Headed by prominent northern industrialists including Richard Cobden, J.
Smith, George Wilson, and John Bright, and centered in the cloth-manufacturing capital of Manchester, the League was the best financed and the most highly organized political pressure group that Britain had ever witnessed. It made its appeals not only to middle-class manufacturers but also to industrial workers, agricultural laborers, and tenant farmers as well. The League sent lecturers and delegations all across the country to proselytize, raise funds, organize, and petition.
It published and distributed scores of tracts, pamphlets, handbills, circulars, and books, and regularly issued a succession of its own newspapers: The Anti-Corn-Law Circular , Anti-Bread-Tax Circular , and The League. The ACLL organized debates, public lectures, conferences of ministers of religion, mass meetings, highly successful petition drives, and canvasses of constituencies in numerous parliamentary elections. Though the ACLL concentrated its efforts upon repeal of the corn and provision laws, the League, as individuals and as an organization, look considerable interest in a great many other reform issues of the s and s.
The members of the Anti-Corn-Law League were very much interested in liberty though they did not often discuss the concept in abstract philosophical terms. The members of the League were practical men, better able and more willing to identify and condemn specific political, social, or economic impediments to freedom than to enumerate its philosophical hallmarks. One of the themes found most frequently among the reform ideas of the ACLLers is their abiding distrust and disdain for what they termed aristocratic misrule and class legislation.
The members of the League regarded the corn laws as the most glaring example of aristocratic misrule, but in their opposition to this perceived foundation of landlordism, they often found themselves expressing opposition more broadly to what they termed the vestiges of feudalism or the legacy of the so-called Norman Yoke. Their desire to rid Britain of aristocratic misrule and class legislation prompted many Leaguers to oppose not just the corn laws but landlordism, the established church, and all the traditions and privileges that in their view restricted liberty.
The members of the Anti-Corn-Law League tended to view aristocratic privilege and influence in political and social institutions as well as economic relationships as forms of monopoly, and monopoly was something Leaguers opposed in all its variations. This fact is central to an understanding of the nature and scope of opposition to aristocratic misrule by the ACLL. Leaguers were pan of an emerging liberal consensus that placed a very high value on freedom from the constraints of the state, particularly with respect to economic affairs; they opposed the legacy of medieval restrictions and regulations on manufacturing and trade, and deeply resented the continued influence of a privileged landed aristocracy.
This developing and cardinal liberal doctrine is in many ways summed up in opposition to monopoly in all its manifestations, and the ACLL was no small contributor to this tradition. Leaguers sometimes recognized monopoly in facets of life that seemed removed from economics. The Anti-Corn-Law League regarded free trade as an issue of liberty no less than as a matter of economic practicality.
This freedom is man's natural right. Of course it ought not to be invaded in society, unless such invasion can be shown to be necessary for the general good of the community.
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It is obvious that this must be the general rule and practice in every community. And upon this rule all Governments do and must act in out of cases. This rule of Freedom of Industry — which contains in it, when practically applied. In his argument Baines advanced two important and related ideas: that freedom was a matter of natural right and that it was economically sound.
He accused landed protectionists of inflicting a great and oppressive evil upon the country by violating the principle of freedom of industry with the continuation of the corn laws. Smith had argued that Britain's protectionist policies were posited upon two fallacies: 1 the balance-of-trade fallacy or the notion that it was always better to make goods at home, and 2 the political assumption that a government-led economy would progress more rapidly than a natural one.
In his view, the solution to an intolerable system of privilege was a self-regulating system of natural liberty. Richard Cobden, J.
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Smith, and Joseph Brotherton were other League leaders who shared the views of Baines on the relation between natural right and natural law. As early as J. The agitation against the corn laws embodied by the Anti-Corn-Law League gave a focus to the sentiment opposing all forms of monopoly; many Leaguers believed that the corn laws were the foundation of an entire system of economic, social, and political privilege and that the whole edifice of aristocratic misgovernment and landlordism would be undermined if the corn laws were removed.
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The League regarded free trade as being ordained by both natural and divine law, which superseded the artificial restrictions of selfish aristocratic lawmakers. At one League meeting the corn laws were described as outmoded and contrary to the one principle of nature that would ensure harmony: "Freedom — universal freedom. Bayley, implied that use of such artificial restrictions as the corn laws impeded the operation of natural law in such a way as to obstruct the divine will, and he suggested that the corn laws were ridiculous as the belief once held by "our ladies" that "their bodies would not grow out to their proportions, unless squeezed in here and enlarged there, Laughter just as the Chinese have adopted.
The League regarded the corn laws as an instrument of despotic power, and Thomas Milner Gibson argued before an aggregate meeting of the League in that Leaguers had taken up their struggle not under the pressure of momentary distress of the country,.
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Loud Cheers. Gibson told his listeners that the cause of the ACLL was more than the revival of trade; it was the cause of the citizens of England and of liberty itself. Perhaps the clearest statement by a member of the League on the fundamental nature of freedom of industry and trade came from John Bright in a speech before the Liverpool Anti-Monopoly Association during the summer of Bright asserted that the freedom to exchange the produce of one's labor for that of his fellows anywhere in the world was the most fundamental of rights.
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