Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School

Edited by: Hirst, Francis W.
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London: Harper and Brothers
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Collected essays and speeches by various writers, including Richard Cobden and John Bright, 1820-1896
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Part V, Essay II



The following extract is taken from a speech by W. J. Fox, delivered at Royton to some of his Oldham constituents, on February 12th, 1853.


IN speaking to you on the present occasion, I labour under one disadvantage. I have already addressed two very large meetings in the borough of Oldham. I have forestalled much which I might have said to you on the present occasion; and I have no wish to repeat here what I have already said in another place; but as on those two occasions I adverted to various points of political interest;—as the circumstances of those meetings, and the addresses delivered to me, and the presents made to me, led me to speak of the place of woman in society, of the influence she was qualified to exert, and of the influence which she ought to possess;—as they led me to speak of the general cause of reform and its advocates, of their history, and of their prospects;—as they led me to enter into the subject of education in its various phases, and especially in its relation to and its connection with the suffrage;—as I had also occasion at those meetings to speak of labour, its duties and its rights—to speak of it as the lot of a large portion of humanity, but as a lot which had been manfully endured, and would be working out, as I trust, its own way to improvement, physical, mental, and moral;—as I had to speak of excessive labour, and of my wish for its being reduced so that all might have the opportunity for mental culture as well as for reasonable enjoyment;—I shall pass by those topics on the present occasion, and address myself to that which relates to all of them indeed—namely, to the very spirit and essence of political institutions—to the motive of political zeal—to that which I deem more important than any of the external paraphernalia of mere institutions.


I say, then, that in my view the great end and aim of all politics—the reason why any rational or good man should meddle with politics—is this, that they should be rendered subservient to the development of humanity—to the maturing of man in mind and body, spirit and circumstances; to the making of man—I speak of man and woman under the generic term—all that the great Creator intended him to be and has formed him capable of being. And I believe that every human being that comes into the world has, as the motto of the ring they gave me at Oldham expressed it, education for his or her birthright. I believe that we are entitled to it by the dispensations of nature and of Providence, and that every one in society who bears his part as a citizen is fairly and inherently entitled to his share in the management of the concerns of the community of which he is a member. But why is all this? It is that men and women should be more happy as men and women, not as beasts of burden, or beasts of the field, and still less as brutes and savages of the forest. It is that they may show the intellectual powers and the moral dispositions which belong to our common nature; those which it should be the object of all political arrangements and of all institutions to bring to full maturity—that we may say of each, as was said of Brutus in Shakespeare's play of Julius Cæsar

'His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world, This was a man.'


Well, now, this is not the object of many forms of government; but I say it is the test by which they should be tried. I say that it is my motive for embarking with so much earnestness in a political career. I say it is that by which we may bring to trial the different systems of government. What does the Emperor of Austria or the Czar of Russia think man was made for? Why, he holds

'The monstrous faith of millions made for one;'

he thinks men were made to be his soldiers, his servants, his slaves. Millions have died that one man might be called lord; millions have pined in bondage that one might believe that he holds the sceptre of dominion over boundless regions, and that the human beings that live upon the soil are but as so many insects crawling upon the earth in his august presence. Well, I say that human beings cannot thrive under such an arrangement. Humanity sinks, shrivels up, becomes a poor and a despicable thing.


Well, then, there is another theory of politics; and that is, that if we do not exist for one, we exist for a few. There are certain privileged classes whose minds are to be loaded with all the accomplishment and learning of the time; whose houses are to be adorned with all that is grand and beautiful; who are to be the hereditary leaders and chieftains of that portion of the human race which is found in the country where they dwell. This is the old feudal system, by which one man is to be nourished as in a hothouse to an unnatural degree of expansion, while all the rest are left to 'bide the pelting of the pitiless storm' as they may, and are to be only an inferior caste in his presence. It was on such a theory as this that a member of the late Government, in his juvenile days, spoke out a sentiment of which I hope he has lived to be ashamed, but which expresses the political theory that many still hold—I allude to those memorable lines by Lord John Manners, in which he exclams—

'Let laws and learning, art and science, die;
But leave us still our old nobility.'

Well, I believe we could do much better without our 'old nobility' than without law and learning, and art and science.


There is still another theory, which gives, I think, too low an estimate of government and of politics—I mean that of Edmund Burke, who, in his great admiration of our judicial institutions, says that the whole Constitution of England—I do not remember his exact words, but I know I quote the sentiment correctly—King, and Lords and Commons, Church and State—all exist to put twelve honest men into a jury-box. Well, the putting of twelve men into a jury-box is a very desirable thing, especially in times of political persecution; it is our best shield against arbitrary authority; and it is a good thing that our institutions accomplish that; but that is not the whole great object of human life. Government, society, institutions, are surely meant for something better than mere police work—merely to keep one man from picking another's pocket, or breaking his head. It is well that they should do this; but that is not enough.


There is still another theory of society—that of the late wit, Sydney Smith, who said that roast mutton and claret were the great end and object of all government, law, and order. Well, that is a very pleasant theory to the people who can enjoy the roast mutton and claret; but how is it to those who find a difficulty in getting any kind of meat, or beer with it, in order to support their existence?


I can never believe but that men are united in society for some better purpose than any of these. They are united in order that they may perform that great work of co-operation which, on a small scale, achieves so many beneficial results, and which a nation should, I think, exhibit on a large scale in all its institutions. So that I have gone into politics with this question constantly in my mind—What will your theories, your forms, your propositions, do for human nature? Will they make man more manly? Will they raise men and women in the scale of creation? Will they lift them above the brutes? Will they call forth their thoughts, their feelings, their actions? Will they make them moral beings? Will they be worthy to tread the earth as children of the common Parent, and to look forward, not only for His blessing here, but for His benignant bestowment of happiness hereafter? If institutions do this, I applaud them; if they have lower aims, I despise them; and if they have antagonistic aims, I counteract them with all my might and strength.


Well, now, let us apply this—let us see how it works. I am very partial to democratic institutions. I want to see a country governed by its inhabitants—not by one man, a few men, or a privileged class; and governed for the high and noble purposes I have endeavoured to describe. Well, I say democratic institutions are favourable to this. I say that they call forth all a man's best feelings, and his highest aspirations, and his noblest purposes—not for their own sakes, but on account of their tendency. I should not care about what we Radical reformers contend for, if all these changes which we seek were to end in themselves. Whether a man votes by ballot, putting an envelope into a box, or whether he answers a question at the hustings, and gives his vote openly—in fact, whether he votes at all or not—whether government be representative or be arbitrary,—I say that these things are comparatively worthless. It is as means that they are good, and not as ends; and I say that as means they are good. I say that when a man feels that he is recognized as a citizen—that he is not a serf, not one of a slave class—that he can walk abroad, and can exercise his due share in the nomination of those who make the laws—that he has not only the bounden obligation upon him to obey those laws, but that he has also his art and part even in the making of them by the machinery of representation; I say, when a man feels this, it makes him more a man than he was before; it teaches him to respect and venerate himself; it tends even to make him feel that violence, that falsehood, that corrupt arts, are unworthy of him; and that, being a free citizen, he should act like a free citizen, and only do that which may become a man. What is the tendency of slavery? Why, to strip a man of all the best virtues that adorn a man's nature. If a slave has virtues, what are they?—the virtues of a dog rather than of a man! He may be faithful to his owner, he may be obedient and tractable; he may fetch and carry when he is bid; and what then? Is this what man was made for? Can we show nothing higher, nothing better than this? I say, yes! And democracy is to do this for us, teaching us that we are all born free and equal, and, in the words of one of our ancient sovereigns, that 'laws which bind all, should be assented to by all.' Now, there are many people who are not looking to this tendency of democracy, and they say, if we had a perfect despot—a despot very wise and very benevolent—that would be better for us than democracy. I say, no; because, suppose the despot does go right as to the external matters of the country, or its material interests at home, and suppose the representative government does blunder—suppose the people make mistakes, and have to reconsider what they have done, and to retrace their path—still, there is this difference between the worst form of democracy and the best form of despotism—that under the despot man has not that self-respect which the self-government of a nation imparts to all who belong to that nation. You cannot give him this under a despotism, though it were the despotism of an angel or an archangel. You cannot do this. He is but a child in leading-strings, instead of a man walking straight forward in his own course, guided by his own intellect, which, if it errs, corrects itself by its errors.


Well, I apply this test to other things. I apply it to the free-trade doctrines. I say, Are those doctrines tending to raise and purify and benefit humanity? Well, I find my justification in the way they used to be attacked. What was the language of protectionists a few years ago against free traders? They said, 'You will benefit the foreigner;' or, 'If you do this, the foreigner will profit by it.' 'Levy a tax upon corn, as it will be paid by the foreigner.' They would have taught the people of this country, in the very teeth of religion, that they were to consider the foreigner as an enemy; that it was an objection to anything that it would benefit the foreigner. I trust the working people of this country have rejected and thrust from them such unchristian doctrines as these—such selfish and malevolent feelings. Why, it is one of the beauties of free trade, that if we benefit the foreigner, we benefit ourselves. If the foreigner can produce something we want, and if we can produce something which the foreigner wants, then the man who endeavours to prevent the exchange of those articles is an enemy of the human race. He opposes their material interests as well as their moral feelings. He subjects them to privation where they might have abundance; and he teaches them selfishness and enmity, where they ought to feel brotherly regard, and a common interest, and a delight in the prospect of a common course of prosperity. Well has that working man, who laboured in iron and other metals, who became the poet of the poor—I mean Ebenezer Elliott, the author of the 'Corn Law Rhymes,' who saw so much further than so many of his class at that time, and who spoke to them so emphatically on this matter—well has he sung, in one of his odes—

'Free trade like that hath doctrines of love,
  And the blessing of plenty and health;
And proclaims, while the angels look down from above,
  The marriage of labour and wealth.'

I believe that such are the arrangements of nature and Providence, that the freest intercommunication between different states is alike good for all the states concerned in it, and for the different classes of society in each and all those states. What is the end of Providence? Look abroad on the world. See how different climates produce different fruits. See how their varied productions are such, that the inhabitants of one region may reasonably be desirous to have possession of those which are produced in another region. See the infinite diversity, see the changes which a single article has to undergo—how it has to pass from country to country in order to obtain that final shape and form in which it best ministers to humanity. Look at the silkworm spinning her cocoons in the trees of Lebanon. Look at the cotton-plants, rich in their white blossoms, in the fair South of America. Why, their products cross the broad Atlantic—they come here; they are subject to your various industrial operations, and then they go back again, in order to clothe even the natives of the very country from which they came—to give them their garments: and when those garments are worn out, these very articles sometimes undergo another change; they take the form of paper, and circulate through the world the lessons of intelligence and of wisdom. I say, that free trade is a providential doctrine. It teaches us the wisdom of those arrangements by which nations may ultimately, we trust, be led into one great confederation, one brotherhood of communities, rendering and receiving mutual service.


Well, then, again, I test by this principle the influence of systems and of institutions and of policies which are favourable to knowledge on the one hand, or promotive of ignorance on the other. Try them, I say. Despotic countries always pursue a system which tends to shut out knowledge from the minds of the subjects of the despot. The late Emperor of Austria did not like new ideas. His successor, I dare say, has the same antipathy. Despots never do like new ideas, or any ideas at all, but the ideas of their power and grandeur, and of subserviency to their greatness. But spread knowledge over a nation, and what is the result? Governments assume a truer and more beneficial form; that mighty power called public opinion is created—a power which cannons cannot batter down—which bayonets cannot stab to death—which no might of princes, potentates, or armies can bring to nothing—which holds on its course in spite of all, and in due time will be sure to triumph over all.


On this principle I prefer the peace policy to a war policy. I judge them by the contrast they afford. This country has had experience of both. From 1790 to 1815 we had experience of a war policy. From 1815 to the present time we have had experience of a peace policy. What is the difference between 1790 and 1815? How many reforms were effected? how many wise and good laws were passed, for which, at this moment, you are blessing the authors? What was done, what was felt, while the war-whoop resounded through the nation? Benevolence was a thing almost to be laughed to scorn. Hatred of the French, who were called our national enemies, was burning in the minds of the great majority. The few who protested were subjected to insult, to outrage, to rioting; some of them confined for years, only for wishing to make their fellow-creatures wiser and better; others driven from their country into exile;—and the only relief to these was the blaze of illuminations, darkened by the mourning which so many families in all our large towns had to wear for relatives who had fallen in the battle. Oh, scarcely a soil was there on the face of the earth that was not fertilized by British blood; not a famous river, or a sea, that was not discoloured and stained by British blood; while treasure was poured forth like water, and the country had an enormous burden of debt left upon it that will take many a long generation yet to wipe away....

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