Sir Robert Peel,
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It is interesting to note, at this distance of time, that he who afterwards became the distinguished Dr. Norman Macleod here made one of the earliest speeches of his life. It was on the occasion of his having to reply to the toast of “The Students of Glasgow University,” and his reply at that time was quite a model in the way of modesty, dignity and grace. Altogether the banquet was a wonderful success. Even the London Liberal weekly, the Spectator, went the length of saying that the unqualified heartiness and splendour of the proceedings were one of the greatest political marvels of the time. Of all who were present at that brilliant assembly in 1837 only three are now alive, so far as the writer knows: Mr. Gladstone, Dr. Blackie, Principal of St. Mungo’s College, who was then very young and very strong, and Mr. James Dawson* of Sale, Manchester, who had a large part in establishing the manufacture and sale of Tweed cloths in Glasgow.
Peel is remembered now chiefly in his connection with the measure for Free Trade, which he at first opposed and afterwards carried. It would be unprofitable here to rehearse the history of the Corn Laws. They were part of that meddlesome legislation in regard to trade that was too common for centuries in this and other lands-burdensome restrictions that interfered with the great law of demand and supply. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were laws against the exportation of grain. Then after the Restoration there were restrictive duties put upon the importation of grain, with the view of protecting home agriculture. For other two centuries there were successive acts regulating the duties according to the price of grain in this country. This arrangement of “a sliding scale” was altered and re-altered until, by the celebrated act of 1828, it reached what was regarded as a state of perfection.
Throughout these various changes there were not wanting writers and speakers who denounced the Corn Laws, and agitated for their removal. But the public at large, though conscious that the laws were in some way at variance with the principles of political economy, did not, till the very last, earnestly unite in calling for repeal. There was a powerful party who defended the Corn Laws, and represented, with wonderful plausibility, that these restrictive statutes were identified with the best interests of the country. Their arguments might thus be summed up: 1. Protection was necessary, in order to keep certain poor lands in cultivation. 2. It was desirable to cultivate as much land as possible, in order to improve the country. 3. If improvement by that means were to cease, we should be dependent on foreigners for a large portion of the food of the people. 4. Such dependence would be fraught with immense danger; in the event of war, supplies might be stopped, or our ports might be blockaded, the result being famine, disease, and civil war. 5. The advantage gained by protection enabled the landed proprietors and their tenants to encourage manufactures and trade; so much so, that if the Corn Laws were abolished, half the country shopkeepers would be ruined; that would be followed by the stoppage of many of the mills and factories; large numbers of the working-classes would be thrown idle; disturbances would ensue; capital would be withdrawn; and no one would venture to say what would be the final consequences. In 1826, Mr. Hume, and in 1832, Mr. Whitmore, moved resolutions in the House of Commons against the Corn Law, as operating unfavourably upon trade. Mr. Hume contended that our manufactures might be doubled or trebled if it were repealed, but he was
* The death of Mr. Dawson, at the advanced age of 82, is announced as the proof sheets are passing from our hands.