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 many wanderings in distant counties, I really feel myself revived on finding myself once more amongst my old friends, with the same smiling faces, the same hearts in the same places, and in this cradle of the agitation of the Anti-Corn-law League. You have heard something said of the labours which some of us have undergone for this cause. I don't know—if we could have foreseen, five years ago next month, the arduous duties upon which we were entering—whether we should have had the moral courage to undertake them. I believe we are all now willing to admit that, when we commenced the agitation of the Anti-Corn-law League, we had not the same comprehensive views of the interests and objects involved in the agitation that we now have. I am afraid, if we must confess the truth, that most of us entered upon this struggle with the belief that we had some distinct class interest in the question, and that we should carry it by a manifestation of our will in this district against the will and consent of other portions of the community. I believe that was our impression. If there is one thing which more than another has elevated and dignified and ennobled this agitation, it is that, in the progress of the last five years, we have found, gradually but steadily, that every interest and every object, which every part of the community can justly seek, harmonises perfectly with the views of the Anti-Corn law League.


I cannot help referring to the remarks which have been made by my friend Mr. Pearson, upon a subject which does not usually come under our consideration; but if there was one point which might be considered more than another likely to be a stumbling-block in the way of Free Traders, it is that question which he has so ably handled to-night; and as I know that monopoly has been drawing upon the humane feelings of the community in order to sustain its sugar monopoly, by pretending commiseration for the slaves, I am very glad indeed that this ground has been so completely and effectually cut from under them by one whose motives must be above suspicion, for he took a part in the abolition of slavery many years ago. But how few of us there were who, five years ago, believed that, in seeking the repeal of the Corn-law, we were also seeking the benefit of the agriculturists! And if we had not had the five years' experience we have—if we had not persevered for the five years that we have been in existence as a League—we should not have had the opportunity of demonstrating the benefits which agriculture will receive from the adoption of the principles of Free Trade. This only proves, gentlemen, that what is true requires but time to establish it in men's minds. Time and truth against all the world. But you must have time; and that time which destroys everything else only establishes truth. We had at the commencement of our career to encounter the agriculturists, flushed with prosperity from high prices; and they believed that their prosperity would be permanent, as many of us believed that our adversity would be permanent. But it has been found that what then injured us reacted upon those who thought that they had an interest in injuring us. There is nothing inconsistent in our position to say that the agriculturists have derived no benefit from the injury inflicted upon us.


We are told sometimes that we are inconsistent, because we don't admit that the agriculturists benefit by our injury. It would be very monstrous indeed, in the moral government of this world, if one class of the community could permanently benefit at the expense of the misery and suffering of the rest. But, gentlemen, here is this important distinction to be borne in mind, that although agriculturists may not benefit themselves ultimately, that is no reason why they should not inflict great misery upon us. You may strike a blow, and, though that blow may be mortal to another, its recoil may be mortal to yourselves; but it is no less a mortal blow to him you strike, because you strike yourselves also. Now, we required this experience to show the agriculturist that his permanent interest is in the prosperity of his customers, and if we have done nothing else in the five years that we have been in existence than to show the agriculturists what is their true interest, and to show them also what they are capable of doing upon the soil, we should have spent all our money and all our labour to very good purpose. I have been into most parts of the country amongst the agriculturists,—I may say, by the way, that I have been exceedingly well received by the great body of the agriculturists—that I have no reason to complain of the courtesy either of the land-owners or the farmers in any part where I have been—that I have found men, noblemen and gentlemen, directly opposed to me and my views, who have yet not hesitated on many occasions to take the chair at our meetings, and to secure a fair hearing and fair play for all parties; and this I venture to say, that there is not a county in England where I have been to address a meeting, where I should not be as well received at any farmers' market ordinary, as any landowner professing to be a 'farmer's friend' in that county.


Well, I have naturally taken some interest since my return in what has been going on in the counties that I have visited; and I say that, if our agitation has had no other advantage than in the stimulus it has given to the agricultural community, our money and our time will have been well expended. I never take up a newspaper now from the agricultural districts, containing a report of one of their agricultural meetings (and this is the period of the year when they are holding them in all parts), but I find, mingled with occasional apprehensions of what the League is going to do, one universal cry—'Improve your agriculture.' There is not one of the Members of Parliament, who sit on the monopolist benches, and who has gone amongst his constituents to attend their agricultural dinners, but has carried with him some one panacea or other that is to enable farmers to brave the rivalry which they now see is inevitable with foreign countries. One says, 'Subsoil your land;' another, 'Thorough-drain your land;' another, 'Grub up your fences;' another, 'Take care and improve the breed of stock;' another, 'You have not good farmsteads for your manure;' and one worthy gentleman of my own county, Sussex, Sir Charles Burrell, has gone back to the nostrum, that the farmers must take to growing white carrots. Well, it is something, at all events, to find that there is now acknowledged to be room for improvement in British agriculture.


But we have further acknowledgments, which are very important indeed in our case. I took up a newspaper—I had one sent to me yesterday—from Essex. There I find that a meeting has been held in Colchester, and the gentleman who presides (the president of the East Essex Agricultural Society) is the gentleman who signed the printed circular that was sent round throughout that division of the county, begging the farmers and agriculturists generally to come up and put me down when I visited Colchester. Now, I'll give you the opinion of this gentleman upon the Corn-law:—

'Mr. Bawtry said he had no pretensions to be a prophet; but if so, he should predict that, at no very distant period, agriculture would be left to stand upon its own legs—that the adventitious protection which it now derived from legislative enactments would be withdrawn; and, therefore, the question for the farmers was, how should they be best prepared to meet the crisis?'

Well, what is his remedy?—

'He thought it would be at once admitted that their sole consideration must be to make up the deficiency in the value of agricultural produce, by increasing the amount of production.'

Now, gentlemen, this is an important admission—that they have not hitherto done as much as they might have done to improve the cultivation; and it is an admission, too, that they are only now stimulated to make by our agitation.


But what can be done? I don't come here to talk agriculture to you on my own knowledge; but I quote from the speeches of gentlemen opposed to us at their agricultural meetings. What then can be done? I see that a Mr. Fisher Hobbes (and I may tell you that Mr. Fisher Hobbes wrote a letter in the newspapers against me in Essex, and that he is one of the most eminent agriculturists there) says, at the same dinner,—

'He was aware that a spirit of improvement was abroad. Much was said about the tenant-farmers doing more. He agreed they might do more: the soil of the country was capable of greater production, if he said one-fourth more, he should be within compass. But that could not be done by the tenant-farmer alone: they must have confidence; it must be done by leases; by draining, by extending the length of fields, by knocking down hedgerows, and clearing away trees which now shielded the corn. They did not want trees, which, if they stood for forty years, were not in a much better position, but were only worth, perhaps, 2s., while at the same time they were reducing the value of the crop from 20s. to 30s. a-year.'

Well, gentlemen, here is some homage paid, at all events, to the Anti-Corn-law agitation—the admission, by one of the highest authorities in Essex, that the land can produce one-fourth more than it has produced. I see at the meeting of the Liverpool Association, Lord Stanley makes a similar statement; and a Mr. Binns, who was one of the judges of stock, at the same meeting declares that the land is capable of producing double as much—as much again as it now produces. Well, now, let us take the lowest estimate—let us suppose that one-fourth more can be produced. We produce only about twenty million quarters of wheat; it appears, now, that the land can produce, and ought to produce, five million quarters of wheat more. That would have saved us all the famine we went through for four years after the beginning of our agitatation. Why has this not been produced? Lord Stanley says, in his speech at Liverpool, 'The farmers must not, now-a-days, stand, as their fathers and grandfathers did, with their hands behind their backs, fast asleep.' But I want to ask Lord Stanley why the farmers' fathers and grandfathers stood fast asleep, with their hands behind their backs? I charge Lord Stanley, who came down to Lancaster and talked about Tamboff being able to send here an enormous quantity of wheat—a man who, knowing better (I cannot charge him with ignorance)—a man who, knowing better all the while, pandered to the very ignorance he is now complaining of in the farmers, by telling them that a single province in Russia could send 38,000,000 quarters of corn here to swamp them. I charge it upon Lord Stanley, and others of his class and order, the politicians who tell the farmer not to rely upon his own exertions, but upon Parliamentary protection; I charge it on these men that they are responsible for the farmers having stood with their hands behind their backs.


Well, gentlemen, then it seems that one of the effects of the agitation of the League is, that agriculture is to improve, and we are to have at least one-fourth more corn produced at home—we may have double; with all my heart, and we may then do very well without going 3000 or 4000 miles for corn; but, in the name of common sense and common justice, I say, don't starve the people here till your prating statesmen, that come down once a year to talk at their agricultural dinners, have devised some plan by which the people may be fed at home, according to their notions of production—don't presume entirely to stop any inlet for corn from abroad which the people here may require to keep them from starvation. I have never been one who believed that the repeal of the Corn-laws would throw an acre of land out of cultivation. But not only now does it appear that land is not to be thrown out of cultivation, but, if we may take the testimony of these gentlemen themselves, all that is required is free trade in corn, in order that they may produce one-fourth more than they do now. And that, recollect, when we are told by the very same parties—and their newspapers are now rife with the same arguments—that our object is to bring agricultural labourers into the manufacturing districts in order to reduce wages there. But what do these very gentlemen admit? That you must increase cultivation, and that increased cultivation, as they well know, can only go on by additional employment of labour upon the soil. You must have more labour to lay down the draining tiles of which Lord Stanley speaks, and which he recommended to the land-owners of Yorkshire and Lancashire. You cannot grub up hedges, you cannot grub up thorns, you cannot drain or ditch, or make any improvement, but you must call into employment more agricultural labour. Our object, therefore, is not to diminish the demand for labour in the agricultural districts, but I verily believe, if the principles of Free Trade were fairly carried out, they would give just as much stimulus to the demand for labour in the agricultural as in the manufacturing districts. Oh, but it is pleasant to find gentlemen who have been asleep (for they have been quite as much asleep as the farmers have), going down to their agricultural dinners, and paying these tributes to the men of Manchester, who, by these fly-flappers, have managed to rouse them into a little activity. These squires at dinner remind me of the story of Rip Van Winkle, who awoke from his thirty years' sleep, rubbing his eyes, and looking about him for his old scenes and old connections, and wondering where he was. So these squires are rubbing their eyes, and opening them, for the first time, to a sense of their real situation. Having worked round our agitation to this point, I think that, so far as argument goes, our labours are nearly at an end. I think the whole case, so far as discussion goes, is given up, by the reports of the late agricultural meetings.


We are the great agricultural improvers of this country. Amongst the other glories which will attach to the name of Manchester will be this, that the Manchester men not only brought manufactures to perfection, but that they made the agriculturists also, in spite of themselves, bring their trade to perfection. Now, though the agriculturists have much to learn, and many improvements to make, they are doubtless very much in advance of most of the agriculturists in other countries. The only fault is, that they don't keep so much in advance as the manufacturers do. But that they are in advance of most other countries I think we have sufficient proof; and I was reading an American paper this very morning which gives an illustration of that in a way that must be quite consolatory to those squires who are afraid that they cannot compete with the Americans. I see that at an agricultural meeting in the State of New York, held at Rochester, on the 20th September, Mr. Wadsworth, their president, in the course of his speech, said, in speaking of this country,—

'We have tried the English in the field of war and on the ocean, and the result had been such that neither might be ashamed. But there was a more appropriate field of contest—the ploughed field—and while England could raise forty bushels on an acre, whilst we could raise but fifteen, we must acknowledge that she was pretty hard to whip, meet her where we may.'


Well, then, gentlemen, we are constantly met and taunted with this objection:—'If you are not going to get corn cheap, what's the advantage to be?—how are you to be able to reduce wages, and so compete with the foreigner?' Now, you know this has been a weak invention of the enemy, in order to lead the working classes upon a wrong scent; but I think the experience of the last twelvemonth has had one good effect, at all events, that of convincing the working people in this district that lower-priced food does not mean also employment at lower wages. The object of Free Trade is not to take foreign corn, and to prevent the home-grown corn from being sold; but we have gone upon the assumption—I don't know whether we are correct or not, but I am afraid we are—that the people of this country have never been sufficiently fed with good wheaten bread. We have had a notion that, to four millions at least in Ireland (and Ireland has its Corn-law as well as England), wheaten bread is a luxury only seen occasionally, and never tasted; and we have a notion that there are one and a half or two millions at the least in this country, who eat a great deal too much of that root, against the use of which I join somewhat in Cobbett's prejudice—the potato—unless it is accompanied with a good joint of roast beef,—and too little wheaten bread. Well, the object of the Free Traders is (it may be very trite to tell you, but we must reiterate these old arguments, for they are always the best arguments), that these people may all be able to get a bit of wheaten bread if they like to work for it. And this, without preventing the farmers at home from sending their corn to market, but by enabling the whole of the working-classes to purchase more of the necessaries and comforts of life. Now I heard this case put at Doncaster the other day, by Mr. Wrightson, the member for Northallerton—a most estimable man and a large landed proprietor in the West Riding of Yorkshire—as properly as I have heard it put for a long time. He says:—

'The great delusion of our landed gentry is this: they think, if they can prevent the hand-loom weaver exchanging his web for the corn of America, that they keep that man at home, a customer to themselves. Now (he says) that is our greatest delusion. If we would allow that man to exchange his web for American corn, he would then have a considerable surplus of earnings to lay out with us for fresh meat, for vegetables, for butter, milk, cheese, and other things. But if we prevent that man exchanging his web for the corn of America, we deprive ourselves of him as a customer for those articles, and we are obliged to subsist him altogether as a pauper.'

And, gentlemen, I may say it is a matter of proud congratulation to us that we find in this country men of the stamp of Mr. Wrightson, and of that noble Earl who joined him on that occasion at the meeting at Doncaster. It is a subject of proud congratulation for us that we have men of that stamp belonging to our landed aristocracy. I have myself always had the impression that we should find such men come out to join us. It is something peculiar to the English character, to individuality of character, that you will find men, whatever may be their apparent motives for going with their order, who will have the moral courage to come out and join the people; and I augur well from the presence of Lord Fitzwilliam at our meeting. I hope Lord Spencer will be the next to follow. I hope that such a manly example as has been set by Mr. Samuel Jones Loyd in London,—for most manly it was in a gentleman of his reputation, and of his notorious wealth, to join the League at the very moment that it was suffering under the opprobrium attempted to be fastened upon it by a millionnaire of the City,—a most manly act it was of Mr. Samuel Jones Loyd at that time to throw himself into the ranks of the Leaguers; and, I say, I hope the example of such men as my Lord Fitzwilliam and Mr. S. J. Loyd will be followed by others nearer home, in Manchester.


I can make allowance for, and can duly appreciate, the causes which may deter gentlemen of influence—gentlemen to whom parties look up, whom a wide circle respect and follow in every movement; I can make allowance for the caution with which they may hesitate to join such a body as the Anti-Corn-law League; but I put it to them, whatever their political opinions may be, whether the time is not now come at which they can with safety and propriety join us as a body, and whether we have not given them guarantee sufficient, by the prudence and the caution, and, I will say, the self-denial with which we have carried on our proceedings, that they will run no risk, whatever opinions they may have on other subjects than that of Free Trade, of having those opinions in the slightest degree offended, or prejudiced in any way, by joining us forthwith in this agitation.


Gentlemen, I think our proceedings have now been brought to that point where we have disseminated sufficient knowledge through the country, that we see the harvest now ripening for the sickle, and we must be prepared with the husbandman to gather in the harvest. It has been under that impression that the Council of the Anti-Corn-law League has determined on a course of action which I will just now briefly refer to, as the course which we intend to pursue in future. It has been thought that we have distributed information sufficient amongst the electoral body to have given us a very considerable and preponderating strength among the electors. The next step must be to organise and render efficient that strength amongst the electors. Now, we have gone to work in this agitation with the full conviction that we may carry out the principles of Free Trade with the present constitution of Parliament. We may be right, or we may be wrong; we are not responsible for the Parliament as it exists; we did not make the present constituencies as they are; we did not distribute the franchise as it is distributed; but as we find the constituencies, we, as practical men, must go to work upon them; and through the constituencies, through the electoral body, is the only righteous and just means of carrying the repeal of the Corn-laws. Now, I have never doubted that the object may be gained through the present electoral body. I have always found, on looking back to the history of past events, that public opinion, when well expressed, could carry its end in this country, even when the constituency was not one-hundredth part so favourable to the expression of public opinion as it is now. Well, on looking at the present state of the constituencies of this country, the Council of the League remembered that we have certain very large constituencies, which are generally favourable to Free Trade. We have such places as Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, and a great many others, where there will never be another contest on the subject of Free Trade. I venture to say, too, that not one of the boroughs in Scotland will have to fight a battle in favour of Free Trade. But the representatives of these large boroughs are countervailed in Parliament by the votes of smaller constituencies, like St. Albans and Sudbury. How do you get over that difficulty? Why, do you believe that the electors of Sudbury and St. Albans are more favourable to monopoly in their hearts than the electors of Manchester or Birmingham? No; they are just as intelligent, just as rightly disposed as we are; but they are not placed in such a favourable position for giving expression to their opinions. How is that to be remedied? I say, lay Manchester and Birmingham alongside of St. Albans and Sudbury, and you will give them a moral influence and support, and, by persevering in a local way, you will beat down the influence of the local monopolist squire who has been hitherto able to domineer over the inhabitants of those small boroughs. I speak of these boroughs merely as a type of others, where there has been no countervailing power to step in and prevent the neighbouring tyrants from domineering over the constituencies.


The Council of the League have, therefore, determined that their future operations shall be strictly electoral. You have heard that we intend to arrange in London a collection of all the registration lists as soon as they are published in December; we will have in a central office in London every registration list in the United Kingdom. We will have a ledger, and a large one, too, and we will first of all record, in the very first page, the City of London, provided it returns Mr. Pattison; and if not, we will have Manchester first. In this ledger we shall enter first, in due succession, each in a page, every borough that is perfectly safe in its representation for Free Trade. There will be a second list—a second class—those boroughs that send Members to Parliament who are moderate monopolists, who have notions about differential duties and fixed duties; and we will have another class, for those who are out-and-out monopolists. Well, we may tick off those boroughs that are safe; we go to work in the next place in those boroughs that are represented by moderate monopolists, to make them send Free Traders, and we will urge upon them in particular to canvass the electors, and send up a majority of their signatures requiring their Members to vote for Mr. Villiers' motion at the beginning of next session. We will make a selection of so many boroughs as shall be sufficient to give us a majority in the House; and I take it that those boroughs will not require to have more than 300,000 electors, and upon those 300,000 electors we will begin our fire. We will give them, through the penny postage, full acquaintance with all our proceedings; we will furnish them with arguments, put them in possession of the latest tactics of the enemy, so that they shall have the refutation of the youngest-born fallacy always at their fingers' ends. We intend to visit them by deputation. If my friend Bright takes one set, and I take another, we may get over a great many of them. And we will take somebody else with us. We will convene these meetings from London; we will send our circulars from London; there shall be no party work, the business shall not go into the hands of local cliques at all. We will take a room, and meet the electors by appointment there, without the co-operation of any local leaders, so as to excite no jealousy on either side. And when we have got them there, we shall try and put this Free Trade question upon neutral grounds, and see if we cannot find honest men in all parties who will join us in putting down monopoly. We will organise them; we will not go without leaving traces behind us, and we will leave an organisation to work after we are gone; and we shall take care to bring away with us a list of the best men in the borough, with whom we may correspond on particular business. I was told by an old electioneerer in London, one who had dipped his fingers pretty deep into the system we are going to put down,—'You will frighten them more than anything, if you carry out that part of your plan of going down to see the electors.' It is the very thing we intend to do; and we will do it ourselves, too. It is not merely intimidation we have to contend with in these small boroughs; the system of bribery at the last election was carried out to an extent which few people in this Hall, perhaps hardly one, have ever dreamt of even in your worst suspicions. The boroughs were literally put up to auction at the Carlton Club—ay, and at the Reform Club, too—at the last general election; a price was fixed upon them; and men went up to London to these cliques and coteries to know how much they could buy boroughs for. We have got an alteration of the law, which enables any public body that determines to take that patriotic task in hand, to prosecute these bribers in a way that they very little dreamt of when they passed that law. Now, we intend, as one of the glorious objects of the Anti-Corn-law League, to put down for ever the system of bribery in this country. We can expose the intimidators, and raise a pretty loud cry against them; and we will expose them wherever they are found exercising their tyrannical acts. But the bribers we can and will put down by a jury of our countrymen.


I have often expressed my astonishment that no society was ever formed similar to the Anti-Felony Societies in the agricultural districts for the prosecution of sheep-stealers, whose object was to put down bribery. Nothing is so simple; it ought to be done in London by the House of Commons. But what is the process now? A man gets into Parliament by bribery; the defeated candidate petitions the House to unseat him; a Committee is appointed to examine into the case; the whole system of bribery is laid bare in that Committee; the scoundrels who have been the actors in it are there, blocking up the lobbies of the House, enough to make a man's blood run chill as he passes them; there they are, day after day, exposing their acts of perjury and subornation; while the result is, the Committee declares the sitting Member unseated; the candidate who petitioned has to pay just the same expense as the man who is unseated, and he may go and stand again if he likes, and go through the same ordeal for his pains. What does a Committee of the House of Commons do when these men are proved guilty of the worst crime that can be conceived,—for what crime can be more heinous than buying and selling the franchises, by which the laws of this country are framed? If a man has his pocket picked of his handkerchief, if the felony is made public, he is bound to prosecute, otherwise he is held to be an accessory after the fact; and if he had taken his passage to America, the magistrates would make him stop and prosecute the felon. Yet the House of Commons allows all these nefarious practices to go on under its own roof, and never takes one step to vindicate its character with the country. I told them in the House, on the occasion of Lord Dungannon's exposure,—Sir Robert Peel was present,—'If you do not order your Attorney-General to prosecute these men, I will belong to a society out of doors that shall undertake that task for him.'


The thing can be done; you may put down bribery. It has been practised to an extent of which you are perfectly unconscious. With the exception of some of the new boroughs—and even some of them have been touched with this canker—there is hardly a pure borough to be found in the south of England. To put the system down there will require a vigorous effort; and the plan that the League has now adopted in London will, I hope, do more than anything else that could be done to convince these traffickers in seats that we are in earnest. There is a placard now spread throughout London, headed with the Queen's arms, offering a reward of 100l. for the evidence that shall go to convict any one who is guilty of either offering or taking a bribe. The course is by indictment in a criminal court, and a conviction ensures the offender twelve months' imprisonment, at least; and I hope that we shall manage to bring some high game before a jury of our countrymen. You will not convict men before a Committee of the House of Commons. There was Lord Dungan. non, who wrote a cheque for 700l., and sent to his agent; that agent was proved to have just handed over the money to the men who voted for Lord Dungannon; Lord Dungannon is unseated, he is incompetent to sit again during this Parliament, and yet the Committee declared there is no proof that bribery was practised with the cognizance of Lord Dungannon. Now, I would like to see some of these Lord Dungannons brought before a jury—an honest jury—of twelve of our countrymen. Well, gentlemen, the object we have in view is to remove a mighty injustice, and the effort that it will require will be commensurate. But the effort will be made, and of its success I entertain no doubt whatever.

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