The Corn Laws were taxes on imported grain 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 far less political power than rural Britain. The corn laws imposed steep import duties, making it too expensive for anyone to import grain from other countries, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported by Conservative landowners and opposed by Whig 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 League was founded in 1838 by Richard Cobden and John Bright. 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 main tactic of the League was to defeat protectionists at by-elections by concentrating its financial strength and campaign resources. The idea was that it would gain nationwide publicity from a handful of election campaigns every year. The strategy resulted in numerous defeats, which the League blamed on the tyrannical power of the landlords. The tactic also required very expensive subsidies so that League supporters would have a 40 shilling freehold and thus become enfranchised.
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.
The League played little role in the final act in 1846. It had no capability of contesting 150–200 seats in a general election. Furthermore, Sir Robert Peel neutralized the League's strategy by ramming repeal through Parliament without a general election. It then dissolved itself. Many of its members continued their political activism in the Liberal Party, with the goal of establishing a fully free-trade economy.