Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVIII.: return from america.—the new ministry. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XXVIII.: return from america.—the new ministry. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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return from america.—the new ministry.
During Cobden’s absence, great events came to pass in the1859.
The men of Rochdale met and resolved to choose Cobden as the Liberal candidate. Mr. Bright went to their meeting and commended to them his “political associate, his political brother,” in a manly and cordial record of Cobden’s past career. Cobden had told him that he would rather sit for Rochdale than for any other borough in England; for Rochdale Liberalism, he said, had heart enough in it “to back up a man against the aristocratic section of the legislature.” Cobden was eventually returned without a contest.
Before the meeting at Willis’s Rooms, the two chiefs whose rivalry had so long weakened party organization had come to an understanding that either would consent to serve under the other. The Queen was unwilling to settle the question between “two statesmen so full of years and honours,” and sent for a younger and less experienced man. But Lord Granville, after making an attempt to form a Ministry, resigned a task in which it had never been possible for him to succeed. Lord Palmerston was designated for the first post by a voice which the sovereign of a free country cannot pretend to ignore. All difficulties disappeared before his incomparably strong political position, and within five days of the defeat of the fallen Government Lord Palmerston had completed his list, with the exception of one post. This post was reserved for Cobden, then known to be on his way home.
The following is the letter which was despatched by the new Prime Minister to meet him on landing at Liverpool:—
27th June, 1859.
“My dear Sir,—I understand that it is likely that you may arrive at Liverpool to-morrow, and I therefore with that this letter should be placed in your hands upon your1859.
“I have been commissioned by the Queen to form an Administration, and I have endeavoured so to frame it, that it should contain representatives of all sections of the Liberal party, convinced as I am that no government constructed upon any other basis could have sufficient prospect of duration, or would be sufficiently satisfactory to the country.
“Mr. Milner Gibson has most handsomely consented to waive all former difficulties, and to become a member of the new Cabinet. I am most exceedingly anxious that you should consent to adopt the same line, and I have kept open for you the office of President of the Board of Trade, which appeared to me to be the one best suited to your views, and to the distinguished part which you have taken in public life. I shall be very glad to see you, and to have personal communication with you as soon as may be convenient to you on your arrival in London, and I am,
“My dear Sir,
The invitation was supported by a letter which was sent at the same time by Lord Palmerston’s most important colleague:—
June 25th, 1859.
“My dear Mr Cobden,—Lord Palmerston will have written to you to offer you a seat in his Cabinet.
“An attempt has been made, more or less wisely, to form a government from various sections of Liberals. Recent speeches have prevented the offer of a cabinet office to Mr. Bright. This is much to be regretted; but if you accept, his accession may take place hereafter. If you refuse, I do 1859.
“In these circumstances I confess I think it is a duty for you to accept the office of President of the Board of Trade.
Cobden arrived in the Mersey on June 29, and in a letter written the next day to Mrs. Cobden, described what happened:—
“Manchester, June 30, 1859.—I had but a moment yesterday in Liverpool to apprise you of my safe arrival in England. As I came up the Mersey, I little dreamed of the reception which awaited me. Crowds of friends were ready to greet and cheer me; and before I left the ship a packet of letters was put in my hand, containing one from Lord Palmerston, offering me a seat in the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, and another from Lord John Russell, urging me in the very strongest terms to accept it. There were letters from Moffatt, Gilpin, and a great many others, advising me not to refuse the offer.
“I was completely taken by surprise by all this, for I had heard noting of the change of government, and was twentyfive days without having seen the latest news from England, namely eleven days’ passage, and fourteen days which we were behind the news when I left Quebec.
“I went on shore and proceeded to the hotel, where my troubles began. More than a hundred of the leading men of Liverpool assembled in the large room to present me with an address, which was put into my hand by Mr. William Brown..... Afterwards Mr. Robertson Gladstone, from the Financial Reform Association, Mr. Rathbone, from the American Chamber of Commerce, and the President of the Peace Society, all presented addresses, to which I was1859.
“Now it really seems to me that they must all have gone mad, for with my recorded opinions of Lord Palmerston’s public conduct during the last dozen years, in which opinions I have experienced no change, were I suddenly to jump at the offer of a place under him, I should ruin myself in my own self-respect, and ultimately lose the confidence of the very men who are in this moment of excitement urging me to enter his Cabinet. So great is the pressure put on me, that if it were Lord Granville, or even Lord John, at the head of affairs, I should be obliged, greatly against my will, to be a Right Honourable. But to take office now, without a single declaration of change of view regarding his public conduct, would be so monstrous a course, that nothing on earth shall induce me to do it. I am going to town this afternoon, and shall forward him my answer on my arrival. I listen to all my friends and say nothing, but my mind is made up.”
On arriving a day or two later in London, Cobden lost no time in calling upon Lord Palmerston. He wrote a full account of all that passed between them to Mr. Sale, his brother-in-law in Manchester.
“London,4th July, 1859.—I thought it best on my arrival in town to go first to Palmerston, and explain plainly and frankly everything. On calling on him I was most plea 1859.
“In reply he disclaimed any feelings of a personal kind, and said that even if there had been any personalities, they never ought to be remembered for three months; and he added in a laughing way that he thought Gibson had hit him quite as hard as I had. Then he commenced to combat my objections, and to offer, with apparently great sincerity, a variety of arguments to show that I ought to enter the Cabinet, dwelling particularly on the fact that as questions of foreign1859.
“But finding me still firm in my objections, he observed laughingly, ‘Why are you in the House of Commons?’ I answered also with a laugh, ‘Upon my word I hardly know.’ ‘But why did you enter public life?’ said he. ‘I hardly know,’ was my answer; ‘it was by mere accident, and for a special purpose, and probably it would have been better for me and my family if I had kept my private station.’ Upon which he threw out both his hands, and, with a laugh louder than before, he exclaimed, ‘Well, but being in it, why not go on?’ He added, ‘Recollect I don’t offer you the seat from any desire of my own to change my colleagues. If left to me, I would of course rather have gone on as before with my old friends. I offer you the seat because you have a right to it.’
“In answer to my remark that perhaps others might be found quite as much entitled as myself to represent the advanced Liberals in his Government, he replied quickly, ‘Will you be good enough to mention the name of any one excepting Bright, Gibson, and yourself, that I could bring into the Cabinet as the representative of the Radicals?’ I urged that Bright had been unfairly judged, and that his speeches at Birmingham, &c., were not of a kind to exclude 1859.
“In the course of his remarks he gave me a full explanation of his views on the present war, and expressed his determination to preserve a strict neutrality, observing that, as the people of England would as soon think of ‘evacuating these islands’ as to go to war in behalf of Austria, and as France did not ask us to help her, he could not see any possibility of our being mixed up in the fray. On this point he remarked:—‘If you are afraid of our abandoning our neutral ground, why don’t you come into the citadel of power, where you could have a voice in preventing it?’
“On his remarking upon the difficulty there would be in carrying on the Government unless all parties were united and how impossible it was for him to do so if the natural representatives of the Liberals would not take office, I replied that the very fact of his having offered me office was, so far as I was concerned, his justification; and that I should be blamed, and not he in the matter. And I added, ‘I shall give just the same support to your Government whilst Mr. Gibson is in it, who represents identically my views, as I should if I were one of your Government: for I should be certain to run away, if you were to do anything very contrary to my strong convictions.’ I added that at present there were only two subjects on which we could have any serious difference, and that if he kept out of the war, and gave us a fair Reform measure, I did not see any other point on which I should be found opposing him. He returned to the argument that my presence in the Government was the important step required; and I then told him that having run the gauntlet of my friends in Lancashire,1859.
“As I left the room he said, ‘Lady Palmerston receives to-morrow evening at ten?’ To which I instantly replied, ‘I shall be happy to be allowed to present myself to her.’ ‘I shall be very glad if you will,’ was his answer, and so we parted.
“The next evening I was at Cambridge House for the first time, and found myself among a crowd of fashionables and politicians, and was the lion of the party. The women came and stared with their glasses at me, and then brought their friends to stare also. As I came away, Jacob Omnium and I were squeezed into a corner together, and he remarked, ‘You are the greatest political monster that ever was seen in this house. There never was before seen such a curiosity as a man who refused a Cabinet office from Lord Palmerston, and then came to visit him here. Why, there are not half-a-dozen men in all that crowd that would not jump at the offer, and believe themselves quite as fit as you to be President of the Board of Trade.’
“I never had before so much annoyance to my feelings as in this matter, To be pressed by nearly all my friends to take a course which I felt from the first moment to be impossible, was a most painful ordeal to go through. I don’t remember any political occurrence which ever before made me ill. This has really upset my physical health. However, I hope my friends will on reflection do me justice, and believe that I acted conscientiously. Certainly all the 1859.
This conclusion caused deep chagrin to many, perhaps to most, of those with whom he had been most closely associated. His friends in the north were excited and elated by the circumstance that one of their own number, a middleclass manufacturer, had at length penetrated the sacred enclosure of the oligarchy. In France all the best men were infinitely delighted by the honour that had been paid to one to whom they were accustomed to look up as the champion of progress and political morality. They dreamed that his presence in the Cabinet would be a guarantee for conciliatory ideas in the Government. They were greatly disappointed at the issue. M. Chevalier accepted Cobden’s reasons; but he protested against any absolute and systematic resolution on Cobden’s part never to take office.”When a man has mixed himself up in public affairs,” he said, “with so much superiority and success as you have had, then the public has a certain claim upon him, and the exercise of this claim is the demand that he shall take part in the government of the country.”
There was one eminent man, however, who earnestly approved of the step that had been taken. Mr. Bright declared that he had never been more clear of anything than that Cobden looked at the matter in a true light; and he thought that a few months would prove this to be so. We now know that Mr. Bright’s sagacity was not at fault. Almost from the first the new Cabinet espoused the policy of suspicion and alarm, and within the few months of which Mr. Bright had spoken, we shall find Cobden writing to Lord Palmerston and Lord John, with a vehemence of protest and conviction which he could under no circumstances have controlled, and which would have made his position in the Government desperate. It is true that to one powerful member of that Cabinet its military policy, now and after,1859.
Beneath solid considerations of this kind, there was probably an unspoken sense of a loss of personal dignity and self-respect that would follow official subordination to a Minister of whom he had thought and spoken so ill as he had thought and spoken of Lord Palmerston. When Macaulay supposed in the crisis of 1845 that there was a chance of his being invited to take office under Sir Robert Peel, he said: “After the language which I have held respecting Peel, and which I am less than ever disposed to retract, I feel that I cannot without a loss of personal dignity, and without exposing myself to suspicions and insinuations that would be insupportable to me, hold any situation under him.”1 There is always sure to be too little rather than too much of this honourable sensibility in public life. Cobden was perfectly 1859.
This was what was in Cobden’s mind when he said, “I have a horror of losing my individuality, which is to me as existence itself.” His position in the League had shown that nobody was less open than he to the charge of inability to act with others,—that fatal sign of mediocre capacity. But a more fatal sign of a worse moral mediocrity is the ability to act with the first comer. Cobden was of all men the most staunch and most flexible member of an alliance, but he was scrupulously careful in choosing who his allies should be. He was right in thinking that he should not find one after his own heart either in Lord Palmerston, or among many of the colleagues with whom Palmerston, was likely to provide him.
Trevelyan’s Life, ii. 163.