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


[The systematic agitation for the repeal of the Corn-laws commenced with a meeting held at King-street, Manchester, on Dec. 20th, 1838. In course of time considerable funds were collected, in order to carry on the movement. In 1843, the League hired Covent Garden Theatre, and employed it for the purpose of metropolitan meetings, besides organising a complete staff of lecturers throughout the country, and establishing a newspaper which should report speeches and disseminate information on the subject. In the speech printed below, when Mr. Cobden said that the League had resolved to petition the House of Commons no longer, the audience, almost in one mass, rose and burst into a series of the most enthusiastic cheers, which lasted for several minutes, accompanied by waving of hats and handkerchiefs, and other tokens of satisfaction.]


It would be no impeachment of the nerves of the most practised speaker if he felt a little daunted at such a meeting as this. I thought our last gathering at Drury Lane a most imposing one, but that could not be compared with the sublime spectacle which now presents itself before me. My business to-night is purely of a practical nature, and I am glad it is so, for I am altogether a practical man. I do not know that I should have deemed it necessary to trouble you with one word of argument on the general question of the Cornlaws or Free Trade; but we meet at the present moment under rather different circumstances from those under which we last parted, and I will, therefore, detain you for a moment before I enter into the practical details which I have to bring before you. You will have observed in the monopolist newspapers that our opponents place considerable reliance, in seeking to make out a case, upon the recent revival of trade and manufactures, for they tell you that this revival will not only terminate our agitation, but that it is the best possible refutation of the truth of our principles. Now I tell them that it will not put an end to our agitation, and I am prepared to show them and you that it is a triumphant proof of the truth of our principles. I admit the partial revival of trade and manufactures; I wish I could say it was a general revival. I wish I could say it was half as extensive as these monopolist exaggerations represent it to be.


What is the cause of the revival? I am not in the habit of troubling such meetings as this with reading statistical documents—they are generally most inappropriate—but by way of showing you what the cause of the recent revival of trade is, as an illustration better than any other I could give you of the truth of our principles, I will just ask your attention to one short statistical statement. The average price of wheat in the three years, 1839, 1840, and 1841, was 67s. 1d.; the price in 1839 being 70s. 6d., the price in 1840, 66s. 4d.; and the price in 1841, 64s. 5d. These three years were years of unparalleled suffering and distress in this country. Last autumn Providence blessed us with an abundant harvest, and this, in connection with an importation of foreign corn to the extent of three millions, so reduced the price of wheat, that the average price of that article for the first six months of the present year has been only 47s. 7d. Now, if there had been no revival of trade, under such circumstances, I should not have dared to appear before you. I should have deserved, indeed, the character of an impostor, as to all that I have said on this subject, had there been no revival of trade under such circumstances. You will have observed from what I have said, that wheat was about 20s. a quarter less for the first six months of the present year than for the three years, 1839, 1840, and 1841; and while there was this reduction in the price of wheat, there was, at the same time, a reduction in the price of all other kinds of grain by 8s. a quarter.


In order to understand the magnitude and importance of the subject with which we have to deal—there are some who think we over-estimate its importance; I think that up to the present time we have under-estimated it—in order to understand the matter better, I will mention, that the estimated consumption of grain per annum in this country is twenty million quarters of wheat, and forty millions of quarters of all other kinds of grain. It follows, therefore, that the additional cost of grain in each of the three years of distress was, say—twenty millions of quarters of wheat, at 20s. a quarter, twenty millions sterling; forty millions of quarters of all other kinds of grain at 8s., sixteen millions sterling; together, thirty-six millions sterling. But grain is not the only article of agricultural produce, though grain governs the price of the other articles. It is estimated that the consumption of potatoes, meat, cheese, and all other articles of agricultural produce, is equal to the same quantity of grain (sixty millions of quarters); and the price of the one being, as I have said, governed by the other, taking the advance in price as equal to 8s. a quarter, here is a further addition of twenty-four millions sterling, making a total of sixty millions sterling per annum, or thirty millions for the half year, or five millions per month. All this difference in price was left in the pockets of the people the first six months of the present year; which saving, after supplying food and other articles of agricultural produce, they were thus able to spend in other ways, in buying articles of linen and cotton manufacture, hats, bonnets, and so forth. This accounts for the increased demand we have noticed for the labour of those who make linen and cotton goods, hats, bonnets, and so forth; and this accounts, too, for the people being able to buy an extra quantity of tea, sugar, and other articles in the cheap year, beyond what they consume in dear years, and this again accounts for the foreign trade in those articles also improving.


This, I say, accounts for the partial revival we have observed in our trade; but, then, this revival has been accompanied by a corresponding depression of the agricultural interest. The agricultural and the manufacturing interests would seem to be like the two buckets in a draw-well, the one going down empty as the other comes up full. In proportion as there is a revival of manufactures, consequent upon moderate prices in food, we hear the cry of agricultural distress. This has always been so much the case, that I challenge any one to point out an instance, ever since these Corn-laws were introduced, where-in the agriculturists and the manufacturers have had simultaneous prosperity. Now, I ask, is this a natural state of things? Is this alternation of distress—this intermittent fever, now attacking the one great portion of the body politic, and then the other—this distress falling on the farmer at a time when Heaven has blessed him with an abundant harvest—is this a natural state of things? And yet in every instance where the farmers have been plunged in the greatest distress and suffering, it has been in the midst of the most bountiful harvest, and in the most genial seasons. Any man who takes these facts alone must have a very undue and irreverent notion of the great Creator of the world, if he supposes that this is a natural or a designed state of things. No; there is an unnatural cause for this unnatural state of things, and that unnatural cause is the law which interferes with the wisdom of the Divine Providence, and substitutes the law of wicked men for the law of nature.


During the three years to which I have been adverting, the owners of the soil might have expected to have suffered in consequence of the bad seasons; but what has been the fact? The landlords have been revelling in prosperity—in a bloated and diseased prosperity—at the very time when the people have been suffering the greatest privations and want of food. Rents have been rising. I say it boldly—it cannot be denied—rents have been generally, if not universally, raised during the three years of which I have been speaking. How stands the case of the landowner during the years of short crops and suffering to the whole community? He then extorts his rents from the distress of the operative, from the capital of the employer, or from the savings of those who are living upon the accumulations of themselves or their forefathers. And when the season is favourable—when Heaven smiles upon the fields, and our harvests are again abundant—the landlord extorts his rent from the distress and the capital of the farmer. Nobody can deny that for a series of years the landowners have been raising their rents, not from the legitimate prosperity of the tillers of the soil, or the prosperity of the manufacturing classes. They have been raising their rents from the capital and the labour of the trading community, or from the capital of their own deluded victims, the farmers. The landowners—Oh, shame upon the order! I say shame upon the landowners and their order, unless they shall speedily rescue themselves from this pitiable—if they deserve pity—this degrading dilemma. The landowners will very soon be ashamed to hold up their heads and own themselves to be English landowners and members of our aristocracy in any enlightened and civilised country in Europe.


Do I seek to injure the landowners even pecuniarily? I have never owned it where I should have been most ready to tell them my opinions to their face—in the House of Commons. The landowners have nothing pecuniarily, they have nothing ultimately, to dread from a free trade in corn. But under Free Trade, instead of extorting their rents from the distress of every class in the country, they would be thrown back upon their own resources. Now there are riches slumbering in the soil—if the owners employ their capital and their intelligence, as other classes are forced to do, in other pursuits—there are undeveloped bounties even on the surface of the earth, and there are ten times more beneath the surface, which would make them richer, happier, and better men, if they would cast aside this monopoly. Last week, in addressing the farmers of Cheshire, I said I would bring a jury of Scotch agriculturists before the House of Commons—if their verdict could be taken there—who would state upon oath that the surface of Cheshire would, if properly cultivated, yield three times the amount of its present produce. If you were travelling by the railroad, and marked the country from Stafford to Whitmore, and then from Whitmore to Crewe, and thence the thirty miles to Manchester, I challenge all England to show such a disgraceful picture—threefourths of the finest fields left to the undisputed dominion of rushes—not a shilling spent in draining, although it is now universally acknowledged that draining is the means of doubling the productions of such soils—hedge-rows of every imaginable shape but a straight line, and fields of every conceivable form but the right one. And these are the men who content themselves with sluggish indolence, and draw from the impoverishment of the people; who pick the pockets of the handloom weavers rather than by a right application of their intellect and their capital, double the quantity of grain, or butter, or cheese, which the land is capable of providing. And thus, if Free Trade did compel them to sell their articles at a less price, it would be the means of enabling the people of the country to have a double supply of food. The home market for food would be doubled, and the landowner might become an honest politician.


We are now told that the present state of the manufacturing and trading classes will put an end to the agitation for the repeal of the Corn-laws. Why, gentlemen, I think we have a few mementoes left yet to remind us that we have a Corn-law monopoly in the shape of an income-tax; in our extra poors' rates, extra county-rates, extra taxation for the five thousand troops which were added to the army in 1839, on the first outbreak consequent upon the famine which overspread the land. We have these, and other memorials of monopoly; and if some of us have survived the hurricane, can we forget the thousands and tens of thousands who fell victims to the distress of 1839, 1840, and 1841? Shall we forget that 500,000 of our countrymen have, since the August of 1838, expatriated themselves from their native soil, to seek in more hospitable lands the food denied them here? Can we forget the hundreds who have dropped into a premature grave, famine-stricken, since that time? Can we forget the scores who, by the records of the coroners' courts, have died by their own hands, to escape a lingering death by starvation? No; if we could be selfish enough—we, who have braved the storm and outlived the hurricane—ourselves to forget these things, we ought to be reminded of these events. But that we are not going to forget them, and that we will make this the occasion for redoubling our exertions, the plan which I shall have the pleasure of laying before you, and submitting to your approbation as the plan of the League for future proceedings, will be sufficient to demonstrate.


You have heard that we have distributed a vast amount of useful knowledge on the subject of the existing monopoly. We should be bad husbandmen if we allowed the harvest which is ripening around us to be overspread by weeds or gathered by others than by ourselves.


The League proposes to take another step in giving a direction to the legislative power of this country. We propose to draw the bonds more closely between the League and the electoral body of the country, by the course of proceedings which I shall submit to you. We regard the electors of the country as possessing in their own hands absolute dominion within these realms. The laws of the country, whether good or bad, are but the breath of their nostrils. It is not our fault if the electoral body is not exactly as we should have wished to have found it—we must work with the instruments we have, unless others will find us better ones. We are not in fault if the electoral body is so distributed as to give by its scattered and detached fragments the greatest advantages to our enemies, who are the enemies of the human race, in meeting us in the field of combat. We must make the best use we can of it as it is. The plan of the League is to bring the more powerful sections of the electoral body into a union with the more vulnerable portions. What is the use of Manchester and Birmingham, and Glasgow and Edinburgh, possessing an overwhelming majority—which no monopolist will dare to face at another election—if their voices are to be counterbalanced, probably by the intriguers living in some small borough which has for electoral purposes the same weight as Manchester or Birmingham? But we will bring the great majority of the electors in the large boroughs into union with those in the smaller ones. Do you suppose that because the small boroughs have not always resisted the influences exercised upon them, they are without sympathy with the condition of other bodies of their countrymen? I have the means of knowing the reverse to be the case. I have been to your cathedral cities and to your rural boroughs, which are now represented by monopolists; and I have heard upon the best authority that three-fourths of the inhabitants are heart and soul Free Traders.


We propose—we, the League, propose a plan. And don't suppose that means a few men from Manchester. The League is composed, I hope, of this meeting to begin with. It contains a great majority of the electors in the great towns and cities I have mentioned. This is the League, and before long I hope it will comprise every man in the country, unless he either believes that he has an interest in monopoly, or because the marks of stupidity are so strongly imprinted on his countenance as to hold out a continual running invitation, 'Come rob me.' We propose to provide a copy of every registrationlist for every borough and county in the United Kingdom, as soon as the present registration shall have been completed. We intend to bring these registers to a central office in London. We then propose to open a correspondence the most extensive that ever was contemplated, and that ever, I am sure, was undertaken. Those electors amount to 800,000; but I will take 300,000, excluding those in the already safe boroughs, as forming the number necessary to constitute the returns of a majority in the House of Commons. We propose to correspond with these 300,000 to begin with. And when I say correspond, don't let any timid, cautious friends fancy that we are going to commit them by forming ourselves into a 'Corresponding Society.' I am going to tell you what we mean to correspond about. We propose to keep people well informed as to the progress of our question by means of the penny postage, which has not yet been sufficiently used. I may say, in a parenthesis, that the Duke of Buckingham presided at a public meeting at Salt Hill, to celebrate the defeat of the Great Western Railway. He was a sagacious man, for the railways and the penny postage will pull down his monopoly. We intend, then, to keep the constituencies well informed by means of the penny postage, enclosing the useful information connected with the question, and tracts bearing the most recent illustrations of it together. What could be more desirable than tomorrow to send to those 300,000 electors copies of the newspapers containing the best reports of this meeting? But we propose to send them one letter a week, and that will cost twopence for the stamp and the enclosure. That will be 2500l. I mention this by way of illustration and preface to what I am going to tell you before I conclude. Besides this correspondence, we intend to visit every borough in the kingdom, not by agents—we will go ourselves, because we want the thing well done. We will specially invite the electors to meet such deputations without distinction of party—we know nothing of party in this agitation,—and having met the electors, we shall have a little business to transact with them. In the first place, we shall urge upon our friends to organise themselves, and to commence a canvass of their boroughs to ascertain the number of Free Traders, and in every case where it is possible to obtain a majority of the electors in favour of Free Trade; that majority to memorialise their members, where they have not voted rightly, to vote in favour of Mr. Villiers' motion, which will be brought on early next session. Besides that, the deputation will urge upon the electors to have a Free-trade candidate ready to supplant every monopolist who still retains a seat for a borough; and the League will pledge itself, where a borough constituency finds itself at a loss for a candidate, to furnish it with one, and to give to every borough in which a vacancy occurs an opportunity for its electors to record their votes in favour of Free-trade principles. [A Voice: 'The City.'] We'll talk of that by-and-by.


Now, it may be objected to us—and it has been objected—that by such means no good can be accomplished. If it cannot be accomplished by such means, it cannot be righteously accomplished at all. But it can be accomplished by such means, and we have hitherto been unfairly dealt with in our struggle with the constituencies. The last general election disclosed an amount of bribery, corruption, and intimidation, involving brutal violence, even to homicide; and the present Parliament is the creature of that vile system. And shall such a system be continued? No; not against the League. Whenever we have a voice—and we will have one in every borough when an election takes place—we will see if we cannot put down this system of bribery, and I think we may manage effectually to muzzle the intimidators. The system itself got its death-blow at the last election. It was found, in the first place, too costly. The rents would not stand such an experiment again for either party. In the next, Mr. Roebuck's exposure—and thanks to him for making it—shamed even shameless men in the House of Commons. In the next, Lord John Russell's new law—I wonder they ever let him pass it—presents the means of putting down bribery, if fairly used; but beyond that we have a better and a wiser resort than any. Hitherto the bribers and the bribees have been suffered to escape with impunity. They have been brought before the House of Commons, a Committee has decided upon the case, the petitioner has had the satisfaction of unseating the member, and was saddled with the same expense, and was at liberty to stand again; but the House of Commons took no steps to punish those by whose guilt the system was carried on. By that means they were accessories after the fact; and little better, indeed, could be expected from such a House of Commons. Now, we will try the experiment of a criminal court against these gentry. The man who bribes, or offers a bribe, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and liable to a heavy fine, and also liable to a severe imprisonment. I have heard an objection made that you cannot obtain a conviction in such a case. You cannot obtain a conviction! why not? Will a jury of our countrymen find a verdict of guilty against the hapless wretch who steals a morsel of bread for his famishing children, and will they not convict those whose guilt was of tenfold criminality—who would buy and sell that franchise upon which the bread of that poor creature depends? I say, yes. The juries of this country are precisely the class which will convict in such cases; and it is upon a jury of the country that we mainly rely for putting down bribery, and abating the flagrant system of intimidation for the future. Yes, a jury of our country saved our liberties in times past from a despotic monarchy, and again from corrupt and tyrannical administrations; and it will save us from the worse danger to our liberties—from the taint that has been eating into the electoral bodies of the kingdom.


It is not the intention of the League to recommend any further petitioning to the House of Commons. So soon as the proceedings in reference to the electoral body to which I have alluded shall have reached such a point as to warrant the step, the Council will recommend the electors, not to petition Parliament—of that enough has been done already—but to memorialise the Queen, that she will be pleased to dissolve the present Parliament, which, like everything generated in corruption, must necessarily be short-lived, and to give to the electors an opportunity of sending men to make laws, with the advantages of the lights and experience which they have acquired, since, under a delusion, they were induced at the last election to return the majority of the present House of Commons.


I have now told you the plan which we have to submit to you, the sanction of which we have to ask you to-night; and as a means of carrying on these proceedings, and to furnish the money for doing so, the Council are resolved to raise the sum of 100,000l. Yes, it may save a waste of ink to-morrow, by telling the monopolist scribes that the money will be raised, and that hereafter, as heretofore, the men who have taken the greatest amount of labour, and who will continue to do so in the cause, and who did so before they were ever heard of beyond the precincts of their own localities, will, as they did from the beginning, lead the van in the amount of their subscriptions for the great object which we have in view. We offer to every one the opportunity of registering his name, or her name, on this muster-roll of commercial freedom; and we do so with the perfect assurance that it is the last time we shall have to call upon our friends for a sacrifice in the cause. I feel bound, in making this statement, to take care that there shall be no misunderstanding in the minds of any party as to the money which shall be subscribed, or the conditions on which it shall be raised. We ask no one to give us money unless they are fully convinced that we are in earnest in the principles which we advocate. We ask none to contribute unless they believe that the characters, personal, private, and public, of the men who shall be hereafter taking the responsible part in this agitation, are such as they can approve and trust; and we do not ask anybody to join us now who will not be prepared, when the time shall come, to give full effect to his opinions and convictions by standing firm to the principles upon which the League is founded. Let there be no misunderstanding as to that. This is not a party move, to serve any existing political organisation; we care nothing for political parties. As they at present stand, there is very little indeed to choose between the two great parties. Let a statesman of established reputation, of whatever side in politics, take the step for perfect freedom of trade, he shall have the support of the League. We have given but a slight specimen of what we shall be able to do when a Minister, whether Whig or Tory, shall adopt such a course. He shall have the support of the League to carry such a measure, whatever his other political opinions may be.


We do not seek to interfere with any man's political opinions; there are no ulterior objects in the view of this Association. I say it solemnly, on behalf of the men with whom I am daily associating, that they have no second or collateral object in view that I am acquainted with. The single and undisguised object of the League is to put down commercial monopoly; but that cannot be done by saddling upon our backs a fixed duty on corn, which means a differential duty on sugar, on coffee, and monopoly in every other article. The Corn-law is the great tree of Monopoly, under whose baneful shadow every other restriction exists. Cut it down by the roots, and it will destroy the others in its fall. The sole object of the League is to put an end to and extinguish, at once and for ever, the principle of maintaining taxes for the benefit of a particular class. The object is to make the revenue what it ought to be—a stream flowing into the Queen's Exchequer, and not a penny of it intercepted by the Duke of Buckingham, or Sir E. Knatchbull, to pay off their endowments or their settlements; by Lord Mountcashel to discharge his burthens or his mortgages; or by any other person, or for the maintenance of any object whatsoever.


I have told you the object of the League; but it is no fault of ours if our enemies, by their opposition to our just demands, give rise to a struggle on other points with which this agitation has nothing to do. It is no fault of ours if with this agitation should be mixed up the question of rents, and should mingle in a degree that would render it difficult to separate the rights of property from the claims of those who labour under the grievance of these intolerable exactions. It is no fault of ours if the nobility of this country should become as much detested at their own baronial hall doors as were the noblesse of France previous to the Revolution. We are responsible for none of these things. The fault lies with those who support monoply, who are deaf to reason and justice, and who place themselves upon a pedestal of injustice; a pedestal which is always liable to fall, and always certain to bring down those who stand upon it.


Gentlemen, I have said my say. There are others to follow me, and I will only say, unfeignedly, that we are engaged in an agitation which has no ulterior views, and that while so engaged we are utterly regardless of the imputations that may be cast upon us by our opponents. I could spare the monopolist prints oceans of ink, and great midnight labour in preparing their vituperations, if I could only make them believe that their attacks upon me fall as harmless as the water-drops from the sky do. We have no desire to be politicians. I say it, without affectation, that there is not a man amongst us who aims at making a political life his profession. We are aware that this great question must be carried in Parliament, not by us, but by some statesman of established reputation; but while we possess the power that we do possess out of doors—and it is nothing to what it will be twelve months hence—the cause shall never be surrendered to any Minister, to promote the purpose of any political party; and, so far as the labour goes, so long as I am blessed with health, I shall give it cheerfully; nay, I shall consider it a privilege to labour in the cause. If I were not convinced that the question comprises a great moral principle, and involves the greatest moral world's revolution that was ever yet accomplished for mankind, I should not take the part I do in this agitation.


Free Trade! What is it? Why, breaking down the barriers that separate nations; those barriers, behind which nestle the feelings of pride, revenge, hatred, and jealousy, which every now and then burst their bounds, and deluge whole countries with blood; those feelings which nourish the poison of war and conquest, which assert that without conquest we can have no trade, which foster that lust for conquest and dominion which sends forth your warrior chiefs to scatter devastation through other lands, and then calls them back that they may be enthroned securely in your passions, but only to harass and oppress you at home. It is because I think I have a fall apprehension of the moral bearing of this question, that I take a pride and gratification in forming one in the present agitation; and I invite you all to take a part in it, for there is room and glory and fame enough for all as soon as we have achieved the great triumph of the downfall of the Cornlaws.

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