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
ON the evening of the 18th of June, 1845, Covent Garden Theatre, in London, was crowded with men and women assembled at the call of the Anti-Corn-Law League. They had come together in order to hear addresses from some of the eminent leaders of that association. I was present, and had never seen a large assembly more respectable in appearance, or more attentive to every word that fell from the lips of the speakers—enthusiastic applause interrupting, from time to time, the profound silence, and again quickly hushed into breathless attention. This vast audience was addressed by John Bright, Richard Cobden, and W. J. Fox. Bright had then begun to distinguish himself by that manly and massive eloquence which has since given him his fame. The oratory of Fox, who spoke last, was of a more florid cast, and enlivened with sallies of humour, by which the audience was greatly entertained. But most of all was I impressed by the speech of Mr. Cobden—by his direct dealing with the subject of discussion, the manifest sincerity of his convictions, his air of invincible determination, the perspicuity of his statements, his skill in arranging and presenting his topics, and the closeness of his logic. So persuasive was his address, that I saw at once why so high a place had been assigned him in the agitation for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Here was one who knew how to appeal to the general mind of his countrymen, and having won their assent to the merits of a great public cause, was able to infuse into them his own resolute spirit in carrying forward that cause to its final triumph.
When I left the building I remember saying to a friend that I did not see how the Corn Laws could survive the attacks to which they were exposed, and that I perceived, or thought I perceived, in the meeting I had just attended, the proofs of a public opinion too powerful
for the landowners much longer to resist. The hour of triumph for the League was, in fact, even nearer than I anticipated. In the next year’s session of Parliament, the British Ministry, with Sir Robert Peel at its head, came forward with a Bill for removing the old restrictions on the trade in grain, and wresting from the landed proprietors the monopoly on which they had relied as one of the main sources of their prosperity. The Bill became a law; the long and vehement struggle was closed by the defeat of the aristocracy; Peel, now the object of their displeasure, though thanked by the nation, withdrew from the Ministry; but he, like Mr. Cobden, found his reward in the appreciation of his countrymen.
More to be valued than mere success in procuring this change to be made by Parliament was the triumph of the principles on which the change was founded. Mr. Cobden and his associates in the agitation for free trade in corn had always insisted that the agriculture of the country would suffer no prejudice from the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the result showed the truth of this assertion. The people were sensibly relieved, and the landowners suffered no loss; the manufacturing population had cheap bread, and the agricultural population were not deprived of employment. The cultivator found himself obliged to resort to more skilful methods of tillage, and was rewarded with richer harvests. I believe I am not mistaken when I say that among the landowners of Great Britain there is now no fear or jealousy of foreign rivalry.
This success of an association organised under popular leaders against a powerful aristocracy has made Mr. Cobden’s an historical name. In discussing the justice and expediency of what were called the Corn Laws of England, he was led to investigate the principles which all measures regulating the intercourse between one nation and another should recognise. All his writings refer to these principles, and have a value which lifts them out of the sphere of local and temporary interests, and which no lapse of years can impair. They are practical illustrations of the philosophy of commercial legislation: documents from which the history of the world’s commerce is to be written. At present, while the policy of most governments in regard to their intercourse with each other is far from being fully and finally settled, they form a storehouse of arguments and illustrations in the controversies continually arising.
There are two classes of politicians—statesmen the world generally agrees in calling them, though that title, in its proper and nobler sense, belongs to but one of them. One class keeps studiously in sight the rules of justice and humanity, as the principles of legislation and
government upon which it conscientiously supposes the welfare of the community to depend. The other class, which is found in all countries and in all political parties, aims at securing and promoting certain minor interests upon one specious pretext or another, which is taken up or laid aside as it may serve or fail to serve the occasion. I need not say that Mr. Cobden belonged to the former of these classes, and was a statesman in the highest sense of the term. In all the public measures which he discussed, he regarded mainly their consequences to the people at large, or, in other words, the good of the human race. In the most civilised part of the globe, he saw how often the subjects of the different governments were slaughtered and stripped of their substance to carry on wars in which they had no manner of interest, and the sole motive of which was the aggrandisement or caprice of those who ruled them. Moreover, to refer a dispute between nations to the arbitrament of war is in no way to obtain a just decision, and Mr. Cobden saw no reason why, for this brutal method, the custom of nations should not substitute that which, in every society, even of the loosest organisation, determines controversies between individuals, namely, the obvious expedient of referring them to third persons presumed to be impartial as between the disputants. He wrote, therefore, in favour of referring to arbitrators all differences between nations which could not be settled by negotiation. It is certain that this method is coming more and more into favour, as the intercourse between nations becomes more intimate, although various causes still prevent it from being generally adopted. At some time, when mankind shall be more generally enlightened, and those who administer the governments of the world shall be forced to pay more regard to the interests of the people whose affairs they have in charge, the folly of going to war may be deemed as great as that of settling a question of law by a boxing match. The hope that the world may grow wiser, and therefore more peaceful, as it grows older, is not so absurd that it has not been cherished by the friends of the human race from an early period; and whether it be a philanthropic dream, or, as I believe, the expectation of a wise foresight, it has in all ages inspired the prayers of good men, who look for the time when the sword shall be beaten into the pruning hook, and nations shall learn war no more.
Mr. Cobden never hesitated to raise his voice against any war undertaken by the British Government, for causes which, in his view, did not justify a resort to arms. In 1857, he led the majority which, in the House of Commons, censured Lord Palmerston for the war with China. It is most natural in a time of war for the large majority of every nation to take part with its own government, and to maintain
the justice of its quarrel. It was a great triumph for the cause of impartial justice in Great Britain, when the popular branch of its legislature was persuaded so far to forego this natural prejudice as to declare that a war in which the British ministry had involved the nation was neither just nor necessary.
There could scarcely be a higher testimony to the statesmanship of Mr. Cobden, the justness and safety of his views of commercial questions, and his capacity for fulfilling an important public trust, than was given by the British Government, when, a few years since, on his suggestion that an opportunity had presented itself for placing the trade between Great Britain and France on a better and more liberal footing, it entrusted him with full powers for that purpose. The expected arrangements were made through his agency; a treaty was negotiated, and the result was an enormous increase in the trade of the two countries, and a corresponding development of friendly intercourse between the one people and the other.
In the later years of his life, Mr. Cobden took a deep interest in the controversy which the leading men of the Southern States of this Republic forced upon the people of the North, when, renouncing their allegiance to the Federal Government, and breaking away from the Union, they invited an appeal to the sword. He was convinced of the absolute necessity of the effort we were making to preserve the Union unimpaired, as indispensable to the future peace and prosperity of the country. He rejoiced with good men all over the world when our government repealed the law of bondage in the Rebel States. He was one of those enlightened Englishmen who zealously took our part against the governing class of their own country, maintained the justice of the cause, and predicted for it a certain and glorious triumph. He lived, if not to see his prediction fulfilled, yet to behold the sure signs of its near accomplishment.
I now leave the American reader to the perusal of the writings included in this collection. He will find in them the utterances of a true friend of the human race, whose sole aim was so to modify existing institutions, by proper and equitable methods, that all who live under the same government may be equal partakers in its benefits, and to bring all the blessings of life within the reach of the largest number. This great end he kept steadily in view, never intimidated from pursuing it by the danger of unpopularity, nor seduced to abandon it by the love of distinction and the praises of the great. His indignation at the oppression of the weak and helpless was never disguised, and his whole political life was made up of manly labours in the cause of justice. From the writings of this illustrious teacher the
wisest statesman may be instructed in the practical application of the maxims of a comprehensive, humane, and generous political philosophy.
It has been thought that Mr. Bryant’s Introduction would be as interesting to the English as to the American reader, and it is therefore added to the present edition.