Home  »  library  »  prose  »  From the Speech on Incendiarism in Ireland (1844)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

From the Speech on Incendiarism in Ireland (1844)

By John Bright (1811–1889)

THE GREAT and all-present evil of the rural districts is this—you have too many people for the work to be done, and you, the landed proprietors, are alone responsible for this state of things; and to speak honestly, I believe many of you know it. I have been charged with saying out-of-doors that this House is a club of land-owners legislating for land-owners. If I had not said it, the public must long ago have found out that fact. My honorable friend the member for Stockport on one occasion proposed that before you passed a law to raise the price of bread, you should consider how far you had the power to raise the rates of wages. What did you say to that? You said that the laborers did not understand political economy, or they would not apply to Parliament to raise wages; that Parliament could not raise wages. And yet the very next thing you did was to pass a law to raise the price of produce of your own land, at the expense of the very class whose wages you confessed your inability to increase.

What is the condition of the county of Suffolk? Is it not notorious that the rents are as high as they were fifty years ago, and probably much higher? But the return for the farmer’s capital is much lower, and the condition of the laborer is very much worse. The farmers are subject to the law of competition, and rents are thereby raised from time to time so as to keep their profits down to the lowest point, and the laborers by the competition amongst them are reduced to the point below which life cannot be maintained. Your tenants and laborers are being devoured by this excessive competition, whilst you, their magnanimous landlords, shelter yourselves from all competition by the Corn Law yourselves have passed, and make the competition of all other classes serve still more to swell your rentals. It was for this object the Corn Law was passed, and yet in the face of your countrymen you dare to call it a law for the protection of native industry….

Again, a rural police is kept up by the gentry; the farmers say for the sole use of watching game and frightening poachers, for which formerly they had to pay watchers. Is this true, or is it not? I say, then, you care everything for the rights—and for something beyond the rights—of your own property, but you are oblivious to its duties. How many lives have been sacrificed during the past year to the childish infatuation of preserving game? The noble lord, the member for North Lancashire, could tell of a gamekeeper killed in an affray on his father’s estate in that county. For the offense one man was hanged, and four men are now on their way to penal colonies. Six families are thus deprived of husband and father, that this wretched system of game-preserving may be continued in a country densely peopled as this is. The Marquis of Normanby’s gamekeeper has been murdered also, and the poacher who shot him only escaped death by the intervention of the Home Secretary. At Godalming, in Surrey, a gamekeeper has been murdered; and at Buckhill, in Buckinghamshire, a person has recently been killed in a poaching affray. This insane system is the cause of a fearful loss of life; it tends to the ruin of your tenantry, and is the fruitful cause of the demoralization of the peasantry. But you are caring for the rights of property; for its most obvious duties you have no concern. With such a policy, what can you expect but that which is now passing before you?

It is the remark of a beautiful writer that “to have known nothing but misery is the most portentous condition under which human nature can start on its course.” Has your agricultural laborer ever known anything but misery? He is born in a miserable hovel, which in mockery is termed a house or a home; he is reared in penury: he passes a life of hopeless and unrequited toil, and the jail or the union house is before him as the only asylum on this side of the pauper’s grave. Is this the result of your protection to native industry? Have you cared for the laborer till, from a home of comfort, he has but a hovel for shelter? and have you cherished him into starvation and rags? I tell you what your boasted protection is—it is a protection of native idleness at the expense of the impoverishment of native industry.