The Political Writings of Richard Cobden
By Richard Cobden
THE State is a severe mother. She demands from her noblest sons their intellects, their energies, and, if need be, their lives; but she is not ungrateful. The men who have guided her destinies live in grateful memory and in memory the more honoured, if to great service and lofty aims they have added disregard of self, directness of purpose, and simplicity of character. Such men become household words of the nation. They create the standard by which the nation measures itself, and by which it is measured. They strike the keynote of national character. Such a man was Richard Cobden, a type of a great Englishman to Englishmen of all times, a type in his truthfulness, in his simplicity, and in his devotion to the welfare of his countrymen…. [From the Preface by Lord Welby]
F. W. Chesson, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Collected essays, 1835-1862. First published as a collection in 1867. 4th edition. Includes Preface by Lord Welby; Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet and William Cullen Bryant.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Richard Cobden: frontispiece of Cobden's Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, courtesy of Liberty Fund, Inc.
- Volume I, Preface, by Lord Welby
- Volume I, Introduction to the Second Edition, by Sir Louis Mallet
- Volume I, Introduction to the American Edition, by William Cullen Bryant
- Volume I, Part I, Essay 1
- Volume I, Part I, Essay 2
- Volume I, Part I, Essay 3
- Volume I, Part II, Essay 1
- Volume I, Part II, Essay 2
- Volume I, Part II, Essay 3
- Volume I, Part II, Essay 4
- Volume I, Part II, Essay 5
- Volume I, Part III, Essay 1
- Volume I, Part III, Essay 2
- Volume II, Part III, Essay 3
- Volume II, Part IV, Essay 1
- Volume II, Part V, Essay 1
- Volume II, Part VI, Essay 1
- Volume II, Part VII, Essay 1
- Volume II, Part VII, Essay 2
- Volume II, Part VII, Essay 3
- Volume II, Part VII, Appendix
Preface, by Lord Welby
THE State is a severe mother. She demands from her noblest sons their intellects, their energies, and, if need be, their lives; but she is not ungrateful. The men who have guided her destinies live in grateful memory and in memory the more honoured, if to great service and lofty aims they have added disregard of self, directness of purpose, and simplicity of character. Such men become household words of the nation. They create the standard by which the nation measures itself, and by which it is measured. They strike the keynote of national character. Such a man was Richard Cobden, a type of a great Englishman to Englishmen of all times, a type in his truthfulness, in his simplicity, and in his devotion to the welfare of his countrymen.
It is nearly forty years since he passed away, and in the interval much has happened. During his youth and the prime of his manhood the people were suffering under the results of the Great War. Excessive taxation weighed upon all classes, but more especially upon the wage-earning and poorer classes. The progress of the nation was hampered by bad laws and unwise restrictions. The condition of the poor was miserable, for employment was scarce, wages were low, and food was dear. Education was neglected, and little had been done to make the mass of the people fit for the citizenship of a great and free country. This was the condition of the nation as Cobden knew it. He saw that improvement was impossible as long as the labouring classes were ill-fed and often unemployed, and he threw himself with all his soul into the fight for free trade and cheap food. The tale of the fight is admirably told in Morley’s life of him. As one reads it, one is struck by the tact, the resource, the vigour and statesmanship of the man. Protection ruled in trade and agriculture, and the protected interests were to a man against him. But his chief foe was
the agricultural interest. The great landowners were arrayed against him. The fight was long and severe, but Free Trade triumphed in the end and Cobden was the leader of the victorious party. There is no passage in the records of Parliamentary debate more striking than the oft-quoted tribute which in the hour of his triumph Sir Robert Peel paid to him.
“The name which ought to be associated with the success of our measures of commercial policy is not the name of the noble lord the organ of the party of which he is the leader, nor is it mine. The name which ought to be, and will be, associated with the success of those measures is the name of one who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, has, with untiring energy, made appeals to our reason, and has enforced those appeals with an eloquence the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned: the name which ought to be chiefly associated with the success of those measures is the name of Richard Cobden.”
The verdict of posterity has confirmed the judgment of Sir Robert Peel. It has associated inseparably and for ever the name of Cobden with the great Act of 1846. Many men and many interests then contested and now contest the policy of that Act, but generous opponents have never questioned the power, the energy, and the singlemindedness with which he fought the fight. Six years after the repeal of the Corn Laws an event took place which fittingly crowned his labours. In December, 1852, the Tory party, after depriving Peel of office, after opposing for six long years his policy as ruinous to the nation, and after appealing to the country to reverse that policy, hauled down their colours, and the Tory Ministers of the Crown, and the bulk of their party followed the Liberals into the lobby in order to affirm a resolution that the policy of Cobden, which they had condemned, was sound and successful, and ought to be maintained. On that occasion a follower of Peel, pointing to the Treasury Bench, exclaimed, “If you want humiliation, look there.” Cobden cared little for the humiliation. It was enough for him that, an insignificant minority of some fifty excepted, both parties in the House of Commons combined to affirm the great principle of which he was the champion.
It has been said that Cobden and Bright were demagogues. They were certainly leaders of the people; but a demagogue is generally supposed to secure and maintain his power with the people by flattering and cajoling them. A simple test will show whether Cobden and Bright were demagogues in this sense. In 1854 the Russian war broke out. The nation has always a warlike tendency, and when its leaders tell it that war is necessary, it accepts their judgment but too readily,
throwing itself into the struggle with vigorous and earnest resolution. In that mood neither the upper classes nor the working classes are tolerant of opposition, and statesmen, however honest and capable, if they question the passion of the hour, are heard with impatience, their warnings and remonstrances are brushed aside, and, when opportunities offer, the constituencies are not slow to punish them; for the masses are unable to appreciate motives which appear to them unpatriotic. The result is intelligible, though not always creditable to the common sense of the nation. No demagogue, anxious to secure popularity and power, would oppose in such circumstances the dominant mood. Cobden and Bright thought that the Government and the people were in error, and that the war was unnecessary. Careless of popularity when conscience was concerned, they boldly expressed their views in and out of Parliament, and as a consequence they lost their popularity, and when, a year or two later, they denounced the war with China arising out of the miserable affair of the lorcha
Arrow, they lost their seats. Who will say now that it was not good for the nation that the warning voice should have been raised, and that honour is not due to the men who dared to raise it? Who will say in the light of experience that they were wrong in either case? There are few of us who lived in those days, and shared the prevailing opinion, but have more than a doubt whether in the Crimean war our money was not wasted, and, what is worse, gallant lives lost in a bad cause. We know at least that one great Tory leader, lately, alas! taken from us, held that we put our money on the wrong horse. But be that as it may, happy is the country which has such demagogues as Cobden and Bright. Demagogues in the ordinary sense they were not. The title would fit better those who in war time use their passing popularity to inflame the national passion, and to crush opponents who do not share their views.
The cloud of distress which so long hung over the nation had begun to lift some years before Cobden died. He lived indeed to see the commencement of that national prosperity which marked the last third of the nineteenth century. When he commenced his campaign against Protection the value of British produce exported was rather more than £50,000,000. In 1864 it had risen to £160,000,000. In the year 1902 it had risen to £283,000,000. In 1841 one in every eleven persons of the population was in receipt of poor relief; in 1864 one in twenty; in 1902 only one in forty. In 1841 the deposits in Savings Banks were £24,500,000. In 1864 they had risen to £44,500,000; in 1900 to more than £207,000,000, besides £59,000,000 invested in Building and Provident Societies. In 1843 the total annual value of the property
and profits assessed to income tax were, including an estimate for Ireland, £270,000,000. In 1864 it had risen to £370,000,000, and in 1900 to £758,000,000. Thus, in the quarter of a century from the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League, Cobden saw the result of that great movement in an increase of 200 per cent. in the export of our goods, in the diminution of pauperism by nearly a half, in the savings of the poor nearly doubled, and in the increase by 37 per cent. of the income of the well-to-do classes. Truly he might feel that, thanks in the main to the labours of himself and Bright, to the policy of which he had been the champion, the country had entered on a period of progress and prosperity. What would he have thought if his life could have been spared to the beginning of the twentieth century, and seen continued progress in our export trade, pauperism again decreased by a half, the savings of the poor increased by near 400 per cent., and the incomes of the well-to-do more than doubled?
Two facts characterise the national mood in the latter part of the century which would have grieved Cobden to the heart—the growth of military and naval expenditure and the development of warlike spirit in the people. He thought in 1850 an expenditure on army and navy of £16,000,000 excessive, and in 1864 he thought an expenditure on those services of £26,000,000 still more excessive. On this point he and Bright were not singular. Many men not of the Manchester school shared their views, and in 1862 the Liberal party in Parliament insisted on reduction of expenditure, supporting Gladstone in the Cabinet against Palmerston, and Palmerston had to yield. But if Cobden thought the expenditure of 1850 and 1864 excessive, what would he have thought of a military and naval expenditure of between £70,000,000 and £80,000,000 in 1903—a year of peace? And how would it have added to his sorrow to learn that this enormous expenditure is tolerated, one might say approved, by a democracy! When Cobden died the country was ruled by the middle classes, the house-holder of £10 and upwards. He was earnestly in favour of a wide extension of the suffrage. Within a few years of his death house-hold suffrage was established, and the franchise was extended to the agricultural labourers. Thus a middle-class Government was converted into a democracy. The middle-class constituencies had been economical to a certain extent, though not nearly so economical as Cobden would have wished. The democracy has been, and is, lavishly extravagant. A great Tory statesman, deploring the increase of public expenditure, could only say plaintively, “Who are we that we should stem the tide?”—an expression of despair, perhaps, hardly worthy of the leader of a great party, but indicative of the reality, I
might say the popularity, of the evil, and of the difficulty of coping with it. Cobden acted consistently on principle, and we may rest assured that he would have granted the extension of the suffrage, even if he could have foreseen that the democracy would use it to their own disadvantage. He would have held that the people had a right to govern themselves, whether they used their power well or ill, but it would have sorely disappointed him to see the democracy, the working classes, whose true interest lies in public economy and low taxation, as eager as ever were the upper classes, and much more eager than the middle classes, for military glory, expansion of territory, and lavish expenditure.
The great work of Free Trade which Cobden accomplished is now wantonly assailed, and it is well that at the present crisis a new edition of his chief writings should be issued in order that men may read for themselves, and at first hand, the opinions which he held, and may learn from himself his conception of the true interests of the nation of which he was so eminently a type. “I would rather live in a country where the feeling in favour of individual liberty is jealously cherished, than be without it in the enjoyment of all the principles of the French constituted assembly.” Thus spoke the true Englishman. His speeches and writings are ransacked to find prophecies and anticipations which have not been fulfilled, in the hope of shaking faith in the soundness of the practical policy which he did so much to establish. Let him speak for himself. I care not whether his generous belief in the virtue of mankind, in their capacity for learning the lesson of enlightened self-interest and national morality led him into hopes which have not been justified by facts. Have the predictions of other great statesmen always been fulfilled? Shortly before the Peace of Amiens, Pitt thought that he could find the means for another year of war, and that England would then be exhausted, yet England found the means for carrying on the war until 1815, though unhappily she suffered under this strain on her resources for many a long year. Was Canning correct in his bombastic prophecy that he had called into existence a new world to correct the balance of the old? Has Palmerston’s belief in the future of Turkey, which led him into the Crimean War, been justified? Or, to take a more modern instance, what shall we say of the foresight of our modern statesmen, who shut their eyes to the warnings of their expert advisers, and went totally unprepared into a great war, confident that it would last a few months and cost £10,000,000? It lasted nearly three years and cost £250,000,000. These were grave miscalculations of the future. In three of them they were especially grave, because they concerned immediate policy, but
Cobden’s hopes as to the spread of Free Trade in foreign countries, and the growth of desire for peace, did not affect his practical policy. He advocated Free Trade, as essential to the welfare and progress of the nation, irrespective of foreign tariffs or the warlike tendencies of nations. The higher foreigners built their tariff wall with a view to exclude our goods, the more resolute would he have been to demolish the wall, which a long period of Protectionist government had been erecting on this side the Channel. He wanted to give our working classes cheap food, and our manufacturers untaxed raw materials, and the incitement to skill and industry which competition affords, in order that we might continue to hold our pre-eminence in trade.
But the new Protectionists argue that circumstances have changed since 1846, and that the policy of 1846 is no longer suited to the needs of the nation. Mr. Balfour, in his recent manifesto, lays it down that we ought “to accept provisionally the view that the character of our fiscal policy should vary with varying circumstances,” and he proposes to give effect to his axiom by a total revolution in our fiscal policy, which certainly cannot be described as provisional. In face, however, of so radical a change, it is not sufficient to say merely that circumstances have changed. The burthen of proof lies with the Government. The Prime Minister must show by facts that circumstances have changed to the detriment of the nation and to an extent which justifies the revolution. Is the prosperity of the nation declining? Let us take Mr. Balfour’s evidence. “Judged by all available tests, both the total wealth and the diffused well-being of the country are greater than they ever have been. We are not only rich and prosperous in appearance, but also, I believe, in reality. I can find no evidence that we are living on our capital.” So far, therefore, and on the evidence of the chief opponent of Free Trade, circumstances have not changed to the detriment of the nation. Under Free Trade the country, since 1846, has steadily advanced in prosperity. What, then, is the Prime Minister’s reason for the revolution? According to him a “close” examination of our export returns show signs of diminution, and he appends figures in support of his view, but his test is faulty. His argument applies to the volume of our exports, and his figures to their declared value. But the value is based on the prices of the years, which vary from year to year, and are therefore a faulty basis of comparison. Hence upon a superficial examination he formed a vague apprehension, and he offers this as a sufficient reason for a return to a system of retaliation so long tried, and so decidedly condemned by that most cautious and prudent of statesmen, Sir
Robert Peel. It Cobden’s policy is brought to trial upon this indictment only, his followers need not fear the verdict.
But Cobden’s forecasts were not confined to the spread of Free Trade, or the growth of desire for peace. Let us note in his writings how sound were his views, how just his prescience on most of the important questions of the day. In “England, Ireland, and America,” published in 1835, and in “Russia,” published in 1836, he pleaded for non-intervention, not only as in accordance with moral law, but as a policy essential to the true interests of this country. He saw that the great change which had been silently taking place in the development of manufactures and in the growth of our town population made it necessary to review the principles of our domestic policy in order to adapt the Government to the changing condition of the people, and to alter “the maxim by which its foreign relations have in past times been regulated.” He said that the policy of making food dear in order to protect the interest of one class of producers was not only unjust, but impossible. The larger part of the working classes, ill-fed and ill-paid, would not suffer for long their food to be made artificially dear by class legislation, that discontent and class war must be the result. He saw also—saw justly and saw first—”that it is from the silent and peaceful rivalry of American commerce, the growth of its manufactures, its rapid progress in internal improvement, the superior education of the people and their economical and pacific Government—that it is from these, and not from the barbarous or the impoverishing armaments of Russia that the grandeur of our commercial and national prosperity is endangered.” He added, indeed, that in less than twenty years this would be the sentiment of the people of England generally. His prophecy was somewhat too sanguine, but sixty years at all events have taught us the justice of his views as to the United States. He showed us also how to face our great antagonist, viz., by removing all obstacles to trade. The United States have a thriving and intelligent population of 80,000,000 nearly double that of the United Kingdom. They are lightly taxed, very little indebted, and incur insignificant charge for military and naval service. Yearly a large proportion of the people goes into the towns and engages in manufacturing industries, and it is at this moment, when their competition with us becomes daily more intense, that it is gravely proposed that we should fetter and impede our manufacturing and consuming powers by preferential and retaliatory duties, that we should tie up a man’s leg in order to help him in running a race.
Take, again, Cobden’s views as to Ireland. How, after a powerful picture of Ireland’s condition, he traces the evils which produced such
results to the ignorance of England on Irish questions. How he condemns the statesmen “who have averted their faces from this diseased member of the body politic.” Listen to the following words written in 1851: “Hitherto in Ireland the sole reliance has been on bayonets and patching. The feudal system presses upon that country in a way which, as a rule, only foreigners can understand, for we have an ingrained feudal spirit in our English character. I never spoke to a French or Italian economist who did not at once put his finger on the fact that great masses of landed property were held by the descendants of a conquering race, who were living abroad, and thus in a double manner perpetuating the remembrance of conquest and oppression, while the natives were at the same time precluded from possessing themselves of landed property, and thus becoming interested in the peace of the country…. How are we to get out of this dilemma with the present House of Commons, and our representative system as it is, is the problem.” The problem was not to be solved by that House of Commons or the limited representative system that then existed. The Home Rule Bill of Mr. Gladstone may be open to criticism, but impartial history will recognise that he, with all the earnestness of his nature, forced the English nation much against its will to face the Irish questions—the question of the Irish Church, Irish self-government, and Irish land tenure. In this year of grace a Conservative Government is completing, with large aid from the British Exchequer, the revolution in the tenure of Irish land begun in 1881, and Mr. Wyndham’s measure, which aims at ending this “feudal system” of land tenure, confirms and justifies the foresight of Cobden and the policy of Gladstone. “In Russia,” published in 1836, and in “What Next and Next?” published during the Crimean War, Cobden reproved the spirit of Russo-phobia then rampant, and rampant long afterwards; but there are signs that thinking minds are beginning to share the views of Cobden on that the fear of Russia, which has so long haunted the nation, which plunged us into the Crimean War, the Afghanistan War, and which more recently led the Government to take a course in China which has not enhanced our reputation.
In his letter to Mr. Ashworth (Aril 10, 1862) Cobden urged that all private property should in time of war be exempt from capture at sea, that neutral ships ought to be exempt from search or visitation, and that the commercial ports of an enemy ought to be exempt from blockade. Cobden advocated these changes in international law, after his wont, because they would be of special advantage to this country. Many people are at present exercised as to the ensuring a supply of food for this country in time of war. They are
discussing clumsy and expensive remedies against this contingency. They would do well to consider Cobden’s able argument in support of his proposal. This country could not under any circumstances provide the food required for its immense population, and it must be dependent on foreign countries for the raw material of its manufactures. No country, therefore, is more interested in modifications of international law which would ensure the supply of these necessaries. It is possible that those modifications might not be respected by belligerent nations under the stress of war, but their acceptance by the Powers would impose an obligation on belligerents, which could not be repudiated without risk and without dishonour. The “Three Panics” is a powerfully-written pamphlet, both in style and matter. It is an excellent example of the manner in which Cobden seizes the weak points of a policy to which he is opposed, of the clearness and conciseness with which he exposes them, and of the skill and power with which he drives homes his conclusions.
In these writings Cobden may have overrated anticipated advantages and underrated difficulties. He may have been too sanguine in some directions, he may have relied too much on the wisdom of this and other nations, and not have been sufficiently alive to the ambition of statesmen and to international jealousies; but no fair person can fail to be struck by the general soundness of his argument, the morality of his statesmanship, and the correctness in the main of his foresight, as evidenced by the manner in which national opinion has veered in his direction. His opinion on national expenditure will be chiefly criticised. Probably he, like other persons, taught by the experience of the last forty years, would admit the necessity of a navy, sufficiently powerful according to our present knowledge, for our defence. It must indeed be remembered that he accepted the principle of that policy, though he did not accept even the standard of efficiency accepted by the statesmen of that day. On the whole, however, how just was his opinion of the national interest in public economy! True Liberals, true Free Traders, must endorse his principles as strongly now as then, nay, more strongly, for the evil of extravagance becomes daily more evident. Conservatives, such as Lord Salisbury and Sir M. Hicks-Beach, deplore it, but have been powerless to check it. We have lost their services, and their places are occupied by the advocates of extravagance and Protection. Liberals know that if a nation is to be strong and contented the mass of the population must be sufficiently fed. The extravagance of peace expenditure in the last few years has necessitated a reversal of the wise policy which ruled from 1842 for forty years. The tea duty has been raised until it is nearly 100 per
cent. on the value of the article. A duty has been placed upon sugar equivalent to 50 per cent. upon its value, apart from our quixotic anxiety to lose a bounty worth to us probably another 50 per cent. The supposed necessity for lavish expenditure has made it necessary to seek new sources of revenue, and high financial authority has pleaded that the basis of taxation must be widened. That is to say, duties must be imposed on articles of consumption, and the poorest classes must be taxed in order to meet the ever-increasing demand for military expenditure—a singular device for improving the physical strength and consequently the power of the nation. Mr. Chamberlain goes a step further, and would “widen the basis of taxation” in furtherance of a new line of policy. He wishes to tax the bread of the poor as a tribute to our prosperous fellow subjects in the self-governing Colonies, and in the hope that this contribution from the working classes at home may induce the Colonies to enter into closer confederation with us. Thus economy in public expenditure in which Cobden insisted with such earnestness is absolutely abandoned, and the Liberal learns the value of that article in his creed, when he sees the result. Military experts, policy-mongers, interested trades have only to ask in order to receive. The tub of the Danaids is a water-tight vessel compared with the exchequer. The burthen of this extravagance weighs upon all classes, but most upon the poor.
The Free Trader, on his side, sees that extravagance in public expenditure, by making new taxation necessary, has given the Protectionists an opportunity of which they are not slow to avail themselves, and it is only too likely that, if the nation does not speak out, Protection in aggravated form will be a plank in the Conservative platform. Thus the lesson which Cobden taught is brought home to Liberal and Free Trader alike, and the wisdom of his teaching is made only too clear.
Students of English may learn much form Cobden’s writings. They are like his speech—clear, fearless, vigorous, but persuasive. The style was the man, the result of conviction based upon close observation and careful thought. The purity of his style is the more remarkable, since he had no advantage from education in the formation of it; but his keen sense of beauty, his innate power of understanding excellence in art, bestowed upon him a power of appreciation such as men usually acquire by long study. How genuine, in his Italian diary, is his admiration of the great works of antiquity, and how well he expresses his admiration of them!
The two great twin brethren of Free Trade were singularly fitted for co-operation in the conduct of a crusade against vested interests
and deep-rooted prejudices. Both were outspoken, both put clearly and pointedly their argument to the public, and neither of them was a respecter of persons. Bright, however, was bold and somewhat aggressive, while Cobden was bold and persuasive. Cobden, therefore, aroused less personal antagonism; but the English mind is conservative, and people in comfortable circumstances regard with distrust the man who attacks established interests and the existing order of things. Hence Cobden, though perhaps in a less degree than Bright, was for years misunderstood by the upper classes. A lady of conservative principles, but generous sympathies, who is gifted with a power, rare in women, of appreciating a political opponent, was an intimate friend of Cobden. She knew the pleasure which works of art gave him, and she proposed that they should visit together a well-known collection. She asked her friend, the owner of the pictures, for permission. The lady replied that they might come and lunch, but that she herself could not meet Mr. Cobden. To thinking minds such prejudice is astonishing, but there is little doubt that had his life been spared he would have lived it down as Bright lived it down, and possibly more easily than Bright.
May a new edition of Cobden’s writings in this hour of crisis for Free Trade find readers in every part of the kingdom. His pamphlets have lost nothing of their intrinsic value, though they were written seventy, fifty, forty years ago, and though the circumstances of the nation, and the temper of the nation, have changed greatly in the interval. The principles they inculcate, the lessons they teach, are as good and as sound now as they were then. Thoughtful readers will realise how Cobden’s policy has removed causes of discontent, has promoted good understanding throughout the community, and tended to weld rich and poor into one nation. They will realise how just, and therefore how conservative, were his views, and how sound in the main was his judgment, even tried during half a century by the hard test of experience. We who are Free Traders have absolute confidence in our principle, and our belief in the great leader of the Free Trade movement is unabated.