Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVI.: chinese affairs—cobden's motion—the dissolution. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XXVI.: chinese affairs—cobden’s motion—the dissolution. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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chinese affairs—cobden’s motion—the dissolution.
The first week of the new year (1857) found Cobden back1857.
Certain transactions in China had for some time attracted his vigilant attention, and they now occupied him to the exclusion of everything else. In his pamphlet on the Second Burmese War Cobden had shown the danger and injustice of our accepted policy towards the weak nations of the East. A war had now broken out in China which illustrated the same principles in a still more striking way. Sir John Bowring, the Governor of Hong Kong, was an old friend of Cobden’s, a member of the Peace Society, and one of the earliest agitators against the Corn Law. But he was a man without practical judgment, and he became responsible for one of the worst of the Chinese wars. The Chinese boarded the “Arrow,” and rescued twelve of their countrymen from it on a charge of Piracy. The British Consul 1857.
The course which the Government at home ought to have taken was this. Bowring ought to have been recalled; in time it is to be hoped that public opinion will insist that agents who are guilty of action of this kind shall not only be recalled, but shall be formally disgraced and explicitly1857.
To Cobden, as we may suppose, the whole transaction seemed worthy of condemnation on every ground. Bowring’s demand was illegal, and ought not to have been made. If this was doubtful, at any rate Bowring’s violent action was precipitate. It was a resort in the first instance to measures which would hardly have been justifiable in the last instance. If there were general grievances against the Chinese, why not make joint representations with France and the United States, instead of stumbling into a quarrel in which we had not a leg to stand upon, and beginning a war for which in the opinion of our best lawyers there was no proper ground.2
The chance of reversing the course of policy depended as usual on the accidents of party combination. In a letter to Mr. Lindsay written in the last month of 1856, Cobden 1857.
The country had not long been engaged in the heat and turmoil of the general election, before Cobden detected ominous signs. He had long before resolved to abandon his seat for the West Riding. It was too plain that he had no chance. His views on education alienated one section, and his views on the Russian War had alienated all sections. It was thought that Huddersfield was the borough where the feeling of which Mr. Baines was the chief exponent, and which Cobden had offended, was least formidable. So to Huddersfield he went. But he was not more active for himself, 1857.
“Manchester, March 17.—I hear very discouraging accounts of Bright and Gibson. There have been many defections, and unless our friends are giving themselves needless alarm, I fear the chances are greatly against us. The cause chiefly assigned is less an alteration of opinion than a feeling of resistance towards the ghost of the League, which still persists in haunting Newall’s Buildings, and, as is alleged, dictates to Manchester. I was always of opinion that it would have been much better to1857.
“Huddersfield, March 24.—I am dragged about all the day through mud and mire canvassing, and hardly know whether I can win. I don’t think they are by any means safe at Manchester. I go over there again to-morrow, to attend a meeting in the Free Trade Hall”
“March 25.—We have just had the nomination. I was dragged to the hustings and obliged to speak, very much against my inclination. We had the show of hands. The polling is to-morrow. Our friends are in better spirits every hour, but I am still very doubtful. If I win, I will telegraph to London, and request a letter to be sent by tomorrow’s post to you. So if you do not hear at the same time as you get this, conclude that I have lost”5
No telegram was sent, for Cobden was beaten. A Tory had carried the borough not long before, and now the combination of Tories with Palmerstonian Whigs was doubly irresistible. Cobden only polled 590 votes, against 823 for his opponent. At Manchester Mr. Gibson and Mr. Bright were defeated, and the latter of them was at the bottom of the poll. Fox was thrown out at Oldham and Miall at Rochdale. Lord Palmerston’s victory was complete, and the Manchester School was routed. Nothing had been seen like it since the disappearance of the Peace Whigs in 1812, when Brougham, Romilly, Tierney, Lamb, and Horner all lost their seats.
Mr. Bright wrote to Cobden from Rome during the elections. He had, he said sarcastically, just been reading 1857.
My dear Cobden,
“I have been intending to write to you from day to day since I received your letter. It was most refreshing to me to read it, although its topics were not of the most pleasing, but it came at the right time, and it said the right thing, and was just such as I needed.....
“In the sudden break-up of the ’school’ of which we have been the chief professors, we may learn how far we have been, and are ahead, of the public opinion of our time. We purpose not to make a trade of politics, and not to use as may best suit us the ignorance and the prejudices of our countrymen for our own advantage, but rather to try to square the policy of the country with the maxims of common sense and of a plain morality. The country is not yet ripe for this, but it is far nearer being so than at any former period, and I shall not despair of a revolution in opinion which shall within a few years greatly change the aspect of affairs with reference to our Foreign policy. During the comparatively short period since we entered public life, see what has been done. Through our labours mainly the whole creed of millions of people, and of the statesmen of our day, has been totally changed on all the questions which affect commerce, and customs duties, and taxation. They now agree to repudiate as folly, what, twenty years ago, they accepted as wisdom. Look again at our Colonial policy. Through the labours of Molesworth, Roebuck, and Hume, more recently1857.
“Turn to the question of Parliamentary Reform. ‘Finality’ is stoutly repudiated, not by Lord John Russell alone, but by the Tories. I observe that at the recent elections, Tories have repeatedly admitted that there must be Parliamentary Reform, and that they will not oppose a moderate dose of it; and I suppose something before long will be done, not so real as we wish, but something that will make things move a little.
“But if on Commercial legislation, on Colonial policy, on questions of Suffrage, and I might have added on questions of Church, for a revolution in opinion is apparent there also, we see this remarkable change, why should we despair of bringing about an equally great change in the sentiments of the people with regard to foreign affairs? Palmerston and his press are at the bottom of the excitement that has lately prevailed; he will not last long as Minister or as man. I see no one ready to accept his mantle when it drops from him. Ten years hence, those who live so long, may see a complete change on the questions on which the public mind has been recently so active and so much mistaken.
“This is bringing philosophy to comfort us in our misfortunes, you will say, and does not mend the present, and it is true enough, but it is just the line of reasoning, I doubt not, which has presented itself to your mind when free from the momentary vexation caused by recent events. I am the least unfortunate of our small section, for a year of idleness and of ill-health has made absence from Parliament familiar to me, and I have contemplated resigning my seat since the 1857.
“It is strange after so much experience that we should be disappointed that opinion goes on so slowly. We have taught what is true in our ’school,’ but the discipline was a little too severe for the scholars. Disraeli will say he was right: are hardly of the English type, and success, political and personal success, cannot afford to reject the use which may be made of ignorance and prejudice among a people. This is his doctrine, and with his views it is true; but as we did not seek personal objects it is not true of us. If we are rejected for peace and for truth, we stand higher before the world and for the future than if we mingled with the patient mediocrities which compose the present Cabinet..... I hope the clouds may break, and that sunshine may come again.
“Ever yours very sincerely,
After the elections were over, Cobden went to his home in Sussex, and there he remained in retirement for nearly two years. His correspondence shows how sharply he felt the defeat.
To Mr. Moffatt, he writes:—
“April 7.—I find a retreat to this drowsy neighbourhood very necessary for my health. I overdid it, in trying to canvass Huddersfield and Manchester at the same time, and was almost afraid my head was giving way. How1857.
“The only incident of the election which hangs about me with a permanent feeling of irritability, is the atrocious treatment Bright has received from the people at Manchester. They are mainly indebted to him for the prosperity which has converted a majority into little better than Tories, and now the base snobs kick away the ladder! I find my scorn boiling over constantly, and can hardly keep my hands, or rather my pen, off them. The case of Gibson is different. He could not have been without the expectation that some day an end would be put to a connexion for which there was no special fitness; and to have sat for nearly eighteen years for Manchester has given him a position which nothing can take away. I do not, however,6 think he deserved to be left in a minority. But Bright’s case is very different. He was one of themselves. You know how valiantly he defended his order against all assailants. He was an honour to his constituents. They had no grievance on account of his peace views, for they knew he was a Quaker when they elected him. To place such a man at the bottom of the poll, when prostrate by excessive labours in the public service, is the most atrocious specimen of political ingratitude 1857.
On the same day he writes to Mr. Hargreaves:—“The secret of such a display of snobbishness and ingratitude is in the great prosperity which Lancashire enjoys, and for which it is mainly indebted to Bright; and the result has been to make a large increase to the number of Tories, and to cool down to a genteel tone the politics of the Whigs, until at last the majority find an earnest Radical not sufficiently genteel for their taste. This will go on in the north of England so long as our exports continue to increase at their present rate, and in the natural course of things more Tories will be returned.”
The same humour finds vent in some words to Mr. W. S. Lindsay of this date:—
“Did my friend—make a failure of seconding the Address? I hear so. I have never known a manufacturing representative put into cocked hat and breeches and ruffles, with a sword by his side, to make a speech for the Government, without having his head turned by the feathers and frippery. Generally they give way to a paroxysm of snobbery, and go down on their bellies, and throw dust on their heads, and fling dirt at the prominent men of their own order.”
At the end of July a vacancy was made in the representation of Birmingham by the death of Mr. Muntz, and Mr. Bight was quickly chosen to fill the seat. His health seemed to have been so dangerously shaken, that Cobden expressed a natural solicitude on so speedy a return to the agitation of public life. To Mr. Parkes he wrote:—
“August 9, 1857.—I cannot help confessing to you my doubts whether Bright will be equal to the task which he seems bent upon undertaking without much more for1857.
“Charles Sumner has been here, and is now on his way to see De Tocqueville. We had some very long adjourned debates, as you may suppose. What a talker he is! One night, or rather morning, I had to warn him to bed at half-past one, which to us rustics is a late sitting, for at this harvest-time folks are thinking of getting up to work soon after that. But excepting for his own health’s sake I would have gladly protracted our noctes to daylight. It is refreshing to meet with a man of his intellectual calibre and of such accomplishments, one too so capable in every way of playing a politician’s part, giving up all to conscience. I really hardly know such a case. We can’t put ourselves in such a comparison, for we have not the same temptations even had we his powers. For in this aristocratic country we know that the chief seats must be occupied by men of a given class, or their nominees. In his country every post was accessible to him, if he could only speak successfully to Bunkum.”
“July 28. (To Mr. Parkes.)—Very many thanks for your thinking of me sometimes. I am deep in mangolds and pigs, and unless you brought me occasionally in contact with the great maëlstrom of politics, I should be in danger of forgetting that there are such things was Whigs and Tories in the world. Believe me I am in no hurry to get back to the House. When I saw the other day that the House sat till half-past four, I hugged myself, and looked out on the South Downs with a Keener relish. The tone of Parliament is unlike anything I have ever witnessed, and I should not like to be made more closely acquainted with it. There is a spirit of servility, which cannot last; for a really manly1857.
“In answer to your friend’s inquiry about Bowring’s truthfulness, you may content yourself with a general description of the genus sentimentalist. They are not to be depended on in political action, because they are not masters of their own reasoning powers. They sing songs or declaim about truth, justice, liberty, and the like, but it is only in the same artificial spirit in which they make odes to dewdrops, daisies, &c. The are just as likely to trample on one as the other, notwithstanding. There was Lamartine, the prince of the class, who mouthed so finely about international rights; and yet it has come out that he was just as ready as king or Kaiser to march an army into Italy to take a material guarantee for—liberty. See the exhibition of Thackeray at Oxford.6 and yet he expressed sympathy to me 1857.
“Midhurst, June 6. (To Mr. Ewart.)—I must confess the proceedings of your Hon. House have done much to reconcile me to my rustication, for its tone is subservient event to sycophancy. We have had the ‘Barebones Parliament,’ the ‘Long Parliament,’ the ‘Unlearned Parliament,’ but the present ought to the named the ’servile Parliament.’ From such an assembly I confess I am not sorry to be excluded. There has always been until now a body of men, sometimes more and sometimes fewer in the House, who counted themselves for something better than Whigs or Tories, and who were bent on securing something for the public as the price of their support of the more Liberal section of the aristocracy. These men, whether numbering thirty or eighty, were the pioneers of every good work. As a party they seem no longer to have an existence in this Parliament’. When they reappear, and the public have recovered their taste for earnest politics, I hope I shall be of their number; but till then the House of Commons would not suit me, or I suit it.
“Dec. 3. (To Mr. Moffatt.)—It is very kind and friendly in you, as usual, to think of me. This post has also brought a letter from Lancashire, saying some of the leaders at Ashton would wish me to succeed to poor Hindley. But I have resolved neither to stand nor sit for any place; and this1857.
The actual life of the House of Commons which has invincible attractions for so many men, seems to have had no particular charm to Cobden. At the beginning of the session of 1857 he described to a friend the disagreeable effect upon him of bad air and long speeches. “I don’t know whether you feel yourself similarly affected by the air of the House, but after sitting there for two or three hours I find my head useless for any other purpose but aching. I find my brain throbbing, as though it were ready to burst; and the pain returns upon me as soon as I awake in the morning. It seems as if the air were dried and cooked to such an extent as to rob it of its vital properties. My reasoning powers are in abeyance while under the roof of the House, and if the symptoms continue and no remedy be called for by others, likely to effect a change, I shall seriously consider whether I ought to continue to 1857.
“I came away on Tuesday,” he continues, “after listening for two hours and a half to Disraeli. I wish there could be some Bessemer’s power invented for shortening the time of speaking in the House. My belief, after a long experience, is that a man may say all that he ought to utter at one ’standing’ in an hour, excepting a budget speech or a government explanation, when documents are read. The Sermon on the Mount may be read in twenty minutes; the Lord’s Prayer takes one minute to repeat; Franklin and Washington never spoke more than ten minutes at a time.”
In the autumn of 1857 there was some prospect of a vacancy for the borough of Finsbury, and a movement was started in favour of Cobden as a candidate. Nothing came of it, and it is doubtful, as we shall presently see, whether at that moment his private interests would have allowed him to return to public life. In the beginning of 1858 he received one of the pleasantest of social compliments, in his election as a member of the Athenæum Club by the special favour of the Committee. In the course of the same year his brother, Frederick, died at Dunford. He had suffered such excruciating torture for some time past that to himself death was almost welcome, but Cobden may well have felt a sharp pang at the loss of one to whom he had been all his life bound by the ties of so affectionate an intimacy.
Mr. Ashley’s account of this transaction (Life of Palmerston, ii. 344), is too condensed to be quite accurate. If a man of Mr. Ashley’s industry and character is not careful to see the facts of such cases precisely and as they were, we cannot wonder at the rough and ready style in which the public is wont to take the unsifted official stories for granted, whenever a British agent launches his country into one of these scandalous wars.
Lord Elgin, who was sent out to carry on the war, says in his diary: “I have hardly alluded in my ultimatum to that wretched question of the “Arrow,” which is a scandal to us, and is so considered, I have reason to know, by all except the few who are personally compromised.” Letters and Journals, p. 209. “It is impossible to read the blue-books.” he says elsewhere, “without feeling that we have often acted towards the Chinese in a manner which it is very difficult to justify” (p. 185). See also p. 191, 218, &c., &c.
Speeches, ii. 121—156
See Speeches, ii. 74.
Sir J. Potter, 8368; Turner, 7854; Gibson, 5588; Bright, 5458.
At a bye-election for Oxford city (July 21) Mr. Thackeray stood against the present Lord Cardwell, and failed by the narrow difference of 67, in a gross poll of 2108.