Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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James E. Thorold Rogers, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected speeches, 1841-1864. First published as a collection in 1870. 3rd edition. Includes biographical "Appreciations" by Goldwin Smith and J. E. Thorold Rogers.
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Volume I
LONDON, MAY 8, 1844.


Fortunately for me, the phrenologists, who have examined my head, tell me that I have neither the organ of self-esteem nor that of love of approbation: if I had, I am sure you would spoil me. At this late hour of the meeting I should not have intruded myself at all upon you were it not for a consciousness of the duty we owe to our visitor to-night—the noble Lord (Kinnaird) who has so kindly consented to fill the chair upon the present occasion, who, possessing great nobility and courage of nature, is the second individual who has come forth from his Order to preside at our meeting, who has furnished us with so many additional arguments, and who is thereby able to cheer us on in the pursuit of our great cause. Had it not been for the duty we owe to his lordship and to the gentleman (Mr. Somers) who has just sat down, who is an occupier of land, and who, I may tell you, holds the situation of acting chairman of the board of guardians of the Bridgwater Union—if it had not been, I say, for the purpose of paying a tribute to this noble Lord and the Somersetshire farmer, I am sure I should not have trespassed upon your time at this late hour of the evening.


We have here again another answer to his Grace of Richmond, who stated in the House of Peers that the farmers to a man are with the monopolists. I tell the noble Duke, 'Well, you have not yet answered the speeches of Messrs. Hunt and Lattimore, and now are you willing to reply to that of Mr. Somers?' We will call upon his Grace to notice these men, and to say whether, in the counties of Gloucester, Hertford, and Somerset, from whence these three farmers severally came, there can be found more unexceptionable witnesses, in point of talent, character, morality, and fitness in every respect; whether there could have been better witnesses brought from the counties I have named than those gentlemen. These are not the description of men the Protectionists put forward at their meetings as 'farmers;' their farmers generally consist of lawyers, land-valuers, and auctioneers—mere toadies and creatures of the landlords. They are men who stand towards the real farmers in a far worse relation than the landlord himself; for they do the dirty work on the tenant which the landlord personally would scorn to do. I will tell you what kind of people these land-valuers and auctioneers are. I was once travelling in Scotland upon the banks of a loch, between Taymouth and Killeen. A Highlander rode with me in the car who was a firm believer in witches and ghosts. He said his father had seen many of these ghosts, and he himself had seen some; that they were exceedingly mischievous, for they actually put stumbling-blocks in the way of people going home on a dark night, and often bewitched the cattle; 'in fact,' said he, reasoning the matter out, 'I believe they are worse than the Evil One that sends them. Just, you see, as the factor over there,' pointing in the direction of the marquis's factor or land-agent's mansion, 'just as the factor there is waur than the laird.' Now, we do not bring forward these land-valuers and auctioneers. Mind you, the talking men in the farming districts generally are these auctioneers and land-agents. We have not too wide a choice among farmers who are Free Traders, and who can speak at public meetings like this; but this I can tell you from my own experience: wherever you find in any county of the kingdom a man of original thought and independent mind, and who has wherewithal to make him independent, and enable him to stand erect in the world, that man is almost invariably in favour of Free Trade.


But, upon the general argument of Free Trade, what am I to say to you, since you are all agreed on the subject? I can only congratulate you, that during this present week we have not been without evidence of a progress in high quarters on our question. We have had a budget—I cannot say it is a Free-trade one, because, when we Leaguers get into power, we will bring forward a much better budget than that. But still there were some little things done in the budget on Monday night, and everything that was done was in the direction of Free Trade. What have the Duke of Richmond and the Protection Society been about? Why, I thought they had organised themselves, and assembled in his Grace's parlour, and had declared that their Prime Minister had gone so far that he should now go no farther. But it is quite clear to me that the Prime Minister does not dread those carpetknights much who sit in the drawingroom of his Grace; he is not very much alarmed at that chivalry. I think he has a great deal more reliance upon us than dread of them. There is one thing done by the present Government which has been well done, because it was totally and immediately done—I mean their abolition of the protection upon wool. Twenty-five years ago there was an uprising of all the Knatchbulls, Buckinghams, and Richmonds of that day, who said, we insist on having a 6d. duty laid on foreign wool, to protect our own growth. They obtained what they asked Five years afterwards, Mr. Huskisson said he had been informed by the Leeds manufacturers, that if that duty was not greatly altered, and almost taken off, all the woollen manufactures would be lost, and then the English farmers would have no market for their wool at all. By dint of great management and eloquence on his part, Mr. Huskisson was enabled to take off at that time 5d. of the 6d. which had been laid on. And during the past week we have got rid of the other 1d. When it was proposed to take off this duty, the agriculturists—I mean the Knatchbulls and Buckinghams of the day—declared (I have often quoted from their pamphlets upon that subject before), that if the duty was repealed, there would be no more shepherds employed, but that they would all go to the workhouse; that there would be no mutton in the land, and that all the shepherds' dogs might be hanged. If you had heard them talk in those days, you would have thought the poor sheep, instead of carrying merely its own wardrobe on its back, bore the entire wealth and prosperity of the whole nation. Now they are going to carry on the trade of sheep-rearing and woolselling without any protection.


Why should they not conduct the business of raising and selling corn upon the same principle? If it is unreasonable to 'totally and immediately' abolish the duty on corn, why has their own Prime Minister and Government 'totally and immediately' abolished the protection on wool? We find encouragement and good argument in favour of our principles by every step that is taken, even by our professed opponents. Take the article of coffee; a reform in that is not entirely, but it is half done. The duties on coffee formerly were—indeed, at this moment, are—4d. per lb duty on colonial, and 8d. per lb. on foreign. That meant just 4d. per lb. monopoly to the colonial growers, because they were thereby enabled to sell their coffee at just 4d. more than they otherwise would have done. Sir Robert Peel has reduced the duty on foreign coffee, but not on colonial, leaving the latter with 2d. per lb. less protection than it formerly had. I cannot say that is rightly done, but it is half done, and we will have the other half by-and-by. Now, the next matter is sugar. Ladies, you cannot make your coffee without you have sugar; at least, with all your most honeyed smiles, you cannot make it sweet. Now, we are in a little difficulty about this sugar; for there are scruples of conscience which have come over the Government of this country. They cannot take foreign sugar, because it is tainted with slavery. Now observe, I am going to let out a secret. There is a secret correspondence going on between the Government of this country and that of Brazil to this effect. You know that statesmen sometimes write private letters and instructions to their agents, which are not published till about one hundred years after they are written, when they become curiosities. I will just give you one that will be published one hundred years hence respecting our Government and the Brazils. The present Ministry turned out the late Administration on the question of sugar. Lord Sandon, when he moved an amendment to the Whig proposition to allow foreign sugar, rested his argument on the ground that it was very impious to consume slave-grown sugar. But he said nothing about coffee; the rest I will explain in the words of the supposed secret letter from our Government to their ambassador in Brazil:—

'Inform the Brazilian Government that we stand pledged to the country, as regards this article of sugar, and, when we bring in our budget, we shall be obliged to tell the people of England, who are very gullible, and who will believe anything we tell them from our places in the House of Commons, that it will be very improper to encourage slavery and the slave trade by taking Brazilian sugar; but, to convince the Brazilian Government that we do not mean to do them any harm in this matter, we will preface our remarks about sugar by a declaration that we will admit their coffee at 2d. per lb. reduction on the former duty; and as four out of five of the slaves who are employed in Brazil are engaged in the coffee plantations, and as three-fifths of all the exports from the Brazils are coffee, and as sugar forms comparatively an insignificant item in their production and exports (of all which the people of England are profoundly ignorant), this will convince them that we do not mean any injury to the Brazilian planters, and that we are not in earnest when we propose to stop the slave trade; we are simply bound to exclude the sugar by the exigencies of our party and our peculiar position. But tell them, at the same time, how cleverly we have tripped up the heels of the Whigs by the manœuvre.'


That is the description of despatch which will be published one hundred years hence, as having been sent by our present Government to their envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at Brazil.


No doubt there are people who have been taken in by this cant about slave produce: honest, well-meaning philanthropists, if I must call them so, although I find it difficult to treat men as philanthropists who merely revel in the enjoyment of an unreasoning conscience, because true philanthropists have always a real ground of reason by which to guide their benevolence. There is a class of individuals who have come into considerable notoriety of late in this country, who wish to subject us, not to the dictates of an enlightened benevolence, but to the control of mere fanaticism. They are men who, under the plea of being anti-slavery advocates, petition the Government that they should not allow the people of this country to consume sugar, unless they can prove that it had not 'the taint of slavery,' as they call it, upon it. Is there anything in morals which answers to the principle in material nature that there should be one thing which is a conductor of immorality, and another a non-conductor? that coffee is a non-conductor of the immorality of slavery, but that sugar is a conductor, and therefore you must not take it? I have personally met with some of these unreasoning philanthropists, and have been called upon by them to meet their objections relative to slave-grown sugar. I remember in particular one very benevolent gentleman in a white muslin cravat, with whom I discussed this question. I met him this way:—'Before you say another word to me on the subject, strip that slave-grown cotton from your neck.' He replied, that it was not practicable to do so. I rejoined, 'I demand it; it is practicable; for I know one gentleman who has dispensed with wearing cotton stockings in the summer, and will not allow his garments to be put together with cotton thread if he knows it.' It is, I assure you, a fact, that I know one philanthropist who has made that sacrifice. 'But,' said I, 'if it is impracticable for you, who stand up before me now with slave-grown cotton round your neck, to abstain from slave-grown commodities, is it possible for the people of England to do it? Is it practicable for us as a nation to do so? You can, if you please, pass a law prohibiting the importation of slave-grown sugar into England, but will that accomplish your object at all? You receive free-grown sugar in England; that leaves a vacuum in Holland and elsewhere, which is filled up with slave-grown sugar.' Before men have a right to preach such doctrines as these, and call upon the Government and the nation at large to support them, they ought to give evidence of their sincerity by the self-denying practice of abstaining from those articles which are already consumed in this country.


What right have a people who are the largest consumers and distributers of cotton goods to go over to the Brazils with their ships full of cotton, then turn up the whites of their eyes, shed crocodile tears over the slaves, and say, 'Here we are with a cargo of cotton goods, but we have qualms of conscience, religious scruples, and cannot take your slave-grown sugar in return for our slave-grown cotton'? In the first place the thing is inconsistent, and in the next it is hypocritical. Mark me, clever knaves are using fanatics in order to impose upon the people of England a heavy burden. That is just what it amounts to. Cunning and selfish men are tampering with the credulity of what used to be the reasoning benevolence of the people of England. We must put down this sort of dictatorship, which has no rational judgment to guide it. Will they venture to assert that I am an advocate for the continuance of slavery because I maintain the principle of Free Trade? No; I assert here, as everywhere, that one good, sound, and just principle never can be at war with another of a similar character. If you can show me that Free Trade is promotive of slavery, and that it is calculated to extend or perpetuate it, then I should doubt, pause, and hesitate whether freedom of trade and personal freedom are equally consistent and just in their principles; and, as I say, primâ facie, there can be no question but that the possession of human beings as goods and chattels is contrary to the first Christian precept, therefore I say at once that slavery is unjust; and, if you can show me that Free Trade would promote that diabolical system, then I should be prepared to abandon Free Trade itself.


But I have always been of the same opinion with the most distinguished writers who have ever treated upon this subject—such men as Adam Smith, Burke, Franklin, Hume, and others, the greatest thinkers of any age—that slave labour is more costly than free labour—that if the two were brought into fair competition, free labour would supersede slave labour. I find this view so strongly put and clearly borne out by a body of men whom I should think ought to be considered as authorities on this matter—I mean the anti-slavery body themselves—that I will venture to read just three or four lines out of this volume, which is a record of the proceedings of the General Anti-Slavery Convention, called by the committee of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and held in London in 1840. It was denominated the 'World's Convention of Anti-Slavery Delegates,' for its members assembled from all parts of the globe. They appointed a most intelligent committee to make a report as to the relative value of free and slave labour, and here is their declaration, unanimously agreed to by the conference, with Thomas Clarkson at their head. They say,—

'Resolved—That, upon the evidence of facts to which the attention of this Convention has been directed, it is satisfactorily established as a general axiom that free labour is more profitable to the employer, and consequently cheaper, than slave labour.'

They go on to say,—

'That of all kinds of slave labour, that of imported slaves has been demonstrated to be the most costly and the least productive.'

And they wind up thus:—

'That the advantages of free-labour cultivation cannot be fairly attested or fully realised under a system of husbandry and general management which has grown up under the existence of slavery, and which is attested by a waste of human labour, that, but for monopoly prices, must have absorbed all the profit of cultivation. That the unrestricted competition of free labour in the cultivation of sugar would necessarily introduce a new system, by which the cost of production would be further diminished, and the fall of prices that must ensue would leave no profit upon slave-grown sugar.'

I will only quote one other passage of three lines from this report. There was a long debate upon the subject; many intelligent witnesses from all parts of the world bore testimony to that principle, and the committee passed those resolutions unanimously. I will only read from the report of the discussions a few words of the speech of Mr. Scoble, who was speaking of the difference in the price of sugars which were then in the market. In alluding to the fact that the price of slave-sugar was 23s. per cwt., while that of free-grown sugar was 47s., he says:—

'Now, what is it that makes the difference in price between these two classes of colonial produce but what is usually termed the West Indian monopoly? Let the monopoly be got rid of, and I will venture to say that free-labour will compete with slave-labour sugar of any kind.'

That is the testimony of Mr. Scoble, who, I believe, is the accredited agent of the present London anti-slavery body.


Now, I ask these gentlemen to do that which we Free-traders do—to have faith in their own principles; to trust a great truth, convinced that it will carry them safely, whatever there may be of apparent difficulty in their way. We, as Free-traders, do not ask for the free admission of slave-grown sugar because we wish to consume the produce of slaves rather than of freemen, but because we object to the infliction of a monopoly upon the people of England under the pretence of putting an end to slavery. We deny that that is an effectual or a just mode of extinguishing slavery. On the contrary, it is subjecting the British public to a species of oppression and spoliation second in injustice only to slavery itself. We maintain, with Mr. Scoble and the Anti-Slavery Convention, that free labour, if placed in competition with slave labour, will be found cheaper and more productive, and that it will, in the end, put down slavery and the slave trade, by rendering it unprofitable to hold our fellow-creatures in bondage. Why, would it not be a monstrous thing if we found that in the moral government of this world it was so contrived that a man should have a premium offered him for doing injustice to his fellow-man? Plenty and cheapness have been the reward promised from the beginning of time to those who do well; but if the greater cheapness and plenty should be the reward of him who seizes on his fellow-man and compels him to work with the whip, rather than for the man who offers a fair recompense for the willing labourer, I say, if that were found to be true, it would be at war with all we hold most just, and which we believe to be true of the moral government of the universe. If, then, free competition be wanted to overturn slavery, I ask this anti-slavery body how they can consistently present petitions to the House of Commons praying that this free competition shall not be allowed, and therefore that the very means they recommend for abolishing slavery shall not be carried into effect in this country? I am willing to believe many of these individuals to be honest; they have proved themselves to be disinterested by the labours they have gone through; but I warn them against being made the unconscious instruments of subtle, designing, and thoroughly selfish men, who have an interest in upholding this monopoly of sugar, which is slavery in another form, for the consumers of sugar here; and who, to carry their base object, will tamper with the feelings of the people of this country, and make use of the old British anti-slavery feeling, in order to carry out their selfish and iniquitous objects.


Now, ladies and gentlemen, before I sit down, I wish to say a word to you on a truly practical part of the question. Some allusion was made by my friend, Mr. Ricardo, to the probability of an election, and the necessity of being prepared for it. I am desirous, particularly in this place, where what we say goes out to the whole world—our own organ, the League, conveys every syllable of our speeches to 20,000 persons in all the parishes in the kingdom—I say, I want to dwell especially here upon what I conceive it is necessary that the people of this country should do to carry out the principles of Free Trade. They must simply adopt the plan which Sir Robert Peel recommended to his party—'Register, register, register!' Without a single public meeting or demonstration of any kind at all comparable with this, that party went to work, and in the course of four or five years placed their chief, who had given that good advice, in a majority in the House of Commons. Now, we have infinitely more scope for work than ever he or his supporters had. Are you aware of the number of people who are voluntarily disfranchised in this country at this moment? You will be astonished when I tell you that in the metropolitan boroughs alone there are from 40,000 to 50,000 people who might register and vote for Members of Parliament, if they chose, but who neglect to do so. In every one of the large boroughs, such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, there are thousands of people entitled to vote for Members of Parliament, but who yet do not make the necessary claim for that purpose. Why, within the walls of the city of London, I will venture to say that there is not one house which is paying a lower rent than 10l. Every man with a roof over his head there, can, and ought to, be a voter. How will you carry your Free-trade ticket at the next city of London election, unless you all register yourselves, for we do not then intend to go for one, but for all the four Members together?


I will in a few words state to you, and all our friends in the country, exactly how we stand at this particular moment. In about ten weeks the time will have elapsed which will give the people an opportunity of claiming to vote for the next year. Then, observe, that in order to have a vote you must have occupied a 10l. house for twelve months previous to the 31st of July, and have paid all rates and taxes due up to the 6th of April, upon or before the 20th of July. Having done this, you will be entitled to register your names as voters, and be in a position to exercise the elective franchise the next year, should there be a dissolution of Parliament, and a contest for Free Trade. Mark me! By a late decision in the Court of Common Pleas, every man who rents a room in a house, if the apartment be a separate tenement—that is, if the lodger has the key of it, and has ingress and egress at the outer door when he likes—if that room be rented at 10l. a year or upwards, he will be entitled to a vote; and, if his landlord pays the rates, it is a sufficient rating, provided his own name be put down along with his landlord's on the books of the overseers. Now, that decision alone has given the franchise to perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 people in the City of London, and an immense number throughout the whole metropolitan boroughs. But lodgers who are boarded and lodged in a house, and who have not a separate room, as is the ordinary way with young persons, are not entitled to a vote. I wish they were, for I have no doubt we should get most of them. How is it that there are 40,000 or 50,000 people in the metropolis, and many thousands in all large towns, that are not on the electoral lists? I will tell you why. In the first place, I am sorry to say that a vast number of people in this country, who would be shocked and offended if we called them 'slaves,' or did not compliment them under the title of 'free-born Englishmen,' will not take the trouble to walk across the street in order to obtain for themselves votes, even where there is no expense attending it. In very many cases the difficulty is this, that in a great number of the smaller class of houses the landlords owning them compound for the rates, and pay them in a lump, whether the houses be empty or not, and by so doing pay a somewhat less amount than they would do if they paid for each house individually. If a tenant under such circumstances tells the overseers he wishes to be put down in the rate-book to get a vote, the overseers are required by law to put their names upon the rate-books with that of their landlords'. That is the condition in which thousands, nay, tens of thousands, of people in this country are situated who might have votes for Members of Parliament, if they adopted the proper means. I do hope that all who hear me, and those who will read what I am saying, will feel that now the time is come when each individual in his locality will be called on to make an effort to enrol his own and his neighbours' names on the register, against a future electoral combat.


Come when it may, our victory will depend on the force we can bring on paper before we come into the field. It is of no use going to a contest if we have not previously been to the registration court. I would counsel our friends, the non-electors in any borough, and point out to them how much they can do by looking after their neighbours; and, when they see a man just balancing and doubting whether he will or will not claim to vote, to urge upon him the duty which he owes to the cause we advocate of having his name placed on the register. If they do not do so, the time will come when they will bitterly regret it. It was only the other day that our friend, General Briggs, at Exeter, where he nobly did the work for us, found that he could not walk the streets of that city without being followed by crowds of non-electors, saying, 'I will show you, sir, where there is a man who will give you a vote.' Another would say, 'I have been looking after three votes for you.' A third would exclaim, 'I wish I had a hundred votes, you should have them all.' One honest man who kept a turnpike-gate—and we are often told that turnpike-keepers are misanthropes—positively would not receive toll from the General, stating that as he had not a vote to register for him, he would give him what he could. Persons of this description, if they will take my advice, instead of reserving all their enthusiasm until the time of contest, will during the next ten weeks do their utmost to influence every one of their neighbours whom they can to be enrolled. It is by these means, and not by talking, that the victory will be won. I have over and over again told you that I have no faith in talking; it is not by words, but by deeds, by pursuing a course such as I have been describing, that when the day of battle comes we shall be prepared with a majority on the electoral lists to meet our opponents in that constitutional fight in which the question must be decided; and if we are true to our principles, and show but ordinary zeal in their behalf, we shall not have another general election without finding a triumphant majority in favour of Free-trade principles.

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