190 years of The Spectator
14 January 1843
The country gentlemen of England never committed a greater blunder than when they passed the Corn Law of 1815. If they would but allow themselves to examine dispassionately their own objects, they could scarcely fail to discover this, and also the necessity of retreating as speedily as possible from the false position in which they then placed themselves. The country gentlemen are the most powerful body in England, and they are fond of their power and proud of it.
But the passing of the Corn Law gave a rude shock to the opinion favourable to the power of the country gentlemen. It placed them in the invidious light of men who perverted the office of legislators into the means of passing a law to keep up rents. It is an object to which an unwise prominence is given by the country gentlemen themselves in all their arguments about the Corn Law. By maintaining the Corn Law, they put perpetually a weapon in the hands of any enemy, wherewith he may smite them at any time severely. Of two props of their power — wealth and opinion — they are wantonly throwing away one, and that not the least important. It is of no avail to impute sinister motives to the Anti-Corn-Law agitators; it is of no avail to complain of the illegality of their association, or the tone and temper of their speeches. The sting of these speeches, the power of that association, is bestowed by the Corn Law. Repeal the Corn > Law, and the agitation must expire with it.
But so long as the Corn Law exists, it will be used as a means to lower the country gentlemen in the opinion of the public. Leaving out of view the illusory nature of the Corn Law as a means of keeping up rent, it is for the country gentlemen to consider whether all the money they fancy they may gain by it can compensate for the shock it gives to the public opinion in their favour, and the consequent weakening of that political power by which they set so much store. Good-will must be purchased by ‘living and letting live’. Country gentlemen cannot both have rack-rents and the love entertained for landlords who do not extort the utmost penny. In other words, they cannot both have their cake and the price of it.