Liberty Matters

Cobden and the People: Then and Now

Amongst the many interesting points in this conversation, two may be worth elaborating further, the timing and degree of popular support for free trade and Cobden’s understanding of internationalism and people’s diplomacy.
On the first, while Gordon Bannerman is right to set limits to the Anti-Corn Law League’s working-class following, as he also shows, free-trade values permeated popular consciousness, as was seen in the degree of support from trade unions by the 1860s, the cult of Cobden after his death, and the many ways in which, as Sarah Richardson has shown, his legacy was reaffirmed by his daughters. Here we should not forget the huge impact of Jane Cobden-Unwin’s The Hungry Forties (1904), which also contains interesting reminders of Cobden’s Sussex rural radicalism. Hence as Ross McKibbin concluded in a celebrated article, “The free trade fiscal system had, before 1914, an ideological value for the working class far beyond any conceivable socialist doctrine.” [105] Here, too, as Stephen Davies rightly notes, most British workers (including agricultural ones) saw themselves as consumers, in contrast to the producers’ rhetoric in the United States.[106] This suggests that rather than comparing the League with later British reform movements we might compare it with the activities of groups such as the American Free Trade League, and compare Cobden with the aspiring “Cobden of America,” David Wells.[107] This also reveals the extent to which Cobden or the Cobden Club became an object of suspicion within the rhetoric of Anglophobic economic nationalism in the United States.[108] One elderly American once contacted me to recall that in his youth he had been a member of the “Anti-Cobden Club” in Philadelphia. For Cobden himself I would argue that free trade was an essential part of emancipating the people – that tariffs represented “interests” battening on popular welfare, and that with their removal, the “natural order” would be restored, all in line with his desire to popularize Smithian economics.
More difficult to achieve was the alignment of foreign policy with what might be deemed people’s diplomacy. Cobden was suspicious of congresses of nations because in his day they would have reinforced the power of existing, mostly reactionary, states. Hence, as Davies points out, Cobden wanted to maximize connections between peoples at all levels, as seen, for example, in his approval of the visit of over 2000 French male singers to the Crystal Palace in 1860: “If the relations between the two countries depended only on the conduct of the peoples towards each other I should have no fear;- their instincts alone & force of natures laws would keep them at peace.” [109]
However, this spontaneous peacefulness was vitiated in his view by the John Bullish instincts aroused by Palmerstonian diplomacy. Cobden wrestled with the question as to whether wars were genuinely or artificially popular and by the 1860s came optimistically to believe that with greater democracy in Britain, war would become less popular, an early expression of the view that democracy favored peace.[110] What remains unclear in Cobden’s thought is whether future international bodies might have been deemed to represent the collective peoples’ will – arguably a Gladstonian-style Concert of Europe did promise this. Likewise, avid Cobdenites like Sir Louis Mallet favored an international body to determine tariffs, surely a route to the WTO. Here, too, while I think Stephen Davies is right to link Cobden to the “municipalization of the world” in the 1830s and 1840s, I would suggest his ideas changed after 1848, that he came to recognize more strongly the force of nationalism and therefore became a pioneer of “inter-nationalism,” the building of ties between nations which became a feature of the 1860s.[111] Here, too, Gordon Bannerman is right to stress democratic accountability of foreign policy, which became a hallmark of the Cobdenite tradition, with which a U.S. vote over Syria in 2013 would have accorded precisely; oddly the Cobdenite echoes here seem to have gone unnoticed in public debate.
In trade and foreign policy, therefore, Cobden’s concern was that government should reflect the will of the governed, a view he traced back to the 18th-century “Friends of America.” How far this pertains to the present day is more difficult to judge – can social media and the blogosphere reinforce democracy or not? Cobden himself, however, we can be sure valued highly active citizenship, independent judgement, and the maximum of political information, although he did not of course live to see the age of Victorian two-party representative government. 
One final note, in terms of Cobden’s views on government and peoples, this conversation has largely omitted Cobden’s anti-imperial views, surely a major area of his legacy in late-19th- and early-20th-century Britain (and certainly one his daughters enthusiastically took up).
[105.] McKibbin, R. “Why Was There No Marxism in Great Britain?,” English Historical Review 99 (1984), p. 322.
[106.]Howe, A. “Free Trade and the International Order: The Anglo-American Tradition, 1846-1946,” in F. Leventhal and R. Quinault eds., Anglo-American Attitudes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000).
[107.] DMH: The American Free Trade League was founded in 1864 by the lawyer Simon Sterne (1839-1901) and the economist and statistician Alexander del Mar (1836–1926) and included among its membership the economist Arthur Latham Perry (1830-1905), the New York politician Horace White (1865-1943), the engineer and economist David Ames Wells (1828-1898), and the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Related to this were regional groups such as The New York Free-Trade Club which was founded in 1878 and seems to have been quite active, publishing a magazine called The Free-Trader, and books like William Graham Sumner's Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States. Delivered before the International Free-Trade Alliance (New York: Published for the New York Free Trade Club by G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1883). The engineer and economist David Ames Wells (1828-1898) wrote many pamphlets for the League as well as an important article on "Free Trade" for Lalor's Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States (1899). The French economist and friend and colleague of Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912), wrote the article on "Protection" (based upon his article on "Tariffs" in the Dictionnaire de l'économie politique (1853-54) ; and David H. Mason wrote the lengthy pro-protectionist article "Protection in the United States" .
[108.] Palen, M-W. “Foreign Relations in the Gilded Age: A British Free Trade Conspiracy?,” Diplomatic History 37 (2013).
[109.] Howe, A. and S. J. Morgan eds. The Letters of Richard Cobden. Volume 4 1860-1865 (forthcoming, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 117.
[110.]Wolf, M. “Richard Cobden and the Democratic Peace,” in G. Cook ed., Freedom and Trade, Volume 2 (London: Routledge, 1998).
[111.] Howe, A. (2). “Free Trade and Global Order: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Vision,” in D. Bell ed., Victorian Visions of Global Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).