sir, I should have been glad to have had such evidence, I think it would have enabled us better to come to the consideration of the question; from the want of it, we have only to proceed on the facts as we find them stated at the various meetings that have taken place, by those best informed on the subject, and on the broad principles of trade. Now, Sir, I am not ashamed or afraid to own I dislike what are called protecting duties. Sir, several years ago, in consequence of the agitation of a question in this House, with which not only my own, but the interests of my constituents were connected, I first had occasion to direct my attention to the consideration of the subject of the commerce of this country, and the effects upon it of those duties which had been established with a view to the protection of certain branches of our manufactures, and also of certain articles the produce of the country. Since that period I have not only never lost sight of the question, but various opportunities have occurred which have afforded me the means of examining more carefully into it; and I have not the slightest hesitation in stating it to be my firm conviction, that what are miscalled protecting duties, are in reality only so many impediments in the way of commerce, favouring but little, if at all, the parties intended to be favoured by them, and for the most part having the effect only of taking money out of the pockets of one party and putting it in the pockets of another.

From what I have just said, it will not, I hope, be supposed that I am rash or visionary enough to desire hastily to do away with all duties of this description now existing, or that I would not whilst protection is afforded to one party extend the same indulgence to another. I am well aware that large capitals have been expended on the faith of the system of protection, and large establishments have arisen under it. The consequence of too sudden a departure from it might, and no doubt would, produce great inconvenience; but I am fully persuaded in its working it is any thing but beneficial to the commercial and manufacturing interests of the empire. England is, in my mind, the last country in Europe that should throw any obstacles in the way of the most perfect freedom of trade. In the enterprize and capital of its merchants; in the intelligence of its people; in the ingenuity of its artizans; in its insular position; and last, though not least, in its coal beds, it possesses advantages beyond those possessed by any other nation.

I well remember once travelling with a very intelligent French gentleman, who referred to the possession of our collieries all our commercial and manufacturing prosperity. I recollect conversing with that distinguished writer, M. Dupin, on the same subject, and he also was of the same opinion. So circumstanced then, let me ask what reason have we to fear the consequences of opening our ports to the importation of the produce of other nations, be that produce what it may? What right have we to expect that other nations will extend that benefit to us which we refuse to them? I venture honestly to state, that, in my humble judgment, in almost every case (indeed I may say in every one) our protecting duties are not only useless, but worse than useless.

Such, Sir, being my opinions, I should be glad to see the commerce of this country governed in accordance with them; and I know no reason whatever why any exception should be made in favour of that article, the subject of our immediate consideration; on the contrary, seeing the extent to which the price of corn must necessarily affect the value of every other article, the produce of the industry of man—seeing the extent to which our manufacturers are engaged in competing with those of other nations in the foreign markets, and, consequently, how incumbent it is upon us to enable them to enter into this competition on the most favourable terms possible—I cannot but think we are imperatively called upon to consider whether without prejudice to the interests of the agriculturist, and I may add, with advantage even to those very interests, laws, the effect of which is to raise to the labouring classes the price of the first necessary of life, and, by so doing, in a very great degree to deprive our manufacturers of the benefit of those other peculiar advantages with which Providence has so bountifully supplied us, may not be altered and amended; but to any alteration in the Corn Laws, it appears that by very far the largest portion of our agriculturists object; they fear to compete with the grower of foreign corn, whilst they cannot but be sensible that the British manufacturers must enter into competition with those of other nations in the foreign market.

Now I would venture to ask, what right have the agriculturists to say to the manufacturer, "Go you and compete with the foreign manufacturer, you are well able to do so, but we will not enter into competition with the foreign corn grower." I may add, what reason, what justice is there in such a proceeding? Why, Sir, to judge from the statements of the Honourable Member for the North Riding of Yorkshire, the agriculturists are the last parties who should be afraid of such competition. He stated, if I am not mistaken, that in consequence of the improved state of agriculture in this country, the produce of our lands in comparison with those of some foreign countries from whence corn has been exported into this, is, in some instances, as 8 to 1. If such really is the case, what cause is there for apprehension on the part of the agriculturists from the introduction of foreign corn? In truth, Sir, my firm and my honest conviction is, that there is no real cause for apprehension; but that the very apprehension itself would, from any sudden change admitting the free introduction of foreign corn, occasion mischief, I am perfectly ready to admit. Under the existing law, you are at this moment importing foreign wheat at a duty of one shilling per quarter; in fact, your ports are almost as free as air (and here let me remark, that those who object to a system of free trade are inconsistent in supporting, as they do, laws under which in particular circumstances, as at present, that system is admitted almost to its fullest extent). If by any possible arrangement, that system now in operation could be continued, if foreign corn could be admitted, without another word being said on the subject for the next twelvemonths, at the present import duty, I am fully persuaded that at the end of that time the agriculturists would be quite surprised to find how very little real cause there was for the alarms they now entertain. But, Sir, if by any legislative measure, if for instance it were to be enacted, that from and after the first day of next August, foreign corn should be admitted duty free, from such a measure suddenly resorted to, I should have fears of the worst consequences; the effect would be to stultify the farmers; they would at once imagine ruin staring them in the face. They would endeavour to provide against it. They would throw their poorlands out of cultivation, and their labourers out of employ: they would in fact produce the very mischief that has been foretold. Let it not then, Sir, for one moment be supposed, that I am an advocate for the immediate introduction of foreign corn duty free. Whatever measures are taken, eventually to arrive at an object, I think myself so desirable for all parties, for agriculturists and manufacturers, must be gradually and step by step resorted to, and when the goal is reached, and reached it must and will be, those who now view it with such apprehension and alarm, will look back with astonishment when they see how little their anticipations had been borne out by the results. Perhaps, Sir, there is no man in the House who has a greater right, or who has more reason to say this, than the individual now addressing you. In the year 1825, when Mr. Huskisson proposed admitting the importation of foreign copper ore, at a reduction of the duty that had up to that period been prohibitory, I rose in my place; I entreated the right honourable gentleman to pause; I stated it to be the conviction of those interested in the mines, in whose opinion I concurred, that the consequences would be fatal to the interests of the county of Cornwall; that our deep and expensive mines would be totally unable to bear up against the competition with foreign ores raised at a much lower rate that all such mines consequently would be stopped; and that the thousands of men at work in them would be thrown out of employment. Here, Sir, is a case precisely in point. The agriculturists tell us the poor lands will be thrown out of cultivation, and many labourers in husbandry out of employ. If our fears have not been realized, I have a fair right to infer their fears also are equally uncalled for. What then has been the effect of the law admitting the importation of foreign ores? In the years 1826, 1827, and 1828, the quantity of copper ore raised in the county of Cornwall, was, on an average, 126,331 tons per annum. The average quantity of copper contained in this was, 9,885 tons per annum. The sum produced was, on an average, 735,693l. per annum; and the average price was 109l. Us. per ton per annum. Since that period the introduction of foreign ore has gone on increasing from year to year; notwithstanding which I find, in the three last years, 1836, 1837, and 1838, the Cornish mines produced annually, on an average, 145,036 tons of ore, containing 11,398 tons of copper, of the value of 909,882l., and bearing a price per ton of 114l. [6s.; and this latter period, it must be observed, containing in it the year of American panic, during which the average price of copper per ton was reduced so low as 107l. 6$. and during which the export to America, and indeed the commerce of the country generally, was very considerably diminished. Between the periods I have stated also, the number of mines in the county of Cornwall producing above five tons per annum of copper, had increased from sixty-two to seventy-two; and all this, as I have already said, against an annually increasing importation of foreign copper ore, amounting in the year 1838, to the large quantity of 19,808 tons, containing 4,834 tons of copper; little short, in fact, of half the produce of the whole county of Cornwall. Why, Sir, if in spite of all this I find the fears I had entertained as to the effect of the introduction of foreign ore have been shown to be groundless, I may fairly be permitted to hope and to expect, that the fears of the agriculturists would turn out equally so. That others also, who, at the time to which I refer, thought with me, have the same expectation, is shown by the circumstance of a petition, very respectably and numerously signed, from a district (the parish of St. Agnes) in the county of Cornwall, having been presented by my honourable friend, one of the Members for the Western district, praying for a change in the present corn laws, allowing foreign corn to be more freely admitted, and noticing the prosperity of the Cornish mines, notwithstanding the importation of foreign ore. Many of the parties signing that petition, are connected with the mining interests, and were formerly violently opposed to the introduction of foreign copper ore. Sir, there are other cases in which similar results may be shown to have followed a free importation of foreign produce. In the case of spelter for instance; on this article there was a protecting duty of 27l. a ton. Our British mines were producing very little, whilst the amount of duty was absolutely prohibitory. The duty was lowered from 27l. to 2l. per ton, in 1832; the price was 10l. 17s. 6d. per ton, and the quantity imported was 1,093 tons. Since that the quantity imported has, year after year, gone on increasing; and with the increase of import an increase of price has gone hand in hand. So that last year the quantity imported was 3,596 tons, and the price 17l. 5s. per ton. I might refer to various other instances, in which in consequence of lowering the duties, the same good effects have followed. I need hardly refer to wool. Every one knows that the fears entertained by the agricultural interests, when an alteration was made in the laws bearing on this article, have not been realised, whilst the imports since the reduction of the duty have been doubled; and our silk, and our linen manufactories are, I am given to understand, all improving under the changes that, within a few years, have been made in the laws relating to them. If I am asked how I account for this, my answer would be, that it is supply that occasions consumption, and consumption is followed by increased demand. The mistake, as it appears to me, always made by those who would limit the importation of foreign corn, is, that they suppose a limitation to consumption. They calculate as if, in common years, the quantity of corn grown in England is exactly what is required for the sustenance of the people, and that every quarter of foreign corn introduced would interfere with the sale of a quarter of that home-grown, and therefore that it is only in such years as the present, when the harvests are bad, that foreign corn should be admitted. Now, Sir, in the first place, those who argue thus, entirely forget that in reality there is no limitation to consumption—that the produce of our harvests, year after year, vary very considerably, but year after year that produce is for the most part consumed—that when both our agricultural and our manufacturing interests are in a flourishing state, the consumption is much greater than when distress prevails, and consequently that any measure which contributes to the improvement of our manufacturing interests (as a greater extension of our importation of corn from foreign countries would assuredly do) would undoubtedly lead to an increased consumption. I need produce no better evidence of the increase of consumption than is afforded in the speech of the Honourable Member for the North Riding of Yorkshire, when, last night, he referred to the cases of beer and coffee, in both of which I think he mentioned that the consumption, on the reduction of duty, had somewhere about doubled; in fact, that people drank twice as much beer and twice as much coffee as they had formerly done; and I know of no reason whatever why they should not eat twice as much bread, if agricultural and manufacturing prosperity are so encouraged by an extension of the freedom of trade (that they both will be encouraged by it is my firm conviction) as to enable the labouring classes to afford it. This question of consumption is, in fact, always confined within too narrow bounds: those who foretell such fatal effects from a greater degree of freedom as to the trade in corn, do not look enough to the extraordinary elasticity of commerce, provided space is afforded for its expansion, and the consequent increase of the consumption of all articles connected with it. In proof of this, need I produce a stronger instance than that of rail-roads. I suppose, of all countries in the world, England was that in which any addition to the locomotive powers of its people was least wanted: we had the best roads and the best coaches in the world: a merchant from London had only to determine on going to Leeds, to Birmingham, to Manchester, or to the extremity of the kingdom, and he might do it within a few hours; but nevertheless, since rail-roads have been established, the number of travellers has been increased tenfold, and the same has been the result in every instance where a greater facility of consumption has been afforded; and so will it undoubtedly be the case with regard to the consumption of corn, that most necessary of all articles for the supply of man. Encourage your manufactures, promote the prosperity of your commercial interests, by permitting the importation of foreign corn, and have no fears of the consequences. One argument I constantly hear, and it was advanced by a noble friend of mine who spoke last night, the member for Shropshire: it is, I must say, an argument, although a most favourite one with the agriculturists, that appears to me to be a very narrow one, and little applicable to these days of extended communication and commerce between the different nations of the globe, and still less to be expected in these days when political economy is so much studied, and its true principles advanced;—I mean the reliance placed on the admitted fact that the home market is the manufacturer's best market; that is, that the larger portion of our manufactured goods are consumed in our own country, therefore it is asserted that the prices of corn must be kept up in order to enable the farmer to continue to buy from the manufacturer. I think the Noble Lord said, that out of 150,000,000l., being the value of goods manufactured in England in one year, 49,000,000l. worth only were exported. Now there can be no doubt that if we were in a natural state—if we were confined within our island, and no external commerce whatever, the argument as to the home consumer being the best customer might be a very good one, for in that case he would in fact be the only one. The agriculturist would grow corn for the manufacturer, whilst the manufacturer would produce hats, gloves, shoes, &c. for the grower of corn, it would be a matter of barter between the parties. But we are in an artificial state; and although two-thirds of our manufacturers may be working for the home market, one-third, it is admitted, are working for the foreign;—the two-thirds working for the home are, I apprehend, fully sufficient to its supply; are you then prepared to throw out of employ the remaining one-third, the hundreds of thousands engaged in manufacturing for the foreign markets? Are you prepared to refuse to them the means of exchanging the produce of their industry for the produce of other countries, and reduce them to dependence for their subsistence on the labour of those other two-thirds, or on the agriculturists who have, under a mistaken view of their own interests, thus brought them to indigence and distress? To throw these parties thus suffering on the poor rates will, I apprehend, not benefit the prospects of the agriculturists, or contribute to promote the cultivation of poor lands.

The last objection with which I shall venture to trouble the House, and it is, in my mind, a very strong one against the existing Corn Laws, is, that they are, in fact, in their working highly prejudicial to the agriculturists themselves; the effect of them is to prevent the farmer receiving a fair remuneration for the produce of his industry, at the very moment he most wants it; in fact, they fix a maximum on the produce of human industry. Under these laws, foreign corn is bought at low prices in years of plenty, bonded in our warehouses, and thrown into our markets at a moment when a bad harvest occasions a rise in the price of grain, necessary to the remuneration of our farmers, thus, in fact, in a very great degree, placing them at the mercy of the speculators, who, by various means, influence the prices to suit their own purposes; to such a system the admission of foreign corn, on a fixed duty, would be far preferable. That I am not singular in the objection I have now stated to the present laws, I will take the liberty of showing the House, by reading a short extract from a letter that has appeared in a Cornish paper, the writer of which is favourable to them.

"I am persuaded that the forced equalization is all at the expense of the farmer, who gains nothing by it when the crop is abundant, but incurs a positive loss in deficient years like the present, when the import duty becomes nominal, and he is robbed of the remunerating prices to which he is entitled, in a pro tanto proportion for short production, by the ingress of foreign corn almost duty free. This robbery is committed in the interest of the consumers; and allowing that, in any view of the necessity of the case, arising out of considerations purely political, such robbery admits of palliative excuses, still equity demands, in behalf of the victimized farmer, that at least in seasons of more abundant production and low prices, he should be guaranteed against any unnatural competition and depreciation of values, from the introduction of starvation-grown corn from abroad."

Such, Sir, is the description given of the present laws by a friend. As regards the manner in which they are said to affect the interest of the farmer in the hour of distress, I entirely agree with the writer: that they are of any advantage to him at other times, I totally deny; nor indeed do I think the argument a very good one, by which this is endeavoured to be shown. The truth is, that when the harvest is good, our farmers need be under no apprehension; there is but little chance of any quantity of foreign corn being imported; and I am, for my part, much disposed to doubt, under any circumstances or at any time, any considerable depression in the price of corn, arising out of a greater latitude being given to foreign importation. But supposing it were to be so, supposing even the wages of labour were in consequence to be reduced; if by this means the manufacturer could work cheaper, so also could the agriculturist. The expense of cultivating poor lands would be diminished in proportion to the expense of producing manufactured goods. All this would be regulated by trade being allowed to take its natural course it is to the artificial regulations that I object. I know that the regulation of price under the existing Corn Laws is by many considered as the great recommendation to them; now, in my mind, there are but few cases in which it is allowable to attempt to regulate prices by legislation. Where a monopoly is granted, no doubt it is necessary, but hardly under any other circumstances; and here, whilst touching on the subject of regulation of prices, I would venture to say to the manufacturers, that whilst they appeal to the House of Commons and complain of a law the effect of which they state is to increase to them the price of bread, and which they tell us has in view solely the interest of the landed proprietors; they must take care that they may not in their turn be subjected to the charge of combining for the purpose of increasing the wages of their labour, the effect of which must be to increase the price of the produce of their own industry. The friends of free trade to be successful must be consistent.

I will now trespass no longer on the indulgence of the House; I have to express my thanks for the attention with which I have been heard. I have no personal interest in the question, as especially connected neither with one party or the other, the agriculturists or the manufacturer. I speak the honest conviction of my mind, after diligently giving the question the fullest and most anxious consideration it was in my power to give it. Many years ago in this House I ventured to say, that I considered the agricultural and manufacturing interests of this country so dove-tailed and linked together, that it was impossible to separate them, that the one could not flourish and the other fade; by this opinion I abide, and I grieve, sincerely grieve, to see or to hear any attempt made to impress on the House or on the public a contrary one, the effect of which must be so detrimental to the best interests of the country. For my part, feeling convinced that the existing laws are equally impolitic, unjust, and injurious, as affecting the interest of the landed proprietor and the merchant, the agricultuturist and the manufacturer, the labourer in the field and the artizan in the workshop, I assuredly must give my vote in favour of the motion of the Honourable the Member for Wolverhampton.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.