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


[Mr. Cobden made the following Speech in the Hall of the Mechanics Institute at Barnsley. During the time that he sat for the West Riding, it was his custom to deliver addresses at the principal towns within that division of the county.]


The details we have heard of the early difficulties and infant struggles of this association are only just those trials which we are all liable to encounter in every good and great work which we undertake; and I should not consider a good worth possessing, unless it were deserving of those efforts which are required to make such an institution as this prosper. I remember the time when the first mechanics' institutions were launched under the auspices of Dr. Birkbeck—a man whose name can never be held in too high reverence for disinterestedness and truly Christian patriotism, and his honoured colleagues, Lord Brougham and others. I remember when they launched the first mechanics' institutions. They were intended not so much as schools in themselves, but as something to supply the defects of early education to that class which in former times had not had an opportunity of receiving such education; for you must remember that Dr. Birkbeck and others were the strenuous advocates of a better system of education for the young, and the mechanics' institutions were, to a large extent, something devised as a resource for those who had not had any opportunities for early education. Such being the case, in order to carry out the object of the founders of these institutions, it is not enough for you to draw together a large number of members in your lecture-room or your library, or to collect books in your library; these things could have been obtained, probably, in a less convenient way before mechanics' institutions were created; but one of the primary objects of mechanics' institutions was to enable young men, feeling themselves deficient in some particular branch of knowledge, to join a society where they could have the opportunity of repairing such a deficiency. For this purpose it has been customary, in all good mechanics' institutions, to establish classes—classes for different branches of study, which young men, or men of middle age, or even old men, could join, and find that particular knowledge they were in quest of. Now, I believe your institution has not such classes. I don't mean to mention it as a reproach, because you have had so many difficulties to fight against, that I did not expect you could get over all these things at once; but, having surmounted so many difficulties, and placed your institution, as I cannot but hope, on a firm basis,—for an institution which has grown under so many difficulties must have a firm basis,—you must determine that it shall be—what all mechanics' institutions were intended to be—a means of instruction to the neglected adult population. I think, too, you must have classes—classes for teaching arithmetic, geography, drawing; and even chemistry is not too much to aspire to. You must have also—and I hope you will—a class for French.


Now, there has been an allusion to one branch of study which particularly interests the manufacturers of this district—I mean drawing and designing. I think I have heard the gentleman who last spoke say that there was no drawing-master in Barnsley; that you must have an itinerant drawing-master, who, located at Sheffield, must have his circuit, radiating from that town, and who must pay occasional visits to Barnsley. If I were a Barnsley manufacturer, and dealt in figured damask linens, I should beg and entreat the reporter not to let that fact get out; don't let the world know that Dunfermline has got all the designs. I am told, for I am very curious in inquiring anything about the art of design, inasmuch as my own business was very much connected with that art,—I have been told, I say, in consequence of inquiries I have made since I arrived here, that your damask linens—the patterns of those damask linens which we all so much admire, are made by the weavers themselves; that the patterns are designed by the labourer who weaves the cloth; and that he, so far from having had any instruction in the art of designing, has been living in a town where there is no drawing-master. Now, I take it as a proof that you have a talent for drawing among you; that you have had a body of men brought up as weavers, who have been able to make patterns for you; but I say to the capitalists, 'You are not doing justice to that mechanic, if you are only going to give him a ninth or a tenth part of a drawing-master. You must let it go forth from this moment—and I hope my friend on the left (Mr. Harvey), who is interested in the matter, will rise before the conclusion of these proceedings and declare it—that another month shall not elapse before steps are taken to insure the presence of a drawing-master in Barnsley; and that all those ingenious young weavers who are able to put together a damask pattern shall be so circumstanced as to be able to learn something of the art of design from a practical teacher before we meet here again.


I say, then, that one of your classes must be a drawing-class; and in this respect you will be aided by the Government in a way which I think it is perfectly legitimate for a Government to aid—I mean this, you will be supplied by the Board of Trade with the best possible models, both of sculpture and drawing. I am an advocate so far for centralisation, that I will at all times sanction and applaud a Government which draws to one centre the best designs and models for drawing and sculpture, and then multiplies those designs and models in the cheapest possible way, with a view to their diffusion among the general public. I rather think you have already been to the Board of Trade, and got something in the way of models, or something of that kind; and, if you have, I suppose you are going to make some use of them; but you can't make any use of them unless you have got classes; and I will undertake, on behalf of this meeting and the intelligent manufacturers of Barnsley, to say, that it is intended to connect with this institution a drawing-class, and that a drawing-master shall be appointed who will be capable of giving efficient instruction.


With regard to other branches—take, for instance, a class for arithmetic—I would ask, how many young men are there who may be sitting at their looms with the best of heads upon their shoulders—phrenologically speaking—but who, from some circumstances not under their control, had no opportunity of cultivating those heads when children? And yet such young men feel within them a capacity to fill any station of life, if they had only had the necessary education to enable them to rise in society. The first thing such young men require, if they are to do anything in the way of business, is to learn something of arithmetic; but in your institution how is a young man to learn the rule of three, or obtain any knowledge of arithmetic? It is necessary, therefore, that you should have a master. I don't mean a stipendiary master, for I hope you will find independent, public-spirited men enough in Barnsley who will begin and initiate the necessary classes in connection with your institutions; and that you will not only have drawing and arithmetic classes, but also a French class; for, now that French is very generally spoken, a knowledge of it is necessary to enable you to enter into communication with a large portion of the public, and there is no reason why you in Barnsley should not be able to do this as well as others. It is the object of mechanics' institutions to bring those branches of knowledge within the reach of adult mechanics and labouring men in all the towns of the kingdom. Now, Barnsley is of such a size, that it ought to be able to maintain a mechanics' institution of such a magnitude as to support all these classes. I am aware it is difficult in a small town to do this; but here you have a population of from 14,000 to 15,000 in Barnsley and the neighbourhood, and I must say that 250 members are not enough for a population of such magnitude. You must double that before we have another anniversary. Let every member try to find another member, and then the thing is done. Your terms are 10s. a year. How in the world can anybody buy amusement, or gratification, or enlightenment, cheaper than at 10s. a year? And I would say to the members who already belong to the institution, you have a particular motive in trying to add to your numbers. You have a large lecture theatre, a reading-room, and library; and I venture to say, if you double your numbers, you may still comfortably accommodate yourselves in your lecture-hall, reading-room, and library, while your fixed expenses remain the same. If your income at the present is 130l. a year, your fixed charges will be from 70l. to 80l., leaving you not more than 50l. for the purposes of lectures, purchasing newspapers, and such-like things. Your current expenses must be going on, whether you have few or many members; and, therefore, by increasing your numbers, the additional subscriptions you get will be so much gain in the way of providing education, and increased attraction in your institution.


I think you ought also to try to establish a school in connection with this institution. That is one of the most useful of the adjuncts of the Huddersfield and other mechanics' institutions. I would recommend you to endeavour to connect a school with this institution, as a feeder to it, for it is by means of schools that you are to get members. If, in consequence of the advice given by our friend, Mr. Wilderspin, twenty years ago, there had been an infant-school established in every village, you would not have wanted customers for your mechanics' institutions; they would have grown up around you. And this brings me to the question—leaving for a moment this institution—what were these institutions established for? Not as a system of education, but to supplement the want of education, and we want the education still which we wanted when these institutions were founded. I know that it is made a vexed question, and to some extent a party question. I never regarded it as a party question. I don't care through what it comes. Give me voluntary education, or State education—but education I want. I cannot accept statistics to prove the number of people who attend schools—to prove that the people are educated, because I cannot shut my eyes to what is evident to my senses,—that the people are not educated,—that they are not being educated. I was talking only yesterday with a merchant in Manchester, who told me that he had attended at the swearing-in of the militia in one of the largest manufacturing towns of England, and that not one-half of those sworn in could read, and not one-third could sign their names. Now, without wishing to utter any fanatical opinion with regard to the Peace question, I must say, with all sincerity, I think it would have been much better to hand these young men over to the schoolmaster rather than to the drill-sergeant; for I think the safety of this country would be more promoted by teaching them to read and write than by teaching them to face-about-right rightly.


I was talking this subject over to an old friend of mine at Preston, and he said, 'I attended the coroner one day last week at an inquest. There were thirteen jurymen; five signed their names, and eight made their mark.' Can I shut my eyes to what is going on around us? I cannot; and, therefore, I say, we are not an educated people; and I say it is our duty, and our safety calls upon us, to see that the people are educated; and I know of no place more fitting to discuss this subject than in such a meeting as this, because I take it for granted you are all interested in it. You all admit the deficiency of juvenile instruction, or you would not have attended to the defective adult education. We are not an educated people, and I have no hesitation in asserting that, in point of school learning, the mass of the English people are the least instructed of any Protestant community in the world. I say that deliberately. I remember quite well, at the time of the Hungarian emigration into this country after the revolution, a very distinguished minister or religious teacher of Hungary was talking to me on the subject of our education, and I told him a large portion of our people could neither read nor write. He could not believe it, and said, 'If it is true a large proportion of your people can neither read nor write, how do you maintain your constitutional franchises and your political liberties? Why, it is evident to me that your institutions are rather ahead of your people, and that this self-government is only a habit with you.' It is a habit, and we will cling to it and hold it; but I want a safer foundation. I want to have our self-government a habit of appreciation—something our people will be proud of, not simply a habit; and there is no security unless it is based upon a wider intelligence of the people than we meet with at the present moment. It meets us at every turn—you can't do anything in social reform but you are met with the question of education. Take the question of sanitary reform. Why do people live in bad cellars, surrounded by filth and disease? You may say it is their poverty, but their poverty comes as much from their ignorance as their vices; and their vices often spring from their ignorance. The great mass of the people don't know what the sanitary laws are; they don't know that ventilation is good for health; they don't know that the miasma of an unscavenged street or impure alley is productive of cholera and disease. If they did know these things, people would take care they inhabited better houses; and if people were only more careful in their habits than they are, and husbanded their means, they might get into better houses. And when I hear persons advocate temperance, which I, as one of the most temperate men in the world, always like to hear advocated, I say the best way is to afford them some other occupation or recreation than that which is derived only through their senses—the best way is to give them education. If the working man is deprived of those recreations which consist of the intellectual and moral enjoyments that education and good training give, he naturally falls into the excitement of sensual indulgence, because excitement all human beings must have. Therefore, when you wish to make them more temperate, and secure moral and sanitary and social improvements among the working-classes, education, depend upon it, must be at the bottom of it all.


Gentlemen, I see in different parts of the country a great social quarrel going on between different classes of the community. For instance, in the town of Preston, you have 20,000 to 30,000 persons out of work; and there is in that place not a chimney but is cold and cheerless—neither smoke nor steam cheering your eyes. Look at the destitution and misery caused by laying a town in this state for a month or six weeks. Why is this? I answer, it springs from ignorance. Not ignorance confined to one party in the dispute. It is ignorance on both sides, and deplorable is its result. But do you suppose that when the world becomes more enlightened, you will have such a scene as this,—of a whole community stopping its labours for a month or six weeks, and creating misery, immorality, and destitution, that may not be removed for five or six years to come? When masters and men understand the principles upon which the rate of wages and profits depend, they will settle their matters and arrange their differences in a less bungling way than that which now brings so much misery upon all parties to the quarrel. Even now, however, we see great progress in this respect. I remember the time when the cessation of labour by 25,000 persons would have led to riot and disturbance, and the calling out of the military. This is not to be seen now. We see passive resistance and firmness to an extent which, if they had policy and propriety at their back, would be highly desirable and most commendable. But we shall probably live to see the time when another step will be taken onward. You will live to see the time when men will settle these matters, not by resorting to blind passion, by vituperation, and counter-vituperation—when the question of wages will be left to the master and man to arrange according to their own interest—when the whole question of wages and the rate of wages will be settled just as quietly as you now see the price of any article fixed in the public market. I am not saying one word of the merits of either side upon this question. Both parties think themselves right, and both are, no doubt, right in attempting to get the best price they can, the one for his labour, and the other for his capital; but if there were more intelligence upon this question—if the laws were better understood which decide finally and inexorably the relative value of labour as well as everything else, these matters would be settled without that hideous amount of suffering which I deplore to see accompanying these strikes and troubles in the manufacturing districts. And when I say, gentlemen, that intelligence will put an end to these things, I am only saying that will be done here which has already been done in America. You cannot point to an instance in America, where people have more education than they have here, of the total cessation from labour of a whole community, of an entire town given over as a prey to destitution. You cannot point out such an instance in America; neither will you see it in England, when that intelligence and enlightenment which these institutions are intended to promote shall be spread throughout our country.


Well, this brings me back again to the point that we want schools—schools to teach people these principles—schools to teach people from their youth to take a calm and reasoning view of the things which affect their interest, and so to educate them, that they shall not allow others to lead them away by appeals to their passions. We shall never be safe as a manufacturing and mining community until a school invariably grows up along with every manufactory and at the mouth of every pit and mine in the kingdom. Now, I must here again allude to America. When I came through Manchester the other day, I found many of the most influential manufacturing capitalists talking very gravely upon a report which had reached them from a gentleman who was selected by the Government to go out to America, to make a report upon the Great Exhibition in New York. That gentleman was one of the most eminent of the mechanicians and machine-makers of Manchester, employing a very large number of work-people, renowned for the quality of his productions, and known in the scientific world, and whose scientific attainments were appreciated from the astronomer-royal downwards. He has been over to New York to report upon the progress of mechanics and mechanical arts in the United States. Well, he has returned. No report from him to the Government has, as yet, been published, and what he has to say specifically upon the subject will not be known until that report has been so made and published to the country. But it has oozed out in Manchester among his neighbours, that he has found in America a degree of intelligence among the manufacturing operatives, and a state of things in the mechanical arts, which have convinced him that, if we are to hold our own—if we are not to fall back in the rear in the race of nations—we must educate our people, so as to put them upon a level with the more educated artisans of the United States. We shall all have an opportunity of judging of this matter when that report is issued; but sufficient has already oozed out among his neighbours to excite a great interest, and, I may say, some alarm. Well, I am delighted to find an intelligent man has been selected for this duty, for all the world will approve of the selection made, because the gentleman alluded to was fully competent to the task; and he has come back to tell us it is necessary to educate the people.


I went to that country twenty years ago, and I published a record of my opinions. That was written in 1835, and I stated that England would be brought to the consciousness that it was to that country she would have to look with apprehension as to manufacturing rivalry; and now I am delighted that it should turn out as I have stated, that it has come from a quarter—from a person so well qualified to procure correct information, that no one will question the truth of his report when it comes out. I say I am delighted, because I want England to know her danger, if there is one. Napoleon used to say to those in communication with him, 'If you have any bad news to tell me, awake me at any hour of the night, for good news will keep, but bad news I cannot know too soon.' I say, then, I am delighted with this, for let but Englishmen know of a danger to face, and of a difficulty to surmount, and there is nothing within the compass of human capacity which they will not accomplish; but the great misfortune is, that Englishmen are too much given up to and incrusted with their insular pride and prejudice,—a sort of Chinese notion of superiority, that they will not awaken up and use their eyes as to what is going on in other countries until it is too late. I am glad, therefore, that this question is to be brought forward; but why should America be better educated than England? Do you think that a new country, which has the wilderness to cultivate, primeval forests to level, roads to make, and every bridge and church to erect,—do you think that such a country is in a position to rival an old country, if that country will only do its duty to its people? No; an old country has greater advantages and facilities at command than a new one; and if you find a new country beating an old one in this matter, depend upon it, it is because of some fault in the old one. We don't read in ancient Greece, when she sent forth her colonies, that they became the teachers of the mother country. No; Athens always remained the teacher of the whole world. And it is a shame if a new people, sent out from us only yesterday, is to be held up for our admiration and example, and this, too, in the matter of education.


Now, I hope that it won't be said that there is anything in these remarks which is out of place in an assembly such as this. We are all here, at all events, presumed to feel an interest in the subject of education, and therefore anxious to promote it. And I don't despair even now. I should not despair of this country, if the people of this country would only resolve to do it, surpassing all the world in education in a generation or two. But we must not refuse to adopt the improved machinery of other countries. We must not be like the Chinese with their junks, who refuse to build their ships after our improved model; we must not refuse to adopt what we see in other countries if better than our own. If we see the Americans beating us in their spinning-jennies and in their sailing-boats, we adopt their improvements; if they send over a yacht which beats ours, we send over and build one which will beat them; if a man comes over and picks our locks, we may wonder how it is he makes better locks than we do, but we buy them; and so it is in other matters of this kind. But, on the question of education, they have in the United States adopted a system which we in this country have not adopted, except in Scotland to some extent; and what is so natural as that we should follow the same rule in this matter as we do in the manufacture of our machines for spinning cotton, and in the construction of our ships? I take it that, the result being in favour of American education, it proves that they have adopted better means than we have; and, if we would rival them, we must not be ashamed to adopt their plan, if better than our own. There is not any party, I believe, now opposed to education; none who do not think that there is more danger from ignorance in our present artificial state than in education. Whatever our political predilections, there is not one who will not say—whatever we are doomed to undergo, whether proceeding from a straitening of circumstances, from a decline of our commerce, or from difficulties of a strictly political character—whatever there may be in store for us of troubles and distresses—there is nobody but will say we had better have an educated people to meet them than have to encounter them with masses of ignorance and untrained passion; for, after all, the masses of the people do govern in this country—they are called on in the last resort. Everyone must admit it is better to have an arbitrator who is trained to discuss reasons and to deduce facts from evidence—it is better to have minds of this sort to settle great national questions, than to refer such mighty interests to the arbitrament of ignorance and passion.


Now, ladies and gentlemen, if I have said too much on this subject to you, and to those elsewhere who may read what we are now saying, I must tell you that I feel so strongly upon it, that, when among a body of men met together in favour of education, I will not be responsible for withholding my opinions in reference to the want of juvenile education, for it is not possible to compensate for the want of juvenile education by means of such institutions as this. We may by such means improve the education of the people, but we cannot have a really educated and safe community, unless we begin at the beginning by training the young. I can only say, whether you look at this question of education in the interest of morality or religion, as affecting the happiness, interest, or the welfare of society—in whatever way you regard this question, you may depend upon it the very highest interests, the dignity, honour, and happiness of the people, are bound up with it.

The End


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