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 II


[The object of the meeting held at the London Tavern, and of which Mr. Samuel Morley, now Member for Bristol, was Chairman, was to advocate the scheme of the Metropolitan and National Freehold Land Association. Mr. Cobden's Speech introduced the following resolution:—'That this meeting is of opinion, that the Freehold Land movement, adapted, as it is, to the varied position and circumstances of all classes of the people, is calculated to improve the parliamentary representation of the country.']


If I understand the character of this meeting, it is assembled solely for business purposes. We are the members and friends of the Metropolitan and National Freehold Land Society, and we meet here to promote the objects of that society. It is an association framed for the purpose of enabling individuals, by means of small monthly contributions, to create a fund by which they may be enabled, in the best and cheapest way, to possess themselves of the county franchise. You will see, then, that this society has a double object in view: it is a deposit for savings, and a means of obtaining a vote. Now we don't meet here to-day, as a part or branch of the Birmingham Society, which was formed a few days ago, and called the Birmingham Freeholders' Union. That is a society composed of individuals, from all parts of the kingdom, who choose to subscribe to it, for the purpose of enabling a committee in Birmingham to stimulate throughout the country by lectures, and by means of a periodical journal called the Freeholder, to be published on the first of next month, the formation of freehold land societies. We do not meet as part of an agitating body, but merely to promote the objects of the Metropolitan and National Freehold Land Society. The plan of that society is, to purchase large estates—large, comparatively speaking, and to divide them amongst the members of the association at cost price. In that explanation consists the main force and value of this association. The principle, you will see in a moment, is calculated to give great advantages to those who wish to join associations of this kind. I know that some gentlemen, who have given their attention to building societies, will say that this is not a building society. Why, the building societies, as they are called, are none of them, strictly speaking, building societies. They may be properly called mutual benefit security societies; but this Freehold Land Association is enrolled under the Building Society Act, and certified by Mr. Tidd Pratt, the revising barrister; and the object is, that members of the association shall have all the benefits the Act of Parliament can give them, and all the security it confers; and we propose to give them some other additional advantages. It has been said by those who look closely into the rules of this association, 'You have no power under the Building Act to purchase estates and divide them.' That is perfectly true. We have no such powers; but the directors will, at the risk of the parties who buy the estates, undertake to purchase land, and to give the members of this-association the refusal of that land. So that our object is to give you all the benefits of the Building Societies Act, and also the refusal of portions of the estates which have been bought at the risk of others.


I need not tell you, that a great deal of the success of all associations of this kind depends, first, on correct calculations being made in framing the society; and next, and, perhaps, most of all, on the character and stability of those who have the responsible management. Now, with regard to the calculations on which this society is founded, I should be very sorry to allow this opportunity to pass, without coming to a perfectly clear understanding with all who are concerned in the association, as to what I propose, as a member of the board of directors, to undertake to do towards the share-holders. It has been stated that we undertake to find a freehold qualification for a county at a certain sum, say 30l. I believe that, in the first prospectus, that sum was stated; but, when I heard of it, I stipulated that it should be withdrawn, for I will be no party to any stipulation of the kind. I do not appear here, having myself land to sell. All I promise you is, that, while I remain for twelve months as a responsible director, all the property bought shall be divided without profit, and that the members of the association shall have its refusal at cost price. But, whether it cost 20l., or 30l., or 40l., or 50l., is a matter to which I do not undertake to pledge myself, because it is a matter which I cannot control. It has happened, at Birmingham, that many persons obtained as much land as gave them a qualification for as little as 20l., but that may be a lucky accident. I will not be a party to any pledge that we shall procure land for others on equally favourable terms.


Well, having cleared the ground, so that there may be no misunderstanding, I next come to the consideration of the character of those who have the direction of the affairs of the society. I am very happy to see our chairman (Mr. S. Morley) here on this occasion. He is one of the trustees, and I need not tell you that he stands very well in Lombard Street. The other trustees are responsible men; not merely responsible in point of pecuniary circumstances, but men, any one of whom I should be happy, were I making my will tomorrow, to leave as trustees for my children, of every farthing I had in the world. This is the only test you can, with safety, apply. If you have not men, whose private characters will bear such a test as that, you had better have nothing at all to do with them in public matters. Besides the trustees, you have the board of directors. I have attended every meeting of the board of directors when in town, and there is not one of the gentlemen I have found at the board whom I should not be happy to meet in private life, and to call my friend. I believe, therefore, leaving myself, if you please, out of the question, that the affairs of the association are in truly responsible and honourable hands. And here I beg not to be misunderstood. We do not come here to puff ourselves off at the expense of other associations. There are other societies formed, or forming, and, no doubt, their directors are as trustworthy as those of our association. We are not so badly off in England that we cannot find honour and honesty enough for every situation in life. You will get the strictest integrity for 20s. a week, and as much as you wish to hire.


It has been objected (and I confess there was some difficulty in my mind on the subject) that, in working an association of this kind, you may not be able to find freehold property, in convenient situations, or of convenient size, to carry out the movement. There may be that difficulty; but there are difficulties in every useful undertaking in this world, and there always will be. Those who make it their business to turn a green eye on our proceedings, will, no doubt, find plenty of difficulties; but, from every inquiry I have made, since my connection with the board of directors, I believe that there will be no insurmountable obstacle in working out our plan. It is perfectly true that, in seeking property, you may not find it at your own doors. If you live in a street in this metropolis, you may not be able to buy building-land in the immediate neighbourhood of your own residence, but you must be content to go farther from home, just as you would in other investments. One man buys Spanish bonds, and another Russian and Austrian bonds. Others, again, buy railway shares, which are running all over the country, and some of them running away. But give me a freehold investment in the earth, which never does run away, and it does not matter whether it is in my own parish or not, so that I have good title-deeds, and receive my rent by the penny post, I need not care, then, whether I see it or not. With that proviso, that you cannot always get land at your own doors, I do not see any difficulty in qualifying a person in the county in which he resides, with a freehold franchise. Many people think, that the only object for which they should buy land is, to build a house upon it; but there are other ways of disposing of it. Gardens, for instance, than which nothing is more sure of a rent; for if you buy land in the neighbourhood of any town, that land is always increasing in value; since, whatever the Corn-laws may have done to the agriculturist, you may depend upon it that, if food be cheap, population will be increasing in towns, and land, in the neighbourhood of towns, will increase in value. Whatever the foreigner may send us in the shape of wheat, he cannot send us garden-ground.


Now, for the purpose of illustration, I will take the case of Surrey. Many of you, I have no doubt, come from the other side of the river. I will suppose, then, that our friend Mr. Russell, the indefatigable solicitor of this association, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing and co-operating with for many years, has heard that there is a bit of land to be sold in the neighbourhood of Guildford. I will suppose that there is a farm, or one hundred acres of land, to be sold, within a mile or two of that town, and that Mr. Russell goes, with one of the directors, to look at it. They get a valuer to examine it; and, having learned the price at which this farm can be bought, they buy it; and then, instead of letting the hundred acres to one farmer, they determine to cut it up into plots of one or two acres. Now, if the shopkeepers and mechanics of the town were told that this land was to be let, I will venture to say that there is not one of the plots which would not let at the rate of 40s. an acre.


I know the avidity with which the peasantry of our towns and villages take half an acre or an acre of land. It is an article which is in greater demand than any other. I could find land in Wiltshire, which is, I am sorry to say, let to the peasantry at the rate of 7l. or 8l. an acre. I am supposing that a person wished to buy as much land as would give him a county vote, but, living in a borough, did not require land for his own purposes. Such a person might let his acre of land for 40s., in the form of garden allotments, without any difficulty.


And here I wish much to guard myself against being supposed to countenance a very popular, but, in my opinion, a most pernicious delusion. I would not have it imagined that I am a party to the plan of transferring people from their employments in towns to live on an acre or two of land. If a person leaves a workshop, a foundry, or a factory, and tries to live on even two or three acres of land, why all I can say is, that he will be very glad to get back to his former occupation. No, no; we have no such scheme as that. If a man has followed a particular pursuit, whatever it may be, up to the age of five-and-twenty, and if he is still receiving wages or profit from that pursuit, that man had better, as a general rule, follow his business than go to any other. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he will succeed better in that pursuit than in any other to which he can turn his hand. But what we say is this, that it is a very good thing for a man who is receiving weekly wages to have a plot of land in addition. Nothing can be more advantageous to people living in the country than to have, besides their weekly wages, a plot of ground on which they can employ themselves with the spade, when they have not other employment. With the proviso which I have mentioned—guarding myself against being supposed to be a party to the delusion to which I have alluded—I say, that if you have a freehold qualification in the neighbourhood of an agricultural town at a distance from you, but in the same county, even in that case the security will be good, the rent will be received, and the value of your plot of land will always be increasing instead of diminishing. If your object be to get a vote, and to have along with that vote a freehold property, even at the worst, if you cannot get a bit of garden-ground near the metropolis, you can always get it in the county. The freehold being in the county, you can claim to vote in any part of that division of the county. If the property be situated at one end, you can poll at the other. I have looked at this matter with some care, and, I will confess, with some suspicion; and I must say that I see no difficulty in the way of everybody qualifying, and obtaining good security for his money.


I have explained practically what is the object of this association; suppose I go a little more widely into the question. Leaving our immediate practical object to others who will follow me, and who will answer any questions that may be put to them, let us look at this matter generally. Now, here we are, standing in the ancient ways of our Constitution. Nobody can say that we are red republicans or revolutionists. Here we are, trying to bring back the people to the enjoyment of some of their ancient privileges. Why, we have dug into the depths of four centuries, at least, to find the origin of this 40s. freehold qualification. But now, as to the practicability of our plan, as a means of effecting great changes in the depository of political power in this country. That is the question. Can you by this means effect a great change in the depository of political power? Because I avow to you that I want, by constitutional and legal means, to place, as far as I can, political power in this country in the hands of the middle and industrious classes; in other words, the people. When I speak of the middle and industrious classes, I regard them, as I ever did, as inseparable in interest. You cannot separate them. I defy any person to draw the line where the one ends and the other begins. We are governed in this country—I have said this again and again, and I repeat it here to-night—we are governed, in tranquil and ordinary times, not by the will of the middle and industrious classes, but by classes and interests which are insignificant in numbers and in importance in comparison with the great mass of the people. Every session of Parliament, every six months that I spend in the House of Commons, convinces me more and more that we waste our time there—I mean the seventy or eighty men with whom I have been accustomed to vote in the House of Commons, and to whom your chairman has alluded in terms of so much kindness—I say, we waste our time in the House of Commons, if we do not, in the recess, come to the people, and tell them candidly that it depends upon them, and upon them alone, whether any essential amelioration or reform shall be effected in Parliament. I repeat, that in ordinary times we are governed by classes and interests, which are insignificant, in real importance, as regards the welfare of the country; and if we did not occasionally check them—if we did not, from time to time, by the upheaving of the mass of the people, turn them from their folly and their selfishness,—they would long ago have plunged this country in as great a state of confusion as has been witnessed in any country on the Continent. Take the class of men who are ordinarily returned by the agricultural counties of this country. What would they do, if you let them alone? Nay, what are they trying to do at this moment? Why, at the very time, when even the Austrian Government is proposing to abandon the principle of high restrictive tariffs; when the Government of Russia has in hand a reduction of duties; when America has participated in the spirit of the times; when Spain, which some wicked wag has called the 'beginning of Africa,' has imitated the example set by Sir R. Peel three years ago; these county Members and Members for agricultural districts are thinking of nothing but how they may restore protection. Surely such people must be the descendants of those inquisitors who put Galileo into prison! Galileo was imprisoned because he maintained that the physical world turned upon its axis, whereas these men insist that the moral world shall stand still; and, if left to themselves, they would soon reduce England to the state in which Austria is now. But is it a wholesome state of things, that nothing can be done in this country except by means of great congregations of the people forcing the so-called representatives of the people to something like justice and common sense in their legislation? Nothing of importance is ever done by Parliament until after a seven-years' stand-up fight between the people on the one side, and those who call themselves the people's representatives on the other. Now, I say that this is an absurd state of things, and that, by constitutional and moral means, we must try to alter it; and I believe that we have now before us a means by which such an alteration can be effected.


I am here speaking on a subject to which I have given much attention for many years. It is more than six years since it was attempted to secure the repeal of the Corn-laws by means of the 40s. franchise, as part of the tactics of the Anti-Corn-Law League. I should be sorry to claim to myself exclusively the merit of first suggesting it. I rather think that Mr. Charles Walker, of Rochdale, recommended it before I announced it publicly. But from the moment that the plan devised was put forth at a great meeting in Manchester, I never doubted of the ultimate repeal of the Corn-laws; although until then I could never conscientiously say that I saw a method by which we could legally and constitutionally secure their abolition. I will give you the result of our labours at that time in two or three counties. You know that the West Riding of Yorkshire is considered the great index of public opinion in this country. In that great division, at present containing 37,000 voters, Lord Morpeth was, as you are aware, defeated on the question of Free Trade, and two Protectionists were returned. I went into the West Riding with this 40s. freehold plan. I stated in every borough and district that we must have 5,000 qualifications made in two years. They were made. The silly people who opposed us raised the cry that the Anti-Corn-Law League had bought the qualifications. Such a cry was ridiculous. The truth was, that men qualified themselves, with a view of helping the League to obtain the repeal of the Corn-laws; and you are aware that, in consequence of this movement, Lord Morpeth walked over the course at the next election. We followed the same plan in South Lancashire, and with a similar result. Our friends walked over the course at the next election, although at the previous one we had not a chance. My friend, the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Locke King), joined us in carrying out our plan in his division; and its adoption was there also attended with success. I am not sure that it would not have been better in some respects if the Corn-laws had not been repealed so soon—though of course I should like to have had them suspended for three or four years; for in that case we should have carried half the counties of England. Now, when I came back from the Continent, after the repeal of the Cornlaws, I told my friends—(I have never disguised my feelings from that day to this)—as the result of constant reflection for several years, 'If you want to take another step, constitutionally and legally, you must do it through the 40s. freehold; by no other process will you succeed.'


Let us talk this matter over, as men of common sense. Ask yourselves how do you purpose to obtain reforms? Do you intend to try violence and fighting? No, no; you see the result of that everywhere that it has been tried. Violence does no good to those who resort to it. I do not mean to blame those in other countries, who have not the right of meeting in assemblies like this, if they do not pursue the same course that we do. I do not blame them, because, being without experience, and not being permitted to gain experience, they do not succeed, when they make a bold and sudden trial of constitutional forms. No; I leave those to blame them, who will blame us equally, for adopting constitutional means. The very same parties who are now so intolerant, with regard to the failure of Hungarians, and Italians, and Germans, were the constant assailants of my friends and myself, at the early stage of the League agitation. Every species of abuse, every sort of misrepresentation, every kind of suppression, was resorted to by them, until we became strong; and when we were both strong and fashionable, we were beslavered with their praise; and I confess I liked it less than their abuse. No; we do not come here to censure other countries. England is under no necessity for resorting to force or violence. Our ancestors did all that for us, and they were obliged to do it. During the greater part of the seventeenth century, England presented a scene of commotion almost as great as that which has been witnessed in Hungary, Germany, and Italy; and to the great sacrifices then made, we owe almost all the liberties we possess at present. But to go back to the kind of warfare pursued in the seventeenth century, would be to descend from the high position, which, at the expense of so many sufferings, our ancestors obtained for us.


But as everybody admits that we must not go into the streets to fight, let me ask my friends what other step they intend to take? Petition Parliament! Petition Parliament to reform itself! Why, no; the clubs would not like that; it would not suit their cards. Nobody thinks of getting a reform of Parliament by petitioning. Well, then, how are you to get it? I find that every person is brought to the same dead lock, as regards substantial reform or real retrenchment, that I was in when, in 1843, I sat down to think of the freehold movement. You must aim at the accomplishment of your object, through the plan which the Constitution has left open to you. Men of common sense, when they have a certain thing to do, look round for instruments for effecting their purpose. In other countries, men who resort to physical force, always adopt that plan. They adapt their tactics to the physical features of the country. If the people of Switzerland have to fight for their liberties, they retire to the mountains, and there defend them; in Hungary, the army of the people, retreating beyond barren heaths, puts two rivers between itself and the enemy; while the patriots of Holland in former days cut their dykes and let in the water to drown their enemies. These are the means adopted by parties who have to use physical force. What are we to do, who have to fight with moral force? Why, here is a door open, which is so expansive that it will admit all who have the means of qualifying themselves through 40s. freeholds. These are our tactics—these are our mountains—these our sandy plains—these our dykes. We must fight the enemy by means of the 40s. freehold.


Now, what chance have we of succeeding? I have paid a great deal of attention to this subject, and I shall proceed to trouble you with a very few figures, from which you will be astonished to find how little you have to do. We have as near as possible at this moment a million of registered electors for the whole kingdom. According to a valuable return made on the motion of Mr. Williams, the late Member for Coventry, the total number of county votes on the register in 1847 was 512,300. What proportion of them do you suppose are the votes of occupying tenants? 108,790. All that boasted array of force, which constitutes the basis of landlord power in this country, and about which we have frightened ourselves so much, amounts only to 108,790 tenants-at-will in the fifty-two counties of England and Wales. Why, half the money spent in gin in one year would buy as many county freeholds as would counterpoise these 108,790 tenant-farmers. What resources have we to aid us in the process of qualifying for these counties? I shall surprise you again, when I inform you how very few people there are who are qualified for the counties. I will take, for illustration, three or four of the counties at random. There is Hampshire: there are in Hampshire, according to the last census, 93,908 males above twenty years old. The registered electors in the same county amount to 9,223; so that only one-tenth of the adult males are upon the register, and 84,685 are not upon it. In Sussex, there are of males above twenty years old, 76,676; of registered electors only 9,211, or one-eighth of the entire number of adult males: 67,466 adult males are not voters. Take the purely agricultural county of Berkshire, which has 43,126 males above twenty years old; 5,241, or one-eighth, was the number of registered electors; 37,885 are not voters for the county. In Middlesex, the numbers I find are as follows:—males above twenty years old, 434,181; registered electors, 13,781, or one-seventeenth; 420,400 not being voters. In Surrey, the males amount to 154,633; of these, 9,800, or one-sixteenth, is the proportion of registered electors; and thus 144,833 are not voters. Why, if only one in ten of the men who are not qualified to vote in London and Southwark, would purchase votes in the neighbouring counties, it would almost suffice to carry every good measure that you and I desire. In round numbers, there are sixteen millions of people in England and Wales; there are four millions of adult males above twenty years of age. There are 512,000 county electors in the fifty-two counties of England and Wales; so that at this moment there is but one in eight of the adult males of England and Wales who is upon the county register, and seven-eights of them have no votes. That is our ground of hope for the future We must induce as many as we possibly can of these unenfranchised people to join this association, or some other association; or by some means endeavour to possess themselves of a vote.


I do not disguise it from you, there is a class in this country that has not the means of finding money to purchase a vote. The great bulk of the agricultural peasantry, earning 8s., 9s., 10s. a week—it is impossible that you can expect that any considerable portion of that class can possess a vote; but when I speak of the mechanics and artisans of our great towns, I will say, there is not one of them that, if he resolutely set to the work, may not possess the county franchise, in a few years; and, having the county franchise, who will not be in a position to help his poorer and humbler neighbour.


I am perfectly well aware that this is work that cannot be done in a day; and, if it could be done in a day, it would not be worth doing. I have no faith in anything that is done suddenly. My opinion is, that no very great change in the policy or the representation of this country will be effected in less than seven years. Many great struggles have lasted seven years. The great war of independence in America took seven years; the civil war, in which our ancestors were engaged against prerogative, in the reign of Charles I., lasted seven years; the Anti-Corn-law contest lasted seven years. I think we might assert of these great public questions, that the danger is, that when you have effected your object suddenly, you do not know how to value it, and have not the conviction that it is valuable and worth preserving. That is the great advantage of having to struggle some time for a great object; and I tell you candidly, when I enter on this 40s. movement, it is with the idea, that it will be a long and arduous struggle. I am prepared, if health and strength are given to me, to give some portion of every working day for the next seven years to the advancement of this question. I do not propose this in exclusion of other reforms; I do not propose this as an obstacle to any other plan which other persons may have in view. If anybody thinks he can carry reform in Parliament by any other plan than this, I hope he will show us how he would do it; I do not see any other way. Let no one who has any other popular object or great reform to carry in this country—if he does not co-operate with us, let him not look disparagingly at our efforts; for I tell him, that in proportion as this 40s. freehold qualification movement makes progress, just in that proportion will he find that the votes of the House of Commons on all liberal questions will also make progress. And when I say that it may be necessary to work for seven years to accomplish this object—that is, to effect a great change in the depository of public power in this country (for this is the object, and I avow it), although it may be necessary, that for these seven years there should be continuous work in this matter, it does not follow you will not reap the fruits long before the seven years are expired. They are wise people in their generation whom we wish to influence. They gave up the Corn-laws, for they saw the question was settled when we carried South Lancashire, the West Riding, East Surrey, and Middlesex. I always said, if we can carry these counties, they will give up the Corn-laws.


In proportion as you exert yourselves for this great movement, you will become powerful. Every class of men that sets itself vigorously to work, by means of the 40s. qualification, to place as many as possible of that class on the register, will find itself elevated, politically and socially, by the position it has given itself. Take the mechanical class. Nothing could so elevate them in the eyes of their countrymen as to know they had a voice in the representation of the country—that the knights of the shire were partly indebted to them for their election. Take the class of Dissenters. Their very existence is ignored by the County Members; the most moderate measure of justice they ask is the removal of church-rates. I do not believe that there are ten County Members who would vote for that moderate instalment of justice—[from the meeting, 'Not five!']—perhaps not five; but I have heard the most insulting language from County Members towards Dissenters on that very question. Why is it? Because this numerous and really influential body of men have not had self-respect enough to guard themselves, by the possession of the franchise, so as to be in a position to protect their religious liberties, by the exercise of the dearest privileges of free men. Throughout the country you will find great bodies of Dissenters, who are religious men, moral men, and, which always is the consequence of morality, men who keep themselves from those excesses which produce poverty and degradation; and these are the very men who ought to possess the franchise. We tell them to place themselves on the county list. We do not wish to give them complete dominion and power in the country. I say to no class, come and gain exclusive power or influence in the country; I am against class legislation, whether from below or above; but I say, if you wish to have your interests consulted—your legitimate rights respected; if you wish no longer to have your very existence ignored in the counties; then come forward, and join such a movement as this, and by every possible means promote the extension of the 40s. freehold qualification.


In conclusion, let nobody misunderstand me. I do not come here to seek this or that organic change, without having practical objects in view, which I believe to be essential for the interests of this country. I believe our national finances to be in a perilous state. I say that the extravagant expenditure of the Government is utterly inconsistent with the prudent, cautious, economical habits, which the great body of this people are obliged to follow. I want to infuse the common sense which pervades the bulk of the people into the principles of the Government, and I declare I see no other way of doing it, but by increasing the number of voters, and no other way of doing so, independent of the House of Commons, but by joining yourselves to this movement, and possessing the 40s. freehold.

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