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


Many as have been the meetings which I have had the honour of addressing in Manchester, yet I think I can truly say that none will lay claim to surpass the present in numbers and intelligence; and, if I look around me on the platform, I am led to the conclusion that for weight, influence, and moral power, this constitutes altogether about one of the strongest meetings I have ever known held in this country. As I came along the street just now, I saw such a rushing and struggling to gain access to this meeting, that I could not help asking myself what it was that we were called together for. You have nothing particular to learn, we have nothing particular to communicate in reference to this cause, and yet there seems to be something in our question which naturally and instinctively draws us together.


I think there is some danger of a misapprehension on the part of some as to the particular object which again draws us together to-night in this building. Our business here to-night is to state the position in which our cause stands at the present moment, to draw some consolation from the particular posture in which we are now placed, and to make some allusion to the dilemma in which our opponents, as many suppose, are now placed. We are not met here to-night to exult in the fallen and menacing condition of our unhappy sister island, Ireland, whose inhabitants, in consequence of the failure of the potato crop, and the deficiency of the wheat harvest, seem to have starvation staring them in the face, and famine impending over them. But, ladies and gentlemen, let it be perfectly understood that we do not meet here to exult over the calamity in which a large portion of our countrymen are likely to be placed, or over the scarcity and famine which impend over our unhappy sister island. The objects for which we have laboured for seven years have been abundance and cheapness. 'Plenty' is our motto—'Plenty always and everywhere!' And if there be drought, or scarcity, or famine, here or elsewhere, we, at all events, of all our fellow-countrymen, may fairly claim to stand guiltless of the cause of that famine and distress. We are told that in a country where the great bulk of the population are always upon the verge of famine, where that gaunt spectre now threatens to stalk through the land—that misery, starvation, and even death, may be the portion of millions of our fellow-countrymen in Ireland.


Now, what is the remedy for this? We do not come to talk about the principle which is applicable to all times and seasons; but what, I ask, is the natural and obvious remedy, under existing circumstances, against the gaunt famine that threatens a country like Ireland? You would say, 'Open wide the ports, and admit the bread of the whole world to feed the people.' That is the obvious and natural remedy—that is the remedy which an enlightened despot would at once fly to. Witness Russia, witness Turkey, or witness Germany, Holland, and Belgium; these Governments have not waited, but when their people have been threatened with want, they have at once thrown open their ports, and in some cases stopped exportation, in order to supply their people with abundance of the first necessaries of life. Why has not our Government taken a similar course? Why have they waited to learn Christianity from the Turk, or humanity from the Russian? Is it because our Government is less merciful than that of the Mahometan Sultan? Is it that our boasted constitutional power is less humane than that of the despot of Russia? Or is it that our Prime Minister, who holds the responsible position of Sultan in this country—is it because he is afraid that if he takes the step—the obvious and natural and necessary step—he will not have the support of the country in throwing open the ports of this kingdom to foreign corn? If that be his doubt, we meet here to give him all the support which we can give him. I hesitate not to say, that whatever may be the attempts of the aristocracy to thwart the Minister in taking such a course, there is popular power enough in the country to support him in that act of humanity. We support him here in this magnificent meeting! What we say, South Lancashire will say whenever he appeals to it. We speak the voice of the West Riding of Yorkshire whenever he chooses; and Middlesex will endorse what we say in this hall.


You have animated the hearts and hopes of this empire; and a Minister having the support of the vast multitude in this country—having their intelligence at his back, which he may have whenever he chooses to draw upon it—I say he is a criminal and a poltroon if he hesitates a whit. He has the power. There is no man, whether he be the Grand Turk, or whether he be a Russian despot—there is no man in the world that has more power than Sir Robert Peel has in this country. His party cannot do without him. Let anybody sit in the House of Commons as we do, opposite to Sir Robert Peel, and watch the proceedings of his party. He comes down to the House night after night. With the exception of his colleague, Sir James Graham, the whole of the side of the House upon which they sit may be called a dreary waste, as far as statesmanship is concerned. Sir James Graham, although I admit he has manifested great administrative talents, has not exactly arrived at that state of personal popularity in this country that he can take Sir Robert Peel's place. Sir Robert Peel is therefore absolute with his party; and, with the power he possesses, he must be content to take the responsibility which attaches to power. I need not tell you that that word 'responsibility' has an ugly and a sinister sound in the ears of the Prime Minister; but let us be understood. By responsibility, we mean moral responsibility:—he is responsible to his country, he will be responsible to history, if he fails, upon this occasion, in taking that step which he is bound to take to save a large portion of the people of this country from famine.


Many people now say, 'Admitting that Sir Robert Peel opens our ports, and foreign corn comes in, that will not settle the question;' and this is a point that I wish particularly to draw the attention of this meeting to, for I see a disposition upon the part of many of my friends to throw up their caps and consider this question as settled. I do not exactly see my way to the settlement of this question yet. I wish I did. I do not think the opening of the ports will settle this question. We had the ports opened in 1826; but they passed the sliding scale in 1828, with all its horrible iniquities. It is not because Ireland wants feeding that we shall necessarily have a repeal of the Corn-laws. Ireland has been in a state of semi-famine for the last thirty years; and in 1822 you had subscriptions in England—every church was thrown open—you had 250,000l. raised in England, and sent to Ireland, to save the two provinces of Connaught and Munster from a state of actual famine; but nobody said a word about repealing the Corn-laws then; not the slightest syllable was said about relieving the people of Ireland by admitting foreign corn; and what I wish to impress upon you now is this, that it is not the opening of the ports alone we want, but we want to set our backs against them to prevent them from ever being shut again. Do you not think we may find some arguments nearer home in favour of this principle? (Cries of 'Yes.') I believe many of you are brought here because you have an idea that things are not looking quite so promising as they have been in Lancashire. You are not arrived exactly at that state they are in in Ireland, where they have commissioners sent over just now, learned doctors, to see how much the patient will bear, to see how much it can endure. They have got it upon the rack, and there are learned doctors round it feeling the pulse, to see if the patient will live a little longer, or to see whether it should be taken off the rack. Then the Standard newspaper tells us, that even if the patient is taken off the rack, it shall be put on again as soon as it will bear it. Now you are not exactly arrived at that state yet; but what is the price of oatmeal? I believe that what used to be a guinea is now 35s.; and I believe, too, that flour has advanced fifty per cent.; that the dozen pounds of flour which used to cost 1s. 8d. are now selling at 2s. 6d. Am I right? (Loud cries of 'Yes, yes.') Then you have bread still dearer, because flour makes more than its own weight in bread; and every man who is now spending half-a-crown in bread is just getting one-third less for it than he did this time twelvemonths. Every man will then have one-third less to spend upon the other things which he uses. We thus come to the old story again—if he has so much more to spend in what he eats, he will have less to spend in what he wears; and if there is more goes to the baker, and through him to the miller, there will be less to go to the draper and to the wholesale dealer. You will then have less work, while you will have more to pay for your food. Then the masters will cry out at their short profits; then there will be no more strikes for higher wages. It is the old thing coming round again, and I believe many of you here have felt it, and that you are come here to see whether you are likely to get rid of the cause. It will not be got rid of, however, by throwing up your caps, because a lord has written a very ambiguous sort of a letter, or because certain honourable gentlemen make speeches, the meaning of which you cannot tell, and indeed they do not appear to comprehend it very clearly themselves. You must not throw up your caps, and fancy you are going to have the Corn-law abolished by any such adventitious aid as that. It will have to be done by your own right arm, if it is done at all.


We have a new class in this country that I think are more deeply interested in this question than they have been yet considered to be. I wonder if we have any people here that have got any interest in railways? (Loud laughter and cheers.) I should think, judging by that response, that almost every lady and gentleman here has a little sympathy in that direction. Now the railway people have got—a king! Kings sometimes make speeches, though we never expect much from kings' speeches. Cobbett once wrote a grammar for the purpose of teaching statesmen how to write better kings' speeches; but I do not think that your railway-king has studied that grammar. You have a 'king,' and he has lately been railing at the League at Sunderland. He is given to railing, and he calls the League a 'selfish' body; he denounces us. I think railway kings and their subjects are more deeply interested just now in the success of the League than any other class of the community. Did you ever take a look at the trains starting from the Leeds or Sheffield station, or out by Ashton? You who have got shares in railways, just go and take stock of your business: see who your customers are: inquire from the secretary or one of the directors how much they receive for first-class passengers, how much for second-class, and how much for third-class, and then you will be able to understand how much you are indebted to the working classes for the prosperity of your lines. Learn where the cheap trains go, how much they carry, and how much they pay; and then just make a little calculation. Here is John Tomkins, his wife, and seven children; they earn together a guinea a-week: his wife comes and says, 'John, I'm paying 3s. 2d. more for flour than I did three months ago.' 'Then,' says John, 'we must give up the trip to Alderley—we shall not be able to take that.' Go and tell your 'king' this. They sometimes call him the railway Bonaparte. Recollect that a man may be a Napoleon among navigators, and only a navigator among statesmen! I am not happy at nick-names, but I will give him a title. He shall be one of those pasteboard potentates that shuffle and cut, and win tricks—call him 'the King of Spades!'


I do not know how it is, but there is nobody who attacks the League, but you may be almost certain, whatever fame or reputation he had before—you may take it for granted, I say, that that man is at the end of his tether, he is just at the brink of the precipice, and that all his public fame and character goes overboard. We were attacked by an exchancellor once, and what a figure he has been cutting in Punch ever since! Then we have had Ministers attacking us, Prime Ministers too, who said we should be mad if we persevered for Free Trade. What is become of them? And, mark my words, the railway 'king' will turn out only a 'pretender.' Depend upon it people will soon avoid running their heads against that stone wall called the Anti-Corn-law League. I wonder if there is any man who has laid out his money upon railways that has not bought a county qualification. I cannot imagine a man showing less calculation or sound foresight than the man who lays out his 50l. or 100l. in buying a couple of shares in a railway, rather than upon a freehold qualification. It is the 40s. qualification that can make railways profitable, by giving us Free Trade. I like these railways too, and I will tell you why. They are carrying common sense, that is, when the railway-king does not travel upon them, into the agricultural districts. The great proprietor and squire in the west and south of England have all been anxious to have railways. For many years they have wanted railways to their own houses, and they found out that, if they are to have them, they must come to Lancashire or Yorkshire, for there was nobody else that had either the money or the wit to make them. That makes them sympathise with the prosperity of Lancashire and Yorkshire; they come into contact with business men, and they understand men of business. They are beginning to feel that railways are the barometer of the state of trade, as you all will find it out by-and-bye. I like railways; they are drawing us more together; they are teaching the landowner to feel for the manufacturer, and placing the manufacturer upon better terms with the landowner. I wish them to go on; but they cannot prosper unless you have something to carry upon them. The more trade you have—the more Free Trade—the more profits will your railways bring. Nobody objects to railways now; but how was it twelve years ago with the landlords in this respect? Twelve years ago, the Marquis of Chandos then, but Duke of Buckingham now, presided at a public meeting at Salthill, near Windsor, at which the fellows of Eton College and other great and distinguished men of the county assembled, to celebrate the first defeat of the Great Western Railway bill. What do these gentlemen say now? Why, even the Pope himself is now in advance on these subjects, and they are only some ten years in advance of the Pope. Is it not just as possible that they may be as much mistaken about their true interests in the matter of Free Trade as they were in the case of railroads? This is encouraging. Indeed, we are only now about three or four years in advance of the monopolists with our arguments.


About three or four years ago we put out placards, stating that the population of this country was increasing at the rate of a thousand a day. I was passing by when I heard a man with a shovel in his hand reading it upon the wall. 'That's a lie, anyhow!' he said. But that incredible fact at that time has been so well established, that now even Lord Stanley and Sir James Graham admit it is true, and are compelled to acknowledge that it is necessary to make provision for the large and increasing population. This also is encouraging; it shows that the principle we contend for is good, and that we need only continue the efforts hitherto used to set ourselves free. It begins to be seen now on all hands. that the present Corn-law cannot stand; but it seems to be very doubtful, at present, what we shall get instead of it. Are we to have another Corn-law? Are we to have a sliding-scale or a fixed duty? Only think of the number of Corn-laws we have had during the last few years! The present has been in operation three years, and now we are talking of getting rid of it. Why is it so? Because just now there is a probability of scarcity; we want food, and this law, which Sir John Tyrell tells us is to give us 'plenty, and security for plenty,' stands in the way of our obtaining it. It is a law at once unnatural, impolitic, and inexpedient, and meant only to suit the pockets of those who believe themselves interested in its continuance. There will be at tempts made to cheat us out of the demand we make, and there is every probability that those attempts will succeed, unless we, as Free-traders, stand fast to the principle we have espoused, by showing to our opponents that we are neither to be used nor abused by the acceptance of either a sliding scale or a fixed duty. I think we have made out a sufficient case, and by that we must stand, without any attempt at compromise.


We do not ask to be benefited at the expense of any other portion of the community; I have all along repudiated that idea; but I think we have fully demonstrated that monopoly is the bane of agriculture; and Peel says ditto to it. And we shall continue to labour and to urge this cause, whether the ports be immediately opened or not, until not the slightest ground is left to the monopolists, or until every rag and vestige of the protective system is done away with. We have told them in the House of Commons that the farmers are robbing one another, and that position was not controverted, but must be acquiesced in, by all who are in any way acquainted with the subject. But since the close of Parliament I have had an opportunity of consulting with many of this class of men, and have obtained a variety of statistics and details on the subject, which go to show that the farmer, instead of being a gainer, is a most material loser by this so-called system of protection. It has been proved to me, that the better off the farmer is, the more he suffers by protection. The large stock farmers, as they are called, are more seriously injured than any other part of the community. They are consumers of Indian corn, oats, beans, cheese, butter, beer, and of all other taxed articles, and they are made to pay artificial prices for all these articles for protection. We have now had thirty years of protection, and during the whole of this time the farmer has been the dupe of every blockhead who gave the cry of 'protection!' But it is not enough that we demonstrate the iniquity and impolicy of these laws, and the injury they inflict upon all classes of the community. We may make this clear and unanswerable by the most direct and logical of processes. There shall not be found a man in the House of Commons, with any pretension to intellect, who shall dare to controvert it.


Yet you cannot carry the abolition of this system unless you are active and energetic in putting yourselves in a position to have the power of carrying out your principles. Talking will not do it. I admit we can show our enemies are wrong; but still you cannot make men do right unless you have the power to compel men to it. I believe that power is in your hands. We have done something already by resorting to the constitutional weapons of war which have been already referred to, the 40s. freeholders. We called upon the West Riding Free-traders this time twelve months, and we asked them to qualify 2,000 voters, to rescue that county from the grasp of monopoly; they have nobly responded to that call. They have put 2,300 upon the register. They have converted the majority that formerly existed in favour of monopoly of 1,100, into a majority of 1,600 for Free Trade. Now I ask them not to rest satisfied there. I ask them to go on again, and by the same process qualify 2,000 more by the 31st of next January; for if they do that, they will save themselves much trouble and expense at the next election. An election must come in twelve months, or a little more. A contest for the West Riding of Yorkshire will cost each party 10,000l., and by the expenditure of 1,000l. between now and the 31st of January, our friends may induce as many more to buy freeholds as will render a contest hopeless, and thus save themselves the expense. I ask them to put themselves in the same position as South Lancashire. We have a majority of 3,000 in South Lancashire. Mark the extraordinary change that we have witnessed. In 1841, at the dissolution of the Liberal Government, the Whig committee of that time took the registration books in hand, and looked at them with the view of contesting the county. They found, if they had contested it, they would have been in a minority of 2,000. Four years have elapsed; the League took the registrations in hand. South Lancashire was wholly abandoned by the so-called Whig party. The League took the registration in hand, and in four years the minority of 2,000 has been converted into a majority of 3,000. You will have no contest in South Lancashire. Nobody will be such a fool upon the side of the monopolists as to incur the expense of a contest in South Lancashire. We have a majority in the Manchester polling district alone large enough to cover the monopolist majority in all the districts where they have one. We made an appeal to North Cheshire. We asked them to qualify, to put themselves into a majority; and they have done so. You will hear the particulars when the time comes. But I ask them now not to rest satisfied where they are. I am jealous of North Cheshire. I want to see the county (for a borough in which I have the honour to sit), so safe in three months' time, that Mr Egerton will not think of coming to contest it. This is easily done. North Lancashire—ay, we shall make an example of the monopolists in North Lancashire. There is some pluck in North Cheshire; but they are a poor, beaten, coward, craven set in North Lancashire. They have no heads. Make light work of them in North Lancashire. Why, they have turned Lord Stanley and family to the right-about, and set up their own little champion; but I think they will have to go and seek the Derby family to come and help them out of the scrape, for they seem sadly in want of a leader. Middlesex we have won; South Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, North Cheshire, South Staffordshire, North Lancashire. This is nothing but a basis. This is only the basis of our operations to begin with. Having done what we can down here, we must now appeal to the country at large to follow our example.


Wherever there is a man above the rank of an unskilled labourer, whether a shopkeeper, a man of the middle class, or of the skilled working class, that has not got a county vote, or is not striving to accumulate enough to get one, let us point the finger of scorn at him; he is not fit to be a freeman. It is an avenue by which we may reach the recesses of power, and possess ourselves of any constitutional rights which we are entitled to possess. They cry shame upon us for inviting the people to qualify. Why, the revising barristers everywhere have not only passed the qualifications that have been made, and have not only admitted them to be strictly legal and right, but they have gone out of their way, and said that they considered it honourable for men to purchase property with the view of acquiring the franchise. For myself and friends, I may say that we consider it our duty to enlist as many of the counties as possible in the cause of Free Trade; we have a list of twenty, and we intend to visit every one of them. We will have them organised on the plan that has been so successful in South Lancashire, under the superintendence of our excellent chairman. I mention this to account to our friends for the neglect of many visits we may have been expected to pay in various quarters. They must allow us to proceed with this registration business; for assuredly it is of the utmost importance. There is nothing that will so much alarm the monopolists as to be told that the League has got hold of the counties. What are their pocket boroughs in comparison with South Lancashire, Middlesex, and the West Riding of Yorkshire? With these constituencies to back them, the principles of Free Trade would be found more powerful than all the boroughmongers.


Don't let any friend of the cause, however, entertain the vain hope that a letter from any noble lord will secure the full triumph of the Free Trade cause. This principle for which we have been so long contending will prove successful when the Free-traders are prepared to work out their own redemption, and not before. We have everything to encourage us, however; and I for one believe that the day of our redemption draweth nigh. But we must not relax in our labours; on the contrary, we must be more zealous, more energetic, more laborious than we have ever yet been. When the enemy is wavering, then is the time to press upon him. I call, then, upon all who have any sympathy in our cause, who have any promptings of humanity, or who feel any interest in the well-being of their fellowmen, all who have apprehensions of scarcity or starvation, to come forward with their efforts to avert this horrible destiny, this dreadful and impending visitation.

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