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RICHARD COBDEN (1804-1865)

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Originally appearing in Volume V06, Page 611 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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RICHARD COBDEN (1804-1865), English manufacturer and Radical politician, was born at a farmhouse called Dunford, near Midhurst, in Sussex, on the 3rd of June 1804. The family had been resident in that neighbourhood for many generations, occupied partly in trade and partly in agriculture. Formerly there had been in the town of Midhurst a small manufacture of hosiery with which the Cobdens were connected, though all trace of it had disappeared before the birth of Richard, His grandfather was a maltster in that town, an energetic and 'prosperous man, almost always the bailiff or chief magistrate, and taking rather a notable part in county matters. But his father, forsaking that trade, took to farming at an unpropitious time. He was amiable and kind-hearted, and greatly liked by his neighbours, but not a man of business habits, and he did not succeed in his farming enterprise. He died when his son Richard was a child, and the care of the family devolved upon the mother, who was a woman of strong sense and of great energy of character, and who, after her husband's death, left Dunford and returned to Midhurst. The educational advantages of Richard Cobden were not very ample. There was a grammar school at Midhurst, which at one time had enjoyed considerable reputation, but which had fallen into decay. It was there that he had to pick up such rudiments of knowledge as formed his first equipment in life, but from his earliest years he was indefatigable in the work of self-cultivation. When fifteen or sixteen years of age he went to London to the warehouse of Messrs Partridge & Price, in Eastcheap, one of the partners being his uncle. His relative, ' COBDEN noting the lad's passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him against indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life. But the admonition was unheeded, for while unweariedly diligent in business, he was in his intervals of leisure a most assiduous student. During his residence in London he found access to the London Institution, and made ample use of its large and well-selected library. When he was about twenty years of age he became a commercial traveller, and soon became eminently successful in his calling. But never content to sink into the mere trader, he sought to introduce among those he met on the " road " a higher tone of conversation than usually marks the commercial room, and there were many of his associates who, when he had attained eminence, recalled the discussions on political economy and kindred topics with which he was wont to enliven and elevate the travellers' table. In 183o Cobden learnt that Messrs Fort, calico printers at Sabden, near Clitheroe, were about to retire from business, and he, with two other young men, Messrs Sheriff and Gillet, who were engaged in the same commercial house as himself, determined to make an effort to acquire the succession. They had, however, very little capital among them. But it may be taken as an illustration of the instinctive confidence which Cobden through life inspired in those with whom he came into contact, that Messrs Fort consented to leave to these untried young men a large portion of their capital in the business. Nor was their confidence misplaced. The new firm had soon three establishments,—one at Sabden, where the printing works were, one in London and one in Manchester for the sale of their goods. This last was under the direct management of Cobden, who, in 183o or 1831, settled in the city with which his name became afterwards so closely associated. The success of this enterprise was decisive and rapid, and the " Cobden prints " soon became known through the country as of rare value both for excellence of material and beauty of design. There can be no doubt that if Cobden had been satisfied to devote all his energies to commercial life he might soon have attained to great opulence, for it is understood that his share in the profits of the business he had established amounted to from £8000 to £ro,000 a year. But he had other tastes, which impelled him irresistibly to pursue those studies which, as Bacon says, " serve for delight, for ornament and for ability." Prentice, the historian of the Anti-Corn-Law League, who was then editor of the Manchester Times, describes how, in the year 1835, he received for publication in his paper a series of admirably written letters, under the signature of " Libra," discussing commercial and economical questions with rare ability. After some time he discovered that the author of these letters was Cobden, whose name was until then quite unknown to him. In 1835 he published his first pamphlet, entitled England, Ireland and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer. It attracted great attention, and ran rapidly through several editions. It was marked by a breadth and boldness of views on political and social questions which betokened an original mind. In this production Cobden advocated the same principles of peace, non, intervention, retrenchment and free trade to which he continued faithful to the last day of his life. Immediately after the publicadon of this pamphlet, he paid a visit to the United States, landing in New York on the 7th of June 1835. He devoted about three months to this tour, passing rapidly through the seaboard states and the adjacent portion of Canada, and collecting as he went large stores of information respecting the condition, resources and prospects of the great western republic. Soon after his return to England he began to prepare another work for the press, which appeared towards the end of 1836, under the title of Russia. It was mainly designed to combat a wild outbreak of Russophobia which, under the inspiration of David Urquhart, was at that time taking possession of the public mind. But it contained also a bold indictment of the whole system of foreign policy then in vogue, founded on ideas as to the balance of power and the necessity of large armaments for the protection of commerce. While this pamphlet was in the press, delicate health obliged him to leave England, and for several months, at the endof 1836 and the beginning of 1837, he travelled in Spain, Turkey and Egypt. During his visit to Egypt he had an interview with Mehemet All, of whose character as a reforming monarch he did not bring away a very favourable impression. He re-turned to England in April 1837. From that time Cobden became a conspicuous figure in Manchester, taking a leading part in the local politics of the town and district. Largely owing to his exertions, the Manchester Athenaeum was established, at the opening of which he was chosen to deliver the inaugural address. He became a member of the chamber of commerce, and soon infused new life into that body. He threw himself with great energy into the agitation which led to the incorporation of the city, and was elected one of its first aldermen. He began also to take a warm interest in the cause of popular education. Some of his first attempts in public speaking were at meetings which he convened at Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Rochdale and other adjacent towns, to advocate the establishment of British schools. It was while on a mission for this purpose to Rochdale that he first formed the acquaintance of John Bright, who afterwards became his distinguished coadjutor in the free-trade agitation. Nor was it long before his fitness for parliamentary life was recognized by his friends. In 1837, the death of William IV. and the accession of Queen Victoria led to a general election. Cobden was candidate for Stockport, but was defeated, though not by a large majority. In 1838 an anti-Corn-Law association was formed at Manchester, which, on his suggestion, was afterwards changed into a national association, under the title of the Anti-Corn-Law League (see CORN LAWS). Of that famous association Cobden was from first to last the presiding genius and the animating soul. During the seven years between the formation of the league and its final triumph, he devoted himself wholly to the work of promulgating his economic doctrines. His labours were as various as they were incessant—now guiding the councils of the league, now addressing crowded and enthusiastic meetings of his sup-porters in London or the large towns of England and Scotland, now invading the agricultural districts and challenging the landlords to meet him in the presence of their own farmers, to discuss the question in dispute, and now encountering the Chartists, led by Feargus O'Connor. But whatever was the character of his audience he never failed, by the clearness of his statements, the force of his reasoning and the felicity of his illustrations, to make a deep impression on the minds of his hearers. In 1841, Sir Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in parliament, there was a general election, when Cobden was returned for Stockport. His opponents had confidently predicted that he would fail utterly in the House of Commons. He did not wait long, after his admission into that assembly, in bringing their predictions to the test. Parliament met on the 19th of August. On the 24th, in course of the debate on the Address, Cobden delivered his first speech. " It was remarked," says Miss Martineau, in her History of the Peace, " that he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member, and it was perceived that he did not need such observance." With perfect self-possession, which was not disturbed by the jeers that greeted some of his statements, and with the utmost simplicity, directness and force, he presented the argument against the corn-laws in such a form as startled his audience, and also irritated some of them, for it was a style of eloquence very unlike the conventional style which prevailed in parliament. From that day he became an acknowledged power in the House, and though addressing a most unfriendly audience, he compelled attention by his thorough mastery of his subject, and by the courageous boldness with which he charged the ranks of his adversaries. He soon came to be recognized as one of the fore-most debaters on those economical and commercial questions which at that time so much occupied the attention of parliament; and the most prejudiced and bitter of his opponents were fain to acknowledge that they had to deal with a man whom the most practised and powerful orators of their party found it hard to cope with, and to whose eloquence, indeed, the great statesman in whom they put their trust was obliged ultimately to surrender. On the 17th of February 1843 an extraordinary scene took place in the House of Commons. Cobden had spoken with great fervour of the deplorable suffering and distress which at that time prevailed in the country, for which, he added, he held Sir Robert Peel, as the head of the government, responsible. This remark, when it was spoken, passed unnoticed, being indeed nothing more than one of the commonplaces of party warfare. But a few weeks before, Mr Drummond, who was Sir Robert Peel's private secretary, had been shot dead in the street by a lunatic. In consequence of this, and the manifold anxieties of the time with which he was harassed, the mind of the great statesman was no doubt in a moody and morbid condition, and when he arose to speak later in the evening, he referred in excited and agitated tones to the remark, as an incitement to violence against his person. Sir Robert Peel's party, catching at this hint, threw themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and when Cobden attempted to explain that he meant official, not personal responsibility, they drowned his voice with clamorous and insulting shouts. But Peel lived to make ample and honourable amend for this unfortunate ebullition, for not only did he " fully and unequivocally withdraw the imputation which was thrown out in the heat of debate under an erroneous impression," but when the great free-trade battle had been won, he took the wreath of victory from his own brow, and placed it on that of his old opponent, in the following graceful words:—" The name which ought to be, and will be associated with the success of these measures, is not mine, or that of the noble Lord (Russell), but 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 these measures is the name of Richard Cobden." Cobden had, indeed, with unexampled devotion, sacrificed his business, his domestic comforts and for a time his health to the public interests. His friends therefore felt, at the close of that long campaign, that the nation owed him some substantial token of gratitude and admiration for those sacrifices. No sooner was the idea of such a tribute started than liberal contributions came from all quarters, which enabled his friends to present him with a sum of £8o,000. Had he been inspired with personal ambition, he might have entered upon the race of political advancement with the prospect of attaining the highest official prizes. Lord John Russell, who, soon after the repeal of the corn laws, succeeded Sir Robert Peel as first minister, invited Cobden to join his government. But he preferred keeping himself at liberty to serve his countrymen unshackled by official ties, and declined the invitation. He withdrew for a time from England. His first intention was to seek complete seclusion in Egypt or Italy, to recover health and strength after his long and exhausting labours. But his fame had gone forth throughout Europe, and intimations reached him from many quarters that his voice would be listened to everywhere with favour, in advocacy of the doctrines to the triumph of which he had so much contributed at home. Writing to a friend in July 1846, he says—" I am going to tell you of a fresh project that has been brewing in my brain. I have given up all idea of burying myself in Egypt or Italy. I am going on an agitating tour through the continent of Europe." Then, referring to messages he had received from influential persons in France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Spain to the effect mentioned above, he adds:—" Well, I will, with God's assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my country-men affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the people of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinctive emotion such as has never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than VI. 20I had here to overturn our protection policy." This programme he fulfilled. He visited in succession France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia. He was received everywhere with marks of distinction and honour. In many of the principal capitals he was invited to public banquets, which afforded him an op• portunity of propagating those principles of which he was regarded as the apostle. But beside these public demonstrations he sought and found access in private to many of the leading statesmen, in the various countries he visited, with a view to indoctrinate them with the same principles. During his absence there was a general election, and he was returned (1847) for Stockport and for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He chose to sit for the latter. When Cobden returned from the continent he addressed himself to what seemed to him the logical complement of free trade, namely, the promotion of peace and the reduction of naval and military armaments. His abhorrence of war amounted to a passion. Throughout his long labours in behalf of unrestricted commerce he never lost sight of this, as being the most precious result of the work in which he was engaged,—its tendency to diminish the hazards of war and to bring the nations of the world into closer and more lasting relations of peace and friendship with each other. He was not deterred by the fear of ridicule or the reproach of Utopianism from associating himself openly, and with all the ardour of his nature, with the peace party in England. In 1849 he brought forward a proposal in parliament in favour of international arbitration, and in 1851 a motion for mutual reduction of armaments. He was not successful in either case, not did he expect to be. In pursuance of the same object, he identified himself with a series of remarkable peace congresses—international assemblies designed to unite the intelligence and philanthropy of the nations of Christendom in a league against war—which from 1848 to 1851 were held successively in Brussels, Paris, Frankfort, London, Manchester and Edinburgh. On the establishment of the French empire in 1851–1852 a violent panic took possession of the public mind. The press promulgated the wildest alarms as to the intentions of Louis Napoleon, who was represented as contemplating a sudden and piratical descent upon the English coast without pretext or provocation. By a series of powerful speeches in and out of parliament, and by the publication of his masterly pamphlet, 1793 and r8S3, Cobden sought to calm the passions of his country-men. By this course he sacrificed the great popularity he had won as the champion of free trade, and became for a time the best-abused man in England. Immediately afterwards, owing to the quarrel about the Holy Places which arose in the east of Europe, public opinion suddenly veered round, and all the suspicion and hatred which had been directed against the emperor of the French were diverted from him to the emperor of Russia, Louis Napoleon was taken into favour as England's faithful ally, and in a whirlwind of popular excitement the nation was swept into the Crimean War. Cobden, who had travelled in Turkey, and had studied the condition of that countrywith great care for many years, discredited the outcry about maintaining the independence and integrity of the Ottoman empire which was the battle-cryof the day. He denied that itwas possible to maintain them, and no less strenuously denied that it was desirable even if it were possible. He believed that the jealousy of Russian aggrandizement and the dread of Russian power were absurd exaggerations. He maintained that the future of European Turkey was in the hands of the Christian population, and that it would have been wiser for England to ally herself with them rather than with the doomed and decaying Mahommedan power. " You must address yourselves," he said in the House of Commons, " as men of sense and men of energy, to the question—what are you to do with the Christian population? for Mahommedanism cannot be maintained, and I should be sorry to see this country fighting for the maintenance of Ma.hommedanism.. . . You may keep Turkey on the map of Europe, you may call the country by the name of Turkey if you like, but do not think you can keep up the Mahommedan rule in the country." The torrent of popular sentiment in favour of war II was, however, irresistible; and Cobden and Bright were overwhelmed with obloquy. At the beginning of 1857 tidings from China reached England of a rupture between the British plenipotentiary in that country and the governor of the Canton provinces in reference to a small vessel or lorcha called the " Arrow," which had resulted in the English admiral destroying the river forts, burning 23 ships belonging to the Chinese navy and bombarding the city of Canton. After a careful investigation of the official documents, Cobden became convinced that those were utterly unrighteous proceedings. He brought forward a motion in parliament to this effect, which led to a long and memorable debate, lasting over four nights, in which he was supported by Sydney Herbert, Sir James Graham, Gladstone, Lord John Russell and Disraeli, and which ended in the defeat of Lord Palmerston by a majority of sixteen. But this triumph cost him his seat in parliament. On the dissolution which followed Lord Palmerston's defeat, Cobden became candidate for Huddersfield, but the voters of that town gave the preference to his opponent, who had supported the Russian War and approved of the proceedings at Canton. Cobden was thus relegated to private life, and retiring to his country house at Dunford, he spent his time in perfect contentment in cultivating his land and feeding his pigs. He took advantage of this season of leisure to pay another visit to the United States. During his absence the general election of 1859 occurred, when he was returned unopposed for Rochdale. Lord Palmerston was again prime minister, and having discovered that the advanced liberal party was not so easily " crushed " as he had apprehended, he made overtures of reconciliation, and invited Cobden and Milner Gibson to become members of his government. In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Lord Palmerston offered him the presidency of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the. Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept; but without a moment's hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour. On his arrival in London he called on Lord Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister. Lord Palmerston tried good-humouredly to combat his objections, but without success. But though he declined to share the responsibility of Lord Palmerston's administration, he was willing to act as its representative in promoting freer commercial intercourse between England and France. But the negotiations for this purpose originated with himself in conjunction with Bright and Michel Chevalier. Towards the close of 1859 he called upon Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Gladstone, and signified his intention to visit France and get into communication with the emperor and his ministers, with a view to promote this object. These statesmen expressed in general terms their approval of his purpose, but he went entirely on his own account, clothed at first with no official authority. On his arrival in Paris he had a long audience with Napoleon, in which he urged many arguments in favour of re-moving those obstacles which prevented the two countries from being brought into closer dependence on one another, and he succeeded in making a considerable inpression on his mind in favour of free trade. He then addressed himself to the French ministers, and had much earnest conversation, especially with Rouher, whom he found well inclined to the economical and commercial principles which he advocated. After a good deal of time spent in these preliminary and unofficial negotiations, the question of a treaty of commerce between the two countries having entered into the arena of diplomacy, Cobden was requested by the British government to act as their plenipotentiary in the matter in conjunction with Lord Cowley, their ambassador in France. But it proved a very long and laborious undertaking. He had to contend with the bitter hostility of the French protectionists, which occasioned a good deal of vacillation on the part of the emperor and his ministers. There were also delays,hesitations and cavils at home, which were more inexplicable.. He was, moreover, assailed with great violence by a powerful section of the English press, while the large number of minute details with which he had to deal in connexion with proposed changes in the French tariff, involved a tax on his patience and industry which would have daunted a less resolute man But there was one source of embarrassment greater than all the rest. One strong motive which had impelled him to engage in this enterprise was his anxious desire to establish more friendly relations between England and France, and to dispel those feelings of mutual jealousy and alarm which were so frequently breaking forth and jeopardizing peace between the two countries. This was the most powerful argument with which he had plied the emperor and the members of the French government, and which he had found most efficacious with them. But while he was in the midst of the negotiations, Lord Paimerstcn brought forward in the House of Commons a measure for fortifying the naval arsenals of England, which he introduced in a warlike speech pointedly directed against France, as the source of danger of invasion and attack, against which it was necessary to guard. This produced irritation and resentment in Paris, and but for the influence which Cobden had acquired, and the perfect trust reposed in his sincerity, the negotiations would probably have been altogether wrecked. At last, however, after nearly twelve months' incessant labour, the work was completed in November 186o. " Rare," said Mr Gladstone, " is the privilege of any man who, having fourteen years ago rendered to his country one signal service, now again, within the same brief span of life, decorated neither by land nor title, bearing no mark to distinguish him from the people he loves, has been permitted to perform another great and memorable service to his sovereign and his country." On the conclusion of this work honours were offered to Cobden by the governments of both the countries which he had so greatly benefited. Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, and the emperor of the French would gladly have conferred upon him some distinguished mark of his favour. But with characteristic disinterestedness and modesty he declined all such honours. Cobden's efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinated to what he deemed the highest moral purposes—the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men. This was his desire and hope as respects the commercial treaty with France. He was therefore deeply disappointed and distressed to find the old feeling of distrust still actively fomented by the press and some of the leading politicians of the country. In 1862 he published his pamphlet entitled The Three Panics, the object of which was to trace the history and expose the folly of those periodical visitations of alarm as to French designs with which England had been afflicted for the preceding fifteen or sixteen years. When the Civil War threatened to break out in the United States, Cobden was deeply distressed. But after the conflict became inevitable his sympathies were wholly with the North, because the South was fighting for slavery. His great anxiety, however, was that the British nation should not be committed to any unworthy course during the progress of that struggle. And when relations with America were becoming critical and menacing in consequence of the depredations committed on American commerce by vessels issuing from British ports, he brought the question before the House of Commons in a series of speeches of rare clearness and force. For several years Cobden had been suffering severely at intervals from bronchial irritation and a difficulty of breathing. Owing to this he had spent the winter of 186o in Algeria, and every subsequent winter he had to be very careful and confine himself to the house, especially in damp and foggy weather. In November 1864 he went down to Rochdale and delivered a speech to his constituents—the last he ever delivered. :That effort was followed by great physical prostration, and he deter-mined not to quit his retirement at Midhurst until spring had fairly set in. But in the month of March there were discussions in the House of Commons on the alleged necessity of constructing large defensive works in Canada. He was deeply impressed with the folly of such a project, and he was seized with a strong desire to go up to London and deliver his sentiments on the subject. He left home on the 21st of March, and caught a chill. He recovered a little for a few days after his arrival in London; but on the 2gth there was a relapse, and on the 2nd of April 1865 he expired peacefully at his apartments in Suffolk Street. On the following day there was a remarkable scene in the House of Commons. When the clerk read the orders of the day Lord Palmerston rose, and in impressive and solemn tones declared " it was not possible for the House to proceed to business without every member recalling to his mind the great loss which the House and country had sustained by the event which took place yesterday morning." He then paid a generous tribute to the virtues, the abilities and services of Cobden, and he was followed by Disraeli, who with great force and felicity of language delineated the character of the deceased statesman, who, he said, " was an ornament to the House of Commons and an honour to England." Bright also attempted to address the House, but, after a sentence or two delivered in a tremulous voice, he was overpowered with emotion, and declared he must leave to a calmer moment what he had to say on the life and character of the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quitted or tenanted a human form. In the French Corps Legislatif, also, the vice-president, Forgade la Roquette, referred to his death, and warm expressions of esteem were repeated and applauded on every side. " The death of Richard Cobden," said M. la Roquette, " is not alone a misfortune for England, but a cause of mourning for France and humanity." Drouyn de Lhuys, the French minister of foreign affairs, made his death the subject of a special despatch, desiring the French ambassador to express to the government " the mournful sympathy and truly national regret which the death, as lamented as premature, of Richard Cobden had excited on that side of the Channel." " He is above all," he added, " in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man." He was buried at West Lavington church, on the 7th of April. His grave was surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, among whom were Gladstone, Bright, Milner Gibson, Charles Villiers and a host besides from all parts of the country. In 1866 the Cobden Club was founded in London, to promote free-trade economics, and it became a centre for political propaganda on those lines; and prizes were instituted in his name at Oxford and Cambridge. Cobden had married in 184o Miss Catherine Anne Williams, a Welsh lady, and left five surviving daughters, of whom Mrs Cobden-Unwin (wife of the publisher Mr Fisher Unwin), Mrs Walter Sickert (wife of the painter) and Mrs Cobden-Sanderson (wife of the well-known artist in bookbinding), afterwards became prominent in various spheres, and inherited their father's political interest. His only son died, to Cobden's inexpressible grief, at the age of fifteen, in 1856. The work of Cobden, and what is now called " Cobdenism," has in recent years been subjected to much criticism from the newer school of English economists who advocate a " national policy " (on the old lines of Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List) as against his cosmopolitan ideals. But it remains the fact that his success with the free-trade movement was for years unchallenged, and, that the leaps and bounds with which English commercial prosperity advanced after the repeal of the corn-laws were naturally associated with the reformed fiscal policy, so that the very name of protectionism came to be identified with all that was not merely heterodox but hateful. The tariff reform movement in England started by Mr Chamberlain (q.v.) had the result of giving new boldness to the opponents of Manchesterism, and the whole subject once more became controversial (see
End of Article: RICHARD COBDEN (1804-1865)
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