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Cobden: An Appreciation I

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Source: An Appreciation by Goldwin Smith in Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. by John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers with a Preface and Appreciation by J.E. Thorold Rogers and an Appreciation by Goldwin Smith (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1908). 2 volumes in 1. Vol. 1 Free Trade and Finance.


The following paper, inserted here by kind permission of the publishers, appeared originally in Macmillan's Magazine for May, 1865 (the month after Mr. Cobden died):—

The honours paid by men of all parties to Richard Cobden at his death seem to dispose of the charges so constantly levelled against him during his life, of want of chivalry and want of patriotism. Men will honour in his tomb an opponent whom, from extreme difference of opinion, they would not—whom perhaps from the evil exigencies of party they could not—have honoured while he was alive; but they will not honour what is really sordid and mean even in the tomb. Englishmen might forgive and forget, they might even regard with gratitude, the author of patriotic, though misguided counsels, when the lips by which those counsels had been uttered had become suddenly mute: but even when touched by mortality they would not forgive or forget treason.

If "chivalry" means anything, it means the religions consecration of a man's powers to the redress of wrong. The powers consecrated in the Middle Ages were those of the soldier; the wrong redressed was the greatest of which mediæval Christendom could form a conception—the violation of pilgrims on their way to the sepulchre of Christ. In these days the powers to be consecrated are other than those of the soldier; the wrongs to be redressed are different and less romantic. And no powers ever were more thoroughly, or (as religion was at the root of his character) we may say more religiously, consecrated to the redress of wrong than those of Richard Cobden. No Sir Galahad ever sought the Holy Graal with a more disinterested and passionate ardour than he sought cheap bread for the people and social justice. No champion of Christendom ever went forth to combat giants and enchanters with more fervent faith or in a spirit of more intense self-devotion than he went forth to combat the demon of war. Free-trade and Non-intervention are less poetical than "Save the Sepulchre!" The figure of the Manchester cotton-spinner was much less picturesque than that of Tancred. The character of the Crusaders was the same.

It is a different question whether the course which he would have recommended to his country would always have been the most chivalrous. Most of us would probably think that he carried his doctrine of non-intervention too far. The world is still full of armed tyranny and wrong, which can, at present, be kept in check only by the fear of armed intervention. This he did not sufficiently see, and he naturally overrated the efficacy of commercial motives in restraining such military and territorial ambition as that of the French nation. In this he paid his tribute to the infirmity of human nature, which can seldom help treating the new truth as though it were the only truth, and pushing it to its full logical consequences before its hour. Constant collision with one extreme—the extreme of universal meddling and diplomatic wars—almost inevitably drove him into the other extreme. But there was nothing sordid or mean about the motives or the bearing of the man. In opposing wars and the policy which lead to them, he faced odium to which so kindly and genial a nature cannot have been callous, and he flung away prizes which were quite within his reach, and the desire of which probably no man who enters public life ever entirely casts out of his heart. War ministers and the advocates of a war policy are lavish enough of the blood of other men; but if is a delusion to think that the thereby display personal courage, or entitle themselves to tax with cowardice an opponent who is stemming the tide of passion on which they Boat to popularity and power. You will find a man ready to declaim in favour of a popular war who, as you may feel sure, would not face the shot, would perhaps not even face the loss of his dinner, possibly not even hot sherry and cold soup. The soldier who bravely shed his blood at Inkerman, and the statesman who endured the reproach of a "cotton-spinner" to prevent the soldier's blood from being shed, had something in common which was not shared by politicians who sat at home and made the war, much less by those who allowed themselves to be drawn into it against their convictions.

Cobden, when he denounced war, had not before his mind the uprising of a whole nation in a great moral cause. He had before his mind politicians carrying on war with hired soldiers, and money wrung from the people by the hand of power in a cause which, too often, was very far from being moral or even great.

We have said that religion lay at the root of Cobden's character. His firm belief in God was, as all who knew him intimately will agree with us in thinking, a great source of his fearlessness as a social reformer; nor, though absolutely free from any taint of sectarianism or bigotry, did he ever readily take to his heart those whom he believed to be devoid of religion. Not only was he a practical believer in God; he was a Christian in the ordinary sense of the term; and, for that matter, there was no reason why a dean should not attend his funeral, and a bishop be willing to read the service over his grave. He would no more have thought of propagating religion than he would have thought of propagating commerce by any force but that of conviction; but he had a distinct preference for Christian morality and civilization. And therefore, in the case of the war with Russia, besides his dislike of war in general, he could not fail to be specially opposed to one which was to rivet the Mahometan yoke (the foulness of which he had seen with his own eyes in his early travels) on the neck of Christian nations.

Cobden was not wanting in love of his country. He had spent his life in her service, and devoted all his faculties to improving the condition of her people. If he was wanting in professions of love towards her, it was as Cordelia was wanting in professions of love towards Lear. But he loved her in subordination to, or rather as a part of, humanity. He was an intense practical believer in the community of nations, and acted under an intense conviction that the interests, high and low, of each Community were inseparably blended, in the councils of Providence, with those of the rest. If it was of the commercial interests of nations that in public he principally and almost exclusively talked, this was chiefly because his modesty led him to confine himself to his special subject, chiefly because his modesty led him to confine himself to his special subject, and to pay an almost exaggerated deference to others upon theirs. He distinctly saw and deeply felt that commerce was the material basis on distinctly saw and deeply felt that commerce was the material basis on which Providence has ordained that a community of a higher kind should be built. And if he recognised the community of nations as above any one nation, did not the Crusaders in the same way recognise a Christendom?

The policy of charity, courtesy, mutual good-will and forbearance which he preached, was, after all, pretty nearly identical with the Christianity which England proclaims not only as her established religion, but as the palladium of her empire. For a moment, in the case of the bombardment of Canton, this policy was decided to be contrary to the national honour; but the decision was reversed in the case of Kagosima. It is a source of national weakness only if the enmity of your neighbours is a source of strength. The Free-trade treaties are fast making England a member of a great commercial confederation, the other members of which could scarcely fail to stand by us in case of an attack on the common trade.

The success, commercial and political, of the French Treaty made Cobden too blind, as we should say, to the menacing magnitude of the French armaments, and to the continued existence of the spirit of aggression which those armaments imply. He was also a little too tolerant of the military despotism of an autocrat who had embraced the doctrines of Free-trade. We have felt this ourselves as strongly as the rest of the world. But it should be remembered (especially when his conduct is compared with that of public men who pretend to be the peculiar representatives of English spirit) that, in his personal bearing towards the Emperor, he studiously maintained the reserve and the dignity of an English freeman. That he would have advised his country tamely to English freeman. That he would have advised his country tamely to allow France to commit actual injustice in Europe never was proved, though no doubt these were the questions on which his rational admirers would have most dreaded to see him tried.

If his peace and non-intervention policy was not that of a Chatham, it was at least not that of the mock-Chathams. If he had been Foreign Minister he would not have held out to Denmark expectations of armed assistance; but, on the other hand, he would not have had, when the time of need came, to put her off with sympathetic declamations. He was an "international man," to use the phrase of the French Minister, before the age of international men had fully come. If, with the morning rays of an enlarged morality shining on him he sometimes showed too little regard for the narrow patriotism which had been the most comprehensive virtue of preceding ages, this, again, was a fault in him, but it was one which the next generation will easily forgive.

The Bishop of Oxford calls Cobden "the great Sussex Englishman." The son of an English yeoman, proud of his birth, he has been borne from a most English home to a grave among the English bills. And who will say that he is not worthy of that grave?

Last modified April 10, 2014