Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
[Mr. Cobden was elected to Parliament for the borough of Rochdale at the General Election, in April, 1859. He was at that time absent in America. On June 17, the Derby Ministry resigned, and Lord Palmerston succeeded to Office. He offered the Presidency of the Board of Trade to Mr. Cobden, who, however, declined a place in the Administration. The following Speech was delivered to the electors of Rochdale on Mr. Cobden's return.]
I am rather out of practice, for I think it is now two years and a half since I addressed a public meeting out of Parliament, and I am afraid that, with the disadvantage of being under canvas, I may fail to make myself heard by every one of you who are here present, unless you indulge me with silence during the short time I shall occupy your attention. And first, gentlemen, let me tender to you my too-long deferred personal homage for the kindness you showed me, when I was four thousand miles distant from you, in having returned me for your constituency, which I make no secret of telling you is an honour I coveted beyond that of representing any other constituency. For having returned me voluntarily, I may say almost without solicitation, I return you, one and all, my hearty thanks for the honour and kindness you have shown me. I thank those gentlemen here present who took the leading part in my Committee; I thank those gentlemen at a distance, some of whose letters caught my eye, who tendered substantial support in my cause; and I will venture—if I am not travelling beyond the bounds of strict party discipline—also to express my acknowledgments to our opponents, who on this occasion sheathed their sword, and granted me an armistice, and which I hope—at all events it will not be my fault if it should not be so—may ripen into a permanent peace. And now, when I read and hear of the transactions at the last general election, I think my acknowledgments are still more due to you for having thought of me during my long and remote absence; for, if I gathered correctly the tenor of the last general election, it was this, that there was a more than usual avidity to obtain seats in Parliament; there were more contests than usual to achieve that honour; and, unless I am greatly misinformed, some of the aspirants for that honour did not confine themselves within the strict rules of propriety or decorum.
Now, I do not think it out of place here, at our first meeting, to say a word or two upon that subject, whilst it is fresh upon our memories. We have had presented to Parliament upwards of forty petitions praying for inquiry into the proceedings at so many different elections. But I am informed, that if all those had petitioned who had proofs that corrupt practices had been resorted to, the number of election petitions would have been double what they are. Now, I am going to say something which I am afraid, in these days, when we are very fond of soft phrases, will be considered to be uncharitable, and yet, Heaven forgive me if I am not telling the truth when I say that I do not believe that Parliament is in earnest in its attempts to reform this system, or it would have accomplished the intention long ago. For what do these election petitions mean, after all? Let us say a word or two about them while one is fresh from the scene of their operations.
What is the meaning of an election petition? Why, in the first place, when the petitioner has been unduly deprived of his seat by the improper and corrupt proceedings of his opponent, he has to appeal to a tribunal for justice,—to a tribunal which is the most inaccessible and the most costly in the civilised world. For I will venture to say, that a man who presents an election petition to the House of Commons, goes before a tribunal the expense of which makes the equity which is administered at the Court of Chancery dirt cheap indeed. In fact, the principal obstacle to a petition at all is that the party paying for redress of this grievance-I mean the grievance of having been deprived of a fair chance of being elected by the free and unbought suffrages of his fellow-countrymen—that the petition is so costly that no man can tell him beforehand how much it may cost. The election petition may cost a man 500l., or it may cost him 5,000l.; and no Parliamentary lawyer who had one shred of conscience would ever venture to say that he could guarantee him against the larger amount. The consequence is, that very few men have the courage to present a petition, and to undergo the risk and expense of following it out before a Committee of the House of Commons. But supposing he does so—and this is my great grievance and charge against the proceedings of the House of Commons—what does it end in? He proves corrupt proceedings on the part of his opponent, he proves corruption on the part of the constituency, and the result may be that his opponent is declared unseated. But that does not give him the seat; it merely says that there shall be another election in the same borough, that he may go again, and, if he likes, incur the same expense with the same prospect of an election petition, and that those very men who have been shown to have sold their votes before, may have the privilege of selling them again; another election in such a case being nothing more nor less than a fresh harvest to those corrupt voters who make merchandise of their privileges as free citizens. Such being the case, what wonder is it that not one-half of those who lose their elections venture to petition for a redress of grievances? A friend of mine lost his contest for a very large borough in one of the Eastern counties, and he told me that he had a clear case against his opponent for bribery, but he did not intend to petition, and for this reason—he petitioned once before, and his expenses cost him 500l. a day, and if he went into a Committee again, he had no guarantee that it would not cost him as much, and therefore he abstained from prosecuting his petition at all.
Well, now, this is the state of things; and I may be asked, What is the remedy for it? Well, I repeat, if the House of Commons was in earnest to put down this system, a remedy would be found. In the first place, make this inquiry cheaper and more accessible. If you cannot have a tribunal on the spot to inquire into these proceedings, at all events spare the aggrieved party this enormous expenditure; and where he has a case, and where he is proved to have had a case—I would not say where you have frivolous and vexatious petitions, but where there is a good case for a petitioner—let the expenses be borne by somebody else than by him. If the country has an interest in putting down this system, if the very foundations of our representative system depend upon purity at their source, why then, who so interested as the great body of the community in not allowing those forty or fifty boroughs, that are now going scot free, to go unpunished? But who are the parties that should so properly pay the expense as those communities themselves where those transactions are permitted, or by the whole country at large, if it should be thought more expedient? Well, I say, let the inquiry be carried on in such a way that it shall not be the punishment and probably the ruin of the petitioner. But beyond that, let there be some punishment inflicted upon those who are detected as the guilty parties in these transactions.
Now, I will venture to say that if, when a case of bribery is clearly detected, the House of Commons would order in every such case that the parties detected in the act of bribery should be prosecuted criminally by the Attorney-General—I venture to say that that would very soon put down bribery and corruption, more than anything else that the House of Commons could resort to. Formerly, you know, the system of corruption and undue influence in our constituencies was confined very much to a privileged class in this country. One noble family contested a county against another noble family, and they spent a hundred thousand pounds apiece, and all the world knew it; it was agreed that they should all resort to the same habit of expenditure, and it was considered, in fact, the legitimate exercise of their wealth and their power. In the same way, if a contest took place in a borough, it was some leading landed proprietor or some influential family of the neighbourhood who contested with another individual having the same pretensions as himself, and they fought the battle of some borough during fourteen or twenty days of saturnalia, extravagance, and corruption; and there again it was considered so much a matter of course in this country, seeing that the system was patronised by the titled and the great, that those things were passed over with very little notice. But now, gentlemen, we have another class of aspirants for Parliament altogether. During the last general election, I have seen a new element in our system of electoral corruption. We have had a number of gentlemen come over from Australia, where, I suppose, they have been successful at the diggings; they have brought over great nuggets, and they administer them in the shape of 50l. notes. They have gone to some of our boroughs and there fought their battles and bribed just as their betters did fifty years ago. Now, I have great hopes, when this system is resorted to in that unblushing way by parties who have none of the prestige of our ancient nobility about them, that very likely it will be treated differently by public opinion and by Parliament, and that some plan may be resorted to to put it down.
I remember when duelling in this country was so regular a mode of meeting a certain description of insult, that if a man holding a certain position in society received an affront at the hands of his equal, he was obliged to meet him in deadly combat, as a consequence, or he would have been banished from the social life of his equals. Well, I remember that some linendrapers' assistants took it into their heads to go down one Sunday morning (I think it was to Wormwood Scrubs, or somewhere where the nobility used to carry on that pastime), and they began fighting duels; and that as soon as the linendrapers' assistants took to duelling, it became very infamous in the eyes of the upper classes. The consequence was that some of these young gentlemen were sent to Newgate; and now nothing would be so ridiculous as any nobleman or gentleman thinking of resenting an insult by going out and fighting a duel about it. Now, I am very much in hopes that since this system of bribery and corruption has fallen into hands such as I have described,—that is, since gentlemen coming home from the Australian diggings, or from their broad acres and pastures and their flocks and herds of those regions, have begun to rush into the market of electoral corruption here, and offer to buy their seats by the expenditure of 4,000l. or 5,000l. for a little dirty borough in the west of England—I have very strong hopes that the system won't be as fashionable as it has been, and that very likely we may succeed in having those parties prosecuted criminally. I say criminally—let them be indicted criminally, and let the consequence of their conviction be a few months at Newgate, or in the House of Correction; and if they are ex-M. P.'s, and they wear the prison dress and have their heads shaved, there cannot be the least doubt in the world it would do very much to put an end to this bribery and corruption.
And now, gentlemen, this is a much wider question than that. I do not mean to say that it is the only way in which our electoral system is to be reformed. I shall have something more to say of that to-morrow evening, when, I believe, I am to meet the whole body of my constituents, who will attend here with free access, and to whom a greater development of that system would properly belong; but this I may say, that I look upon all the present attempts and pretended measures for putting an end to this system of corruption as insincere on the part of the House of Commons. There is a rule resorted to when bribery has been proved, in certain cases, of ordering commissioners to proceed to a town and inquire into these proceedings. Now, I will tell you what that amounts to. Your Select Committees that sit in the House of Commons produce a pile of blue-books after every general election. About five years ago I took the trouble to measure and weigh this pile of blue-books and it was just four feet high, and it weighed rather over a hundred-weight, and I will undertake to say that these blue-books, recording the misdeeds of all the delinquent boroughs, were never read by half-a-dozen people in one of them. I will tell you another device of the House of Commons. They pretend to send out commissioners to inquire into these proceedings at particular boroughs, where they have reason to suppose the corruption is more than usually vile. What does that amount to? Why, two or three young barristers are sent down to a city like Gloucester, and there they pass a few months in summer-time very pleasantly, hearing stories from Jack, Tom, and Harry. They prepare a large blue-book, much larger than the blue-book that comes from the House of Commons, and then in six or twelve months that is presented to Parliament. The report is more voluminous than the one we had before, and if six men read the report from the House of Commons, when there were some people still feeling an interest in it, why, not three people would ever open the big blue-book that comes out when other things occupy the people's attention. The consequence is, you are put to an enormous expense for these commissions, and no result comes from them, and no result is intended to come from them.
Now, I myself voted the other day in Parliament against the issue of a commission in the case of Gloucester, and nobody will suppose that I so voted because I wished to screen that city from inquiry; but I knew the futility, the utter valuelessness of the inquiry, and, therefore, would not lend myself to what I knew would be the perpetuation of a delusion. I say that any man, who will resort only to the existing means of putting down corruption, must have a larger credulity than I possess. I have no faith in any existing means, and I will not lend myself to the delusion that is willing to practise them any longer.
What you want, besides such plans as I have spoken of, is honesty enough in your Parliament to at least try the experiment of the ballot. I do not speak of the ballot as a cure for all these evils; I do not speak of the ballot as a political measure, mixed up with other questions of organic change; I speak now only of the ballot as a means of preventing, to a large extent, the exercise of this gross corruption, and as a moral instrument to check the growth of that rottenness which is sapping the foundations of our electoral system. You have all observed, I dare say, in the accounts that have been published of the recent Election Committees, that when there has been the existence of bribery, particularly in the smaller boroughs, the price of votes has risen just in proportion as the day has advanced; that whilst the polling has been going on, a vote has been worth probably 5l. at ten o'clock, 10l. at twelve o'clock, 20l. at two o'clock, 50l. at three o'clock, 100l. at half-past three o'clock, and in some cases 250l. five minutes before the clock strikes. Again, you have seen, that whenever you have had ruffianism and rowdyism, if I may use an American phrase—whenever you have had the party whom we call the roughs at an election called into requisition—it has been to hustle and jostle the electors just at the critical time of the poll, when probably the scale might be turned by the forced absence of one or two electors. Why, we have seen a trial the other day of a gallant admiral who tried to record his vote in a borough in the west of England, and who was seized by the roughs, not knowing that he was a valiant servant of the Crown, wearing Her Majesty's livery, and who was carried off and prevented from voting at the poll.
Well, now, let us, whilst these pictures are fresh in our observation, see their bearings upon the question of the ballot. If you voted by the ballot, the state of the poll would never be known until the voting was over, and you would have none of this tumult and excitement. The great merit and the great recommendation of the ballot is this—that it would promote order, decorum, and morality in taking the poll. I am by no means certain—and I tell it in all frankness—that the ballot would have a very decisive effect in forwarding any one of the particular parties interested in the poll. I am not prepared to say that my views with regard to public questions would be likely to be more represented in the ballot-box than they are now by open voting. I think it very likely that the political party that most dreads the ballot would sometimes the most profit by it. But this I say, that nobody who has inquired as to the proceedings in elections in America, in Switzerland, in France, in Spain, or anywhere, and compared them with the proceedings, the tumults, the violence, the bloodshed, the disgusting and odious corruption witnessed at our elections—that nobody can doubt that as a moral engine, as a means of repressing these excesses, the ballot is the best resource, the best expedient that can be resorted to.
I will mention one illustrative fact which I acquired in America upon this subject. Now, understand, I am not going to quote America as a country where you should go for imitation in everything regarding their political institutions; theirs are as unfitted for us in many respects, as ours would be unfitted for them. But this I may say, in passing, that the white men of the United States have a theory of government, and they have laid down a theory of government in their Constitution, which, if the human instrument be equal to the political machine, means to deal justly and fairly by every man in their community. But now I confine myself to one fact that was given to me during my travels in America. I was speaking to a gentleman—whose letter I might read, for it is but a few words—whose name, Mr. Randall, is known to some of our statesmen here, for I remember he gave evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons, upon which I sat, to inquire into the mode of proceeding of our Houses of Parliament, in order to furnish information as to the results of proceedings in the Congress of the United States; he is a man standing high, both socially and politically—who mentioned this fact in conversation with me, and wishing that I should have the full benefit of it under his own signature, wrote me a letter after I had left Philadelphia, where this gentleman lives, which letter I will take care to have published. The letter was addressed to me at Washington, and it contains these lines:—'I have been for fifty years connected with political and party movements in Philadelphia, and I never knew a vote bought or sold.' Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in America, and contains one of the largest populations of mechanics and working-men; for Philadelphia has changed its character from being, as it formerly was, a leading seaport, and it has become almost entirely a manufacturing city, containing now 600,000 or 700,000 inhabitants. Now, this gentleman would not have told me, I am sure, that elections in America were pure in every respect, that there are not a great deal of manœuvring and party management, that there are not very often the same liabilities as here to personation, to double votes and the like; and he would not have told me that, without exception, all their elections were carried on peaceably and tranquilly; but he mentioned the fact that the ballot presented such an obstacle to bribery, that nobody cared to buy a vote, and pay for it, when they did not know that they got value received.
Well, I will say no more with regard to my experience in America at present; for to confess the honest truth, I was so kindly treated there, and I felt that I was treated so kindly from my connection with a great question of cosmopolitan interest—and I felt, in all humility, that I was so treated as the representative of those who had the same claim as myself to receive the kind civilities of that people, and who, if they had presented themselves there, would have been received with the same hospitalities as myself—I confess, I was so kindly treated in America, that I feel I am not an impartial witness in the case, and that I ought to say as little as I possibly can about them.
It is important that we should see that the source of our electoral system is pure, inasmuch as it is quite evident that, for weal or for woe, public opinion in this country, as manifested at the polling-booth, must become more and more powerful in the government of this country. And not merely in our own domestic government, but—and it is a question, too, which at the present moment we may well refer to—public opinion in this country is becoming more and more potent in matters of foreign as well as domestic policy. We have seen lately, and I have seen it with very great satisfaction—it was during my absence that it occurred—that the public voice of this country was raised in opposition to any interference by force of arms in the dreadful war which has raged on the Continent since I left England. I was glad to see that outburst of public opinion in this country in favour of non-intervention; and I congratulate you all, and I congratulate this country, that we have for the first time, almost, in our modern history, seen great armies march and great battles take place on the Continent without England having taken any part in the strife.
And now, shall we take stock just at the present moment—to use a homely but expressive phrase—shall we take stock, and ask ourselves whether all the old musty predictions and traditions of our diplomacy have been proved to be true on this occasion? They told us that if we did not mingle in European wars we should lose our prestige with the world; that we should become isolated; that we should lose our power. Well, now, I ask you, whilst the thing is fresh upon our memory and observation, have we lost prestige or power by having abstained from the late war in Italy? On the contrary, do we not know that now the great Powers on the Continent, feeling that England is powerful,—more powerful than ever, in her neutrality,—are anxious, are clamorous, are most solicitous, that we should go and take a part in the peaceful conferences that are to take place with a view of securing peace?
Well, gentlemen, we have prevented intervention by force of arms. I say, let public opinion manifest itself, as I believe it has manifested itself, against any intervention by diplomacy, unless it can be upon principles and with objects of which England may be proud to approve; but do not let us have any more Congresses of Vienna, where we are parties to treaties that partition off Europe, and apportion the people to different rulers, just with the same indifference to their wishes and their instincts as though they were mere flocks of sheep. Now, I think Lord John Russell in the House of Commons laid down certain conditions, upon which alone the Government would be disposed to go into a Continental Congress, in order, if possible, to arrange and perpetuate the terms of peace; and he made conditions which I thought were good, though I think they are not very likely to be acted upon or accepted by the great Powers of the Continent. But what I wish now to express, and I am sure I cannot utter any words that will be more likely to express your sentiments; they are these—that if England takes any part in the Congress that is to be held by the great Powers on the Continent, our object, and the sole condition on which they should go into that Congress, should be,—that the Italians should be left free to manage their own affairs; that they should be as secure from intervention—that they should enjoy the privilege of non-intervention in the management of their own affairs, just as entirely and as sacredly as the great Powers themselves. I know what is the excuse that is made by those great Powers for interfering in the affairs of Italy and the smaller States; they do it under the pretence of preserving order,—the hypocritical pretence, I have no hesitation in calling it. Do the great Powers preserve order themselves? Have we had perfect order reigning in the Austrian empire or in the French empire for the last twenty years? Do they preserve the earth from bloodshed? Have not those two great Powers, Austria and France, during the last six months, shed more blood in their mad quarrels than has been shed by all the smaller states of Europe for the last fifty years? And shall these great Powers, for the purpose of interfering, and sending their armed bands to coerce the free instincts of the people of Italy, be allowed to set up the pretence that they want to preserve order and prevent bloodshed? I will face the chance of disorder. I say that if the Italians cannot settle their own affairs without falling into discord, why should not they be allowed even to carry on civil and domestic tumult, or even war itself, without any other Power pretending to take the advantage and entering their territory? How did we act in the case of France, when she fell into her almost red republic ten years ago? Was not our Government most eager at once to proclaim that, whatever happened in France, we would never interfere with her internal affairs, but would leave her free to choose any government she pleased?
Well, I say, that which you allow to the great Powers, allow to the smaller Powers; and I say this, not merely in the interest of those Powers themselves, but of humanity, for I say there can be no peace in Europe, there can be no chance of peace, and no prospect of any abatement of those vast military efforts that prevent the people from enjoying the fruits of their industry, until you have the principle of non-intervention recognised as applicable to every small State as sacredly as to a large one. I say, therefore, and I do not say wrongly when I express my conviction that I rightly interpret your views on the subject—I say that one condition, and almost the sole condition, on which our Government should be prepared to take any part in any Continental Congress with reference to the affairs of Italy, should be by laying down and insisting upon the fundamental maxim that Italy should manage her own affairs, without the interference, by force of arms, of Austria, or Russia, or any other Power whatever.
I confess that I do speak with some strong sympathies on this question. I have had the opportunity of mingling much with the Italians. I have travelled in all parts of their country. I have watched, with the greatest interest, the proceedings of their late elections. I have seen, with admiration, the orderly moderation in which they have carried on the elections, though plunged suddenly, as it were, into the furnace of revolution, and with all their old landmarks and all their old politics disappearing. And I have been very much struck with this fact, and I mention it not merely for this meeting, but because our proceedings will be heard and read elsewhere: I say that I have observed that both in Tuscany and in the Legations of the Pope, as well as in other parts of Italy with which I am acquainted, the people have elected not only the very ablest men, but they have elected the men who, by their wealth and their position, represent the wealth and property of the country. There are men elected—I have seen their names in the papers—as their representatives, who are as fairly entitled to be taken as representing the great wealth and influence of the country as Lord Derby would be, or Lord John Russell, or Lord Lansdowne, or any of our great names of historic family fame in this country.
Well, the Italians having done this, having shown themselves capable of maintaining order amongst themselves, are entitled, at least, to the forbearance of those countries which surround them. But we all know that if the more powerful nations choose to send secret emissaries, and spend money in corrupting or debasing the least instructed part of the community, it will be very easy to produce disorders in those countries; or it will be very easy to make it difficult for those eminent men who have been elected as the representatives of the people, to carry on a Government with moderation or success. But, I say, if they should fall into disorder by such means, or because they have not within themselves for the moment the elements of self-government (and, God knows, it must be difficult to find them, with so little experience as they have had in such matters), that is no reason—it is a hypocritical pretence, it is no reason—why the stronger Powers of the Continent should go and interfere in their concerns.
What would have become of this great nation, if, when we were in the cauldron of revolution,—if, during the hundred years that elapsed from 1645 or 1650 down to 1745, when the last battle was fought in favour of the Stuart dynasty,—what would have been the effect on this great nation, if, instead of allowing us free opportunity to fight out our own redemption, to turn away first one king and then another, and to overturn one Ministry after another,—what would have become of us as a nation, if some great Power from the Continent, immediately that we fell into civil war or commotion, had planted a large permanent army on our shores, and had insisted on taking the power out of the hands of the people—the power to remove their grievances—the power to rescue themselves from disorder? What would have been the fate of this country? Could it have grown up with that stamina, and power, and force, and wisdom, and experience that we have enjoyed? Why, what we went through during that century was a process of fermentation, which, in the moral as in the physical world, is necessary to throw off impurities and attain objects which it is desirable to secure. What gives strength to nations or individuals but battling with difficulties? Where would have been our maxims of self-government if that century of commotion of which I spoke had been blotted out from our annals,—if, instead of those contests to which I have alluded we had had a French army, or a Spanish army, or the two united, placed in the city of London to control our operations, to dictate to both parties? They might have preserved peace, but where would have been our liberties.
Now, I contend, and Heaven knows I shall not be charged with being one who looks with anything like sympathy, or anything like toleration, on violence or bloodshed as a process of attaining any human good in this country; but I stand here to maintain the right of every people, however weak, on the Continent, having the same opportunity of going through the same process which we went through; and (if it cannot be had by any other means) attaining to the maxims of self-government which we have attained to, by that dreary and melancholy, but, in such a case, probably inevitable process of civil commotion and strife.
Now, gentlemen, I have said that I am in favour of non-intervention in the affairs of Italy; but it may be said, Where would Italy have been at this present moment if there had not been the intervention of the Emperor Napoleon? Well, I am not going to be so unreasonable, as, I fear, some of us have been, as first to have a quarrel with the Emperor Napoleon for having gone to Italy, and then having a quarrel with him for coming away from Italy. He has removed the Austrians from Lombardy; he has left them in Venetia; and I quite agree with Mr. Gladstone, that he has done as much good for Austria in removing her from that perilous position as he has done for Italy in getting rid of her hated masters; and I will add one word more, and say, that I do not think Austria could do a wiser thing than make an arrangement with the population of Venice and those provinces that are called Venetia, for abdicating her sovereignty altogether, and, for a consideration, such as that a fair proportion of her national debt should be borne by those provinces—and they are rich enough to bear a very considerable pecuniary fine for the blessing of independence—I say, that Austria could not do a wiser thing than to emancipate the rest of Italy, and remove herself into territory where she will be tolerated and probably loved, which she never will be so long as she remains in Italy. I have said, if she were wise; but Governments never are wise: they are never wise in time, and the least wise of all the Governments of Europe is the Government of Austria. It seems to me that this Austrian Government is living in so happy a state of blessed ignorance, that she has no more notion of what public opinion is thinking of her Government, than if she were in the middle ages. She might have avoided all this bloodshed and all her present disasters—she might have left Lombardy, and she might have received, no doubt, a very much larger payment for the independence of Lombardy—nay, she might have avoided this collision with France—if she had only undertaken to have abstained from interfering with the States of Italy, other than those which have belonged to her by the Treaty of Vienna. But she loves no terms—she listened to none—and was mad enough to commence the encounter by crossing into her neighbour's territory; and I say that from such a stupid Government as that,—for it is the stupidest Government in all creation,—it is useless to expect any wisdom; and, therefore, I do not think it is worth our while to say anything upon the subject of what she ought to do with the remainder of her territory in Italy. I said I did not blame Louis Napoleon for going to Italy, and I did not presume to judge his motives for going there; it was no business of mine. I did not blame him for coming from Italy, because, as he did not go there to do my business or my bidding, I do not think I had any reason for calling in question his motives for coming back. But I must say that we Englishmen have quite a due notion of our own importance and power of undertaking to judge people for what they do and what they do not do, and without any reference exactly to our rights or pretensions in the matter.
Now, we have an interest, apart from the question of Italy, in these questions of foreign policy. I may say that out Budget is framed with reference to our foreign policy, not to our domestic policy. It is not what we want to spend at home that oppresses the people, and troubles them with taxes: it is what we want to spend with reference to proceedings abroad; and it is on these accounts that I talk to you of foreign policy now, because I see no progress (and I will say a word about it directly)—I see no chance of progress in these fiscal reforms to which the resolution which has been read to-night refers, unless we can bring our relations with foreign countries into a different position to that in which they are. I do not come here to advocate, and I never have advocated, a principle of defencelessness—of total disarmament; that we should trust any man on the face of the earth, and not be prepared to defend ourselves, like rational beings, against all probable contingencies. But what I do stand up for is this—that which I heard the late Sir R. Peel declare in connection with the question of our finances, that for England to pretend to take precautions so that every mile of her coasts, and every mile of the coasts of her colonies, shall be safe from aggression, that is a hopeless and a ruinous policy; and he used these words: 'We must be prepared to take some risks; and the wisest statesman is he who will face some risks rather than undertake these ruinous precautions.'
Now, that is my principle and my policy with regard to our foreign policy. Gentlemen, what would you say if I were to tell you,—and I do it as the result of a little calculation,—that if you take the amount of money which we annually spend in this country as a means of defence and precaution against possible warlike aggression from France, as I will take it, at the very lowest possible amount—six millions sterling,—and I believe it is nearer twelve millions,—if you assume that we spend six millions sterling per annum as a means of protecting ourselves against the possible aggression of France, beyond the ordinary amount which we should sustain with reference to the preparations for war with the rest of the world,—and if I were to tell you that that sum of money represents far more than the whole of our trade with France,—that, as a consequence, as a politico-economical maxim, I can say that it would be for the benefit of England if France did not exist; and assuming that France's preparations against us are in the same way, and on the same scale, that England's are against her, then I say it would be equally an economical truth that it would be better for France if England were at the bottom of the sea.
Well, now, I ask you one question as a corollary to that. Is that man who calls himself a politician, and does he then aspire to the rank of a statesman—is he deserving of the name of Utopian, is he to be considered as living only on dream-land, and to be incapable of giving counsel to practical men like Englishmen—if he asks whether there is no possible remedy to such a state of things as that? Is it so hideously unnatural that 36,000,000 of people in France and 28,000,000 of people in England, separated by only twenty miles of sea, that they, in 1859, are so incapable through their Governments of placing themselves on any footing of real security and of trust towards each other, and so unable to believe the professions and protestations and engagements of each other, that they must keep themselves prepared in this deadly attitude for mutual attack and defence—I say, is it too Utopian to ask whether diplomacy and statesmanship cannot devise some scheme to spare the age in which we live such frightful scandal as this? I need not trouble you at length upon the whole question; you will say I am harping upon the old string; but I am bound to say that we ourselves have much to answer for under this unnatural and most unprofitable state of things. I know I shall be called to account by those organs of public opinion which claim the right to think for us, to speak for us, to predict for us, to guard us, and which expect that we shall allow them to do all that they say, and which, if we attempt to say a word for ourselves, immediately chide us as a very intolerant and very troublesome people; but I venture to say that a large part of the newspaper press of this country, and a good many of the politicians, themselves weak vessels who follow and are easily led by a popular cry, have had much to answer for this state of things in which we are now placed with regard to France; for I hesitate not to say, as an observer of this matter for the last ten or twenty years, and as a close observer of it, that the increase of the army of France, and their preparations in their dockyards, and their other naval and military preparations, so far as they relate to England, have been quite as much provoked by this country as our preparations have been provoked by theirs.
Now, probably in this matter we should be more inclined to take the opinion of a native of another country. I confess to you that most of the good feeling and all the high respect which I found in the United States was entertained towards this country—the high respect of the offspring towards their parents, and of offspring proud of their parents, and parents proud of their offspring, and I believe and feel that they have a very good cause for their pride,—arose from the fact that they were ever most ready and willing to admit that everything that is worth possessing in maxims of liberty and freedom they owe to that parent. Yet one thing which I saw in the papers of the United States always struck me with shame and humiliation, and that was the ridicule which they cast upon us for this constant cry in England about a French invasion. We were again and again the laughing-stock of the newspaper press of America. I will just read you an extract from the New York Times, a paper not unfriendly to England, and one which evidences great knowledge of European affairs; I will read one extract, and no more:—
'There was a time in English history when the "inviolate island" laughed all foreign threats to scorn, and met even the terrible peril of the great Armada of Spain with a front of haughty defiance. But that time seems to have passed by. The press and the orators of England have now no capital stock so rich in sure returns of interest and excitement, as the chronic terror of invasion which seems to have fixed itself in the British mind. On the slightest disturbance of the continental relations of the great Powers; on the least appearance of unusual activity in the dockyards of France; on the merest rumour of a new combination between one or more States of Europe, not commonly united in their policy, England at once sets up her outcry of distress. Her leading journals thunder alarm over the land; the parliamentary candidates make the hustings ring with the "dreadful notes of war;" her captains take down the sword of Wellington, and her poets-laureate take up the lyre of Tyrtæus. If England were consciously the weakest or the wickedest of Powers, her conduct in this respect would be perfectly reasonable. If she knew herself to have fairly earned the hatred of all the world, and felt herself unequal to resist the onslaught of avenging justice, one might attribute her propensity for panics to causes that would be rational, at least, if not respectable.'
Now, I repeat, that it is not pleasant for an Englishman travelling in a foreign country to read paragraphs such as that—and that is the mildest part of the whole article. There is scarcely a post that has not brought me some newspapers from some part of France, and particularly from a seaport, from Havre, and the centres of commerce in France, in which they do not speak with a pity and charity which you would show to a child of the outcry by the English newspapers about a French invasion: the Americans call this outcry the 'craze'—'the English craze.' Well, now, is it too much—I don't want our newspapers to abstain from expressing their opinion—I don't want to say one word then; I don't wish to curtail their privileges to criticise the world. They may say just what they please of Louis Napoleon or any other arbitrary sovereign on the face of the earth; and I tell these sovereigns, that if they cannot bear the criticism of the English newspapers amidst all their other triumphs, they must be difficult to please, and that, if they will only sift it, they will find a great deal more good than bad treatment in this world, and they ought to be content to bear it. I don't want to curtail the liberty of the press, so don't let them get up a screech against me, and say I want to put down the liberty of the press. But I ask these newspapers, in lending themselves to all this absurd scream about a French invasion, not to make me and the rest of my countrymen ridiculous in continuing this tone hereafter. Is that an unreasonable request to make of them? Well, if you will only strike—will only treat these outcries with the ridicule these panics deserve, we shall be able to put an end to them.
Now, what are the facts? When I came home, I looked into a blue-book that had been presented to Parliament. I found—I don't believe anybody else looked into it, because it did not just answer the cries of the moment, it was not the pabulum that these papers wanted for the moment—I found that there was a paper presented to Parliament which had been drawn up by the late Government, giving us an account of the condition of the French and English navies. I read the account in the House of Commons. It has never been contradicted. And recollect that this was the state of our navy and the French navy in 1848, before our present increase. I read these figures in the House of Commons, and they have never been controverted. They showed that for every vessel that France has increased in number in her navy during seven years—the time when all this extension of our navy was going on—that for every vessel she (France) has added to her fleet, we have added ten; and that whilst our writers and those public speakers who seem to pander to this panic, want to make money out of it in some direction or other, while they were giving you merely the statistics of the line-of-battle ships and the frigates that were building and in preparation, they ignored and kept out of view altogether the rest of our naval preparations, and which preparations, I venture to say, the scientific and nautical men of this day declare to be the most perfect preparations you could bring against aggression by a foreign foe; because you have in all one hundred and sixty steam-gunboats lying in the creeks and harbours of our coasts, which have been pronounced by the highest scientific nautical men in Europe and America to be in the event of an aggressive war against this country, the most desirable means for the defence of the country of any you could possess. And for this reason. In the present state of the improvement of our cannon; in the deadly nature of the missiles which can now be projected from our cannon; and in the enormous distances at which we can strike an object, either with solid shot or hollow shell—the most scientific nautical men say that, to put a thousand in a line-of-battle ship—I repeat the words I made use of in the House of Commons—with thirty or forty thousand tons of gunpowder in her hold, and to place her to be shot at with an Armstrong gun, which striking the vessel would blow it to atoms, is a piece of suicide, and has earned for such vessels the sobriquet of 'slaughter-houses.'
Now mark what I tell you. We had at the end of 1848, when this panic began, when the French accused us of making excessive preparations, two hundred more steam-vessels of all sizes than the French had; and I tell you that we had increased tenfold in the number of vessels, sailing and steam, as compared with the French increase, since 1852. Now, what has been the consequence of this panic outcry? You have added 4,000,000l. or 5,000,000l. yearly to the taxation and expenditure of the country. Bearing in mind the rule laid down before, I have no hesitation in saying that this has been a perfect waste, and that we were as safe before from any aggression as now, with all the additional expenditure. Well, but what would that money have done—that is the point which I want to refer to—if left in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It would have given him 5,000,000l. of revenue to deal with. Instead of voting that money by acclamation, as many do for these useless and senseless preparations, give him that 5,000,000l. of money to deal with in the modification of taxes, in the reduction of the customs duties—in relieving us from excise incumbrances and interferences,—give him that money and see what can be done with it,—see how he could remove the incumbrances and obstructions to commerce; see how he could reduce those high duties which check our intercourse with France itself. Give him that money to deal with by reducing the duty on French commodities, and this would be the most effective bond of peace between this country and France. Far more will be done by that means than will be accomplished by any preparations for war, for France is a country which we cannot terrify by preparations; though you may provoke them into antagonistic rivalry, you cannot coerce them into peace by mere shows of superiority of naval strength.
Let me remind you, that while we have heard from France—I don't pretend to know with what truth—a proposition for the reduction of her navy, our trusty advisers are telling us that we must not diminish for a moment our preparations. I will tell you in all soberness what the consequences will be. If you show yourself with ten or twelve line-of-battle ships sailing up and down the Mediterranean—the Mediterranean which belongs as much to France as to us—I say no French Government will dare to disarm or reduce its navy while you make such a display on the French coast. For bear in mind that France has a seacoast second only in extent to England, and her commerce is next in importance to our own. Would a proud nation like ourselves be content to see a vastly superior force at the entrance of her seaports? But it is said that France has no occasion to be afraid of England, that we have no intention of invading her; but if we consult history, we find that whenever there has been invasion between England and France, it has always been an invasion of France by England, and not an invasion of England by France. Bear in mind that the French children read in their schoolbooks of our carrying armies into France, and our taking their great seaports. When they read this, they form a different opinion of us to that which we entertain ourselves, and they don't believe us to be a nation of Quakers, whatever some of us may fancy.
Now, gentlemen, I am not sure that the experience of the last six months may not have had a tendency to incline the great Powers of the Continent to peaceful counsels, if this country should do its best to promote those views. I think the experience of the last six months must have shown the two great military Powers of the Continent that war is too serious a pastime in our day to be resorted to lightly and at very short intervals. It is a very serious thing, with our immense power of locomotion, with our tremendous preparations of the means of destruction, to bring 500,000 or 600,000 men in array against each other; for a few days will now do what would have taken months to do at the beginning of last century; we now bring these mighty hosts into instant collision with means of destruction such as the imaginations of our forefathers would never have conceived. Well, that has been found out, and I think something more has been found out—that public opinion in Europe is not in favour of these wars. I have never presumed, since I have spoken in public on the question of the ruler of France, to offer one word of censure or praise on that individual, and for this reason. The Emperor of the French was elected by the whole people of France, and I believe freely elected, inasmuch as he received more than two-thirds of the whole votes of the country for President when the ballot-boxes were in the hands of his rival, Cavaignac. When I take that as a proof that the feeling of the people was in favour of Louis Napoleon, I take it for granted that they voted for him as Emperor as freely as they voted for him as President.
Well, now, such being the case, what may have been the motives of 6,000,000 of people in the election of their chief, it is not my business, and I have no right, to inquire. I bow to their decision. Supposing they have acted from impulse; that may have been very right in them, though it might not be right in us. I have had the impression the last seven or eight years that the ruler of France has a perception of the altered times in which we live, and that his career was no to be the career of one who bore his name before; and this I will say, that if he or any other ruler on the Continent should so far mistake the spirit and requirements of the age as to dream of repeating the career of war, of annexation, and of conquest which Napoleon the First achieved, then he will find that public opinion, which was impotent sixty years ago, will be sufficiently powerful now to avenge itself against the man, whoever he may be, who may attempt to trouble the industry, commerce, and agriculture of the present world, and deprive the populations of Europe of their just expectations of reaping the benefits of those improvements and those inventions which characterise the present age. I say, if such a man should attempt to convert the inventions and discoveries of the commerce of our day into such purposes—if he should attempt to convert the steamboat, and telegraph, and railroad, merely to purposes of warlike accommodation—I say then that he will have the prayers and aspirations of nineteen-twentieths of the honest, industrious men of Europe in favour of his dethronement and downfall. And where nineteen-twentieths, where such a majority proclaims its voice now, its power, sooner or later, will make itself felt. And such an individual, in mistaking the character of the age in which he lives, will realise very soon in his own person the truth of that Divine precept, 'They who take the sword shall perish by the sword.'
As I am going to have the pleasure of saying a few words in this place tomorrow, I will not now trespass at further length; but I find I am expected here to offer an explanation with regard to an incident that occurred some little time ago. If it should be thought that, even at this distance of time, it is becoming in me to say a few words to you on the subject—(I should have thought it presumptuous to say anything on the subject to anyone else)—but if I understand from your chiefs on the platform that such is your wish, I, of course, must obey. Gentlemen, I need not tell you that on my arrival in England, on finding myself your representative, I received a communication from Lord Palmerston, and also another from Lord John Russell. In Lord Palmerston's letter, he was kind enough to urge many reasons, frankly expressed, why I should accept a seat in his Cabinet, as President of the Board of Trade. Now, I will not affect any modesty in this matter: I will say that if I was fit for any office in the Cabinet, I should be fit for the office of President of the Board of Trade. I think, probably, if other circumstances had not intervened, my being in that place would have been really putting a square peg in a square hole. But, gentlemen, my reasons, if you will have them, for declining to accept the honour which was offered to me were as follows. The honour, I beg to assure you, I did not consider a matter of indifference, it was probably peculiarly inviting to me, if I had been one of an ambitious character, because, taking it for all in all, it would have been the first instance of a man springing immediately from amongst you, literally a man of business,—being offered a seat in the Cabinet at all. I was not indifferent to the honour; none of the concomitants of office could have been a matter of indifference to me; but in that case I felt that it was a matter calling for my conscientious action; the more so in proportion to the inducements that were held out to take a particular course. Well, gentlemen, I went to London, and before calling on any one, or receiving any one, I thought it best to call upon Lord Palmerston, and to express to him exactly my views in the matter; and I may tell you just as frankly as I have told him what passed between us. I stated to my Lord Palmerston my case thus: I have been for ten or fifteen years the systematic assailant of what I believe to be your foreign policy. I thought it warlike,—not calculated to promote peace or harmony between this country and other countries. I explained to him exactly what my feelings had been, in those words; and I said to him, it is quite possible that I may have been mistaken in all this; when a man takes an idea and pursues it for ten or twelve years, it is very likely that he takes an exaggerated view of his first impressions; but I put it to Lord Palmerston, and now I put it to you, whether, having regard to those opinions, it was fit and becoming in me to step from an American steamer into his Cabinet, and there and then, for the first time, after having received at his hands a post of high honour and great emolument, to discover that I had undergone a change in my opinions; and whether I should not be open to great misconstruction by the public at large if I took such a course; and I candidly confess that it was inconsistent with my own self-respect.
Now, gentlemen, I do not intend to dwell upon this subject, because it would be egotistical to do it. And I do not intend to claim for myself more humility in the matter than belongs to me, and I do not wish that my abnegation should be considered to in any way reflect upon others who take a different course. I must explain to you candidly the course which I took had reference solely to my own conviction in the matter. I told the gentlemen at Liverpool who did me the honour to meet me at my landing there, that it was a question which I alone could decide; and I tell you that I alone could decide it, because I alone was conversant with the extent of my convictions with respect to Lord Palmerston's policy; and I was bound to be faithful to my own convictions, and especially was I bound to be so when under the temptation which his very magnanimous offer presented to me. I am bound to say, at the same time that whilst my own feelings and convictions prevented my taking that step which many of you here wished, and which so many of my friends in Liverpool and Lancashire pressed upon me,—though I could not take that course myself, I was very glad to find that my friend Mr. Gibson found himself in a position to be able to accept office in Lord Palmerston's Government. And I confess to you that I was glad to find that my friend Charles Gilpin has taken a subordinate office, where there is plenty of work if he chooses to do it; for I will avow to you candidly that I like to see a man cropping up from the lowest stratum,—one who has worked as hard as any man here present,—and step into a public office from the very ranks of the people; because what we want is to show that you need not be born in certain regions to be able to serve the Queen.
Now, gentlemen, I need not, I hope, add—and it is all I have to add—that I had no personal feeling whatever in the course I took with regard to Lord Palmerston's offer. If I had had any feeling of personal hostility, which I never had, towards him, for he is of that happy nature which cannot create a personal enemy, his kind and manly offer would have instantly disarmed me; I think I am made of very yielding materials when anything in the way of conciliation presents itself to me. But I had no such feeling. I should be sorry if it were thought so; and, as I told him, I tell you, if, in my attacks upon his foreign policy, I ever said one word that was offensive to himself or any public man, I am very sorry for it. I told him the motives which actuated me in the course I have taken. I claim no merit whatever for doing more than any other public man in my situation would have done. I can only justify myself by falling back, as I do, upon my own strong feelings and convictions in the matter; and I will only now say to you, that I trust to your kind and indulgent interpretation of the course which I have thought it my duty to pursue.
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