Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXXVIII.: conclusion. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XXXVIII.: conclusion. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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A character like that of Cobden calls for no elaborate attempt at analysis. In motive and purpose he was the most candid and direct of mankind. Though he was amply endowed with that practical wisdom which Aristotle describes as the first quality of the man who meddles with government, all his aims, his sympathies, his maxims were as open and transparent as the day. Nobody could be more free from the spirit of Machiavellian calculation. He had in a full measure the gift of tact, but it came from innate considerateness and good feeling, and not either from social art or from hidden subtlety of nature. Of Cobden’s qualities as a public man enough has been said already.1 Some of his private traits may well be recorded beside them.
It is easy to know how a nature so open and expansive would win the attachment of friends. In his own house, where public men do not always seek the popularity that is the very breath of their nostrils abroad, he was tender, solicitous, forbearing, never exacting. Most of his preparation for speeches and pamphlets was done amid the bustle of a young household, and he preferred to work amid the sociable play of his little children. His thoroughly pleasant and genial temper made him treat everybody who approached him as a friend. Few men have attracted friends of such widely different type. The hard-headed man of business and the fastidious man of letters were equally touched by the interest of his conversation and the charm of his character. There must have been something remarkable about one who won the admiration of Prosper Mérimée, and the cordial friendship of Mr. Goldwin Smith, and the devoted service of strenuous practical men like Mr. Slagg and Mr. Thomasson. His exceeding amiability was not insipid. He was never bitter, but he knew how to hit hard, and if a friend did wrong and public mischief came of it, Cobden did not shrink from the duty of dealing faithfully with him. We have seen with what vigour he denounced the doings of Sir John Bowring in China, and the supposed backslidings of Sir William Molesworth in the Cabinet.2
He usually extended his good-nature even to the busy -bodies who pester public men with profitless correspondence. When strangers who wrote to him committed the absurd offence of subscribing to their letters a hieroglyphic that no one could read, he only said to them in reply that it was a pity that some system of rewards and punishments could not be devised to make people at least sign their own names plainly. It was very seldom that he allowed himself to be provoked into dealing a blow to the impertinence which used to protest against his un-English conduct, his want of patriotism, and the other cries of that stupid party which is not by any means exclusively composed of Tories. Old soldiers in the army of the League especially were apt to suppose that this accident gave them a right to lecture him. One of them, an entire stranger to Cobden, wrote a vehement protest against his un-English conduct in siding with the North in the American war, and justified his remonstrance by the fact that he had once belonged to the Anti-Corn-Law League. “Permit me to say,” said Cobden, “that you must have been out of place in our ranks, for no one can be a consistent enemy of monopoly, who does not tolerate an honest difference of opinion on every question. Your note is a laughable assumption of superiority and authority, where I can recognize neither.3
It was his fortune to be engaged in incessant conflict all through his life, and we have had occasion to mark the dauntless buoyancy with which he sprung time after time down to the very end into the breach, and waged his active battle almost single-handed against Lord Palmerston and his immovable host. What makes it the more admirable is that Cobden was not by nature inclined to this ceaseless attitude of oppugnancy. There is a story that, going down to the House on one of these occasions, he said to his companion, “I hate having to beard in this way hundreds of well-meaning wrong-headed people, and to face the look of rage with which they regard me. I had a thousand times rather not have to do it, but it must be done.” Even in his sharpest speeches we are conscious of a sentiment of this kind. He was unsparing in the trenchancy of his argument, but he never sought to hurt individuals, not even Lord Palmerston. “I believe he is perfectly sincere,” Cobden said, “for the longer I live, the more I believe in men’s sincerity.” There could be no better sign of a pure and generous character, than that so honourable a conviction as this should have been the lesson of his experience.
Cobden’s conversation, like his public addresses, was simple, reasonable, devoid of striking figures of speech, but bright, eager, and expansive; and, as Mérimeée said,4 it was the outcome of an extremely interesting mind, and unlike English conversation in being quite free from commonplaces. On religious questions he was for the most part silent. When he was in the country, he went to church like other people. All his personal habits wee in the highest degree simple and frugal. He was indifferent to the pleasures of the table, he did not care to acquire fine things of any kind, and he had none of the passion of the collector. Politics were the one commanding interest of his life.
But it is well once more to note that what Cobden talked about and cared for was real politics, not the game of party. Politics in his sense meant the large workings of policy, not the manœuvres of members of Parliament. When the newspaper was unfolded in the morning, that furnished him and his friends or his guests with topics for the day. Events all over the world were deliberately discussed in relation to wide and definite general principles; their bearings were worked out in the light of what Cobden conceived to be the great economical and social movements of the world. This is what makes a real school in politics. It was in the same spirit that Cobden read books and talked with bookish men. His point of view was always actual, not in the sense of the vulgar practical man, but social and political. When he read a book, he read it as all reading should be done, with a view to life and practice, and not in the way of refined self-indulgence. The Life of Eliot made him think of the state of the franchise in those old times, and Motley’s History of the Netherlands, which interested him greatly, suggested to him that Queen Elizabeth carried her aversion to European crusading in the Palmerstonian sense almost too far.5 To the Ilyssus we may confess that Cobden was a little unjust, but the point of his good-humoured sarcasm has been much misrepresented. He was, he said in his last speech, a great advocate of culture of every kind. What he sought was that young men should be led to add to classical learning a great knowledge of modern affairs and the habits of serious political thought about their own time.6
His own industry in acquiring the knowledge that was necessary for his purpose was enormous. His pamphlets show his appetite for blue-books, and as with other sensible men it was an appetite which led him not merely to swallow but to digest and assimilate. He was a constant student of Hansard, and for one who seeks for purposes of action or controversy to make himself well versed in the political transactions of the present century, there is no book so well worth the labour of ransacking. Cobden was never afraid of labour that he thought would be useful; he cheerfully undertook even the drudgery of translation, and that too in a case where he did not in his heart expect to make any important mark on opinion7
People have often wondered how it was that a man who showed so remarkable a capacity for understanding public business, should have made so little of a success of his own affairs. The same question might be asked of Burk and of Pitt, both of them economists and financiers of the first order, yet both of whom allowed their private affairs to fall into embarrassment and ruin. One obvious answer is that their minds were too much absorbed in public interests to have any room left for that close attention to private interests which must always be required to raise a poor man into prosperity. Cobden, it is true, deliberately attempted material success, and did not attempt it with prudence. The failure was in fact due to the very qualities which made him successful in larger affairs. His penetration shows to a man of this kind ways in which money ma be made, and his energy naturally incites him to try to make it. Cobden was penetrating, energetic, and sanguine. “The records of unfortunate commerce,” as Mr. Bagehot said, “abound in instances of men who have been unsuccessful, because they had great mind, great energy, and great hope, but had not money in proportion.8
One obvious criticism on Cobden’s work, and it has often been made, is that he was expecting the arrival of a great social reform from the mere increase and more equal distribution of material wealth. He ought to have known, they say, that what our society needs is the diffusion of intellectual light and the fire of a higher morality. It is even said by some that Free Trade has done harm rather than good, because it has flooded the country with wealth which men have never been properly taught how to use. In other words, material progress has been out of all proportion to moral progress.
Now nobody had better reason to know this than Cobden. The perpetual chagrin of his life was the obstinate refusal of those on whom he had helped to shower wealth and plenty to hear what he had to say on the social ideals to which their wealth should lead. At last he was obliged to say to himself, as he wrote to a friend: “Nations have not yet learnt to bear prosperity, liberty, and peace. They will learn it in a higher state of civilization. We think we are the models for posterity, when we are little better than beacons to help it to avoid the rocks and quicksands.”
“When I come here,” he wrote to Mr. Hargreaves from Dunford, “to ramble alone in the fields and to think, I am impressed with the aspect of our political and social relations. We have the spirit of feudalism rife and rampant in the midst of the antagonistic development of the age of Watt, Arkwright, and Stephenson! Nay, feudalism is every day more and more in the ascendant in political and social life. So great is its power and prestige that it draws to it the support and homage of even those who are the natural leaders of the newer and better civilization. Manufacturers and merchants as a rule seem only to desire riches that they may be enabled to prostrate themselves at the feet of feudalism. How is this to end? And whither are we tending in both our domestic and foreign relations? Can we hope to avoid collisions at home or wars abroad whilst all the tendencies are to throw power and influence into the wrong scale?”9
He had begun life with the idea that the great manufacturers and merchants of England should aspire to that high directing position which had raised the Medici, the Fuggers, and the De Witts to a level with the sovereign princes of the earth.1 At the end he still thought that no other class possessed wealth and influence enough to counteract the feudal class.2 Through all his public course Cobden did his best to moralize this great class; to raise its self-respect and its consciousness of its own dignity and power. Like every one else, he could only work within his own limits. It is too soon yet to say how our feudal society will ultimately be recast. So far, plutocracy shows a very slight gain upon aristocracy, of which it remains, as Cobden so constantly deplored, an imitation, and a very bad imitation. The political exclusiveness of the oligarchy has been thoroughly broken down since Cobden’s day. It seems, however, as if the preponderance of power were inevitably destined not for the middle class, as he believed, but for the workmen.
For this future régime Cobden’s work was the best pre paration. He conceived a certain measure of material prosperity, generally diffused, to be an indispensable instrument of social well-being. For England, as with admirable foresight he laid down in his first pamphlet in 1835, the cardinal fact is the existence of the United States—its industrial competition and its democratic example. This has transformed the conditions of policy. This is what warns English statesmen to set their house in order. For a country in our position, to keep the standard of living at its right level, free access to the means of subsistence and the material of industry was the first essential. Thrift in government and wise administration of private capital have become equally momentous in presence of the rising world around us. To abstain from intervention in the affairs of other nations is not only recommended by economic prudence, but is the only condition on which proper attention can be paid to the moral and social necessities at home. Let us not, then, tax Cobden with failing to do the work of the social moralist. It is his policy which gives to the social reformer a foothold. He accepted the task which, from the special requirements of the time, it fell to him to do, and it is both unjust and ungrateful to call him narrow for not performing the tasks of others as well as his own.
It was his view of policy as a whole, connected with the movement of wealth and industry all over the world, that distinguished Cobden and his allies from the Philosophic Radicals, who had been expected to from so great and powerful a school in the reformed Parliament.3 Hume had anticipated him in attacking expenditure, and Mr. Roebuck in preaching self-government in the colonies. It was not until Retrenchment and Colonial Policy were placed in their true relation to the new and vast expansion of commerce and the growth of population, that any considerable number of people accepted them. The Radical party only became effective when it had connected its principles with economic facts. The different points of view of the Manchester School and of the Philosophic Radicals was illustrated in Mr. Mill’s opposition to the alterations which Cobden had advocated in international maritime law. Mr. Mill argued that the best way of stopping wars is to make them as onerous as possible to the citizens of the country concerned, and therefore that to protect the goods of the merchants of a belligerent country is to give them one motive the less for hindering their Government from making war. With all reverence for the ever admirable author of this argument, it must be pronounced to be abstract and unreal, when compared with Cobden’s. You are not likely to prevent the practice of war, he contended, but what you can do is to make it less destructive to the interests and the security of great populations. An argument of this kind rests on a more solid basis, and suggests a wider comprehension of actual facts. In the same way he translated the revolutionary watchword of the Fraternity of Peoples into the language of common sense and practice, and the international sentiment as interpreted by him became an instrument for preserving as well as improving European order. He was justified in regarding his principles as the true Conservatism of modern societies.
Great economic and social forces flow with a tidal sweep over communities that are only half-conscious of that which is befalling them. Wise statesmen are those who foresee what time is thus bringing, and endeavour to shape institutions and to mould men’s thought and purpose in accordance with the change that is silently surrounding them. To this type Cobden by his character and his influence belonged. Hence, amid the coarse strife and blind passion of the casual factions of the day, his name will stand conspicuously out as a good servant of the Commonwealth, and be long held in grateful memory.
See above, vol. i., chapter ix.
See above, p. 160. A sharper dispute took place between Cobden and Sir William Molesworth on the 8rd of August, 1855. The latter had gone out of his way to use some hard words about the peace party. Cobden showed, with a good deal of pungency, that until he went into the Cabinet Sir William Molesworth avowedly shared his opinions to the letter.—Hansard, cxxxix.
November 12, 1864.
See above, i. 198.
“Why, when I read Motley’s History of the Rise of the Dutch Republic—an admirable book, which everybody should read—when I read the history of the Netherlands, and when I see how that struggling community, with their whole country desolated by Spanish troops, and every town lighted up daily with the fires of persecution,—when I see the accounts of what passed when the envoys came to Queen Elizabeth and asked for aid, how she is huckstering for money while they are begging for help to their religion, I declare that, with all my principles of non-intervention, I am almost ashamed of old Queen Bess. And then there were Burleigh, Walsingham, and the rest, who were, if possible, harder and more difficult to deal with than their mistress. Why, they carried out in its unvarnished selfishness a national British policy; they had no other idea of a policy but a national British policy, and they carried it out with a degree of selfishness amounting to downright avarice.
The passage was prompted by a little slip in a leading article in the Times, which had made one of the greatest of American rivers run uphill a great number of miles into another river, and then these two united (the waters of which are never blended at all) were made to flow into a third river, into which, as it happens, neither of them pours a drop. How preposterous, said Cobden, that young gentlemen who know all about the geography of ancient Greece, should be unable, if asked to point out Chicago in the map, to go within a thousand miles of it. “When I was at Athens,” he said, “I sallied out one summer morning to see the far-famed river, the Ilyssus, and after walking for some hundred yards up what appeared to be the bed of a winter torrent, I came up to a number of Athenian laundresses, and I found they had dammed up this far-famed classic river, and that they were using every drop of water for their linen and such sanitary purposes. I say, why should not the young gentlemen who are taught all about the geography of the Ilyssus know something about the geography of the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Missouri?”—Speeches, ii. 364.
In 1858 he translated M. Chevalier’s pamphlet on Gold.
Bagehot’s Literary Studies, Vol. i. 373—a passage as applicable to Cobden as to Mr. Wilson, about whom it is written.
To Mr. Hargreaves, April 10, 1863.
See vol. i., p. 134.
See above, p. 396.
See Mr. Mill’s Autobiography, 194–196.