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Age of Invention: The Bourgeois Supremacy
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England in the late eighteenth century was often complimented or disparaged as a “nation of shopkeepers” — a sign of its thriving industry and commerce, and the influence of those interests on its politics.
But when did England start seeing itself as a primarily commercial nation? When did the interests of its merchants and manufacturers begin to hold sway against the interests of its landed aristocracy? The early nineteenth century certainly saw major battles between these competing camps. When European trade resumed in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, an influx of cheap grain threatened the interests of the farmers and the landowners to whom they paid rent. Britain’s parliament responded by severely restricting grain imports, propping up the price of grain in order to keep rents high. These restrictions came to be known as the Corn Laws (grain was then generally referred to as “corn”, nothing to do with maize). The Corn Laws were to become one of the most important dividing lines in British politics for decades, as the opposing interests of the cities — workers and their employers alike, united under the banner of Free Trade — first won greater political representation in the 1830s and then repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s.
The Corn Laws are infamous, but I’ve increasingly come to see their introduction as merely the landed gentry’s last gasp — them taking advantage of a brief window, after over two centuries of the declining economic importance of English agriculture, when their political influence was disproportionately large. In fact, I’ve noticed quite a few signs of the rising influence of urban, commercial interests as early as the early seventeenth century. And strangely enough, this week I noticed that in 1621 the English parliament debated a bill that was almost identical to the 1815 Corn Laws — a bill designed to ban the importation of foreign grain below certain prices.
But in this case, it failed. In the 1620s it seems that the interests of the cities — of commerce and manufacturing — had already become powerful enough to stop it.
The bill appeared in the context of a major economic crisis that, for want of a better term, ought to be called the Silver Crisis of 1619-23. Because of the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, the various mints of the states, cities, and princelings of Germany began to outbid one another for silver, debasing their silver currencies in the process. The knock-on effect was to draw the silver coinage — the lifeblood of all trade — out of England, and at a time when the country was already unusually vulnerable to a silver outflow. (For fuller details of the Silver Crisis and why England was so vulnerable to it, I’ve written up how it all worked here.)
The sudden lack of silver currency was a major problem, and all the more confusing because it coincided with a spate of especially bountiful harvests. As one politician put it, “the farmer is not able to pay his rent, not for want of cattle or corn but money”.1 A good harvest might seem a time for farmers and their landlords to rejoice, but it could also lead to a dramatic drop in the price of grain. Good harvests tended to cause deflation (which the Silver Crisis may have made much worse than usual by disrupting the foreign market for English grain exports). An influential court gossip noted in a letter of November of 1620 that “corn and cattle were never at so low a rate since I can remember … and yet can they get no riddance at that price”. Just a few months later, in February 1621, the already unbelievable prices he quoted had dropped even further.2
Despite food being unusually cheap, however, the cities and towns that ought to have benefitted were also struggling. The Silver Crisis, along with the general disruption of trade thanks to the Thirty Years War, had reduced the demand for English cloth exports. And this, in turn, threatened to worsen the general shortage of silver coin — having a trade surplus, from the value of exports exceeding imports, was one of the only known ways to boost the amount of silver coming into the country. England had no major silver mines of its own.
It’s in this context that some MPs proposed a ban on any grain imports below a certain price. They argued that not only were low prices and low rents harming their farming and landowning constituents, but that importing foreign grain was undermining the country’s balance of trade. They argued that it was one of the many causes of silver being drawn abroad and worsening the crisis.
The response from largely urban MPs, however, was vehement. It’s amazing how similar the arguments were to those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or even to today. The bill’s opponents warned that restricting foreign imports would likely prompt retaliation by other countries, with worrying long-term implications. If England were to short-sightedly ban Polish grain during a time of plenty, then in a time of dearth it would not easily be able to import grain from there again, leaving the country at the mercy of the next closest centre for grain exports — the rival Dutch Republic. Any potential retaliation that disrupted English cloth exports was also likely to just make the general crisis worse, with reduced exports making it even harder to draw in silver. One of the MPs for London put it plainly: “this bill is a dangerous bill, and will destroy the navigation of the kingdom, and the merchants of the kingdom.”3
The bill’s opponents also argued that it would hurt the poor and make charity less effective: higher food prices would lessen the purchasing power of every penny that the poor either earned or were given. The opponents even argued that trying to prop up grain prices might be construed as “unthankfulness to God to be discontented at the cheapness of that which is one of the greatest blessings”.4 Undermining the effects of the good harvest was thus seen as potentially blasphemous. The 1621 free trade movement appears to have had a religious bent.
The bill’s proponents of course had their answers to these objections. They argued that it was just as good, if not better, for the poor to have employment on thriving farms able to sell their grain at high prices. But really the issue came down to whether they were more concerned with the towns or the countryside — a tension that politicians on both sides of the debate fully recognised. One of the bill’s key supporters stated it plainly: “If corn bear not a good price, the husbandman cannot be set on work, for the farmer has not to pay him; and the low price of corn only benefits the handicraftsman, citizens and townsmen.”5 And there was a regional dimension. The more populated and industrial parts of the country, like cloth-making Devon, tin-mining Cornwall, coal-hewing Northumbria, and the swelling metropolis of London may all have benefitted from cheaper grain, “but the middle countries, which are the greatest part, have nothing but corn wherewith to furnish themselves with such things as the want.”6
In the end, the bill did not make it into law.7 Although it got all the way to a third reading in the House of Commons, it was hotly contested from the very start and seems to have never been sent to the Lords. But what’s interesting, I think, is how so many of the MPs who opposed it went against their own self-interest. Although many would have had investments in commerce or come from mercantile backgrounds, ultimately the entire House of Commons — just like in the 1815 parliament that passed the Corn Laws — would have been landowning gentry who took a personal hit from the drop in agricultural rents. But, unlike in 1815, it was seemingly not enough to trump their wider responsibilities. “We that sit here do few of us buy our own corn,” noted one MP, “but we serve most of us for towns who may think that we have made this bill for our own profit and to their undoing.”8 He was reminding his colleagues that while higher grain prices might benefit them personally, they had a higher duty to their urban constituents and to the public — a duty that some of them, or at least enough of them, took sufficiently seriously to stop the bill.
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Wallace Notestein, Frances Helen Relf, and Hartley Simpson, eds., Commons Debates, 1621, vol. IV (Yale University Press, 1935), p.104
John Chamberlain, The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert McClure, vol. II, Memoirs, XII, Part II (American Philosophical Society, 1939), pp.328, 342. Chamberlain quoted as low the price of 24 pence for a bushel of wheat in November 1620, falling to 20-22 by February 1621; in the same period barley also apparently fell from 10.5 pence to 9.
Edward Nicholas, The Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons in 1620 and 1621, ed. T. Tyrwhitt (Clarendon Press, 1766), vol. II, p.87
Notestein et al, vol. IV, p.358
Nicholas, vol. I, p.133
Notestein et al, vol. IV, p.359
Technically, essentially none of the bills passed in 1621 — except those to raise taxes — made their way into law because the Parliament was dissolved by an angry king. But from what I can tell the bill had already died by then, before it could be sent to the Lords.
Notestein et al, vol. IV, p.358