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Cobden’s Political Thought

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Source: Introduction to 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). Vol. 1.


The time has not yet arrived for writing Cobden's life.

The great political struggles in which he engaged are still too fresh in the memory of the present generation, to admit of a faithful record of his political career, without including much which affects too closely the characters of public men still on the scene, or but recently removed from it; and of the last great achievement of his life, and his solitary official act, the Commercial Treaty with France, it is impossible yet to speak freely.

But it is on this account only the more important—and especially at a time when upon the conduct and intelligence of the Liberal party in this country it depends, whether the years before us are to bring with them a repetition of the inconsistencies and hesitations which have too often deformed and paralysed our recent course, or are to be a fruitful and brilliant period of rational and consistent progress—that the policy of which Cobden was the foremost representative, should at least be thoroughly understood and widely known.

It is therefore with a peculiar satisfaction that we hail the work before us, and we trust it may be shortly followed by a republication of his principal speeches, both in and out of Parliament, so far as these can be collected, and if possible by a selection of his letters, on the great practical questions of the day.

In bringing together, in a connected form, these political essays written on various subjects, on different occasions, and at wide intervals of time, but unsurpassed in cogency of reasoning, and in their truthful and temperate spirit, Mrs. Cobden has rendered a great service both to her husband's memory and to the rising generation of Englishmen.

Presented originally to the public in the ephemeral form of pamphlets, thrown out in sharp opposition to the prevailing passions and prejudices of the hour, and systematically depreciated as they were by the organs of public opinion which guide the majority of our upper classes, we suspect that they are well-nigh forgotten by the elder, and little known to the younger men among us. Yet do these scattered records of Mr. Cobden's thoughts contain a body of political doctrine more original, more profound, and more consistent, than is to be found in the spoken or written utterances of any other English statesman of our time, and we commend them to the earnest study and consideration of all who aspire to exert an influence on the future government of our country.

Whatever may be thought of his political character, it will be admitted that no man has made a deeper impression on the policy of this country during the last thirty years than Richard Cobden.

This will, we believe, be acknowledged by many of his countrymen, who would be slow to allow that the impression thus made had been for good, and who still regard him with open aversion or concealed suspicion, as one of the foremost and most powerful advocates of changes in our system of government, designed, as they believe and fear, to affect the security of vested interests, which they have been in the habit of identifying with the greatness and welfare of the State. But it cannot, we think, be denied even now that, in spite of the resistance of class interests, and of the avowed or tacit opposition of the great political parties, our national policy has been gravitating more and more in the direction of his views, and that, so far at least, whatever progress has been made in the national prosperity has been principally due to the steps which have been taken in fulfillment of his principles.

The false judgment so commonly passed upon this statesman is to be traced, we believe, in a great measure to that which constitutes his great and his distinguished merit, viz., his steady adherence to general principles, and his consequent freedom from class and party views, and his indifference to the popular clamour of the hour, which in turn brought him into collision with all classes and with all parties, and, on some memorable occasions, with the body of the people themselves.

It is thus that he has been constantly charged with narrowness, and with hostility to the institutions of his country, too often confounded with its conservative forces, and cherished as such by many who are entitled to our respect, as well as by the ignorant and selfish; but it will be found that the charge is usually brought on the part of some class whose special interests he denounced or thwarted, or on the part of the nation at large, when the assumed national interest has been opposed to the larger interest of humanity. He has been accused of want of patriotism and indifference to the national honour and greatness, when, on the contrary, a deeper examination of his views will show, we think, that he was one of the few leading statesmen of our time who have exhibited a real practical faith in the future of England.

The public estimate, however, of this political leader has undergone, and is undergoing, a very remarkable change; and it is in the hope of aiding in a better understanding of principles which, from their soundness and close logical coherence, appear to us to afford the only consistent and intelligible ground for the policy of the Liberal party, that the following pages are written.

Mr. Cobden's political character was the result of a rare and fortunate combination of personal qualities and of external circumstances.

Sprung from the agricultural class, and bred up (to use his own expression) “amidst the pastoral charms of Southern England,” imbued with so strong an attachment to the pursuits of his forefathers, that, as he says himself, in the volumes before us, “had we the casting of the rôle of all the actors on this world's stage, we do not think that we should suffer a cotton-mill or manufactory to have a place in it;” trained in a large commercial house in London, and subsequently conducting on his own account a print manufactory in Lancashire, Mr. Cobden possessed the peculiar advantage of a thorough acquaintance and sympathy with the three great forms of industrial life in England. Nor were the experiences of his public career less rich and varied than those of his private life.

The first great political question in which he bore a conspicuous part, the Anti-Corn-Law agitation, and his consequent connection with the powerful producing class, which, by the fortunate coincidence of interest with that of the people at large, originated and led this great and successful struggle, gave him a thorough insight into this important element of our body-politic, in all its strength and in all its weakness; his knowledge of other countries—the result of keen personal observation, and much travel both in Europe and America, his intimate relations with some of their best and most enlightened men, as well as with their leading politicians, and the moderating and restraining influences of twenty years of Parliamentary life, during which he conciliated the respect and esteem even of his strongest opponents, combined with the entire absence in his case of all sectarian influences and prejudices—gave to his opinions a comprehensive and catholic character, which is perhaps the rarest of all the attributes of English statesmanship.

Mr. Cobden entered Parliament, not, as is the fate of most of our public men, to support a party, to play, for office, or to educate himself for professional statesmanship, still less to gratify personal vanity or to acquire social importance, but as the representative of distinct principles, and of a great cause.

Mr. Cobden belonged to the school of political thinkers who believe in the perfect harmony of moral and economical laws, and that in proportion as these are recognised, understood, and obeyed by nations, will be their advance in all that constitutes civilisation.

He believed that the interests of the individual, the interests of the nation, and the interests of all nations are identical; and that these several interests are all in entire and necessary concordance with the highest interests of morality. With this belief, an economic truth acquired with him the dignity and vitality of a moral law, and, instead of remaining a barren doctrine of the intellect, became a living force, to move the hearts and consciences of men. It is to a want of a clear conception of this great harmony between the moral and economic law, or to a disbelief in its existence, that are to be traced some of the most pernicious errors of modern times, and the lamentable condition of Europe at the present moment.

We believe that the main cause of the hopeless failure of the great French Revolution, in the creation and consolidation of free institutions in Europe, was the absence, on the part of its leading spirits, of all sound knowledge of the order of facts upon which economic science rests, and the prevalence of false ideas of government, derived from classical antiquity.

Rousseau, who exercised a greater influence in bringing about the Revolution than any other man, and after him Mirabeau and Robespierre, the two great figures which represent and personify that mighty upheaval of society, were all fundamentally wrong in their conception of the right of property. This, instead of regarding as a right preceding all law, and lying at the root of all social existence, they considered simply as a creation of the law, which itself again derived its rights from a social compact, opposed in many respects to the natural rights of man. Society was thus made to rest upon the quicksand of human invention, instead of being fixed on the rock of God's providence; and law was made the source, instead of the guardian, of personal liberty and of private property.

Hence the disastrous shipwreck of a great cause, the follies and the crimes, the wild theories, the barren experiments, and the inevitable reaction. The principle invoked, the State, was stronger than those who appealed to it, and swallowed them up in a military despotism.

This false direction of ideas survived the Restoration, and when, after 1830, the intellect of France again addressed itself to social questions, it was with the same result. Saint Simon, Fourrier, Louis Blanc, and Proudhon are there to attest the deep-rooted perversion of thought which has hitherto made all free government impossible in France, and brought upon her again, for the second time, the stern hand of a military ruler, who, wiser than his uncle, while setting aside for a time other forms of liberty in France, has had the sagacity to perceive that, by entering upon even a partial and tentative course of material reform, he could evoke forces which have hitherto been strong enough to maintain him on his vantage-ground, against all the political parties opposed to him, dynastic and socialist, whose common hatred to him has been rendered impotent by the only other common bond between them, viz., their still deeper hatred of some of the most sacred rights of the human race—the rights of labour and of property. And even to this day what do we see? In spite of the terrible experience of nearly a hundred years of failure, French so-called Liberal leaders still ranged on the side of industrial monopoly and commercial privilege, and while clamouring for constitutional freedom, proving in the same breath their incapacity for using it, by denouncing that in which, at all events, the Emperor is entitled to the sympathy of the friends of progress—his commercial policy. Until the bourgeois class in Europe has learnt that no country can be free until the rights of its people are secured by free exchange, they will have to choose between the rival alternations of autocratic and socialistic misrule.

The great founder of the English school of political economy, who had witnessed himself in France the disorders which preceded the Revolution, and speculated on their causes, viewed them from another side. He instinctively perceived that, as all human society must rest upon a material foundation, it was to the laws of material progress that inquiry must be first directed, and that, before and beneath all systems of government and all schemes of public morality, there must lie the science of the “wealth of nations.” To the investigation of this science Adam smith devoted those years of patient and conscientious thought, to which we owe the treatise which has made his name immortal, and which, in spite of much that has been added and much that has been taken from it since, remains as a great storehouse of knowledge to the students of economic laws.

It is easy, however, to trace the habitual connection in the mind of smith, between the dry facts of science and the great social laws which alone give them life and meaning, and a belief in the steady natural gravitation of all the interests of our race towards order and moral progress.

The school of English economists who succeeded him appear to us to have too much lost sight of this necessary connection, and to have dwelt too exclusively on the phenomena of economic facts, as distinct and separate from their correlative moral consequences. To this cause, as well as to their partial and often inaccurate observation of those phenomena, we attribute the absence of adequate political results which has attended their teaching, the repugnance which their doctrines have too often excited in generous and ardent natures, and the consequent discredit of a science indispensable to the progress and prosperity of nations, and destined, perhaps more than any other branch of human knowledge, to reconcile the ways of God to man.

The mission of man in this world is to possess the earth and subdue it, and for this purpose to summon to his aid, and bring under his control, the external forces of nature. This task, hard and ungrateful at first, become lighter as it proceeds. Every natural force successively subdued to man's uses adds to the stock of gratuitous services which are the common possession of the race, and when the rights of property and labour are thoroughly established by universal freedom, and the services of man have thus secured their just remuneration, the inequalities which prevail in the conditions of human life, so far as they are the result of artificial, and not of natural, causes, will diminish and disappear more an more, till even the lowest classes in the social scale will be raised to a level of well-being hitherto unknown and unimagined.

The first great law of humanity is labour. “By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread.” From this there is no escape. The burden will be lightened, and reduced to a minimum, inconceivable to us at present, as the forces of nature are brought by science and industry more under the control of man; and it may be shifted, as it is, from the whole to a part of society, but the law remains.

It is this law, then, the law of labour, which lies at the root of all human life. Upon this foundation rests the whole fabric of society, religion, morals, science, art, literature — all that adorns or exalts existence. But if the law of labour is thus paramount and sovereign, it follows that its rights are sacred, and that there can be no permanent security for any society in which these are not protected. The rights of labour involve and comprehend the right of personal liberty, and the right of property. The first implies the free use of each man's powers and faculties; the second, an inalienable title to the products of his labour, in use or in exchange.

It is to the violation of the rights of labour and of property, thus identified, in all the various forms of human oppression and injustice, by force or by fraud, in defiance of law or in the name of law, that is to be traced the greatest part of the disorders and sufferings which have desolated humanity, and the unnecessary and unnatural inequalities in the condition of men.

It is to the assertion of these rights, and to the gradual ascendency of the opposing and equalising principles of justice and freedom, that the coming generations alone can look for a future which shall be better than the past.

“Il n'y a que deux moyens,” says Bastiat, “de se procurer less choses nécessaires à l'embellissement, et au perfectionnement de la vie—la production et la spoliation.” And again, “Propriété et spoliation, sœurs nées du même pére, Génie du Bien, et Génie du Mal, Salut et Fléau de la Société, Puissances qui se disputent depuis le commencement, l'empire et les destinées du monde.”

These truths are of comparatively recent acceptance even in theory among us, and in practice still are far indeed from being applied. Such, moreover, is the confusion of thought, engendered by historical association, political prejudice, and class interest, that many of the forms of spoliation are hardly recognized when disguised in the garb of a British institution, a party principle, or a vested right; in which artificial costume they still impose on the credulity of many of our countrymen.

It is true that war is generally admitted to be an evil, and slavery to be a wrong; that the Reformation has dealt a heavy blow at theocracy, and Free Trade at monopoly.

But the spirit of war is still fostered and stimulated, by false ideas of national honour, patriotism, and policy, and to the art of war we still devote our mightest efforts, and consecrate our costliest sacrifices. The grosser forms of slavery have indeed disappeared, but its taint is still to be traced in some of our institutions, and in our feeling towards subject races; while our Reformed Church, with its temporalities, and its exclusive pretensions and privileges, is still too often the enemy of the foundation of all freedom, liberty of thought.

The last, and perhaps the most insidious, of the leading forms of “spoliation,” commercial monopoly, though driven from its strongholds, and expelled from our national creed, is still regarded by many among us with secret favour, and by most of us rather as a political error than as a moral wrong.

It was to struggle with this last great evil that Cobden devoted his life, and it is with the most decisive victory ever achieved in this field of conflict that his name and fame will be always identified; but it is significant and interesting to know that, in selecting his work in life, it was to “Education,” and not to “Free Trade,” that his thoughts were first directed.

Two reasons decided him to prefer the latter as the object of his efforts:— Firstly, his conviction (referred to above) that the material prosperity of nations is the only foundation of all progress, and that if this were once secured the rest would follow. Secondly, his consciousness that no direct attempt to obtain a system of national education which deserved the name, could lead to any clear result in the life of his own generation, and that, measured with those at his command, imposing as were the forces of resistance arrayed against him on the question of Free Trade, they were less formidable than those which would be brought to bear against a measure which united in a common hostility the Established and the Dissenting Churches.

It was Cobden's fate or fortune to find himself, in taking up the cause of Free Trade, in the presence of one of the worst laws which the selfishness or folly of Governments have ever imposed on the weakness or ignorance of a people.

When the soil of a country is appropriated, the only means whereby an increasing population can limit the encroachments of the proprietors, is by working for foreign markets. Such a population has only its labour to give in exchange for its requirements, and, if this labour is constantly increasing, while the produce of the soil is stationary, more of the first will steadily and progressively be demanded, for less of the last.

This will be manifested by a fall of wages, which is, as has been well observed, the greatest of misfortunes when it is due to natural causes — the greatest of crimes when it is caused by the law.

The Corn Law was the fitting sequel to the French war. The ruling classes in England had seized on the reaction of feeling created by the excesses of the French Revolution, to conceal the meaning of that event, and to discredit the principles of popular sovereignty which it asserted. They had before them a people impoverished and degraded by the waste of blood and treasure in which years of war had involved their country; and seeing the prospect before them, which the peace had opened, of a fall in the prices of agricultural produce, under the beneficent operation of the great laws of exchange, they resorted to the device of prolonging by Act of Parliament the artificial scarcity created by the war, and of thus preserving to the landed interest the profits which had been gained at the expense of the nation.

It is thus that, as the forces of progress are invariably found to act and reach on each other, the forces of resistance and of evil will ever be side by side, and that as protection, which means the isolation of nations, tends both by its direct and indirect effects to war, so war again engenders and perpetuates the spirit of protection. Free Trade, or as Cobden called it, the International Law of the Almighty, which means the interdependence of nations, must bring with it the surest guarantee of peace, and peace inevitably leads to freer and freer commercial intercourse; and therefore, while there is no sadder page in the modern history of England than that which records the adoption of this law by the British Parliament, there is, to our minds, none more bright with the promise of future good than that on which was written, after thirty years of unjust and unnecessary suffering, its unconditional repeal.

But as the intellect and conscience of the country had failed so long to recognize the widespread evils of this pernicious law, and the fatal principles which lay at its roots, so did they now most dimly and imperfectly apprehend the scope and consequences of its abolition.

It was called the repeal of a law; admitted to be the removal of an intolerable wrong; but we doubt whether in this country, except by a few gifted and far-seeing leaders of this great campaign, it was foreseen that it was an act which involved, in its certain results, a reversal of the whole policy of England.

This was, however, clear enough to enlightened observers in other countries. By one of those rare coincidents which sometimes exercise so powerful an influence of human affairs, it happened, that while Cobden in England was bringing to bear on the great practical questions of his time and country the principles of high morality and sound economy which had been hitherto too little considered in connection with each other, Frederic Bastiat was conceiving and maturing in France the system of political philosophy which has since been given to the world, and which still remains the best and most complete exposition of the views of which Cobden was the great representative.

It appears to us that these two men were necessary to each other. Without Cobden, Bastiat would have lost the powerful stimulant of practical example, and the wide range of facts which the movement in England supplied, and from which he drew much of his inspiration. Without Bastiat, Cobden's policy would not have been elaborated into a system, and, beyond his own immediate coadjutors and disciples, would probably have been most imperfectly understood on the Continent of Europe.

More than this, who can say what may not have been the effect on the minds of both these men, of the interchange of thoughts and opinions which freely passed between them?

In his brilliant history of the Anti-Corn-Law Leaugue, “Cobden et la Ligue,” Bastiat thus describes the movement of which England was the theatre during that memorable struggle:—

“I have endeavoured to state with all exactness the question which is being agitated in England. I have described the field of battle, the greatness of the interests which are there being discussed, the opposing forces, and the consequences of victory. I have shown, I believe, that though the heat of contest may seem to be concentrated on questions of taxation, of custom-houses, of cereals, of sugar, it is, in point of fact, a question between monopoly and liberty, aristocracy and democracy — a question of equality or inequality in the distribution of the general well-being. The question at issue is to know whether legislative power and political influence shall remain in the hands of the men of rapine, or in those of the men of toil; that is, whether they shall continue to embroil the world in troubles and deeds of violence, or sow the seeds of concord, of union, of justice, and of peace.

“What would be the thought of the historian who could believe that armed Europe, at the beginning of this century, performed, under the leadership of the most able generals, so many feats of strategy for the sole purpose of determining who should possess the narrow fields that were the scenes of the battles of Austerlitz or of Wagram? The fate of dynasties and empires depend on those struggles. But the triumphs of force may be ephemeral; it is not so with the triumphs of opinion. And when we see the whole of a great people, whose influence on the world is undoubted, impregnate itself with the doctrines of justice and truth; when we see it repel the false ideas of supremacy which have so long rendered it dangerous to nations; when we see it ready to seize the political ascendant from the hands of a greedy and turbulent oligarchy—let us beware of believing, even when its first efforts seem to bear upon economic questions, that greater and nobler interests are not engaged in the struggle. For if, in the midst of many lessons of iniquity, many instances of national perversity, England, this imperceptible point of our globe, has seen so many great and useful ideas take root upon her soil —if she was the cradle of the press, of trial by jury, of a representative system, of the abolition of slavery, in spite of the opposition of a powerful and pitiless oligarchy— what may not the world expect from this same England when all her moral, social, and political power shall have passed, by a slow and difficult revolution, into the hands of democracy— a revolution peacefully accomplished in the minds of men under the leadership of an association which embraces in its bosom so many men whose high intellectual power and unblemished character shed so much glory on their country, and on the century in which they live? Such a revolution is no simple event, no accident, no catastrophe due to an irresistible but evanescent enthusiasm. It is, if I may use the expression, a slow social cataclysm, changing all the conditions of life and of society, the sphere in which it lives and breathes. It is justice possessing herself of power; good sense of authority. It is the general weal, the weal of the people, of the masses, of the small and of the great, of the strong and of the weak, becoming the law of political action. It is the disappearance behind the scene of privilege, abuse, and caste-feeling, not by a palace-revolution or a street-rising, but by the progressive and general appreciation of the rights and duties of man. In a word, it is the triumph of human liberty; it is the death of monopoly, that Proteus of a thousand forms, now conqueror, now slave-owner; at one time lover of theocracy and feudalism, at another time assuming an industrial, a commercial, a financial, and even a philanthropic shape. Whatever disguise it might borrow, it could no longer bear the eye of public opinion, which has learned to detect it under the scarlet uniform or under the black gown, under the planter's jacket and the noble peer's embroidered robe. Liberty for all! for everyman a just and natural remuneration for his labour! for every man a just and natural avenue to equality in proportion to his energy, his intelligence, his prudence, and his morality! Free Trade with all the world! Peace with all the world! No more subjugation of new colonies, no more army, no more navy, than is necessary for the maintenance of national independence! A radical distinction between that which is and that which is not the mission of government and law; political association reduced to guarantee each man his liberty and safety against all unjust aggressions, whether from without or from within; equal taxation, for the purpose of properly paying the men charged with this mission, and not to serve as a mask under the name of outlets for trade (débouchés), for outward usurpation, and, under the name of protection, for the mutual robbery of classes. Such is the real issue in England, though the field of battle may be confined to a custom-house question. But this question involves slavery in its modern form; for as Mr.Gibson, a member of the League, has said in Parliament, ‘To get possession of men that we may make them work for our own profit, or to take possession of the fruits of their labour, is equally and always slavery; there is no difference but in the degree.’”

This passage, all due allowance made for the tendency to brilliant generalisation which Bastiat shared with so many of his gifted countrymen, remains on the whole a most powerful, condensed, and accurate analysis of the great principles involved in the political conflict then passing in England, and is a testimony to the rare insight and sagacity of the writer. It is affords a striking illustration of the power which a clear and firm grasp of principles gives to the political student, in guiding his speculations on the most complicated problems which society presents.

The system of which the Corn Laws were the corner-stone, traced to its source, rested on the principle of spoliation, and on the foundation of force.

That which was inaugurated by the overthrow of that law, rested on the principle of freedom, and on the foundation of justice.

Monopoly of trade, involving, as it must, the violation of rights of property and of labour, both in the internal and external relations of a State, and implying, when carried to its logical consequences, national isolation, contains within itself the germs of inevitable stagnation and decay. To avoid these results, it is necessary that a Government which maintains it should resort to all the expedients of force and fraud — to conquest, colonial aggrandisement, maritime supremacy, foreign alliances, reciprocity treaties, and communism in the shape of poor-laws — and should perpetually appeal to the worst and most contemptible passions of its people, its national pride, to false patriotism, to jealousy, to fear and to selfishness, in order to keep alive its prestige and to conceal its rottenness.

We are far from imputing the marvellous skill which the ruling classes in England displayed in the use of these expedients to a conscious and deliberate policy. We know that good and able men, and an honest though misguided patriotism, have been too often the blind instruments of the retributive justice which always avenges the violation of moral principles; but there was a point beyond which even these expedients would not suffice to arrest the national decay, and with a debt of £800,000,000, an impoverished starving people, the universal distrust, and the avowed or concealed hostility of foreign nations, who had imitated our policy too closely, while growing communities of our own blood, with boundless material resources and free institutions, were outstripping us in the race of progress, and making the future competition of force impossible, a state of things had been engendered which called for prompt and vigorous remedy.

To Cobden, and his colleagues of the League, belongs the merit of having traced the disease to its source, of having stayed the progress of the poison which was slowly, but surely, undermining our national greatness, and of changing the current of English policy.

Mr. Bright has recently told us the occasion, and the manner, of Cobden's invitation to him to join him in this beneficent work.

At a moment of supreme domestic calamity, Cobden called on him and said, “Do not allow this grief, great as it is, to weigh you down too much. There are at this moment, in thousands of homes of this country, wives and children who are dying in hunger, of hunger made by the laws; if you will come along with me, we will never rest until we have got rid of the Corn Laws.” The appeal was not made in vain, and we know with what results.

But the repeal of the Corn Laws, the false idea of isolated progress was for ever dispelled, our foreign trade became a condition of our existence, and the great law of international co-operation assumed its rightful place as the animating principle of our future course.

But though the edifice of protection was shaken at the base, and the fabric irrevocally doomed to destruction, the work was only begun: the ideas which the system had created had taken too deep root in the minds of the governing classes, and the forces of reaction were still too powerful to allow of speedy or logical progress.

The gradual breaking-up of the protective system after the repeal of the Corn Laws was a work which must in any case have proceeded, under the pressure of the irresistible force of circumstances; but we think that justice has never been done to the Government of Lord John Russell, and his colleagues Lord Grey and Mr.Labouchere, in this respect.

The equalisation of the Sugar Duties, the repeal of the Navigation Laws, the reform of our “Colonial System,” were all accomplished by this administration, and few indeed have been the Governments of England which can point to such substantial services as these in the cause of progress. This course of useful domestic reform was, however, rudely interrupted by one of those events which ought to teach us the hopelessness of all permanent progress by isolated action, and the absolute necessity of always considering our position as a member of the comity of nations. The Crimean War brought once more into life and activity all the elements of the national character, the most opposed to the silent and beneficent forces of moral and material progress, fatally arrested the agencies of peace which the Anti-Corn-League had set in motion, and has gone far to deprive us of the fruits of the great reforms which those agencies had affected. In looking back, it is impossible not to feel how different might have been our recent history, but for the mysterious dispensation, under which one great Minister died too soon, while another ruled too long, and which removed from us, at a time when his influence was too much needed, the wise Prince who had, we believe, learned to value Cobden, as Cobden had learned, we know, to respect and appreciate him.

We all remember the long parliamentary duel between Peel and Cobden, by which the great struggle of the two contending principles of privilege and freedom was brought to a final issue; the impressive advocacy and the imposing fallacies of the powerful Minister; “the unadorned eloquence” and the pitiless logic of the tribune of the people; and some of us remember how Cobden, as he watched night after night his great antagonist, writhing under his unanswerable arguments, saw by the workings of his face, long before his public avowal, that reason and conscience had done their work, and that the victory was won.

But there was a moment when, unnerved by Drummond's tragic death, and stung by the intention which he attributed to Cobden of wishing to fasten upon him individually the responsibility of further resistance, he referred to some expressions in speeches at conferences of the League in a way which made a deep impression at the time, and which Cobden could not easily forget. He lived, indeed, to make a full reparation, by the generous tribute which he paid to Cobden's services, in his memorable speech on quitting office for ever, in words which have often been repeated, and which it is well again to repeat—

“I said before, and I said truly, that, in proposing our measures of commercial policy, I had no wish to deprive others of the credit justly due to them. I must say with reference to honourable gentlemen opposite, as I say with reference to ourselves, that neither of us is the party which is justly entitled to the credit of them. There has been a combination of parties, generally opposed to each other, and that combination, and the influence of Government, have led to their ultimate success; but the name which ought to be associated with the success of those measures is not the name of the noble lord, the organ of the party of which he is the leader, nor is it mine. The name which ought to be, and will be, associated with the success of those measures, is the name of one who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, and with untiring energy, made appeals to our reason, and has enforced those appeals with an eloquence the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned — the name which ought to be chiefly associated with the success of those measures is the name of Richard Cobden.”

It was, however, we believe, the fact that, in spite of this public testimony, no private intercourse took place at that time between them, and the Peel retired from office, with the execration of his party, and the gratitude of his country, and Cobden entered on his international work, in mutual silence.

But later, when Cobden had returned to the House of Commons, and was standing one day behind the Speaker's chair, Peel rose from his seat, and came towards him, and said to him, holding out his hand, “Mr.Cobden, the time has come, I think, for you and me to be friends.”

And still later, amidst the throng of anxious inquirers, who, in those long days of June, besieged Whitehall, and lingered round the doors of the dying statesman, there was no sincerer sorrower than the leader of the League.

The Royal Commission which, under Prince Albert's auspices, organised the first great Exhibition, had brought together at last, in a common and international work, the three men who seem to us to have been eminently designed to co-operate for the public good, and we cannot doubt that, if the lives of Prince and Minister had been spared a few years longer, and Peel had returned to office in 1852, he would have received the cordial support of Cobden, either in or out of office. But this was not to be; and in 1846, on the occasion of the repeal, to make Cobden Minister would have been an act of political justice and wisdom for which the times were not ripe, while to accept the subordinate office which was offered him, from men who had so recently, and so reluctantly, espoused his views on Free Trade, and who so imperfectly apprehended or accepted its ulterior consequences, would have fatally compromised his future usefulness.

He knew that there were several necessary measures which the general intelligence of the Liberal party would immediately force upon the Parliament, and his work at this moment lay in another direction. He had been the chief instrument in giving the death-blow to a mighty monopoly, in redressing a grievous wrong, and in giving food to suffering millions at home. His services as an Englishman being thus far accomplished, he entered upon his mission as an “international man.”

He knew, and had measured accurately, the obstacles presented by the laws of other countries, often the too faithful reflection of our own, to the fulfillment of the grand aim of his life, the binding together of the nations of the earth by the material bonds which are the necessary and only preparation for their moral union. These laws has raised around us innumerable barriers to intercourse, and as many stumbling-blocks in the way of peace.

In a tour through Europe, which often resembled a triumphal progress, he was everywhere received with interest and attention; but the sudden recantation of a policy, bound up with all the traditions of England, was open to too much suspicion to inspire confidence, and he was obliged to be content with sowing the seeds of much which has since borne fruit, and with inspiring new zeal and hope in the minds of the good and enlightened men who, in each center which he visited, were labouring in the cause.

No stronger proof can be afforded of the fundamental misconception of Cobden's political character which had prevailed in England than the judgments and criticisms which it was the custom to pass upon him with reference to the class of questions to which he addressed himself on his return to public life at home.

It seems to have been expected that he would exclusively devoted himself to commercial questions, and when it was found that he proceeded to attack systematically our foreign policy, our system of government in India, our national expenditure, our military and naval administration, and our maritime laws, he was accused of going beyond his province, and discredited as an enthusiast incapable of dealing with the great mysteries of statecraft.

Those who used this language either knew too well, or not at all, that Cobden aimed at something very different and very much deeper than mere commercial reforms.

In each and all of these he took, as was natural, a sincere and consistent interest, but he knew, unless aided and consolidated by collateral measures, that incalculable as would be the results to the wealth and prosperity of the country, they would not suffice to raise the lower classes of this country from their condition of moral and material degradation, and thus to rescue England from the reproach of failure in the highest ends of civilisation, and to assure for her a permanent place in the front rank of nations.

It was, therefore, that, instead of entangling himself in the snares of office, and devoting his time to the details of practical legislation, he undertook the harder and more ungrateful, but far nobler office, of endeavouring to open the eyes of his countrymen to the necessity under which they lay of preparing for fundamental changes in many of the essential principles upon which our national policy had previously been conducted, in its three great divisions— Foreign, Colonial, and Domestic.

Cobden saw clearly that, unless our system of government, in all its branches, were adapted to the altered conditions of our national existence, not only would our commercial reforms be shorn of their most valuable and complete results in the elevation of the masses of the people, but that we should also incur the risk of very serious dangers. Nothing is so fatal to success in the life of individuals or of nations as a confusion of principles in action.

Under the system of monopoly, it was logical enough to keep alive the chimæra of the balance of power, to seek, in foreign alliances and artificial combinations of force, the security which we could not hope to derive from legitimate and natural causes. In the government of our foreign possessions, it was logical to annex provinces and extend our empire, and by the display of force and the arts of diplomacy to coerce and despoil; and for both these purposes, it was necessary to maintain costly and imposing forces by sea and land, and to cast on the people the burden of the proportionate taxation.

By means such as these we might have prolonged, for two or three generations, a false and hollow supremacy, and warded off for a while the inevitable doom which awaits all false principles.

But with a policy of free exchange, these things are not only inconsistent, they are dangerous.

They are inconsistent, because a policy of Free Trade rests on the principle that the interests of all nations lie in union and not in opposition; that co-operation and not competition, international interdependence and not national independence, are the highest end and object of civilisation, and that, therefore, peace, and not war, is the natural and normal condition of civilized communities in their relation to each other.

They are dangerous, because a country which is unable to feed its own population without its foreign trade, and of whose prosperity, and even existence, peace is thus a necessary condition, cannot afford, without tremendous risks, to encounter the hazards of war with powerful enemies. If such a country trusts to the law of force, by that law will it be judged, and the result must by crushing failure, disaster, and ultimate defeat. There were those who clearly foresaw and apprehended this, and deprecated the repeal of the Corn Law accordingly, but who did not perceive that the alternative was an inadequate supply of food for a third our population.

From this point of view, the “balance of power” can only be sought in the free development of the natural forces, whether of morality, intelligence, or material wealth, residing in the different countries of the earth, and the balance will always be held (to use the expression of William III., in his address to parliament, quoted by Mr.Cobden in his paper on “Russia”), so far as any one State can pretend to do so, by the country which, in proportion to its powers, has economised its material resources to the highest point, and acquired the highest degree of moral ascendancy by an honest and consistent allegiance to the laws of morality in its domestic policy and in its foreign relations.

The acquisition of colonies and territories, formerly required to afford new fields for monopoly, and defended on the plea that outlets were necessary for our trade, while our ports were closed to our nearest and richest neighbours, appeared in its true light as a waste of national influence, and a costly and useless perversion of national wealth, when all the countries of the earth became our customers, and England the metropolitan entrepôt of the world.

Large standing armies and navies, with their necessary accompaniment of heavy, and because heavy, unequal, and indirect taxation, are only rational in countries which are constantly liable to war, and cannot therefore be equally required under a system which relies on moral influence and on international justice, as under one which depends on force and monopoly.

To summon into existence a principle, which in all human relations shall assert the right of property, in mind and in matter, in thought and in labour, and to secure this right on its true foundation— the universal rule of justice and freedom— is to evoke a force which is destined to root up and destroy the seeds of discord and division among men; to bind up the nations of the earth in a vast federation of interests; and to bring the disorders of conflicting passions of society under the domain of law.

To promote all the agencies through which this force can act, and to repress all those which oppose its progress and neutralise its operation, and for this purpose to analyse and expose to view these several agencies, both in their causes and in their effects eternally acting and reacting on each other, was the task which Cobden set himself to accomplish.

It was inevitable, with these objects in view, that Cobden was often obliged to raise discussion upon questions which, to ordinary minds, appear somewhat chimerical and to propose measures which were in the nature of things premature; that he should give to many the impression of wasting his strength on matters which could not be brought to an immediate practical issue, and in the agitation of which he could not hope for direct success.

It will be found, however, that although there often existed no possibility of realising or applying his projects at the time of their enunciation, these were always themselves of an essentially practical character, and inseparably connected with each other; and that, although presented as occasion served, from time to time, and as the nature of his mission required, in a fragmentary and separate form, they each and all formed the component parts of a policy coherent and complete, and destined, we trust, to a gradual but ultimate fulfilment.

In characterising this policy as complete, one exception must be made.

There was one branch of the national economy on which Cobden's views were not, at least, in his earlier years, in accordance with what appears to us sound scientific doctrine. We refer to the laws for the regulation of a paper currency.

In his evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons on Banks of Issue, 1840, he virtually adheres to the main principle of the Bank Act of 1844, and advocates the limitation of all paper issues unrepresented by a corresponding amount of gold to a fixed amount issuable on securities. This view arises, we think, from our imperfect apprehension of the nature and functions of credit, and of the law of value. We cannot but think, therefore, that if Cobden retained it in his later years it must be attributed to the absorbing character of his practical labours, which precluded the possibility of a deeper and more scientific investigation of a subject confessedly among the most complex problems in the range of economic speculation.

The Programme which Cobden appears to have set before him in the construction of a policy embraced the following objects:—

  • 1. Complete freedom of trade throughout the British Empire with all the world, exclusive for the present (as a practical necessity) of restrictions indispensably requisite for fiscal purposes.
  • 2. The final and unqualified abandonment of a policy of conquest and territorial aggrandisement in every quarter of the world.
  • 3. The adoption of the general principles of non-intervention and arbitration in our foreign policy, publicity in all the transactions of diplomacy, and the renunciation of all ideas of national preponderance and supremacy.
  • 4. The reduction of military and naval forces by international cooperation.
  • 5. A large reduction of taxation.
  • 6. A reform in the laws affecting land.
  • 7. Freedom of the press from all taxes, happily stigmatized by Mr. Milner Gibson as taxes on knowledge.
  • 8. A reform of maritime law.

We do not include in this programme the two great measures of National Education and Parliamentary Reform because, although essential to the progress and security of government, and as much of course enlisting Cobden's sympathy, they are, after all, the means and not the end of good government; and we are disposed to think that he felt that his peculiar powers could be more usefully devoted to the assertion of the principles on which governments should be conducted than to the construction of the machinery out of which they should be elaborated. We will endeavour to give briefly an outline of what appear to have been Cobden's views on the leading divisions of national policy which the foregoing programme was designed to affect. We have said that the central idea of the national policy represented by Cobden was “Free Exchange” in the most comprehensive meaning of that term as the necessary complement of personal freedom, and the full assertion of the rights of property and labour. The realisation of this idea logically involves all the consequences which Cobden aimed at promoting by direct or indirect efforts.

Foreign Policy.— In the field of foreign policy these consequences were immediate and obvious. The principles of foreign policy under a system of monopoly is national independence — in other words, “isolation;” under that of free exchange it is international interdependence. We have already observed upon the bearing of this latter principle on the doctrine of the balance of power, and pointed out the fundamental difference between a policy which proceeds on principles of international morality, and appeals to the common interests of all nations of the earth, and one which rests on ideas of national supremacy and rivalry. But in the practical application of the Free Trade foreign policy, there has been so much misunderstanding of Cobden's views, and, as we think, so much confusion of thought even among advanced Liberals that a few further remarks may be useful. This policy is ordinarily characterised by the name of non-intervention. In some respects this designation has been an unfortunate one. It has given colour to the idea that what was desired was a blind and selfish indifference to the affairs of other countries, and a sort of moral isolation, as foreign to the principle of international interdependence as it is impossible in connection with increased material intercourse.

Cobden never, so far as we are aware, advanced or held the opinion that wars other than those undertaken for self-defence were in all cases wrong or inexpedient.

The question, as we apprehend it, was with him one of relative duties. It is clear that the duty and wisdom of entering upon a war, even in defence of the most righteous cause, must be measured by our knowledge and by our power; but, even where our knowledge is complete and our power sufficient, it is necessary that, in undertaking such a war, we should be satisfied that, in doing so, we are not neglecting and putting it out of our reach, to fulfil more sacred and more imperative duties.

The cases are rare in the quarrels of other nations, still rarer in their internal dissensions, in which our knowledge of their causes and conditions, and our power of enforcing the right, and assuring its success, in any degree justifies us in armed interference—the last resort in the failure of human justice.

But even if these difficult conditions of our justification in such a war were satisfied, the cases must be rare indeed in which, with a population of which so large a part is barely receiving the means of decent existence, and another part is supported by public charity at the expense of the rest, and at a charge of nearly £10,000,000 per annum, this country would be justified in imposing on our labouring classes (on whom, be it remembered, the burden must chiefly fall) the cost of obtaining for another people a degree of freedom or a measure of justice which they have so imperfectly secured for themselves.

Such a course is certainly not defensible unless the people have a far larger share in the government of their country than they possessed during Cobden's life in England.

When we add to these considerations the singular inaptitude of the governing classes of this country to comprehend foreign affairs, the extraordinary errors which are usually to be observed in their judgments, and opinions on foreign questions, and the dangerous liability to abuse in the hands of any government, of the doctrine of “Blood and Iron,” even if it be sometimes invoked in a just cause, we shall, we think (without asserting that it must be inflexibly enforced), acknowledge the sober wisdom of Cobden's opinion, that, for all practical purposes, at least for this generation, the principle of non-intervention should be made, as far as general principles can be applied to such questions, the rule of our foreign policy.

Let those who sneer at what they consider a sordid and ungenerous view, reflect on the history of the past, and ask themselves what is to be the hope of humanity if the motives which have hitherto regulated the policy of our country are in future to determine the intercourse of nations.

Let them look back upon the great French war, not as it is interpreted by Cobden in his most instructive paper in the work before us, but read by the light of those teachers of history who see in it a proud record of England's glory and power in vindicating the liberties of mankind, and satisfy their conscience, if they can, of the righteousness of a cause which required the aid of Holy Alliances, the legions of despots, and a campaign which terminated in the Congress of Vienna, and which ended in the suffocation of popular rights for half a century, the enactment of the English Corn Law and all that it represents, and a condition of Europe which even now almost precludes the hope of real civilisation.

Colonial Policy.—There is no branch of the national economy in which the neglect of Cobden's principles has led to more glaring and lamentable results than in that between the mother country and what are called its ‘foreign possessions.” The inability even of the Government which was borne to power on the shoulders of the AntiCorn-Law League to apprehend the scope and importance of Free Trade is in no direction more strikingly manifested than in the colonial policy.

Would it not have been possible, when the right of self-government was conferred upon our colonial possessions, to have stipulated, as a necessary condition, and as a great and fundamental rule of imperial policy, the complete absence of protection throughout the dominions of the Crown?

Instead of this, the most confused idea prevailed, and still prevails, as to the limits of colonial self-government in adopting a commercial policy, opposed to the principles and interests of the mother country.

The colonies have been allowed to impose protective duties on British manufactures, and of those of foreign countries; but they are not allowed to discriminate between the two. They are allowed to protect: would they be allowed to prohibit? for it must be remembered that protection, so far as it restricts a trade, is nothing more nor less than prohibition to that extent; and if not to prohibit, where is the line to be drawn, at duties at 20, or 30, or 50, or 100 per cent.?

Again, the colonies are allowed to tax and restrict our trade, but are compelled to give perfect freedom to our ships, both in their foreign and coasting trades, and then, as if to destroy and efface all trace and remnant of principle in our policy, they are compelled to admit foreign ships in their foreign trade, but allowed to exclude them from their coasting trade (thus violating the rule of equality between British and foreign trade laid down with respect to goods), but are not allowed to admit them to that trade on less favourable terms than British ships: in other words, they are allowed to inflict the greater, but not the less, injustice!

Can any conceivable confusion be more hopelessly confounded?

Does self-government apply to trade and not to shipping? Does it apply to a coast trade and not to a foreign trade? And is it not out of place to talk of self-government at all, as a principle, when every Colonial Act must be sanctioned by the Crown before it becomes law?

The truth is that we have here another instance of the evil effects of a displacement or dislocation of responsibility.

It is clear that the right of absolute self-government involves the corresponding duty of self-support and self-defence; and as the colonies are far from having undertaken the latter, it is surely not too much to call them to admit such a degree of interference with their self-government as imperial interests require.

It is estimated that the military and naval expenses borne for the colonies by the mother country amount to £6,000,000 a year—more than the revenue derived from our sugar duties! If such sacrifices as these are imposed on the British taxpayer, has he not a right to be allowed to trade on equal terms with his colonial fellow-subjects? Cobden never lost an opportunity of protesting against this last misappropriation of the money of the old country, and of exposing the secret connection of this feature in our policy, which the perpetuation of pretexts for increased armaments.

But to return to our commercial policy. Has a colonial Minister ever asked himself what is the difference between entering into a compact with a foreign Government for the regulation of international trade, and entering into a similar compact with a colonial government? Does the fact that the first would probably be recorded in a treaty and the second in an Act of Parliament affect the essence of the agreement, and render the one a legitimate and the other an illegitimate form of international action? If so, it would be better that our colonies should become in reality, as well as in name, “foreign possessions,” so that we might than be allowed to treat with them.

It is painful to think of the contrast between our present position and prospects as a nation, and that which it might have presented, had the foundations of our colonial empire been laid broad and deep in commercial freedom. Is it yet too late? Is no effort yet possible towards such a consummation?

Eastern Policy.—The British rule in India was to Cobden a subject of the deepest anxiety and apprehension. His paper in the present volumes entitled, “How Wars are got up in India,” is an honest and indignant criticism upon an episode in our Indian history which has only too many parallels, and gives expression to one of his strongest convictions, viz., the retribution which one day awaits the lust of power and of territorial aggrandizement, and the utter disregard of morality so often exhibited in our dealings with the races of this great dependency. But in our Eastern policy much progress has been made since Cobden's time, and we have seen, we trust, the dawn of a better day in the administration of Lord Lawrence in India, and in the policy of Sir F.Bruce at Pekin.

Reduction of Military and Naval Expenditure.—The changes advocated by Cobden in our foreign and colonial policy necessarily involved a large reduction in our military and naval establishments, and to this object his most strenuous efforts were constantly directed; but here the difficulties which he had to encounter were enormous, and the Crimean War and its results throughout Europe have rendered all attempts at reform in this branch of our national economy hitherto unavailing.

In attacking our “Services” he not only had to content against powerful interests connected with almost all the families of the upper and middle classes of the country, but also against many honest, though mistaken, opinions, as to the causes of national greatness and the sources of our power. It was the widespread prevalence of such opinions, combined with the selfish influence of the worst element in British commerce, which led, on the occasion of the Chinese War in 1857, to the rejection of Cobden by the West Riding, and of Bright and Gibson by Manchester. The class of ideas symbolised by the “British Lion,” the “Sceptre of Britannia,” and the “Civis Romanus,” irrational and vulgar as they are, have nevertheless a side which is not altogether ignoble, and are of a nature which it requires more than one generation to eradicate.

Cobden approached this question of reduction by two different roads. He endeavoured to bring to bear upon it international action, by arrangements for a general limitation of armaments, in which, as regards France, there appeared more than once some possibility of success, and in which he was cordially supported by Bastiat in the years succeeding the repeal of the Corn Laws; he also sought, be every means in his power, to urge it on his countrymen, by appeals to their good sense and self-respect. He exposed, firstly, our policy; and secondly, our administration; and showed, with irresistible arguments, that, while the one was unsound, the other was extravagant; and that thus the British people were condemned, not only to provide for what was useless and even dangerous, but at the same time to pay an excessive price for it.

He tells us in his article on Russia, vol. i. p. 309—

“If that which constitutes cowardice in individuals, viz., the taking excessive precautions against danger, merits the same designation when practised by communities, then England certainly must rank as the greatest poltroon among nations.”

It is incontestable that the extent of our precautions against danger should be proportioned to the degree of that danger, and it cannot, we think, be denied, even those who are the most disposed to connect the greatness and security of England with the constant display of physical force, that as our liability to war has diminished, our preparations for it should also diminish; and that it is as irrational to devote to our “Services” in a period of “Free Trade,” colonial self-government, and non-intervention, the sums which were wrung from our industry in an epoch of monopoly, of colonial servitude, and of a “spirited foreign policy,” as it would be to pay the same insurance on a healthy as on a diseased life.

For what are the causes (under here own control) which render a country liable to war?

They may, for present purposes, be classed under the following heads:—

  • 1. The disposition to engage in wars of conquest or aggression.
  • 2. The necessity of maintaining, for the purpose of repressing liberty at home, large standing armies, which a Government may be compelled to employ in foreign wars, either to gratify the military spirit engendered by the existence of a powerful service, or to divert public attention from domestic reforms.
  • 3. The habitual violation of the rights of labour and property in international relations, by prohibitive and protective laws of trade.
  • 4. The policy of providing outlets for trade, and of introducing what are called the agencies of civilisation, by means of consuls and missionaries, supported by gunboats and breech-loaders.
  • 5. The pretension of holding the balance of power, and of interfering, with this object, in the affairs of other nations, with its result, the theory of armed diplomacy, which aims, by a display of force, at securing for a country what is assumed to be its due influence in foreign affairs.

All these motives would be absolutely removed under a system of government such as that which Cobden advocated, and even now, they are, we believe, very generally discredited, with the exception, perhaps, of the last, which must, however, be so cut down and modified in order to be a pretext for military armaments, as to lose its general character, and to require re-statement. The doctrine of the “balance of power” is, we hope, consigned to the limbo of exploded fallacies, with the “balance of trade,” and we refer any remaining believers in the balancing system to the history and analysis of this phenomenon, in the essay on Russia in the work before us, as we think it cannot fail to dispel any lingering faith in this delusion.

With the rejection of the doctrines of the “balance of power,” a fruitful source of dangerous meddling in the affairs of foreign countries has been cut away. There only remains, therefore, the limited form of armed interference in foreign affairs to which we have already adverted, and which it is still thought by many among us, and even by a large section of the Liberal party we should be prepared to exert in certain events, and for which, if the principle be admitted, some allowance must be made in estimating the extent of our military and naval requirements.

We refer to the supposed duty of England to resort to war in possible cases for the purpose of defending the principles of free government or international law, or of protecting a foreign country from wanton or unjust aggression. On this subject we have already stated what we believe to have been Cobden's view; but, whatever margin may be left for this consideration, it must be admitted by candid reasoners, that the liability of the country to war under a policy such as that of which the general outlines have been traced, would be reduced within narrow proportions.

Cobden was often blamed for not devoting more time and labour to the task of minute resistance to the “Estimates” in the House of Commons. This was the result of his perfect conviction, after years of experience and observation, that such a course was absolutely useless, and that no private member, however able or courageous, could cope in detail with the resources at the disposal of Government in evading exposure and resisting reductions. He therefore always insisted that the only course was to strike at the root of the evil, by diminishing the revenue and the expenditure in the gross.

Taxation.—This brings us to our next topic, which is inextricably bound up with the last, viz., the reduction of the national expenditure, and the consequent diminution of taxation, objects the importance of which is becoming yearly more vital. Cobden knew that no material reform in our financial system could be effected (for all that has been hitherto done has been to shift the burden, and not to diminish it) until our external policy was changed, and hence his incessant efforts in this direction; but he also knew that the surest method of accomplishing the latter object was to diminish the resources at the disposal of Government for military and naval purposes.

The first object in financial reform was, therefore, in Cobden's opinion, the gradual remission of indirect taxation.

In a letter to the “Liverpool Association” he made use of the remarkable expression that he considered them to be the only body of men in the country who appeared to have any faith in the future of humanity.

His objects were threefold, and they are to our mind conclusive:—

  • 1.“1. The dangerous facilities which they afford for extravagant and excessive expenditure, by reason of their imperceptibility in collection, and of the consequent readiness of the people to submit to them, and also of the impossibility of insuring a close and honest adaptation of the revenue to the expenditure.
  • 2.“2. Their interference with the great law of free exchange, one of the rights of property, and (so far as customs duties are concerned) the violation of international equity which they involve; for it is obvious that the conditions of international trade are essentially affected by taxes on imports and exports, and it is impossible to apportion them so as to insure that each country shall pay neither more nor less than its own due share.
  • 3.“3. The enhancement of the cost of the taxed article to the consumer, over and above the amount of the tax.”

The root of the evil may again be traced to the infringement in the case of indirect taxes, of the great law of “free exchange of services, freely debated.” A tax is nothing more than a service contributed to the State by the people, in return for a corresponding service rendered to the people by the State. The great object, therefore, in imposing a tax should be to connect it as closely as possible with the service for which it is required, and to facilitate as far as possible a close comparison between the two. The superiority of a direct tax, like the income-tax and the poor-rate, over taxes on consumption and on trade, from this point of view, is apparent; but such is the distorted view of large classes in the country on this subject, that they consider what we have characterised as the great vice of indirect taxation, as its chief and distinguishing merit, and that the supreme art of government consists in extracting from the pockets of the people, by a sort of “hocus pocus,” the largest possible amount of money without their knowing it.

Do those who with so much naïveté repeat this argument whenever this question is discussed, ever reflect, that to drug the taxpayer before he pays his money will in no degree diminish the evil to a country, of excessive taxation, and that ignorance and irresponsibility are not the best securities for an efficient and conscientious administration of our public affairs?

If it be objected that indirect taxation is the only method by which the masses of the people can be made to contribute their share to the revenues of the State, we replay, that if the condition of the masses of the people in any country is such as to place them beyond the reach of direct taxation, it is the surest proof that the whole national economy is out of joint, and that, in some form or other, resort will be had to “communism.” In England we have too clear and disastrous evidence of this in our Poor Law system, and in our reckless and prodigal almsgiving. In withholding from our children the bread of justice, we have given them the stone of enforced and sapless charity.

We hail, therefore, with pleasure the movement which is beginning in Germany and Belgium, in favour of a gradual abolition of all customs duties; and are convinced that there is none, perhaps, among all the articles of the Liberal creed which, both in its direct and indirect effects, contains the promise of so much future good.

The fulfilment of this policy should, we think, be rigorously exacted from every Liberal Government, till no tax of customs or excise remain upon the statute-book, save those on tobacco and spirits, which our heritage of debt has placed it beyond the pale of hope to remove by any scheme of practical and proximate reform.

Land.—Cobden held that the growing accumulation, in the hands of fewer and fewer proprietors, of the soil of the country, was a great political, social, and economical evil, and as this tendency is unquestionably stimulated by the system of our government, and some of our laws, which give it an artificial value, he foresaw that one of the principal tasks of the generation which succeeded him, must be to liberate the land from all the unnecessary obstacles which impede its acquisition and natural distribution, and to place it under the undisturbed control of the economic law.

We cannot here attempt to enter upon a due examination of the causes which in this country neutralise and subvert this law in the case of landed property, but the general principle involved may be very shortly suggested.

The more abundant the supply of land in a country, the cheaper, caeteris paribus, will it be, the larger will be the return to the capital and labour expended on it, and the greater the profits to be divided between them.

It is obvious that laws which keep land out of the market—laws of entail, laws of settlement, difficulties of transfer, as well as a system of government which gives to the possession of land an artificial value, for social or political purposes, over and above its natural commercial value—must have the inevitable effect of restricting the quantity, of enhancing the price, and of diminishing the product to be obtained. Land thus acquires a monopoly price, small capitals are deterred from this form of investment, competition is restricted, production is diminished, and the condition of those who live by the land, as well as of those who exchange the produce of their labour for the produce of the land, is necessarily impaired.

To illustrate our meaning by an extreme case: let us suppose that the State were to connect with property in land the highest titles and privileges, on the condition that it was entirely diverted from all productive uses, and kept solely for purposes of ornament and sport, and that the honours and advantages so conferred were sufficiently tempting to induce many persons to accept these conditions. It must follow that the stock of available land in such a country would be diminished to whatever extent it was so appropriated, and its material resources proportionately reduced.

In a less degree, who can deny that these causes are operating among us, and are a source of incalculable loss and waste of the national wealth? The suggestion last year that our coal-beds would be exhausted in one hundred years, almost startled Parliament from its propriety. Yet we acquiesce year after year, without a murmur, in a curtailment of our supply of land, and those who warn us of our danger are denounced as the agents of revolution.

In his speech at Rochdale, in November, 1864, which was his last public utterance, Cobden especially left this task as a legacy to the younger men among us, and told them that they could do more for their country in liberating the land than had been achieved for it in the liberation of its trade.

Maritime Laws.—On the question of “Maritime law,” it is well known that he advocated the largest extension of the rights of neutrals, and the greatest possible limitation of the rights of belligerents, as a necessary and logical accompaniment of a Free Trade policy.

His views on this subject will be seen from a letter addressed to Mr. H. Ashworth, in 1862, in which he recommends the following three reforms:—

  • 1. Exemption of private property from capture at sea during war by armed vessels of every kind.
  • 2. Blockades to be restricted to naval arsenals, and to towns besieged at the same time by land, except as regards contraband of war.
  • 3. The merchant ships of neutrals on the high seas to be inviolable to the visitation of alien Government vessels in time of war as in time of peace.

In this letter he observes—

“Free trade, in the widest definition of the term, means only the division of labour by which the productive powers of the whole earth are brought into mutual co-operation. If this scheme of universal independence is to be liable to sudden dislocation whenever two Governments choose to go to war, it converts a manufacturing industry such as ours into a lottery, in which the lives and fortunes of multitudes of men are at stake. I do not comprehend how any British statesman who consults the interests of his country and understands the revolution which Free Trade is effecting in the relations of the world, can advocate the maintenance of commercial blockades. If I shared their views I should shrink from promoting the indefinite growth of a population whose means of subsistence would be liable to be cut off at any moment by a belligerent power, against whom we should have no right of resistance, or even of complaint.

“It must be in mere irony that the advocates of such a policy as this ask—Of what use would our navy be in case of war if commercial blockades were abolished. Surely, for a nation that has no access to the rest of the world but by sea, and a large part of whose population is dependent for food on foreign countries, the chief use of a navy should be to keep open its communications, not to close them!

“I will only add that I regard these changes as the necessary corollary of the repeal of the Navigation Laws, the abolition of the Corn Laws, and the abandonment of our colonial monopoly. We have thrown away the sceptre of force, to confide in the principles of freedom—uncovenanted, unconditional freedom. Under the new régime our national fortunes have prospered beyond all precedent. During the last fourteen years the increase in our commerce has exceeded its entire growth during the previous thousand years of reliance on force, cunning, and monopoly. This should encourage us to go forward in the full faith that every fresh impediment removed from the path of commerce, whether by sea or land, and whether in peace or war, will augment our prosperity, at the same time that it will promote the general interests of humanity.”

In most of the foregoing questions, Cobden, as we have said, was contented to preach sound doctrine, and to prepare the way for the ultimate adoption of principles of policy and government, which in his time he could not hope to see prevail.

But he was destined, before the close of his career, once more to engage in a great practical work, and to identify his name with an accomplished success, scarcely inferior in its scope and results to the repeal of the English Corn Law.

This was the Commercial Treaty with France.

As the Corn Law was the great stronghold of monopoly in England, so was the prohibitive system in France the key-stone of protection in Europe, and Cobden selected these accordingly, with the unerring instinct of real statesmanship, as the first points for attack, and fastened upon them with a tenacity and resolution which insured success.

Fifteen years had elapsed since England has renounced, in principle at least, the false system of commercial monopoly, and, in Cobden's words quoted above, “throw away the sceptre of force, to confide in freedom.”

She had trusted to the teaching of her example, and to the experience of hear extraordinary success, in leading the countries of Europe to answer to her appeal for co-operation in liberating trade, and vindicating the rights of labour; but she had met with slight response.

Our conversion was perhaps too recent, our course still too inconsistent, and our motives too much open to suspicion, to make this surprising, and, so far as France was concerned, we had unfortunately contrived in all our reforms to retain in our tariff restrictions upon the staple articles of French production, wine and silk.

The time had come when, unless some new impulse could be given to international intercourse, the forces of reaction might have again acquired the ascendency, and European progress have been thrown back for years.

Our relations with France were those of chronic distrust and rivalry. The cry of Perfide Albion in France too often resounded in our ears; and the bugbear of French invasion was successively invoked on this side of the Channel no less than three times in the period we are considering.

This was a state of things fraught with danger. Monopoly had borne as usual its deadly fruits, in alienating two great nations destined by nature for the closest relations of friendship and mutual dependence, and in fostering in both the spirit of war.

It was under circumstances such as these that Cobden set his hand to the great work of co-operation which led to the Commercial Treaty.

Bastiat, who would have hailed with delight this tardy reparation of the defects in our reformed commercial system which he always deplored, was no longer alive to aid the cause; but to one of the most distinguished of modern French economists, Michel Chevalier, is due, in concert with Cobden, the merit of the scheme with the Governments of England and France were induced to adopt, which has opened to us the prospect of a new era of progress, in the gradual union of the nations of Europe in a great commercial confederation, and in laying the foundations of a civilisation, which may yet keep pace with that now dawning on our race in the Anglo-Saxon republics of the Western world.

It was pleasant to see how his old friends rallied around him on this occasion, and how many, who had been often unable to comprehend or follow him in his political career, rejoiced to see him once again in the field, against his old enemy, Protection. But, on the other hand, he was assailed by an influential class among us with a bitter animosity, which all but made his task impossible, and which revealed too clearly the strength and vitality of the reactionary forces still at work in our midst.

As Cobden saw in his beneficent work the hope of a new era of peace, and of liberal progress in Europe, as its certain fruit, so did his opponents instinctively perceive that his success would carry with it the doom of the traditions of hatred and of fear, which the Governments of Europe had too often successfully invoked, to plunge the people into wars of which they are the invariable victims, and to keep alive the rumours of war, which have deprived them of the solid fruits of peace.

So long as the political condition of Europe is such as to render necessary or possible the large armaments, which are a reproach to our age and boasted civilisation, while 4,000,000 men, in the flower of their age, are taken from productive industry, and supported by the labour of the rest of the population, no real and permanent progress can be made in the emancipation of the people, and in the establishment of free institutions.

At the time of which we are speaking, even still more than at present, all direct attempts to mitigate this monster evil appeared hopeless; and although Cobden never ceased to urge, both in England and France, the wisdom of a mutual understanding, with a view to reduced armaments, he knew that the only certain and available method of undermining this fatal system, and preparing for its ultimate over throw, was to assist in every way the counter-agencies of peace.

It was in the consciousness that by breaking down the barriers to commercial intercourse between England and France, a greater impulse would be given than by any other event to the forces of progress in Europe, that the men who in both countries undertook and completed this international work entered upon their task. We have said that the time has not arrived when it is possible to speak freely of this episode in Cobden's life, but it is necessary to vindicate his policy from charges, which, although forgotten and overwhelmed in its extraordinary success, were brought against it too commonly, and from quarters whence it ought least to have been expected, at the time.

In France he was reproached by many of his earlier friends, whose sympathies were bound up with the Orleanist or Republican régimes, and who viewed with a natural aversion the Second Empire, for contributing to a work which, if successful, might do more than anything else to consolidate the Imperial reign. He replied, that what the immediate effect might be he neither knew nor cared, but that all the forces of freedom were 'solidaires,” and that the ruler who gave “Free Trade” to the nation, whether King, President, or Emperor, was doing that which, more than anything else, would assure the future liberties of France.

The same causes operated in many quarters to make the Treaty unpopular in England; but he was also assailed in a more insidious form. He was accused of having forgotten or forsaken the sound doctrines of political economy, of which he had in his earlier life been the uncompromising advocate, and of having revived the discarded policy of “reciprocity treaties.”

It would perhaps be unnecessary to revert to this charge, were it not that a suspicion of unsoundness still lurks in many minds as to the principles of the French, and subsequent, Treaties of Commerce. It may be well, therefore, to say that, so far as this charge was honest, and something more than a convenient method of discrediting a measure which it was desired to obstruct, it proceeded on a very imperfect knowledge of the policy of the Treaty, and on an erroneous and confused idea of the principles of Free Trade itself.

The system of reciprocity treaties and tariff bargains was one of the natural but most pernicious developments of the doctrine of protection. The most notorious of such treaties in our history is, perhaps, the famous Methuen Treaty, from the effects of which we are still suffering in England, in the shape of adulterated wine. These arrangements aimed at the extension of the limits of monopoly, by securing for our products protection in a foreign country, against the competition of all other countries, and always proceeded on the supposed interest of the producer, to the injury of the consumer. They were logical, when it was believed or professed that the reduction of a duty was a sacrifice on the part of the country making it to the country in whose favour it was made. From this point of view, it was natural, in making such reductions, to demand what were thought to be equivalent concessions from the country with which we were treating, and the supreme art of negotiating was held to consist in framing what had the appearance of a “nicely adjusted balance of equivalents,” but in which each country secretly desired, and sought to obtain, the maximum of reductions from the other, against the minimum of its own.

But from the Free Trade point of view, in which all reductions of duties, at least so far as productive duties are concerned, are an admitted and positive gain to the country making them, it becomes absurd and impossible to use them as the ground of a claim on a foreign country for compensating or equivalent remissions.

The French Treaty had no affinity, except in form, to treaties such as these.

Instead of a bargain in which each party sought to give as little and to get as much as possible, it was a great work of co-operation, in which the Governments of England and of France were resolved, on both sides, to remove, within the limits of their power, the artificial obstacles to their commercial intercourse presented by fiscal and protective laws.

England had already spontaneously advanced much further than France in this direction, and hence alone, if for no other reason, all idea of “equivalent” concessions was out of the question, She contributed her share to the work, by sweeping from her tariff, with some trifling exceptions, all trace and remnant of protection, and by reducing her fiscal duties upon wine and brandy.

France, unable at one stroke to destroy the whole fabric of monopoly, nevertheless made a deadly breach in the edifice, by substituting moderate duties for prohibition, in the case of the chief British exports.

If these reforms had been made exclusively in each other's favour, they might have been justly open to the charge of unsoundness, but they were made equally for the commerce of all the world, on the side of England immediately, on the side of France prospectively, and thus, instead of reverting to a system of monopoly, the prohibitive and differential policy of France was annihilated, and the equal system of England maintained and consolidated.

There were, however, two objections made to the treaty of a more plausible kind, and which we will, therefore, briefly notice:—

First, that a work of this description need not assume the form of a treaty, which tends to disguise its real character, but should be left to the independent legislation of each country.

Secondly, that, although it might be well to abolish protective duties by this method, it was impolitic to fetter ourselves by treaty with respect to fiscal duties.

As regards the first objection, it is sufficient to reply, that at the time we are considering, for political reasons, a treaty was the only form in which such a measure could be carried in France; but a more permanent justification is to be found in the fact that a treaty is nothing more than an international statute-law, and that, in a matter of international concern, it is necessary that there should exist an international guarantee of permanence. Without such a security, what would be the condition of trade?

The second objection is more subtle, but has no better foundation. A tax which, from whatever cause, dries up an important source of national wealth, and thus takes from the fund available for taxation more than the amount gained by the revenue, is a bad tax, and ought never, if possible, to be imposed or maintained.

The tax on French wine and spirits had the effect of restricting most injuriously one of the most important branches of our foreign trade, and would, if maintained, have deprived us, by preventing the conclusion of the Treaty, of an addition of at least £20,000,000 sterling per annum, to the value of our general exchanges with France. No wise legislation could retain such a tax in the face of such consequences. There is probably no other form of tax to which it could not have been preferable to resort, rather than to maintain these obstacles to our trade with France.

But the consequences of the Treaty with France were not confined to that country and to England. It was an act which, both by its moral effect and its direct and necessary influence on the legislation of the other Continental countries, has set on foot a movement which grows from year to year, and will not cease till all protective duties have been erased from the commercial codes of Europe.

It was thus the rare privilege of the man who had been the foremost in giving the death-blow to monopoly in England, to be also among the first to storm the citadel of protection on the Continent, and to give to the work which he commenced at home, a decisive international impulse, destined to afford new securities for the most sacred of human rights—the right of labour, and to add “new realms to the empire of freedom.”

Cobden had yet another success awaiting him, to our mind the most signal triumph of his life. He lived to see the great moral and economic laws, which he had enforced through years of opposition and obloquy, asserting their control over the forces of reaction, and moulding our foreign policy.

It must have been with a superb and heartfelt satisfaction that Cobden watched the conflict of public opinion at the time of the Danish War.

The diplomatic intervention of the Government had brought us to the verge of war, and made it more than usually difficult to retreat.

The old instincts of the ruling classes of the nation were thoroughly aroused, and, unless they had been neutralised and overpowered by stronger and deeper forces, we should, under a fancied idea of chivalry and honour (if anything can deserve these names which is opposed to reason and duty), have squandered once more the hard-earned heritage of English labour, in a war of which the causes and the merits were for the most part unknown among us, and could never have been made intelligible to the nation, and in which our success, if possible, might have thrown back all liberal progress for years, both in England and on the Continent.

But it soon became manifest that a nobler and larger morality had been gaining ground in the heart of the nation, had at last found its expression in the Councils of the State, and had enforced its control over those who still believed that the mission of England is to hold by force the balance of power in Europe.

The memorable debate which decided the course of our policy in this critical moment decided far greater issues; and the principle of “non-intervention,” as it has been explained above, the only hope for the moral union of nations and the progress of freedom, became the predominating rule of our foreign policy, and, with different limitations and qualifications, a cardinal point in the Liberal creed.

We must here close a hasty and imperfect sketch of Cobden's political life and principles, in the hope that the outline which we have traced may be filled up by other hands. Our object will have been attained, if we have succeeded in leading some of our readers to suspect the erroneous and superficial nature of the prevalent opinion of Cobden, in the upper ranks of English society, and to believe that the verdict of history will rather confirm the judgment of his humbler countrymen, with whom his name has become a household word.

In reviewing the political programme given in the preceding pages, we shall see that while much has been done, far more remains to do; and that, although there is great cause for hope, there is also much ground for fear.

Of all the dreams in which easy-going and half-hearted politicians indulge, the idlest appears to be that in which it is fondly imagined that the days of party strife are over, and that no questions lie before us, on which the majority of moderate and honest men are not agreed. It is useless to shut over eyes to the fact that, before the future greatness and prosperity of our country can be assured, great issues must be raised, and fierce political struggles traversed. We have a firm and confident belief that the forces on the side of progress are sufficient to achieve what is required for this consummation, by peaceful and constitutional reforms; but the cause will not be won without stenuous efforts.

It will not be won without the aid of men who, in the measure of their gifts, will bring to bear upon the task the qualities of which in Cobden's life we have such enduring proofs: pure morality, keen intelligence, perfect disinterestedness, undaunted courage, indomitable tenacity of purpose, high patriotism, and an immovable faith in the predestined triumph of good over evil.

That the principles of public morality which Cobden devoted his life to enforce will ultimately prevail in the government of the world, we think that no one who believes in God or man can doubt. Whether it be in store for our country first to achieve by their adoption the last triumphs of civilisation, and to hold her place in the van of human progress, or whether to other races, and to other communities, will be confided this great mission, it is not for us to determine.

But those who trust that this may yet be England's destiny, who, in spite of much which they deplore, delight to look upon her past with pride, and her future with hope, will ever revere the memory of Cobden, as of one whose lifelong aim it was to lay the foundations of her empire in her moral greatness, in the supremacy of reason, and in the majesty of law—and will feel with us that the “international man” was also, and still more, an Englishman.

[NOTE—The late Sir Louis Mallet was Mr. Cobden's assistant in the negotiations of the Treaty of Commerce with France in 1860, and was at the Board of Trade in succeeding years, charged with the negotiations of similar treaties with other European powers, which did so much for the extension of free trade ideas and effected a general reduction of tariffs which has not even yet lost its effect.. He was brought much into contact with Mr. Cobden in official and private life, and in later years one of his friends wrote to him as follows: “You are not only a Cobdenite pur sang but unless I am much mistaken, you have realised more perfectly and completely than Cobden did himself, the higher and more ideal side of the Cobdenic creed.” Sir Louis Mallet, in reply, denied that this was the case, saying that he “had done little more than put into a connected shape ideas which his friends had heard from him again and again.”

No apology is therefore needed for the reprinting of the essay which forms the introduction to this volume, for until the publication of Cobden's Life by Mr. John Morley, who had the advantage of Sir L. Mallet's assistance and advice, it was the only authoritative comment upon the great free trade statesman's work.]

Last modified April 10, 2014