The Political Writings of Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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F. W. Chesson, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected essays, 1835-1862. First published as a collection in 1867. 4th edition. Includes Preface by Lord Welby; Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet and William Cullen Bryant.
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SINCE the preceding pages were written, the news of the single combat between the two American iron-clad vessels, the Monitor and the Merrimac, has reached this country, and has been followed by something like an attempt to create an American invasion panic. Again the cry has arisen, from the old quarters, for precipitate preparations; and again, as in the case of France, there is a disposition to forget all that we have already done. The United States Government, being actually at war, have, we are told, determined to spend fifteen million dollars on armour-cased vessels. England, being at peace, has already incurred, or committed herself to, a much larger expenditure for the same purpose. As nearly the whole of the projected outlay in America is for gunboats, or coast batteries, and not for vessels adapted for crossing the Atlantic, there is nothing in these preparations that is menacing to Europe; and we may, therefore, wait in safety whilst the Americans are subjecting to the test of actual warfare the rival powers of artillery and iron shields. Under the intense stimulus now imparted to the mechanical genius of that inventive people, every month will probably witness the production of some new contrivance for aggression or defence; and should the civil war unhappily continue, it may not improbably lead to discoveries which will supersede exisiting armaments altogether.


Meantime, the experience which we have already gained from this deplorable contest has proved that our existing wooden fleet is worse than useless, that it is absolutely dangerous. When, in the pursuits of private industry, a manufacturing capitalist discovers that his machinery has been superseded by new inventions, and that he can only continue to work it at a serious loss, he does not hesitate at once to throw it aside, however cautions he may be in making choice of a new investment to replace it. Precisely the same principle is applicable to nations.


The following Memorandum, which was forwarded to the Prime Minister in October last,*229 will probably be thought, in some quarters, to have acquired increased force from the late American news.



"The present peculiar and exceptional state of the English and French navies, the result of scientific progress in maritime armaments, offers an opportunity for a reciprocal arrangement between the two governments, of the highest interest to both countries.


"During the last century, and down almost to the present day, the relative naval strength of the two countries has been measured by the number of their line-of-battle ships. But owing to the recent improvements in explosive shells, and other combustible missiles, and in the modes of projecting them, these large vessels have been pronounced, by competent judges, no longer suited for maritime warfare; and warning voices have even proclaimed that they will henceforth prove only a snare to those who employ them.


"This opinion has found utterance in several emphatic phrases.


" 'Wooden ships of the line,' says one, 'will, in a future naval war, be nothing but human slaughter houses.' 'They will be blown to lucifer matches,' says another. A third authority tells us that, in case of a collision between two such vessels at close quarters, the only words of command for which there will be time, will be, 'Fire, and lower your boats!' Whilst a fourth declares that 'any government that should send such a vessel into action against an iron-plated ship would deserve to be impeached.


"It hardly required such a weight of evidence to convince us that to crowd nearly a thousand men upon a huge wooden target, with thirty or forty tons of gunpowder at their feet, and expose them to a bombardment with detonating shells and other combustible projectiles, must be a very suicidal proceeding.


"The governments of the great maritime States have shown that they share this opinion, by abandoning the construction of line-of-battle ships.


"America, several years since, gave the preference to long, low vessels, possessing the utmost possible speed, and being capable of carrying the largest guns.


"France was the next to cease building ships of the line.


"The British Government have come to the same decision; and they gave a pledge last session, with the approval of Parliament, that they would not complete the vessels of this class which were unfinished on the stocks.


"It is under these circumstances that the two countries find themselves in possession of about one hundred wooden ships of the line with screw propellers. England has between sixty and seventy, and France between thirty and forty of these vessels, the greater part of them in commission; and their maintenance constitutes one of the principal items in the naval expenditure of the two countries.


"It will be admitted that if these vessels did not exist they would not now be constructed, and that when worn out they will not be renewed. It is equally indisputable that they have been built by the two government with a view to preserve a certain relative force towards each other.


"In proof that this rivalry has been confined exclusively to England and France, it may be stated, on the authority of the official representative of the Admiralty in the House of Commons, that Spain has only three, Russia nine, and Italy one, of this class of ships. America has only one.


"These circumstances suggest, as an obvious course to the two governments, that they should endeavour to come to an amicable agreement by which the greater portion of these ships might be withdrawn, and so disposed of as to be rendered incapable of being again employed for warlike purposes. This might be effected by an arrangement which should preserve to each country precisely the same relative force after the reduction as before. For instance, assuming, merely for the sake of argument, England to possess sixty-five, and France thirty-five, then for every seven withdrawn by France, England should withdraw thirteen; and thus, to whatever extent the reduction was carried, provided this proportion were preserved, the two countries would still possess the same relative force. The first point on which an understanding should be come to is as to the number of ships of the line actually possessed by each—a very simple question, inasmuch as it is not complicated by the comparison of vessels in different stages of construction. Then, the other main point is to agree upon a plan for making a fair selection, ship for ship, so that the withdrawals on both sides may be as nearly as possible of corresponding size or value. If the principle of a proportionate reduction be agreed to, far fewer difficulties will be found in carrying out the details than must have been encountered in arranging the plans of co-operation in the Crimean and Chinese wars, or in settling the details of the Commercial Treaty.


"And is this principle of reciprocity, in adjusting the naval forces of the two countries, an innovation? On the contrary, it would be easy to cite the declarations of the leading statesmen on both sides of the Channel, during the last twenty years, to prove that they have always been in the habit of regulating the amount of their navies by a reference to each other's armaments. True, this has been invariably done to justify an increase of expenditure. But why should not the same principle be also available in the interest of economy, and for the benefit of the taxpayers? A nation suffers no greater loss of dignity from surrendering its independence of action in regulating its armaments, whether the object be to meet a diminution or an increase of its neighbours' forces.


"Although this reduction of the obsolete ships of the line presents a case of the easiest solution, and should, therefore, in the first place, be treated as a separate measure, it could hardly fail to pave the way for an amicable arrangement for putting some limit to those new armaments which are springing out of the present transition state of the two navies.


"The application of iron plates to shipbuilding, which has rendered the reconstruction of the navies necessary, must be regarded as the commencement of an indefinite series of changes; and, looking to the great variety of experiments now making, both in ships and artillery, and to the new projects which the inventors are almost daily forcing upon the attention of the governments, it is not improbable that, a few years hence, when England and France shall have renewed their naval armaments, they will again be rendered obsolete by new scientific discoveries.


"In the meantime, neither country adds to its relative strength by this waste of national wealth; for, as both governments aim at only a proportionate increase, it is not contemplated that either should derive exclusive advantage from the augmentation. An escape from this dilemma is not to be sought in the attempt to arrest the march of improvement, or to discourage the efforts of inventive genius: a remedy for the evil can only be found in a more frank understanding between the two governments. If they will discard the old and utterly futile theory of secrecy—a theory on which an individual manufacturer or merchant no longer founds his hopes of successful competition with a foreign rival—they may be enabled, by the timely exchange of explanations and assurances, to prevent what ought to be restricted to mere experimental trials, from growing into formidable preparations for war. If those who are responsible for the naval administration of the two countries were consulted, it would probably be found that they are appalled at the prospect of a rivalry which, whilst it can satisfy neither the reason nor the ambition of either party, offers a boundless field of expenditure to both.


"Nor should it be forgotten that the financial pressure caused by these rival armaments is a source of constant irritation to the populations of the two countries. The British taxpayers believe, on the authority of their leading statesmen, that the increased burden to which they are subjected is caused by the armaments on the other side of the Channel. The people of France are also taught to feel similarly aggrieved towards England. The feelings of mutual animosity produced by this sacrifice of substantial interests are not to be allayed by the exchange of occasional acts of friendship between the two governments. On the contrary, this inconsistent policy, in incessantly arming against each other at home, whilst uniting for common objects abroad, if it do not impair public confidence in their sincerity, tends at least to destroy all faith in an identity of interests between the rulers and the ruled, by showing how little advantage the peoples derive from the friendship of their governments.


"But the greatest evil connected with these rival armaments is that they destroy the strongest motives for peace. When two great neighbouring nations find themselves permanently subjected to a war expenditure, without the compensation of its usual excitements and honours, the danger to be apprehended is that, if an accident should occur to inflame their hostile passions—and we know how certain these occidents are at intervals to arise—their latent sense of suffering and injury may reconcile them to a rupture, as the only eventual escape from an otherwise perpetual war taxation in a time of peace.


"Circumstances appeal strongly to the two governments at the present juncture in favour of a measure of wise and safe economy. In consequence of the deplorable events in America, and the partial failure of the harvests of Europe, the commerce and manufactures of both countries are exposed to an ordeal of great suffering. Were the proposed naval reduction carried into effect, it would ameliorate the financial position of the governments, and afford the means for alleviating the fiscal burdens of the peoples. But the moral effect of such a measure would be still more important. It should be remembered that, although these large vessels have lost their value in the eyes of professional men, they preserve their traditional terrors for the world at large; and when they move about, in fleets, on neighbouring coasts, they excite apprehension in the public mind, and even check the spirit of commercial enterprise. Were such an amicable arrangement as has been suggested accomplished, it would be everywhere accepted as a pledge of peace; and, by inspiring confidence in the future, would help to reanimate the hopes of the great centres of trade and industry, not only in France and England, but throughout Europe.


"Will not the two governments, then, embrace this opportunity of giving effect to a policy which, whilst involving no risk, no sacrifice of honour, or diminution of relative power will tend to promote the present prosperity and future harmony of the two countries, and thus offer an example of wisdom and moderation worthy of this civilised age, and honourable to the fame of the two foremost nations of the earth?"

Notes for this chapter

[This was written early in 1862.]

End of Notes

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