Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 7

Peel, Disraeli and the abolition of the Corn Laws, 1846

Study the Sources A to G and then answer the questions that follow.

Source A:

A speech by Richard Cobden, 1839.

We propose to keep people well informed as to the progress of our campaign by means of the penny post, by one letter a week...We intend to visit every borough in the kingdom, and we shall invite the electors to meet us. We shall urge them to have a Free-trade candidate to supplant every monopolist who still retains a seat for a borough...

The single and undisputed object of the League is to put down commercial monopoly...The Corn-law is the great tree of monopoly, under whose evil shadow every other restriction exists. Cut it down by the roots and it will destroy the others in its fall. The sole object of the League is to put an end once and for ever to the principle of maintaining taxes for the benefit of a particular class.

Free Trade! What is it? Why, the breaking down of barriers that separate nations... those barriers behind which nestle feelings of pride, revenge, hatred and jealousy, which every now and then burst their bounds, and deluge whole countries with blood...those feelings which assert that without conquest we can have no trade...I see in the Free Trade principle that which will draw men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, creed and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.

Source: J.Bright and J.E.T. Rogers (eds.), Speeches by Richard Cobden, Macmillan, 1880.

Source B:

A speech by Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons during the debate on the Corn Law Repeal Bill, February 1846.

This night you will select the motto which is to indicate the commercial policy of England. Shall it be ‘advance’ or ‘recede’? Which is to be the fitter motto for this great Empire? Survey our position, consider the advantage which God and nature have given us...Iron and coal, the sinews of manufacture, give us advantages over every other rival in the great competition of industry. Our capital far exceeds that which they can command. Our national character, the free institutions under which we live, an unshackled press...all combine to place us at the head of these nations which profit by the free interchange of their products. And is this the country to shrink from competition?

Choose your motto. ‘Advance’ or ‘Recede’. Vote for ‘Advance’ and it will encourage in every state the friends of a liberal commercial policy. Sardinia has taken the lead. Naples is relaxing her protective duties and favouring British produce. Can you doubt that the United States will soon relax her hostile Tariff? Act thus and you will have done whatever human wisdom can do for the promotion of commercial prosperity...Of course there is no guarantee that prosperity will continue without interruption - it seems to be unavoidable that the time of depression shall follow the season of excitement and success...may God grant that by your decision tonight you will have the consolation of knowing that such calamities have not been caused by laws of man restricting, in the hour of scarcity, the supply of food.

Source: Quoted in L.Evans and P.J.Pledger, Contemporary Sources and Opinions in Modern British History Vol I, Warne, 1967.

Source C:

From Peel and his Party, by Ruscombe Foster, in Modern History Review, September 1993.

Peel’s conversion to Catholic Emancipation is generally accepted to have been based on the conviction that civil war in Ireland was the unacceptable alternative, not on the merits of Emancipation itself...For Wellington therefore, the corn law crisis was a case of deja vu, for Peel seemed again to be capitulating in face of the spectre of civil unrest in Ireland which loomed as a result of the potato famine. ‘Rotten potatoes have done it all’, he fumed. ‘They have put Peel in his damned fright’. This famous outburst is usually dismissed as an old man’s irascibility. Perhaps it should be taken more seriously. After all, it was accepted that repeal could not immediately alleviate the plight of the Irish peasant....It looks more plausible that Peel was galvanised into action (using the Irish situation as a pretext) through fear that if he did not act, the Anti-Corn Law League would use the disaster to increase social unrest on the free trade issue in England...A fear of mob disorder, therefore, may have played a bigger part in Peel's decision making than he would readily admit.

Source D:

Extracts from speeches by Benjamin Disraeli in the House of Commons during the debate on the Corn Law Repeal Bill, February-May 1846.

When we complain of the right hon. gentleman [Peel] not treating his party fairly, we speak of the great body of the community whose views they represent.....I say that it is the first duty of a minister to maintain a balance between the two great branches of national industry....and we should give a preponderance to the agricultural branch; this is not in order to pamper the luxury of the owners of land, but it is because our present system is the only security for self-government; the only barrier against that centralising system which has taken root in other countries. My constituents are not landlords; they are not aristocrats; they are not great capitalists; they are the children of industry and toil; but they believe that their social and political interests are involved in a system by which their rights and liberties have been guaranteed; and I agree with them. I have the same old-fashioned notions...

When I examine the career of this minister [Peel] I find that for between 30 and 40 years, he has traded on the ideas and intelligence of others. He is a burglar of others' intellect...there is no other statesman who has committed petty larceny on so great a scale.

Source: Quoted in R.Grinter, Disraeli and Conservatism, Arnold, 1968.

Source E:

From Politics and the People 1835 - 1850 by K.H.Randell, published in 1972.

At the end of February, 231 Conservatives voted against the second reading of the Corn Bill, while only 112 voted for it. But what surprised Peel more was the vigour of his opponents, which transformed what he imagined would be a short if bloody battle into a five months campaign. It was not until the 28 June that the bill passed its third reading in the Lords, and by that time Peel had been the recipient of more malicious criticism than he could ever have thought possible. The attacks were led by Benjamin Disraeli, who could hardly believe that fate had made so vulnerable the man who had refused to admit his suitability for office in 1841, and who had since done nothing to make good his mistake.

Source F:

From Disraeli and Conservatism by R. Grinter, published in 1968.

Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the decisive compromise with industry by the party of agriculture. Disraeli condemned this whole policy; the argument that he merely seized an opportunity for personal advance is very attractive, as he quickly made free trade part of Conservative policy, and found his party excluded from office for a generation by distrust of his tactics. But there was also a genuine and lasting dislike of all that the Whig/Liberal group stood for and the repeal would advance - the doctrine of the equality of man and the methods of private enterprise that drove industry forward.

Source G:

From an article in a journal, the Fortnightly Review, 1878.

The growing distrust felt towards the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, as he pursued his liberalising course in economic policy, made a Protectionist Party possible, and to its formation Mr. Disraeli devoted himself...But it was not within his moral right to call disgraceful conduct which he had earlier praised. Sir Robert Peel was the convert, the honest convert, of public opinion. The proper contrast is between the statesman who does something about delayed convictions at the right time, and the trading politician who resists measures which he knows to be just and necessary, in order to humour a particular group of people or to justify personal spite or ambition.

Source: Quoted in R.Grinter, Disraeli and Conservatism, Arnold, 1968.


  1. Using your own knowledge and the evidence of the sources, explain what the writer meant at the time by the following phrases in Source A: (i) Free-trade candidate; (ii) Monopolist. (4 marks)
  2. How useful is Source A as evidence of the Anti-Corn Law League's aims and methods? (6 marks)
  3. (i) How do Sources B, C and G differ in the evidence they provide about Peel's motives for repealing the Corn Laws? (4 marks): (ii) What reasons can you suggest for these differences? (4 marks)
  4. Compare and explain the evidence in Sources D,E,F and G for Disraeli's motives in attacking Peel. (8 marks)
  5. How reliable are speeches in Parliament (such as Sources B and D) as evidence for the historian? (4 marks)
(Total 30 marks)