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.

Volume I


[The Queen's Speech, read Feb. 2, 1843, 'regretted the diminished receipt from some of the ordinary sources of revenue, and feared that it must be in part attributed to the reduced consumption of many articles, caused by the depression of the manufacturing industry of the country which has so long prevailed.' On this statement Lord Howick moved, on Feb. 13, that the House be resolved into a Committee of the whole House, to consider this part of the Speech. Lord Howick's motion was rejected by 115 votes (306 to 191). The peculiarity of the debate, however, was, that Sir Robert Peel imagined that Mr. Cobden had charged him with being personally responsible for the distress of the country. Sir Robert Peel had been greatly affected by the murder of his private secretary in the preceding month (Jan. 24), who was shot by one Macnaghten. It was believed that the secretary was shot by mistake for the Minister. Mr. Cobden disclaimed using the term 'individually or personally responsible' in any other sense than that of Ministerial responsibility. It should be added that the allusion to 'an eminent and learned Lord,' is to Lord Brougham, who insinuated that the attempt of Macnaghten was stimulated by the language of the League. His words were 'that ministers of religion did not scruple to utter words—calculated to produce fatal effects (he would not say had produced them), but calculated to produce the taking away of innocent life.']


We have heard much objection made to the form of this motion. We have heard it charged as being a party motion. Now, Sir, I can, at all events, say it is not a party motion as far as I am concerned. I was absent from town when it was put on the books. I am no party man in this matter in any degree; and if I have any objection to the motion it is this, that whereas it is a motion to inquire into the manufacturing distress of the country, it should have been a motion to inquire into manufacturing and agricultural distress. If the motion had been so framed, we should not have had the words 'manufactures' and 'agriculture' bandied between the two sides of the House, but we should have had the Gentlemen on the other side of the House put in their proper position as defendants, to justify the operation of the law as it affects their own immediate interests.


I ask you, are the agricultural districts of the country in such a state now, that you are entitled to say that this law—for this has been made a Corn-law debate—that this law, which injures the manufacturers, has benefited the agriculturists? There is the hon. Member for Dorsetshire (Mr. Bankes), one of the most clamorous assailants of the Anti-Corn-law League, he will probably speak on this question—there is plenty of time, the debate may be adjourned, if necessary—and when he speaks he can answer me, and correct me if I am wrong. Take the district of Dorsetshire which the hon. Gentleman represents. Take his own property. I ask him, are the labourers on his estates receiving more than the miserable pittance of 8s. a week at this moment? I ask him to contradict me, if he can, when I state that the labourers in his neighbourhood are the worst paid, the worst clad, and the most illiterate portion of the population of this country. I tell him that the peasantry on his own estates, earning these 8s. a week, if their families average the usual number of five, that then the head of each of these families is sustained at less cost than the cost of the maintenance of each person in the county gaol of Dorsetshire, and I ask you—you with your peasantry at your own doors, living worse than paupers and felons—I ask you, are you entitled to assert, and will you maintain, that the present state of things is for the benefit of the agriculturists? I put you on your defence—I call on you to prove the benefit which this law confers on the agriculturists. Mind, I do not call you agriculturists. The landlords are not agriculturists; that is an abuse of terms which has been too long tolerated. The agriculturists are they who cultivate the land, who work at it either with their hands or their heads, and employ their capital on it; you are the owners of the land, who may be living at London or Paris: to call yourselves agriculturists is just as absurd as if shipowners were to call themselves sailors. I deal with the agriculturists, and not with the landowners—not with the rent-owners; and I tell you that you cannot show me that the labouring classes on farms are as well off as the much-deplored manufacturing population.


I myself employ a number of men; my concern is in the country, like your own. I have a number of labourers like yours; unskilled labourers, as unskilled as your own. I employ them in washing, cleansing, wheeling, and preparing materials, and I pay them 12s. a week; but I have no protection. Take Devonshire, Sussex, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, and other agricultural counties, which send up their squires to this House to support this odious system, and any of these counties will show you a larger ratio of paupers than the manufacturing districts. Take Dorset; there has just been laid on the table of the House a Return of the population and revenue, and here we find, that in the year 1840, the very year in which we were blessed with wheat at 66s. a quarter, one out of every seven of the population in Dorsetshire was a pauper. And if we go to Sussex and the rest of the counties which send representatives to support this system for the benefit of the agriculturists, there we shall invariably find the largest amount of pauperism.


I will turn to the farmers. The hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Gentlemen, are pleased to designate me as the archenemy of the farmers. Sir, I have as good a right as any hon. Gentleman in this House to identify myself with the order of farmers. I am a farmer's son. The hon. Member for Sussex has been speaking to you as the farmers' friend; I am the son of a Sussex farmer; my ancestors were all yeomen of the class who have been suffering under this system; my family suffered under it, and I have therefore as good or a better right than any of you to stand up as the farmer's friend, and to represent his wrongs in this House. Now, I ask you, what benefits have the farmers had from this protection of which you speak so much? I put you on your defence, and I again call on you to show how the farmers can possibly derive higher profits from your law to enhance the price of the produce of the soil of this land? You must answer this question; this has not been shown yet at any of your agricultural meetings, where you tell the farmers that you must sink or swim together, and that you both row in the same boat. But the time is coming, and on the next quarter-day you will be called upon to show the farmer—upon whom some little enlightenment is now creeping—to show how he hitherto has gained, or can gain, any benefit from this legislation. You will have to answer this question from the intelligent farmer:—

'If there be more farmers than farms, then will not the competition amongst us for your farms raise the rent of land? and will there not be a proportionate value of the produce to whatever value you may give it in your Acts of Parliament?'

The same intelligent farmer may tell you:—

'If there were more farms than farmers, and if you raised the value of your produce, you would be bidding against each other for farmers, and then I could understand how the farmers could get some benefit in the shape of extra profit, for you would be compelled to pay them better for cultivating your farms.'

Now all this has been made as clear as noon-day.


The hon. Member for Dorsetshire has maligned the Anti-Corn-law League, as an association for dissseminating, not useful, but disagreeable knowledge. Every farmer in Dorsetshire has had a packet; every county voter of Dorsetshire has received a packet, containing about a dozen little tracts. This has not been left to casual distribution; it has not even been entrusted to the Post-office; but special agents have gone from door to door, climbing the mountains and penetrating the valleys. There is not a freeholder in the country who does not know as much about the matter as we ourselves. Do you think we shall hear next year, at the agricultural meeting at Blandford, the hon. Member for Dorsetshire telling his hearers that 'the Corn-law is the sun of our social system; that it gilds the spire of the church, the dome of the palace, and the thatch of the cottage'? There will be some black sheep, who will shout out, 'and the chimney of the landlord.' We have had during this debate a great deal of criminating language cast at this body. Far be it from me to enter into such extraneous matter as the objects and proceedings of that body. I shall not think it necessary to answer the very amusing gossip in a stage coach which has been related to us. But attacks have been made upon this body at other times. The right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) made a dark insinuation against it at the close of last session, when there was no one to answer it; and we have had the cry raised since, 'that the Anti-Corn-law League is an incendiary and revolutionary body.' We took no pains to refute that charge. How have the public treated your accusations? The shrewd and sagacious people of England and Scotland have given bail for the morality and good conduct of the maligned body to the amount of 50,000l.; and let the same slander go forth another year, and I am sure that the people will then enter into recognizances for the same body to the extent of 100,000l. No, it is not necessary that I should enter into the defence of such a body.


There has been an attempt, an alleged attempt, made to identify the members of this body with a most odious—a most horrible—I might say, a most maniacal transaction which has lately occurred. An attempt has been made in another place—reported to have been made—to suggest that the proceedings of the League were to be connected with that horrible transaction. I do not—I cannot—believe that this report is a correct one; I cannot believe that either the language or the spirit of the remarks attributed to an eminent and a learned Lord (Brougham) are founded on anything that really took place. If they were uttered, I can only attribute them to the ebullition of an ill-regulated intellect, not to a malicious spirit. This trick of charging the consequence of injustice upon the victims of injustice is as old as injustice itself. Who does not remember that, when this infamous law was enacted in 1815, Mr. Baring, now Lord Ashburton, was charged, in this House, by one of the Ministers of the day, with having caused all the riots, murders, and bloodshed which ensued in the metropolis, merely because he had been one of the most pertinacious opponents of the law, denounced it in the House as a mere scheme to raise rents at the expense of the commercial classes, and the welfare of the community. Sir, if there be anything which can add to the gratification I feel at having taken an active part in this body, it is the high character of those with whom I have been associated. Yes, tested by their utility, tested by their public character and private worth, they might justly be compared to the Members of this House, or of another more illustrious assembly. But enough of this subject.


I will now turn my attention to the question before the House. Last session the Anti-Corn-law party put the question, What was to be done for the country? That is the question I now put. I say to the Government—I say to the right hon. Gentleman opposite—What do you now think of the condition of our trade, and the condition of the country? I gather from what has fallen from hon. Members on the other side, that this motion is to be resisted. The motion is to be resisted; but what are the reasons for resisting it? How is the question met by the Government? It is alleged that there is a great discrepancy of opinion on this side of the House. I admit it. There is such a discrepancy between some Gentlemen on this side and myself, between the noble Lord (Worsley), the Member for North Lincolnshire, and myself; there is as great a difference of opinion as between me and the Gentlemen on the other side. The party on our side is as the hon. Gentleman opposite described it—it is broken into atoms, and may never be reunited. But does that diminish the responsibility of the Government, which is strong in proportion as the Opposition, is weak? Are we never to escape from this mode of evading responsibility—this bandying of accusations about Whigs, Tories, and Radicals, and their differences of opinion? Is that cry always to be repeated and relied on? How long, I ask, is this course to be continued? How long is the argument to be used? If it be continued, what defence will it be for the Government? There always have been differences of opinion on both sides of the House, but that can be no excuse for the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, who took the reins of power into his hands on the avowed responsibility of bringing forward measures to meet the exigencies of the moment. But there is not one measure of importance adopted by the Government which has not been taken out of the school of the Free-traders. The colleagues of the right hon. Baronet who have spoken on this occasion have introduced the Corn-laws into this debate, and have discussed that subject in connection with the present distress. But what says the right hon. Member the Vice-President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Gladstone)? Why, he says that there are not two opinions on the subject of free-trade. What says the right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) at the head of the Government? Why, he says that on this point we are all agreed. And the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of the Home Department (Sir J. Graham) says that the principles of free-trade are the principles of common sense. And last night, to my amazement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goulburn) said, there are not two opinions on the subject, and there never was any dispute about it. The noble Lord the Member for North Lancashire (Stanley), who has not yet spoken, will, I believe, justify by his vote the same principles. Again, the right hon. Gentleman the Paymaster of the Forces (Sir E. Knatchbull) must adopt the same course. That right hon. Gentleman, and that noble Lord, may not have avowed free-trade principles; but they must, as men of morality, carry those principles into effect, for both of them have averred that the Corn-laws raise rent. The right hon. Gentleman the Paymaster of the Forces has expressly declared in this House that the Corn-laws were passed to maintain country gentlemen in their station in the country. The noble Lord the Member for North Lancashire has said that the Corn-laws raise the price of food, and that they do not raise wages; the noble Lord, therefore, says that the landed gentlemen increase their rents at the expense of the profits of the middle classes. They must carry their principle into their conduct. Now, taking the four Members of the Cabinet who have avowed free-trade principles, and assuming that the two others by their addresses must be favourable to them, I ask, why do they not carry their principles into effect? How am I met? The right hon. Gentleman the Vice-President of the Board of Trade admits the justice of the principles of Free Trade. He says that he does not want monopoly; but then he applies these just principles only in the abstract. Now, I do not want abstractions. Every moment that we pass here, which is not devoted to providing for the welfare of the community, is lost time. I tell the hon. Member that I am a practical man. I am not an abstract Member, and I ask what we have here to do with abstractions? The right hon. Gentleman is a free-trader only in the abstract. We have nothing, I repeat, to do with abstractions here. The right hon. Gentleman used another plea. He said that the system has been continued for centuries, and cannot now be abandoned. If the Attorney-General be in the House (and I hope he is), what would he say to such a plea in an action of trover? Would he admit the plea? Would he say, 'I know that you have right and justice on your side in the abstract, but then the unjust possession has been for so long a time continued that it cannot be at once abandoned?' What would be the verdict in such a case? The verdict would not be an abstract verdict, but one of restitution, of total and immediate restitution. The right hon. Gentleman has made the admission that these principles must be carried out, and he says that the Corn-laws are temporary. I ask why the Corn-laws are temporary? Just laws are not temporary. It is the essence of just laws to be eternal. You have laws on your statute-book against murder and robbery, and no man says they should not be continued. Why, then, are the Corn-laws to be temporary? Because the Corn-laws are unjust; because they are neither right nor expedient. They were passed to give a benefit to the country gentlemen, and raise them in society at the expense of the rest of the community.


The hon. Member for Bridport (Mr. Baillie-Cochrane) made last night a declaration against the Anti-Corn-law League, but he pronounced it with such gentle accents, he put so much sweetness into his denunciation, that he deprived it of its effect. That hon. Member is a young man, and perhaps is not aware of the force of what he said. But that hon. Gentleman, too, made an admission which will not sustain your system. The hon. Member said, that if the Corn-laws were repealed, the aristocracy would be forced to reduce their rents, and could not live as an aristocracy. The Gentlemen who make those admissions are the real incendiaries, the real revolutionists, and the real destroyers of the aristocracy. I must put the honest part of the aristocracy on their guard against them, and must tell them not to allow themselves to be included with those who fear destruction from the repeal of the Corn-laws. They must know that an aristocracy cannot maintain its station on wealth moistened with the orphans' and the widows' tears, and taken from the crust of the peasant. The question has been brought before the country, and the decision must be adverse to them. The people are well aware of their conduct. They may talk about an increase of one or two mills, or of the increase of joint-stock banks, but I call attention to the condition of the country, and I ask you if it is not worse now than it was six months ago? It has been going on from bad to worse. And what is the remedy you propose? what are the proceedings by which you propose to give relief to the country? Is it an abstraction? You cannot say that we are at the close of the session, or that you are overloaded with public and private business. Never before were there so few measures of importance under the consideration of Parliament at such a period. Have you devised some plan, then, of giving relief to the country? If you have not, I tell you emphatically that you are violating your duty to your country; you are neglecting your duty to your Sovereign if you continue to hold office one moment after you can find no remedy for the national distress. The right hon. Gentleman, however, proposes nothing. The measures which he has brought forward since he has held office have not remedied the distress of the country. It may be said of me, that I am a prophet who fulfils his own prophecy; but I tell you your proceedings will lead from bad to worse; that more confusion will come; there are germs of it sown in the north of England. Yes, not in the cotton district. The danger which menaces you will come from the agricultural districts, for the next time there is any outbreak, the destitute hands of the agricultural districts will be added to the destitute hands of the manufacturing districts.


Does the right hon. Gentleman, who must know the state of the country, doubt whether this be the fact? I receive correspondence from every part of the country—but what is my correspondence to his?—and he must know that what I say is the fact. It is time, then, to give up bandying the terms 'Whig' and 'Tory' about from one side of the House to the other, and to engage in a serious inquiry into the present condition of the country. The right hon. Baronet cannot conceal from himself what is that condition: capital is melting away, pauperism is increasing, trade and manufactures are not reviving. What worse description can be given of our condition? and what can be expected, if such a state of things continues, but the disruption and dissolution of the State? When the agitation was begun for the repeal of the Corn-laws, four years ago, the right hon. Baronet met our complaints by entering into many details, showing that our commerce was increasing, that the savings' banks were prospering, that the revenue was improving, and that consumption was augmenting. When a deputation of manufacturers waited upon him to represent the hopeless state of trade, he refused to listen to their representations, or he met them with details of an extraordinary increase in the consumption of the people and in the revenue, and with many official statements full of hope. I ask the right hon. Baronet, can he take the same ground now? Can he tell the country and his Sovereign when this state of things is likely to terminate; or what other remedy has he for this than that we propose? Can he find a better?


If you (Sir Robert Peel) try any other remedy than ours, what chance have you for mitigating the condition of the country? You took the Corn-laws into your own hands after a fashion of your own, and amended them according to your own views. You said that you were uninfluenced in what you did by any pressure from without on your judgment. You acted on your own judgment, and would follow no other, and you are responsible for the consequences of your act. You said that your object was to find more employment for the increasing population. Who so likely, however, to tell you what markets could be extended as those who are engaged in carrying on the trade and manufactures of the country? I will not say that the mercantile and manufacturing body, as a whole, agree with me in my views of the Corn-laws; but the right hon. Baronet must know that all parties in the manufacturing and commercial districts disapprove of his laws. I do not speak of the League—I speak of the great body of commercial men; and I ask, where will you find on any exchange in England, Scotland, or Ireland, where 'merchants do congregate,' and manufacturers meet, twelve men favourable to the Corn-law which you forced on the community, in obedience to your own judgment, and contrary to ours? You passed the law, you refused to listen to the manufacturers, and I throw on you all the responsibility of your own measure. The law has not given the promised extension to our trade: it has ruined the Corn-law speculators. (A laugh.) You may laugh; but is it a triumph to ruin the corn-dealers, or cause a loss of 2,000,000l. of money? When you have ruined the corn speculators, who will supply you with foreign wheat? The Corn-law is in such a state that no regular merchant will engage in the corn trade. Ask any merchant, and you will find that no man, let his trade be what it will, sends abroad orders for corn as he sends abroad orders for sugar and coffee. No merchant dares to engage in the corn trade. I was offered, or rather the Anti-Corn-law League was offered, a contribution of wheat from one of the Western States of America, on condition that we should pay the expense of transport down the Mississippi. On calculating the cost of transport, we found it would not pay the expense of carriage. On taking the 20s. duty into consideration and the expense of carriage, we found that when it was sold here there would not be one farthing for the League! When such is the case, how can such merchants as the Barings, or the Browns of Liverpool, send out orders for corn, when there is no certainty whether they shall have to pay 20s. duty, or any less sum, when it arrives? Such a law defies calculation, and puts an end to trade.


Take, again, the article sugar. The right hon. Gentleman by his tariff reduced the duties on 700 articles, and he carefully omitted those two articles which are supplied by North and South America, the only two countries the trade of which can resuscitate our present declining manufactures. Yes, the right hon. Baronet altered the duties on 700 articles. He took the duty off caviare and cassava powder, but he left corn and sugar oppressed with heavy monopoly duties. The right hon. Baronet reduced the charges on drugs, which was not unimportant, but he excluded those two vital commodities which the merchants of the country know can alone supply any extension to our trade. I will not say that this was done with a design of injuring our trade, but it was done. The right hon. Baronet acted on his own judgment, and he retained the duty on the two articles on which a reduction of duty was desired, and he reduced the duties on those on which there was not a possibility of the change being of much service to the country. It was folly or ignorance. (Oh! oh!) Yes, it was folly or ignorance to amend our system of duties, and leave out of consideration sugar and corn. The reduction of the duties on drugs and such things was a proper task for some under-Secretary of State, dealing with the sweepings of office; but it was unworthy of any Minister, and was devoid of any plan. It was one of the least useful changes that ever was proposed by any Government. There is also the case of timber. I admit that the reduction of the duty on timber is a good thing; but you reduced the duty when there are 10,000 houses standing empty within a radius of twenty miles of Manchester, and when there are crowds of ships rotting in our ports. At the same time, you denied our merchants the means of traffic, by refusing to reduce the duties on the two most bulky articles which our ships carry. You reduced your timber duties when there were no factories to build, and when there was no employment for ships. That is the scheme of the right hon. Baronet—the only plan which he has to propose for the benefit of the country. Can he not try some other plan? Does he repudidiate that which has been suggested by the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Attwood)? and will he have nothing to do with altering the currency, to which he is invited by the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz)? The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Disraeli), too, and the organs of his party in the press, have plans, but he will adopt none of them. It is his duty, he says, to judge independently, and act without reference to any pressure; and I must tell the right hon. Baronet that it is the duty of every honest and independent Member to hold him individually responsible for the present position of the country.


I am not a party man. Hon. Members know that I am not. But this I will tell the right hon. Baronet, that let who will be in office, whether Whigs or Tories, I will not sit in the House a day longer than I can, in what I believe to be the interest of my constituents, not vote for or against Whigs or Tories, as I may think right. I tell the right hon. Gentleman that I, for one, care nothing for Whigs or Tories. I have said that I never will help to bring back the Whigs: but I tell him that the whole responsibility of the lamentable and dangerous state of the country rests with him. It ill becomes him to throw that responsibility on any one at this side. I say there never has been violence, tumult, or confusion, except at periods when there has been an excessive want of employment, and a scarcity of the necessaries of life. The right hon. Baronet has the power in his hands to do as he pleases. If he will not, he has the privilege, which he told the noble Lord (Palmerston), the late Secretary for Foreign Affairs, he had, namely, that of resigning the office which gives him the power. I say that this is his duty. It is his duty to resign office the moment he finds he has not power to carry out to the fullest extent those measures which he believes to be for the benefit of the country. But whether he does so or not, I have faith in the electoral body—I have faith in the middle classes, backed by the more intelligent of the working classes, and led by the more honest section of the aristocracy—I have faith in the great body of the community that they will force the Government, whether of the right hon. Gentleman or of any other party, to the practical adoption of those principles which are now generally believed to be essential to the welfare of this country. The right hon. Gentleman has admitted the justice, the policy, and expediency of our principles. He has admitted, then, that they must in the end be triumphant. I repeat, I trust in the middle classes, in the electoral body, in the better portion of the working classes, and in the honester part of the aristocracy, to force the right hon. Baronet, or his successors, to put in practice those principles, the justice, policy, and reasonableness of which he has himself admitted.

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