Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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James E. Thorold Rogers, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected speeches, 1841-1864. First published as a collection in 1870. 3rd edition. Includes biographical "Appreciations" by Goldwin Smith and J. E. Thorold Rogers.
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Volume I


[After the death of Sir Matthew Wood, and, consequently, on a vacancy in the representation of the City of London, two candidates—Mr. Pattison, Free Trader, and Mr. Thomas Baring, a Protectionist—came forward as rival candidates. Mr. Pattison was returned by a narrow majority, and the victory was deemed significant. The day after this meeting, the League resolved to raise 100,000l., 12,600l. of which was subscribed in Manchester in a single day.]


We do not seek to disguise the fact that our object here is to discuss with you—to entreat with you—to canvass you on the important election about to take place. Our meetings, gentlemen, are always canvassing meetings; we have no other object in our meetings than to influence the electoral voice, and every voter of the City of London has received a circular, requesting his presence here. The question we have to submit is not very well fitted for declamatory appeals; and if we would make a good use of the short time we have, to address ourselves to your judgments, we must beg your attention to what may appear very dry matter. We have come here to ask you to consider whether you will give your votes in favour of Monopoly or Free Trade. Now, by free trade I do not mean the throwing down of all custom-houses. One of your candidates, Mr. Baring—in pure ignorance, I presume, for I will not suppose he would insult you by inventing such a statement—actually says that free trade means the abolition of all custom-house duties. We have said, thousands of times, that our object is not to take away the Queen's officers from the custom-house, but to take those officers away who sit at the receipt of custom to take tithe and toll for the benefit of peculiar classes.


There is something so obviously honest and just in what we advocate, that there has been no writer, seated in the quietude of his closet, who has discussed the matter—there is no writer, I say, with a name having pretensions to last beyond the year of the publication of his works, who does not agree with us in our doctrines. Nay, we have lived to see practical statesmen, while they hold office, actually driven by the force of argument and the intelligence of the age, to admit the justice of our principles, while they have basely condescended to practise their direct opposite. Nay, more, your candidates, both of them, stand upon the same ground as to avowal of principle. The difference is, that one will honestly and consistently carry out his opinions—the other refuses to do so. Now, our business is to ask you, whether you will take a man for your representative who, acknowledging free trade to be just—though I confess I believe he does not know much about it—yet refuses to act up to his professions? Will you take him, or a man who, after avowing our principles, will go into Parliament pledged and determined to carry them out?


Our chairman has said that Mr. Baring admits our principles to be true in the abstract—that is, that his own principles are untrue in the abstract. Did you ever hear of a father teaching his children to obey the Ten Commandments—in the abstract? Did you ever know the plea to go down at the Old Bailey, after a verdict of guilty had been returned, of 'Oh, I did steal the pocket-handkerchief—but only in the abstract'? Is monopoly an abstraction? If it be, I have done with Mr. Baring and this election; but the abstraction presents itself in bodily form under the shape of certain monopolists, who diminish, by one-half, your supply of sugar, and cut off large slices from your loaves. Now, that is no abstraction.


Let us for a moment condescend to meet the arguments of our opponents, although, in point of fact, these gentlemen have put themselves out of court by their own admission. What are the grounds upon which they refuse to carry into practice principles which they admit to be true in theory? Why (they say), to start with, that, if you do give up monopoly, it will be impossible for you to raise the national revenue. Now, if I understand this, it is, that we have so much taxation to pay to the Queen for the support of our naval, military, and civil establishments, that we never can get on unless we place a burden of nearly equal weight on our shoulders in the shape of contributions payable to the Duke of Buckingham and Co. What does it mean, if it does not mean that? It is a poor compliment to the present age that this argument was never discovered until our own day; for when monopoly was first established, nobody thought of making use of that argument.


Now, let us see how the imposition of monopolies can aid the revenue. Take corn, and go back only to the time of your own memory. During the four years of 1834, 1835, 1836, and 1837, the average price of corn was 45s. It so happened that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had, during these years, a surplus of revenue; he could afford to come forward and remit taxation. But then we had the four years of 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, when monopoly did its worst for the people, but when, according to the arguments of its supporters, it should have done its best for the revenue. And what was the result? Why, a declining revenue. And when corn cost 65s. per quarter, the Premier admitted that the ability of the working classes to pay any more taxation was exhausted, and that he had no alternative but to levy an income-tax upon the middle classes. Now, I like to go to facts and experience, in preference to authority; and I take this experience, as a much better guide in forming my opinions, than anything Mr. Baring can say.


And now then for sugar. Here we have another great monopoly. And let me remind you, citizens of London, that you are fighting sugar monopolists in the City rather than bread monopolists—that aristocracy of the sugar-hogshead, to which I have so often referred—that is the monopoly which you have now to deal with—a most ignoble oligarchy. Mincing-lane cries aloud for protection. And what has sugar done for the revenue? What is the price of sugar in bond? 21s. per cwt. What do you pay for it? 41s. per cwt. Here you have 20s. additional on three or four millions of cwts.; an item worth fighting for, is it not? And you, the shopkeepers, butchers and bakers, grocers and drapers of London, what good do you obtain from this monopoly? There is this mysterious character, Monopoly, sitting at your tea-tables, and for every lump of sugar put into your cup, presto!—there is another taken out of the basin. And when your wives and children look up, and ask for the lump of sugar which they have earned, and which they think fairly belongs to themselves, this mysterious assailant, Monopoly, says he takes it for your protection. Well, now, what does the revenue lose by sugar? Mr. Macgregor, the Secretary to the Board of Trade, in his evidence before the Import Duties Committee in 1840, showed that, if the monopoly in sugar were abated, the people would have double the quantity at the same price, and that three millions of money additional would be poured into the Exchequer. Mr. Macgregor is still the Secretary of the Board of Trade, and most fit he is to fill the situation. Such was his evidence, and in it is published to the world our condemnation of the present system.


Now, what is the pretence for monopoly in sugar? They cannot say that it benefits the revenue; neither is it intended to benefit the farmer in England, or the negro in the West Indies. What, then, is the pretence set up? Why, that we must not buy slave-grown sugar. I believe that the ambassador from the Brazils is here at present, and I think I can imagine an interview between him and the President of the Board of Trade. His Excellency is admitted to an interview, with all the courtesy due to his rank. He delivers his credentials; he has come to arrange a treaty of commerce. I think I see the President of the Board of Trade calling up a solemn, earnest, pious expression, and saying, 'You are from the Brazils; we shall be happy to trade with you, but we cannot conscientiously receive slave-grown produce.' His Excellency is a good man of business (most men are who come to us from abroad to settle commercial matters); so he says, 'Well, then, we will see if we can trade together in some other way. What have you to sell us?' 'Why,' returns the President of the Board of Trade, 'cotton goods; in these articles we are the largest exporters in the world.' 'Indeed,' exclaims his Excellency, 'cotton, did you say? Where is cotton brought from?' 'Why,' replies the Minister, 'hem!—chiefly from the United States;' and at once the question will be, 'Pray, is it free-grown cotton, or slave-grown cotton?' Now, I leave you to imagine the answer, and I leave you also to picture the countenance of the President of the Board of Trade. [At this moment something gave way at the back of the stage, and a trifling interruption ensued.] Do not be afraid (continued the hon. Gentleman), it is only a form which has fallen; it is symptomatic of the fall of the monopolists. Now, have any of you had your humanity entrapped and your sympathies bamboozled by these appeals against slave-grown produce? Do you know how the law stands with regard to the sugar trade at present? We send our manufactures to Brazil, as it is; we bring back Brazilian sugar; that sugar is refined in this country—refined in bonded warehouses, that is, warehouses where English people are not allowed to get at it—and it is then sent abroad by our merchants, by those very men who are now preaching against the consumption of slave-grown sugar. Ay, those very men and their connections who are loudest in their appeals against slave-grown sugar have bonded warehouses in Liverpool and London, and send this sugar to Russia, to China, to Turkey, to Poland, to Egypt; in short, to any country under the sun; to countries, too, having a population of 500,000,000; and yet these men will not allow you to have slave-grown sugar here. And why is it so? Because the 27,000,000 of people here are what the 500,000,000 of people of whom I have spoken are not—the slaves of this sugar oligarchy. Because over you they possess a power which they do not over others. Oh, hypocrites! The Mahometans have gradations of punishment in a future state for different kinds of sins, and the very lowest depth of all is assigned to hypocrites. I should not wonder, when the Turks hear of Mr. Baring, and the arguments uttered in the House of Commons, if they were to offer up prayers for the poor hypocrites of this country. And these are the grounds on which, in this eighteen hundred and forty-third year, you are called upon to return a man to Parliament to uphold monopoly, in order that a few men in the City may sell you your sugar 20s. per cwt. dearer than the natural price of the market of the world. It is a dirty, a base and sor-did conspiracy. I have said it before, and I will say it now, I would rather be governed for a time by a despot like Mehemet Ali—a despot, yet a man of genius—than I would knuckle down to a sordid aristocracy, such as the sugar oligarchy. Thus the men who maintain monopoly by such arguments are the men from whom you might expect to hear complaints, that we, happening to have for half the year our domiciles in Lancashire, should presume to have a voice in the election here.


I see by to-day's paper that Mr. Baring says that we have no direct interest in this election. What, is there a law passed which I am not called upon to obey in Lancashire as well as here? Does the sugar oligarchy content itself with plundering its own constituents and neighbours? No, they plunder Lancashire too. And oh, this comes well from the monopolists. It is but consistent that the men who would cut us off from the intercourse of the world, should attempt to cut off Middlesex from Lancashire. The project shows the extent and range of their intellects. It is carrying out their principles; it is letting us know fully and clearly what they would be at. But when I speak of these men, do not let me be misunderstood as having implied that the larger, or even a large portion of the merchants of your city, are on the side of restriction. I deny that the monopolists of the City have the best or richest men in their ranks. I can appeal to the declarations and writings of some of the most eminent and wealthy men among them for proof that they possess different sympathies from the monopolists, and very different grades of intelligence. There are men in the City who know well the direct and the immediate connection between the prosperity of the great manufacturing districts and this great metropolis. There was one man in particular—I allude to Mr. Rothschild—who was a man possessing an intellect that would have made him great in any walk of life, and who saw and grasped the commercial operations of the world. He knew well that he, sitting here in London, was but the minister, the passive instrument for effecting the exchange between the manufacturing districts and the great producing countries of the Continent. In his evidence before the Bank Committee in 1832, are these words:—

'What I receive in large sums, other people receive in small sums; I buy on the Exchange bills drawn from Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and other places, and which come to every banker and merchant in London. I purchase 6000l. or 7000l., and sometimes 10,000l. of those bills in a week, and I send them to the Continent to my houses; my houses purchase against them bills upon this country, which are purchased for wine, wool, and other commodities.'

Mr. Rothschild, had he been living now, would not have come forward and said, 'Lancashire, I have no sympathy with you;' and I am happy to add that one bearing his name, and I believe his son, is one of the warmest supporters of Mr. Pattison.


There is another gentleman in the City, who, if wealth commands respect, has riches enough, and who, if intelligence has any claim on your admiration, can bear comparison with any that can be opposed to him—I allude to Mr. Samuel Jones Lloyd. In a pamphlet written by this gentleman in 1840, he says:—

'Who can fail to feel an interest in that great hive of industry? That noble, though new-born metropolis of trade, which presents so splendid a concentration of the most ennobling qualities of man—honesty, industry, intelligence, energy, enterprise, steadiness of purpose, freedom of thought, liberality of sentiment. As an Englishman, I may be proud of the town and trade of Manchester. Again, the prosperity of Manchester is another expression for the well-being of England. When that great town, and the immense population dependent upon it, cease to advance in prosperity and wealth, the star of England has culminated. Failing trade will soon undermine the foundation on which every other interest rests. Our teeming population, deprived of employment, will soon convert this fair and happy land into a warren of paupers. Nor can the retrograde movement stop even at this stage. A dense population, maddened by disappointment, and rendered desperate by irremediable want, will soon fall into a state, from the contemplation of which one may well turn away.'

I am reading the opinion of one entitled to take his place with the wealthiest and, I opine, with the most intelligent of your City merchants and bankers; but this is not a question which has to be settled by great, rich merchants only. Are there not other classes as deeply interested in the matter as are these?


I see in this election a disposition to make it a property election; and, by way of stimulating the zeal of men of property, we are told that this is an Anti-Corn-law League election, and that the men of the League have a disposition to subvert property; and I am specially charged with having said something calculated to loosen the bonds which bind men to observe the rights of property. Now, gentlemen, I think, if anybody in the country can say he is the advocate of the rights of property, I am the man. Why, my whole labour in public, for the last five years, has been to restore the rights of property to those unjustly deprived of them. As there is one particular property which Mr. T. Baring seems to have lost sight of, I don't know that I could do better than refer him to Adam Smith. That writer says:—

'The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands, and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of the most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman and of those who might be disposed to employ him.'

Now, having thus the countenance of Adam Smith for the assertion, I must say I think that Mr. T. Baring, his aiders and abettors, in so far as they support the Corn-laws and other monopolies, violate the right of property in the labouring man; and by so doing, I tell them now, as I did at the last meeting, that they thus undermine the rights of property of all kinds.


But allow me, gentlemen, to recall your attention for a moment to the interests of the great body of the electors in the metropolis. I will leave these millionnaires to take care of themselves, which they can do very well; but will take the shopkeeper, skilled artisan, and labourer, and ask what interest they can have in any support of monopoly? Can you, in the metropolis, be any longer hoodwinked by those who say that the abolition of the corn and sugar monopoly is a manufacturers' question? I should like to ask the shopkeepers what kind of trade they have had for the last five years? I would ask them, when communing with their wives and families, what do they calculate as the return of the year and the prospect of the next? They may not have felt the revulsion as soon as the manufacturers; but how, I should like to know, how long was it after our first deputation of 1839 that the cause which was at work with us began to prey on their interests? Why, is there a trade you carry on in the metropolis, of the wholesale and manufacturing kind, that has not the best customers in the manufacturing districts? Take the bookselling trade, which appeals to the minds of the people. I venture to say that one-half of the popular literature that is furnished by London finds its way into the manufacturing districts. I take the distillers, the brewers, the wholesale chemists, the silversmiths and jewellers; and do you find that the travellers of those houses go to the county of the Duke of Buckingham for orders?—are they not rather packed off straight for Manchester, or Glasgow, or Liverpool, or some such emporium of manufactures? Well, take again your domestic trade. Do you depend for customers on the half-score of gentlemen who are sugar monopolists, or on the general passers-by before your doors? How often do you see one of those sugar lords in your shop; and when you do, do they give you twice the price for your goods that they make you pay for their sugar? Your traders are supporters of traders; but not a twentieth, or fiftieth, or one hundredth of those who uphold trades and manufactures are landlords or sugar lords, who, nevertheless, cause all the mischief they can to the community. And when that mischief has gone so far that it reaches the revenue, your business is overhauled—you have a tax upon income to meet, and pleasant surcharges, in order to make up what the great monopolists have taken from the Queen's Exchequer. Will you have again skilled artisans—men who surpass all other workmen in the more delicate and refined manufactures, and whose full employment can be alone secured by a full demand in the manufacturing as well as in other districts? How can any one, then, have the impudence, the effrontery to draw a distinction between the interests of the people of London and of the people of Lancashire? I will take your most fashionable streets—Regentstreet, if you choose—and I will ask, do the shopkeepers in that street number amongst their best customers the landlords or the sugar lords? I called on a jeweller there the other day, and I asked him what sort of season he had. 'Very poor,' he replied. 'How is that,' said I, 'rents are pretty good this year?' 'I don't care,' said he, 'if I never see a lord come into my shop, for even if they buy they don't pay me. The people we rely on for custom are,' added he, 'those brought up by the Birmingham Railway; but there lately have not been so many as there used to be, and our trade will never be what it was until we get these summer birds again to pluck.'


But I should only waste your time if I adduced any arguments to prove that your interest, or any interest in the community save that of the monopolists, is not benefited by monopoly. And the object of this meeting is to call upon the electors to vindicate your rights, and to assert the interests of the whole community. Now how are you to do that? Why, first, every voter will, I hope, promptly register his vote in favour of Mr. Pattison. Oh, what a bright muster-roll of votes we shall have against monopoly! I trust that those who live at a distance will make a pilgrimage in the cause of Free Trade. If you who have not votes live outside the City districts, look up the Liverymen, and see that they vote in favour of Free Trade. I see, by the papers, that the Attorney-General has turned canvasser. Well, now, I should think that any of our friends of the League will make as good a canvasser as the Attorney-General. It is not merely Lancashire that looks to you. This meeting is an unique mode of canvassing. The attention of the civilised world is fixed upon our struggle. A friend of mine went to America some time ago, for the purpose of indoctrinating the people there with a horror of slavery. The first thing he saw in the newspapers was a denunciation of his proceeding, and a desire expressed that he should go home and emancipate the white slaves of England, who were taxed in their food. What does Commodore Napier say as to his reception in Egypt by the shrewd old Turk, Mehemet Ali? 'Our system,' said he, 'may be a bad one, but we have grown under it; and when I send wheat to England I find I cannot sell it at a profit, for there is a monopoly in bread there.' In the National I was reading the other day this statement (and that, be it remembered, is the ultra-Liberal journal of France): 'You' (speaking of England) 'should erase from your standard the lion, and place in its stead the starving operative craving a morsel of bread.' This is the way that foreigners speak of us; this is the way in which our missionaries are met It is now for you, the voters of London, to decide whether you will submit your necks voluntarily to this bondage—whether you will bow before this Juggernaut, or, by an effort worthy of yourselves and of the occasion, strike off for ever the fetters that have manacled this country.


Gentlemen, it may be done, and it will be done. I tell you it is a winning game. It is a 100 to 1, if we all exert ourselves, that we shall succeed; but our opponent, on this occasion, is one who, if we credit reports, either by himself or his agents, resorted, in another place, to practices which we must not allow in the City of London. Now, we must all know what was done in Yarmouth in 1835. I may be told that our present candidate knew nothing about it. The question naturally arises, who did it? It is my firm belief that no corruption ever takes place but that the candidate knows it and pays for it. I say that, after having been a candidate myself. I never paid 10l. without knowing for what; and I don't think that 12,000l. would be advanced by a candidate without value received. Now, I see by the newspapers that the same practice is likely to be resorted to in a small portion of London. Considering that it is the largest, it is one of the honestest constituencies in the kingdom; but there is a slight canker eating into one of the extremities of the metropolis. But I think it right to warn all parties likely to be implicated of the danger which they will run now, beyond what they ever did before, in taking bribes or treats. In the first place, if a poor voter be told 'Let it be: it will be all right, when the time fixed by law after the election is over;' I must tell him that there is no time after the election for head-money or any other money. The League is determined on putting down bribery as one of its noble objects; and the plan we have determined on for effecting this purpose we mean to put in force at the present election. It is our intention to prosecute criminally every one against whom we think can be established the charge of taking, offering, giving, or offering to take a bribe. It is, in the next place, the intention of the League to offer a reward of 100l. for such evidence as may lead to the conviction of such parties as are charged with those acts. Let, therefore, the poorest voter know, that if he offers his vote for a sum of money, it is an indictable offence; and if any one offers money to him, that is also an indictable offence. Indeed, if any one should offer a poor voter money, I should recommend him instantly to seize him by the collar, hand him over to a police-officer, and take him before the nearest magistrate, seeing that he does not destroy any papers or take anything out of his pocket by the way. But I think we shall succeed in putting down bribery in the City.


I shall not say anything about petitions to unseat a candidate, because we do not intend that Mr. Baring shall win; but whether he win or lose, every man against whom a charge can be established of taking a bribe, giving a bribe, or offering a bribe, shall be prosecuted criminally in a court of law. The penalty has been, in ordinary cases, that the culprit should kick his heels for twelve months within the four walls of a gaol. Now we should much prefer to prosecute the man who offers a bribe, to him who receives it; and, therefore, I advise the poor elector, who may get 30s., to keep a sharp look-out and see if he cannot honestly get 100l. Why, is it not astonishing that we should have Acts of Parliament on Acts of Parliament, that we should have hundreds of them, in fact, one after another, until they have become a laughing-stock in the House of Commons, and that yet no one should have thought before of this plan of putting down bribery? An anecdote is told of Chancellor Thurlow, before his elevation to the peerage, that, defining bribery very minutely, and after the fashion of technical lawyers, some wag said of the display, 'he has taken a great deal of pains to define what bribery is, as if there was anybody in the House that did not understand it.' And this, gentlemen, is our plan for putting an end to bribery—not going to a Committee of the House of Commons, but straight to a jury of our countrymen. We will do that in every place where bribery is carried on; and we have a list, and pretty minute particulars, of all the transactions that took place at the last election.


Can any man deny that the object we seek is as pure as the means by which we hope to effect it? They may talk as they please of our violence, and of the revolutionary character of our proceedings. Why, our tactics from the first have been most peaceable. We have been accused of being, on that account, somewhat lukewarm, and that, having some property, and belonging to the middle classes, we did not appeal sufficiently strong to the physical force of the country. I can forgive a candidate at a losing election for some fictions; but Mr. Baring has not exhibited a very brilliant fancy in his inventions. When he talked of the guillotine and a sanguinary revolution, it was but a poor travestie of a travestie acted in the House of Commons—the assassination farce. Gentlemen, our object is what I have always declared it—the benefit of the whole community. I admit that some may suffer a temporary loss from the abolition of a monopoly, but I venture to say that, in the end, there will be no class that will not be permanently benefited by the removal of those unjust laws.


Mind you, I do not come here as the opponent of the farmers and agriculturists; I come charged with the authority of twenty-five county meetings in the open air, every one of which pledged itself to seek the abolition of those laws. I say, therefore, that, in voting for Free Trade, you will not be merely promoting your own interest, but the best interests of every class. With such an object, I expect you will act like men having justice and humanity to guide and direct you; and the next time I appear before a London audience, I hope I shall have to congratulate you on that triumph which will be hailed through the length and breadth of the land; for the result of your contest will be as a knell of despair throughout the kingdom, or the proud signal of a speedy triumph.

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