Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII.: the panic of 1853. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XXIII.: the panic of 1853. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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the panic of 1853.
The organization of the militia was followed on the erection of the French Empire by an increase in each branch of the two services. Every condition was present which according to Cobden’s diagnosis favoured the growth of an invasion panic. The country was very prosperous. Under the influence of Free Trade and the gold discoveries, the exports had risen in five years from fifty to one hundred millions sterling per annum. The manufacturers were rolling in new opulence. The revenue was satisfactory. The country gentlemen found that they were not ruined after all but one the contrary were getting better 1852.
When the nation is in the humour to indulge itself in the luxury of a panic, the mood never declines for lack of nourishment. The oracles of the military and naval clubs hurried to the Times with agitating communications. Every half-pay officer in the country had his own peculiar alarm and his own favourite plan. The counters of the booksellers were strewn with pamphlets like snowflakes, containing a Few Observations on Invasion, Brief Suggestions for a Reserve Force, Short Notes on National Defence, Plain Proposals for a Maritime Militia, Thoughts on the Peril of Portsmouth. Every morning a fresh and more terrible paragraph sent a thrill round the breakfast-table. There was a French plot to secure a naval station in the West Indies. General Changarnier had divulged a secret plan for seizing the metropolis. The French troops were tired of Rome, and were jealous of their share in the sack of London. The great shipbuilders on the Clyde had received an order for steam frigates from the French Government. A French man-of-war had actually appeared at Dover. It was to no purpose that each paragraph was demolished the very day after its publication. The Frenchman had been driven to Dover by stress of weather; General Changarnier said that his alleged plan was absolutely without foundation; the shipbuilders solemnly declared that no order for steam frigates had come into the Clyde. All this made no difference, and the panic ran its course. As Cobden justly said, nothing could surpass the childlike simplicity with which every absurd and improbable1852.
Cobden was proud to recall that he and his friends in face of this outcry took the part which had been taken by the great political leaders who addressed our forefathers half a century before, and who bore the most honoured names in the history of English Liberalism. Nothing pleased him better than to remind those who taunted him with his alliance with the Peace Society, that the Society of Friends co-operated with Mr. Fox in trying to prevent the war of 1793, and that Mr. Fox was not at all ashamed to write to Mr. Gurney, of Norwich, begging him to get up county meetings, and to send petitions whether from Quakers or others to the House of Commons. Cobden spent the autumn between the general election and the meeting of Parliament in turning over these things. His industrious meditations took shape in a pamphlet which he intended to do something to appease the perturbation of the popular spirit. Before he actually sat down to composition, he wrote an interesting letter to his friend, Mr. Thomasson, of Bolton:—
“Midhurst, Sept. 27—The course pursued by Brougham and all the Whig party at the close of the war, in opposition to the large standing armaments proposed to be maintained by the Tories, was precisely that which the Peace party are now taking in opposition to both Whigs and Tories. The former have since that time been in power, and there is perfect truth in the sarcasm that the Whigs are Tories in office, and the Tories are Whigs when out of office. But the misfortune is that, after having been in power and committed 1852.
“I wish to see a map on Mercator’s projection published, with a red spot to mark the places on sea and land where bloody battles have been fought by Englishmen. It would be found that, unlike every other people, we have during1852.
The pamphlet in which he now engaged, “1792 and 1853, in Three Letters,” was, in fact, a modest attempt on Cobden’s own part to rewrite in his own way one very relevant episode of that modern history of which he speaks in his letter. He makes no pretence of an original historical inquiry into the sources of the war between England and France in 1793. What he does is to show, and he finds an easy task in showing from the speeches of leading members of the war 1853.
Of course if Cobden had professed to be writing a history of that momentous epoch, he would have had to take many circumstances into account which for his purpose at the moment might fairly be allowed to go for nothing. Chauvelin, for instance, was not so humble and innocent an emissary as Cobden’s language might leave us to suppose; he was a coxcomb without either judgment or address. The success of the French arms, again, coming after a period of intense apprehension, nursed in the Convention an arrogant and overbearing spirit which would probably have made the maintenance of peace with even a less proud Government than that of Great Britain extremely difficult. What is clear is that it would have been well for England, and probably for Europe too, if the British Government had done their best to remain at peace with the new Republic. And what is equally clear is, as Cobden showed, that the British Government when the crisis came, so far from doing their best to remain at peace, hurried violently into war. The many elastic possibilities of history did not concern a writer whose pressing object was to demolish the opinion, which the feeling of the moment when Cobden wrote made so mischievous, that it was the restless and aggressive spirit of France which first provoked the great war that opened upon Europe in 1792. This task, as I have said, was tolerably easy, and nobody who has fully considered the circumstances of the Declaration of Pilnitz will deny that though there were political parties in France to whom the foreign war that was forced upon them was for domestic reasons not unwelcome, yet Cobden was strictly right in his thesis that the French Government had, in 1792, given no ground of offence to foreign nations. “It is impossible,” Cobden breaks out, in the fulness and sincerity of his emotion, “to read the 1853.
No part of the pamphlet was more likely to be useful than that in which Cobden explained to his countrymen that the French nation, instead of being ashamed of the Revolution, and envious of the social advancement of England, as we in fatuousness of national vanity used to persist in believing, do in fact cling to the work of 1789 with appreciation thankfulness, and invincible tenacity; and that men of the most opposite opinions on every other subject, agree that to the Revolution in its normal phases France is indebted for a more rapid advance in civilization, wealth, and happiness, than was ever previously made by any community of a similar extent in the same period of time. No people, he went on, have ever clung with more unshaken staunchness to the essential principles and main objects of a Revolution than have the French. When you say that their new Emperor is absolute and his will omnipotent, remember that there are three things which even he dare not attempt to do. He dare not attempt to endow with land and tithes one sect as the exclusively paid religion of the State. He could not create a system of primogeniture and entail. And finally he could not impose a tax on succession to personal property, and leave real property free. In England we have all three. “I am penning these pages,” said Cobden, sitting in his1853.
All this was said, not to urge the land question, but to press upon his countrymen the habit of which of all others they stand most in need, of learning to tolerate the feelings and predilections of other nations. “Let us spare our pity,” he insisted, “where people are contented; and withhold our contempt from a nation who hold what they prize by the vigilant exercise of public opinion.” What the Frenchman cherishes is equality; what the Englishman cherishes is personal liberty. The poorest cottager on any of the three estates that encircle Heyshott “feels that his personal liberty is sacred, and he cares little for equality. And here I will repeat,” says Cobden, “that I would rather live in a country where this feeling in favour of individual freedom is jealously cherished, than be without it in the enjoyment of all the principles of the French Constituent Assembly.” It is passages like this that help us to understand the secret of Cobden’s position, and of his attraction. He was so much of an Englishman, while he strove to show how Englishmen might become more generous, more noble, and more just in their judgments on other nations.
Cobden would certainly have been the last man in the world to deny that there was another and historically truer version of Napoleon’s career than the version of the Napoleonic Legend; but his sound principle that masses of men never accept either maxims or idols without something generous, rational, and worthy of our respect in the motives which sanctioned their acceptance, drew him naturally to this interpretation of Napoleon’s position in the memory of France. The interpretation, if it be not historically justifiable, is at least dramatically true. It represents what Frenchmen were thinking of; and civilization will have taken one of its most enormous strides, when the citizens of each nation do not shrink from the duty of doing justice to the better mind of every other.
The pamphlet winds up with Cobden’s invariable moral, that instead of lavishing interest or foreign nations who neither seek nor need it, Englishmen will do better to turn their attention to the defects of their own social condition. “I have traveled much,” he says, “and always with an eye to the state of the great majority, who everywhere constitute the toiling base of the social pyramid; and I confess I have arrived at the conclusion that there is no country where so much is required to be done before the mass of the people become what it is pretended they are, what they ought to be, and what I trust they will yet be, as in England.” The justice, the real patriotism, the hope, of these closing pages are all indeed admirable; and the illustration from the history of the Irish famine of the possibility of equalling the soldier’s bravery and devotion in other fields besides the field of battle, is one of the most striking passages 1853.
The pamphlet was published in the course of the ministerial crisis, during the formation of the new Coalition Ministry. Shortly afterwards, and almost immediately before the opening of the session under these changed auspices, Cobden attended for the fourth time the Peace Conference, which was on this occasion held at Manchester. He still nursed the honourable belief that the spread of sound information and reasonable arguments would suffice to stem the tide of national delusion, and he once more raised the old cry to which Manchester had in old days so briskly responded, for an army of lecturers and a deluge of tracts to counteract “the poison that was being infused into the minds of the people.” He met a friend in the1853.
While he was at Manchester, Cobden found satisfaction in the reception which his pamphlet had at the hands both of his friends and of the public at large. If it did not work a great national conversion, at any rate it did not fall dead. Opinion decided against him for the hour, but that the question should have been regarded as an open one, was the first preliminary condition of the world coming round to his view.
“Manchester, Jan. 27, 1853. (To Mrs. Cobden.)—I am writing this in the Corn Exchange. This morning’s meeting is only moderately attended, but I suppose we shall be better supported in the evening. Bright has been speaking very well. Brotherton is now speaking a very good sermon. By the way, Bright came up to me to-day when we met, and exclaimed, ‘What a glorious pamphlet you have written!’ Henry Richard, of the Peace Society, tells me that he sat up till two o’clock this morning reading it, and is delighted. Ireland, of the Examiner paper, tells me he sat up to read it, and gives also a good account of it. Bright says it must be printed for twopence, and got into every house in the kingdom. I see the Standard paper has commenced abusing it, and is contending that the war was begun by the French and not ourselves. But the Whigs will be obliged to stand up for Fox and their party, and show the contrary.”
“Manchester, Jan. 31, 1853. (To Mrs. Cobden.)—I can’t tell 1853.
The great event of the session was the first of those powerfully conceived and magnificently expounded financial schemes by which the new Chancellor of the Exchequer astonished and delighted the country. The little handful of Protectionists declared that it was a Budget for Manchester, and asked for how many years more Manchester was to dictate laws for the nation. The country gentlemen did not even yet realize that the centre of political power was slowly passing away, not for a moment only but for ever, from the hereditary and territorial, to the commercial and industrial interests. They were not wrong in perceiving that this was the track along which Mr. Gladstone was now following Sir Robert Peel. In criticizing this great Budget, Cobden naturally pressed his constant point of the im1853.
One incident at this time was like a ray of hope to Cobden. A large number of bankers and traders in the City of London went on a deputation to the Emperor of the French, practically to repudiate the language of the panic-mongers, and to express their desire for the continuance of relations of cordiality and good-will between the two countries. Unfortunately a train was now being laid in Eastern Europe which, before many months, had put an end to the panic of a French invasion, but brought something more mischievous than the panic in its stead. Cobden at this instant no 1853.
“Bognor, Sept. 19, 1853. (To Mr. McLaren.)—You are going to do a very good but courageous act in giving your countenance to the Peace Conference. Nowhere has the movement fewer partisans than in Scotland, and the reason is obvious—first because your heads are more combative than even the English, which is almost a phrenological miracle; and secondly, the system of our military rule in India has been widely profitable to the middle and upper classes in Scotland, who have had more than their numerical proportion of its patronage. Therefore the military party is very strong in your part of the kingdom. In this Peace Conference movement, we have not the same clear and definable principle on which to take our stand, that we had in our League agitation. There are in our ranks those who oppose all war, even in selfdefence; those who do not go quite so far, and yet oppose war on religious grounds in all cases but in self-defence; and there are those who from politico-economical and financial considerations are not only the advocates of peace,1853.
“Nov.9. (To Mr. Bright.)—I can give you no information or suggestion about Reform. It seems as if the Turkish question this year, like the French Invasion of the last, will 1853.
“Nov.22. (To Mr. Bright.)—Yesterday I got a few lines from Molesworth, asking me what I thought ought to be done in the new1853.
“London, Dec. 14, 1853. (To F. W. Cobden.)—I got back here yesterday from Oxford, where I spent a most agreeable time. Instead of a monastery, the University is rather a great nest of clubs, where everybody knows everybody, and all are anxious to have a stranger of any note to break the monotony of their lives. I might have lived at free quarters for weeks amongst them. The best of fare, plenty of old port and sherry, and huge fires, seem the chief characteristics of all the colleges. No bad recommendation you will say in December. As for the education, it is, according to Doctor Heldenmaier, ‘the largest investment for the smallest return of all the academies of the world!’ But after seeing some of the examinations I am 1853.
By the end of the year an extraordinary change had at last taken place in the political sky, which Cobden described in his characteristic style years afterwards. “Let us suppose an invalid,” he said,4 “to have been ordered, for the benefit of his health, to make the voyage to Australia and back. He left England in the month of February or March. The militia was preparing for duty; the coasts and dockyards were being fortified; the navy, army, and artillery were all in course of augmentation; inspectors of artillery and cavalry were reported to be busy on the southern coast; deputations from railway companies, it was said, had been waiting on the Admiralty and Ordnance, to explain how rapidly the commissariat and military stores could be transported from the Tower to Dover or Portsmouth; and the latest paragraph of news from the Continent was that our neighbours on the other side of the Channel were practising the embarkation and disembarkation of troops by night. He left home amidst all these alarms and preparations for a French invasion. After an absence of four or five months, during which time he had no opportunity of hearing more recent news from Europe, he steps on shore at Liverpool, and the first newspaper he sees informs him that the English and French fleets are lying side by side in Besika Bay. An impending naval engagement between the two Powers is naturally the idea that first occurs to him; but glancing at the leading article of the journal, he learns that England and France have entered into an alliance, and that they are on the eve of commencing a sanguinary war against Russia.”
See Cobden’s account in his pamphlet, written in 1862, The Three Panics. Political Writings, ii. 235–270.
“A famine fell upon nearly one half of a great nation. The whole world hastened to contribute money and food But a few courageous men left their homes in Middlesex and surrey, and penetrated to the remotest glens and bogs of the west coast of the stricken island, to administer relief with their own hands. To say that they found themselves in the valley of the shadow of death would be but an imperfect image; they were in the charnel-house of a nation. Never since the fourteenth century did pestilence, the gaunt handmaid of famine, glean so rich a harvest. In the midst of a scene, which no field of battle ever equalled in danger, in the number of its slain or the sufferings of the surviving, these brave men moved as calm and undismayed as though they had been in their own homes. The population sank so fast that the living could not bury the dead; half-interred bodies protruded from the gaping graves; often the wife died in the midst of her starving children, whilst the husband lay a festering corpse by her side. Into the midst of these horrors did our heroes penetrate, dragging the dead from the living with their own hands, raising the head of famishing infancy, and pouring nourishment into parched lips, from which shot fever-flames more deadly than a volley of musketry. Here was courage. No music strung the nerves; no smoke obscured the imminent danger; no thunder of artillery deadened the senses. It was cool self-possession and resolute will; calculating risk and heroic resignation. And who were these brave men? To what gallant corps did they belong? Were they of the horse, foot, or artillery force? They were Quakers from Clapham and Kingston! If you would know what heroic actions they performed, you must inquire from those who witnessed them. You will not find them recorded in the volume of reports published by themselves—for Quakers write no bulletins of their viotories.”—Cobden’s Collected Writings, i. 494–5.
In The Three Panics: An Historical Episode (1862): Collected Writings ii. 269.