Free Trade and the Irish Famine

Mr. Finneran recently received his B.A. in history and in international relations from Tufts University.

In the mid-19th century, the political life of Great Britain was torn by a great debate on the principles of protection and free trade. The debate, with its triumph for the free trade cause, remains equally relevant today, for it shows that protection, whatever its theoretical merits, is ruinous in human terms. The cornerstone of the free trade victory was the repeal of the corn laws by the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel in 1846.

The Tories and the Corn Laws

The Tory party had had an ambivalent history toward protection and free trade. On the one hand, the Tories under William Pitt the Younger had favored free trade. With the onset of the Napoleonic wars, however, this policy was interrupted. When peace was established, the price of wheat and other grains, with their supply from abroad augmented by the increase in commerce that followed with the peace, went into a steep decline. Heeding the requests of landowners, who constituted the main pillar of Tory support, the Tory government passed the corn law of 1815, the first of a series of such laws that effectively excluded foreign grains from the domestic market. (It should be noted that the term “corn” in this context does not refer exclusively to maize, but to grains generally, and to wheat especially.)

When the issue of free trade versus protection came to a head, it would split the Tory party asunder. Indeed, Peel himself reflected his perry’s dual heritage. At first a strong supporter of protection, Peel became ambiguous, and finally came to favor free trade.

Punch magazine satirized Peel’s attempt to bridge both wings of his party by a cartoon which showed him as a rider standing astride two horses at once. Punch commented: “The world has been lately astonished by the very rapid act of horsemanship performed by SIR R. PEEL on his two celebrated chargers, Protection and Free Trade. Protection is a very heavy charger, but Free Trade is a light and active filly, always going ahead with great speed and energy. The great merit of PEEL consists in the skill he has exhibited in giving the rein, now to one, and now to the other, with wonderful dexterity; now tightening the bridle, and now relaxing it; and, indeed, playing fast and loose with wonderful dexterity. Though he evidently has greater control over Free Trade, he controls Protection with remarkable adroitness. Altogether, his performance is among the most wonderful efforts of modern horsemanship.”[1]

In economic terms, the case against protection is simple enough: It benefits the few at the expense of the many. The protected domestic interest benefits from the fact that foreign products are excluded or can only compete at a significant disadvantage. Less competition means the domestic interest can raise the price and lessen the quality of its product, leaving domestic consumers (that is, the vast majority of the population) with the choice of paying more for an inferior product or doing without. In the case of basic food products like grain, of course, this is a Hobson’s choice, since everyone must eat.

It is no surprise, then, that the corn laws were from the outset vigorously supported by landowners, who grew domestic grain, and vigorously opposed by non-landowners, who had to pay more for their bread, and by classical liberal theorists. The case against protection had been made eloquently by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations as far back as 1776, but the depression of 1838 to 1842 caused a new generation of free trade proponents to rise to the fore. An Anti-Corn Law League was founded and expressed its views through meetings, petitions, pamphlets, and speakers. Two great orators, Richard Cobden and John Bright, contributed mightily toward enlisting popular sympathy in the free trade cause.

It appears that Peel himself was moving in his own mind slowly but inexorably toward support for repeal of the corn laws in the early 1840s. But any lingering resistance he felt toward repeal were swept away decisively by new and calamitous events in Ireland.

The Irish Famine

In August 1845, the potato crop in ireland failed, beginning the frightful Irish Famine of 1845 to 1848. In the devastating hunger that followed, Ireland’s pre-famine population of 8 million was reduced by death and emigration to 6½ million within three years. In addition, in the summer of 1847, 3 million were kept alive solely through charity and public jobs.[2]

A peacetime famine on such a scale had been unseen in Europe for centuries, and with good reason: Improved distribution systems meant that the effects of local crop failures could be mitigated by food brought from afar. Without the perverse effects of protection coupled with a land system that kept the Irish peasants cash poor and therefore unduly dependent for survival on their personal potato crops, the same should have been true for the Irish famine. Indeed, even as Irishmen were starving, Ireland’s abundant wheat and maize harvests were being shipped to England. The effect of the corn laws was thus the following: Despite an abundance of food, both in Great Britain and abroad, the artificially high price of grain placed bread beyond the economic reach of cash-poor Irish deprived through the potato crop failure of their major source of income.

When criticized for advancing free trade measures that overreacted to events in Ireland, Peel exclaimed: “You may think I have taken too great precautions against Irish famine; you are mistaken. Events will prove that the precautions are not unnecessary. But even if it were not so, the motive is to rescue a whole population from the possibility of calamity and disease; and I shall, under these circumstances, be easy under such an accusation.”[3]

The Oregon Dispute

A fortunate by-product of Peel’s free trade measures was their effects on relations with the United States. Free trade, in classical liberal theory, is conducive to peace. “Free trade,” Richard Cobden asked rhetorically, “What is it? Why, breaking down the barriers that separate nations; those barriers behind which nestle the feelings of pride, revenge, hatred, and jealousy which every now and then break their bonds and deluge whole countries with blood; those feelings which nourish the poison of war and conquest, which assert that without conquest we can have no trade, which foster that lust for conquest and dominion which sends forth your warrior chiefs to sanction devastation through other lands.”[4]

In the case of the Oregon dispute of the 1840s, the theory conformed with reality. America and Great Britain at this time stood on the brink of war over ownership of the Oregon Territory (the present-day states of Oregon and Washington and part of the Canadian province of British Columbia). James K. Polk had been elected to the White House in 1844 under the slogan “54° 40′ or Fight!”—a claim to the entire Oregon Territory for the United States. While it would be an exaggeration to state that Peel’s free trade policy of this time was the sole factor that averted war (certainly America’s simultaneous dispute with Mexico which would ultimately degenerate into the Mexican War was at least as important in causing the U.S. to seek a compromise), Peel’s policies did, at least, contribute toward creating an atmosphere that was more conducive to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Hence Punch wrote: “The English Premier has taken the happiest method of dealing with the American President. POLK fires off inflammatory messages, while PEEL returns the attack with Free-Trade measures. The latter will, we have every hope, prove irresistible, and POLK will not be able to make a successful stand against the very felicitous mode of warfare adopted by our Free-Trade Minister. It is not likely that the American people will be misguided enough to continue a hostility, which will be so directly opposed to their own interests . . . . America may, if it pleases, pelt us with its corn, while we return the compliment by pitching into the United States some of our manufactured articles. This will be much better for both parties than an exchange of lead, whether in the form of swan or grape, or packed in cannister.”[5]

The End of the Peel Ministry

Once he had decided on repeal of the corn laws, Peel had to convince a parliamentary majority—which proved to be no easy task. In December 1845, Peel tried to effect emergency reductions in tariffs through orders in council, executive orders requiring a cabinet majority but no parliamentary vote, but failed to gain a majority in his own cabinet and was forced to resign. The Whig leader, Lord John Russell, was unable to form a cabinet, and Queen Victoria had to call Peel back. Peel was able to form a new ministry with the addition of William Gladstone, the future Liberal prime minister, as colonial secretary.

The new Peel ministry’s attempts to repeal the corn laws were met in the Tory party with vigorous opposition led by Gladstone’s future nemesis, Benjamin Disraeli, until then a little-known member of Parliament. Finally, after a great deal of agitation, on June 25, 1846, the corn laws were repealed with the support of Whig and Irish members of Parliament.[6] But the old Tory party was irreparably split. Indeed, on the very night that the corn laws were repealed, Peers government lost a vote of confidence on its larger Irish policy, and Peel’s political life came to an end. Only four years later, in 1850, he died following an accident suffered while riding a horse through Green Park.

Winston Churchill summed up Peel’s career as follows: “He was not a man of broad and ranging modes of thought, but he understood better than any of his contemporaries the needs of the country, and he had the outstanding courage to change his views in order to meet them. It is true that he split his party, but there are greater crimes than that.”[7]

Peel’s own epitaph of his political career, delivered the night of his government’s fall, deserves to be quoted at length: “I shall, I fear, leave office with a name severely censured by many honorable men who, on public principle, deeply regret the severance of party ties—who deeply regret that severance, not from any interested or personal motives, but because they believe fidelity to party, the existence of a great party, and the maintenance of a great party, to be powerful instruments of good government. I shall surrender power, severely censured, I fear, by many honorable men, who, from no interested motives, have adhered to the principles of protection, because they looked upon them as important to the welfare and interests of the country. I shall leave a name execrated, I know, by every monopolist [Peel's speech, reports Punch, was here interrupted by “Loud cheers and laughter”] who, professing honorable opinions, would maintain protection for his own benefit. But it may be that I shall sometimes be remembered with expressions of goodwill, in those places which are the abodes of men whose lot it is to labor and earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow; in such places, perhaps, my name may be remembered with expressions of goodwill, when they who inhabit them recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because no longer leavened with a sense of injustice.”[8]

1.   Punch, vol. 10, January 1846-June 1846, p. 104.

2.   Figures from Edmund Curtis, A History of lreland (London: Methuen & Co., 1968), p. 368.

3.   Punch, “Introduction” to vol. 10, p. 3. (In fact, the pages to the Introduction are unnumbered.)

4.   Richard Cobden, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, vol. 1 (London: 1870) p. 79, cited in Michael Howard, War and the Lib. eral Conscience (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Picas, 1986), pp. 42-43.

5.   Punch, p. 155.

6.   Technically, the corn laws were not repealed at this date. Maize was allowed to enter tariff free, and tariffs for other grains were drastically reduced (the duty on wheat for example, was reduced to one-fourth of its previous level). The bill passed at this time scheduled an abolition of grain tariffs (except for a “mere nominal duty . . . for the purpose of procuring statistical returns of the quantity imported”) for February 1849. An amendment to repeal the corn laws outright was defeated by a margin of 187 votes. See Punch, “Introduction,” pp. 2-3.

7.   Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking People, vol. 4, “The Great Democracies” (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1965). p. 62.

8.   Punch, “Introduction,” p. 3.