In September 1838, the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association was formed by a group of local businessmen and Radicals including Henry Ashworth, J.B. Smith, George Wilson, Archibald Prentice, editor of the Manchester Times and later historian of the League and Richard Cobden and John Bright. Their aim was the total abolition of the Corn Laws, an objective that alienated the Whigs almost as much as the Tories. Lectures tours in the north of England encouraged the formation of other local associations. Links were established with London free-traders and on 4th February 1839 a delegate meeting of all the anti-Corn Law associations was held in London. It was not particularly successful. Few delegates attended. London radicals were indifferent because they resented the dominance of the Manchester delegates, were anyway less committed to free trade and regarded the anti-Corn Law agitation was a middle class attempt to divert attention away from the Charter. This confirmed Cobden’s belief that the focus of the movement must lie in Manchester. When the House of Commons rejected Charles Villiers’ motion against the Corn Laws in March 1839 the delegates proceeded to set up the Anti-Corn Law League as a national organisation with its headquarters in Manchester. Clearly the ACLL was the product of the concerns of northern business interests.
The movement against the Corn Laws can be traced back to the parliamentary debates of 1815. The controversy has been frequently, and too simply, characterised as one of industrial against landed interests and public opinion against aristocratic government. But agitation against the Corn Laws was endemic in the chief manufacturing centres though it lay dormant in periods of low prices; for example during the period of good harvests and low wheat prices between 1832 and 1836 while flaring up in periods of dearth or depression. The deteriorating economic conditions after 1836 largely account for the emergence of a national movement. High food prices were accompanied by declining prices and profits and high levels of unemployment, especially in the cotton industry. For Manchester businessmen the major cause of the depression was the decline of the export trade, a decline occasioned by the inability of foreigners to pay with grain or raw materials for the import of British manufactured goods. The Corn Laws were, they believed, slowly strangling the economy.
Clearly the ACLL was an economic pressure group with a very specific objective but it has been argued, by Norman McCord among others, that the League also marked a new and successful phase in the history of radicalism. With the parliamentary Radicals in disarray and with the working population pursuing the Charter, the ACLL can be seen as an attempt to provide the middle classes with a realistic and potentially achievable goal. Richard Cobden played a major role in the broadening of the economic aim of the League into an emotive and enthusiastic attack on the Corn Laws as the symbol of aristocratic hegemony and privilege. He recognised the strengths and weaknesses of middle class radicalism and realised that a direct attack on the aristocratic system would achieve little. He had successfully led the fight to get Manchester incorporated into the Municipal Corporation Act in 1837-1838 against the quasi-feudal court-leet. The result was a considerable majority for ‘liberals’ in the 1838 municipal elections. He felt that an attack on the monopolistic position of the aristocracy had widespread support and that the floodgates of reform could be opened by compelling them to retreat on a fundamental position. The singular attention on the Corn Laws focussed attention on the aristocracy in a way that heterogeneous radical politics, with its potential for dissension and division, did not. The Corn Laws could, he believed, rally all the liberal forces in a way no other issue could.
The League based its appeal on the economic advantages of free trade (cheaper food, more employment, higher exports and greater prosperity) and the first phase of its work was aimed at converting the public to the case against the Corn Law. The practical problem faced by Cobden was the need for an alternative fiscal strategy to that based on protection. The 1840 Whig Select Committee on Import Duties concluded that the chaos of import duties was in need of simplification and that repeal would pose no immediate threat to British agriculture. Cobden believed that repeal was as much in the interests of the working population as of the manufacturers. If he could persuade popular protest of the validity of his argument then he could maintain that the ACLL was advocating a ‘national’ as opposed to ‘sectional’ cause and add the weight of numbers to the campaign. In this he was less successful. Chartist leaders were either unimpressed by his case or opposed to it. To them the motives of the League were suspect: employers had opposed the Ten Hour movement and supported the new Poor Law. Whatever the merits of the free trade argument, they believed that the interests of the working population could not be safeguarded without the Charter. By 1842, the League had largely failed to win support from industrial workers.
It is important not to overestimate the degree of middle class support for the League up to 1841. The movement developed on quasi-religious lines and looked to the anti-slavery movement of the 1820s and 1830s for a model for action. Its moralistic character mobilised nonconformist antagonism to the Anglican Church: Cobden in 1841 claimed that protection was ‘opposed to the laws of God’ and was ‘anti-scriptural and anti-religious’. These demogogic and crusading characteristics alarmed the more conservative among the middle classes.
Propaganda, however, though it influenced opinion, had little direct affect on achieving repeal. Russell had intimated in 1839 that the Whigs might support repeal by publicly supporting the replacement of the sliding scale with a small fixed duty on corn, a policy used as a electoral gambit in 1841. Peel remained silent on the issue. Cobden recognised that repeal would only be achieved through electoral activity with the ultimate aim of forcing the House of Commons to concede. This marked the beginning of the second phase of the League’s activities. The Walsall by-election in 1841 showed the potential of the League as a third force in politics and in the General Election later that year the strategy was applied in a number of favourable constituencies. Eight Leaguers, including Cobden for Stockport, were elected and this gave them an important parliamentary base that Chartism lacked. But the outstanding victory in 1841 lay with Peel and the Conservatives.
The victory for the protectionist party put the ACLL in an awkward position. Peel’s ‘frightful majority’ meant an electoral rebuff for the arguments of the League, though Peel’s budget of 1842 showed that this was more apparent than real. It also led to a revival of demands by some middle class Radicals for organic reform in conjunction with the Chartists. This led to a crisis of confidence for Cobden, Bright and the other leaders of the ACLL, a crisis exacerbated by the deepening of distress in the northern manufacturing districts in the winter of 1841-2.
The League Council split into two parties: a moderate element associated with R.H. Greg advocated a cautious and entirely law-abiding policy and a more extreme group led to Prentice who talked of forcing Peel’s hand by closing factories or refusing to pay taxes. The League was also faced by a formidable rival in the form of the Complete Suffrage League which attempted, unsuccessfully, to unite all radicals behind a common programme of reform. Peel’s 1842 budget made matters even worse since it appeared that he had to some extent stolen the thunder of the free traders.
The summer of 1842 saw the League at its lowest ebb with no policies and increasing lack of confidence. Cobden thought of opposing Peel’s proposals but recognised that their popularity would have destroyed both the League and himself. He took the dangerous step of trying to shake public confidence in Parliament by comparing the immorality and sectionalism of the Commons with the moral righteousness of the League. A ‘lock-out’ of workers was seriously considered but workers pre-empted this in the series of strikes in mid 1842. The League was rightly blamed by government of contributing to an atmosphere in which widespread industrial discontent occurred. Moderation, however, prevailed. The decline of the Complete Suffrage League, actions against Chartism and a resolution of its internal crisis pushed the League back on course. By the end of 1842, it emerged stronger and more confident than before.
The ACLL’s capacity for intensive agitation was increased by a thorough overhaul of its organisation. Joseph Hickin, the leader of the Walsall Radicals, out the League’s office in Manchester on a more business-like footing. J.B. Smith retired and George Wilson became administrative head of the ACLL organisation. In March 1842, the League Council divided the country up into twelve areas each with its own organisation, improving both the collection of money and the enrolment of new members. The League’s propaganda machine was expanded. From December 1842 its paper The Circular began to appear weekly, The Economist was founded in 1843 and became the medium for free- trade ideas, Cobden and Bright undertook widespread lecture tours and anti-corn law tracts were sent to every elector using the new ‘Penny Post’ system. Norman McCord says that “The collection of the fund, the registration of members and the distribution of tracts to electors, marked the infusion of new life into the agitation after the crisis of 1841-2 and the end of internal disagreement and indecision.”
From 1842 to 1845, the League directed its energies towards preparing for a decisive struggle at the expected 1848 General Election. It could not have foreseen the 1845-6 crisis and, having rejected extreme measures, turned towards electoral politics. Attempts were made to win over tenant farmers to free trade. They were regarded as the key to control of the county seats and Cobden hoped to use their antagonism towards their landowners. This direct assault on the shire failed because many tenant farmers supported protection and may even have influence their landlords into a protectionist stance rather than the other way round. Certainly it was tenant farmers who provided much of the support for the protectionist Anti-League formed in 1843.
The League then adopted more indirect methods. It organised the practice of extensive postal objections to hostile county votes. It sought to create new free trade votes by buying up the freeholds in key constituencies, achieving some notable success in south Lancashire and the West Riding. Free traders intervened as a third party in by-elections. By the summer of 1846 only a small number of seats had been made safe in this way and it is unlikely, as John Prest maintains, that Peel was scared into repealing the Corn Laws to avoid an anti-Tory landslide in the counties. McCord doubts whether free traders would have emerged electorally victorious had such a trial of strength proved necessary.
 P. Adelman Victorian Radicalism: The Middle-Class Experience 1830-1914, Longman, 1984, pages 11-28 and W.H. Chaloner ‘The Agitation against the Corn Laws’ in J.T. Ward (ed.) Popular Movements 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1970, pages 135- 151 are good summaries of the work of the Anti-Corn Law League.
 N. McCord The Anti-Corn Law League 1838-1846, Allen and Unwin, 1958 is the standard modern work but Archibald Prentice History of the Anti-Corn Law League, 2 volumes, 1853, new edition with an introduction by W.H. Chaloner, Cass, 1968, is still a valuable source. The political strategies of the League can be approached through D.A. Hamer The Politics of Electoral Pressure, Harvester, 1977, pages 58-90 and J. Prest Politics in the Age of Cobden, Macmillan, 1977, especially chapters 5 and 6. G.M. Trevelyan and J. Morley provided biographies of Bright and Cobden in 1913 and 1881 respectively. More recent biographies are D. Read Cobden and Bright. A Victorian Political Partnership, Edward Arnold, 1967, K. Robbins John Bright, Routledge, 1979 and the different perspectives of W. Hinde Richard Cobden: A Victorian Outsider, Yale, 1987 and N.C. Edsall Richard Cobden: Independent Radical, Harvard, 1986.