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Disraeli's explanation to his constituents of his votes in Parliament (1842)

In the early part of his speech Disraeli defended Sir Robert Peel against the attacks of the extreme protectionists who did not like the governmental policies of 1842. For himself, he would not pledge himself, "to miserable questions of 6d. in 7s. 6d. or 8s. of duties about corn"; what he wished to secure was "the preponderance of the landed interest." He continued:

Gentlemen, we hear a great deal in the present day upon the subject of the feudal system. I have heard from the lips of Mr. Cobden - no, I have not heard him say it, as I was not present to hear the celebrated speech he made in Drury Lane Theatre - but we have all heard how Mr. Cobden, who is a very eminent person, has said, in a very memorable speech, that England was the victim of the feudal system, and we have all heard how he has spoken of the barbarism of the feudal system, and of the barbarous relics of the feudal system. Now, if we have any relics of the feudal system, I regret that not more of it is remaining. Think one moment - and it is well you should be reminded of what this is, because there is no phrase more glibly used in the present day than "the barbarism of the feudal system." Now, what is the fundamental principle of the feudal system, gentlemen? It is that the tenure of all property shall be the performance of its duties. Why, when the Conqueror carved out parts of the land, and introduced the feudal system, he said to the recipient, "You shall have that estate, but you shall do something for it: you shall feed the poor; you shall endow the Church; you shall defend the land in case of war; and you shall execute justice and maintain truth to the poor for nothing."

It is all very well to talk of the barbarities of the feudal system, and to tell us that in those days when it flourished a great variety of gross and grotesque circumstances and great miseries occurred but these were not the result of the feudal system; they were the result of the barbarism of the age. They existed not from the feudal system, but in spite of the feudal system. The principle of the feudal system, the principle which was practically operated upon, was the noblest principle, the grandest, the most magnificent and benevolent that was ever conceived by sage, or ever practised by patriot. Why, when I hear a political economist, or an Anti-Corn-Law Leaguer, or some conceited Liberal reviewer come forward and tell us, as a grand discovery of modern science, twitting and taunting, perhaps, some unhappy squire who cannot respond to the alleged discovery - when I hear them say, as the great discovery of modern science, that "Property has its duties as well as its rights," my answer is that that is but a feeble plagiarism of the very principle of that feudal system which you are always reviling. Let me next tell those gentlemen who are so fond of telling us that property has its duties as well as its rights, that labour also has rights as well as its duties; and when I see masses of property raised in this country which do not recognize that principle; when I find men making fortunes by a method which permits them (very often in a very few years) to purchase the lands of the old territorial aristocracy of the country, I cannot help remembering that those millions are accumulated by a mode which does not recognize it as a duty "to endow the Church, to feed the poor, to guard the land, and to execute justice for nothing." And I cannot help asking myself, when I hear of all this misery, and of all this suffering; when I know that evidence exists in our Parliament of a state of demoralisation in the once happy population of this land, which is not equalled in the most barbarous countries, which we suppose the more rude and uncivilised in Asia are - I cannot help suspecting that this has arisen because property has been permitted to be created and held without the performance of its duties.

Now, I want to ask the gentlemen who are members of the Anti-Corn-Law League, the gentlemen who are pressing on the Government of the country, on the present occasion, the total repeal and abolition of the Corn Laws - I want to know whether they have soberly considered how far they are personally responsible for this degraded state of our population. And I want them to consider this most important point, which has never yet been properly brought before any deliberative assembly - how far the present law of succession and inheritance in land will survive - if that falls - if we recur to the Continental system of parcelling out landed estates - I want to know how long you can maintain the political system of the country. The estate of the Church which I mentioned; that estate of the poor to which I made allusion; those traditionary manners and associations which spring out of the land, which form the national character, which form part of the possession of the poor not to be despised, and which is one of the most important elements of political power - they will tell you "Let it go." My answer to that is, "If it goes, it is a revolution, a great, a destructive revolution." For these reasons, gentlemen, I believe in that respect, faithfully representing your sentiments, that I have always upheld that law which, I think, will uphold and maintain the preponderance of the agricultural interests of the country. I do not wish to conceal the ground upon which I wish to uphold it. I never attempted to uphold it by talking of the peculiar burthens, which, however, I believe, may be legitimately proved, or indulging in many of those arguments in favour of the Corn Laws which may or may not be sound, but which are always brought forward with a sort of hesitating consciousness which may be assumed to be connected with futility. I take the only broad and only safe line - namely, that what we ought to uphold is, the preponderance of the landed interest; that the preponderance of the landed interest has made England; that it is an immense element of political power and stability; that we should never have been able to undertake the great war in which we embarked in the memory of many present - that we could never have been able to conquer the greatest military genius the world ever saw, with the greatest means at his disposal, and to hurl him from his throne, if we had not had a territorial aristocracy to give stability to our constitution.

And I mean to say this, that if we had not done that, if we had not had that territorial power, and that preponderance of the landowner in our constitution, I do not see why Great Britain, probably very contented and very prosperous, should have been a greater power than Denmark or Sweden; but I for one am not prepared to sit under the power of a third-class if I can be a citizen of a first-class Empire. And I do not believe that any man who listens to me can differ with me upon that point. It is enough that you were born in Shropshire, that you are a portion of that ancient county, that you were born in a county full of historical recollections, a county that has taken the lead of all others in public affairs, a county where, as Lord Clarendon says, "the Cavaliers' blood lives." It is enough that you have undergone great vicissitudes; it is enough that you have lived under various dynasties; it is enough that you have sprung from a race that has done something; it is enough that you can talk of your ancestors as of a people that can be remembered - it is enough to know all this in order to feel that you do not want to be put in the catalogue of new States which may hereafter turn out something or may not - in fact, to feel that you do not want to be turned into a sort of a spinning-jenny machine kind of a nation. You want, in fact, to "be" a great people, because you "are" a great people, and because you feel that the exertions of your fathers and your own aspirations entitle you to that position: and it seems to be a reasonable ambition.

Before I sit down I do not wish to close without an observation on those who are always finding fault with the humbler classes of the community - who at the same time charitably say they are not responsible for their deterioration. I confess that, as far as I can form an opinion, the deterioration of society is not to be found only among the labourers of the country. It is not in the squalid dwellings; it is not in the miserable details of sickening poverty, that this deterioration may be found; but, in my opinion, that heroic nobility which formed this country, and that spirited gentry which has so often come forward to vindicate our rights or to defend our liberties, and which have also been the main source of our commercial greatness - for it is the nobility and gentry of the land who have founded our greatest colonies - in my opinion the present race is deficient in those qualities. There are, however, great exceptions to be made, even in the higher classes of the country; but there is a miserable philosophy of the day which ascribes everything to "the spirit of the age" - that thinks nothing is to be done by the influence of individual character, which is, after all, the only inducement to great actions, the only spur to great achievements. That opinion is much too prevalent; and there is no question that it is not merely among the lower classes that we find a lack of those great qualities which hitherto have always been associated with the noble, national character of England.

I told you when I saw you first that I should maintain, so far as my vote could maintain, the preponderance of the landed interest. I am of that opinion still. I believe the landed interest should be the basis of our political and social system. But if there be others who are of a different opinion, if it be - which I do not believe - that there are those of a different opinion in high places, and that these alterations may be brought forward, and perhaps even passed, do not let us for a moment disguise from ourselves the influence which such an event must have, I will not say upon the political power, or social condition, or financial prosperity of the country, for these are great themes, but upon the more limited but most interesting topic of the construction of parties. Rest assured, if these, changes are brought forward, whoever may be the person to propose them, that we are on the eve of an age of great party convulsion - that we are on the eve of an age when we shall see no more permanent Governments, no more strong Governments, no more administrations carrying out from long and patient experience and conviction the remedies of the faults of their predecessors. Then let me tell you that, in that time, they who look for benefit from the hands of public men, or look to the favour of Courts, or the confidence of ministers, will build upon a rock of sand. No public man at that time will be in a position in which he can pursue his career who has not the power to cast his anchor deep in the rock of some great constitutional constituency. As for myself, if that happens, I shall come to you and tell you, "I am here; we are beaten; but I have done my duty. Remember what I told you when we met in the Music Hall at Shrewsbury in 1843; 1 told you what might happen; I told you I did not believe it would occur, but if it did occur I was prepared to act; I told you then that I had elected to support that cause which I believe upholds the power and prosperity of my country, and the social happiness of all classes. Others have thought differently; the majority, perhaps the enlightened majority, animated by that 'spirit of the age' which hitherto we have seen, have thought differently, and have had the power to act differently."

But I have still some confidence in the national character of Englishmen. I know well that before this, the country has experienced great vicissitudes. I know well that we had in England more revolutions, and upon a greater scale, than in any other country in the world. It is utterly impossible, indeed, for the French Revolution, or any other, to embrace more comprehensive objects. You have had the majesty of England brought to the block; you have had the Church, personified by Archbishop Laud, brought to the block; you have had the administration, in the person of Strafford, brought to the block - the king, the minister, and the archbishop. You have had the House of Lords voted a nuisance. You have had the House of Commons kicked out in an ignominious manner by a military officer. You have had the Church completely sequestrated. All this has happened in England. But before a quarter of a century passed over, you returned to your old laws, your old habits, your old traditions, your old convictions. In 1648 Oliver Cromwell slept at Whitehall; in 1688 [manifestly a mis-statement] Charles II followed his example. And shall I tell you the reason why, after circumstances so wonderful, though no historian has noticed it; though you saw every trace of the social system uprooted by the most prejudicial, grasping, and subtle enemies that were ever invented; though the vessel became a wreck, and the king, the Church, and the constitution were swept away, the nation returned to itself? Shall I tell you how it was that the nation returned to itself, and Old England, after the deluge, was seen rising above the waters? This was the reason - because during all that fearful revolution you never changed the tenure of your landed property. That, I think, gentlemen, proves my case; and if we have baffled a wit like Oliver Cromwell, let us not be staggered even before Mr. Cobden. The acres remained; the estates remained. The generations changed: the Puritan father died, and the Cavalier son came into his place, and, backed by that power and influence, the nation reverted to the ancient principles of the realm. And this, gentlemen, is the reason why you have seen an outcry raised our Corn Laws. Your Corn Laws are merely the out work of a great system fixed and established upon your territorial property, and the only object the Leaguers have in making themselves masters of the outwork is that they may easily overcome the citadel.

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