British Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws

The repeal of the Corn Laws, tariffs on imported grain intended to protect farmers and landowners from cheaper imports, reduced the economic power of the aristocracy, complementing their loss of political power as a result of the Reform Act of 1832.

Summary of Event

Great Britain’s Corn Laws imposed tariffs on imports of grains, which are collectively called “corn” in Great Britain. The laws had existed for several centuries and had been revised a number of times, most recently in 1828. The Corn Law Act of 1828 had established a sliding scale with the duty on grain rising as the selling price of English grain decreased, in order to keep grain prices high enough to ensure a profit for farmers and, especially, large landowners. These groups believed that their prosperity and the continuation of English agriculture depended on maintaining high import duties. Most of the leaders of both the Tory and Whig Whig Party (British);and Corn Laws[Corn Laws] parties were large landowners and usually supported the Corn Laws. Corn Laws;repeal of
Great Britain;Corn Laws
Peel, Sir Robert
[p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Corn Laws[Corn laws]
[kw]British Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws (June 15, 1846)
[kw]Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws, British (June 15, 1846)
[kw]Repeals the Corn Laws, British Parliament (June 15, 1846)
[kw]Corn Laws, British Parliament Repeals the (June 15, 1846)
[kw]Corn Laws, British Parliament Repeals the (June 15, 1846)
Corn Laws;repeal of
Great Britain;Corn Laws
Peel, Sir Robert
[p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Corn Laws[Corn laws]
[g]Great Britain;June 15, 1846: British Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws[2410]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 15, 1846: British Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws[2410]
[c]Economics;June 15, 1846: British Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws[2410]
[c]Agriculture;June 15, 1846: British Parliament Repeals the Corn Laws[2410]
Bright, John
Cobden, Richard
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Corn Laws[Corn laws]

Among economists, however, the great majority, especially those belonging to the predominant classical liberal school of thought, sometimes called the Manchester School Manchester, England;liberalism , strongly condemned the Corn Laws. The Corn Law controversy was linked to the whole question of free trade versus protectionism. Adam Smith Smith, Adam had advocated free trade as early as 1776, and David Ricardo Ricardo, David had specifically applied such doctrines to agricultural protection some fifty years later. He contended that the Corn Laws raised food prices, protected inefficient farmers, and hurt Great Britain’s foreign trade by making it impossible for countries with agricultural surpluses to trade those surpluses for British manufactured goods.

Industrialists, businessmen, and middle-class radicals generally opposed the Corn Laws, while the working classes were badly split in their attitude toward them. Many leaders of the working classes feared that if food became cheaper, the industrialists would only use it as an excuse to lower wages.

In the comparatively prosperous times up to 1837, there was little interest in the Corn Law question. There was a gradual increase in anti-Corn Law literature, and an Anti-Corn Law League Anti-Corn Law League[AntiCorn Law League] was founded in London in 1836, but the effects of both were limited. The depression of 1837 and the subsequent hard times, however, combined with a rise in food prices to give impetus to anti-Corn Law agitation.

The Anti-Corn Law Association of Manchester Manchester, England;and corn laws[Corn laws] was founded in September, 1838, and soon gained considerable support from Manchester industrialists, enabling it to raise large sums of money to support a campaign against the Corn Laws. Prominent among the early leaders was Richard Cobden Cobden, Richard , a Manchester industrialist and a strong supporter of free trade, who was both an effective organizer and a compelling speaker. He was soon joined in leadership of the Anti-Corn Law Association by John Bright Bright, John , another industrialist and also a persuasive speaker. The Manchester Association sent out lecturers who held large mass meetings and succeeded in causing the formation of other Anti-Corn Law associations in various industrial cities in the north.

The first attempts to move the abolition of the Corn Laws were decisively defeated in Parliament. Although a motion to terminate the Corn Laws secured 172 votes in February, 1839, when it was introduced, the combined opposition of the Whig Whig Party (British);and Corn Laws[Corn Laws] government of Lord Melbourne and the Tory opposition doomed the effort.

This defeat spurred the anti-Corn Law groups to form a single centralized organization, the Anti-Corn Law League, Anti-Corn Law League[AntiCorn Law League] with headquarters in Manchester. A paper, The Anti-Corn Law Circular, began publication in April and a large meeting hall was erected. The money for this was obtained by membership subscriptions of five shillings a year and large gifts from industrialists. A regular system of traveling lecturers was set up and millions of pamphlets were distributed as the league gradually became a well-financed, effective propaganda machine on a scale hitherto unknown in British politics.

The league publicly argued its cause not on the particular advantages to manufacturers, but on a more general and moral plane. Cobden contended that repeal would lower food prices for the poor, that by increasing trade it would aid general prosperity throughout Great Britain and the world and thus would aid world harmony, and that it would make British agriculture more efficient by competition.

Sir Robert Peel introducing free trade laws in Parliament.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The league hoped to obtain the support of the working classes, but their leaders, heavily involved in the Chartist Chartist movement movement to broaden the franchise, opposed the idea of repeal, arguing that it would only enable manufacturers to reduce wages. and that it would take away the livelihood of agricultural workers. Chartists often broke up league meetings by violence and greatly hindered the league’s activities.

Under pressure from the Whig-liberal leader Lord John Russell Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Corn Laws[Corn laws] in 1841, the Whig government decided to lower tariffs and set a low fixed duty on corn. Even though some of the league’s members who had seats in Parliament supported this measure, the league as a whole opposed it. In the end, nothing came of the plan except that it caused the fall of the Whig government, leading to new elections won by Tory protectionists.

Although he favored retaining some protection for grains, Sir Robert Peel, the new Tory prime minister, hoped to defuse the issue by introducing a general overhaul of the tariff. These measures did not satisfy the league, and its orators began to speak of violence and revolution. Some employers even encouraged strikes and revolutionary unrest among their employees to pressure Parliament. These tactics failed, however, and the league returned to more peaceful efforts, focusing on propaganda and large public meetings.

Finally, in 1846, prospects for repeal suddenly improved. Several years of good harvests were followed by an extremely wet growing season; above all, the potato harvest in Ireland failed almost entirely. In the face of this situation and Cobden’s Cobden, Richard exploitation of it in debates in Parliament, Peel became convinced of the need for immediate repeal of the Corn Laws. Russell, then the Whig leader, Whig Party (British);and Corn Laws[Corn Laws] had come out for immediate repeal.

Peel’s first attempts to persuade his cabinet to suspend the Corn Laws caused his ministry to break up. However, Russell, the leader of the opposition, proved unable to form a government, and Peel returned with a reconstructed cabinet. When Peel proposed a drastic reduction in the duties on foreign grain, to lead, three years later, to total repeal, a large section of his own party revolted against him and the other party leaders. Peel argued that economic necessity in the face of famine and the political need to prevent a clash between the middle classes and the aristocracy forced his hand. Russell Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Corn Laws[Corn laws] and many Whig-liberals had become free traders and supported Peel, as did most of the conservative leaders, although the latter did so reluctantly. In the successful repeal vote in the House of Commons on May 15, 1846, a majority of the Tory members voted against the government. The duke of Wellington then carried the repeal through the House of Lords on June 15.

Peel was defeated shortly afterward on an Irish measure by a combination of liberals and protectionist Tories, and he resigned. The issue of the Corn Laws split the Tory Party, Peel’s followers being known as Peelites, while the protectionist Tories reformed as the Conservative Party under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli.


Corn Law repeal helped push along the reorganization of British political parties from aristocratic factions into modern political organizations dependent on the support of voters. The Anti-Corn Anti-Corn Law League[AntiCorn Law League] Law League served as a prototype of modern political pressure groups in both its organization and its propaganda.

Corn Law repeal was the first step in the conversion of British tariff policy to one of free trade instead of protectionism. The policy persisted as dogma for more than eighty years.

Further Reading

  • Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2000. Briggs, a British historian, presents a comprehensive collection on social and political reform in late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century England. Chapter six discusses “Reform and the Working Classes,” “The Chartists,” “The Anti-Corn Law League,” and “Peel and His Achievement.”
  • Gash, Norman. Sir Robert Peel. 2 vols. London: Longmans, 1986. Volume two of this Peel biography contains two chapters on the Corn Law crisis.
  • Halévy, Elie. A History of the English People: The Age of Peel and Cobden. Translated by E. I. Watkin. London: Ernest Benn, 1947. Provides an extensive description of the Corn Law agitation and the negotiations leading up to repeal.
  • McCord, Norman. The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838-1846. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958. A full description of the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League.
  • Pickering, Paul A., and Alex Tyrell. The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League. New York: Leicester University Press, 2000. Examines the Corn Laws in the light of British economics, trade, and protectionism.
  • Read, Donald. Peel and the Victorians. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1987. Contains two chapters on the Corn Law issue in the context of the Victorian age.
  • Schonhardt-Bailey, Cheryl, ed. Free Trade: The Repeal of the Corn Laws. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1996. An excellent source for primary documents, including documents of Parliament, speeches, pamphlets from the Anti-Corn Law, League, and the writings of contemporaries on the effects of the repeal. Includes an introduction by the editor and bibliographical references.
  • Woodward, E. L. The Age of Reform, 1815-1870. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. Originally published in 1939 but still a sound basic treatment of Victorian politics.

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Great Britain;Corn Laws
Peel, Sir Robert
[p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Corn Laws[Corn laws]