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Robert Peel and the Corn Laws
During the long French war British farmers had reaped great profits through the high price of wheat, and at the close of the war, in , to keep up the price, an act was passed prohibiting the importation of foreign wheat until the price in Britain reached eighteen shillings a quarter; colonial wheat, which was unimportant in quantity, might be brought in when the price reached only sixty seven shillings.
n  a sliding scale of duties was adopted. When the price of wheat was low the duty was to be high, that the English landowner might be always free from the competition of cheap wheat. Radical reformers attacked these Corn Laws bitterly, and of course laid emphasis upon the injustice to the poor in making wheat dear to benefit well-to-do landlords. But both the Tory and Whig leaders supported the Corn Laws, and Lord Melbourne declared in  that free trade in corn was the wildest and maddest scheme ever imagined. Richard Cobden’s clear and forcible reasoning enlisted John Bright’s great eloquence in the cause.
These leaders joined the Anti-Corn-Law League formed in , and soon their influence was felt. Rigid Whigs and Tories still made light of the movement, but Sir Robert Peel saw that the existing system must be changed. In  and  he lowered the duties, not yet on corn, but on many other commodities, and when there was famine in Ireland in  he begged his Tory colleagues to relieve the starving multitudes by removing the duties on corn. They refuged, and he resigned. But it was found that no one else could form a ministry; Peel resumed office, and the repeal of the Corn Laws was then certain.
Supported by many Whigs under Lord John Russell, but amid the execrations of his former Tory friends, Peel carried through in June, , the great measure by which, after February 1, , wheat was admitted free with the exception of a registration duty of a shilling a quarter; even this duty was abolished in ; it was reimposed in , but so wedded was the nation to free trade that it was again abolished in .
Excerpt from The British Nation by George McKinnon Wrong – 1903
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