Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVII.: correspondence with sir robert peel—cessation of the work of the league. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XVII.: correspondence with sir robert peel—cessation of the work of the league. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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correspondence with sir robert peel—cessation of the work of the league.
“23 June, 1846.
“Sir,—I have tried to think of a plan by which I could have half an hour’s conversation with you upon public matters, but I do not think it would be possible for us to have an interview with the guarantee of privacy. I therefore take a course which will be startling to you, by committing the thoughts which are passing in my mind freely to paper. Let me premise that no human being has or ever will have the slightest knowledge or suspicion that I am writing this letter. I keep no copy, and ask for no reply. I only stipulate that you will put it in the fire when you have perused it, without in any way alluding to its contents or permitting it to meet the eye of any other person what ever.1 I shall not waste a word in apologising for the1846.
“It is said you are about to resign. I assume that it is so. On public grounds this will be a national misfortune. The trade of the country, which has languished through six months during the time that the Corn Bill has been in suspense, and which would now assume a more confident tone, will be again plunged into renewed unsettlement by your resignation. Again, the great principle of commercial freedom with which your name is associated abroad, will be to some extent jeopardized by your retirement. It will fill the whole civilized world with doubt and perplexity to see a minister, whom they believed all-powerful, because he was able to carry the most difficult measure of our time, fall at the very moment of his triumph. Foreigners, who do not comprehend the machinery of our government, or the springs of party movements, will doubt if the people of England are really favourable to Free Trade. They will have misgivings of the permanence of our new policy, and this doubt will retard their movements in the same direction. You have probably thought of all this.
“My object, however, in writing is more particularly to draw your attention from the state of parties in the House, as towards your government, to the position you hold as Prime Minister in the opinion of the country. Are you aware of the strength of your position with the country? If so, why bow to a chance medley of factions in the Legislature, 1846.
“You will perceive that I point to a dissolution as the solution of your difficulties in Parliament. I anticipate your objections. You will say,—‘If I had had the grounds for a dissolution whilst the Corn Bill was pending, I should have secured a majority for that measure; but now I have no such exclusive call upon the country, by which to set aside old party distinctions.’ There are no substantial lines of demarcation now in the country betwixt the Peelites and the so-called Whig or Liberal party. The Chiefs are still keeping up a show of hostility in the House; but their troops out of doors have piled their arms, and are mingling and fraternising together. This fusion must sooner or later take place in the House. The independent men, nearly all who do not look for office, are ready for the amalgamation. They are1846.
“I have said that a dissolution should be judiciously brought about. I assume, of course, that you would not deem it necessary to stand or fall by the present Coercion Bill. I assume, moreover, that you are alive to the all-pervading force of the arguments you have used in favour of Free Trade principles, that they are eternal truths, applicable to all articles of exchange, as well as corn; and that they must be carried out in every item of our tariff. I assume that you foresaw, when you propounded the Corn Bill, that it involved the necessity of applying the same principle to sugar, coffee, etc. This assumption is the basis of all I have said, or have to say. Any other hypothesis would imply that you had not grasped in its full comprehensiveness the greatness of your position, or the means by which you could alone achieve the greatest triumph of a century. For I need not tell you that the only way in which the soul of a great nation can be stirred, is by appealing to its sympathies with a true principle in its unalloyed simplicity. Nay, further, it is necessary for the concentration of a people’s mind that an individual should become the incarnation of a principle. It is from this necessity that I have been identified, out of doors, beyond my poor deserts, as the exponent of Free Trade. You, and no other, are its embodiment amongst statesmen;—and it is for this reason alone that I venture to talk to you in a strain that would otherwise be grossly impertinent.
“To return to the practical question of a dissolution. Assuming that your Cabinet will concur, or that you will place yourself in a position independently of other of appeal to the 1846.
“This tone is essential, because it will release the members of a new Parliament from their old party ties. The hustings cry will be, ‘Peel and Free Trade,’ and every important constituency will send its members up to support you. I would dissolve within the next two months. Some people might urge that the counties would be in a less excited state, if it were deferred; but any disadvantage in that respect would be more than compensated by the gain in the town constituencies. I would go the country with my Free Trade laurels fresh upon my brow, and whilst the grievance under which I was suffering from the outrages of Protectionist speakers and writers was still rankling in the1846.
“Again, to anticipate what is passing in your thoughts. Do you apprehend a difficulty in effacing the line which separates you from the men on the opposite side of the House? I answer that the leaders of the Opposition personate no idea. You embody in your own person the idea of the age. Do you fear that other questions, which are latent on the ‘Liberal’ side of the House, would embarrass you if you were at the head of a considerable section of its members? What are they? Questions of organic reform have no vitality in the country, nor are they likely to have any force in the Hous until your work is done. Are the 1846.
“As respects Ireland. That has become essentially a practical question too. If you are prepared to deal with Irish landlords as you have done with English, there will be the means of satisfying the people. You are not personally unpopular, but the reverse, with Irish members.
“Lastly, as respects your health. God only knows how you have endured, without sinking, the weight of public duties and the harassings of private remonstrances and importunities during the last six months. But I am of opinion that a dissolution, judiciously brought on, would place you comparatively on velvet for five years. It would lay in the dust your tormentors. It would explode the phantom of a Whig Opposition, and render impossible such a combination as is now, I fear, covertly harassing you. But it is on the subject of your health alone that I feel I may be altogether at fault, and urging you to what may be impossible. In my public views of your position and power, I am not mistaken. Whatever may be the difficulties in your Cabinet, whether one or half-a-score of your colleagues may secede, you have in your own individual will the power, backed by the country, to accomplish all that the loftiest ambition or the truest patriotism ever aspired to identify with the name and fame of one individual.
“I hardly know how to conclude without apologising for this most extraordinary liberty. If you credit me, as I believe you will, when I say that I have no object on earth but a desire to advance the interests of the nation and of humanity in writing to you, any apology will be unnecessary. If past experience do not indicate my motives, time, I hope, will.
“It is my intention, on the passing of the Corn Bill, to1846.
I have the honour to be, Sir, respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
“Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart. M.P.”
“P.S. I am of opinion that a dissolution, in the way I suggested, with yourself still in power, would very much facilitate the easy return of those on your side who voted with you. And any members of your government who had a difficulty with their present seats would, if they adhered to you, be at a premium with any free constituency. Were I in your position, although as a principle I do not think Cabinet ministers ought to encumber themselves with large constituencies, I would accept an invitation to stand for London, Middlesex, South Lancashire, or West Yorkshire, expressly to show to the world the estimation in which my principles were held, and declaring at the same time that that was my sole motive for one Parliament only.”
To this the Prime Minister replied on the following day, writing at the green table, and listening to the course of the debate as he wrote:—
“Wednesday, June 24th, 1846.
“Sir,—I should not write from this place if I intended to weigh expressions, or to write to you in any other spirit than 1846.
“I need not give you the assurance that I shall regard your letter as a communication more purely confidential than if it had been written to me by some person united to me by the closest bonds of private friendship.
“I do not think I mistake my position.
“I would have given, as I said I would give, every proof of fidelity to the measures which I introduced at the beginning of his Session. I would have instantly advised dissolution if dissolution had been necessary to ensure their passing. I should have thought such an exercise of the Prerogative justifiable—if it had given me a majority on no other question. If my retention of office, under any circumstances however adverse, had been necessary or would have been probably conducive to the success of those measures, I would have retained it. They will, however, I confidently trust, be the law of the land on Friday next.
“I do not agree with you as to the effect of my retirement from office as a justifiable ground, after the passing of those measures.
“You probably know or will readily believe that which is the truth—that such a position as mine entails the severest sacrifices. The strain on the mental power is far too severe;1846.
“You will believe, I say, if you reflect on these things, that office and power may be anything but an object of ambition, and that I must be insane if I could have been induced by anything but a sense of public duty to undertake what I have undertaken in this Session.
“But the world, the great and small vulgar, is not of this opinion. I am sorry to say they do not and cannot comprehend the motives which influence the best actions of public men. They think that public men change their course from corrupt motives, and their feeling is so predominant, that the character of public men is injured, and their practical authority and influence impaired, if in such a position as mine at the present moment any defeat be submitted to, which ought under ordinary circumstances to determine the fate of a government, or there be any clinging to office.
“I think I should do more homage to the principles on which the Corn and Customs Bills are founded, by retirement on a perfectly justifiable ground, than either by retaining office without its proper authority, without the ability to carry through that which I undertake, or by encountering the serious risk of defeat after dissolution.
“I should not think myself entitled to exercise this great prerogative, for the sole or the main purpose of deciding a personal question between myself and inflamed Protectionists—namely, whether I had recently given good advice and honest advice to the Crown. The verdict of the country might be in my favour on that issue; but I might fail in obtaining a majority which should enable me after the first excitement had passed away, to carry on the government, that is to do what I think conducive to the public welfare. I do not consider the evasion of difficulties, and the postponement of troublesome questions, the carrying on of a government.
“I could perhaps have parried even your power, and carried on the government in one sense for three or four years longer, if I could have consented to halloo an a majority in both houses to defend the (not yet defunct) Corn Law of 1842, ‘in all its integrity.’
“If you say that I individually at this moment embody or personify an idea, be it so. Then I must be very careful that, being the organ and representative of a prevailing and magnificent conception of the public mind, I do not sully that which I represent by warranting the suspicion even, that I am using the power it confers for any personal object.
“You have said little, and I have said nothing, about Ireland. But if I am defeated on the Irish Bill, will it be possible to divest dissolution (following soon after that defeat) of the character of an appeal to Great Britain against Ireland on a question of Irish Coercion? I should deeply1846.
“I will ask you also to consider this. After the passing of the Corn and Customs Bill, considering how much trade has suffered of late from delays, debates, and uncertainty as to the final result, does not this country stand in need of respose? Would not a desperate political conflict throughout the length and breadth of the land impair or defer the beneficial effect of the passing of those measures? If it would, we are just in that degree abating satisfaction with the past, and reconcilement to the continued application of the principles of Free Trade.
“Consider also the effect of dissolution in Ireland; the rejection of the Irish Bill immediately preceding it.
“I have written this during the progress of the debates, to which I have been obliged to give some degree of attention. I may, therefore, have very imperfectly explained my views and feelings, but imperfect as that explanation may be, it will I hope suffice to convince you that I receive your communication in the spirit in which it was conceived, and that I set a just value on your good opinion and esteem.
“I have the honour to be, Sir,
With equal respect for your character and abilities,
Your faithful Servant,
It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the idea with which Cobden was now possessed. It was thoroughly worked out in his own mind. By means of the forty-shilling freehold, the middle and industrious classes were to acquire a preponderance of political power. It was not the workmen as such, in whom Cobden had confidence. “You never heard me,” he said to the Protectionists in the House 1846.
Such a scheme was admirable in itself. In substance it was destined to be partially realized one day, not by Peel, but by the most powerful and brilliant of his lieutenants. The singular fate which had marked the Minister’s past career was an invincible obstacle to Cobden’s project. It was too late. All the accepted decencies of party would have been outraged if the statesman who had led an army of Tory country gentlemen in one Parliament, should have hurried to lead on army of liberal manufacturers in the next. The transition was too violent, the prospect of success too much of an accident. Nobody, again, could expect with Lord John Russell’s view, and it was a just view, of Peel’s long and1846.
Happily for the peace of the moment, these mortifications of the future were unknown and unsuspected. Ten days after his letter to the fallen Minister, Cobden received a communication from his successor.
July 2, 1846.
“My dear Sir,—The Queen having been pleased to entrust me with the task of forming an Administration, I have been anxious to place in office those who have maintained in our recent struggle the principles of Free Trade against Monopoly.
“The letter I received from you in November last, declining office, and the assurances I have received that you are going abroad for your health, have in combination with other circumstances prevented my asking your aid, nor, 1846.
“I care little whether the present arrangement remains for any long period in the direction of affairs. But I am anxious to see a large Liberal majority in the House of Commons devoted to improvement, both in this country and in Ireland. Mr. Charles Villiers has declined to take any office. I am about to propose to Mr. Milner Gibson to become Vice-President of the Board of Trade.
“I remain, with sentiments of regard and respect,
Yours very faithfully,
What were the “other circumstances” which prevented Lord John Russell from inviting Cobden to join his Government, we can only guess. It is pretty certain that they related to a project of which a good deal had been heard during the last four or five months. There would undeniably have been some difficulty in giving high office in the state to a politician whose friends were at the time publicly collecting funds for a national testimonial of a pecuniary kind. Whether the Whig chief was glad or not to have this excuse for leaving Cobden out of his Cabinet, the ground of the omission was not unreasonable.
The final meeting of the League took place on the same day on which Lord John Russell wrote to explain that he intended to show his appreciation of what was due to those “who had maintained in our recent struggle the principles of Free Trade against Monopoly,” by offering Mr. Gibson a post without either dignity or influence. The Leaguers were too honestly satisfied with the triumph of the cause1846.
The share which the League had in procuring the consummation of the commercial policy that Huskisson had first opened four-and-twenty years before, is not always rightly understood. One practical effect of a mischievous kind has followed from this misunderstanding. It has led people into the delusion that organization, if it be only on a sufficiently gigantic scale and sufficiently unrelenting in its importunity, is capable of winning any virtuous cause. The agitation against the Corn Laws had several pretty obvious peculiarities, which ought not to be overlooked. A large and wealthy class had the strongest material interest in repeal. What was important was that this class now happened to represent the great army of consumers. 1846.
There is another important circumstance which ought not to be left out of sight. One secret of the power of the League both over the mind of Sir Robert Peel, and over parliament, arose from the narrow character of the representation at that time. The House of Commons to-day is a sufficiently imperfect and distorting mirror of public judgment and feeling. But things were far worse then. The total number of voters in the country was not much more than three quarters of a million; six sevenths of the male population of the country was excluded from any direct share of popular power; and property itself was so unfairly represented that Manchester, with double the value of the property of Buckinghamshire, returned only two members, while Bucks returned eleven. It was on this account, as Cobden said, it was because Manchester could1846.
The same thought was present to the reflective mind of Peel. Cobden tells a story in one of his speeches which illustrates this. One evening in 1848 they were sitting in the House of Commons, when the news came that the government of Louis Philippe had been overthrown and a republic proclaimed. When the buzz of conversation ran round the House, as the startling intelligence was passed from member to member, Cobden said to Joseph Hume, who sat beside him, “Go across and tell Sir Robert Peel.” Hume went to the front bench opposite, where Sir Robert was sitting in his usual isolation. “This comes,” said Peel, when Hume had whispered the catastrophe, “this comes of trying to govern the country through a narrow representation in Parliament, without regarding the wishes of those outside. It is what this party behind me wanted me to do in the matter of the Corn Laws, and I would not do it.”8
Now that the work was finally done, Cobden was free to set out on that journey over Europe, which the doctors had urged upon him as the best means of repose, and which he promised himself should be made an opportunity of diligently preaching the new gospel among the economic Gentiles. Before starting on this long pilgrimage, he went to stay for a month with his family in Wales. Two days after the final meeting of the League, he thus describes to 1846.
“I am going into the wilderness to pray for a return of the taste I once possessed for nature and simple quiet life. Here I am, in one day from Manchester, to the loveliest valley out of paradise. Ten yeas ago, before I was an agitator, I spent a day or two in this house. Comparing my sensations now with those I then experienced, I feel how much I have lost in winning public fame. The rough tempest has spoilt me for the quiet haven. I fear I shall never be able to cast anchor again. It seems as if some mesmeric hand were on my brain, or I was possessed by an unquiet fiend urging me forward in spite of myself. On Thursday I thought as I went to the meeting, that I should next day be a quiet and happy man. Next day brings me a suggestion from a private friend of the Emperor of Russia, assuring me that if instead of going to Italy and Egypt, I would take a trip to St. Petersburg, I could exercise an important influence upon the mind of Nicholas. Here am I at Llangollen, blind to the loveliness of nature, and only eager to be on the road to Russia, taking Madrid, Vienna Berlin, and Paris by the way! Let me see my boy to-morrow, who waits my coming at Machynlleth, and if he do not wean me, I am quite gone past recovery.”9
His mind did not rest long. To Mr. Ashworth he wrote at the same date:—
“Now I am going to tell you of fresh projects that have been brewing in my brain. I have given up all idea of burying myself in Egypt or Italy. I am going on a private agitating tour through the Continent of Europe. The other day I got an intimation from Sir Roderick Murchison, the geologist—a friend and confidant of the Emperor of Russia—that I should have great influence with him if I went to St. Petersburg. To-day I get a letter1846.
“I have had similar hints respecting Madrid, Vienna, and Berlin. Well, I will, with God’s assistance, during the next twelvemonth visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the People of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to his step by an instinctive emotion such as never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system, than I had here to overturn our protective policy. But it is necessary that my design should not be made public, for that would create suspicion aboard. With the exception of a friend or two, under confidence, I shall not mention my intentions to anybody.”
A few days later he wrote to George Combe, in a mood of more even balance:—
“Your affectionate letter of the 28th of June, has never been absent from my mind, although so long unacknowledged. I came here last week, with my wife and children, on a visit to her father’s, and for a quiet ramble amongst the Welsh mountains. I thought I should be allowed to be forgotten after my address to my constituents. But every post brings me twenty or thirty letters, and such letters! I am teased 1846.
“The settlement of the Free Trade controversy leaves the path free for other reforms, and Education must came next, and when I say that Education has yet to come, I need not add that I do not look for very great advances in our social state during our generation. You ask me whether the public mind is prepared for acting upon the moral law in our national affairs. I am afraid the animal is yet too predominant in the nature of Englishmen, and of men generally, to allow us to hope that the higher sentiments will gain their desired ascendency in your life-time or mine. I have always had one test of the tendency of the world: what is its estimate of war and warriors, and on what do nations rely for their mutual security? Brute force is, I fear, as much worshipped now, in the statues to Wellington and the peerage to Gough, as1846.
“Perhaps you will remember that in my little pamphlets, I dwelt a good deal, ten years ago, upon the influence of our foreign policy upon our home affairs. I am as strongly as ever impressed with this view. I don’t think the nations of the earth will have a chance of advancing morally in their domestic concerns to the degree of excellence which we sigh for, until the international relations of the world are put upon a different footing. The present system corrupts society, exhausts its wealth, raises up false gods for hero-worship, and fixes before the eyes of the rising generation a spurious if glittering standard of glory. It is because I do believe that the principle of Free Trade is calculated to alter the relations of the world for the better, in a moral point of view, that I bless God I have been allowed to take a prominent part in its advocacy. Still, do not let us be too gloomy. If we can keep the world from actual war, and I trust railroads, steamboats, cheap postage and our own example in Free Trade will do that, a great impulse will from this time be given to social reforms. The public mind is in a practical mood, and it will now precipitate itself upon Education, Temperance, reform of Criminals, care of Physical Health, etcetera, with greater zeal than ever....
“Now, my dear friend, for a word or two upon a very delicate personal matter. You have seen the account of an ebullition of a pecuniary kind which is taking place in the country, a demonstration in favour of me exclusively to the 1846.
It is not necessary to enter into a discussion of the propriety of Cobden’s acceptance of the large sum of money, between seventy-five and eighty thousand pounds, which were collected in commemoration of his services to what the subscribers counted a great public cause. The chief Leaguers anxiously discussed the project of a joint testimonial to Cobden, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Villiers, all three to be included in a common subscription.3 But nobody could say how the fund was to be divided. It was then discussed whether as much money could be collected for the three as for Cobden individually, and it was agreed that it could not, for it was Cobden who united the sections of the Free Trade party. He had undoubtedly sacrificed good chances of private prosperity for the interest of the community, and it would have been a painful and discreditable satire on human nature if he had been left in ruin, while everybody around him was thriving on the results of his unselfish devotion. It is true that many others had made sacrifices both of time and money, but they had not sacrificed 1846.
Cobden did not know that Sir Robert Peel put nothing into the fire. He once said to one of his younger followers,—” My dear——, no public man who values his character, ever destroys a letter or a paper.” As a matter of fact, Peel put up every night all the letters and notes that had come to him in the day, and it is understood that considerably more than a hundred thousand papers are in the possession of his literary executors. Some who exercised themselves upon the minor moralities of private life, will be shocked that he did not respect his correspondent’s stipulation.
“Among other things,” Cobden wrote to Mr. Parkes, “I remember mentioning the fact that Disraeli could not be again returned for Shrews bury.”
Speeches, i. 372. Feb. 27, 1846.
Speeches, ii. 507.
Lord Dalhousie, Sir James Graham, and Mr. Sidney Herbert.
See Mr. Bright’s speech, quoted in Mr. Ashworth’s little book, p. 213.
Speeches, ii. 482. July 6, 1848.
Speeches, ii. 548. Aug. 18, 1859.
To Mr. Paulton. July 4, 1846.
The letter referred to purported to be from a lady, who having nothing but her own exertions to depend upon, begged Mr. Cobden to become her “generous and noble-minded benefactor,” to enable her to “begin to do something for herself.” She says, “I do not see to use my needle; to rear poultry for London and other large market-towns is what my wishes are bent upon.” For this purpose she suggests that Mr. Cobden should procure a loan of 5000l. to be advanced by himself and nine other friends in Manchester, where, she delicately insinuates, he is so much beloved that the process will be a very easy one for him. The loan, principal and interest, she promises shall be faithfully paid in ten years at the most. The writer mentions that she has her eye upon a small estate which will serve her purpose.
To Geo. Combe. July 14, 1846.
The League had already voted a present of ten thousand pounds to Mr. George Wilson, their indefatigable chairman.