The Corn Laws

The Corn Laws

Ellen Pellino

It is in a nation's best interest to preserve the production of their staple foods. Thus, it is only logical that 17th century England's agriculturally based economy would make it a matter of the State to protect domestic corn production. Corn is a general term used in England for wheat and other grains. At the time, wheat was not only a necessity of the poor, but it was an agricultural symbol of "productive strength" in England. The massive "smiling wheatfields" were seen as divine and precious. Thus, as Adam Smith remarked, the government had a duty to establish a legislative order to preserve the tranquility and faith of their agricultural nation. In addition, "'It was considered an object of paramount importance to keep this country with its increasing population independent in ordinary years of foreign supply.'" Thus, with civilian tranquility and international power in mind, England turned to its legislature for action.

In 1436 and 1463, England issued the first Corn Laws granting grain growers a monopolistic advantage of the market. The laws mandated high grain prices and specified price levels necessary for exportation and importation. The Corn laws were constantly adapted to changing foreign and domestic market conditions during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Before 1660, consumer happiness was the chief concern. However, afterwards, wheat producers became equally influential and England grew to become a great consumer and producer of wheat.

With the Corn Laws, England established a well-defined system for regulating corn trade from 1660 through 1814. Importation and exportation duties or tariffs on a sliding scale, meaning that they are adjusted to changing economic conditions, enforced the laws' chief purpose to secure enough grain to supply domestic needs and to sustain profitable and reasonable grain price levels. Until 1750, the laws remained undisturbed. However, the time frame of 1750-1815 presented constant attacks of landowners dissatisfied with the Corn Laws.

Many groups were successful in forcing changes to existing legislation to favor personal interests. City growth and bad harvests caused domestic grain production to dwindle. A Corn Law amendment in 1773 reduced the price levels at which duties were to be paid on imports and exports and allowed foreign wheat to enter England. Amendments in 1791 and 1804 were meant to appease those landowners upset by the increased burden created by the law of 1773. In both of these years, prices were raised because landowners used their political position to secure greater protection for their agricultural interests. Again, these modifications did not prove to be very operative. However, they did foreshadow the use of political power to further economic interests, which would continue to reform the Corn Laws through 1846.

In 1814, the importation and exportation duties were abolished, and in 1815, Parliament discarded the sliding scale of duties on imports. The end of the Corn Laws was inevitable at this point. At the time of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, landowners used the fact that an increased class consciousness and hatred dividing the upper and lower classes had arisen to support the need to defend their property as much from a local mob as from Napoleon. A movement against the Corn Laws, the Anti-Corn Law league, was formally organized by statesmen John Bright and Richard Cobden supported by five merchants. Many followed these men to unify against the landowners sustaining the Corn Laws. The simultaneous Irish potato famine of 1845 and massive crop ruining rains that created food shortages aided their cause. Thus, the landowners' Corn Laws and an economic distinction between classes dealt the mass of the population were sources of perpetual dissatisfaction.

In 1846, Prime Minister Robert Peel decided that Great Britain's future lay in commerce and industry. Agricultural protection did not fit into such a plan, and was thought to handicap England's international supremacy. So, Peel pleased the manufacturing industry with a repeal of the Corn Laws to promote an enormous expansion of industry and commerce. In addition, Parliament instituted free trade. The landowners' fears were thrown at their faces while industrialists rejoiced.

According to the economic principle of laissez-faire, the repeal was a significant victory. The industrialists triumphed over the agriculturists to indicate the imminent industrial age's approach. British farmers lost their markets and agriculture rapidly declined. By the end of the century, England was forced to look outside its borders for basic agricultural needs.