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William Grampp shows how closely connected Richard Cobden’s desire for free trade was to his desire for peace (1960)

The historian William Grampp’s book on the history of The Manchester School was published 50 years ago. In it he describes the connection between Richard Cobden’s campaign for free trade (the repeal of the “Corn Laws” in 1846) and his total commitment to peace:

Pacifism was Cobden’s ruling purpose, and that is the most informative thing which can be said about him. The man who has been held up as the tribune of laissez faire was, in fact, not governed by economic purposes at all but by something much different; and of all the people who have written about him only Hobson has made the fact plain. There are few public figures whose motives were as transparent as Cobden’s, and few who have been so mistaken by contemporaries and later generations. He said repeatedly that he wanted free trade because it would bring world peace, and his actions were altogether consistent with what he said…

“But when I advocated Free Trade, do you suppose I did not see its relation to the present question [of peace], or that I advocated Free Trade merely because it would give us a little more occupation in this or that pursuit? No; I believed Free Trade would have the tendency to unite mankind in the bonds of peace, and it was that, more than any pecuniary consideration, which sustained and actuated me, as my friends know, in that struggle.”

  1. Pacifism was the motive of another group in the free-trade movement, and Cobden was its leader. Its faith was that free trade would make war impossible, because war would impoverish the millions who depended on international exchange. The idea, it may be noticed, is not the customary relationship adduced between free trade and peace: that trade creates international specialization which, in turn, prevents a nation from becoming self-sufficient enough to wage a war. Rather, the idea is a simple expression of confidence in self-interest. It was a faith that moved Cobden, and he moved thousands, perhaps millions. “Free trade,” he said, “unites, by the strongest motives of which our nature is susceptible, two remote communities, rendering the interest of the one the only true policy of the other, and making each equally anxious for the prosperity and happiness of both.”

    Pacifism was Cobden’s ruling purpose, and that is the most informative thing which can be said about him. The man who has been held up as the tribune of laissez faire was, in fact, not governed by economic purposes at all but by something much different; and of all the people who have written about him only Hobson has made the fact plain. There are few public figures whose motives were as transparent as Cobden’s, and few who have been so mistaken by contemporaries and later generations. He said repeatedly that he wanted free trade because it would bring world peace, and his actions were altogether consistent with what he said. The evidence is so abundant that one is puzzled over its not being used. In 1842 he wanted to make the League a part of the peace movement—despite the fact that the League’s constitution prohibited its taking on any other cause than repeal and despite Cobden’s insistence that the constitution be followed literally when others wished to add their purposes to it—and his proposal was to bring the free traders over to pacifism, not the other way around. He wrote to Ashworth: “It has struck me that it would be well to try to engraft our Free Trade agitation upon the Peace Movement… . Free Trade, by perfecting the intercourse, and securing the dependence of countries one upon another, must inevitably snatch the power from governments to plunge their people into wars.” The proposal was not carried out, and after repeal Cobden tried again. In 1847, he urged Bright to join him in marshaling the free traders against Palmerston’s militant foreign policy in order to “try to prevent the Foreign Office from undoing the good which the Board of Trade has done to the people.” He knew quite well that his pacifism was ignored by others, and he also knew that his motives were misunderstood. In 1850, he said:

    But when I advocated Free Trade, do you suppose I did not see its relation to the present question [of peace], or that I advocated Free Trade merely because it would give us a little more occupation in this or that pursuit? No; I believed Free Trade would have the tendency to unite mankind in the bonds of peace, and it was that, more than any pecuniary consideration, which sustained and actuated me, as my friends know, in that struggle.

    Only a few of his friends in fact did know. One was Combe, and pacifism was an issue on which they differed from the start. “I could account for his views only by Mr. Cobden’s peculiar organization,” he said, and meant “phrenological organization.” His pacifism is indeed an interesting aspect of his personality, because it informed and guided his private as well as his public life. He had an aversion to violence, which was almost an obsession, despite his pugnacity during the repeal campa