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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 campaign. He was horrified by duelling and boxing, he condemned capital punishment, he disliked brass bands as much as the armies they accompanied, and he asked the Pope to prevail upon the Spanish to stop bull fighting. “Those horrid Indian massacres keep me in a constant shudder,” he wrote in 1857. He didn’t believe in revolution or in wars for national independence, and his reaction to the American Civil War was to denounce “the senseless and unscientific butchery” (although he hardly could have been less horrified had it been scientific). Yet as gentle as he was and as much as he relied upon persuasion, he was not a timid man, and he had great moral and physical courage. For some seven years he led one of the fiercest contests in the political history of the nineteenth century, and he repeatedly faced hostile crowds.

    After the corn laws had been repealed and he saw that free trade did not have the pacifying effect he had predicted, Cobden believed the fault lay with the free traders. “How few … really understand the full meaning of Free Trade principles,” he wrote in 1857. “The manufacturers of Yorkshire and Lancashire look upon India and China as a field of enterprise which can only be kept open by force.” He did not, however, lose hope, and when he concluded the commercial treaty with France in 1860 he said: “It will only require a few years to develop that state of mutual dependence which forms the solid basis for the peace and happiness of nations.” The decisive test came when he had to choose between pacifism and free international capital movements of military significance. He promptly chose pacifism.

About this Quotation:

This is another title which deserves celebrating some 50 years after its first publication in 1960. The economist and historian William Grampp shows that the English campaigner for free trade in the 1840s, Richard Cobden, was motivated primarily by moral issues such as peace and voluntarism, and was not merely a heartless defender of the profits of Manchester industrialists as his critics sometimes portray him. Grampp quotes Cobden who says “Free trade 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.” So great was his abhorrence of violence that Cobden also condemned dueling, boxing, bull-fighting, capital punishment, all wars for national independence, and even brass bands (because of their association with the military). This thorough going objection to anything violent or which suggested violence is similar to Herbert Spencer’s objection to members of the Salvation Army wearing army style uniforms because it symbolized the increasing militarization of British society in the late 19th century. One wonders what Cobden or Spencer would have made of modern day celebrations of national days such as July 4, or July 14, or Anzac Day; or especially May Day in the old Soviet Union with its parade of missiles and tanks?

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