Classic History Books


Great Britain and Her Queen - by Anne E. Keeling

poor, and in the season of their adversity they found turnpikes and tolls multiplying on their public roads.
They resented what appeared a cruel imposition with wrathful impatience, and ere long gave expression

to their anger in wild deeds. A text of Scripture suggested to them a fantastic form of riot. They found

that it was said of old to Rebecca, "Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them," and ere long

"Rebecca and her children," men masking in women's clothes, made fierce war by night on the "gates"

they detested, destroying the turnpikes and driving out their keepers. These raids were not always

bloodless. The Government succeeded in repressing the rioting, and then, finding that a real grievance

had caused it, did away with the oppressive tolls, and dealt not too hardly with the captured offenders;

leniency which soon restored Wales to tranquillity.

A peaceful, strictly constitutional, and finally successful agitation ran its steady course in England for
several years contemporaneously with those we have already enumerated. The Anti-Corn-Law League,

with which the names of Cobden and Bright are united as closely as those two distinguished men were

united in friendship, had in 1838 found a centre eminently favourable to its operations in Manchester. Its

leaders were able, well-informed, and upright men, profoundly convinced that their cause was just, and

that the welfare of the people was involved in their success or failure. They were men of the middle

class, acquainted intimately with the needs and doings of the trading community to which they belonged,

and therefore at once better qualified to argue on questions affecting commerce, and less directly

interested in the prosperity of agriculture, than the more aristocratic leaders of the nation. Both

persuasive and successful speakers, one of them supremely eloquent, they were able to interest even the

lowest populace in questions of political economy, and to make Free Trade in Corn the idol of popular

passion. Their mode of agitation was eminently reasonable and wise; but it was an agitation,

exciting wild enthusiasm and fierce opposition, and must be reckoned not among the forces tending to

quiet, but among those that aroused anxious care in the first nine years of the reign. And it was a terrible

calamity that at last placed victory within their grasp. The blight on the potato first showed itself in 1845

- a new, undreamed-of disaster, probably owing to the long succession of unfavourable seasons. And the

potato blight meant almost certainly famine in Ireland, where perhaps three-fourths of the population had

no food but this root. The food supply of a whole nation seemed on the point of being cut off. A loud

demand was made for "the opening of the ports." By existing laws the ports admitted foreign grain tinder

import duties varying in severity inversely with the fluctuating price of home-grown grain; thus a certain

high level in the cost of corn was artificially maintained. These regulations, though framed for the

protection of the native producer, did not bear so heavily on the consumer as the law of 1815 which they

replaced; and the principle represented by them had a large following in the country. But now the

argument from famine proved potent to decide the wavering convictions of some who had long been

identified with the cause of Protection. The champions of Free Trade were sure of triumph when Sir

Robert Peel became one of their converts; and the Corn Bill which he carried in the June of 1846,

granting with some little reserve and delay the reforms which the Anti-Corn-Law League had been

formed to secure, brought that powerful association to a quiet end. But the threatening Irish famine and

the growing Irish disturbances remained, to embarrass the Ministry of Lord John Russell, which came

into power within less than a week of that great success of the Tory Minister, defeated on a question of

Irish polity on the very day when his Corn Bill received the assent of the House of Lords.

We must not omit, as in passing we chronicle this singular fortune of a great Minister, to notice the grief
with which Her Majesty viewed this turn of events. Amid all the anxiety of the period, amid her distress

at the cruel sufferings of her servants in India, in Britain, in Ireland, and her care for their relief, she had

had two sources of consolation: the pure and simple bliss of her home-life, and the assistance of two

 

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