Malthus and the Corn Laws

  • Wray Vamplew


In the last five years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the price of wheat in Britain averaged over 100 shillings a quarter as contrasted with an immediate pre-war quinquennial average of under 50 shillings. Aggregate demand, enlarged by the rise in population over two decades, had played a role, but probably more important was, in the face of restricted overseas trade, the domestic suppliers who could only respond to this demand stimulus by bringing marginal land into cultivation, a move which necessarily incurred increased unit costs of production. In fact it was this rise in the supply price which provided the empirical base for both Malthus’s and Ricardo’s theoretical exposition of the law of diminishing returns. Fears that such relatively less productive land would be rendered uneconomic by cheaper foreign corn supplies once peacetime trading resumed, led to a successful political campaign by the landed interest to impose a Corn Law which would restrict grain imports unless the domestic price was such as to offer adequate remuneration to the British cereal grower. Most political economists who entered the Corn Law debate opposed such a policy as being inimical to the tenets of free trade, but Malthus diverged from mainstream political economy on this issue and swam against current orthodoxy in recommending protection for the nation’s grain producers.


National Average Free Trade Home Consumption Supply Price Warehouse System 
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Notes and References

  1. 2.
    T. R. Malthus, Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws, in The Pamphlets of Thomas Robert Malthus (reprinted New York, 1970) pp. 95–131.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    M. Paglin, introduction to T. R. Malthus, Principles of Political Economy (reprinted New York, 1964) p. v.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    For a detailed study of the corn returns see W. Vamplew, ‘A Grain of Truth: The Nineteenth Century Corn Averages’, Agricultural History Review, XXVIII (1980) 1–17.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Michael Turner 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wray Vamplew

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