Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday, Richard Cobden

Jun 3, 2005 2:59 pm

Happy Birthday, Richard Cobden

David Beito, who keeps track of birthdays, has invited me to post on the life of Richard Cobden, who was born 201 years ago on June 3, 1804. I’m happy to do so since Cobden is one of my heroes—for at least four reasons that I’ll explain.

Today Richard Cobden and his friend John Bright are principally remembered for their work on behalf of the Anti-Corn Law League between 1839 and 1846, when Sir Robert Peel announced the phased total repeal of the corn laws, the tariff on imported grain or ‘bread tax’ that worked to raise the price of bread for the laboring poor and the rents accruing to the landlords or ‘bread stealers’. The organization and success of the League is a fine example of how to organize uncompromisingly for liberty and a great inspiration for us today.

My second reason for celebrating the life of Richard Cobden is that he was a firm and eloquent critic of British adventurism abroad and war-making. As was John Bright. In the general election of 1857 both Cobden and Bright lost their seats in the House of Commons because of their opposition to the Crimean War of 1854-56.

Two years later in the election of 1859 Cobden was reelected and over the course of the next year negotiated the Anglo-French commercial treaty of 1860 (the Cobden-Chevalier treaty) that inaugurated thirty years of lower tariffs across Europe.

Cobden’s words ring true today. “I yield to no one in sympathy for those who are struggling for freedom in any part of the world; but I will never sanction an interference which shall go to establish this or that nationality by force of arms, because that invades a principal which I wish to carry out in the other direction—the prevention of all foreign interference with nationalities for the sake of putting them down...”

Moreover, “...whilst we are in a state of profound peace, it is for you, the taxpayers, to decide whether you will run the risk of war, and keep your money in your pockets, or allow an additional number of men in red coats to live in idleness under the pretense of protecting you.”

Cobden believed that free trade would promote peace as well as prosperity. “I see in the free trade principle that which will act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe- drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonisms of race, and creeds and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.... I believe the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires and gigantic armies and great navies . . . will die away .... when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother Man.”

Miles Taylor, professor of modern history at the University of York, author of The Decline of British Radicalism, 1847-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1995), and editor of The European Diaries of Richard Cobden, 1846-1849 (Scolar Press, 1994), has written a very informative and nuanced account of Cobden’s life for the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004, and updated online).

Taylor explains that"Cobden's support for non-intervention intensified during the American Civil War, which broke out in 1861. He never doubted that morality was on the side of the Union, and that the future of America lay with the industrial and commercial supremacy of the north. However, Cobden remained suspicious of the protectionist tendencies of the Union, as manifested in the Morrill tariff of 1861, and he had a low opinion of the administrative abilities of the Republican Party: in March 1864 he commented to his friend Thomas Thomasson that ‘if their [the North's] cause was not so good, I should certainly back the South whose men are much more capable whether as statesmen or generals’ (R. Cobden to T. Thomasson, March 1864, Thomas Thomasson MSS, BLPES). Moreover, he opposed the blockade tactics used by the North, which had led to the drying up of the supply of southern cotton to Europe. But he thought throughout the war that Britain, along with the other European powers, should remain neutral. Cobden used his contacts with leading Americans such as Sumner and Adams, within the British and French governments, and also among the Lancashire cotton manufacturers to dampen calls for armed intervention to end the blockade. And he joined in attempts to relieve the distress of cotton workers during the Lancashire famine."

In making my case for Richard Cobden, I recognize (and deplore) the fact that he advocated important measures of state intervention, most notably public funding of education. As Taylor explains, “In the years after 1847 Cobden resumed many of the political campaigns with which he had been associated during the previous decade. Incurring the disapproval of his nonconformist constituents, Cobden became a leading supporter of the National Public Schools Association, believing that ‘government interference is as necessary for education as its non-interference is essential to trade’ (Cobden to James Coppock, 15 June 1847, Cobden MSS, W. Sussex RO).”

My third reason for celebrating the life of Richard Cobden is that he supported the reform of land law—turning leasehold properties into freehold properties and the abolition of primogeniture (inheritance of land through the eldest son). Indeed he once said that getting rid of primogeniture was a more important goal than the repeal of the corn laws. His present-day admirers are almost entirely unaware of his position on land reform. Indeed, many are unaware of his principled opposition to British adventurism abroad. I should add that he was also a firm advocate of retrenchment (reducing government expenditure), the repeal of the taxes on knowledge (taxes on printed matter), and colonial reform.

My final reason for honoring Richard Cobden is that, by all accounts, he was a good and honorable man—indeed for Cobden it was a matter of honor that he rejected all offers of office under the Crown. Born the fourth child of eleven in rural poverty, he lifted himself from a penury that would have crushed a lesser soul. He was a good husband and family man. Cobden died on April 2, 1865 in his sixty-first year, worn out from his labors on behalf of liberty and against power. His fine character is surely reason enough to celebrate his life.

To read Cobden’s works online, go here, and to read about the project to collect and publish his letters, go here. To see portraits and likenesses of Cobden go here, and to buy a mug or a T-shirt bearing his image, go here.

I know of two pubs named after Richard Cobden, one in Chatham in Kent and the other in Havant in Hampshire (and I’d be surprised if there aren’t others). In West Lavington in Sussex you will find the Cobden Obelisk. And outside Mornington Crescent subway station in Camden High Street in north London you will find a statue of Richard Cobden built on the site of an old toll gate. Also in Camden there’s a primary school and a block of flats close by named after him, but, as Mahalia Lloyd, a student at the school, explains, “strangely he had no connection at all with Camden!”

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More Comments:

Sudha Shenoy - 6/4/2005

A. Was Cobden referring to primogeniture (the custom) or the entail/strict settlement (voluntary legal arrangements)?

1. Primogeniture is not & could never have been compulsory. It is a custom practised to maintain the economic viability of the management unit -- the estate. All other children normally receive a 'portion' -- a sum of capital, paid from the income of the estate. Thus it is voluntary; & is only one part of a more general practice.

2. Entail & 'strict' settlement are legal arrangements to ensure that land descends to specific descendants. The next inheritor cannot leave the land as he wishes: it is 'entailed' to pass to his son. Thus the inheritor is, in effect, a life tenant. Usually land is 're-settled' in each generation. But inheritor & son can, & frequently have, 'broken the entail' to enable land to be sold or otherwise disposed of. Common law does not permit perpetual entails.

B. Well before Cobden's time, agricultural leases in Britain had become a means of dividing the long-term & the short-term interests in the land. The tenant supplies working capital (seed, fertiliser, tools, livestock), & bears the short-term risks of harvest & other output fluctuations. The landlord supplies fixed capital -- buildings, fences, maintenance of hedges & ditches; & bears the long-term risks of long-term changes in the productivity of the land. The latter depends, of course, on the tenants' farming practices over time. Thus leases were, in effect, land-management agreements. (And after Cobden's time, with the import of foodstuffs from overseas, rents in Britain declined permanently, -- reflecting what was, in effect, a vast increase in the supply of land.) So how did Cobden understand leasehold?

Kenneth R Gregg - 6/3/2005

I'm so glad that the Liberty Fund has so much of Cobden's writings online, and they are to be credited for a great job. I have to admit that I have sat down in more than one quiet moment to go back through these essays (and save my own copies from more wear than they can bear) on their website. Both Cobden and Bright were master speakers and it is a joy to read the reprints of their speeches.

Just a thought.
Just Ken