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Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V06, Page 611 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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FREE TRADE; CORN LAWS; PROTECTION; TARIFF; ECONOMICS). Cobden has left a deep mark on English history, but he was not himself a " scientific economist," and many of his confident prophecies were completely falsified. As a manufacturer, and with the circumstances of his own day before him, he considered that it was " natural " for Great Britain to manufacture for the world in exchange for her free admission of the more " natural " agricultural products of other countries. He advocated the repeal of the corn-laws, not essentially in order to make food cheaper, but because it would develop industry and enable the manufacturers to get labour at low but sufficient wages; and he assumed that other countries would be unable to compete with England in manufactures under free trade, at the prices which would be possible for English manufactured products. " We advocate," he said, " nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity—to buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest." He-believed that the rest of the world must follow England's example: " if you abolish the corn-laws honestly, and adopt free trade in its simplicity, there will not be a tariff in Europe that will not be changed in less than five years " (January 1846). His cosmopolitanism—which makes him in the modern Imperialist's eyes a "Little Englander" of the straitest sect—led him to deplore any survival of the colonial system and to hail the removal of ties which bound the mother country to remote dependencies; but it was, in its day, a generous and sincere reaction against popular sentiment, and Cobden was at all events an outspoken advocate of an irresistible British navy. There were enough inconsistencies in his creed to enable both sides in the recent controversies to claim him as one who if he were still alive would have supported their case in the altered circumstances; but, from the biographical point of view, these issues are hardly relevant. Cobden inevitably stands for " Cobdenism, " which is a creed largely developed by the modern free-trader in the course of subsequent years. It becomes equivalent to economic laisser-faire and " Manchesterism," and as such it must fight its own corner with those who now take into consideration many national factors which had no place in the early utilitarian individualistic regime of Cobden's own day. The standard biography is that by John Morley (1881). Cobden's speeches were collected and published in 1870. The centenary of his birth in 1904 was celebrated by a flood of articles in the news-papers and magazines, naturally coloured by the new controversy in England over the Tariff Reform movement.
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