Liberty Matters

Peace Through Trade – Cobden’s Lasting Legacy


I perhaps gave Stephen Davies the wrong impression of my views on the continuing influence of Cobdenite ideas and strategies as the 20th century progressed. I am not as despondent as Trentmann and others that his ideas lost their relevance, and in my response I demonstrated how his daughters (particularly Jane and Annie) carried forward his legacy in their work on women’s rights and land reform. Jane was also a key figure in ensuring that Cobden’s significant contribution to the ideology of the international peace movement was continued into the 20th century. Jane was active in antiwar activities, founding the South African Conciliation Committee in 1899 and publishing “The Recent Development of Violence in Our Midst” with the Stop the War Committee in 1900[69] She later donated Dunford House, her father’s childhood home, to the LSE in order to further the causes of peace, free trade, and education.
As we have all demonstrated, peace was the cornerstone to Cobden’s ideological world view. In one of his earliest publications, “England, Ireland and America” (1835), he bemoaned England’s “fatal mania for intervention in foreign politics”.[70] The following year his pamphlet “Russia”  (1836) advocated “peace, economy, and a moral ascendancy over brute violence”.[71]
Cobden’s support for peace and noninterventionist policies was directly linked to his advocacy of free trade. He argued that the economic, cultural, and political power of the aristocracy was a key element in the pursuit of wars and the acquisition of colonies, which were a drain on national resources and benefited only a few. This landed/military alliance was a precursor to the industrial-military complex identified by Eisenhower in 1961.[72] Cobden suggested that instead national greatness should be gained through the power of trade:
Labour, improvements, and discoveries confer the greatest strength upon a people.… [B]y these alone, and not by the sword of the conqueror, can nations … hope to rise to supreme power and grandeur.[73]
Cobden considered that the pursuit of free trade would promote peace by transforming the national government, releasing the mass of the people from the excessive levels of taxation necessary for the pursuit of military adventures. However, he also considered international free-trade policies would cause states to become dependant on each other, writing,
England has by the magic of her machinery, united for ever two remote hemispheres in the bonds of peace, by placing European and American in absolute and inextricable dependence on each other.[74]
In an important speech delivered to the House of Commons on June 28, 1850, as a response to a motion of confidence in Palmerston’s foreign policy, Cobden made direct connections between his economic and international policies:
I believe the progress of freedom depends more on the maintenance of peace and the spread of commerce and the diffusion of education than upon the labour of Cabinets or Foreign Offices. And if you can prevent those perturbations which have recently taken place abroad in consequence of your foreign policy, and if you will leave other nations in greater tranquillity, those ideas of freedom will continue to progress, and you need not trouble yourselves about them.[75]
Thus, Cobden was not advocating a policy of isolationism; rather, he saw the pursuit of international trade as a positive method of intervening in the internal affairs of other nations, a policy that would ultimately lead to freedom and peace.
David Nicholls has carefully charted Cobden’s contribution to the Peace Congress Movement, arguing that his ideology of international cooperation changed policy towards an emphasis on international arbitration and treaties as means of resolving disputes.[76]
In the short-term the Congress movement may be regarded as a failure. The Crimean War turned public opinion against the peace campaigners, and both Cobden and Bright lost their seats in Parliament in the 1857 general election. The last of the organizing committees of the Congress Movement was dissolved in 1859. However, Cobden remained pragmatic, strategic, and tactical, committed to a longer view. He understood that the constituency that had supported the repeal of the Corn Laws would not necessarily back the peace movement, writing: “It would be about as rational to argue that the tree which has yielded a good crop of oranges must be able to give you some apples also.”[77] He did not lobby for free trade to be an intrinsic element of the Congress program, realizing that its inclusion would alienate many supporters. He gave equal weight to the moral and the economic aspects of his strategy.
In the decade before his death he was instrumental in negotiating the Anglo-French trade treaty of 1860, which averted the danger of a panic-fed war, and argued against British intervention in the American Civil War.
Notwithstanding the short-term failures of Cobden’s peace program, are his ideas of any consequence for later periods? The verdict of many modern scholars is that what is termed the “Trade-Conflict Nexus” does lead to greater peace and prosperity. Thus, the international economist Solomon Polachek argued that countries with the greatest levels of economic trade have the lowest amounts of hostility, and this is measurable. On average, a doubling of trade leads to a 20 percent reduction in hostility between countries.[78] The links Cobden made between the moral and economic aspect of a peace policy have also been employed successfully by many pressure groups for peace in the 150 years since his death.
[69.] Cobden Unwin, J. (1900), “The Recent Development of Violence in Our Midst,” London: Stop the War Committee.
[70.] The quotation comes from Cobden's Preface (p. vi) to the 1835 edition of England, Ireland, and America which was not included in the 1903 edition which we have online in HTML. The 1835 edition is only available in PDF format </titles/2650>.
[71.] 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). "Russia" (1836) </titles/82#Cobden_0424-01_722>.
[72.] Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address was given on January 17, 1961. Youtube video of speech <>; transcription of speech <>.
[73.] "Russia" (1836), Chap. III "Balance of Power" </titles/82#Cobden_0424-01_667>
[74.] "Russia" (1836), Chap. I "Russia, Turkey, and England" </titles/82#Cobden_0424-01_619>.
[75.] Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. by John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers with a Preface and Appreciation by J.E. Thorold Rogers and an Appreciation by Goldwin Smith (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1908). 2 volumes in 1. Vol. 2 War, Peace, and Reform. Speech in the House of Commons (June 28, 1850) </titles/931#Cobden_0129.02_315>.
[76.] See, Nicolls, D. (1991) “Richard Cobden and the International Peace Congress Movement, 1848-1853,” Journal of British Studies, 30: 351-76.
[77.] Hobson, J. A. (1918) Richard Cobden: An International Man. London: T. Fisher Unwin, p. 105.
[78.] See, Polachek, S. (1980) “Conflict and Trade,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 24: 55-78, and Robson, A. (2012), “Individual Freedom, International Trade and International Conflict,” Journal of Peace, Prosperity and Freedom, 1: 93-112.