Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: commercial and mental progress. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER II.: commercial and mental progress. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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commercial and mental progress.
This great change fully warranted the new enterprise of Cobden and his partners. They took over from the Forts an old calico-printing factory at Sabden,—a remote village on the banks of a tributary of the Calder, near the ruined gateways and chapel of the Cistercian abbey at Whalley in Lancashire, and a few miles from where are now the fine mills and flourishing streets of Blackburn. The higher part of the Sabden valley runs up into the famous haunted Forest of Pendle; and notwithstanding the tall chimneys that may be seen dimly in the distance of the plain, the visitor to this sequestered spot may well feel as if the old world of white monks and forest witches still lingered on the bleak hillsides. Cobden was all with the new world. His imagination had evidently been struck by the busy life of the county with which his name was destined to be so closely bound up. Manchester, he writes with enthusiasm, is the place for all men of bargain and business. His pen acquires a curiously exulting animation, as he describes the bustle of its streets, the quaintness of its dialect, the abundance of its capital, and the sturdy veterans with a hundred thousand pounds in each pocket, who might be seen in the evening smoking clay pipes and calling for brandy and-water in the bar-parlous of homely taverns. He declared his conviction, from what he had seen, that if he were stripped naked and turned into Lancashire with only his experience for a capital, he would still make a large fortune. He would not give anybody sixpence to guarantee him wealth, if he only lived.1 And so forth, in a vein of self-confidence which he himself well described as Napoleonic. “I am ever solicitous,” he wrote to his brother (Jan. 30, 1832.
A more curious picture still is to be found in another letter, also to his brother, written a few months later (April 12, 1832). He describes his commercial plans as full of solidity, “sure for the present, and what is still better, opening a vista to my view of ambitious hopes and schemes almost boundless. Sometimes I confess I allow this sort of feeling to gain a painful and harassing ascendancy over me. It disquiets me in the night as well as day. It gnaws my very entrails (a positive truth), and yet if I ask, What is all this yearning after? I can scarcely give myself a satisfying answer. Surely not for money; I feel a disregard for it, and even a slovenly inattention to its possession, that is quite dangerous. I have scarcely ever, as usual, a sovereign in my pocket, and have been twice a Whalley, to find myself without the means of paying my expenses. I do not think that the possession of millions would greatly alter my habits of1832.
As we might have expected in so buoyant and overflowing a temperament, moments of reaction were not absent, though the shadow was probably as swiftly transient with him as with any man that ever lived. In one of the letters of this period he writes to his brother:—“I know I must rise rapidly if not too heavily weighted. Another doleful letter from poor M. [one of his sisters] came yesterday. Oh, this is the only portion of the trials of my life that I could not go through again—the ordeal would send me to Bedlam! Well, I drown the past in still hoping for the future, but God knows whether futurity will be as great a cheat as ever. I sometimes think it will. I tell you candidly, I am sometimes out of spirits, and have need of co-operation, or Heaven knows yet what will become of my fine castles in the air. So you must bring spirits—spirits—spirits.“
Few men indeed have been more heavily weighted at the start than Cobden was. His family were still dogged and tracked from place to place by the evil genius of slipshod fortune. In 1829 Frederick Cobden began the business of a timber merchant at Barnet, but unhappily the undertaking was as little successful as other things to which he ever put his hand. The little business at Farnham had failed, and had been abandoned. William Cobden went to live with his son at Barnet, and amused a favourite passion by watching the hundred and twenty coaches which each day whirled up and down the great north road. Nothing prospered. Death carried off a son and a daughter in the same year (1830). Frederick lost health, and he lost his brother’s money, and spirits followed. He and his father make a strong instance of the deep saying of Shakespeare’s Enobarbus, how men’s judgments are a parcel of their fortunes, and things outward draw the inward quality after them to suffer all alike. 1832.
Richard Cobden, however had energy enough and to spare for the rest of his family. He pressed his brother to join him at Manchester where he had bought a house in what was then the genteel private quarter of Mosley Street.2 Gillett and Sheriff carried on the business at the London warehouse, and Mr. George Foster who had been manager under the Forts, was now in charge as a partner at the works at Sabden.
It is at Sabden that we first hear of Cobden’s interest in the affairs of others than himself and his kinsfolk. There, in a little stone school-house, we see the earliest monument of his eager and beneficent public spirit, which was destined to shed such prosperity over his country, and to contribute so helpfully to the civilization of the globe. In no part of England have the last forty years wrought so astonishing a change as among the once lonely valleys and wild moors of east Lancashire. At Sabden, in 1832, though the print-works alone maintained some six hundred wage-receivers, there was no school, and there was no church. A diminutive Baptist chapel, irregularly served, was the only agency for bringing, so far as it did bring, the great religious tradition1832.
It was in this far-off corner of the world that Cobden began his career as an agitator, and for a cause in which all England has long since come round to his mind. His earliest speeches were made at Clitheroe on behalf of the education of the young, and one of his earliest letters on what may fairly be called a public question is a note making arrangements for the exhibition at Sabden of twenty children from an infant school at Manchester, by way of an example and incentive to more backward regions. It was characteristic of him, that he threw as much eager enthusiasm into the direction of this exhibition of school-children, 1832.
“You have ground,” Cobden wrote to him, “for very great and just self-gratulation in the movement which you announce to have begun in behalf of infant schools at Sabden. There is never the possibility of knowing the extent to which a philanthropic action may operate usefully—because the good works again multiply in like manner, and may continue thus to produce valuable fruits long after you cease to tend the growth of them. I have always been of opinion that good examples are more influential than bad ones, and I like to take this view of the case, because it strengthens my good hopes for general and permanent ameliorations. Look how perishable is the practice, and therefore how little is to be dreaded the eternity of evil; whilst goodness or virtue by the very force of example, and by its own indestructible nature, must go on increasing and multiplying for ever! I really think you may achieve the vast honour of making Sabden a light to lighten the surrounding country, and carrying civilization into towns that ought to have shed rays of knowledge upon your village; when you have furnished a volunteer corps of your infant troops to teach the tactics of the system to the people of Clitheroe, you should make an offer of a similar service gratis to the good people of Padiham. Let it be done in a formal and open manner to the leading people of the place and neighbourhood, who will thus be openly called upon to exert themselves, and be at the same time instructed how to go about the business. There are many well meaning people in the world who are not so useful as they might be, from not knowing hot to go to work.“3
His perception of the truth of the last sentence, coupled as it was with untiring energy in copying with it, and showing people how they could go to work best, was the secret of1832.
Quiet to quick bosoms is a hell,
and I am afraid he is nearly right in my case.”4 Yet this disquiet never in him degenerated into the sterile bustle which so many restless spirits have mistaken for practical energy. Behind all this sanguine enthusiasm as to public ends, lay the wisest patience as to means.
What surprises one in reading the letters which Cobden1833–6. wrote between 1833 and 1836, is the quickness with which his character widened and ripened. We pass at a single step from the natural and wholesome egotism of the young man who has his bread to win, to the wide interests and generous public spirit of the good citizen. His first motion was towards his own intellectual improvement. Even at a moment when he might readily have been excused for thinking only of money and muslins, he felt and obeyed the necessity for knowledge: but of knowledge as an instrument, not as a luxury. When he was immersed in the first pressing anxieties of his new business at Manchester, he wrote to his brother in London (September, 1832):—
“Might we not in the winter instruct ourselves a little in Mathematics? If you will call at Longmans and look over their catalogue, I daresay you might find some popular elementary publication that would assist us. I have a great disposition, too, to know a little Latin, and six months would suffice if I had a few books. Can you trust your 1833–6.
He had early in life felt the impulse of composition. His first writing was a play, entitled The Phrenologist, and Cobden offered it to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre. He rejected it—“luckily for me,” Cobden added, “for if he had accepted it, I should probably have been a vagabond all the rest of my life.” Another comedy still survives in manuscript; it is entirely without quality, and if the writer ever looked at it in riper years, he probably had no difficulty in understanding why the manager would have nothing to do with it. His earliest political work consisted of letters addressed anonymously to one of the Manchester newspapers (1835) on the subject of the incorporation of the borough. But it was the pamphlet of 1835, England, Ireland, and America, which first showed the writer’s power. Of the political teaching of this performance we shall say something in another chapter. Here we mention it as illustrating the direction in which Cobden’s thoughts were busy, and the kind of nourishment with which he was strengthening his understanding during the years previous to his final launch forth upon the sea of great affairs.
This pamphlet and that which followed it in the next year, show by their references and illustrations that the writer, after his settlement in Manchester in the autumn of 1832, had made himself acquainted with the greatness of Cervantes, the geniality of Le Sage, the sweetness of Spenser, the splendid majesty of Burke, no less than with the general course of European history in the past, and the wide forces that were then actually at work in the present. One who had intimate relations with Cobden in these earlier years of his career, described him to me as always writing1833–6.
Very early in life Cobden perceived, and he never ceased to perceive, that for his purposes no preparation could be so effective as that of travel. He first went abroad in the summer of 1833 (July), when he visited Paris in search of designs for his business. He did not on this occasion stay long enough to derive any ideas about France that are worth recording now. He hardly got beyond the common English impression that the French are a nation of grown-up children, though he described the habit of Parisian life in a happy phrase, as “pleasure without pomp.“5
In the following year he again went to France, and continued1834 his journey to Switzerland. The forests and mountains inspired him with the admiration and awe that no modern can avoid. Once in after-years, a friend who was about to visit the United States, asked him whether it would be worth while to go far out of his way for the sake of seeing the Falls of Niagara. “Yes, most assuredly,” was 1834.
Although he had to its fullest extent this sentiment for the imposing glories of the inanimate universe, yet it is characteristic of his right sense of the true measure of things, that after speaking of Swiss scenery, he marks to his brother, as “better still,” that he has made acquaintance with people who could tell him about the life and institutions of the land. “The people of this country are I believe the best governed and therefore the most prosperous and happy in the world. It is the only Government which has not one douanier in its pay, and yet, thanks to free trade, there is scarcely any branch of manufacturing industry which does not in one part or other of the country find a healthy occupation. The farmers are substantial. Here is a far more elevated character of husbandry life than I expected to see. Enormous farm-houses and barns; plenty of out-houses of every kind; and the horses and cows are superior to those of the English farmers. The sheep and pigs are very, very bad. They have not adopted the Chinese breed of the latter, and the former they do not pay much attention to. I did not see a field of turnips in all the country. Cows are the staple of the farming trade.”6
It was to the United States, rather even than to Switzerland, that Cobden’s social faith and enthusiasm turned; and after his pamphlet was published in the spring of 1835, he resolved to see with his own eyes the great land of uncounted promise. Business was prosperous, and though his partners thought in their hearts that he might do better by attending to affairs at home, they allowed some freedom to the enterprising genius of their ally, and made no objection to his absence.
Meanwhile his father had died (June 15, 1833). When1833.
It is the bitterest element in the vast irony of human life that the time-worn eyes to which a son’s success would have brought the purest gladness, are so often closed for ever before success has come.
Letters to Frederick Cobden, Aug. 11, 1831, Jan. 6, 1832, &c.
To those who care for a measure of the immense growth in the great capital of the cotton trade, the following extract will have some interest:—
To Mr. George Foster, April 14, 1836.
To Mr. Foster, May 14, 1836.
To F. Cobden, July 27, 1833.
To F. Cobden. From Geneva, June 6, 1834.