In , The North American Review carried an article by Charles Stewart Parnell in which he explained the situation in Ireland to American readers. In the course of this, he covered the rent strike tactic. Excerpts:
…I have as yet seen no reason to believe that the Irish are incapable of gaining eventually all the reforms they desire, even the last and noblest one of all, the restoration of their national autonomy.
Parnell says that English “absentee landlords and corporations” had been trying to run the Irish off their land, and indeed out of Ireland, in an attempt to make Ireland the livestock-grazing pasture of England (a project of diminishing returns, as America was flooding the market with cheaper meat). He says emigration of the suffering Irish is not the solution to their troubles, but that they should stay and fight for their rights.
He then goes on to explain the theory and actions of the Land League:
The objects of the League, as announced at the public meeting at which it was first formed, are: 1. To promote organization among the tenant farmers; 2. To defend those threatened with eviction for refusing to pay extortionate rents; 3. To facilitate the working of the Bright clauses of the Land Act; 4. To obtain such a reform of the laws relating to land as will enable every tenant to become the owner of his holding, by paying a fair rent for a limited number of years. “It only remains, then“ says O’Connor Power, in his article on the “Land Agitation,” in the “Nineteenth Century,” for , “to push forward with the utmost energy those minor reforms framed to mitigate the evils of the existing system, such as the abolition of all artificial restrictions on the sale and transfer of land, the abolition of the laws of primogeniture and entail, the more efficient working of the Bright clauses of the Land Act, and the reclamation and distribution of the waste lands, while keeping steadily in view the main object of emancipating the entire agricultural population from the power of landlordism.”
Parnell said this “main object” would make tenants into farm owners by fiat, by breaking up the landholdings of the landlords in a manner similar to that in which the King of Prussia emancipated the Prussian serf/peasantry in .
I have said thus much to show the direction of the objects and ideas of the Land-Leaguers. I must now add that the cause which most immediately gave birth to the Land League, as it at present stands, was the refusal of the majority of Irish landlords to reduce their rents, [in] spite of the rapidly approaching famine.
The English landlords, always less grasping than Irish landlords, had quietly reduced their rents in England all round, months before, thus avoiding any complications with their tenants. Not so the Irish landlords. They saw, of course, as well as the English ones did, that the harvest would be a failure, but, having always been accustomed to take the last pound of flesh, they thought they could do it again. This time, however, thanks to the manly attitude taken by the tenants, they have been disappointed.
Undoubtedly if [the landlords] had been left to work their own sweet will, if the tenant-farmers had not been organized for the purpose of self-preservation, their programme — their foolish, short-sighted programme, looking at it merely from the point of view of their own interests — would have been carried out. On the part of the people, there would have been a resort to assassination; some landlords, agents, and bailiffs would probably have been shot; the Irish would have been overwhelmed with torrents of denunciation, and an immense tide of emigration would have already set in, sweeping away all the best and most vigorous of our people; while the scenes of starvation in Ireland itself, bad as they are, would have been intensified a hundred-fold.
If these disasters have been in a great measure averted, we think we can claim that it has been owing, directly and indirectly, to the Land League. This body has, from the beginning, taken up the position that, with the certain prospect of famine before him, the duty of the tenant was first to preserve the lives of himself and his family. It was, therefore, necessary for him to keep as much money as would support him and his family till the next harvest, and only to pay to the landlord, as rent, what he had left after doing so.
After teaching the tenant that he must save his own life and the lives of his children, the next object of the Land League was to show him how to do this. Its advice to the farmer, “Keep a firm grip on your homestead,” has become proverbial. How did it propose that the farmer should obey?
The League calculated on the landlords at last perceiving that their best chances lay in keeping their tenants, even at half rents, rather than in evicting them, and going into the unprofitable business of grazing; for, not being able to get any tenants to fill the places of those evicted, that was the only resource left them.
The action of such a large majority of landlords, in reducing their rents, after the League had been formed, and the system of passive resistance fairly established, shows that they did finally recognize the situation, and that they determined to make the best of it.
Parnell says that even though turning tenanted land into livestock-grazing pasture is no longer profitable the way it used to be, landlords are still encouraging Irish emigration as a way of reducing the relative political power of the Irish.
[But t]he Land League saw through this design, and defeated it by their advice to the people to resist being compelled to emigrate. It told them to refuse to pay extortionate rents — that is, rents they could not pay and at the same time feed their families; it told them to refuse to leave their homes unless forcibly ejected, so that winter might not find them without a shelter to their heads; and it told them to refuse to rent farms from which other tenants had been evicted. By compliance with this advice twelve millions of dollars have been kept in the pockets of the tenantry, and the famine has been diminished by that amount. The simple piece of advice, “Keep a good grip on your homesteads,” has thus done more in staving off the famine than all the relief funds put together. It has also saved the lives of landlords and agents; it has roused the people to a true sense of the power they can wield by comparatively peaceable means; it has brought many landlords to their senses; it will end, we believe, by bringing them all to their senses. Finally, it has brought the two greatest statesmen of England, Gladstone and John Bright, to a perception of how much yet remains to be done to Ireland. And not only these two, but innumerable minor thinkers now acknowledge that an immense deal must yet be done before Ireland can be satisfied.
It is useless to say that telling the tenants to pay no rents in a famine year, unless they get a sufficient reduction to enable them to live, is communistic and revolutionary. It is no more communistic than to compel the owner of a private hoard of provisions on board a wreck to share it with his starving companions. The preservation of property is secondary to the preservation of life. Where a whole community is in danger from the selfish action of a small minority, this axiom applies with full force.
Parnell then recounts the case of Prince Edward Island, which had until recently been, like Ireland, under British law. In , the Island’s legislature broke up the Island’s landholdings (which had largely been arbitrarily awarded by the Crown) and compelled their sale to the tenants. Parnell quotes a commentator:
“Frequently, as in Ireland to-day, the people forcibly resisted the collection of rents; and on one occasion troops were transported to the island to suppress the disturbance. Thus, for a century almost, did the struggling people protest against the wrongs under which they were suffering, …the landlords frustrated every attempt at redress… But the end came” — the compulsory land-purchase act of .