Cobden urges the British Parliament not to be the “Don Quixotes of Europe” using military force to right the wrongs of the world (1854)

Richard Cobden

Found in Speeches on Questions of Public Policy. Vol. 2 War, Peace, and Reform

The British Member of Parliament Richard Cobden (1804-1865) urged the Commons not to intervene in the conflict between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (the Crimean War 1854-56) as it was not Britain’s job to be the “Don Quixote of Europe” who would ride around the world righting all the wrongs it could see around it:

But what are the grounds on which we are to continue this war, when the Germans have acquiesced in the proposals of peace which have been made? Is it that war is a luxury? Is it that we are fighting—to use a cant phrase of Mr. Pitt’s time—to secure indemnity for the past, and security for the future? Are we to be the Don Quixotes of Europe, to go about fighting for every cause where we find that some one has been wronged? In most quarrels there is generally a little wrong on both sides; and, if we make up our minds always to interfere when any one is being wronged, I do not see always how we are to choose between the two sides. It will not do always to assume that the weaker party is in the right, for little States, like little individuals, are often very quarrelsome, presuming on their weakness, and not unfrequently abusing the forbearance which their weakness procures them.

Cobden was a unique individual. He was a successful cotton manufacturer from the heartland of the dynamic British Industrial Revolution; he was a successful agitator for free trade whose Anti-Corn Law League pioneered the strategies used by modern single-issue causes (gathering signatures and petitions, mass meetings, organization membership cards); a Member of Parliament whose speeches for “peace”, “retrenchment” (cutting the size and cost of government), and “reform” (reforming the corrupt and one-sided electoral representation of British politics) were a constant torn in the side of the British political establishment; and a strong advocate for peace and non-interference in the affairs of other countries. He lost his seat in Parliament because of his stance against the disastrous British involvement in the Crimean War, but he was able to return to politics when the war hysteria died down and eventually represented the British government in signing a significant free trade treaty with France - the aptly named Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860.