Richard Cobden, 1804-1865, statesman, was born on 3 June 1804, in an old farmhouse in the hamlet of Heyshott, near Midhurst, on the western border of Sussex. He came of an ancient stock of yeomen of the soil, for several centuries rooted in that district. William Cobden, his father, was a small farmer. The unfavourable circumstances of agriculture at the peace were too strong for him, and the farm was sold. Relatives took charge of his eleven children, and Richard, who was fourth among them, was banished for five miserable years to one of those Yorkshire schools whose brutalities were afterwards exposed in Dickens''s famous picture of ?Dotheboys Hall.? In 1819 he became a clerk in his uncle''s warehouse in Old Change, and in due time went the circuits as commercial traveller, soliciting orders for muslins and calicoes, collecting accounts, diligently observing whatever came under his eye, and impressing everybody with his power of making himself useful.
In 1828 Cobden determined to set up in business on his own account. He and a couple of friends raised a thousand pounds among them, most of it by way of loan; they persuaded a great firm of calico-printers in Lancashire to trust them with the sale of their goods on commission in London; and they quickly established a thriving concern. In 1831 the partners leased an old factory at Sabden, a village between Burnley and Clitheroe in Lancashire, and began to print their own calicoes. Cobden himself took up his residence at Manchester (1832), the great centre with which so much of his public activity was afterwards identified. The new venture prospered, Cobden prints won a reputation in the trade for attractive pattern and good impression, and the partners appeared to be destined to accumulate a large and rapid fortune. Cobden felt himself free to give some of his time to wider concerns. He was constitutionally endowed with an alert and restless intelligence, and in the hardest days of his youth he had done what he could to educate himself. He taught himself French, practised composition in the shape of two or three very juvenile comedies, took an ardent interest in phrenology, and was profoundly and permanently impressed by George Combe''s views on education. He read some of the great writers, and picked up a fair idea of the course of European history. His practical and lively temperament combined with his position to fix his interest in the actualities of the present, and though he was always a reader, and always very ready to admire men whose chances of scholarship and science had been better than his own, he knew that he must look for the knowledge that his purposes made necessary, in the newspapers, in blue-books, in Hansard''s reports, and perhaps, above all, in frequent and industrious travel. In 1835 he made his first rapid visit to the United States (June-August), and in the autumn of the next year he went for six months (October 1836-April 1837) to Constantinople, Greece, Egypt, and the western shores of Asia Minor.
To the same time belong the two remarkable pamphlets in which he practically opened his public career: ?England, Ireland, and America? (1835), and ?Russia? (1836), ?by a Manchester Manufacturer.? He had already tried his hand in print in letters on economic subjects, which had been published in the ?Manchester Examiner,? and had attracted considerable attention by their firmness of thought and clearness of expression. He exhibited the same qualities still more conspicuously in the two pamphlets. Briefly stated, the argument is as follows: America must at no distant date enter into serious competition with our products; in this competition we shall be heavily handicapped, first by protection, secondly by the load of taxation and debt incurred in needless intervention in continental wars. From these propositions he drew what, if they were true, was the irresistible inference, that the sound policy for Great Britain lay in the direction of free trade and non-intervention. Ireland constituted another national danger, hardly less formidable than the debt or the tariff, and was another reason why we should attend more steadfastly to our own affairs. In the second pamphlet the writer shows that the case of Russia, on which David Urquhart was then successfully endeavouring to kindle alarmist opinion, is no exception to his principle as stated above, and that we were not called upon to interfere by arms between Russia and Turkey, either for the sake of European law and the balance of power, or for the security of British interests. The doctrine which he thus preached at the beginning of his public life, was the substance of his policy and object of his urgent exhortations down to its close.
At the general election which followed the accession of Queen Victoria, Cobden was the defeated candidate for Stockport, polling 412 votes out of a total poll of less than nine hundred, in a constituency which to-day has upwards of nine thousand voters on the register. His defeat did not for an instant damp his concern in public affairs. He was interested in what was then the obscure field of national education, and he was active in the municipal work of Manchester, which received its charter of incorporation in 1838. He was one of the first aldermen, holding office till 1844. In 1838, too, he went for a month to Germany, where he perceived the future political effects of the new Zollverein.
It was now that Cobden joined the great movement with which his name will always be inseparably associated. In 1836 the philosophic radicals, including Grote, Molesworth, Hume, and Roebuck, had formed an association for repealing the duties on corn. But they did not catch the public ear, and nothing had come of it. In October 1838 seven Manchester merchants met to form a new association, which very speedily grew to be the famous Anti-Cornlaw League. The agitation went on until the session of 1846, and its history contains Cobden''s biography for the eight years during which the movement lasted. He threw himself into it with unsparing devotion, and though any history of the league would be fatally incomplete which should omit the names of Villiers, Bright, Ashworth, George Wilson, and other fellow-workers as zealous as himself, yet it was Cobden who speedily came to take the foremost place in connection with the subject in the popular mind. He was energetic, bold, and fertile in counsel; he developed singular gifts for organisation on an immense scale; and he showed himself the greatest master that has ever appeared in English public life of the art of bringing home the force of difficult demonstrations to simple and untrained minds. In 1841 he was elected for Stockport. The whigs had gone to the country with the cry of a moderate fixed duty, but they had forfeited the confidence of the nation alike in their sincerity and their capacity. When the new parliament met, Sir Robert Peel carried an amendment on the address by a majority of ninety-one, and in a few days found himself at the head of that powerful administration, ?which contained not only able tories like Lord Lyndhurst, but able seceders from the whigs like Lord Stanley and Sir James Graham; which commanded an immense majority in both houses; which was led by a chief of consummate sagacity; and which was at last slowly broken to pieces by the work of Cobden and the league.? Cobden early made his mark in parliamentary debate, confining himself almost exclusively to his own subject. He was fluent without being voluble; direct and pointed without strained or studious search; above all, he had two signal recommendations which never fail to command a position in the House of Commons?he abounded in apt information, and he was always known to be in earnest. The chief scene of his labours, however, was not in the House of Commons, but on the platform. In his own phrase, he lived in public meetings. In company with Mr. Bright, whose name and his own became a pair of household words, he year after year traversed the island from end to end, arguing, replying, exhorting, organising, and raising funds, which, before the agitation reached its goal, are calculated to have amounted to nearly half a million of money. The Anti-Cornlaw League was the first organised appeal on a gigantic scale in Great Britain to popular judgment and popular power; and its operations were viewed with lively alarm. It was denounced by tory landlords, with entire sincerity, as ?the most cunning, unscrupulous, knavish, pestilent body of men that ever plagued this or any other country.? Loud cries were raised for its suppression as a seditious conspiracy. In the session of 1843, Sir Robert Peel charged Cobden with using language that held him up to public odium, and, by implication, invited personal outrage. The incident was the most painful in Cobden''s parliamentary life. In the question of factory legislation, which was raised into prominence at this time by Lord Ashley, Cobden, though he did not vote against the bill of 1844, always deprecated the regulation of the hours of labour by law, maintaining that the workmen were strong enough to protect themselves. In 1845 Peel proposed the augmentation of the grant to the catholic college at Maynooth, and Cobden supported it as a means of extending the education of a body of men who were the instructors of millions of the population. This, and a proposal relating to the outlay at South Kensington, were the only two occasions in five-and-twenty years in which Cobden and Mr. Bright took different sides in parliamentary divisions. The cause, meanwhile, moved slowly. In 1844 trade revived, and the condition of the people began rapidly to improve. This weakened the practical force of Cobden''s argument, that the duty on corn was the great obstacle to a vast increase in the foreign demand for British manufactures; in other words, that extended markets could only be secured by the free admission of foreign corn in exchange for our goods. He now turned to the agricultural side of the question, and began to ask the farmers and the labourers what advantage the corn law had brought to either of them. Cobden spoke at his best in 1845. Probably the most powerful speech that he ever made was that of 13 March in this year. The men on the tory benches whispered eagerly among one another, ?Peel must answer this.? But the minister is said to have crumpled up the notes that he had taken, with the words, ?Those may answer him who can.?
Events told more powerfully than the most persuasive logic. By the middle of October the government found themselves face to face with the prospect of famine in Ireland, and Peel proposed to his cabinet to summon parliament and advise a temporary suspension of the corn duties. After three meetings of the cabinet the question was left undecided. Lord John Russell then launched the Edinburgh letter, in which he gave up the old whig principle of a fixed duty, and advocated total repeal. The cabinet was again called together, and as they were still unable to come to an agreement, Sir Robert Peel resigned (5 Dec.). Cobden had plunged into the work of agitation with more energy than ever. It was essential to impress on the government, whoever they might be, the impossibility of meeting the crisis by the temporary expedient of opening the ports, or by anything short of total, immediate, and final repeal. On Peel''s resignation the queen sent for Lord John Russell, and Lord John invited Cobden to become vice-president of the board of trade. Cobden declined on the ground that he should be able to render more efficient assistance as the out-of-doors advocate of free trade, than in an official capacity. Owing to internal dissensions among the whig chiefs, the administration was not formed. Peel returned to office, and at the opening of the session of 1846 proposed the total repeal of the corn duty, though the ports were not to be entirely open until 1849. When the bill had passed, and the minister announced to the House of Commons that his defeat on the Irish Coercion Bill compelled him to resign (29 June), he explained the success of the great measure of 1846 in well-known words: ?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 of Richard Cobden.?
Cobden''s earnest wish at this great party crisis was that Peel, instead of resigning, should dissolve parliament, should place himself at the head of the representatives of the middle class, and should go to the country with the cry of practical reforms, as distinguished from those organic questions which, as Cobden urged, had no vitality in the country. These views he pressed upon the falling minister in a long and interesting letter (23 June 1846). Peel replied on the following day, urging that it would be impossible for him to dissolve after a defeat on an Irish Coercion Bill, without seeming to appeal to England against Ireland, which he should deeply lament, and without incurring the suspicion that he was using the power of dissolution, and the popular influence which his conversion to free trade had given him, merely for the sake of personal objects. When Lord John Russell formed his government, he wrote Cobden a very civil letter (2 July), not proposing office at the moment, as he understood that Cobden was going abroad, and that perhaps he did not intend to follow politics as a pursuit apart from free trade. He expressed a hope, however, that on his return Cobden would join the cabinet.
It would, in fact, have been difficult for Cobden to enter an administration at this moment, even if he had been inclined. The absorbing nature of his public labours had been disastrous to his private fortunes. In 1840 he had married Miss Catherine Anne Williams, a young Welsh lady, and he was now the father of a family. His business imperatively needed energy and attention, and his brother Frederick proved unequal to the task which devolved upon him. In the summer of 1845 embarrassments had become serious, and at the moment when his unselfish devotion to the national interest received its triumphant reward, Cobden himself was a ruined man. A subscription was raised, and nearly 80,000l. was collected in commemoration of his services to a great cause. Of this sum a considerable portion went to the discharge of debt, some was expended in the purchase of a little property at Dunford, where he was born, and where henceforth he lived; and the balance was invested in the shares of the Illinois Central Railway. The prudence of the investment was in one sense justified by the subsequent prosperity of the line, but for the time both the railway shares and some speculative dealings in land in Manchester proved unfortunate and troublesome. In 1860, after he had been able to render another immense service to the commercial interests of England and France, a second subscription was privately raised to the amount of 40,000l.
The enormous labours of seven years had told not only upon Cobden''s fortune, but on his health. He sought relief in his favourite refreshment of foreign travel, and spent fourteen months (5 Aug. 1846-11 Oct. 1847) in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia, eagerly striving wherever he went to win converts to his great gospel of free trade. He was everywhere received with marks of honour. He was entertained at public banquets, attended large gatherings, and had long private interviews with leading statesmen. At the general election of 1847 he was chosen both for his former borough of Stockport and for the great constituency of the West Riding of Yorkshire. He elected to sit for the West Riding, which he represented for ten years. For the five or six years following his return to England public affairs were comparatively tranquil. He carried on a wide and active correspondence with reformers of all kinds, about temperance, about education, about parliamentary reform, about the land, and, above all, about peace. In 1849 (12 June) he brought forward the first motion in favour of international arbitration, and in 1851 a motion for the general reduction of armaments. He supported the measure for removing Jewish disabilities, and he denounced the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill (1851) as an intolerant and insulting measure. The accession of Lord Derby''s government (February 1852) kindled lively apprehensions of a return to a protective policy, the league reassembled, fresh funds were subscribed, and a plan arranged for the electoral campaign. It proved to be a false alarm, for Mr. Disraeli announced that the government had greater subjects to consider than the triumph of obsolete opinions, and free trade was safe. The following year (1853) Cobden once more came forward as an author. His pamphlet, ?1792 and 1853, in Three Letters,? was a protest against the panic fear of invasion which had disturbed the public mind after the rise of the Second Empire in France. He attended, for the fourth time, the peace conference, which was held on this occasion at Manchester; and in parliament he again pressed the necessity of reducing expenditure. Friends warned him that he was flogging a dead horse, and destroying without compensation the influence and popularity that he had acquired by his labours in the cause of cheap food. He replied that this only showed that there never was a time yet when it was so necessary for a peace party to redouble its efforts. In the same year he wrote his pamphlet on the second Burmese war, entitled ?How Wars are got up in India.? The narrative, extracted and pieced together from the papers laid before parliament, is left to point its own moral, and is a good specimen of Cobden''s diligent and weighty method.
Whatever hopes he may have had in the direction of peace were soon rudely shattered by the Crimean war (1854-6). True to the views which he had expressed twenty years before, Cobden, along with his constant comrade, Mr. Bright, vigorously withstood the policy of the war, and the strong tide of popular sentiment in its favour. They very soon perceived that public opinion was violently and incurably against them, but this made no difference in the vigour with which they endeavoured to stem the current. His view of the Turkish empire and its prospects had been formed upon the spot years before. ?You must address yourselves,? he said, ?to the question, What are you to do with the christian population? Mahometanism cannot be maintained, and I should be sorry to see this country fighting for the maintenance of Mahometanism. You may keep Turkey on the map of Europe, but do not think that you can keep up the Mahometan rule in the country.? To urge this deliberate judgment, which has not been discredited by the course of subsequent events, Cobden made speeches both in the House of Commons and on the platform, he kept up a busy correspondence, and in the beginning of 1856 he published the pamphlet entitled ?What next? and next?? Austria, acting in concert with France, had just despatched an ultimatum to Russia, proposing terms of peace, and intimating that if they were not accepted Austria would range herself by the side of France and Great Britain. Cobden''s pamphlet, passing over all discussion of the origin of the war, was a plea, backed by a heavy array of economic and military facts, against the imposition on Russia of humiliating terms of peace.
Before the peace of Paris was signed, Cobden suffered a heavy domestic blow in the sudden death of his only son (6 April 1856), a promising lad of fifteen, at school near Heidelberg. The severe illness which disabled Mr. Bright at the same time was almost as painful to Cobden as a personal affliction, and to these private sorrows there was speedily added the mortification of a great public repulse. Sir John Bowring had involved this country in hostilities with the government of China, on the ground that they had unlawfully boarded a ship alleged to be British, for the purpose of seizing certain of their subjects on board. The men were given up by the Chinese governor, on Bowring''s demand, but Bowring thought it right to persist in vindictive operations, many junks were destroyed, Canton was shelled, and a long and troublesome war was entered upon. On 26 Feb. 1857, Cobden brought forward a motion condemning Bowring''s action, on the ground that his demand was not strictly legal, that his violent action was precipitate, and that it would have been better for us to make joint representations with France and the United States, instead of plunging into a conflict which Lord Elgin himself afterwards declared to be a scandal to us. Cobden''s motion was carried against Lord Palmerston by a majority of sixteen, by a curious coalition in which the Manchester men were joined not only by the Peelites, headed by Mr. Gladstone, but by Mr. Disraeli and by Lord John Russell. Lord Palmerston at once appealed to the country. Cobden found that his action during the Russian war, and on some other less important subjects, had destroyed all chance of retaining his seat in the West Riding, and he went to Huddersfield. At Huddersfield (26 March) he was beaten by 823 votes against 590. Mr. Bright, Milner Gibson, W. J. Fox, Miall, and nearly every other prominent member of the Manchester school, experienced an equally disastrous defeat.
After this great rout, which at first he felt very sharply, Cobden passed two years in retirement at his home in Sussex. In 1859 he made his second voyage to the United States, and spent three months there, delighted at the immense moral and material progress which America had made in the four and twenty years since his former visit. It all tends to the argument, he said to Mr. Bright, that the political condition of a people is very much dependent on its economic fate. When he landed at Liverpool (29 June), a great surprise awaited him. The conservative government which had come into power after Lord Palmerston''s defeat on the Conspiracy to Murder Bill (20 Feb. 1858) was defeated in April 1859, a general election had followed, the various liberal sections met at Willis''s Rooms and made up their differences, a vote of want of confidence was moved in the new parliament by Lord Hartington and carried by a majority of thirteen. Lord Derby resigned, and Lord Palmerston proceeded to form the administration which lasted until his death in October 1865. When Cobden stepped from the steamer, a letter was placed in his hands from the new prime minister, offering him the post of president of the board of trade with a seat in the cabinet. Many of his friends pressed him to accept, but his own judgment did not waver for an instant. He had an interesting interview with Lord Palmerston, and after an explanation, marked by entire good humour on both sides, he declined to join, on grounds which were more easily understood than accurately expressed. ?For the last twelve years,? he said to Lord Palmerston, ?I have been the systematic and constant assailant of the principle on which your foreign policy has been carried on. I believed you to be warlike, intermeddling, and quarrelsome. At the same time I have expressed a general want of confidence in your domestic politics. I may have been altogether wrong in my views, but I put it candidly to you whether it ought to be in your cabinet that I should make the first avowal of a change of opinion respecting your public policy.? Cobden would not have been what he was, if he had been ready to accept a post ?under one to whom the beliefs and the language of a lifetime made him the typical antagonist.? ?I have a horror,? he said, ?of losing my own individuality, which is to me as existence itself.?
At the general election Cobden had in his absence been returned without a contest as member for Rochdale. But his most important work was again to be done outside of parliament. In the early autumn of 1859 Cobden received a letter from Michel Chevalier, urging him to take an opportunity of converting the emperor of the French to the policy of free trade, at least so far as was necessary for the conclusion of a treaty of commerce between England and France. Cobden went to Hawarden to discuss the project with Mr. Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer. Host and guest were in strong sympathy alike in the economic and the ethical sides of national policy. Both were quick to perceive the advantage which a commercial treaty with France would be, not only to the work of tariff reform in England, but at the same time to the restoration of smoother relations in the sentiment of the two countries to one another. Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell were consulted, and though they treated the enterprise coolly, they did not forbid Cobden''s volunteer mission. He went to Paris on 18 Oct. 1859, and the prolonged and laborious negotiations that followed did not come to a close until 16 Nov. 1860. In two interviews he converted the emperor to the soundness and the feasibility of lowering or removing duties, though the emperor''s adhesion to his views was probably due more to political motives, and less to economic or fiscal, than Cobden knew. The negotiations reached the formal stage in January (1860), when Cobden received official instructions and powers. When the secret came out, it roused violent excitement among the French protectionists, and Cobden fought with them a strenuous battle for many months. The treaty was signed by Cobden and Lord Cowley on behalf of England on 23 Jan. The details of the tariff remained to be settled, and this was as important in many respects as the treaty itself. After a holiday at Cannes and a short visit to London, Cobden returned to Paris (20 April) as chief commissioner for working out the scale of duties on particular articles. This fatiguing task occupied him for many hours of every day until November, when all was at last brought to a satisfactory close. Nothing short of the most dauntless faith and persistency could have carried him through. Apart from the immense labour of the transaction itself, he was harassed by the occasional vacillations of the emperor, by the lukewarmness of departments at home, by unfriendly articles in the English newspapers, and above all by Lord Palmerston''s ostentatious attitude of suspicion and defiance towards the imperial government. When Mr. Gladstone explained the provisions of the commercial treaty to the House of Commons (10 Feb. 1860), in one of his most famous speeches, he paid a well-earned tribute to Cobden''s labours. ?Rare,? he said, ?is the privilege of any man who, having fourteen years ago rendered to his country one signal and splendid service, now again within the same brief span of life, decorated neither by rank nor title, bearing no mark to distinguish him from the people whom he serves, has been permitted again to perform a great and memorable service to his country.? Lord Palmerston offered Cobden either a baronetcy or the rank of a privy councillor.
The honour was courteously declined. ?The only reward I desire,? said Cobden, ?is to live to witness an improvement in the relations of the two great neighbouring nations which have been brought into more intimate connection by the treaty of commerce.?
The main work of his life was now over, though he persevered manfully in pressing those doctrines of peace and retrenchment which had been the text of his earliest public deliverances. In 1862 he engaged in a sort of single combat with Lord Palmerston on the subject of national defence, and he enforced the same lessons in his pamphlet on ?The Three Panics? of 1848, 1853, and 1862. When the civil war broke out in America, Cobden at first wavered, but it was only for a very short time, and he came forward, along with Mr. Bright, as a strenuous defender of the northern cause. In 1863 he carried on a pungent correspondence with J. T. Delane [q.v.], then the editor of the ?Times? newspaper. The ?Times? had, falsely enough, charged Mr. Bright with proposing to divide the lands of the rich among the poor. Cobden, refusing to allow Delane to shelter himself behind the screen of anonymous journalism, attacked him publicly and by name for his ?scandalous aspersions? on Mr. Bright, and the matter was the talk of the country for some weeks. The session of 1864 was remarkable for the refusal of parliament and the constituencies to allow Lord Palmerston to go to war with Prussia and Austria on behalf of Denmark. This was a signal proof of the hold which the new doctrine of non-intervention had gained upon the opinion of the day, for there were some peculiar circumstances in the diplomatic history of the question which, but for that doctrine and a few years earlier, would undoubtedly have been held to make the defence of Denmark an obligation of honour on our part. Besides an important speech which he made on this subject (5 July), Cobden moved a resolution for extending the principle of non-intervention by force of arms in the internal affairs of foreign countries to the case of China (31 May); and he introduced a motion that the government should not manufacture for itself articles that could be obtained from private producers in a competitive market (22 July).
This was Cobden''s last speech in the House of Commons. In November he addressed at great length an immense meeting in his own constituency. The effort gave him a serious shake, and for many weeks afterwards he was confined to the house with asthma, bronchitis, and irritation of the throat. He followed the proceedings in parliament with watchful interest. The desire to take part in the discussion on a scheme of Canadian fortification became too strong to be resisted, and he travelled up to London in very bitter weather. He was seized with acute bronchitis, and died on 2 April 1865 in lodgings in Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, within a couple of months of the completion of his sixty-first year. He was buried, amid a large concourse of sorrowing friends, public and private, in the churchyard at Lavington, near his home in Sussex, in the grave where his son had been laid nine years before. Cobden was as eminent for the amiability of his private character as for his public virtue. Though incessantly engaged in the keenest controversy, he never made an enemy. The sincerity of his interest in great causes raised him above personalities, as it enabled him to bear with a singular constancy the embarrassments and trials of a life which in some respects had less than its share of happy fortune.
Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, edited by John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers, 1870; The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, 1867; Morley''s Life of Richard Cobden, 1881; Ashworth''s Recollections of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Cornlaw League, 1876; Madame Salis Schwabe''s Cobden, ses voyages, correspondances et souvenirs, 1879; Sir Edward Watkin''s Letters and Reminiscences of Cobden, 1891; Cobden as a Citizen, a chapter in Manchester History, with a Cobden bibliog. by W. E. A. Axon, 1907; The League: the Anti-Cornlaw League Organ, Sept. 1843 to 4 July 1846.
- Oil on Canvas
- Width (cm):
- 52.32 x 40.64cm (20.60 x 60 ins.)