Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: cobden as an agitator. - The Life of Richard Cobden
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER IX.: cobden as an agitator. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
cobden as an agitator.
In the autumn of 1841 there happened what proved to be a1841.
Mr. Bright, who was seven years younger than Cobden, had made his acquaintance some time before the question of the Corn Laws had come up. He had gone over in the year 1836 or 1837 to Manchester, to call upon Cobden, “to ask him if he would be kind enough to come to Rochdale, and to speak at an education meeting which was about to be held in the schoolroom of the Baptist chapel in West Street of that town. I found him in his office in Mosley Street. I introduced myself to him. I told him what I wanted. His countenance lit up with pleasure to find that there were others that were working in this question, and he without hesitation agreed to come. He came, and he spoke; and though he was then so young as a speaker, yet the qualities of his speech were such as remained with him so long as he was able to speak at all—clearness, logic, a conversational eloquence, a persuasiveness which, when conjoined with the 1841.
Then came the gradual formation of the League, Cobden’s election to Parliament, and the close of his first session. “It was in September, in the year 1841,” said Mr. Bright. “The sufferings throughout the country were fearful; and you who live now, but were not of age to observe what was passing in the country then, can have no idea of the state of your country in that year..... At that time I was at Leamington, and I was, on the day when Mr. Cobden called upon me—for he happened to be there at the time on a visit to some relatives—I was in the depths of grief, I might almost say of despair; for the light and sunshine of my house had been extinguished. All that was left on earth of my young wife, except the memory of a sainted life and of a too brief happiness, was lying still and cold in the chamber above us. Mr. Cobden called upon me as his friend, and addressed me, as you might suppose, with words of condolence.1 After a time he looked up and said, ‘There are thousands of houses in England at this moment where wives, mothers, and children are dying of hunger. Now,’ he said, ‘when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Law is repealed.’ I accepted his invitation. I knew that the description he had given of the homes of thousands was not an exaggerated description. I felt in my conscience that there was a work which somebody must do, and therefore I accepted his invitation, and from that time we never ceased to labour hard on behalf of the resolution which we had made.”
“For seven years,” Mr. Bright says, “the discussion on that one question—whether it was good for a man to1841.
This is an appropriate place for considering some of the qualifications that Cobden brought to the mission which he and his ally thus imposed upon themselves. In speaking of him I may seem to ignore fellow-workers whose share in the agitation was hardly less important than his own; without whose zeal, disinterestedness, and intelligence, the work of himself and Mr. Bright would have been of little effect, and could never have been undertaken. No history of the League could be perfect which did not commemorate the names and labours of many other able men, who devoted themselves with hardly inferior energy to the exhausting work of organization and propagandism. But these pages have no pretensions to tell the whole story; they only are concerned with so much of it as relates to one of its heroes. “We were not even the first,” said Mr. Bright, “though afterwards, perhaps, we became the foremost before the public. But there were others before us.” The public imagination was struck by the figures of the pair who had given themselves up to a great public cause. The alliance between them far more than doubled the power that either could have exerted without the other. The picture of two plain men leaving their homes and their business, and going 1841.
The agitator has not been a very common personage in English history. The greatest that has ever been seen was O’Connell, and I do not know of any other, until the time of the League, who may be placed even as second to him. In the previous century Wilkes had made a great figure, and Wilkes was a man of real power and energy. But he was rather the symbol of a strong popular sentiment, than its inspirer; and he may be more truly said to have been borne on the crest of the movement, than to have given to it force or volume.
Cobden seemed to have few of the endowments of an agitator, as that character is ordinarily thought of. He had no striking physical gifts of the histrionic kind. He had one physical quality which must be ranked first among the secondary endowments of great workers. Later in life he said, “If I had not had the faculty of sleeping like a dead fish, in five minutes after the most exciting mental effort, and with certainty of having oblivion for six consecutive hours, I should not have been alive now.” In his early days, he was slight in frame and build. He afterwards grew nearer to portliness. He had a large and powerful head, and the indescribable charm of a candid eye. His features were not of a commanding type; but they were illuminated and made attractive by the brightness of intelligence, of sympathy, and of earnestness. About the mouth there was a curiously winning mobility and play. His voice was clear,1841.
It has often been pointed out how the two great spokesmen of the League were the complements of one another; how their gifts differed, so that one exactly covered the ground which the other was predisposed to leave comparatively untouched. The differences between them, it is true, were not so many as the points of resemblance. If in Mr. Bright there was a deeper austerity, in both there was the same homeliness of allusion, and the same graphic plainness. Both avoided the stilted abstractions of rhetoric, and neither was ever afraid of the vulgarity of details. In Cobden as in Bright, we feel that there was nothing personal or small, and that what they cared for so vehemently were great causes. There was a resolute standing aloof from the small things of party, which would be almost arrogant, if the whole texture of what they had to say were less 1841.
If in one sense the Corn Laws did not seem a promising theme for a popular agitation, they were excellently fitted to bring out Cobden’s peculiar strength, for they dealt with firm matter and demonstrable inferences, and this was the region where Cobden’s powers naturally exercised themselves. In such an appeal to sentiment and popular passion as the contemporary agitation of O’Connell for Repeal, he could have played no leading part.3 Where knowledge and logic were the proper instruments, Cobden was a master.
Enormous masses of material for the case poured every week into the offices of the League. All the day long Cobden was talking with men who had something to tell him. Correspondents from every quarter of the land plied him with information. Yet he was never overwhelmed by the volume of the stream. He was incessantly on the alert for a useful fact, a telling illustration, a new fallacy to expose. So dexterously did he move through the ever-growing piles 1841.
A political or religious agitator must not be afraid of incessant repetition. Repetition in his most effective instrument. The fastidiousness which is proper to literature, and which makes a man dread to say the same thing twice, is in the field of propagandism were impotency. This is one reason why even the greatest agitators in causes which have shaken the world, are often among the least interesting men in history. Cobden had moral and social gifts which invest him with a peculiar attraction, and will long make his memory interesting as that of a versatile nature; but he was never afraid of the agitator’s art of repeating his formula, his principles, his illustrations, his phrases, with untiring reiteration.
Though he abounded in matter, Cobden can hardly be described as copious. He is neat and pointed, nor is his argument ever left unclenched; but he permits himself no large excursions. What he was thinking of was the matter immediately in hand, the audience before his eyes, the point that would tell best then and there, and would be most likely to remain in men’s recollections. For such purposes copiousness is ill-fitted; that is for the stately leisure of the pulpit. Cobden’s task was to leave in his hearer’s mind a compact answer to each current fallacy, and to scotch or kill as many protectionist sophisms as possible within the given time. What is remarkable, is that while he kept close to the matter and substance of his case, and resorted comparatively little to sarcasm, humour, invective, pathos, or the other elements that are catalogued in manuals of rhetoric, yet no speaker was ever further removed from prosiness, or came into more real and sympathetic contact with his audience. His speaking was thoroughly businesslike, and yet it was never dull. It was not, according to the old definition of oratory, reason fused1841.
After all, it is not tropes and perorations that make the popular speaker; it is the whole impression of his personality. We who only read them, can discern certain admirable qualities in Cobden’s speeches; aptness in choosing topics, lucidity in presenting them, buoyant confidence in pressing them home. But those who listened to them felt much more than all this. They were delighted by mingled vivacity and ease, by directness, by spontaneousness and reality, by the charm, so effective and so uncommon between a speaker and his audience, of personal friendliness and undisguised cordiality. Let me give an illustration of this. Cobden once had an interview with Rowland Hill, some time in 1838, and gave evidence in favour of the proposed reform in the postage. Rowland Hill, in writing to him afterwards, excuses himself for troubling Cobden with his private affairs:“Your conversation, evidence, and letters, have created a feeling in my mind so like that which one entertains towards an old friend, that I am apt to forget that I have met you but once.” It was just the same with bodies of men as it was with individuals. No public speaker was ever so rapid and so successful in establishing genial relations of respect without formality, and intimacy without familiarity. One great source of this, in Mr. Bright’s words, was “the absolute truth that shone in his eye and in his countenance.”
I have spoken of Cobden’s patience in acquiring and shaping matter. This was surpassed by his inexhaustible patience in dealing with the mental infirmities of those 1841.
It has often been said that Cobden was a good Englishman, and he was so, in spite of finer qualities which our neighbours are not willing to allow to us. London society, and smart journalists who mistook a little book-knowledge for culture, were in the habit of disparaging Cobden as a common manufacturer, without an idea in his head beyond buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest. This was not the way in which he struck the most fastidious, critical, and refined man of letters in Europe, accustomed to mix with the most important personages of literature and affairs then alive. Prosper Mérimée saw a great deal of Cobden in 1860, when they both spent part of the winter at Cannes. “Cobden,” he wrote to his intimate correspondent, “is a man of an extremely interesting mind; quite the opposite of an Englishman in this respect, that you never hear him talk commonplaces, and that he has few prejudices.” It was just because he was not a man of prejudice, that he had none against his own countrymen. We saw how when he was travelling in America, he found his British blood up, as he said, and be dealt faithfully with the disparagers of the mother country.41841.
This conviction inspired him with a peculiar respect for his great popular audiences, and they instinctively felt the presence of it, making a claim to their good-will and their attention. Cobden differed from his countrymen, as to what it is that will make England great, but he was as anxious that England should be great, and as proud of English virtues and energies, as the noisiest patriot in a London music hall.
Cobden always said that it was an advantage to him as an agitator that he was a member of the Church of England. He used to tell of men who came up to him and declared that their confidence in him dated from the moment when they learnt that he was a churchman. It was, perhaps, a greater advantage to him than he knew. However little we may admire a State establishment of religion, it is certain that where such an establishment happens to exist, those who have been brought up in it, and have tranquilly conformed to its usages, escape one source of a certain mental asperity and the spirit of division. This is no credit to them or to the institution; any more than the asperity is a discredit to those who do not conform to the institution. Nay, one 1841.
Temperament, however, had a larger share than institutions in Cobden’s faculty of moral sympathy. There is scanty evidence of anything like an intense spirituality in his nature; he was neither oppressed nor elevated by the mysteries, the aspirations, the remorse, the hope, that constitute religion. So far as we can have means of knowing, he was not of those who live much in the Unseen. But for moral goodness, in whatever association he came upon it, he had a reverence that came from his heart of hearts. While leaning strongly towards those scientific theories of motive and conduct, of which, as has been already said, George Combe was in those days the most active propagandist, he felt no contempt, provided only their practical endeavour was towards good, for those who clung narrowly to older explanations of the heart of man. In a letter written to Combe himself, when the struggle against the Corn Laws was over, Cobden allows himself to talk freely on his own attitude in these high matters:—
...“With reference,” he says, “to your remarks as to the evangelical dissenters and religionists generally, and their views of your philosophy of morals—I will confess to you that I am not inclined to quarrel with that class of my countrymen. I see the full force of what you urge, but am inclined to hope more from them in time than any other party in the State. Gradually and imperceptibly to themselves they are catching the spirit of the age, so far as to recognize the moral laws as a part of our natural organization. They do not accept your views to the superseding of their own, but, like geology, your science is forcing its way alongside1841.
“I do not quarrel with the religionists, for I find them generally enforcing or at all events recognizing and professing to act upon (they do not, I admit, sufficiently preach it) the morality of the New Testament, and you can do no more. The only difference is that John Calvin and George Combe act upon different theories, and rely upon different motives, and start from very different premises, but they recognize the self-same ends secularly speaking, and I cannot quarrel with either...I am by nature a religionist. I was much struck with your remark when you mapped my head eleven years ago,—‘Why, if you had been born in the middle ages, you would have made a good monk, you have so much veneration!’ That was a triumph for phrenology, for you could have formed no such notion from anything you had seen or heard of me. I have a strong religious feeling,—a sympathy for men who act under that impulse; I reverence it as the great leverage which has moved mankind to powerful action. I acknowledge that it has been perverted to infinite mischief. I confess it has been the means of degrading men to brutish purposes...but it has also done glorious deeds for liberty and human exaltation, and it is destined to do still better things. It is fortunate for me that whilst possessing a strong logical faculty, which keeps me in the path of rationalism, I have the religious sympathy which enables me to co-operate with men of exclusively religious sentiment. I mean it is fortunate for my powers of usefulness in this my day and generation. To this circumstance I am greatly indebted for the success of the great Free-Trade struggle, which has been more indebted to the organ of veneration for its success, than is generally known.
“I am not without hopes that the same fortunate circum stance1841.
“I have said that I have a strong feeling of sympathy for the religious sentiment. But I sympathize with all moral men who are not passive moralists: with them it is difficult to sympathize, but I venerate and trust them. Especially do I sympathize with those who labour and make sacrifices for the diffusion of sound moral principles. I will own, however, that it is unpleasant to my feelings to associate with those who, whilst they indulge in coarse sceptical allusions to our faith, do not in their private life manifest that they impose a better restraint upon themselves than is to be found in the New Testament. My active public life has sometimes thrown me into such company, and with these esprits forts, as the French call them, I have no sympathy. My maxim is in such predicaments to avoid theological discussions (here again is my veneration over-riding causality), and to avow that I am resolved to follow Bonaparte’s advice—to adhere to the religion of my mother, who was an energetically pious women.”5
No whisper was ever seriously raised against Cobden’s transparent honesty. What is worth remarking is that his sincerity was not of that cheap and reckless kind, by virtue of which men sometimes in one wild outburst of plain speech cut themselves off from chances of public usefulness for the remainder of their lives. He laid down certain1841.
This was only another way of saying that strong enthusiasm in him was no hindrance to strong sense. Instead of increasing the elements of friction—the besetting weakness of reformers and dissidents of all kinds—he took infinite trouble to reduce these elements to the lowest possible point. Hence he was careful not to take up too many subjects at once, because the antagonism generated by each would have been made worse by the antagonism belonging to every other, and he would have called up a whole host of enemies together, instead of leaving himself free to deal with one at a time. A correspondent once wrote to him on this point.
“You have opened a very important question,” Cobden replied, “in respect to the duty of a public man to advocate all the changes to which he may be favourable. I have often reflected upon this. Bacon says, if you have a handful of truths, open but one finger at a time. He is not the safest moral guide, I admit, but I am not sure that he is not to some extent right in this view. If we are to declare our convictions upon all subjects, and if abstract reason is to be our guide, without reference to time and circumstance, why should not I, for instance, avow myself a republican? A 1841.
This wise economy brought its reward. Cobden did not carry the world with him in his own lifetime, but what he did by his method was to bring certain principles of human progress into line with the actual politics of the day. He did not create a majority, but he achieved the first difficult step of creating a strong minority, and this not merely of sympathizers in the closet, but of active followers in the nation.
It was what he called his wisdom of the serpent that gave Cobden his power in the other arts of a successful agitator, which are less conspicuous but hardly less indispensable, than commanding or persuasive oratory. He applied the same qualities in the actual business of the League which he brought to bear in his speeches. He was indefatigable in his industry, fertile in ingenious devices for bringing the objects of the League before the country, constantly on the alert for surprising a hostile post, never losing a chance of turning a foe or a neutral into a friend, and never allowing his interest about the end for which he was working, to confuse his vigilant concentration upon the means. The danger of great confederacies like the League is that they become mechanical. Machinery must of necessity play a1841.
Critics usually singled out Cobden’s logical faculty as his strongest trait, and it was so; but he was naturally inclined to think of the conclusions of his logic in poetized forms. He always delighted, in spite of the wretched simile with 1841.
From Cowper, too, he was never weary of quoting the lines about liberty:—
It was this association of solid doctrine with genial enthusiasm and high ideals, that distinguished Cobden from too many preachers of what our humourist has called the gospel according to McCrowdy. It was this kindly imaginativeness in him which caught men’s hearts. His ideals were constantly sneered at as low, material, common, unworthy, especially by the class whose lives are one long course of indolence, dilettanteism, and sensuality. George Combe tells how one evening in 1852 he was in the drawing-room of some great lady, who, amid the applause of her friends, denounced Cobden’s policy as never rising beyond a mere “bagman’s millennium.”8 This was the clever way, among the selfish and insolent, of saying that the ideal which Cobden cherished was comfort for the mass, not1841.
There is one more point on which it is worth while to say a word in connexion with Cobden’s character as an agitator. The great danger of the career is that it may in time lessen a man’s moral self-possession. Effect becomes the decisive consideration instead of truth; a good meeting grows into a final object in life; the end of existence is a paradise of loud and prolonged cheering; and character is gradually destroyed by the parasites of self-consciousness and vanity. On one occasion, in 1845, as we shall see, Cobden was betrayed, excusably enough, into some strong language about Sir Robert Peel. Miss Martineau, George Combe, and others, rebuked him rather sharply. He took the rebuke with perfect temper and humility, and in seeking to excuse himself, he described his feelings about public life in words of which it is impossible to doubt the exact truth. “You must not judge me,” he said, “by what I say at these tumultuous public meetings. I constantly regret the necessity of violating good taste and kind feeling in my public harangues. I say advisedly necessity, for I defy anybody to keep the ear of the public for seven years upon one question, without studying to amuse as well as instruct. People do not attend public meetings to be taught, but to be excited, flattered, and pleased. If they are simply lectured, they may sit out the lesson for once, but they will not come again; and as I have required them again and again, I have been obliged to amuse them, not by standing on my head or eating fire, but by kindred feats of jugglery, 1841.
Mr. Bright lost his wife on the 10th of September, and Cobden’s visit to him was on the 18th.
This and the preceding passages are from the very beautiful address delivered by Mr. Bright, when he unveiled the statue of his friend at Bradford, July 25, 1877. The address is to be found in Mr. Thorold Rogers’s volume of Public Addresses of John Bright, pp. 354–366.
See Mr. McCarthy’s History of Our Own Times, i. 340, 348.
Above pp. 33–4.
To George Combe, Aug. 1, 1846.
To S. Lucas, Jan. 27, 1862.
To the Rev. Thomas Spencer, April 23, 1849.
Life of George Combe, ii. 309.
To George Combe, Dec. 29, 1845.