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


I think some of the protection societies would be glad to have our overflow to-night. If this agitation continues, we shall have to build an edifice as large as St. Paul's to hold the Leaguers. I believe to-day we have had application for 30,000 tickets of admission; we have now many hundreds round this building more than can be accommodated; and we have a great many more inside than can be comfortable. But I feel confidence in the disposition of all good Leaguers to accommodate each other; and I must say that I have seen in front of me every disposition to be quiet; but it is the same to-night as I have observed generally in my great experience at public meetings, that if there is any disturbance it is always amongst the aristocracy upon the platform.


I think this meeting is a sufficient proof of the exciting circumstances under which we meet to-night. I need not say a word. [Mr. Cobden was here interrupted by a slight disturbance arising from the extremely crowded state of the stage.] Some gentlemen at the back of the stage wish to have my assurance that there is no room in front; I can assure them that there is not vacant space for a mouse. I think the aspect of the meeting is a sufficient illustration of the present crisis of our great movement. The manner in which we are gathered together; the excited feeling which animates all present—all indicate that there is something peculiar in the present phase of our movement. I do not know how it is, but if I see other people inclined to throw up their caps and become exceedingly excited, it always makes me feel and look grave; for I always think there is the most danger when people are the least on their guard in this wicked world. Doubtless we have brought our cause to a new position—we have got it into the hands of politicians. The 'ins' and the 'outs' are quarrelling over it. But I am very anxious to impress upon you and our friends throughout the kingdom—for what we say here is read by hundreds and thousands elsewhere—that it is not our business to form Cabinets—to choose individuals who shall carry out our principles; we are not to trust to others to do our work; we are not to feel confident that the work will be done till it is done; and I will tell you when and when only I shall consider it done—when I see the sheet of the Act of Parliament wet from the printer's containing the total abolition of the Corn-laws.


I have always expected in the course of our agitation that we should knock a Government or two on the head before we succeeded. The Government of 1841 can hardly be said to have been killed by the Corn-law; it took the Corn-law as a last desperate dose in order to cure it of a long and lingering disease—but it proved fatal to it. I think we may say, too, that the recent Government has died of the Corn-law; and our business must be, gentlemen, to try and make the fate of the last Government a warning to the next. We do not certainly exactly know yet why Sir Robert Peel ran away from his own law; we have had no explanation. I have been in town for three or four days. I thought when I came from the country I might probably get a little behind the scenes, and learn something about it; but I am as much in the dark now as when I came from Lancashire. I cannot learn why it was that Sir Robert Peel bolted. From what did he run? It was his own law, passed in 1842; it was deliberated upon about six months in 1841. It was not passed at the pressing solicitation of the people for any such law. I know that almost the whole of the people petitioned against it. It was his own handiwork, done in defiance of the people; and now, in 1845, with still the same Parliament, with a majority of 90 to back him, the very men who passed the law being still at his back, he suddenly runs away and leaves his sliding-scale as a legacy to his successors. Gentlemen, if he had carried his own law with him—if he had only carried off his sliding-scale to Tamworth—I do not think we should have made many inquiries about him. But he has left his law, and we do not know how he is going to deal with it in future.


I suppose, when we meet in Parliament, which may be early next month—at all events, the sooner the better—the first thing I shall look to with some degree of interest will be an answer to the question, What is the reason of this sudden dissolution of the Cabinet? I shall await Sir Robert Peel's explanation with very great interest. He will doubtless be able to tell us whether the facts collected by his commissioners in Ireland as well as in England were of such a nature as to impress him with the idea that we are verging on a probable famine in one country, if not in both. If that be the case, I suppose he will also tell us that, so far as he was concerned, he was the advocate in his Cabinet for the suspension of his own handiwork—the sliding-scale. Well, that being the case, I presume, when Parliament meets, he will assist us to do that which he could not accomplish himself with his refractory Cabinet. I expect—I do not know whether I may be rash in expecting it—from Sir Robert Peel straightforward conduct.


There are people who tell us that this Corn-law must not be suspended suddenly, that it must not be dealt with rashly and precipitately, and that, if we are to have the repeal of the Corn-law, it must be done gradually, step by step. Well, gentlemen, that might have been in the eyes of some a very statesmanlike way of doing it six or seven years ago. Some people would have thought last year, when wheat was at 47s. a quarter, that if a law had been passed then providing for the extinction of the Corn-law in two or three years, that that would have been no very bad measure to have been obtained; but who will propose now to pass a law imposing a fixed duty on corn next spring, to go off 3s. or 4s. the spring after, and 3s. or 4s. the spring after that, till it comes to nothing? That would not suit the exigencies of the present movement. Our wise Legislature, our wise Conservative statesmen, would not deal with this question when they might have dealt with it with some advantage to their own policy. We were pressing on the Government to deal with the Corn-laws last year and the year before, when wheat was at 47s. a quarter, but we were told then we were rash men; that the Corn-law had not had a fair trial; that ours was not the way to deal with it; that we must wait to see how it worked.


Well, now they are seeing how it has worked. But there is no time for temporising now. Nature has stepped in; Providence has interfered, and has inflicted a famine upon the land, and set at nought all the contrivance, delay, and modifications of statesmen. They have but one way of dealing with this question. It is of no use asking us for a feather-bed to drop our aristocracy upon; they might have had a feather-bed, if there had been one to offer them; but there is no feather-bed for them now. They must have the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws; not because the League has demanded it; not out of any deference to the Shibboleth of clubs like ours. No, we do not ask them to bow to any such dictation as that; we will not inflict any unnecessary humiliation upon our landowners; but they have put off this good work so long, until Nature has stepped in, and now they must bow to the law of Nature without any delay.


Gentlemen, we meet Parliament next session—I take it for granted—with but one proposition before us,—that is, the immediate and total abolition of the Corn-laws. No Minister can take office without proposing that measure, whether Sir Robert Peel or Lord John Russell. I defy them to take office and come before Parliament without the Queen's Speech proposing that measure. No; we will not exult over them; it is not our doing, after all; we have prepared the public in some degree to take advantage of a natural calamity, but we are not so well prepared as we should have been if they had given us a year or two more; the potato rot has tripped up the heels of Sir Robert Peel, but it has also stopped our registration agents a little. We should like to have had another year of qualification for counties. If we had had another year or two, we could have shown the monopolist landowners that we can transfer power in this country from the hands of a class totally into the hands of the middle and industrial classes of this country. We shall go on with that movement, and I hope it will never stop; but we shall have to deal with the crisis of the Corn-law question next session.


The Queen's Speech, within a month of this time, must recommend the abolition of the Corn-laws. I want to get into the House of Commons again to have some talk about that question. Oh! it is very heavy work, I assure you; it is heavier work every day to come into these enthusiastic meetings, and talk of this question, for we meet no opponents. I do not know how it is, but I have that quality of combativeness, as phrenologists call it, and unless I meet with some opposition I am as dull as ditch-water. Well, there is no man to be found at large out of the House of Commons who can be got in public to say a word in defence of the Corn-laws; that is, you cannot hear any attempted defence out of their own protection societies, and you know they are privileged people.


I am anxious to meet them in the House of Commons upon this subject; but it will be an odd scene when we assemble next session, for we shall not know where to sit. There will be such greetings in the lobbies, one asking the other, 'On which side are you going to sit?' And then, the greatest curiosity of all, the greatest subject of interest, will be to see where Sir R. Peel is to sit. I should not wonder if we shall have to find him a chair, and put him in the middle of the floor.


Now, I shall be somewhat interested in witnessing the arguments that will be used by the protectionists in defence of this Corn-law. Recollect, the debate will come on with reference to the exigency of the moment. The Corn-law must be suspended instantly, if Lord John Russell takes office. He will be a bold man if he does. But if he does, I suppose he will either suspend the law the next day by an Order in Council, or he will call us together; and he will throw down his proposition, 'Either you must suspend that Corn-law at once, or I will not hold office a week.' Then the debate will turn as to the necessity of suspending this Corn-law; and we shall have gentlemen getting up from Dorsetshire and Essex, protesting that there is a great abundance of everything in the country, that there is no scarcity at all, no potato rot, and that there is a full average quantity and quality of wheat. [Cheers, and cries of 'Plenty of curry.']


Then I should not wonder, gentlemen, if we were to hear some moral receipts for feeding the people. You know Dr. Buckland has lately been publishing a paper read at Oxford to the Ashmolean Society, I believe, and he has shown that people can live very well on peas, can get on tolerably well upon beans, and, if there is nothing else to be had, they can live pretty well upon mangold-wurzel; and he gives an instance of one good lady who lived, I do not know how many days, by sucking the starch out of her white pocket-handkerchief. Now, mangold-wurzel, starch, and beans, mixed with a little curry-powder, would do very well.


Well, gentlemen, we shall have a division as well as a debate. I should like to see the names of those good men in the House of Commons who will vote against opening the ports—that is, the men who will decree that we shall not be treated as well as the Prussians, the Turks, the Poles, and the Dutchmen; if they outvote us upon that proposition, we shall have a general election. I should like to see some of those curry-powder candidates go down to their constituents. I would advise you to get doses of the curry-powder water ready; a little hot water, and a pinch of curry-powder stirred up, makes a man very comfortable to go to bed with, they say. Try it upon some of the protectionist candidates.


Gentlemen, this is no laughing subject, after all. As my friend, Mr. Villiers, says, it is a question very much between Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell now. I have no reason, and I think you will all admit it, to feel any very great respect for Sir Robert Peel; he is the only man in the House of Commons that I can never speak a word to in private without forfeiting my own respect, and the respect of all those men who sit around me. But though I say that, and though I am justified in saying it, yet this I will say, that so deeply have I this question of the Corn-laws at heart, that if Sir Robert Peel will take the same manly, straightforward part that Lord John Russell has taken—if he will avow an intelligible course of action—that is what I want, no mystification—if he will do that, I will as heartily co-operate with him as with any man in the House of Commons.


I should think now the time was come when every statesman, of whatever party, who has a particle of intelligence and conscience, must be anxious to remove this question of supplying the food of the people out of the category of party politics; for see what a fearful state it places the Ministry in. They maintain a law for the purpose of regulating the supply of food to the people; if the food falls short, the people assail the Government as the cause of their scarcity of food: this is a responsibility that no Government or human power ought to assume to itself. It is a responsibility that we should never invest a Government with, if that Government did not assume to itself the functions of the Deity.


Gentlemen, why should we tax the Government with being the cause of our suffering when we are visited with a defective harvest? Why should a Government fly away? Why should a Prime Minister retire from office because there is a failure and rot in the potatoes? Suppose we had a devastating flood that swept away half our houses in a day, we should never think of charging the Executive Government with being the cause of our calamities. The Government does not undertake to build houses, or to keep houses for us. Suppose half of our mercantile marine was swept away with a hurricane, and if the whole of it was submerged in the flood, we should never think of flying at the Government, and making them responsible for such a calamity. On the contrary, if we had such a dire event by flood or fire happening to the country, we should instinctively rally round the Government, one helping the other in order to mitigate the horrors of such a calamity. And why should it be otherwise with supplying the food of the people? Why, because the Government of this country—Ministers and Parliament in this land—have arrogated to themselves functions which belong not to man, but to nature—not to laws of Parliament, but to the laws of Providence—not to regulations of statesmen, but to regulations of the merchants of the world; it is because they have taken upon themselves superhuman functions that we make them responsible for divine inflictions.


Then, gentlemen, I hope that every intelligent statesman in this country will be anxious to get rid of this question of protection to agriculture. But there is another reason why our intelligent statesmen ought to wish to bury it so deep that even its ghost cannot haunt us again—this ragged and tattered banner of protection—and it is this, that if you leave a rag of it behind, these protectionist squires will hoist that ragged standard again. And my firm conviction is, that they will find farmers enough to rally round that old rag—they will have the same organisation, the same union in the counties between the protectionist squires and their dupes the protectionist farmers—that would prove a hindrance to everything like an enlightened and rational government on the part of any Administration. I say, then, whether it be Sir Robert Peel, or whether it be Lord John Russell, put an end to this protective principle; destroy it altogether; leave no part of it behind. And the only way you can do that is by proposing honestly, totally to abolish the Corn-laws, and the rest of the system will abolish itself very soon afterwards.


There are terms talked about; they talk of some terms; they talk of re-adjusting taxation. I am told Sir Robert Peel has got a scheme as long as my arm for mixing up a hundred other things with this Corn-law. I say we will have no such mystification of our plain rights. We have had too much of his mystification before. In the north of England, where we are practical people, we have a prejudice in favour of doing one thing at a time. Now, we will abolish the Corn and Provision Laws if you please; that shall be one thing we will do; and anything else they propose to do we will take it upon its merits, as we take the Corn-law upon its demerits. They propose a modification of taxation; and I am told that Sir Robert Peel has some such sop in view to compensate the landowners. He has not been a very safe guide hitherto to the landowners of this country; he has led them into a quagmire with his leadership. I predict that if Sir Robert Peel provokes a discussion upon the subject of taxation in this country, that he will prove as great an enemy to the landowners as he is likely to prove, according to their views of the question, in his advocacy of protection for them.


I warn Ministers, and I warn landowners, and the aristocracy of this country, against forcing upon the attention of the middle and industrious classes the subject of taxation. For, great as I consider the grievance of the protective system, mighty as I consider the fraud and injustice of the Corn-laws, I verily believe, if you were to bring forward the history of taxation in this country for the last 150 years, you will find as black a record against the landowners as even in the Corn-law itself. I warn them against ripping up the subject of taxation. If they want another League, at the death of this one—if they want another organisation, and a motive—for you cannot have these organisations without a motive and principle—then let them force the middle and industrious classes of England to understand how they have been cheated, robbed, and bamboozled upon the subject of taxation; and the end will be—(now I predict it for the consolation of Sir Robert Peel and his friends)—if they force a discussion of this question of taxation; if they make it understood by the people of this country how the landowners here, 150 years ago, deprived the sovereign of his feudal rights over them; how the aristocracy retained their feudal rights over the minor copyholders; how they made a bargain with the king to give him 4s. in the pound upon their landed rentals, as a quit charge for having dispensed with these rights of feudal service from them; if the country understand as well as I think I understand, how afterwards this landed aristocracy passed a law to make the valuation of their rental final, the bargain originally being that they should pay 4s. in the pound of the yearly rateable value of their rental, as it was worth to let for, and then stopped the progress of the rent by a law, making the valuation final,—that the land has gone on increasing tenfold in many parts of Scotland, and fivefold in many parts of England, while the land-tax has remained the same as it was 150 years ago—if they force us to understand how they have managed to exempt themselves from the probate and legacy duty on real property—how they have managed, sweet innocents that taxed themselves so heavily, to transmit their estates from sire to son without taxes or duties, while the tradesman who has accumulated by thrifty means his small modicum of fortune is subject at his death to taxes and stamps before his children can inherit his property; if they force us to understand how they have exempted their tenants' houses from taxes, their tenants' horses from taxes, their dogs from taxes, their draining-tiles from taxes—if they force these things to be understood, they will be making as rueful a bargain as they have already made by resisting the abolition of the Corn-law.


Do not let them tell me I am talking in a wild, chimerical strain; they told me so, seven years ago, about this Corn-law. I remember right well, when we came to London six years ago, in the spring of 1839, there were three of us in a small room at Brown's Hotel, in Palace Yard, we were visited by a nobleman, one who had taken an active part in the advocacy of a modification of the Corn-laws, but not the total repeal; he asked us, 'What is it that has brought you to town, and what do you come to seek?' We said, 'We come to seek the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws.' The nobleman said, with a most emphatic shake of the head, 'You will overturn the monarchy as soon as you will accomplish that.' Now, the very same energy, starting from our present vantage-ground, having our opponents down as we have them now—the same energy—ay, half the energy, working for seven years—would enable a sufficient number of the middle and working classes of this country to qualify for the counties, and might transfer the power utterly and for ever from the landowners of this country to the middle and working classes, and they might tax the land, and tax the large proprietors and rich men of every kind, as they do in all the countries of Europe but England.


Again and again I warn Sir Robert Peel—I warn the aristocracy of this country—that, on the settlement of this question, they do not force us into a discussion upon the peculiar burthens upon land.


Well, they cannot meet us now with any modification of the law, because—however it might have suited past years to have let them down on a feather-bed, as they call it, to have given a salve to their wounds—the crisis of the potato rot will not wait for it now; they dare not open the question of taxation. What will they attempt to do, then? What can they do? Why, I would advise them, as friends, to do justice speedily and promptly; and if we take the repeal of the Corn-laws, and ask no further questions—if we let bygones be bygones—they ought to be abundantly satisfied with the bargain. I am disposed, gentlemen, to ask no questions, to let by-gones be bygones. I want no triumph; I want no exaltation. I think no one will accuse us of having crowed over converts, or exulted over repentant sinners. We exist as an association, solely for the object of converting people. It would be a very bad piece of tactics if we ever offered the slightest impediment to an honest conversion to our ranks. We began in a minority of the intelligent people of England. I am willing to admit it, we had to inform the country and to arouse it; we live only to convert; and I am very glad indeed to congratulate you upon having converted some very important allies lately.


I feel very great pleasure in noticing a statement which appears in to-day's paper in the news from Ireland. It is a report of a speech of Mr. O'Connell. We of the Anti-Corn-law League have every reason to feel indebted to Mr. O'Connell for the uniform and consistent course which he has taken in reference to the Corn-laws. From the beginning he has acted and co-operated with us both in our great meetings and in the House of Commons; but I have never considered him as acting here upon English ground. I have always regarded him as promoting a measure for the benefit of his own countrymen in Ireland, when he has co-operated with us for the repeal of the Corn-laws; because we have had the best possible proof, in the continued misery and semi-starvation of the Irish people, that whatever good the Corn-law may have done to the landowner in England, it is quite certain that it has never been of any benefit to the people of Ireland, a large majority of whom never taste anything better than lumper potatoes. Then, both upon Irish and English grounds, I am glad we have an opportunity of co-operating with Mr. O'Connell. I rejoice that upon this question, at all events, there cannot be a line of demarcation drawn between the two countries. Our interests are theirs, and theirs are ours. They want more bread, God knows, in Ireland; and if we can help Mr. O'Connell to give it them they shall have it.


I am not going to talk argumentatively to-night; and I have but to add, that the times that are coming are just those that will most require our vigilance and activity. Demonstrations now are comparatively valueless; we shall want you all next spring. There is a great struggle for that period. The Duke of Richmond has told us he shall trust to the hereditary legislators of the country. Well, I might say,—

'Hereditary bondsmen, know ye not?

I will back the 'hereditary bondsmen' against the hereditary legislators upon this question. But, no; we have not all the hereditary legislators opposed to us I am glad of it; we have the best of them in our ranks; we always had the best of them with us. If they have not all joined our club we do not care about it, so long as they adopt our principles.


I have never been for making this a class question. I have preached from the first that we would have the cooperation of the best and most intelligent of all ranks in life—working, middle, and upper classes. No, no; we will have no war of classes in this country. It is bad enough that in free and constitutional States you must, have your parties; we cannot, in our state of enlightenment, manage our institutions without them; but it shall never be our fault if this question of the Corn-laws becomes a class question, between the middle and working classes on the one side, and the hereditary legislators on the other. No, no; we will save the Duke of Richmond's order from the Duke of Richmond. We have got Lord Morpeth, and we have also Lords Radnor, Ducie, and Kinnaird, and a good many more; and among the rest Earl Grey, our earliest and most tried champion of the aristocracy. This is one proof that ours is not a class question, and that we are not at war with the whole landed aristocracy; but if the Duke of Richmond sets up the Noodles and Doodles of the aristocracy, why, before we have done with them, they shall be as insignificant and more contemptible than the round-frocked peasantry upon his Grace's estate.


This is a question that, during the next three months, will allow of no sleeping: we must be all watching. I have confidence in Lord J. Russell; I think, if you have his word you have his bond. I do not know at this moment whether he will take office or not; but if he does, and has Lord Morpeth and Lord Grey associated with him, you are as safe with them as you are with Lord John Russell himself. I do not know who besides he may have. [A Voice: 'Yourself.'] Yes, I will be the watchman, so long as bad characters are abroad.


But Lord John may have some difficulty, perhaps, in making up a Cabinet as willing to stick to the principles of Free Trade as himself; and he may not find them quite so willing to coerce those refractory legislators as he may wish. We must back him; we must show him the power we can give him to carry this question. They talk of Lord John Russell having made a mistake in putting out that letter to the citizens of London. I have heard some mean and shabby people say, if he had not put out that letter, how much freer he would have been now. Why, Lord John Russell would have been nothing now without that letter. The Queen would not have sent for him without that letter. Lord John Russell would no more have commanded the people's confidence, or excited their hopes or enthusiasm, without that letter, any more than Sir Robert Peel himself would have done. It is a proof not only of the vitality of the principle, that, without joining the League, he did not join us by the mere enunciation of a principle which the people quite understand and feel. Lord John Russell, as if by change of a magic lantern, became from the most obscure the most popular and prominent man of his day.


Ours is the only party that is now solid, growing, and consolidated in this country; all that is good of the Whig party has joined the Free-traders—the Whig party is nothing without the Free-trade party. The Tory or Conservative party, call them what you will, are broken to atoms by the disruption in the ranks of their leaders. The League stands erect and aloft, amidst the ruins of all factions. Let us hold on to the principle which has made us as strong as we now find ourselves; let us hold on to it, not turning to the right or to the left. No man, or body of men, Ministers or ex-Ministers, have a right to expect it, nor shall they have it; we will not turn a hair's breadth to keep men in office, or put them out of office; and if we maintain this ground—ay, for another six months—then we shall be near that time which I so long for, when this League shall be dissolved into its primitive elements by the triumph of its principles.

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