Last week while I was in my work-and-house frenzy I missed an interesting anniversary: the bicentennial of the birth of Richard Cobden, one of my favorite people from British history. Cobden and his Quaker friend John Bright founded the Anti-Corn-Law League, which fought the protectionist legislation put into place to restrict wheat imports after Napoleon’s Channel blockade was lifted in 1815.
Landowners were so psyched about the rents they earned during the Napoleonic wars that they used their political power to get this legislation, to the detriment of most of the British people, and especially the poor. For the poor bread was a large part of their diet, and spending on it was a large share of their budget. In an effort to keep prices down, bakers started to adulterate their flour with things like alum powder, and sometimes even chalk.
Cobden and Bright were appalled by this state of affairs, which they saw first-hand as men of the North, where workers in the growing industrial cities were trying to feed their families. Cobden injected life and organization in the the League in 1839, and six years later the Anti-Corn-Law League suceeded in pushing for the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1844, a struggle that returned some small measure of free trade to Britain. Of course, the timing of the Irish potato famine helped make the political case for the stupidity and inequity of such a law.
In fact, until the new concert hall was built in the late 1990s, if you went to the symphony in Manchester you would hear them play in Free Trade Hall, a building that dated from the time that the agitation against the Corn Laws in the North was the most extreme.
Thanks to Don Boudreaux for his post on Cobden, including several informative links.