Lessons from Successful Free-Trade Activism: The Arguments and Methods of Richard Cobden's Anti-Corn Law League

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CCLII - June 19, 2010
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            The activities of the Anti-Corn Law League in Great Britain from 1838 to 1846 are to this day among the most prominent examples of successful movements for trade liberalization in human history. This movement was led and coordinated by Richard Cobden (1804-1865), a manufacturer, orator, and economic thinker whose success in repealing the Corn Laws inaugurated an era of unprecedented worldwide prosperity and peace that lasted, with minor interruptions, until 1914. Here, a brief overview of the Corn Laws, their history, the main figures in the movement for repeal, and the activities of the movement itself shall be offered. Subsequently, the principal arguments offered by Cobden for repeal shall be examined, and the reasons for their effectiveness shall be analyzed. The strategic approaches used by Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League to elicit support from the British populace shall also be explored. Cobden’s arguments and methods were animated by the key principle that free trade is beneficial to all and can facilitate harmonious and mutually uplifting interactions where strife and conflict formerly existed. In his ideas and his conduct alike, Cobden epitomized this principle of harmoniousness through peaceful interactions, and an examination of his strategies shall show them to be consistent with his intentions to seek the advancement of all and to harm or alienate no individual. This analysis concludes with an exploration of some the larger objectives Cobden hoped to achieve via the Anti-Corn Law League including the overall liberalization of trade and the increase in worldwide peace through the development of commerce. Finally, a few concluding thoughts are offered on how free-trade advocates today might learn from the Anti-Corn Law League’s efforts and deal a powerful blow to protectionism in our time.

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