The World’s Famous Orations.
Great Britain: II. (1780–1861). 1906.
Sir Robert Peel
For a Repeal of the Corn Laws
Sir, I foresaw that the course which I have taken from a sense of public duty would expose me to serious sacrifices. I foresaw, as its inevitable result, that I must forfeit friendships which I most highly valued—that I must interrupt political relations in which I felt a sincere pride; but the smallest of all the penalties which I anticipated were the continued venomous attacks of the member for Shrewsbury. Sir, I will only say of that honorable gentleman, that if he, after reviewing the whole of my public life—a life extending over thirty years previously to my accession to office in 1841—if he then entertained the opinion of me which he now professes; if he thought I was guilty of these petty larcenies from Mr. Horner and others, it is a little surprising that in the spring of 1841, after his long experience of my public career, he should have been prepared to give me his confidence.
It is still more surprising that he should have been ready—as I think he was—to unite his fortunes with mine in office, this implying the strongest proof which any public man can give of confidence in the honor and integrity of a minister of the Crown.
Sir, I have explained more than once what were the circumstances under which I felt it my duty to take this course. I did feel in November last that there was just cause for apprehension of scarcity and famine in Ireland. I am stating what were the apprehensions I felt at that time, what were the motives from which I acted; and those apprehensions, tho they may be denied now, were at least shared then by those honorable gentlemen who sit below the gangway [the Protectionists]. The honorable member for Somersetshire [Sir T. A. Acland] expressly declared that at the period to which I referred he was prepared to acquiesce in the suspension of the Corn Laws. An honorable member also, a recent addition to this House, who spoke with great ability the other night, the honorable member for Dorsetshire [Mr. Seymer], distinctly declared that he thought I should have abandoned my duty if I had not advised that, considering the circumstances of Ireland, the restrictions on the importation of foreign corn should be temporarily removed.
I may have been wrong, but my impression was, first, that my duty toward a country threatened with famine required that that which had been the ordinary remedy under all similar circumstances should be resorted to—namely, that there should be free access to the food of man from whatever quarter it might come. I was prepared to give the best proof which public men generally can give of the sincerity of their opinions, by tendering my resignation of office and devolving upon others the duty of proposing this measure; and, sir, I felt this—that if these laws were once suspended, and there was unlimited access to food, the produce of other countries, I, and those with whom I acted, felt the strongest conviction that it was not for the public interest, that it was not for the interest of the agricultural party, that an attempt should be made permanently to reimpose restrictions on the importation of food.
And now, after all these debates, I am firmly convinced that it is better for the agricultural interest to contemplate the final settlement of this question, rather than to attempt the introduction of a law giving a diminished protection. My belief is that a diminished protection would in no respect conciliate agricultural feeling; and this I must say, nothing could be so disadvantageous as to give an ineffectual protection and yet incur all the odium of giving an adequate one. What have we been told during this discussion?
I am told that it would have been possible to continue this protection; but after the suspension of it—for I now assume that the suspension would have been assented to on account of the necessities of Ireland—the difficulty of maintaining it would have been greatly increased; because it would have been shown, after the lapse of three years, that, altho it had worked tolerably well during the continuance of abundance, or at least of average harvests, yet at the moment it was exposed to the severe trial of scarcity it then ceased to effect the object for which it was enacted, and that, in addition to the state of public feeling with reference to restrictions on imports generally, would have greatly added to the difficulty of maintaining the law. There would have been public proof of its inefficiency for one of the great objects for which it was enacted.
But let me say, altho it has not been brought prominently under consideration, that, without any reference to the case of Ireland, the working of the law, as far as Great Britain is concerned, during the present year has not been satisfactory. You would have had to contend not merely with difficulties arising from suspension on account of the case of Ireland, but it would have been shown to you that the rate of duty has been high on account of the apparent lowness in the price of corn; while that lowness of price has arisen not from abundance in quantity, but from deficient quality. It would have been shown, and conclusively, that there are greater disparities of price in most of the principal markets of this country—between corn of the highest quality and of the lowest—than have ever existed in former periods. It would have been proved that there never was a greater demand than there has been during the present year for wheat of fine quality for the purpose of mixing with wheat of inferior quality, which forms the chief article brought for sale into our domestic markets. It would have been shown you that had there been free access to wheat of higher quality than they have assumed, the whole population of this country would for the last four months have been consuming bread of a better quality.
My belief therefore, is that in seeking the reenactment of the existing law after its suspension you would have had to contend with greater difficulties than you anticipate. Still I am told, “You would have had a majority.” I think a majority might have been obtained. I think you could have continued this law, notwithstanding these increased difficulties, for a short time longer; but I believe that the interval of its maintenance would have been but short, and that there would have been, during the period of its continuance, a desperate conflict between different classes of society; that your arguments in favor of it would have been weak; that you might have had no alternative at an early period, had the cycle of unfavorable harvests returned—and who can give an assurance that they would not?—that you might at an early period have had no alternative but to concede an alteration of this law under circumstances infinitely less favorable than the present to a final settlement of the question.
It was the foresight of these consequences—it was the belief that you were about to enter into a bitter and, ultimately, an unsuccessful struggle, that has induced me to think that for the benefit of all classes, for the benefit of the agricultural class itself, it was desirable to come to a permanent and equitable settlement of this question.
These are the motives on which I acted. I know the penalty to which I must be subject for having so acted; but I declare, even after the continuance of these debates, that I am only the more impressed with the conviction that the policy we advise is correct.
My firm belief is—without yielding to the dictation of the League, or any other body—subjecting myself to that imputation, I will not hesitate to say my firm belief is that it is most consistent with prudence and good policy, most consistent with the real interests of the landed proprietors themselves, most consistent with the maintenance of a territorial aristocracy, seeing by how precarious a tenure, namely, the vicissitudes of seasons, you hold your present protective system—I say, it is my firm belief that it is for the advantage of all classes, in these times of comparative comfort and comparative calm, to anticipate the angry discussions which might arise, by proposing at once a final adjustment of this question.
I have stated the reasons which have induced me to take the present course. You may no doubt say that I am only going on the experience of three years and am acting contrary to the principles of my whole life. Well, I admit that charge—I admit that I have defended the existence of the Corn Laws—yes, and that up to the present period I have refused to acquiesce in the proposition to destroy them. I candidly admit all this; but when I am told that I am acting inconsistently with the principles of my whole life by advocating free trade, I give this statement a peremptory denial. During the last three years I have subjected myself to many taunts on this question, and you have often said to me that Earl Grey had found out something indicating a chance in my opinions.
Sir, I will not enter at this late hour into the discussion of any other topic. I foresaw the consequences that have resulted from the measures which I thought it my duty to propose. We were charged with the heavy responsibility of taking security against a great calamity in Ireland. We did not act lightly. We did not form our opinion upon merely local information—the information of local authorities likely to be influenced by an undue alarm. Before I and those who agreed with me came to that conclusion, we had adopted every means—by local inquiry and by sending perfectly disinterested persons of authority to Ireland—to form a just and correct opinion. Whether we were mistaken or not—I believe we were not mistaken, but even if we were mistaken—a generous construction should be put upon the motives and conduct of those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting millions of the subjects of the Queen from the consequences of scarcity and famine.
Sir, whatever may be the result of these discussions, I feel severely the loss of the confidence of those from whom I heretofore received a most generous support. So far from expecting them, as some have said, to adopt my opinions, I perfectly recognize the sincerity with which they adhere to their own. I recognize their perfect right, on account of the admitted failure of my speculation, to withdraw from me their confidence.
I honor their motives, but I claim, and I always will claim, while entrusted with such powers and subject to such responsibility as the minister of this great country is entrusted with and is subject to—I always will assert the right to give that advice which I conscientiously believe to be conducive to the general well-being. I was not considering, according to the language of the honorable member for Shrewsbury, what was the best bargain to make for a party. I was considering first what were the best measures to avert a great calamity, and, as a secondary consideration, to relieve that interest which I was bound to protect from the odium of refusing to acquiesce in measures which I thought to be necessary for the purpose of averting that calamity. Sir, I can not charge myself or my colleags with having been unfaithful to the trust committed to us. I do not believe that the great institutions of this country have suffered during our administration of power. The noble lord [Lord John Russell] says he hopes that the discussions which have threatened the maintenance of amicable relations with the United States will be brought to a fortunate close.
Sir, I think I can appeal to the course which we have pursued against some obloquy, against some misconstruction, some insinuations that we were abandoning the honor of this country—I think I can appeal to the past experience of this government that it has been our earnest desire, by every effort consistent with the national honor to maintain friendly relations with every country on the face of the globe.
I have a strong belief that the greatest object which we or any other government can contemplate should be to elevate the social condition of that class of the people with whom we are brought into no direct relationship by the exercise of the elective franchise. I wish to convince them that our object has been to apportion taxation, that we shall relieve industry and labor from any undue burden, and transfer it, so far as is consistent with the public good, to those who are better enabled to bear it.
I look to the present peace of this country; I look to the absence of all disturbance—to the non-existence of any commitment for a seditious offense; I look to the calm that prevails in the public mind; I look to the absence of all disaffection; I look to the increased and growing public confidence on account of the course you have taken in relieving trade from restrictions, and industry from unjust burdens; and where there was dissatisfaction I now see contentment; where there was turbulence I see there is peace; where there was disloyalty I see there is loyalty; I see a disposition to confide in you, and not to agitate questions that are at the foundations of your institutions.
Deprive me of power to-morrow, you can never deprive me of the consciousness that I have exercised the powers committed to me from no corrupt or interested motives—from no desire to gratify ambition or attain any personal object; that I have labored to maintain peace abroad consistently with the national honor and defending every public right—to increase the confidence of the great body of the people in the justice of your decisions; and by the means of equal law to dispense with all coercive powers—to maintain loyalty to the Throne and attachment to the Constitution, from a conviction of the benefit that will accrue to the great body of the people.