Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXXVII.: speech at rochdale—the land question—correspondence—last days and death. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XXXVII.: speech at rochdale—the land question—correspondence—last days and death. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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speech at rochdale—the land question—correspondence—last days and death.
In November Cobden went down to Rochdale to make his1864.
It was in this speech that he made the memorable declaration on the Land Question. We have already seen (above p. 429) what he said the year before in the same place: that the English peasantry had no parallel on the face of the earth; that there is no other country in the world where the 1864.
Although the few sentences which concerned a Land League did most to startle attention at the moment, Cobden’s last speech dealt much more fully with other topics, and covered a very wide space of political ground. The exhaustion after such an effort was severe. “I should have been well enough,” Cobden told Mr. Paulton, “if I could have gone to bed for four and twenty hours after the speech. But the next day Mr. Kemp had a reception of two hundred of the leading Liberals, and I spent the whole evening in shaking hands and incessant talking to relays of friends.” The journey home made things worse. He was afraid to rest in London, lest he should find himself compelled by illness to remain there. On the whole, when he reached home, he considered that he had escaped tolerably well, but he made up his mind that he must never attend another public meeting in the winter season. As it 1865.
“Jan. 25.—I have never before had such a shake. I came back from my imprudent trip to the North out of order from top to toe. Besides my old foe (which the Doctor here calls ‘nervous asthma’) from which my breathing was so obstructed that I could hardly move a limb, I had an attack of bronchitis, which threatened to extend to my lungs, and my stomach was much disordered with feverish symptoms. Our little apothecary was very assiduous, and I am much better. The asthma has entirely disappeared, and I can walk upstairs without any of the old symptoms. But I am thinner, and without air or exercise how can any one be well? I have not been out of doors since I returned home. This cold weather keeps up the old irritation in my throat, and I am not free from cough. In fact what I want is a fortnight of July sunshine. This has been the most disagreeable winter I have ever known here. Generally we get sunshine in the middle of the day, if even for only two or three house. This year, although the average temperature has not been lower than usual, there have been great fluctuations, with much moisture and cloudiness. At present the ground is covered with snow of unusual depth.
“I am deeply obliged to you and Mrs. Paulton for your kind invitation. At present I cannot entertain the idea of going to town. I should not be able to attend the House, and in anything like my present state of health, home is the only proper place for me. Besides there never was a time when so little motive existed to lead a man to run risks of life and health in the fulfilment of his public duties..... The talk in official circles is that the election is to take place in June. That is the season of the year which will suit me best. But really what right has anybody to pre1865.
His time was filled by vigilant observation of affairs, and by his unfailing practice of correspondence. The struggle in America occupied his thoughts incessantly, partly because he was looking to the questions that would remain for adjustment after the war had come to an end. One of his last letters to Mr. Sumner touched on this point:—
“Jan. 11, 1865.—I agree with a remark in the concluding passage of your last letter, that you are fighting the battle of liberalism in Europe as well as the battle of freedom in America. It is only necessary to observe who are your friends and who your opponents in the Old World, to be satisfied that great principles are at stake in your terrible conflict But it is not by victories in the field alone that you will help the cause of the masses in Europe. End when it may, the civil war will, in the eyes of mankind, have conferred quite as much ‘glory,’ so far as mere fighting goes, on the South as on the North. It is in your superiority in other things that your can alone by your example elevate the Old World. I confess I am very jealous of your taking a course which seems to hold up our old doings as an excuse for your present short-comings. Hence I was sorry to see your republication of the old indictment against us in your very able and learned pamphlet. My answer is, that your 1865.
“I was much pleased with your speech on the Canadian difficulty in the South, when you spoke of avoiding all quarrels with other countries, and devoting yourself to the one sole object of putting down the rebellion. I am not blind to the fact that very grave questions will stand over for adjustment between your country and ours. Some of them, such as the injury done to your whole shipping interest by the losses and destruction of a port, can hardly be settled by governments. They will, I fear, invite future retaliations on our shipping by citizens of your country, if we should ever go to war. But all these questions must be postponed till your war is ended, and then probably the whole world may ready for a thorough revolution in international maritime law. It will be for you to show the way.”
The topic of national expenditure kept its place in his mind, and the plans for the defence of Canada stirred his liveliest disgust, He expressed his views in two elaborate letters to Mr. Gladstone, with a sort of forlorn hope that they might through him obtain a hearing in the Cabinet. Excepting Mr. Gladstone himself, however, and Mr. Gibson, there was nobody in the Cabinet who felt the least inclination to listen. Even Mr. Gladstone thought that his corre spondent did less than justice to the Government, and more1865.
“Jan. 16. (To Mr. Bright.)—I see your meeting at Birmingham is fixed. You will, I suppose, have something to say about Reform. What is wanted is to slay and bury those delusive projects which have of late owed their existence to men who wish to mystify the simple question of principle, and lead the public astray after crotchetty details of their own. Of these Lord Grey and Buxton are the most notable. But I suppose you are aware that Stuart Mill has endorsed Hare’s incomprehensible scheme. It is a pity that Mill, who on the whole is so admirable in his sympathies and tendencies, should give his sanction to these novelties. (I got a letter the other day from an old Leaguer in Australia, saying that the Protectionists there are quoting Mill to justify a young community in resorting for a time to Protection.) It has always appeared to me that the best way to meet the wishes of those who honestly fear that particular classes or bodies of the community may be unrepresented, is to make the electoral districts as diversified as possible. With this view I would allow each constituency to return one representative. Thus, for instance, if Birmingham had six members, they should be elected by six wards. This would give every section of the community the opportunity of suiting itself. The idea of giving representation to minorities is an absurdity. It strikes at the very foundations of representative government by majorities. It ignores the fact that opinion is always represented by minorities 1865.
“Has it ever occurred to you to ascertain what was the old borough franchise? In Forster’s ‘Life of Eliot,’ giving a very detailed account of the parliamentary and constitutional struggle between the House of Commons and Charles I., at the period antecedent to the revolutionary conflict, there are constant notices of trials before Parliamentary Committees to decide the question whether the right of voting belonged to the ‘commonalty in general,’ or to privileged corporations or classes. The decisions seem to have been almost always in favour of the ‘commonalty in general.’ By this phrase I suppose was meant all householders at least. I dare say the polling-papers are preserved of the old elections, and it would be curious to see the proportions the voters bore to the whole population. I see it stated that in 1628 there was a contested election for Coventry, when the successful candidates had a majority of 600 votes. There must have been a much larger proportion of the whole1865.
“I was talking with Durrant Cooper, one of the leading members of our Sussex Archæological Society, and told him if instead of devoting a volume a year to the remains of old castles and monasteries, they would give us some facts throwing light upon the social and political condition of the inhabitants in former ages, it would be a much more useful employment of their talents. It is astonishing what a mass of facts of old date are in existence. The secretary of our County Society once said that an itinerary of King John’s reign, giving his whereabouts every day of his life, could be given if worth the trouble, with as much accuracy as that of William the Fourth.
“I have no recent letters from America. Goldwin Smith says he has come back a confirmed radical and free churchman, and less impatient because more assured of liberal progress...His pen is a power in the State.”
“Jan. 22. (To Mr. Bright.)—I hope you have returned safely home, and if you are well after your double effort at Birmingham, I congratulate you on your bronchial organization. I was satisfied and pleased with your speech in the Town Hall. I think you took a very wise course in using the language of warning to those ruling factions who are alone responsible for the present state of the Reform question. Not that it will have the desired effect in that quarter, where noting but fear of something worse happening ever leads to the concession of any reform. Unfortunately, in the case of the proposed change in the representation, involving, as our privileged classes believe, the destruction of their privileges, nothing worse than this spectre can be presented to their imagination; and they will contend against a measure which would make the people the depository of political power in this country, as they would against a revolution of the old 1865.
Whilst he was in this mood of discouragement, he received a letter from Mr. Gladstone, written (Feb. 10) on behalf of the Government and by desire of Lord Palmerston, offering him the office of Chairman of the Board of Audit. It was proposed to reconstitute the Board, and to strengthen and raise the position of its head; the Comptrollership of the Exchequer was to be united to the Chair of the Board of Audit; and the salary was to be raised to 2000l a year. Although the duties of the office, Mr. Gladstone said, would require very high qualities for their proper discharge, they would not be very laborious. The tender of such an office was not to be taken as an adequate acknowledgment of his distinguished and long continued public services, but it was the highest civil office which the Government had it in their power to give. After taking a couple of days to think over the proposal, though probably his decision was made at once, Cobden declined it:—
Feb. 13, 1865.
“My dear Mr. Gladstone,
“I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter written on behalf of the Government, offering in the kindest terms to place at my option the post of Chairman of the Board of Audit, about to be vacated by Mr. Romilly. Owing to the state of my health, I am precluded from taking any office1865.
Very truly yours,
At this time Mr. Bright wrote to him (Feb. 23), saying that Mr. Seymour Fitzgerald was to talk on Canadian Fortifications some day soon. “I wish,” Mr. Bright said, “that you could be in the House when he comes on. You understand the details of the question better than any other man in the House, and I think you could knock over the stupid proposition to spend English money in fortifications at Quebec. I shall probably say something if you are not there, but I hope the matter may not be debated till you are in town.” A week later, Cobden received the last letter that he was destined to have from his friend. It was a note (Mar. 3), saying by what train Mr. Bright would come down to Midhurst on the following afternoon. Cobden now occasionally ventured out into the air during the middle of the day, and he and Mr. Bright took easy walks together on the terrace at Dunford or in the lanes. On one occasion, looking in the direction of the church, Cobden said, “My boy is buried there, and it will not be long before I am there with him.” It was, indeed, little more than a month.
Three final letters belong to this date:—
“Feb. 23. (To Mr. T. B. Potter.)—I have forwarded Lord—’s letter to Mr. Goldwin Smith. I observe that he assigns as the main cause for the hostility of the ruling1865.
“What is running in Lord —’s head is the common fallacy of confounding the language of certain newspapers and parties in America with the acts of the Government. Is it fair to forget that there are nearly two millions of persons who were born in Ireland living in the United States, and perhaps as many more the offspring of Irish parents, all of whom are animated with the most intense hatred towards England? New York city alone at the last census had 260,000 Irish, actually more than the population of Dublin in1851, thus making New York the greatest Irish city in the world. These people have their newspapers, their orators, and they have votes. Considering how demonstrative they are, it is not wonderful that their voices are heard at every period of excitement. But what shall be said of the fairness of those Englishmen, who, knowing 1865.
“Shall I confess the thought that troubles me in connexion with this subject? I have seen with disgust the altered tone with which America has been treated since she was believed to have committed suicide or something like it. In our diplomacy, our press, and with our public speakers, all hastened to kick the dead lion. New in a few months everybody will know that the North will triumph, and what troubles me is lest I should live to see our ruling class—which can understand and respect power better than any other class—grovel once more, and more basely than before, to the giant of democracy. This would not only inspire me with disgust and indignation, but with shame and humiliation. I think I see signs that it is coming. The Times. is less insolent and Lord Palmerston is more civil.”
“March 15. (To Mr. Bright.)—I have read through the whole of the debate on Monday. The alteration of tone is very remarkable. It is clear that the homage which was refused to justice and humanity will be freely given to success. No part of your speech was to me more acceptable than where you threw in the parenthetical reflection that the sacrifices of the North were not to put Bourbons on the throne of France or to keep the Turk in Europe. Still, do not let us deceive ourselves. There will be a back reckoning. It is all very well to talk of future peace and goodwill, but the Americans will feel that they have a substantial wrong to redress with this country. In international law if there be such a thing) a nation is a unit, and the whole is responsible to another people for the acts its individuals.1865.
“Now the money question is really the smallest part of the issue between the two countries arising out of the experience we have had of the present state of international maritime law, and the interest we have, beyond all other countries, in altering it. But where is the statesmanship to deal with the problem, when nobody seems to look beyond the exigencies of the next twenty-four hours? I feel confident there can never be a war between us and America. The mass of the people here must every day feel that they have a far higher stake in the United States than in the country of their birth
“I was glad you brought out so clearly the homestead law. When it is fairly driven home to the apprehension of our dull landless millions that the people of the United States hold the largest and richest unoccupied domain in the world, not for great feudal monopolists like the Demidoffs or the Sutherlands, not even for the exclusive use of American citizens, but in trust for the landless millions aforesaid, to every one of whom is offered a farm as large as he can cultivate, and a vote six months after his settlement (which is the rule in the West), it will be impossible to marshal in hostile array the masses of this country against that people. But though the governing classes will not be able to involve us in war, they will, I think, if they continue to hold their present rule in this country, bring on us some 1865.
“March 20. (To Colonel Cole.)—The most interesting debate of the session hitherto has been on Canadian affairs. This is a subject of increasing interest, and the projected confederation of the British North American colonies will bring it into great prominence this session. It seems to be generally accepted here as a desirable change, though I fail to discover any immediate interest which the British public have in the matter. There is no proposal to relieve us from the expense and risk of pretending to defend those colonies from the United States—a task which, by the way, everybody admits to be beyond our power. Then I cannot see what substantial interest the British people have in the connexion to compensate them for guaranteeing three or four millions of North Americans living in Canada, &c., against another community of Americans living in their neighbourhood. We are told indeed of the ‘loyalty’ of the Canadians; but this is an ironical term to apply to people who neither pay our taxes nor obey our laws, nor hold themselves liable to fight our battles, who would repudiate our right to the sovereignty over an acre of their territory, and who claim the right of imposing their own customs duties, even to the exclusion of our manufactures. We are two peoples to all intents and purposes, and it is a perilous delusion to both parties to attempt to keep up a sham connexion and dependence which will snap asunder if it should ever be put to the strain of stern reality. It is all very well for our Cockney newspapers to talk of defending Canada at all hazards. It would be just as possible for the United States to sustain Yorkshire in a war with England, as for us to enable Canada to contend against the United States. It is simply an impossibility. Nor must we forget that the only serious danger of a quarrel between those two neighbours arises from the connexion of Canada with this1865.
A few days after Mr. Bright had left him, Cobden found himself unable to resist the desire to take a part in the discussion on the Canadian Fortifications, and on the 21st of March, in bitter weather, he travelled up to London, accompanied 1865.
Mr. Bright called in the evening, but was not allowed to see him. Early the next morning (Sunday, April 2) he called again; and as all chance of a rally had now vanished, he took his place by the side of the dying man. One other friend was in the room, Mr. George Moffatt, whose intimacy with Cobden had been long and sincere. They saw that his end was very close. As the bells of St. Martin’s Church were ringing for the morning service, the mists of death began to settle heavily on his brow, and his ardent, courageous, and brotherly spirit soon passed tranquilly away. Many tears were shed in homes where Cobden’s name was revered and loved when the tidings that he was dead reached them.
At the time of his death he was within two months of the completion of his sixty-first year. One afternoon in the summer of 1856, he and a friend took it into their1865.
“Before we left the house,” Mr. Bright has told us, “standing by me and leaning on the coffin, was his sorrowing daughter, one whose attachment to her father seems to have been a passion scarcely equalled among daughters. She said, ‘My father used to like me very much to read to him the Sermon on the Mount.’ His own life was to a large extent—I speak it with reverence and with hesitation—a sermon based upon that best, that greatest of all sermons. His was a life of perpetual self-sacrifice.”
On the day after Cobden’s death, when the House of Commons met, the Prime Minister commemorated the loss which they had all sustained in a few kindly sentences. It was 1865.
While the House was still under an impression from these words which was almost religious, Mr. Bright, yielding to a marked and silent expectation, rose and tried to say how every expression of sympathy that he had heard had been most grateful to his heart. “But the time,” he went on in broken accents, “which has elapsed since in my presence the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quitted or tenanted a human form took its flight is so short, that I dare not even attempt to give utterance to the feelings by which I am oppressed. I shall leave to some calmer moment when I may have an opportunity of speaking before some portion of my countrymen the lesson which I think may be learned from the life and character of my friend. I have only to say that after twenty years of most intimate and almost brotherly friendship, I little knew how much I loved him until I had lost him” As Homer says of Nestor and Ulysses, so of these two it may be said that they never spoke diversely either in the assembly or in the council, but were always of one mind, and together advised the English with understanding and with counsel how all might be for the best.
Speeches, ii. 339. November 23, 1864.
Speeches, ii. 116.
Speeches, ii. 367. See Wealth of Nations, Bk. iii., chap. ii.
Mr. Thorold Rogers, who had many conversations with him on the subject, says that by free trade in land Cobden meant “the extension of the principle of free exchange in all its fulness to landed estates, and the removal of all restrictions on its transfer, either voluntarily, should the owner desire to sell it, or involuntarily if the owner becomes embarrassed.”—Cobden and Modern Political Opinion, chap. iii. p. 89.
The present Lord Justice Brett. He was now before the constituency of Rochdale as the Conservative candidate.
The last letter that Cobden wrote was on this subject. It was addressed a week before his death (March 22, 1865) to Mr. T. B. Potter, who had sent him a letter from Mr. Mill:—“Everything from his is entitled to respectful consideration. But I confess, after the best attention to the proposed representation of minorities which I can give it, I am so stupid as to fail to see its merits. He speaks of 50,000 electors having to elect five members, and that 30,000 may elect them all, and to obviate this he would give the 20,000 minority two votes. But I would give only one vote to each elector, and one representative to each constituency. Instead of the 50,000 returning five in a lump, I would have five constituencies of 10,000, each returning one member. Thus, if the metropolis, for example, were entitled, with a fair distribution of electoral power, to 40 votes, I would divide it into 40 districts or wards, each to return one member; and in this way every class and every variety of opinion would have a chance of a fair representation. Belgravia, Marylebone, St. James’s, St. Giles’s, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, &c., would each and all have their members. I don’t know any better plan for giving all opinions a chance of being heard; and after all, it is opinions that are to be represented. If the minority have a faith that their opinions, and not those of the majority, are the true ones, then let them agitate and discuss until their principles are in the ascendant. This is the motive for political action and the healthy agitation of public life.”
The postscript was to the effect that if he were disposed to talk the matter over, Mr. Gladstone was at his service.