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


[In 1851, two schemes, called respectively the National Public School Association, and the Manchester and Salford Scheme of Education, were recommended to the public, the latter being antagonistic to the former, and projected in rivalry of it. Mr. Cobden gave in his adhesion to the former plan, under which, in the face of religious differences, it was advised that rate-supported schools should not be denominational.]


We are hardly arrived at that point in this great struggle in which we can venture to say that we will define what the particular kind of secular education shall be which shall be enjoyed in the schools which are to be erected or to be maintained out of the public rates. But when that time shall come, I am quite sure that a great deal of that knowledge appertaining to our own nature, and to our own design and object in this world, as described by our friend Mr. Combe, will undoubtedly form a part of the secular education of this country—as a part, and only a part of that education—combined, as it will be, with the religious instruction. But, gentlemen, we have yet to settle this question,—'Shall we have any education at all in this country, such as is enjoyed in almost every other civilised country,—I mean an education supported by all, and free to all?' Now, that is the question. I hold anything else but that to be short of the real end and object of this controversy. Shall there be a system of education supported by all, and common to all? Well, you are going to settle that question, as you have settled so many other important topics, in Manchester. For I don't conceal from myself, that upon the local contest in which you are now engaged, will depend the kind of education which is likely to be adopted in this country.


The application which is about to be made to Parliament for a private bill embodying a scheme for giving to Manchester and Salford a local system of education, a system confined to those two boroughs, will, if it be adopted, I have no doubt in the world, be made a model for the adoption of all other localities similarly circumstanced—I mean, manufacturing districts and our great commercial centres; and whatever may be adopted as the Act of Parliament for Manchester, will, as in the Municipal Corporations Act, become a general Act, under which other places may put themselves, just as they now apply for the benefit of a charter under the Municipal Corporations Act. I have no doubt of that; and therefore you are engaged in a struggle of vast importance, not only to yourselves, but to the whole community. Scotland, as Mr. Combe says, has its eyes upon you. The rest of the country is equally interested in what you are now doing.


I do not want the National Public School Association to think that at present their important duties lie elsewhere. Their duties lie here at home; and my opinion is, that if their exertions are not centred here, in Manchester and Salford, we shall fail to do our duty in this crisis of this controversy. Now, what is the question at issue between the National Public School Association, which would apply their scheme to Manchester and Salford, and the Manchester and Salford Association, which applies merely for a local bill? Why, I think the whole difference between you may be traced to that long-standing and almost sole difficulty in the way of a national system of education in this country—I mean the religious difficulty. The real question which you are now disputing is this—shall the education be one in which the secular shall be separate from the religious element, or shall it be one where the teacher in your schools shall be paid out of a public rate to teach all kinds of religion, at the expense of all sorts of people? That is the sole difference—I mean, that is the source of all your differences; because, if you removed the religious difficulty, I do not think that people in Manchester would be at all disputing as to whether there should be more or less of self-government in your scheme. I believe that the members of the Manchester and Salford Scheme Association would be just as much inclined to preserve the municipal self-government of Manchester as you would be; but they remove a part of the administration, and control, and discretion, in their school business to London, simply and solely because they think by that they are going to escape the religious difficulty which lies in their way. And it is not a question of whether the school-rooms that are now in existence shall be used for giving both secular and religious instruction, because by the plan which has been adopted by this society at a Conference which met this morning, it is now the rule of this society,—it is a plan which we propose to adopt as a part of our bill for Parliament, that all schools belonging to separate churches or chapels which may be disposed to give education, subject to inspection, insuring that the secular instruction shall be good in quality, may receive payment per head for all the scholars educated in those schools, just in the same way as it is proposed in the Manchester and Salford plan, only there is a stipulation, there is a safeguard, that there shall be no payment made to those teachers for religious instruction; that the religious instruction shall be given apart, and at separate times; and that it be distinctly understood, that out of the public rates there shall be no payment made for instruction in religion.


Well, then, let it no longer be said that, by the plan which we propose, we are going to sacrifice the existing schools. We propose to take authority for buying existing schools, or for renting existing schools; and we now propose, in addition, by the resolution of this morning, to do precisely what the Manchester and Salford Society proposes to do,—that is, to pay for the instruction of children in secular knowledge, in all schools belonging to the churches or chapels where they may be disposed to give us the guarantee by inspection that they are giving a proper secular education. The question between this association and the rival association is simply reduced to this:—they insist that in all schools religious education shall be given at the expense of the whole community. That involves one or two difficulties and objections, which I think are insuperable. In the first place, what a reflection it is upon the office of religious teacher;—they say, 'We will make schoolmasters the teachers of religion.' Do they propose that schoolmasters shall graduate in a course of divinity in order to be qualified for that instruction? Why, how they discount and degrade their own profession, in making a schoolmaster, who is never taught divinity at all, on equality with clergymen, and calling upon him to give religious instruction! But it involves a greater difficulty than that; and here is my objection to the principle which requires absolutely and without exception that religious instruction is to be given in the school. It involves this grand and insuperable difficulty and injustice,—that by these means you exclude from those schools many of those whose parents have been rated to the maintenance of those schools.


Now, in the first place, I find in the local bill, as drawn up here, that in all schools which are to be built out of the rate levied upon all the property of this borough, the reading of the Holy Scriptures in the authorised version shall be a part of the daily instruction of the scholars. Everybody will remember that I took my stand against the exclusion of the Bible from any schools, when we were settling our points of faith as a secular association. I said, 'I never will be a party to any scheme that attempts to lay down in an Act of Parliament this monstrous, arrogant, and dictatorial doctrine—that a parish or community shall not, if it please, introduce the Bible into its schools.' I made my stand against that, and said I never would put my hand to any such doctrine; but at the same time, I am just as prepared to take my stand against any system which levies taxes upon Jews and Roman Catholics, which sends the tax-gatherer round to their houses, and calls upon them to contribute to the school-rate, and then insert a clause like that which says they and their children shall enjoy no advantage from those schools.


Now, I ask those gentlemen, have they any scheme by which they propose to exempt these parties from paying the taxes, whom they exclude by this clause in their bill? Well, then, I ask them if they are prepared to carry us back, not only into a worse state of intolerance and bigotry than any that exists on the Continent of Europe at the present time in any Protestant country, but actually to the times when, in towns like Frankfort in olden times, Jews were shut up and set apart in the town, and made to live in certain streets, and be locked up at home at night long before Christians were required to be in their domiciles! Why, it is a worse treatment to the Jews than they received in those countries where they were thus persecuted. You educate Christians out of Jewish money, and you deny them the right of having education themselves for their own children. What would be said,—now just put a parallel case,—if, after levying a rate for lighting the town and supplying it with water, you compelled the Jews to live in some street by themselves, where there was neither a gas-lamp nor yet a water-pipe carried? And I won't say merely the Jews, but the Roman Catholics; because you absolutely prohibit the Roman Catholic from entering those schools, if you mean what you say in the clause of this bill. You say, 'the authorised version of the Bible,' nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand parts of which are verbatim the same as in the Roman Catholic version; but it contains two or three passages, in which I never yet could perceive any very material difference of meaning, and by retaining those passages, by making that the test, and thereby striking at a point of conscience in those who object to that version of the Bible, you prohibit them as much as though you put a policeman at the door, and said, 'No Roman Catholic shall enter here.' Well, I say it is impossible that such a thing as that can continue permanently to be a recognised state of things in a country that asserts in the slightest degree that it is under the government of just principles.


And now, where is the difficulty of our opponents agreeing to our own terms? Where's the difficulty of the friends of the other society joining in the principle which is now enunciated by this society? They insist upon making the schools doctrinal and denominational, but at the same time they have so far receded from the stand which the Church formerly made, that they will allow a scholar to enter other schools and be exempted from the doctrinal teaching of those schools, provided he carries a written request from his parents to be so exempt. So far, they go a great way towards recognising our principle, that secular education may be given apart from religious instruction, inasmuch as those children who are allowed to carry in their pockets a pass by which they are exempt from this religious teaching, at all events are placed very nearly in the position in which we would place all our schools; and therefore, in point of fact, they recognise the principle which we advocate, with this exception, that they require absolutely that the Bible—the authorised version of the Bible—shall be read daily in all their schools. Now, I do hope that the authors of the Manchester and Salford School Society will address themselves to-morrow to that question, and see whether they cannot move one step farther, and abstain from the attempt to inflict injustice and wrong upon a large section, and that the most necessitous part of the community, by attempting to make them read that which, if they did read, they could only do it with hypocrisy; and, therefore, by practising that hypocrisy for the sake of getting education, certainly could not, in the eyes of any rational being in the world, become more just or more moral by the process.


Well, gentlemen, there's the position in which we stand, or, rather, you stand, in Manchester. I have stated the amount of difference between your two schemes, which will next session come before Parliament. Were I now living in Manchester, I should address myself solely to the question, for the present, at least, as it affects these localities; because, I repeat to you, whatever is done in Parliament the next session will, in my opinion, act very much as a model for a great part of the kingdom; and, therefore, it is your business. We shall have only that strength in Parliament to deal with these two topics which you give us by your support out of doors. It is for you to decide which of these two plans shall be adopted; but sorry I am to see that a great portion of those who I thought were, above all others, vitally concerned in this question,—I mean the dissenting bodies,—have stood aloof from this controversy under the most vain and delusive ideas that ever possessed human beings,—that this was not a question solely as to one or another scheme, but because they are under the impression that there is a possibility in this country of going back to no scheme at all. How men moving in society can be at all under the delusion that there is a doubt about such a subject, I cannot imagine. If there is one point upon which this great community, I think, has more made up its mind than another, it is in adopting some system of combined action for public education, under the sanction of Government, through local rates and local management, as far as possible. There's no doubt but that is determined on by the great mass of the community: and however any body in sincerity, which is so involved in this question as the dissenting body is, can be moving about the country and trying to advocate or plead for that impossible cause—no public education at all—passes my comprehension. I believe them to be sincere, I cannot doubt they are sincere; but if they were really aiming at playing the game of that party which they have always considered inimical to their religious interests and their religious freedom, they could not have taken a more effectual course than they have been during the last twelvemonth, by ignoring the existence, almost, of this National School Society, and detaching themselves from that side of the question in which I should have thought, at all events, looking upon their principles as they avow them themselves, they were more interested than any part of the community.


Now, I speak with some degree of feeling on this subject, because I have taken to this secular school association simply and purely, as I have avowed again and again, because I thought there was a great act of injustice perpetrated upon Dissenters. I thought they were going to be wronged by another system which they regarded as a system of endowments. I have again and again said, that as one who every Sunday take my children to a parish church, and therefore am living, as it were, upon endowments, I could not plead for myself that I had those conscientious scruples which I was told and believed the Dissenters had. I took up this secular system, because I thought, while it did no injustice to the Church, that it did justice to Dissenters. I find the great body of Dissenters not only holding aloof, but some of them,—Dr. Halley, for instance, and his friends, and the great organ of their party, the Banner,—stating that if driven to take one or the other, they will take the Church system. Do they understand their own principles? Have I done right in believing what they have told me of their principles,—that they shun the system of endowments? I was advocating the American system of education, because I knew there, in America, it was applied to the satisfaction of those descendants of the Nonconformists who have not forgotten their principles, and where we know the system works without injury to the rights of conscience of any individual in the country. I speak thus emphatically upon this subject, because I don't hesitate to say, I am for the education of the people. I believe the great mass of the people take less interest in this sectarian squabbling than many others of us are apt to imagine. The great mass of the people want education for their children; they are sick to death of these obstacles you throw in their way. I believe that when our extended franchise throws more power into the hands of the multitude, you will see that what I say is true,—that there's a feeling for national education which will sweep away all these cobwebs with which you attempt to blind the great mass of the people; and feeling this, and having done my best to do justice to all parties in the matter, I say now, emphatically, 'I vote for education; I'll support education; I'll do the best I can for Dissenters;' but I'll never oppose a system of education, which promises to give to the mass of the people an opportunity of raising themselves in life, and benefiting their children, by having a share in its advantages, which, as Mr. Combe says, those alone above them have hitherto enjoyed. I don't, therefore, profess to come here to oppose the local plan. I believe, if that plan be adopted, it won't remain where it is.


I believe, if we once get a system of free schools, the spirit of a free-school system will very soon possess itself of the minds of the people; that it will be found here, what it has been found in Ireland, under a far severer pressure and test than it ever can have in this country; it is superior in its strength to almost all other influences; and I believe, if we once establish a system of free schools supported by rates in this country, it won't be long that you who pay rates here in Manchester will allow either Roman Catholics or Jews to be excluded from the benefits of those rates.


I won't go into the question of how far the people of this country want education. Go and inquire amongst the people themselves. Go and ask the agricultural labourer at his plough; test the amount of thought and capacity that that man has had by instruction imparted to him; ask him where the guano he's dealing with as a manure, day after day, comes from: he has no idea. He never heard such a subject suggested. Ask him whose land it is he's working upon. He can tell you the farmer's name, because the farmer pays his wages; but ask him who his landlord is;—ten to one he has never thought of it; because in England, from want of education, and training the mind to thought and reflection, such men don't learn to note cause of any kind. Ask him the geography of the next parish. As for the geography of the world, he can't tell you whether America is in France or in Spain. It is unquestionably true, and cannot be denied by any one that has travelled, that we are the worst educated people of any Protestant country in any part of the earth. Mr. Combe has borne witness to this; Mr. Baines has borne witness; and I challenge denial on personal investigation. Is that a safe state of things to be left in? They tell us that voluntaryism has worked well. I say we are the only people that have had voluntaryism, and we are behind all the world. What do they say in America? Hear what Mr. Daniel Webster said, in a speech delivered at an open-air meeting the other day, in Washington:—

'The population of the United States is 23,000,000. Now take the map of the Continent of Europe, and spread it out before you. Take your scale and your dividers, and lay off any one area in any shape you please, a triangle, a circle, a parallelogram, or a trapezoid, and of an extent that shall contain 150,000,000 of people, and there will be found within the United States more persons who do habitually read and write than can be embraced within the lines of your demarcation.'

But in the United States they don't trust to voluntaryism. They make use of their parochial and their municipal organisation to secure a system of schools free to all, paid for by all, and not a system of schools merely for that class of destitute people to whom Mr. Baines has alluded. The New England schools have so grown and improved, that they have taken in by degrees from one class to another, from one grade to another, till now, in many parts of New England, you find no private schools at all. All classes are educated at the common public schools.


It is my firm belief that, in this country, a system of schools once established, paid for by all, would very soon here—as, in fact, we have seen in the case of the King's Sombourn school, conducted so admirably by the Rev. Mr. Dawes—be found to go on so, that, by degrees, the small farmer's son would be sitting by the labourer's son; and as you improved still more in your system of education, the small farmer's son would be coming and taking his seat by the side of the rich farmer's son. I have no doubt in the world that would be the case, because by combination—by cooperation—you would have a better system of schools than you could have anywhere else; and therefore I don't look to a system of free schools as one of charity for the great mass of the people,—I mean for the poorest people. One of the benefits we should derive from common schools would be, that it would cause that greater intermixture and blending of society that would arise from the middle and working classes sending their children to one common school, where they would become more familiarised in their common views, and tastes, and habits, and the boys would be brought up in genial sympathies and more intercourse than that which prevails at present in this country. I do not argue with those gentlemen who tell us that the voluntary system has answered; I don't argue with them. I say, 'Go into the highways, and byways, and inquire for yourselves if it answers.'


I don't think it is safe for us as a nation to be the most ignorant Protestant people on the face of the earth. This is a period in the world's history when the very security, the trade, and the progress of a nation, depend, not so much on the contest of arms, as on the rivalry in science and the arts, which must spring from education. Even lately, we have been inviting all the world to a great competition. Did any reflecting man walk through the Great Exhibition without feeling that we were apt to be a little under a delusion as to the quality of men in other parts of the world, and their capacity to create those articles of utility of which we are apt to think sometimes we possess a monopoly of production in this country? Did nobody feel somewhat struck at the vast superiority of the French in articles of taste and delicate manipulation; and were we not equally struck to find ourselves so closely trod on the heels in everything that relates to the more rude utilities of life, in American productions, where we found ourselves beaten in shipbuilding, in locks, pistols, and many other things we had to show? Did it not make Englishmen feel that they had to look about them? And how will you be able to rally, how will you attain to further improvement in arts and manufactures but by improving the education of your people? I don't think we can wait. And this is a reason why I am tired to death of this sectarian quarrel, which is preventing the people from being educated: year after year is passing away, and the time we are losing is not to be recalled. Why, it has been stated in public, it has been stated in our public records, that the poor people don't send their children to school, upon an average, more than two or three years, and in some cases not more than ten months.


Well, we have passed over two or three years in this sectarian strife, in which we prevent the people from having education as they have in America, by a system of common schools, and whilst we are doing so a generation, a section of the community, passes into mature life without any education at all. One great wave of humanity passes on, and we never get a reflux of the tide, we never have a chance of giving these people an education. We cannot wait! I hope the people of Manchester will rouse themselves to a consideration of the danger and difficulty of this matter. I hope you, who have gained so many victories in other things, will find yourselves called upon to exert yourselves, not only for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the people at large. I augur well from the large meeting I see here to-night; I augur from it that you take an interest in this question. I am told that a still larger meeting is to take place to-morrow, on this subject. All this augurs well of the interest you take in this question. If Manchester men will direct their minds to this question perseveringly and energetically, and if you consider that in this case, as in a former struggle, you are fighting the battle, not only for England, but, in some degree, for the whole civilised world, I have no doubt you will present such a case to the House of Commons next session, that we shall be relieved from any doubt or difficulty as to the course we shall have to pursue. Send up your petitions for what you conceive to be the right measure for Manchester and Salford; give us your support, and your Members, I have no doubt, will do their duty in this matter, and most happy I shall be to be found alongside of them in that which is found to be necessary.

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