Anti-Corn Law League

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A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Exeter Hall in 1846

The Anti-Corn Law League was a successful political movement in Great Britain aimed at the abolition of the unpopular Corn Laws, which protected landowners’ interests by levying taxes on imported wheat, thus raising the price of bread at a time when factory-owners were trying to cut wages.

Corn Laws[edit]

The Corn Laws were taxes on imported grain designed to keep prices high for cereal producers in Great Britain. The laws indeed did raise food prices and became the focus of opposition from urban groups who had far less political power than rural Britain. The corn laws imposed steep import duties, making it too expensive for anyone to import grain from other countries, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported by Conservative landowners and opposed by Whig industrialists and workers. The League was responsible for turning public and elite opinion against the laws. It was a large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade with a utopian vision. Its leading advocate Richard Cobden, according to historian Asa Briggs, promised that repeal would settle four great problems simultaneously:

First, it would guarantee the prosperity of the manufacturer by affording him outlets for his products. Second, it would relieve the 'condition of England question' by cheapening the price of food and ensuring more regular employment. Third, it would make English agriculture more efficient by stimulating demand for its products in urban and industrial areas. Fourth, it would introduce through mutually advantageous international trade a new era of international fellowship and peace. The only barrier to these four beneficent solutions was the ignorant self-interest of the landlords, the 'bread-taxing oligarchy, unprincipled, unfeeling, rapacious and plundering.'[1]

The League was founded in 1838 by Richard Cobden and John Bright. Cobden was the chief strategist; Bright was its great orator. The League was controlled by a handful of rich sponsors. The main tactic of the league was to defeat protectionists at by-elections by concentrating its financial strength and campaign resources. The idea was that it would gain nationwide publicity from a handful of election campaigns every year. The strategy resulted in numerous defeats, which the League blamed on the tyrannical power of the landlords. The tactic also required very expensive subsidies so that League supporters would have a 40 shilling freehold and thus become enfranchised. In any case the League had no capability of contesting 150–200 seats in a general election. Furthermore, Peel neutralized the League's strategy by ramming repeal through Parliament without a general election. [2]

The League marked the emergence of the first powerful national lobbying group into politics, one with a centralized office, consistency of purpose, rich funding, very strong local and national organization, and single-minded dedicated leaders. It elected men to Parliament. Many of its procedures were innovative, while others were borrowed from the anti-slavery movement. It became the model for later reform movements.[3]

The League played little role in the final act in 1846 when Sir Robert Peel led the successful battle for repeal.[4] It then dissolved itself.[5] Many of its members continued their political activism in the Liberal Party, with the goal of establishing a fully free-trade economy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England 1783–1867: The Age of Improvement (1959) p. 314
  2. ^ Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783–1870 (2nd ed. 1996, pp. 280–81)
  3. ^ Briggs, The Making of Modern England, p. 116
  4. ^ Norman Gash, Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830 (1972) pp. 575–76.
  5. ^ «As no other gentleman has anything to address to this meeting, it is now my duty to say that the Anti-Corn-Law League stands conditionally dissolved» [George Wilson at a meeting of the Council of the Anti-Corn Law League held in Manchester Town Hall (Thursday 2 July 1846)]

Further reading[edit]

Scholarly studies[edit]

  • Briggs, Asa. The Making of Modern England 1783–1867: The Age of Improvement (1959) pp. 312–25, short interpretive history
  • Edsall, Nicholas C. Richard Cobden, independent radical (Harvard University Press, 1986)
  • Halévy, Elie. Victorian years, 1841–1895 (Vol. 4) (Barnes & Noble, 1961) pp. 3–150; narrative history
  • Hinde, Wendy. Richard Cobden: A Victorian Outsider (Yale University Press, 1987.)
  • Howe, Anthony. Free Trade and Liberal England. 1846–1946 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
  • Lawson-Tancred, Mary. "The Anti-League and the Corn Law Crisis of 1846." Historical Journal (1960) 3#2 pp. 162–83.
  • McCord, Norman: The Anti-Corn Law League 1838–1846. (Allen & Unwin, 1958)
  • Mosse, George L. "The Anti-League: 1844–1846." Economic History Review (1947) 17#2 pp. 134–42. in JSTOR; the organized opposition to the League
  • Pickering, Paul A and Alex Tyrrell. The people's bread, a history of the Anti-Corn Law League. (Leicester University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-7185-0218-3)
  • Steelman, Aaron (2008). "Anti-Corn Law League". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n9. 
  • Trentmann, Frank. Free Trade Nation. Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press, 2008).


  • Loades, David Michael, ed. Reader's guide to British history (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2003) vol 1. pp. 56–57, 185–86, 283–84

Contemporary publications[edit]

  • Ashworth, Henry: Recollections of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League, 2 editions, London 1876 and 1881
  • Bright, John: Speeches of John Bright, M.P., on the American Question. With an introduction by Frank Moore. [With a portrait.]. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1865.
  • Gilchrist, John M.: "The Life of John Bright, M.P.". In Cassell's Representative Biographies (1868).
  • Leech, H. J. (ed.): The public letters of the Right Hon. John Bright. London: Low, Marston & Co., 1895. Reprint New York, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1969.
  • Prentice, Archibald: History of the Anti-cornlaw-league. (London. 1853, 2 vol.). 2. ed. with a new introduction. by W. H. Chaloner. London: Cass, 1968.
  • Rogers, Thorold (ed.): Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, by John Bright, M.P.. 1868.
  • Rogers, Thorold (ed.): Public Addresses. 1879.
  • Archibald Philipp Primrose (Earl of Rosebery): Lord Rosebery's Speech on the Anti-Corn Law League and Free Trade, Manchester 1897. London: Cobden Club, 1898.
  • Simonson, Franz: Richard Cobden und die Antikornzolliga, sowie ihre Bedeutung für die wirthschaftlichen Verhältnisse des Deutschen Reiches. Berlin, 1883.
  • Smith, George Barnett: The Life and Speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., 2 vols., 1881.
  • Vince, Charles: John Bright (1898); Speeches on Parliamentary Reform by John Bright, M.P., revised by Himself (1866).
  • Obituary in The Law Times for Joseph Ivimey, 9 November 1878.

External links[edit]