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Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden (3 June 1804 – 2 April 1865) was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League as well as with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty.

Contents

Early years

Cobden was born at a farmhouse called Dunford, in Heyshott near Midhurst, in Sussex. His family had been resident in that neighbourhood for many generations, occupied partly in trade and partly in agriculture. His grandfather owned Bex Mill in Heyshott and was a maltster, an energetic and prosperous man who served as bailiff and chief magistrate, taking rather a notable part in county matters. His father, forsaking malting, took to farming. A poor business man, he died while Richard was a child.

The family returned to Midhurst where Cobden attended a dame school and then Bowes Hall School in Teesdale, Yorkshire. When fifteen years of age he went to London to the warehouse business of his uncle Richard Ware Cole where he became a commercial traveller in muslin and calico. His relative, noting the lad's passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him against indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life. Cobden was undeterred and made good use of the library of the London Institution. When his uncle's business failed, he joined that of Partridge & Price, in Eastcheap, one of the partners being his uncle's former partner.

In 1828, Cobden set up his own business with Sheriff and Gillet, partly with capital from John Lewis [1] , acting as London agents for Fort Brothers, Manchester calico printers. In 1831, the partners sought to lease a factory from Fort's at Sabden, near Clitheroe They had, however, insufficient capital between them. Cobden and his colleagues so impressed Fort's that they consented to retain a substantial proportion of the equity. The new firm prospered and soon had three establishments — the printing works at Sabden and sales outlets in London and Manchester. The Manchester outlet came under the direct management of Cobden, who settled there in 1832, beginning a long association with the city. The success of this enterprise was decisive and rapid, and the "Cobden prints" soon became well known for their quality.

Had Cobden devoted all his energies to the business, he might soon have become very wealthy. His earnings in the business were typically £8,000 to £10,000 a year. However, his life-long habit of learning and inquiry absorbed much of his time. Writing under the byname Libra, he published many letters in the Manchester Times discussing commercial and economic questions.

Peace campaigner

When Cobden returned from abroad, he addressed himself to what seemed to him the logical complement of free trade, namely, the promotion of peace and the reduction of naval and military armaments. His abhorrence of war amounted to a passion and, in fact, his campaigns against the Corn Laws were motivated by his belief that free trade was a powerful force for peace and defence against war. He knowingly exposed himself to the risk of ridicule and the reproach of utopianism. In 1849, he brought forward a proposal in parliament in favour of international arbitration, and, in 1851, a motion for mutual reduction of armaments. He was not successful in either case, nor did he expect to be. In pursuance of the same object, he identified himself with a series of peace congresses which from 1848 to 1851 were held successively in Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

On the establishment of the Second French Empire in 1851–1852, a violent panic, fuelled by the press, gripped the public. Louis Napoleon was represented as contemplating a sudden and piratical descent upon the English coast without pretext or provocation. By a series of speeches and pamphlets, in and out of parliament, Cobden sought to calm the passions of his countrymen. In doing so, he sacrificed the great popularity he had won as the champion of free trade, and became for a time the best-abused man in England.

However, owing to the quarrel about the religious sites of Palestine, which arose in the east of Europe, public opinion suddenly veered round, and all the suspicion and hatred which had been directed against the emperor of the French were diverted from him to the emperor of Russia. Louis Napoleon was taken into favour as England's faithful ally, and in a whirlwind of popular excitement the nation was swept into the Crimean War.

Again confronting public sentiment, Cobden, who had travelled in Turkey, and had studied its politics, was dismissive of the outcry about maintaining the independence and integrity of the Ottoman empire. He denied that it was possible to maintain them, and no less strenuously denied that it was desirable. He believed that the jealousy of Russian aggrandizement and the dread of Russian power were absurd exaggerations. He maintained that the future of European Turkey was in the hands of the Christian population, and that it would have been wiser for England to ally herself with them rather than with what he saw as the doomed and decaying Islamic power. "You must address yourselves," he said in the House of Commons, "as men of sense and men of energy, to the question—what are you to do with the Christian population? for Mahommedanism [Islam] cannot be maintained, and I should be sorry to see this country fighting for the maintenance of Mahommedanism ... You may keep Turkey on the map of Europe, you may call the country by the name of Turkey if you like, but do not think you can keep up the Mahommedan rule in the country." The torrent of popular sentiment in favour of war was, however, irresistible; and both Cobden and John Bright were overwhelmed with obloquy.

First publications

In 1835 he published his first pamphlet, entitled England, Ireland and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer.[1] Cobden advocated the principles of peace, non-intervention, retrenchment and free trade to which he continued faithful. He paid a visit to the United States, landing in New York on 7 June 1835. He devoted about three months to this tour, passing rapidly through the seaboard states and the adjacent portion of Canada, and collecting as he went large stores of information respecting the condition, resources and prospects of the nation. Another work appeared towards the end of 1836, under the title of Russia.[2] It was designed to combat a wild outbreak of Russophobia inspired by David Urquhart. It contained also a bold indictment of the whole system of foreign policy founded on ideas of the balance of power and the necessity of large armaments for the protection of commerce.

Bad health obliged him to leave England, and for several months, at the end of 1836 and the beginning of 1837, he travelled in Spain, Turkey and Egypt. During his visit to Egypt he had an interview with Mehemet Ali, of whose character as a reforming monarch he did not bring away a very favourable impression. He returned to England in April 1837.

First steps in politics

Statue of Richard Cobden outside St Ann's church, Manchester

Cobden soon became a conspicuous figure in Manchester political and intellectual life. He championed the foundation of the Manchester Athenaeum and delivered its inaugural address. He was a member of the chamber of commerce and was part of the campaign for the incorporation of the city, being elected one of its first aldermen. He began also to take a warm interest in the cause of popular education. Some of his first attempts in public speaking were at meetings which he convened at Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Rochdale and other adjacent towns, to advocate the establishment of British schools. It was while on a mission for this purpose to Rochdale that he first formed the acquaintance of John Bright. In 1837, the death of William IV and the accession of Queen Victoria led to a general election. Cobden was candidate for Stockport, but was narrowly defeated.

Corn Laws

In 1838, an association was formed in Manchester in opposition to the Corn Laws, which, on his suggestion, was afterwards changed into a national association, under the title of the Anti-Corn Law League. During the league's seven years, Cobden was its chief spokesman and animating spirit. He was not afraid to take his challenge in person to the agricultural landlords or to confront the Chartists, led by Feargus O'Connor.

In 1841, Sir Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in parliament, there was a general election, Cobden being returned as MP for Stockport. His opponents had confidently predicted that he would fail utterly in the House of Commons. He did not wait long, after his admission into that assembly, in bringing their predictions to the test. Parliament met on 19 August. On the 24th, during the debate on the Queen's Speech, Cobden delivered his first address. "It was remarked," reported Harriet Martineau in her History of the Peace, "that he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member, and it was perceived that he did not need such observance." Undeterred, he gave a simple and forceful exposition of his position on the Corn Laws. This marked the start of his reputation as a master of the issues.

On 17 February 1843 Cobden launched an attack on Peel, holding him responsible for the miserable state of the nation's workers. Peel did not respond in the debate but the speech was made at a time of heightened political feelings. Edward Drummond, Peel's private secretary, had recently been mistaken for the prime minister and shot dead in the street by a lunatic. However, later in the evening, Peel referred in excited and agitated tones to the remark, as an incitement to violence against his person. Peel's party, catching at this hint, threw themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and when Cobden attempted to explain that he meant official, not personal responsibility, he was drowned out.

Peel went on to "fully and unequivocally withdraw the imputation which was thrown out in the heat of debate under an erroneous impression," and was eventually swayed by Cobden's arguments, at the cost of splitting his own party. The bill to repeal the Corn Laws passed the House of Commons on 16 May 1846 by 98 votes. In the next month Peel was forced to resign the Prime Ministership, and in his resignation speech he credited Cobden, more than anyone else, with the repeal of the Corn Laws.[2]

Tribute and sojourn

Cobden had sacrificed his business, his domestic comforts and for a time his health to the campaign. His friends therefore felt, that the nation owed him some substantial token of gratitude and admiration for those sacrifices. Public subscription raised the sum of £80,000. Had he been inspired with personal ambition, he might have entered upon the race of political advancement with the prospect of attaining the highest office. Lord John Russell, who, soon after the repeal of the Corn Laws, succeeded Peel as prime minister, invited Cobden to join his government but Cobden declined the invitation.

Cobden had hoped to find some restorative privacy abroad but his fame had spread throughout Europe and he found himself lionised by the radical movement. In July 1846, he wrote to a friend "I am going to tell you of a fresh project that has been brewing in my brain. I have given up all idea of burying myself in Egypt or Italy. I am going on an agitating tour through the continent of Europe." He referred to invitations he had received from France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Spain and added, "Well, I will, with God's assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the people of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinctive emotion such as has never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than I had here to overturn our protection policy."

He visited in succession France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia, and was honoured everywhere he went. He not only addressed public demonstrations but also had several private audiences with leading statesmen. During his absence there was a general election, and he was returned (1847) for Stockport and for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He chose to sit for the latter.

Second Opium War

At the beginning of 1857 tidings from China reached England of a rupture between the British plenipotentiary in that country and the governor of the Canton province in reference to a small vessel or lorcha called the Arrow, which had resulted in the English admiral destroying the river forts, burning 23 ships belonging to the Chinese navy and bombarding the city of Canton. After a careful investigation of the official documents, Cobden became convinced that those were utterly unrighteous proceedings. He brought forward a motion in parliament to this effect, which led to a long and memorable debate, lasting over four nights, in which he was supported by Sidney Herbert, Sir James Graham, William Gladstone, Lord John Russell and Benjamin Disraeli, and which ended in the defeat of Lord Palmerston by a majority of sixteen.

But this triumph cost him his seat in parliament. On the dissolution which followed Lord Palmerston's defeat, Cobden became candidate for Huddersfield, but the voters of that town gave the preference to his opponent, who had supported the Russian War and approved of the proceedings at Canton. Cobden was thus relegated to private life, and retiring to his country house at Dunford, he spent his time in perfect contentment in cultivating his land and feeding his pigs.

He took advantage of this season of leisure to pay another visit to the U.S.[3]. During his absence the general election of 1859 occurred, when he was returned unopposed for Rochdale. Lord Palmerston was again prime minister, and having discovered that the advanced liberal party was not so easily "crushed" as he had apprehended, he made overtures of reconciliation, and invited Cobden and Thomas Milner Gibson to become members of his government. In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Lord Palmerston offered him the role of President of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept but without a moment's hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour. On his arrival in London he called on Lord Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister. Lord Palmerston tried good-humouredly to combat his objections, but without success.

But though he declined to share the responsibility of Lord Palmerston's administration, he was willing to act as its representative in promoting freer commercial intercourse between England and France. But the negotiations for this purpose originated with himself in conjunction with Bright and Michel Chevalier. Towards the close of 1859 he called upon Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Gladstone, and signified his intention to visit France and get into communication with Napoleon III of France and his ministers, with a view to promote this object. These statesmen expressed in general terms their approval of his purpose, but he went entirely on his own account, clothed at first with no official authority. On his arrival in Paris he had a long audience with Napoleon, in which he urged many arguments in favour of removing those obstacles which prevented the two countries from being brought into closer dependence on one another, and he succeeded in making a considerable impression on his mind in favour of free trade. He then addressed himself to the French ministers, and had much earnest conversation, especially with Eugène Rouher, whom he found well inclined to the economical and commercial principles which he advocated. After a good deal of time spent in these preliminary and unofficial negotiations, the question of a treaty of commerce between the two countries having entered into the arena of diplomacy, Cobden was requested by the British government to act as their plenipotentiary in the matter in conjunction with Henry Wellesley, 1st Earl Cowley, their ambassador in France. But it proved a very long and laborious undertaking. He had to contend with the bitter hostility of the French protectionists, which occasioned a good deal of vacillation on the part of the emperor and his ministers. There were also delays, hesitations and cavils at home, which were more inexplicable.

He was, moreover, assailed with great violence by a powerful section of the English press, while the large number of minute details with which he had to deal in connection with proposed changes in the French tariff, involved a tax on his patience and industry which would have daunted a less resolute man. But there was one source of embarrassment greater than all the rest. One strong motive which had impelled him to engage in this enterprise was his anxious desire to establish more friendly relations between England and France, and to dispel those feelings of mutual jealousy and alarm which were so frequently breaking forth and jeopardizing peace between the two countries. This was the most powerful argument with which he had plied the emperor and the members of the French government, and which he had found most efficacious with them. But while he was in the midst of the negotiations, Lord Palmerston brought forward in the House of Commons a measure for fortifying the naval arsenals of England, which he introduced in a warlike speech pointedly directed against France, as the source of danger of invasion and attack, against which it was necessary to guard. This produced irritation and resentment in Paris, and but for the influence which Cobden had acquired, and the perfect trust reposed in his sincerity, the negotiations would probably have been altogether wrecked. At last, however, after nearly twelve months' incessant labour, the work was completed in November 1860. "Rare," said Mr Gladstone, "is the privilege of any man who, having fourteen years ago rendered to his country one signal service, now again, within the same brief span of life, decorated neither by land nor title, bearing no mark to distinguish him from the people he loves, has been permitted to perform another great and memorable service to his sovereign and his country."

On the conclusion of this work honours were offered to Cobden by the governments of both the countries which he had so greatly benefited. Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, and the emperor of the French would gladly have conferred upon him some distinguished mark of his favour. But with characteristic disinterestedness and modesty he declined all such honours.

Cobden's efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinated to what he deemed the highest moral purposes: the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men. This was his desire and hope as respects the commercial treaty with France. He was therefore deeply disappointed and distressed to find the old feeling of distrust still actively fomented by the press and some of the leading politicians of the country. In 1862 he published his pamphlet entitled The Three Panics, the object of which was to trace the history and expose the folly of those periodical visitations of alarm as to French designs with which England had been afflicted for the preceding fifteen or sixteen years.[3]

American Civil War

When the American Civil War threatened to break out in the United States, Cobden was deeply distressed. But after the conflict became inevitable his sympathies were wholly with the Union, because of the perception that the Confederacy was fighting for slavery. His great anxiety, however, was that the British nation should not be committed to any unworthy course during the progress of that struggle. When relations with America were becoming critical and menacing in consequence of the depredations committed on American commerce by vessels issuing from British ports, actions that would lead to the post-war Alabama Claims, he brought the question before the House of Commons in a series of speeches of rare clearness and force.

Death

His grave in West Lavington churchyard

For several years Cobden had been suffering severely at intervals from bronchial irritation and a difficulty of breathing. Owing to this he had spent the winter of 1860 in Algeria, and every subsequent winter he had to be very careful and confine himself to the house, especially in damp and foggy weather. In November 1864 he went down to Rochdale and delivered a speech to his constituents—the last he ever delivered. That effort was followed by great physical prostration, and he determined not to quit his retirement at Midhurst until spring had fairly set in. But in the month of March there were discussions in the House of Commons on the alleged necessity of constructing large defensive works in Canada. He was deeply impressed with the folly of such a project, and he was seized with a strong desire to go up to London and deliver his sentiments on the subject. He left home on 21 March and caught a chill. He recovered a little for a few days after his arrival in London; but on the 29th there was a relapse, and on 2 April 1865 he expired peacefully at his apartments in Suffolk Street.

On the following day there was a remarkable scene in the House of Commons. When the clerk read the orders of the day Lord Palmerston rose, and in impressive and solemn tones declared "it was not possible for the House to proceed to business without every member recalling to his mind the great loss which the House and country had sustained by the event which took place yesterday morning." He then paid a generous tribute to the virtues, the abilities and services of Cobden, and he was followed by Disraeli, who with great force and felicity of language delineated the character of the deceased statesman, who, he said, "was an ornament to the House of Commons and an honour to England." Bright also attempted to address the House, but, after a sentence or two delivered in a tremulous voice, he was overpowered with emotion, and declared he must leave to a calmer moment what he had to say on the life and character of the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quit or tenanted a human form.

In the French Corps Législatif, also, the vice-president, Forçade la Roquette, referred to his death, and warm expressions of esteem were repeated and applauded on every side. "The death of Richard Cobden," said M. la Roquette, "is not alone a misfortune for England, but a cause of mourning for France and humanity." Drouyn de Lhuys, the French minister of foreign affairs, made his death the subject of a special despatch, desiring the French ambassador to express to the government "the mournful sympathy and truly national regret which the death, as lamented as premature, of Richard Cobden had excited on that side of the English Channel." "He is above all," he added, "in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man."

He was buried at West Lavington church, on 7 April. His grave was surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, among whom were Gladstone, Bright, Milner Gibson, Charles Villiers and a host besides from all parts of the country. In 1866 the Cobden Club was founded in London, to promote free-trade economics, and it became a centre for political propaganda on those lines; and prizes were instituted in his name at Oxford and Cambridge.

Cobden had married in 1840 Catherine Anne Williams, a Welsh lady, and left five surviving daughters. Of these, one married the publisher Fisher Unwin and was known as Mrs Cobden-Unwin; Ellen was the first of the painter Walter Sickert's three wives; and Anne married the bookbinder T J Sanderson and he added her surname to his.[4] They afterwards became prominent in various spheres, and inherited their father's political interest. His only son died, to Cobden's inexpressible grief, at the age of fifteen, in 1856.

Legacy

Cobden, and what is was called "Cobdenism" and later identified with laissez-faire, was subjected to much criticism from the school of English economists who advocated protectionism, on the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List. However, during much of what remained of the nineteenth century, his success with the free-trade movement was unchallenged, and protectionism came to be heterodox. The tariff reform movement in England started by Joseph Chamberlain brought new opponents of Manchesterism, and the whole subject once more became controversial. The years of reconstruction following World War II saw a renewed fashion for government intervention in international trade but, starting in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. led a revival of laissez-faire that, as of 2006, dominates economic thinking.

Cobden left a deep mark on English history. Though he was not a "scientific economist", many of his ideas and prophecies were valid. He considered that it was "natural" for Britain to manufacture for the world and exchange for agricultural products of other countries. Modern economists call this comparative advantage. He advocated the repeal of the Corn Laws, which not only made food cheaper, but helped develop industry and benefit labour. He correctly saw that other countries would be unable to compete with England in manufacture in the foreseeable future. "We advocate", he said, "nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity—to buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest." After the repeal of the Corn Laws, British manufacturing did see significant productivity rises, while British agriculture ultimately went into decline due to import competition. He perceived that the rest of the world should follow England's example: "if you abolish the corn-laws honestly, and adopt free trade in its simplicity, there will not be a tariff in Europe that will not be changed in less than five years" (January 1846). His cosmopolitanism—which made him in later Imperialists' eyes a "Little Englander"—led him to deplore any survival of the colonial system. Cobden also saw the connection between peace and free trade. "Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less." "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is—in extending our commercial relations—to have with them as little political connection as possible."

The communities of Cobden, Ontario, Cobden, Illinois[3], and Cobden, Victoria in Canada, the U.S. and Australia respectively were all named after Richard Cobden

Cob Stenham was also named after him.

Richard Cobden Primary School in Camden Town, North London is named after him.

There is a statue of him, funded by public subscription (to which Napoleon III contributed) in front of Mornington Crescent Underground station, London.

Cobden Bridge in Southampton was named after him.

Cobden Press, an American libertarian publishers of the 1980s, was named after him. In 2007, the International Society for Individual Liberty is working to re-establish the press.

The Richard Cobden pub in Worthing is named after him and the Cobden View Pub in Sheffield has his face above the door.

The statue of Cobden in Stockport town centre was relocated in 2006 as part of an urban regeneration scheme.

Cobden Street in Darlington is named after him.

Notes

  1. ^ The capital investment, referred to, is unlikely to have been from John Lewis the department store founder as he was only 8 years of age at the time
  2. ^ John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), pp. 388–9.
  3. ^ a b Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois, John W. Allen, 1963, p.355
  4. ^ SD19 - Cobden-Sanderson

Bibliography

  • Morley, J. (1881) The Life of Richard Cobden 2 vols
  • Bright, J. & Rogers, J.E.T. (eds) (1870) Speeches on Questions of Public Policy 2 vols
  • Bowen, Ian (Duckworth, 1935) Cobden

External links

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Henry Marsland
Member of Parliament for Stockport
1841–1847
Succeeded by
James Heald
Preceded by
Viscount Morpeth
Edmund Beckett Denison
Member of Parliament for West Riding of Yorkshire
18471857
With: Viscount Morpeth to 1848
Edmund Beckett Denison from 1848
Succeeded by
Viscount Goderich
Edmund Beckett Denison
Preceded by
Sir Alexander Ramsay
Member of Parliament for Rochdale
1859–1865
Succeeded by
Thomas Potter

Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Richard Cobden (1804-06-031865-04-02) was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League.

Sourced

  • ...the twelve or fifteen millions in the British Empire, who, while they possess no electoral rights, are yet persuaded they are freemen, and who are mystified into the notion that they are not political bondmen, by that great juggle of the ‘English Constitution’—a thing of monopolies, and Church-craft, and sinecures, armorial hocus-pocus, primogeniture, and pageantry!
    • Letter to F. Cobden (11 September, 1838).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 130.
  • Depend upon it, nothing can be got by fraternizing with trades unions. They are founded upon principles of brutal tyranny and monopoly. I would rather live under a Dey of Algiers than a Trades Committee.
    • Letter to F. W. Cobden (16 August, 1842).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 299.
  • Free Trade! What is it? Why, breaking down the barriers that separate nations; those barriers, behind which nestle the feelings of pride, revenge, hatred, and jealousy, which every now and then burst their bounds, and deluge whole countries with blood; those feelings which nourish the poison of war and conquest, which assert that without conquest we can have no trade, which foster that lust for conquest and dominion which sends forth your warrior chiefs to scatter devastation through other lands, and then calls them back that they may be enthroned securely in your passions, but only to harass and oppress you at home.
    • Speech at Covent Garden (28 September, 1843).
  • Sometimes slavery is founded upon the inferiority of one race to another; and then it appears in its most agreeable garb, for the system may be necessary to tame and civilize a race of savages.
    • The White Slaves of England (Auburn, Buffalo, Cincinnati: Henry W. Derby, 1853), p. 13.
  • Well, our forefathers abolished this system [of monopolies]; at a time, too, mark you, when the sign manual of the sovereign had somewhat of a divine sanction and challenged superstitious reverence in the minds of the people. And shall we, the descendants of those men, be found so degenerate, so unworthy of the blood that flows in our veins, so recreant to the very name 'Englishman,' as not to shake off this incubus, laid on as it is by a body of our fellow-citizens? ... We advocate the abolition of the Corn Law because we believe that to be the foster-parent of all other monopolies; and if we destroy that—the parent, the monster monopoly—it will save us the trouble of devouring the rest.
    • Speech in London (8 February, 1844).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 59.
  • How can protection, think you, add to the wealth of a country? Can you by legislation add one farthing to the wealth of the country? You may, by legislation, in one evening, destroy the fruits and accumulation of a century of labour; but I defy you to show me how, by the legislation of this House, you can add one farthing to the wealth of the country. That springs from the industry and intelligence; you cannot do better than leave it to its own instincts. If you attempt by legislation to give any direction to trade or industry, it is a thousand to one that you are doing wrong; and if you happen to be right, it is work of supererogation, for the parties for whom you legislate would go right without you, and better than with you.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (27 February, 1846).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 197.
  • We are on the eve of great changes...We have set an example to the world in all ages; we have given them the representative system. The very rules and regulations of this House have been taken as the model for every representative assembly throughout the whole civilised world; and having besides given them the example of a free press and civil and religious freedom, and every institution that belongs to freedom and civilisation, we are now about giving a still greater example; we are going to set the example of making industry free—to set the example of giving the whole world every advantage of clime, and latitude, and situation, relying ourselves on the freedom of our industry. Yes, we are going to teach the world that other lesson. Don't think there is anything selfish in this, or anything at all discordant with Christian principles. I can prove that we advocate nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity. To buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest. What is the meaning of the maxim? It means that you take the article which you have in the greatest abundance, and with it obtain from others that of which they have the most to spare; so giving to mankind the means of enjoying the fullest abundance of earth's goods, and in doing so, carrying out to the fullest extent the Christian doctrine of 'Doing to all men as ye would they should do unto you'.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (27 February, 1846).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 198.
  • No man can defend or palliate such conduct as that of Smith O'Brien and his confederates. It would be a mercy to shut them up in a lunatic asylum. They are not seeking a repeal of the legislative union, but the establishment of the Kings of Munster and Connaught! But the sad side of the picture is in fact that we are doing nothing to satisfy the moderate party in Ireland, nothing which strengthens the hands even of John O'Connell and the priest party, who are opposed to the 'red republicans' of the Dublin clubs. There seems to be a strong impression here that this time there is to be a rebellion in Ireland. But I confess I have ceased to fear or hope anything from that country. Its utter helplessness to do anything for itself is our great difficulty. You can't find three Irishmen who will co-operate together for any rational object.
    • Letter to Henry Ashworth (21 July, 1846).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 488.
  • I agree with you to the letter in all you say about Ireland. There is no doubt that the land question (coupled with the Church Establishment) is at the root of the evil. And here let me say that I go heartily with you in the determination to attack the land monopoly root and branch both here and in Ireland and Scotland....Wherever the deductions of political economy lead I am prepared to follow. By the way, have you had time to read Bastiat's partly posthumous volume, 'Les Harmonies Economiques'? If not, do so; it will require a studious perusal, but will repay it. He has breathed a soul into the dry bones of political economy, and has vindicated his favourite science from the charge of inhumanity with all the fervour of a religious devotee.
    • Letter to John Bright (1 October, 1851).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 561.
  • Never was the military spirit half so rampant in this country since 1815 as at the present time. Look at the news from Rangoon...This makes 5400 persons killed by our ships in the East during the last five years, without our having lost one man by the butcheries. Now give me Free Trade as the recognized policy of all parties in this country, and I will find the best possible argument against these marauding atrocities.
    • 'How Wars are got up in India' (1853), The Political Writings of Richard Cobden (1903), pp. 457-8.
  • Yes; I am indebted for that estate, and I am proud here to acknowledge it, to the bounty of my countrymen. That estate was the scene of my birth and of my infancy; it was the property of my ancestors; it is by the munificence of my countrymen that this small estate, which had been alienated by my father from necessity, has again come into my hands, and that I am enabled to light up again the hearth of my fathers; and I say that there is no warrior duke who owns a vast domain by the vote of the Imperial Parliament who holds his property by a more honourable title than that by which I possess mine.
    • Speech in Aylesbury, responding to a heckler who accused Cobden of getting his property through Anti-Corn Law League funds (9 January, 1853).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), pp. 225-6.
  • The idea of defending, as integral parts of our Empire, countries 10,000 miles off, like Australia, which neither pay a shilling to our revenue...nor afford us any exclusive trade...is about as quixotic a specimen of national folly as was ever exhibited.
    • A note to Edward Ellice, 1856.
    • James E. Thorold Rogers (ed.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden M.P. (1878), p. 248.
  • You have seized upon the most important of our social and political questions in the laws affecting the transfer of land. It is astonishing that the people at large are so tacit in their submission to the perpetuation of the feudal system in this country as it affects the property in land, so long after it has been shattered to pieces in every other country except Russia. The reason is, I suppose, that the great increase of our manufacturing system has given such an expansive system of employment to the population, that the want of land as a field of investment and employment for labour has been comparatively little felt. So long as this prosperity of our manufactures continues, there will be no great outcry against the landed monopoly. If adversity were to fall on the nation, your huge feudal properties would soon be broken up, and along with them the hereditary system of government under which contentedly live and thrive.
    • Letter to James White, MP for Brighton (22 November, 1857).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 679.
  • Has he not accurately anticipated both the fact and the motive of the present attitude of the State of New York? Is it not commercial gain and mercantile ascendancy which prompt their warlike zeal for the Federal Government? At all events, it is a little unreasonable in the New York politicians to require us to treat the South as rebels, in the fact of the opinion of our highest European authority as to the right of secession.
    • Letter to W. Hargreaves (22 June, 1861), after reading de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 850.
  • I am not one to advocate the reducing of our navy in any degree below that proportion to the French navy which the exigencies of our service require; and, mind what I say, here is just what the French Government would admit as freely as you would. England has four times, at least, the amount of mercantile tonnage to protect at sea that France has, and that surely gives us a legitimate pretension to have a larger navy than France. Besides, this country is an island; we cannot communicate with any part of the world except by sea. France, on the other hand, has a frontier upon land, by which she can communicate with the whole world. We have, I think, unfortunately for ourselves, about a hundred times the amount of territory beyond the seas to protect, as colonies and dependencies, that France has. France has also twice or three times as large an army as England had. All these things give us a right to have a navy somewhat in the proportion to the French navy which we find to have existed if we look back over the past century. Nobody has disputed it. I would be the last person who would ever advocate any undue change in this proportion. On the contrary—I have said it in the House of Commons, and I repeat it to you—if the French Government showed a sinister design to increase their navy to an equality with ours; then, after every explanation to prevent such an absurd waste, I should vote 100 millions sterling rather than allow that navy to be increased to a level with ours—because I should say that any attempt of that sort without any legitimate grounds, would argue some sinister design upon this country.
    • Speech in Rochdale (26 June, 1861).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), pp. 433-4.
  • I think we have been the most Conservative. I think that myself, and my friend Mr. Bright, and many I see about me, who have voted for twenty years for what have been considered revolutionary measures, have been the great Conservatives of our own age.
    • Speech in Rochdale (26 June, 1861).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 437.
  • The Blockade Laws are about as rascally an invention as the old Corn Laws. Suppose Tom Sayers lived in a street, and on the opposite side lived a shopkeeper with whom he has been in the habit of dealing. Tom quarrels with his shopkeeper and forthwith sends him a challenge to fight, which is accepted. Tom, being a powerful man, sends word to each and every householder in the street that he is going to fight the shopkeeper, and that until he has finished fighting no person in the street must have any dealings with the shopkeeper. "We have nothing to do with your quarrel," say the inhabitants, "and you have no right to stop our dealings with the shopkeeper".
    • Letter to Henry Asworth (3 September, 1864).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 916.
  • If ever there was a hard-headed and not a soft-hearted Sovereign it was she; if ever there was a place where there was little of that romantic sentiment of going abroad to do right and justice to other people, I think it was in that Tudor breast of our 'Good Queen Bess,' as well call her. ... When I see the accounts of what passed when the [Dutch] envoys came to Queen Elizabeth and asked for aid, how she is huckstering for money while they are begging for help to their religion,—I declare that, with all my principles of non-intervention, I am almost ashamed of old Queen Bess. And then there were Burleigh, Walsingham, and the rest, who were, if possible, harder and more difficult to deal with than their mistress. Why, they carried out in its unvarnished selfishness a national British policy; they had no other idea of a policy but a national British policy, and they carried it out with a degree of selfishness amounting to downright avarice.
    • Speech in Rochdale (23 November, 1864).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), pp. 484-5.
  • If I were five-and-twenty or thirty, instead of, unhappily, twice that number of years, I would take Adam Smith in hand—I would not go beyond him, I would have no politics in it—I would take Adam Smith in hand, and I would have a League for free trade in Land just as we had a League for free trade in Corn. You will find just the same authority in Adam Smith for the one as for the other; and if it were only taken up as it must be taken up to succeed, not as a political, revolutionary, Radical, Chartist notion, but taken up on politico-economic grounds, the agitation would be certain to succeed; and if you apply free trade in land and to labour too—that is, by getting rid of those abominable restrictions in your parish settlements, and the like—then, I say, the men who do that will have done for England probably more than we have been able to do by making free trade in corn.
    • Speech at Rochdale (23 November, 1864).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 493.
  • ...the principles of political economy have elevated the working class above the place they ever filled before.
    • Speech at Rochdale (23 November, 1864).
    • John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 496.
  • I believe that the harm which Mill has done to the world by the passage in his book on Political Economy in which he favours the principle of Protection in young communities, has outweighed all the good which may have been caused by his other writings.
    • Said to Sir Louis Mallet by Cobden on his death bed within two days before his death.
    • Richard Gowing, Richard Cobden (London: Cassell, 1890), p. 130.

About

  • In reference to our proposing these measures, I have no wish to rob any person of the credit which is justly due to him for them. But I may say that neither the gentlemen sitting on the benches opposite, nor myself, nor the gentlemen sitting round me—I say that neither of us are the parties who are strictly entitled to the merit. There has been a combination of parties, and that combination of parties together with the influence of the Government, has led to the ultimate success of the measures. But, Sir, there is a name which ought to be associated with the success of these measures: it is not the name of the noble Lord, the member for London, neither is it my name. Sir, the name which ought to be, and which will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of a man who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, has advocated their cause with untiring energy, and by appeals to reason, expressed by an eloquence, the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned—the name which ought to be and will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of Richard Cobden. Without scruple, Sir, I attribute the success of these measures to him.
    • Sir Robert Peel's resignation speech as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, crediting Cobden for the repeal of the Corn Laws (29 June, 1846).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 388.
  • The unquestionably greatest Englishman whom the present century has produced.
    • J. Toulmin Smith, Parliamentary Remembrancer, vii, 1865, p. 61.

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

RICHARD COBDEN (1804-1865), English manufacturer and Radical politician, was born at a farmhouse called Dunford, near Midhurst, in Sussex, on the 3rd of June 1804. The family had been resident in that neighbourhood for many generations, occupied partly in trade and partly in agriculture. Formerly there had been in the town of Midhurst a small manufacture of hosiery with which the Cobdens were connected, though all trace of it had disappeared before the birth of Richard. His grandfather was a maltster in that town, an energetic and prosperous man, almost always the bailiff or chief magistrate, and taking rather a notable part in county matters. But his father, forsaking that trade, took to farming at an unpropitious time. He was amiable and kind-hearted, and greatly liked by his neighbours, but not a man of business habits, and he did not succeed in his farming enterprise. He died when his son Richard was a child, and the care of the family devolved upon the mother, who was a woman of'strong sense and of great energy of character, and who, after her husband's death, left Dunford and returned to Midhurst.

The educational advantages of Richard Cobden were not very ample. There was a grammar school at Midhurst, which at one time had enjoyed considerable reputation, but which had fallen into decay. It was there that he had to pick up such rudiments of knowledge as formed his first equipment in life, but from his earliest years he was indefatigable in the work of self-cultivation. When fifteen or sixteen years of age he went to London to the warehouse of Messrs Partridge & Price, in Eastcheap, one of the partners being his uncle. His relative, noting the lad's passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him, against indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life. But the admonition was unheeded, for while unweariedly diligent in business, he was in his intervals of leisure a most assiduous student. During his residence in London he found access to the London Institution, and made ample use of its large and well-selected library.

When he was about twenty years of age he became a commercial traveller, and soon became eminently successful in his calling. But never content to sink into the mere trader, he sought to introduce among those he met on the "road" a higher tone of conversation than usually marks the commercial room, and there were many of his associates who, when he had attained eminence, recalled the discussions on political economy and kindred topics with which he was wont to enliven and elevate the travellers' table. In 1830 Cobden learnt that Messrs Fort, calico printers at Sabden, near Clitheroe, were about to retire from business, and he, with two other young men, Messrs Sheriff and Gillet, who were engaged in the same commercial house as himself, determined to make an effort to acquire the succession. They had, however, very little capital among them. But it may be taken as an illustration of the instinctive confidence which Cobden through life inspired in those with whom he came into contact, that Messrs Fort consented to leave to these untried young men a large portion of their capital in the business. Nor was their confidence misplaced. The new firm had soon three establishments, - one at Sabden, where the printing works were, one in London and one in Manchester for the sale of their goods. This last was under the direct management of Cobden, who, in 1830 or 1831, settled in the city with which his name became afterwards so closely associated. The success of this enterprise was decisive and rapid, and the "Cobden prints" soon became known through the country as of rare value both for excellence of material and beauty of design. There can be no doubt that if Cobden had been satisfied to devote all his energies to commercial life he might soon have attained to great opulence, for it is understood that his share in the profits of the business he had established amounted to from £8000 to £10,000 a year. But he had other tastes, which impelled him irresistibly to pursue those studies which, as Bacon says, "serve for delight, for ornament and for ability." Prentice, the historian of the Anti-Corn-Law League, who was then editor of the Manchester Times, describes how, in the year 1835, he received for publication in his paper a series of admirably written letters, under the signature of "Libra," discussing commercial and economical questions with rare ability. After some time he discovered that the author of these letters was Cobden, whose name was until then quite unknown to him.

In 1835 he published his first pamphlet, entitled England, Ireland and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer. It attracted great attention, and ran rapidly through several editions. It was marked by a breadth and boldness of views on political and social questions which betokened an original mind. In this production Cobden advocated the same principles of peace, nonintervention, retrenchment and free trade to which he continued faithful to the last day of his life. Immediately after the publication of this pamphlet, he paid a visit to the United States, landing in New York on the 7th of June 1835. He devoted about three months to this tour, passing rapidly through the seaboard states and the adjacent portion of Canada, and collecting as he went large stores of information respecting the condition, resources and prospects of the great western republic. Soon after his return to England he began to prepare another work for the press, which appeared towards the end of 1836, under the title of Russia. It was mainly designed to combat a wild outbreak of Russophobia which, under the inspiration of David Urquhart, was at that time taking possession of the public mind. But it contained also a bold indictment of the whole system of foreign policy then in vogue, founded on ideas as to the balance of power and the necessity of large armaments for the protection of commerce. While this pamphlet was in the press, delicate health obliged him to leave England, and for several months, at the end of 1836 and the beginning of 1837, he travelled in Spain, Turkey and Egypt. During his visit to Egypt he had an interview with Mehemet Ali, of whose character as a reforming monarch he did not bring away a very favourable impression. He returned to England in April 183 7. From that time Cobden became a conspicuous figure in Manchester, taking a leading part in the local politics of the town and district. Largely owing to his exertions, the Manchester Athenaeum was established, at the opening of which he was chosen to deliver the inaugural address. He became a member of the chamber of commerce, and soon infused new life into that body. He threw himself with great energy into the agitation which led to the incorporation of the city, and was elected one of its first aldermen. He began also to take a warm interest in the cause of popular education. Some of his first attempts in public speaking were at meetings which he convened at Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Rochdale and other adjacent towns, to advocate the establishment of British schools. It was while on a mission for this purpose to Rochdale that he first formed the acquaintance of John Bright, who afterwards became his distinguished coadjutor in the freetrade agitation. Nor was it long before his fitness for parliamentary life was recognized by his friends. In 1837, the death of William IV. and the accession of Queen Victoria led to a general election. Cobden was candidate for Stockport, but was defeated, though not by a large majority.

In 1838 an anti-Corn-Law association was formed at Manchester, which, on his suggestion, was afterwards changed into a national association, under the title of the Anti-Corn-Law League (see Corn Laws). Of that famous association Cobden was from first to last the presiding genius and the animating soul. During the seven years between the formation of the league and its final triumph, he devoted himself wholly to the work of promulgating his economic doctrines. His labours were as various as they were incessant - now guiding the councils of the league, now addressing crowded and enthusiastic meetings of his supporters in London or the large towns of England and Scotland, now invading the agricultural districts and challenging the landlords to meet him in the presence of their own farmers, to discuss the question in dispute, and now encountering the Chartists, led by Feargus O'Connor. But whatever was the character of his audience he never failed, by the clearness of his statements, the force of his reasoning and the felicity of his illustrations, to make a deep impression on the minds of his hearers.

In 1841, Sir Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in parliament, there was a general election, when Cobden was returned for Stockport. His opponents had confidently predicted that he would fail utterly in the House of Commons. He did not wait long, after his admission into that assembly, in bringing their predictions to the test. Parliament met on the 10th of August. On the 24th, in course of the debate on the Address, Cobden delivered his first speech. "It was remarked," says Miss Martineau, in her History of the Peace, " that he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member, and it was perceived that he did not need such observance." With perfect self-possession, which was not disturbed by the jeers that greeted some of his statements, and with the utmost simplicity, directness and force, he presented the argument against the corn-laws in such a form as startled his audience, and also irritated some of them, for it was a style of eloquence very unlike the conventional style which prevailed in parliament.

From that day he became an acknowledged power in the House, and though addressing a most unfriendly audience, he compelled attention by his thorough mastery of his subject, and by the courageous boldness with which he charged the ranks of his adversaries. He soon came to be recognized as one of the foremost debaters on those economical and commercial questions which at that time so much occupied the attention of parliament; and the most prejudiced and bitter of his opponents were fain to acknowledge that they had to deal with a man whom the most practised and powerful orators of their party found it hard to cope with, and to whose eloquence, indeed, the great statesman in whom they put their trust was obliged ultimately to surrender. On the 17th of February 1843 an extraordinary scene took place in the House of Commons. Cobden had spoken with great fervour of the deplorable suffering and distress which at that time prevailed in the country, for which, he added, he held Sir Robert Peel, as the head of the government, responsible. This remark, when it was spoken, passed unnoticed, being indeed nothing more than one of the commonplaces of party warfare. But a few weeks before, Mr Drummond, who was Sir Robert Peel's private secretary, had been shot dead in the street by a lunatic. In consequence of this, and the manifold anxieties of the time with which he was harassed, the mind of the great statesman was no doubt in a moody and morbid condition, and when he arose to speak later in the evening, he referred in excited and agitated tones to the remark, as an incitement to violence against his person. Sir Robert Peel's party, catching at this hint, threw themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and when Cobden attempted to explain that he meant official, not personal responsibility, they drowned his voice with clamorous and insulting shouts. But Peel lived to make ample and honourable amend for this unfortunate ebullition, for not only did he "fully and unequivocally withdraw the imputation which was thrown out in the heat of debate under an erroneous impression," but when the great free-trade battle had been won, he took the wreath of victory from his own brow, and placed it on that of his old opponent, in the following graceful words: - "The name which ought to be, and will be associated with the success of these measures, is not mine, or that of the noble Lord (Russell), but the name of one who, acting I believe from pure and disinterested motives, has, with untiring energy, made appeals to our reason, and has enforced those appeals with an eloquence the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned; the name which ought to be chiefly associated with the success of these measures is the name of Richard Cobden." Cobden had, indeed, with unexampled devotion, sacrificed his business, his domestic comforts and for a time his health to the public interests. His friends therefore felt, at the close of that long campaign, that the nation owed him some substantial token of gratitude and admiration for those sacrifices. No sooner was the idea of such a tribute started than liberal contributions came from all quarters, which enabled his friends to present him with a sum of 80,000. Had he been inspired with personal ambition, he might have entered upon the race of political advancement with the prospect of attaining the highest official prizes. Lord John Russell, who, soon after the repeal of the corn laws, succeeded Sir Robert Peel as - first minister, invited Cobden to join his government. But he preferred keeping himself at liberty to serve his countrymen unshackled by official ties, and declined the invitation. He withdrew for a time from England. His first intention was to seek complete seclusion in Egypt or Italy, to recover health and strength after his long and exhausting labours. But his fame had gone forth throughout Europe, and intimations reached him from many quarters that his voice would be listened to everywhere with favour, in advocacy of the doctrines to the triumph of which he had so much contributed at home. Writing to a friend in July 1846, he says - "I am going to tell you of a fresh project that has been brewing in my brain. I have given up all idea of burying myself in Egypt or Italy. I am going on an agitating tour through the continent of Europe." Then, referring to messages he had received from influential persons in France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Spain to the effect mentioned above, he adds: - "Well, I will, with God's assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the people of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinctive emotion such as has never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than I had here to overturn our protection policy." This programme he fulfilled. He visited in succession France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia. He was received everywhere with marks of distinction and honour. In many of the principal capitals he was invited to public banquets, which afforded him an opportunity of propagating those principles of which he was regarded as the apostle. But beside these public demonstrations he sought and found access in private to many of the leading statesmen, in the various countries he visited, with a view to indoctrinate them with the same principles. During his absence there was a general election, and he was returned (1847) for Stockport and for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He chose to sit for the latter.

When Cobden returned from the continent he addressed himself to what seemed to him the logical complement of free trade, namely, the promotion of peace and the reduction of naval and military armaments. His abhorrence of war amounted to a passion. Throughout his long labours in behalf of unrestricted commerce he never lost sight of this, as being the most precious result of the work in which he was engaged, - its tendency to diminish the hazards of war and to bring the nations of the world into closer and more lasting relations of peace and friendship with each other. He was not deterred by the fear of ridicule or the reproach of Utopianism from associating himself openly, and with all the ardour of his nature, with the peace party in England. In 1849 he brought forward a proposal in parliament in favour of international arbitration, and in 1851 a motion for mutual reduction of armaments. He was not successful in either case, not did he expect to be. In pursuance of the same object, he identified himself with a series of remarkable peace congresses - international assemblies designed to unite the intelligence and philanthropy of the nations of Christendom in a league against war - which from 1848 to 1851 were held successively in Brussels, Paris, Frankfort, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

On the establishment of the French empire in1851-1852a violent panic took possession of the public mind. The press promulgated the wildest alarms as to the intentions of Louis Napoleon, who was represented as contemplating a sudden and piratical descent upon the English coast without pretext or provocation. By a series of powerful speeches in and out of parliament, and by the publication of his masterly pamphlet, 1 793 and 1853, Cobden sought to calm the passions of his countrymen. By this course he sacrificed the great popularity he had won as the champion of free trade, and became for a time the best-abused man in England. Immediately afterwards, owing to the quarrel about the Holy Places which arose in the east of Europe, public opinion suddenly veered round, and all the suspicion and hatred which had been directed against the emperor of the French were diverted from him to the emperor of Russia. Louis Napoleon was taken into favour as England's faithful ally, and in a whirlwind of popular excitement the nation was swept into the Crimean War. Cobden, who had travelled in Turkey, and had studied the condition of that country with great care for many years, discredited the outcry about maintaining the independence and integrity of the Ottoman empire which was the battle-cry of the day. He denied that it was possible to maintain them, and no less strenuously denied that it was desirable even if it were possible. He believed that the jealousy of Russian aggrandizement and the dread of Russian power were absurd exaggerations. He maintained that the future of European Turkey was in the hands of the Christian population, and that it would have been wiser for England to ally herself with them rather than with the doomed and decaying Mahommedan power. "You must address yourselves," he said in the House of Commons, "as men of sense and men of energy, to the question - what are you to do with the Christian population? for Mahommedanism cannot be maintained, and I should be sorry to see this country fighting for the maintenance of Mahommedanism.. .. You may keep Turkey on the map of Europe, you may call the country by the name of Turkey if you like, but do not think you can keep up the Mahommedan rule in the country." The torrent of popular sentiment in favour of war was, however, irresistible; and Cobden and Bright were overwhelmed with obloquy.

At the beginning of 1857 tidings from China reached England of a rupture between the British plenipotentiary in that country and the governor of the Canton provinces in reference to a small vessel or lorcha called the "Arrow," which had resulted in the English admiral destroying the river forts, burning 23 ships belonging to the Chinese navy and bombarding the city of Canton. After a careful investigation of the official documents, Cobden became convinced that those were utterly unrighteous proceedings. He brought forward a motion in parliament to this effect, which led to a long and memorable debate, lasting over four nights, in which he was supported by Sydney Herbert, Sir James Graham, Gladstone, Lord John Russell and Disraeli, and which ended in the defeat of Lord Palmerston by a majority of sixteen. But this triumph cost him his seat in parliament. On the dissolution which followed Lord Palmerston's defeat, Cobden became candidate for Huddersfield, but the voters of that town gave the preference to his opponent, who had supported the Russian War and approved of the proceedings at Canton. Cobden was thus relegated to private life, and retiring to his country house at Dunford, he spent his time in perfect contentment in cultivating his land and feeding his pigs.

He took advantage of this season of leisure to pay another visit to the United States. During his absence the general election of 1859 occurred, when he was returned unopposed for Rochdale. Lord Palmerston was again prime minister, and having discovered that the advanced liberal party was not so easily "crushed" as he had apprehended, he made overtures of reconciliation, and invited Cobden and Milner Gibson to become members of his government. In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Lord Palmerston offered him the presidency of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept; but without a moment's hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour. On his arrival in London he called on Lord Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister. Lord Palmerston tried good-humouredly to combat his objections, but without success.

But though he declined to share the responsibility of Lord Palmerston's administration, he was willing to act as its representative in promoting freer commercial intercourse between England and France. But the negotiations for this purpose originated with himself in conjunction with Bright and Michel Chevalier. Towards the close of 1859 he called upon Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Gladstone, and signified his intention to visit France and get into communication with the emperor and his ministers, with a view to promote this object. These statesmen expressed in general terms their approval of his purpose, but he went entirely on his own account, clothed at first with no official authority. On his arrival in Paris he had a long audience with Napoleon, in which he urged many arguments in favour of removing those obstacles which prevented the two countries from being brought into closer dependence on one another, and he succeeded in making a considerable inpression on his mind in favour of free trade. He then addressed himself to the French ministers, and had much earnest conversation, especially with Rouher, whom he found well inclined to the economical and commercial principles which he advocated. After a good deal of time spent in these preliminary and unofficial negotiations, the question of a treaty of commerce between the two countries having entered into the arena of diplomacy, Cobden was requested by the British government to act as their plenipotentiary in the matter in conjunction with Lord Cowley, their ambassador in France. But it proved a very long and laborious undertaking. He had to contend with the bitter hostility of the French protectionists, which occasioned a good deal of vacillation on the part of the emperor and his ministers. There were also delays, hesitations and cavils at home, which were more inexplicable. He was, moreover, assailed with great violence by a powerful section of the English press, while the large number of minute details with which he had to deal in connexion with proposed changes in the French tariff, involved a tax on his patience and industry which would have daunted a less resolute man But there was one source of embarrassment greater than all the rest. One strong motive which had impelled him to engage in this enterprise was his anxious desire to establish more friendly relations between England and France, and to dispel those feelings of mutual jealousy and alarm which were so frequently breaking forth and jeopardizing peace between the two countries. This was the most powerful argument with which he had plied the emperor and the members of the French government, and which he had found most efficacious with them. 'But while he was in the midst of the negotiations, Lord Palmerston brought forward in the House of Commons a measure for fortifying the naval arsenals of England, which he introduced in a warlike speech pointedly directed against France, as the source of danger of invasion and attack, against which it was necessary to guard. This produced irritation and resentment in Paris, and but for the influence which Cobden had acquired, and the perfect trust reposed in his sincerity, the negotiations would probably have been altogether wrecked. At last, however, after nearly twelve months' incessant labour, the work was completed in November 1860. "Rare," said Mr Gladstone, "is the privilege of any man who, having fourteen years ago rendered to his country one signal service, now again, within the same brief span of life, decorated neither by land nor title, bearing no mark to distinguish him from the people he loves, has been permitted to perform another great and memorable service to his sovereign and his country." On the conclusion of this work honours were offered to Cobden by the governments of both the countries which he had so greatly benefited. Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, and the emperor of the French would gladly have conferred upon him some distinguished mark of his favour. But with characteristic disinterestedness and modesty he declined all such honours.

Cobden's efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinated to what he deemed the highest moral purposes - the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men. This was his desire and hope as respects the commercial treaty with France. He was therefore deeply disappointed and distressed to find the old feeling of distrust still actively fomented by the press and some of the leading politicians of the country. In 1862 he published his pamphlet entitled The Three Panics, the object of which was to trace the history and expose the folly of those periodical visitations of alarm as to French designs with which England had been afflicted for the preceding fifteen or sixteen years.

When the Civil War threatened to break out in the United States, Cobden was deeply distressed. But after the conflict became inevitable his sympathies were wholly with the North, because the South was fighting for slavery. His great anxiety, however, was that the British nation should not be committed to any unworthy course during the progress of that struggle. And when relations with America were becoming critical and menacing in consequence of the depredations committed on American commerce by vessels issuing from British ports, he brought the question before the House of Commons in a series of speeches of rare clearness and force.

For several years Cobden had been suffering severely at intervals from bronchial irritation and a difficulty of breathing. Owing to this he had spent the winter of 1860 in Algeria, and every subsequent winter he had to be very careful and confine himself to the house, especially in damp and foggy weather. In November 1864 he went down to Rochdale and delivered a speech to his constituents - the last he ever delivered. That effort was followed by great physical prostration, and he determined not to quit his retirement at Midhurst until spring had fairly set in. But in the month of March there were discussions in the House of Commons on the alleged necessity of constructing large defensive works in Canada. He was deeply impressed with the folly of such a project, and he was seized with a strong desire to go up to London and deliver his sentiments on the subject. He left home on the 21st of March, and caught a chill. He recovered a little for a few days after his arrival in London; but on the 29th there was a relapse, and on the 2nd of April 1865 he expired peacefully at his apartments in Suffolk Street.

On the following day there was a remarkable scene in the House of Commons. When the clerk read the orders of the day Lord Palmerston rose, and in impressive and solemn tones declared "it was not.possible for the House to proceed to business without every member recalling to his mind the great loss which the House and country had sustained by the event which took place yesterday morning." He then paid a generous tribute to the virtues, the abilities and services of Cobden, and he was followed by Disraeli, who with great force and felicity of language delineated the character of the deceased statesman, who, he said, "was an ornament to the House of Commons and an honour to England." Bright also attempted to address the House, but, after a sentence or two delivered in a tremulous voice, he was overpowered with emotion, and declared he must leave to a calmer moment what he had to say on the life and character of the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quitted or tenanted a human form.

In the French Corps Legislatif, also, the vice-president, Forgade la Roquette, referred to his death, and warm expressions of esteem were repeated and applauded on every side. "The death of Richard Cobden," said M. la Roquette, "is not alone a misfortune for England, but a cause of mourning for France and humanity." Drouyn de Lhuys, the French minister of foreign affairs, made his death the subject of a special despatch, desiring the French ambassador to express to the government "the mournful sympathy and truly national regret which the death, as lamented as premature, of Richard Cobden had excited on that side of the Channel." "He is above all," he added, "in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man." He was buried at West Lavington church, on the 7th of April. His grave was surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, among whom were Gladstone, Bright, Milner Gibson, Charles Villiers and a host besides from all parts of the country. In 1866 the Cobden Club was founded in London, to promote free-trade economics, and it became a centre for political propaganda on those lines; and prizes were instituted in his name at Oxford and Cambridge.

Cobden had married in 1840 Miss Catherine Anne Williams, a Welsh lady, and left five surviving daughters, of whom Mrs Cobden-Unwin (wife of the publisher Mr Fisher Unwin), Mrs Walter Sickert (wife of the painter) and Mrs Cobden-Sanderson (wife of the well-known artist in bookbinding), afterwards became prominent in various spheres, and inherited their father's political interest. His only son died, to Cobden's inexpressible grief, at the age of fifteen, in 1856.

The work of Cobden, and what is now called "Cobdenism," has in recent years been subjected to much criticism from the newer school of English economists who advocate a "national policy" (on the old lines of Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List) as against his cosmopolitan ideals. But it remains the fact that his success with the free-trade movement was for years unchallenged, and that the leaps and bounds with which English commercial prosperity advanced after the repeal of the cornIaws were naturally associated with the reformed fiscal policy, so that the very name of protectionism came to be identified with all that was not merely heterodox but hateful. The tariff reform movement in England started by Mr Chamberlain had the result of giving new boldness to the opponents of Manchesterism, and the whole subject once more became controversial (see Free Trade; Corn Laws; Protection; Tariff; Economics). Cobden has left a deep mark on English history, but he was not himself a "scientific economist," and many of his confident prophecies were completely falsified. As a manufacturer, and with the circumstances of his own day before him, he considered that it was "natural" for Great Britain to manufacture for the world in exchange for her free admission of the more "natural" agricultural products of other countries. He advocated the repeal of the corn-laws, not essentially in order to make food cheaper, but because it would develop industry and enable the manufacturers to get labour at low but sufficient wages; and he assumed that other countries would be unable to compete with England in manufactures under free trade, at the prices which would be possible for English manufactured products. "We advocate," he said, "nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity - to buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest." He believed that the rest of the world must follow England's example: "if you abolish the corn-laws honestly, and adopt free trade in its simplicity, there will not be a tariff in Europe that will not be changed in less than five years" (January 1846). His cosmopolitanism - which makes him in the modern Imperialist's eyes a "Little Englander" of the straitest sect - led him to deplore any survival of the colonial system and to hail the removal of ties which bound the mother country to remote dependencies; but it was, in its day, a generous and sincere reaction against popular sentiment, and Cobden was at all events an outspoken advocate of an irresistible British navy. There were enough inconsistencies in his creed to enable both sides in the recent controversies to claim him as one who if he were still alive would have supported their case in the altered circumstances; but, from the biographical point of view, these issues are hardly relevant. Cobden inevitably stands for "Cobdenism," which is a creed largely developed by the modern free-trader in the course of subsequent years. It becomes equivalent to economic laisser-faire and "Manchesterism," and as such it must fight its own corner with those who now take into consideration many national factors which had no place in the early utilitarian individualistic regime of Cobden's own day.

The standard biography is that by John Morley (1881). Cobden's speeches were collected and published in 1870. The centenary of his birth in 1904 was celebrated by a flood of articles in the newspapers and magazines, naturally coloured by the new controversy in England over the Tariff Reform movement.


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