Front Page Titles (by Subject) Cobden to W. C. Hunt on the Hours of Labour. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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Cobden to W. C. Hunt on the Hours of Labour. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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Cobden to W. C. Hunt on the Hours of Labour.
Oct. 21, 1836.
“.... When upon the point of embarking on board the Liverpool steamer for Lisbon, a thought has occurred to me relative to the address which I left with you for the Stockport electors, and which induces me to trouble you with this letter. I have altogether omitted to advert to the Ten Hours Bill; and as it is a question that interests deeply the non-electors, whose influence, I am aware, is very considerable in your borough, I might be considered to have wilfully and designedly suppressed all allusion to the subject, if I did not explain my opinions unreservedly upon it. As respects the right and justice by which young persons ought to be protected from excessive labour, my mind has ever been decided, and I will not argue the matter for a moment with political economy; it is a question for the medical and not the economical profession; I will appeal to — or Astley Cooper, and not to MaCulloch or Martineau. Nor does it require the aid of science to inform us that the tender germ of childhood is unfitted for that period of labour which even persons of mature age shrink from as excessive. In my opinion, and I hope to see the day when such a feeling is universal, no child ought to be put to work in a cotton-mill at all so early as the age of thirteen years; and after that the hours should be moderate, and the labour light, until such time as the human frame is rendered by nature capable of enduring the fatigues of adult labour. With such feelings as these strongly pervading my mind, I need not perhaps add that, had I been in the House of Commons during the last session of Parliament, I should have opposed with all my might Mr. Poulett Thomson’s measure for postponing the operation of the clause for restricting the hours of infant labour. I am aware that many of the advocates of the cause of the factory children are in favour of a Ten Hours Bill for restricting the working of the engines, which in fact would be to limit the use of steam in all cotton establishments (for young persons are, I believe, at present employed in every branch of our staple manufacture, more or less) to ten hours a day. It has always, however, appeared to me that those who are in favour of this policy lose sight of the very important consequences which are involved in the principle. Have they considered that it would be the first example of a legislature of a free country interfering with the freedom of adult labour? Have they reflected that if we surrender into the hands of Government the power to make laws to fix the hours of labour at all, it has as good a right, upon the same principle, to make twenty hours the standard as ten? Have they taken into account that if the spinners and weavers are to be protected by Act of Parliament, then the thousand other mechanical and laborious trades must in justice have their claims attended to by the same tribunal? I believe it is now nearly three hundred years ago since laws were last enforced which regulated or interfered with the labour of the working classes. They were the relics of the feudal ages, and to escape from the operation of such a species of legislation was considered as a transition from a state of slavery to that of freedom. Now it appears to me, however unconscious the advocates of such a policy may be of such consequences, that if we admit the right of the Government to settle the hours of labour, we are in principle going back again to that point from which our ancestors escaped three centuries ago. Let not the people—I mean the masses—think lightly of those great principles upon which their strength wholly rests. The privileged and usurping few may advocate expediency in lieu of principles, but depend upon it we, reformers, must cling to first principles, and be prepared to carry them out, fearless of consequences. Am I told that the industrious classes in Lancashire are incapable of protecting themselves from oppression unless by the shield of the legislature? I am loath to believe it. Nay, as I am opposed to the plan of legislating upon such a subject, I am bound to suggest another remedy. I would, then advise the working classes to make themselves free of the labour market of the world, and this they can do by accumulating twenty pounds each, which will give them the command of the only market in which labour is at a higher rate than in England—I mean that of the United States. If every working man would save this sum, he might be as independent of his employer as the latter, with his great capital, is of his workmen. Were this universal, we should hear no more of the tyranny of the employers. If I am told that my scheme is chimerical because the working classes cannot depend upon each other, I answer that I have better hopes of them, and I look forward to many other improvements of a similar kind. All that is required, in my opinion, is that the operatives understand their own interests, and be not put upon a false scent; let them trust only to themselves, and not depend upon the legislature, which will never avail them. I yield to no man in the world (be he ever so stout an advocate of the Ten Hours Bill) in a hearty good-will towards the great body of the working classes; but my sympathy is not of that morbid kind which would lead me to despond over their future prospects. Nor do I partake of that spurious humanity, which would indulge in an unreasoning kind of philanthropy at the expense of the independence of the great bulk of the community. Mine is that masculine species of charity which would lead me to inculcate in the minds of the labouring classes, the love of independence, the privilege of self-respect, the disdain of being patronized or petted, the desire to accumulate, and the ambition to rise. I know it has been found easier to please the people by holding out flattering and delusive prospects of cheap benefits to be derived from Parliament, rather than by urging them to a course of self-reliance; but while I will not be the sycophant of the great, I cannot become the parasite of the poor; and I have sufficient confidence in the growing intelligence of the working classes to be induced to believe that they will now be found to contain a great proportion of minds, sufficiently enlightened by experience to concur with me in opinion that it is to themselves alone individually, that they, as well as every other great section of the community, must trust for working out their own regeneration and happiness. Again I say to them, ‘Look not to Parliament, look only to yourselves.’
“It would be easy for me to state reasons of a different description why the legislature ought not to be suffered to interfere with the freedom of the labour of the people. How very obvious, however, must it be that any law restricting the hours of labour would be inoperative so soon as it became the interest of masters and workmen to violate it! Where, then, would be the utility or wisdom of an enactment which owed its power entirely to the free will of the parties whom it professed to coerce? Surely they might act as effectually without the necessity of infringing and merely bringing into disrepute the law of the land! But it is impossible to pursue the question to the extent of its merits within the limits of a sheet of letter-paper. If I am told by the advocates of a Ten Hours Bill that the plan of putting a restriction upon the moving power is the only way of saving the infants from destruction, to what a sad point does this argument conduct us! It is, in fact, an avowal that the parents cannot be trusted to obey a law which forbids them to sacrifice their offspring. Against this lamentable aspersion upon the natural affection of the working classes I enter my solemn protest. I believe, on the contrary, that public opinion amongst them is sufficiently patent to prevent an unnatural connivance of the kind on the part of any considerable number of parents; and I am convinced that the morality of the people is rapidly advancing to that elevated standard which will very soon preclude the apprehension-that any individual of this body will be found sufficiently depraved to be suspected of the guilt of infanticide.”