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LETTER I.: mr. cobden to the reverend — —. - Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, vol. 1 
The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, with a Preface by Lord Welby, Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet, C.B., and William Cullen Bryant, Notes by F.W. Chesson and a Bibliography, vol. 1, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903).
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mr. cobden to the reverend — —.
My Dear Sir,
—Accept my thanks for your kindness in forwarding me a copy of your sermon upon the death of the Duke of Wellington. I am glad to observe that, like nearly all the commentators upon the achievements of the great warrior, you think it necessary to assume the fact that the war of the French Revolution was on our side defensive in its origin, and had for its object the vindication of the rights and liberties of mankind. A word or two upon that question by-and-by. But let us at least rejoice that, thanks to the progress of the spirit of Christianity, we have so far improved upon the age of Froissart as no longer to lavish our admiration upon warriors regardless of the cause to which they may devote themselves. It is not enough now that a soldier possesses that courage which Gibbon designates “the cheapest and most common quality of human nature,” and which a still greater∗ authority has declared to be the attribute of all men; he must be morally right, or he fights without our sympathy; he must present better title-deeds than the record of his exploits written in blood with the point of the sword before he can lay claim to our reverence or admiration. This, at least, is the doctrine now professed, and the profession of such a faith, even if our works do not quite correspond, is an act of homage to an advanced civilisation.
The sermon with which you have favoured me, and which is, I presume, but one of many thousands written in the same spirit, takes still higher ground; it looks forward to the time when the religion of Christ shall have so far prevailed over the wickedness of this world that men will “beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” In the meantime it condemns all war, excepting that which is strictly defensive, and waged in behalf of the dearest interests of humanity; it professes no sympathy for warriors, no admiration for the profession of arms, and sees less glory in the achievements of the most successful soldier than in the calm endurance of the Christian martyr, or the heroism of him who first ventures alone and unarmed as the ambassador of Jesus Christ among the heathen. “But,” says the sermon, “an occasion may undoubtedly arise when a resort to arms is necessary to rescue the nations of Europe from a tyrant who has trodden their liberties under foot. At such times God has never failed to raise up an instrument to accomplish the good work. Such an occasion undoubtedly was the usurpation of Napoleon and his deadly hostility to this country, and such an instrument was the Duke of Wellington.”
It is impossible to deny that the last extract gives expression to the opinion of the majority of the people of this country—or at least to a majority of those who form opinions upon such matters—as to the origin of the last war.
If we were discussing the wars of the Heptarchy the question would not, as Milton has truly observed, deserve more consideration at our hands than a battle of kites and crows. But the impression that exists in the public mind respecting the origin and history of the last French war may affect the question of peace or war for the future. It is already giving a character to our policy towards the government and people of France. There is a prevalent and active belief among us that that war arose from an unprovoked and unjust attack made upon us; that we were desirous of peace, but were forced into hostilities; that in spite of our pacific intentions our shores were menaced with a French invasion; and that such having been our fate, in spite of all our efforts to avoid a rupture, what so natural as to expect a like treatment from the same quarter in future? and, as a rational deduction from these premises, we call for an increase of our “national defences.”
Now so far is this from being a true statement of the case, it is, I regret to say, the very opposite of the truth. I do not hesitate to affirm that nothing was ever more conclusively proved by evidence in a court of law than the fact, resting upon historical documents and official acts, that England was the aggressor in the last French war. It is not enough to say that France did not provoke hostilities. She all but went down on her knees (if I may apply such a phrase to a nation) to avert a rupture with this country. Take one broad fact in illustration of the conduct of the two countries. On the news of the insurrection in Paris on the 10th of August, 1792, reaching this country, our ambassador was immediately recalled, not on the ground that any insult or slight had been offered to him, but on the plea, as stated in the instructions transmitted to him by the foreign minister, a copy of which was presented to Parliament, that the King of France having been deprived of his authority the credentials under which our ambassador had hitherto acted were no longer available; and at the same time we gave the French ambassador at London notice that he would no longer be officially recognised by our government, but could remain in England only in a private capacity. How far the judgment of the present age sanctions the course our government pursued on that occasion may be known by comparing our conduct then with the policy we adopted in 1848, when our ambassador at Paris found no difficulty, after the flight of Louis Philippe, in procuring fresh credentials to the French Republic, and remaining at his post during all the successive changes of rulers, and when our own government hastened to receive the ambassador of France, although he was no longer accredited from a crowned head.
But France being in 1792 already involved in a war with Austria and Prussia, whose armies were marching upon her frontiers, and menaced at the same time by Russia, Sweden, Spain, and Sardinia, being in fact assailed openly or covertly by all the despotic powers of the Continent, nothing was so much to be dreaded by her as a maritime war with England, for which, owing to the neglected state of her navy, she was wholly unprepared.∗ By the Treaty of 1786, which then regulated the intercourse of the two countries, it was stipulated that the recalling or sending away their respective ambassadors or ministers should be deemed to be equivalent to a declaration of war between the two countries. Instead of seizing the opportunity of a rupture afforded by the conduct of England, the French Government redoubled their efforts to maintain peace. Their ambassador remained in London from August till the January following, in his private capacity, holding frequent correspondence with our foreign minister, Lord Grenville, submitting to any condition, however humiliating, in order to procure a hearing, and not even resenting the indignity of having had two of his letters returned to him, one of them through the medium of a clerk in the Foreign Office. At length, upon the receipt of the intelligence of the execution of Louis XVI., the French ambassador received, on the 24th January, 1793, from Lord Grenville, an order of the Privy Council peremptorily requiring him to leave the kingdom in eight days.
The sole ground alleged by the British Government for this step was the execution of the French King. England,† which had 140 years before been the first to set the example to Europe of decapitating a monarch, England which, as is observed by Madame de Stael, has dethroned, banished, and executed more kings than all the rest of Europe, was suddenly seized with so great a horror for regicides, as to be unable to tolerate the presence of the French ambassador!
The war which followed is said by the sermon before me to have been in defence of the liberties of Europe. Where are they? Circumspice!—I can only say that I have sought for them from Cadiz to Moscow without having been so fortunate as to find them. When shall we be proof against the transparent appeal to our vanity involved in the “liberties-of-Europe” argument? We had not forty thousand British troops engaged on one field of battle on the Continent during the whole war. Yet we are taught to believe that the nations of Europe, numbering nearly two hundred millions, owe their liberty to our prowess. If so, no better proof could be given that they are not worthy of freedom.
But, in truth, the originators of the war never pretended that they were fighting for the liberties of the people anywhere. Their avowed object was to sustain the old governments of Europe. The advocates of the war were not the friends of popular freedom even at home. The Liberal party were ranged on the side of peace—Lansdowne, Bedford, and Lauderdale, in the Lords; and Fox, Sheridan, and Grey, in the Commons—were the strenuous opponents of the war. They were sustained out of doors by a small minority of intelligent men who saw through the arts by which the war was rendered popular. But (and it is a mournful fact) the advocates of peace were clamoured down, their persons and property left insecure, and even their families exposed to outrage at the hands of the populace. Yes, the whole truth must be told, for we require it to be known, as some safeguard against a repetition of the same scenes; the mass of the people, then wholly uneducated, were instigated to join in the cry for war against France. It is equally true, and must be remembered, that when the war had been carried on for two years only, and when its effects had been felt, in the high price of food, diminished employment, and the consequent sufferings of the working classes, crowds of people surrounded the King's carriage, as he proceeded to the Houses of Parliament, shouting, “Bread, bread! peace, peace!”
But, to revert to the question of the merits of the last French war. The assumption put forth in the sermon that we were engaged in a strictly defensive war is, I regret to say, historically untrue. If you will examine the proofs, as they exist in the unchangeable public records, you will be satisfied of this. And let us not forget that our history will ultimately be submitted to the judgment of a tribunal, over which Englishmen will exercise no influence beyond that which is derived from the truth and justice of their cause, and from whose decision there will be no appeal. I allude, of course, to the collective wisdom and moral sense of future generations of men. In the case before us, however, not only are we constrained by the evidence of facts to confess that we were engaged in an aggressive war, but the multiplied avowals and confessions of its authors and partisans themselves leave no room to doubt that they entered upon it to put down opinions by physical force, one of the worst, if not the very worst, of motives with which a people can embark in war. The question, then, is, shall we, in estimating the glory of the general who commands in such a war, take into account the antecedent merits of the war itself? The question is answered by the sermon before me, and by every other writer upon the subject, professing to be under the influence of Christian principles; they all assume, as the condition precedent, that England was engaged in a defensive war.
There are two ways of judging the merits of a soldier; the one, by regarding solely his genius as a commander, excluding all considerations of the justice of the cause for which he fights. This is the ancient mode of dealing with the subject, and is still followed by professional men, and others of easy consciences in such matters. These critics will, for example, recognise a higher title to glory, in the career of Suwarrow than in that of Kosciusko, because the former gained the greater number of important victories.
There is another and more modern school of commentators which professes to withhold its admiration from the deeds of the military hero, unless they be performed in defence of justice and humanity. With these the patriot Pole is greater than the Russian general, because his cause was just, he having been obviously engaged in a defensive contest, and contending, too, for the dearest rights of home, family, and country.
Now, the condition which I think we may fairly impose upon the latter description of judges is, that they take the needful trouble to inform themselves of the merits of the cause in hand, so as to be competent to give a conscientious judgment upon it. In the case of the Duke of Wellington, the wars which he carried on with so much ability and success on the Continent, were in their character precisely the opposite of that upon which the sermon ought, according to its own principle, to invoke the approbation of Heaven.
The Duke himself did not evidently recognise the responsibility of the commander for the moral character of his campaigns. His theory of “duty” gave him military absolution, and separated most completely the man from the soldier.
Some of the Duke's biographers have hardly done him justice, in the sense in which they have eulogised him for the strict performance of his duty. Nor have they acted with more fairness towards their countrymen, for, by implication, they would lead us to infer that it is an exception to the rule when an Englishman does his duty. In the vulgar meaning they have attached to this trait in his character, they have lowered him to the level of the humblest labourer who does his duty for weekly wages. Duty with the Duke meant something more. It was a professional principle—the military code expressed in one word. He was always subordinate to some higher authority, and acted from an impulse imparted from without; just as an army surrenders will, reason, and conscience to some one who exercises all these powers in its behalf. Sometimes it was the Queen; sometimes the public service; or the apprehension of a civil war; or a famine which changed his course, and induced him to take up a new position; but reason, or conscience, or will, seemed to have no more to do in the matter than in the manœuvres of an army. We did not know to his death what were the Duke's convictions upon Free Trade, Reform, or Catholic Emancipation. In his public capacity he never seemed to ask himself—what ought I to do? but what must I do? This principle of subordination, which is the very essence of military discipline, is at the same time the weak part and blot of the system. It deprives us of the man, and gives us instead a machine; but one requiring power of some description to move it. The best that can be said of it is, that when honestly adhered to, as in the case of the Duke, it protects us against the attempts of individual selfishness or ambition. He would never have betrayed his trust, so long as he could find a power to whom he was responsible. That was the only point upon which he could have ever felt any difficulty. Had he been, like Monk, in the command of an army in times of political confusion, he would have gone to London to discover the legal heir to his “duty,” whether it was the son of the Protector, or the remains of the Rump Parliament; but he would never have dreamed of selling himself to a Pretender, even had he been the son of a king. Should the time ever come (which Heaven forbid!) when the work which the Duke achieved needs to be repeated, it is not likely that there will be found one who will surpass him in the ability, courage, honesty, and perseverance which he brought to the accomplishment of the task. But amongst all his high merits—and they place him in dignity and moral worth immeasurably above Marlborough or even Nelson—he would have been probably the last to have claimed for himself the title of the champion of the liberties of any people. No attentive reader of his despatches will fall into any such delusion as to his own views of his mission to the Peninsula. Or if any doubt still remain, let him consult the classic pages of Napier.
Let me only refer you to the accompanying extracts from the “History of the Peninsular War”:—
“But the occult source of most of these difficulties is to be found in the inconsistent attempts of the British Cabinet to uphold national independence with internal slavery against foreign aggression with an ameliorated government. The clergy, who led the mass of the people, clung to the English, because they supported aristocracy and church domination. ∗ ∗ ∗ The English ministers hating Napoleon, not because he was the enemy of England, but because he was the champion of equality, cared not for Spain unless her people were enslaved. They were willing enough to use a liberal Cortes to defeat Napoleon, but they also desired to put down that Cortes by the aid of the clergy, and of the bigoted part of the people.”—Vol. iv., p. 259.
“It was some time before the church and aristocratic party discovered that the secret policy of England was the same as their own. It was so, however, even to the upholding of the Inquisition, which it was ridiculously asserted had become objectionable only in name.”—Vol. iv., p. 350.
I could also refer you to another instructive passage (vol. iii., p. 271), telling us, amongst other things, that the “educated classes of Spain shrunk from the British Government's known hostility to all free institutions.” But I have carried my letter already to an unreasonable length, and so I conclude.—Yours faithfully, Richard Cobden.
To the Reverend ——
[∗]“I believe every man is brave.”—Duke of Wellington, House of Lords, June 15, 1852.
[∗]England had, in 1792, 153 ships of the line, and France 86.—James's Naval History.
[†]The Marquis of Lansdowne, speaking of the probable execution of the King of France, said, “Such a King was not a fit object for punishment, and to screen him from it every nation ought to interpose its good offices; but England, above all, was bound to do so, because he had reason to believe that what had encouraged the French to bring him to trial was the precedent established by England in the unfortunate and disgraceful case of Charles I.”—Dec. 21, 1792.