The Corn Laws were taxes on imported grain introduced in 1815, and designed to keep prices high for cereal producers in Great Britain. The laws indeed did raise food prices, and became the focus of opposition from urban groups who had less political power than rural Britain. The corn laws initially prohibited foreign corn completely from being imported at below 80s a quarter, a process replaced by a sliding scale in 1828. Such import duties still made it expensive for anyone to import grain from other countries, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported by Conservative (and Whig) landowners, and opposed by urban industrialists and workers. The League was responsible for turning public and elite opinion against the laws. It was a large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade with a utopian vision. Its leading advocate Richard Cobden, according to historian Asa Briggs, promised that repeal would settle four great problems simultaneously:
The first Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London in 1836; but it was not until 1838 that the nation-wide League, combining all such local associations, was founded, with Richard Cobden and John Bright among its leaders. Cobden was the chief strategist; Bright was its great orator. A representative activist was Thomas Perronet Thompson, who specialized in the grass-roots mobilisation of opinion through pamphlets, newspaper articles, correspondence, speeches, and endless local planning meetings. The League was based in Manchester and had support from numerous industrialists, especially in the textile industry.
The League borrowed many of the tactics first developed by the anti-slavery crusaders, while also attempting to replicate its mantle of moral reform. Among these were the use of emotionally charged meetings and closely argued tracts: nine million were distributed by a staff of 800 in 1843 alone. The League also used its financial strength and campaign resources to defeat protectionists at by-elections by enfranchising League supporters through giving them a 40 shilling freehold: the strategy certainly alarmed the Tories, but was expensive and led to numerous defeats, which the League blamed on the tyrannical power of the landlords. One of the most nationally visible efforts came in the 1843 election in Salisbury. Its candidate was defeated and it was unable to convince voters regarding free trade. However, the League did learn lessons that helped to transform its political tactics. It learned to concentrate on elections where there was a good expectation of victory.
Nevertheless the League had a restricted capability for contesting electoral seats, and its role in the final act of 1846 was largely that of creating a favourable climate of opinion. 1845 saw Lord John Russell, the Whig leader, declare for complete repeal of the corn duty as the only way to satisfy the League; while the Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, had also been privately won over by Cobden's reasoning to the league's way of thinking. When the crunch came, Peel put through a (staggered) repeal through Parliament without a general election, to the applause of Cobden and Bright.
The League then prepared to dissolve itself. The Tory victory of 1852 saw preparations to revive the League, however, in order to keep a watching brief on Protectionist forces; and it was only after Disraeli’s 1852 budget that Cobden felt able to write to George Wilson: “The Budget has finally closed the controversy with Protection...The League may be dissolved when you like”. Many of its members thereafter continued their political activism in the Liberal Party, with the goal of establishing a fully free-trade economy.