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Cobden on the complicity of the British people in supporting war (1852)

The peace and free trade advocate Richard Cobden (1804-1865) believed that before the “peace party” in Britain could be successful it had to overcome the popular misconception the British people had that they were a “peace-loving nation”:

But to rouse the conscience of the people in favour of peace, the whole truth must be told them of the part they have played in past wars. In every pursuit in which we embark, our energies carry us generally in advance of all competitors… It must be even so in the agitation of the peace party. They will never rouse the conscience of the people, so long as they allow them to indulge the comforting delusion that they have been a peace-loving nation. We have been the most combative and aggressive community that has existed since the days of the Roman dominion. Since the revolution of 1688 we have expended more than fifteen hundred millions of money upon wars, not one of which has been upon our own shores, or in defence of our hearths and homes. “For so it is,” says a not unfriendly foreign critic,∗ “other nations fight at or near their own territory: the English everywhere.” From the time of old Froissart, who, when he found himself on the English coast, exclaimed that he was among a people who “loved war better than peace, and where strangers were well received,” down to the day of our amiable and admiring visitor, the author of the Sketch Book, who, in his pleasant description of John Bull, has portrayed him as always fumbling for his cudgel whenever a quarrel arose among his neighbours, this pugnacious propensity has been invariably recognised by those who have studied our national character. It reveals itself in our historical favourites, in the popularity of the madcap Richard, Henry of Agincourt, the belligerent Chatham, and those monarchs and statesmen who have been most famous for their warlike achievements. It is displayed in our fondness for erecting monuments to warriors, even at the doors of our marts of commerce; in the frequent memorials of our battles, in the names of bridges, streets, and omnibuses; but above all in the display which public opinion tolerates in our metropolitan cathedral, whose walls are decorated with bas-reliefs of battle scenes, of storming of towns, and charges of bayonets, where horses and riders, ships, cannon and musketry, realise by turns, in a Christian temple, the fierce struggle of the siege and the battle-field.

But to rouse the conscience of the people in favour of peace, the whole truth must be told them of the part they have played in past wars. In every pursuit in which we embark, our energies carry us generally in advance of all competitors. How few of us care to remember that, during the first half of the last century, we carried on the slave-trade more extensively than all the world besides; that we made treaties for the exclusive supply of negroes; that ministers of state, and even royalty were not averse to profit by the traffic. But when Clarkson (to whom fame has not yet done justice) commenced his agitation against this vile commerce, he laid the sin at the door of the nation; he appealed to the conscience of the people, and made the whole community responsible for the crimes which the slave-traders were perpetrating with their connivance; and the eternal principles of truth and humanity, which are ever present in the breasts of men, however they may be for a time obscured, were not appealed to in vain. We are now, with our characteristic energy, first and foremost in preventing, by force, that traffic which our statesmen sought to monopolise a century ago.

It must be even so in the agitation of the peace party. They will never rouse the conscience of the people, so long as they allow them to indulge the comforting delusion that they have been a peace-loving nation. We have been the most combative and aggressive community that has existed since the days of the Roman dominion. Since the revolution of 1688 we have expended more than fifteen hundred millions of money upon wars, not one of which has been upon our own shores, or in defence of our hearths and homes. “For so it is,” says a not unfriendly foreign critic, “other nations fight at or near their own territory: the English everywhere.” From the time of old Froissart, who, when he found himself on the English coast, exclaimed that he was among a people who “loved war better than peace, and where strangers were well received,” down to the day of our amiable and admiring visitor, the author of the Sketch Book, who, in his pleasant description of John Bull, has portrayed him as always fumbling for his cudgel whenever a quarrel arose among his neighbours, this pugnacious propensity has been invariably recognised by those who have studied our national character. It reveals itself in our historical favourites, in the popularity of the madcap Richard, Henry of Agincourt, the belligerent Chatham, and those monarchs and statesmen who have been most famous for their warlike achievements. It is displayed in our fondness for erecting monuments to warriors, even at the doors of our marts of commerce; in the frequent memorials of our battles, in the names of bridges, streets, and omnibuses; but above all in the display which public opinion tolerates in our metropolitan cathedral, whose walls are decorated with bas-reliefs of battle scenes, of storming of towns, and charges of bayonets, where horses and riders, ships, cannon and musketry, realise by turns, in a Christian temple, the fierce struggle of the siege and the battle-field. I have visited, I believe, all the great Christian temples in the capitals of Europe; but my memory fails me, if I saw anything to compare with it. Mr. Layard has brought us some very similar works of art from Nineveh, but he has not informed us that they were found in Christian churches.

Nor must we throw on the aristocracy the entire blame of our wars. An aristocracy never governs a people by opposing their ruling instincts. In Athens a lively and elegant fancy was gratified with the beautiful in art. In Genoa and Venice, where the population were at first without territory, and consequently where commerce was the only resource, the path to power was on the deck of their merchantmen or on ‘Change. In England, where a people possessing a powerful physical organisation and an unequalled energy of character were ready for projects of daring and enterprise, an aristocracy perverted these qualities to a century of constantly recurring wars. The peace party of our day must endeavour to turn this very energy to good account in the same spirit in which Clarkson turned a nation of man-stealers into a society of determined abolitionists. Far from wishing to destroy the energy, or even the combativeness which has made us such fit instruments for the battle-field, we shall require these qualities for abating the spirit of war and correcting the numberless moral evils from which society is suffering. Are not our people uneducated—juvenile delinquents uncared for? Does not drunkenness still reel through our streets? Have we not to battle with vice, crime, and their parent, ignorance, in every form? And may not even charity display as great energy and courage in saving life as was ever put forth in its destruction?

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In a letter to a member of the clergy written at Christmas time (probably in 1852) Cobden argues that the peace party cannot move forward in Britain until the commonly held delusion that Britain was a peace-loving nation was overcome. He reminds the reverend that before Clarkson and Wilberforce began their campaign against slavery the British people supported the existence of the slave trade and took great pride in its profitability. Only after a long period of agitation by the abolitionists were the British people shamed into opposing the trade. Similarly, the peace party in the 1850s had to get the British people to recognize that they had a “pugnacious propensity” to use the military throughout the world to enforce British interests and that they were too eager to erect statues and praise its military leaders “even at the doors of our marts of commerce” and “ in our metropolitan cathedral”. Cobden hoped that he could redirect the enormous energy of the British people away from supporting war and military budgets and towards “abating the spirit of war and correcting the numberless moral evils from which society is suffering”.

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