Academic journal article History of Economics Review

William Thomas Thornton's 'The True Consequences of the Repeal of the Corn Laws' with an Introduction and Annotations

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

William Thomas Thornton's 'The True Consequences of the Repeal of the Corn Laws' with an Introduction and Annotations

Article excerpt

'Most men, indeed, entertain pretty decided opinions with regard to it'. William T. Thornton (1841)

1 Introduction

In early 1841, William T. Thornton (1813-1880) accepted an invitation to address members of the Travellers' Club on the divisive issue of the repeal of the Corn Laws. (1) Until his return to England in 1835, Thornton had led a peripatetic life, initially travelling to Malta in the 1820s where he resided with a well-connected relative, Sir William Henry Thornton, the Auditor-General, before sallying off to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, where he secured employment on the staff of the British Consul, John Cartwright. When he returned from the Levant he settled in London where he gained employment at the East India Company, a position secured through family connections. Thornton had been appointed to the lowest rung within the Company's administrative structure, but he was now confidently making his way in the world and seemed destined for bigger things. At some stage between his return to London in 1835 and his presentation to the Travellers' Club in 1841 the foundation for his life-long interest in political economy was laid. (2) This interest led initially to his embarking upon an examination of the economic impact of the Corn Laws, followed by the Travellers' Club presentation and finally the penning of a little-known pamphlet titled The True Consequences of the Repeal of the Corn Laws (1841), judiciously published by Effingham Wilson, a London bookseller renowned for issuing material other London publishers were reluctant to handle. This pamphlet, which has never before been republished, is reproduced in full below. Its publication can be justified on several grounds. First, even though the pamphlet constitutes Thornton's earliest efforts as an economic writer it has only ever been acknowledged in the literature by Grampp (1956), whose passing reference to it was accompanied by a very peculiar reading of Thornton on the Corn Laws and money wages) Second, it should be understood that the pamphlet is a piece of comparative juvenilia that contributed to the wider economic debate on agricultural protection along partisan lines. For example, Thornton's use of a simplistic wage fund construction to determine money wages allows the reader to better gauge how far he had travelled by the 1860s when he presented a more sophisticated critique of the wage fund in terms of supply and demand theory. Third, the impression of juvenilia is reinforced by tracing the approach that Thornton adopts when accounting for changes in the pattern of trade after repeal. His study is quite compatible with, and the language indicates that it was constructed in terms of, an absolute advantage argument rather than along Ricardian comparative advantage lines. Fourth, his view of the incidence of tax, although largely correct, is open to criticism due to the narrowness of its premise. Fifth, the pamphlet anticipates a number of economic topics that Thornton canvassed more thoroughly in his Overpopulation and Its Remedy (1846) and A Plea for Peasant Proprietors (1848), both of which received handsome notices in the leading Victorian periodicals of the day. From this perspective, Thornton's pamphlet may be seen as representing a capsule summary of the two more assured works he published during the late 1840s which announced his arrival as both an important and a new economic voice.

The Corn Laws were introduced in 1804 to protect domestic agricultural producers from foreign competition by imposing a system of import taxes or duties on grain. Until its repeal in mid-1846, (4) the Corn Laws remained a source of tension between free traders and protectionists because disputes over its abolition came to symbolise 'the waning of aristocratic domination of British politics' in the Victorian era (McKeown 1989, p. 353). This clash, in effect over the direction of post-1832 constitutional reform, generally pitted large aristocratic landlords against middle-class radical reformers (Nicholls 1985, p. …

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