Mr. Villiers had advocated for many years the total abolition of the corn duties, and nothing less would now satisfy the League. Russell, who scouted the very idea of absolutely free imports, had yielded so far as to propose, in 1841, a fixed duty on foreign corn, greatly less than the existing rate, which varied between 27s. and is. per quarter, according to the market price. Peel came forward in 1842 with a more liberal remission of duty, but although his Bill was passed by a very large majority, all it did was to make the country party behind him uneasy without conciliating the Anti-Corn Law people. No one but men of the Manchester school — " Cobdenites," as they afterwards came to be called — no one, either Whig or Tory, dreamt of denying that protection was desirable, even necessary, for agriculture. Peel's first measure was framed to protect wheat growers against a fall in the average price below 56s. a quarter, and also to protect the consumer against a higher price. But the corn duties had been fixed in 1815: a whole generation had grown up under them : their outworks could not be tampered with without risking the stability of the whole structure. It required a momentum of extraordinary force to carry the movement against them to success. That impetus came, in the autumn of 1845, from two sources equally unforeseen. First arrived news of a destructive disease, wasting the potato crop in Ireland. Potatoes had grown to be to the Irish peasant what wheat is to English, what oats still were to Scottish labourers. The Government were informed that one-third of the food of the people was already destroyed, that the disease was still spreading, and no estimate could be formed of how much of the crop could be saved. Deadly disaster was summoned to many anxious deliberations. The Prime Minister advocated that in order to avert famine all ports should be thrown open to corn ships. He coupled this advice with the warning that, once the duties were suspended, he did not think it would be possible to re-establish them. The warning weighed more with the Cabinet than the advice. Three Ministers only—Lord Aberdeen, Sir James Graham, and Sidney Herbert—supported Peel's proposal. It was set aside, and a Commission was appointed instead to take measures to mitigate the immediate necessity in Ireland.

The other source of impetus referred to was Lord John Russell's declaration at this juncture of his total conversion to the principle of free trade in corn. His proposed modification in 1841 of the duties had been less liberal than that of Peel in 1842. It had been a fixed duty instead of a sliding scale. But there is no reason to doubt the Lord John Russell's sincerity of his conversion or to suspect him of merely desiring to gain a party conversion to advantage. The circumstances of the Anti-Corn Law party at the moment were Free Trade. not such as to tempt the leader of the Opposition to embrace their programme out of a mere desire to steal a march on his opponents.

The immediate effect of Russell's conversion, coming on the top of alarming news from Ireland, was to send Peel forward on a course he had been contemplating for years. He read a memorandum to the Cabinet on December 2 recommending that Parliament should be summoned early in January, and that he should submit a Bill for the practical and immediate repeal of the Corn Laws. Lord Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch refused their support to this policy. The Duke of Wellington said he was still in favour of maintaining the Corn Laws, but that if Peel considered that their repeal was necessary for the maintenance of his position " in Parliament and in the public view," he would support the measure. The Cabinet adjourned till next day. By some accident—it was said that a lady was the means of it—the Times became possessed of the secret, and on December 4 the startling announcement appeared in its columns that the Cabinet had resolved on the Repeal of the Corn Laws. The only modern parallel to the consternation ensuing in the clubs and the country may be found in that which took place when, in IS86, it was made known that Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet had decided to give Home Rule to Ireland. Many refused to believe the statement in the Times, alleging that it was impossible that a Cabinet secret could have leaked out in this way. The Standard published an emphatic, though not authoritative, contradiction of the story. Excitement and dismay, delight and disgust, contended for mastery wheresoever a few men gathered together : in a few days all was known. Lord Stanley —the " Rupert of debate," as Disraeli afterwards called him—and the Duke of Buccleuch resigned their seats in the Cabinet. Peel would not consent to proceed without the unanimous consent of his colleagues ; on December 5 he went to Osborne and tendered his resignation to the Queen. Lord John Russell was at once sent for to form a Ministry : he attempted to do so, but failed : Lord Grey's distrust of Lord Palmerston's policy proving a fatal obstacle to it. Peel, on being required to do so by the Queen, withdrew his resignation and resumed the duties of office. The Duke of Buccleuch returned as Privy Seal, but Lord Stanley was not to be reconciled, and Mr. Gladstone entered the Cabinet for the first time as Colonial Secretary. Parliament met on January 22, 1846. Expectation was at the boiling point ; it was one of those rare occasions, happening not more than once or twice in an ordinary reign, when the ears of the whole country await an announcement of interest to every class in it.

Adopting an unusual, almost Unprecedented, course, the Prime Minister rose immediately after the speeches of the mover and seconder of the Address : he entered into no details of the measure foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech, but he removed all shadow of doubt that the Ministry had resolved on the total repeal of the corn duties. Those who know the ways of the House of Commons will best understand the significance of a comment made by one who was present. " He did not get a solitary cheer from the people behind him except when he said that Stanley had always been against him . . . and then the whole of those benches rung with cheers." Perhaps nothing in his speech gave deeper offence to his Party than the concluding sentence, in which he declared that he found it " no easy task to ensure the harmonious and united action of an ancient monarchy, a proud aristocracy, and a reformed House of Commons." The spokesman of the angry Tories was one of whom much was to be heard in coming years. Benjamin Disraeli had done nothing as yet to redeem the apparently hopeless failure of his maiden speech in 1837. Outwardly, a remarkable figure enough, in a Parliamentary sense he was no more than obscure when he rose from his seat on the Government benches to lead the first attack on the new policy. He was bitter, he was personal, but he was adroitly opportune; and his fame as a statesman dates from that day.The immediate result was a split—a secession. The House of Commons ratified Peel's policy by a majority of ninety-seven, but Disraeli himself has put on record the feelings which animated Peel's ancient supporters. " Vengeance had succeeded in most breasts to the more sanguine sentiment : the field was lost, but at any rate there should be retribution for those who had betrayed it.'

The opportunity for vengeance was not long delayed. The Corn Bill left the House of Commons on May 15. On June 25 it passed the third reading in the House of Lords, and the most momentous measure of Queen Victoria's reign awaited only the Royal Assent to complete it. On that very night the House of Commons were to divide on one of those Bills conferring extra-ordinary powers on the Executive in Ireland which it has been the fate of successive Governments to introduce—Coercion Bills, as they are called for short. The Protectionists perceived what lay in their power : if they threw their weight in with the regular Opposition and O'Connell's Irish Catholics, they could defeat their lost leader. About eighty of them did so: the rest stayed away and Ministers were left in a minority of seventy-three. Peel resigned : " he had lost a party but won a nation." He never returned to office, but, though he did not live to see it, the principles for which he fought and fell became those of the Conservative party.

During the five years of his last Administration he had restored equilibrium to the national finances. He turned the deficit of two millions to which he succeeded to a surplus of five millions in 1845. He carried the grant to the Roman Catholic College of Maynooth against the votes of half his own party, though it cost him the loss of his colleague, Mr. W. E. Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone himself lived to abolish the grant, in 1866, and the Maynooth grants disappeared for it was he who ruled the whirlwind that swept away the Irish State Church with it. Peel's Administration must also be credited with a marked advance in legislation for the working classes. Lord Ashley (better known in later years as Earl of Shaftesbury) had obtained the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the employment of women in collieries: the horrible evils thereby brought to light, the infamous degradation of women and girls, harnessed like beasts of draught with a girdle round their waist—unclothed, unwashed, and some-times hopelessly crippled—deeply moved the public mind, and the Act of 1842, prohibiting the employment of females in mines, passed almost without opposition. More prolonged was the resistance to the Factory Act of 1844, regulating the hours of labour of youthful persons. This beneficent legislation should not be overlooked in the glare of conflict over the Corn Laws.

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