Anti-Corn Law League
In 1815, following the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain imposed import duties on a large array of agricultural goods from abroad. Known collectively as the “Corn Laws,” these laws prohibited the importation of foreign agricultural goods until the domestic price of wheat reached 80 shillings per quarter. In 1828, the laws were amended to allow a sliding scale of import duties—the duties fell as the prices at home rose. Still the measures remained highly protectionist and were condemned by liberal thinkers and statesmen around the British Isles. Some 11 years later, in 1839, the Anti-Corn Law League was founded to lobby for the repeal of these laws. The leaders of this group were Richard Cobden and John Bright, both of whom served in Parliament. They argued for a comprehensive liberal agenda, but at the forefront of their efforts were the causes of international trade and peace. Their efforts proved successful. In 1846, the Corn Laws were effectively repealed (although modest tariffs on some farm goods remained), and the league was disbanded.
Libertarians have long praised the efforts of the Anti-Corn Law League, arguing that it serves as a model for modern-day interest groups wishing to enact libertarian—indeed, radical—reform. Historians and economists, however, continue to debate whether the league was, indeed, fundamentally libertarian in orientation. Some have
claimed that the league was composed primarily of self-interested manufacturers who believed that lowering domestic tariffs on agricultural goods would open markets for their industrial products. Foodstuffs would enter Britain from the continent, and, in exchange, manufactured items would flow abroad. These manufacturers, it is argued, had the same goals as libertarian free-traders, but their reasons were far from ideological. The efficacy of the league also has been debated at length. The league, to be sure, saw its goal achieved. But was it crucially instrumental in ending the Corn Laws? Or, instead, were the tariffs repealed primarily as a matter of simple economic necessity? On both points, the evidence is mixed.
There were, no doubt, members of the league who had little interest in a broader liberal agenda. But, in the main, the league was indeed a radical group comprising people who believed deeply in the principles of free trade. Historian Norman McCord put it succinctly:
The leaders of the League were well aware that they were fighting for a great deal more than the repeal of a fiscal regulation. For them repeal of the Corn Laws and the adoption of a Free Trade policy by this country were only the first steps along a path which was to lead to international interdependence and a lasting peace, with the nations linked together by economic ties of self-interest.
… These arguments were more than a mere trick of propaganda; the sincerity with which they were held is shown by the way in which they appear naturally in the private letters of the Leaguers, often cheek by jowl with references to unscrupulous political expedients which make it quite clear that the letters concerned were meant to be strictly private.
As for the league’s effectiveness, it is unlikely that its members would have been able to repeal the Corn Laws in the absence of changing economic conditions. For instance, in the mid-1840s, Great Britain’s farming sector suffered, and food was relatively scarce—especially in Ireland, which was experiencing famine conditions. In addition, many members of the landed classes, which had an interest in keeping tariffs on foreign competitors’ goods high, began to diversify their holdings into the industrial sector and stood to benefit from freer trade in manufactured goods. Together these economic factors led Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel and Parliament, which disproportionately represented landed aristocrats, to support the repeal of the Corn Laws. That said, there can be little doubt that the league’s near-constant campaigning for repeal—especially the tireless efforts of Cobden and Bright—created a far more favorable intellectual environment for repeal and perhaps even helped to convince Peel himself of the desirability of reform. Political scientist Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey of the London School of Economics, arguably the leading modern analyst of Corn Law repeal, maintains that changing economic conditions and interests were the most important factors behind Great Britain’s move to freer trade. But she also concedes that the league’s efforts were the political culmination of “forty years … of remarkable activity among political economists, which contributed to an upsurge in the ideological argument for free trade.”
Libertarians who view the efforts of the Anti-Corn Law League as an important model—even an inspiration—for liberal reform have good reason to do so. Certainly, its leaders, Richard Cobden and John Bright, belong in the pantheon of classical liberal heroes for their principled and indefatigable work on behalf of peace, free trade, improved living conditions, and individual liberty.
Anderson, Gary M., and Robert D. Tollison. “Ideology, Interest Groups, and the Repeal of the Corn Laws.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 141 no. 2 (June 1985): 197–212.
Irwin, Douglas A. “Political Economy and Peel’s Repeal of the Corn Laws.” Economics and Politics 1 no. 1 (Spring 1989): 41–59.
McCord, Norman. The Anti-Corn Law League. London: Unwin University Books, 1958.
McKeown, T. J. “The Politics of Corn Law Repeal and Theories of Commercial Policy.” British Journal of Political Science 19 no. 3 (July 1989): 353–380.
Pickering, Paul A., and Alex Tyrrell. The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League. London: Leicester University Press, 2000.
Schonhardt-Bailey, Cheryl. From the Corn Laws to Free Trade: Interests, Ideas, and Institutions in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
———, ed. The Rise of Free Trade. 4 vols. London: Routledge, 1997.
Originally published .