Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII.: cobden enters parliament—first session. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER VIII.: cobden enters parliament—first session. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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cobden enters parliament—first session.
The dissolution of Parliament took place at Midsummer.1841.
Some of the more dogged, however, among members of the League were hurt by what they took for a Laodicean halting between two opinions, and talked of withdrawing or lessening their subscriptions. Subscriptions are always a very sensitive point in agitations; and Cobden found it worth while, after the elections were over, to write a letter to one of the more important of the protesters, explaining the principle on which the League had acted. “With reference to your complaint,” he says, “that the League did not oppose the measure of the Government, I must remind you that the real governing power, the landed and other monopolists, held fast by the old law; they never attempted to force the fixed duty upon us. We regarded the Government proposal, not as an offer from a party strong enough to concede anything, but merely as a step in advance taken by a portion of the aristocracy. It was not our business to attack them, whilst another party, more powerful than the Government and the people, were resolutely opposed to any concession. To my humble apprehension, it is as unwise as unjust in any kind of political warfare to assail those who are disposed to co-operate, however slightly, in the attempt to overthrow a formidable and uncompromising enemy.”
In the elections in the north of England the repealers were successful against both Whigs and Tories, and among those who succeeded was Cobden himself. “I am afraid,” he wrote to his brother, “you will be vexed1841.
“I have a right to expect other men of business,” he wrote to a manufacturer at Warrington, urging a contest in that borough, “for I am doing it myself much against my wish. I offered to give a hundred pounds towards the expenses of another candidate in my stead for Stockport, and to canvass for him for a week; and it was only when the electors declared that they could not agree to another, and would not be able to oust the bread-taxers without me, that I consented to stand.”
The League, in fact, put a strong pressure upon him, and we may perhaps believe that Cobden’s resistance to the urgency of his political friends was not very stubborn. He must have felt by invincible instinct that only through a seat in Parliament could he secure an effective hearing for his arguments. It is uncertain whether the opinion of the constituency which had rejected him in 1837, had really 1841.
It proved that Sir Robert Peel had a majority, not of thirty or forty, but of more than ninety. Lord Melbourne, however, did not anticipate the practice of our own day by resigning before the meeting of the hostile Parliament. The Ministers put into the Queen’s speech as good an account as they could of their policy, and awaited their fate. Cobden took his seat on the first day of the session. “Yesterday,” he says, “I went down to the House to be sworn to renounce the Pope and the Pretender. Then I went into the Treasury, and heard Lord John deliver his last dying speech and confession to his parliamentary minority. He gave us the substance of the Queen’s speech, which is in the Chronicle to-day. I cannot learn what the Tories intend to do to-night, but I suppose they will try to avoid committing themselves against the Free Trade measures. It is allowed on all sides that they fear discussion as they do death. It is reported that the old Duke advises his party not to force themselves on the Queen, but to let the Whigs go on till the reins fairly drop out of their hands. The Queen seems to1841.
The Queen had no choice. An amendment was moved upon the address in both Houses, and carried in the Commons by the irresistible majority of ninety-one. The vote was taken at five in the morning (August 28), and in the afternoon of the same day, Lord Melbourne went down to Windsor to resign his post. Within a few days that great administration was formed which contained not only able Tories like Lord Lyndhurst, but able seceders from the Whigs like Lord Stanley and Sir James Graham; which commanded an immense majority in both Houses; which was led by a chief of consummate sagacity; and which was at last, five years afterwards, slowly broken to pieces by the work of Cobden and the League.
Cobden made his maiden speech in the debate which preceded this great official revolution. “I was induced,” he writes to his brother, “to speak last night at about nine o’clock. We thought the debate would have been brought to a close. The Tories were doggedly resolved from the first not to enter upon any discussion of the main question, and the discussion, if it could be called one, went on as flat as possible. My speech had one good effect. I called up a booby who let fly at the manufacturers, very much to the chagrin, I suspect, of the leader of his party. It is now thought that the Tories must come out and discuss in self-defence the Free Trade question, and if not, they will be damaged by the arguments on the other side. All my friends say I did well. But I feel it very necessary to be cautions in speaking too much. I shall be an observer for some time.”4
We now see that Cobden’s maiden speech was much more than a success in the ordinary sense of attracting the atten tion1841.
“At that meeting,” he said, “most important statements of facts were made relating to the condition of the labouring-classes. He would not trouble the House by reading those statements; but they showed that in every district of the country....the condition of the great body of her1841.
One or two simpletons laughed at an appeal to evidence from such a source; but it was felt that, though they might jeer at the speaker as a Methodist parson, and look down upon him as a manufacturer, yet he represented a new force with which the old parties would one day have to deal. In the country his speech excited the deep interest of that great class, who are habitually repelled by the narrow passions and seeming insincerity of ordinary politics.
His friends in the north were delighted by the vigour and alacrity of their champion. With the sanguine assurance of all people who have convinced themselves of the goodness of their cause, and are very earnest in wishing to carry it, they were certain that Cobden’s arguments must speedily convert Parliament and the Ministry. “It is pleasant,” Cobden wrote to his brother, “to learn that my maiden effort has pleased our good friends. I have some letters from Manchester with congratulations. It is very pleasant, but I must be careful not to be carried off my legs. Stanley scowls and Peel smiles at me, both meaning mischief. There is no other man on the other side that I have heard, who is at all for midable. I observe there are a great many busy men of1841.
“From what I can hear,” he wrote a month later, “it appears that Peel has no plan in view of any kind, with respect to the corn question. The aristocracy and people are gaping at him, wondering what he is going to do, and his head will be at work with no higher ambition than to gull both parties. I am of opinion that there never was a better moment than at present for carrying the question out of doors. If there be determination enough in the minds of the people to make a vigorous demonstration 1841.
Now, as throughout the whole of the struggle, Cobden kept up the closest relations with the local leaders of the movement in the north. One of the most baneful effects of the concentration and intensity of parliamentary life is that members cease to inspire themselves with the more wholesome air of the nation outside. From the beginning to the end of his career, Cobden cared very little about the opinion of the House, and hoped very little from its disinterestedness. He never greatly valued the judgment of parliamentary coteries. It was the mind of the country that he always sought to know and to influence. And though he had proper confidence in the soundness of his own judgment, he was wholly free from the weakness of thinking that his judgment could stand alone. He was invariably eager to collect the opinions of his fellow-workers at Manchester, and not only to collect them, but to be guided by them.
“It is quite evident,” he wrote to Mr. George Wilson, towards the end of September, “that Peel has made up his mind to prorogue without entering upon the consideration of the Corn Law. The business of the session will now be hurried on and brought to a close probably by the end of the week. Under these circumstances I wish to know the opinion of our friends in Manchester as to the course which it would be advisable for the few Anti-Corn Law members now in London to pursue. Will you be good enough at once to call together the whole of the Council, and consult with as many judicious people as you can, and determine whether you think anything, and what, can be done to promote the cause? The main question for you to decide is whether it be advisable for Mr. Villiers to give notice of a1841.
Cobden made two other speeches in the course of the autumn session, after the re-election of the Ministers (Sept. 16—Oct. 7). Lord John Russell reproached the new Premier for asking for time to prepare his schemes for repairing the national finances. Peel justly asked him why, 1841.
“.... I sat through the voting of money, vastly edified and scandalized at the way in which the poor devils of tax-payers are robbed. The sum of 100,000l. for arming and clothing militia in Canada, light-houses in Jamaica, negro education, bishops all over the world, &c., &c., in goodly proportions.... The people are, I am afraid, fit for nothing better. I did not offer an objection, for it would have been ridiculous to do so. It did, however, cost me some efforts to hold my tongue. I am glad that you did not think my second speech too strong. I was not quite satisfied with it myself. It was, however, badly reported. I was rather better pleased with my third on Friday, when I found there was an effort made at first to annoy me, on the part of some young obscures, one of whom followed me with an evidently ‘conned reply,’ in which he had quotations from my speech at Manchester, about the Oxford education, the Ilissus, Scamander, &c. His speech was not reported. It was a mere prize essay oration, which, thanks to the practical turn that has been given to subjects of debate, finds no relish in the House now-a-days. It is quite clear that I am looked upon as a Gothic invader, and the classicals will criticize me unmercifully. But I have vitality enough to1841.
When Cobden rose on this last occasion there were cries of impatience from the ministerial side of the House, but this did not prevent him from persevering with an argumentative remonstrance against the incredulity or apathy with which the Government treated the distress of the manufacturing towns. The point which he pressed most keenly was the interchange of food and manufactures between England and the United States that would instantly follow repeal. He quoted from a petition to the Congress 1841.
“Suppose now,” Cobden went on, “that it were but the Thames instead of the Atlantic which separated the two countries—suppose that the people on one side were mechanics and artisans, capable by their industry of producing a vast supply of manufactures; and that the people on the other side were agriculturists, producing infinitely more than they could themselves consume of corn, pork, and beef—fancy these two separate peoples anxious and willing to exchange with each other the produce of their common industries, and fancy a demon rising from the middle of the river—for I cannot imagine anything human in such a position and performing such an office—fancy a demon rising from the river, and holding in his hand an Act of Parliament, and saying, ‘You shall not supply each other’s wants;’ and then in addition to that, let it be supposed that this demon said to his victim with an affected smile, ‘This is for your benefit; I do it entirely for your protection!’ Where was the difference between the Thames and the Atlantic?”
It was after a vigorous and persistent description of the privations of the people in the North, that he turned sharply round upon the men whom he denounced for drawing the attention of Parliament away from the real issues to vague questions of philanthropy. “When I go down to the manufacturing districts,” he said, “I know that I shall be returning to a gloomy scene. I know that starvation is stalking through the land, and that men are perishing for1841.
Cobden’s intervention in debate was more than a parliamentary incident. It was the symbol of a new spirit of self-assertion in a great social order. The Reform Bill had admitted manufacturing towns to a share of representation Cobden lost no time in vindicating the reality of this representation. The conflict of the next five years was not merely a battle about a customs duty; it was a struggle for political influence and social equality between the landed aristocracy and the great industrialists. Of this, an incident in the debates of the following session will furnish us with a sufficiently graphic illustration. It is only by reading the correspondence of that time, and listening to the men who still survive, without having left its passions behind them, that we realize the angry astonishment with which the old society 1841.
To F. Cobden, June 16, 1841.
To F. Cobden, July 3, 1841.
To F. Cobden, August 24, 1841.
To F. Cobden, August 26, 1841.
When the House met to receive the Report on the Amended Address, Mr. Crawford proposed an amendment, to the effect that the distress deplored in the Speech was to be attributed to the non-representation of the working classes in Parliament. The Radicals were not unanimous, and the amendment was defeated by 283 against 39.
To F. Cobden, August 29, 1841.
To G. Wilson, September, 1841.
To F. Cobden, Sept. 27, 1841.