An American citizen presented to the English town of Bradford a marble statue of Richard Cobden. It was formally uncovered by Mr. John Bright, in the presence of the mayor and town council, and a large assembly of spectators. The figure is seven feet in height, and it rests upon a pedestal of Scotch granite polished, which bears the name of COBDEN encircled by an inscription, which summarizes the aims of his public life: –
„FREE TRADE, PEACE AND GOOD WILL AMONG NATIONS.”
The giver of this costly and beautiful work was Mr. G. H. Booth, an American partner in a noted Bradford firm. Unhappily Mr. Booth did not live to behold his own gift and share in the happiness of this interesting occasion.
We ought not to be surprised that an American should have paid this homage to the memory of an English statesman. There are plenty of good Americans in this world who were not born in America, and Richard Cobden was one of them. Wherever there is a human being who can intelligently adopt, not as a holiday sentiment merely, but as a sacred principle to be striven for, the inscription borne upon the Cobden statue: „Free trade, peace, and good will among nations,” there is an American. And this I say although we have not yet adopted, as we shall soon adopt, the principle of Free Trade.
Cobden was one of the best exemplifications which our times afford of that high quality of a free citizen which we name public spirit. The force of this motive drew him away from a business which yielded a profit of a hundred thousand dollars a year, to spend time, talent, fortune, and life itself, for the promotion of measures which he deemed essential to the welfare of his countrymen.
He did this because he could not help doing it. It was his nature so to do. Circumstances made him a calico printer, but by the constitution of his mind he was a servant of the State.
His father was an English yeoman; that is, a farmer who owned the farm he tilled. During the last century such farmers have become in England fewer and fewer, until now there are scarcely any left; for there is such a keen ambition among rich people in England to own land that a small proprietor cannot hold out against them. A nobleman has been known to give four or five times its value for a farm bordering upon his estate, because in an old country nothing gives a man so much social importance as the ownership of the soil. Cobden’s father, it appears, lost his property, and died leaving nine children with scarcely any provision for their maintenance; so that Richard’s first employment was to watch the sheep for a neighboring farmer, and this humble employment he followed on the land and near the residence of the Duke of Richmond, one of the chiefs of that protectionist party which Cobden destroyed. With regard to his education, he was almost entirely self-taught, or, as Mr. Bright observed, in his most cautious manner: –
„He had no opportunity of attending ancient universities, and availing himself of the advantages, and, I am afraid I must say, in some degree, of suffering from some of the disadvantages, from which some of those universities are not free.”
This sly satire of the eloquent Quaker was received by the men of Bradford with cheers; and, indeed, it is true that college education sometimes weakens more than it refines, and many of the masters of our generation have been so lucky as to escape the debilitating process.
From tending sheep on his father’s farm, he was sent away at ten years of age to a cheap Yorkshire boarding-school, similar in character to the Dotheboys Hall described by Dickens many years after in „Nicholas Nickleby.” Five miserable years he spent at that school, ill-fed, harshly treated, badly taught, without once going home, and permitted to write to his parents only once in three months. In after life he could not bear to speak of his life at school; nor was he ever quite the genial and happy man he might have been if those five years had been spent otherwise.
But here again we see that hardship does not so radically injure a child as unwise indulgence. At fifteen he entered as a clerk into the warehouse of an uncle in London, an uncomfortable place, from which, however, he derived substantial advantages. The great city itself was half an education to him. He learned French in the morning before going to business. He bought cheap and good little books which are thrust upon the sight of every passer-by in cities, and, particularly, he obtained a clear insight into the business of his uncle, who was a wholesale dealer in muslins and calicoes.
From clerk he was advanced to the post of commercial traveler, an employment which most keenly gratified his desire to see the world. This was in 1826, before the days of the railroad, when commercial travelers usually drove their own gigs. The ardent Cobden accomplished his average of forty miles a day, which was then considered very rapid work. He traversed many parts of Great Britain, and not only increased his knowledge of the business, but found time to observe the natural beauties of his country, and to inspect its ancient monuments. He spent two or three years in this mode of life, being already the chief support of his numerous and unusually helpless family.
At the early age of twenty-four he thought the time had come for him to sell his calicoes and muslins on his own account. Two friends in the same business and himself put together their small capitals, amounting to five hundred pounds, borrowed another five hundred, rode to Manchester on the top of the coach named the Peveril of the Peak, boldly asked credit from a wealthy firm of calico manufacturers, obtained it, and launched into business. It proved to be a good thing for them all. In two years the young men were selling fifty or sixty thousand pounds’ worth of the old men’s calicoes every six months. In after years Cobden often asked them how they could have the courage to trust to such an extent three young fellows not worth two hundred pounds apiece. Their answer was: –
„We always prefer to trust young men with connections and with a knowledge of their trade, if we know them to possess character and ability, to those who start with capital without these advantages, and we have acted on this principle successfully in all parts of the world.”
The young firm gained money with astonishing rapidity, one presiding over the warehouse in London, one remaining in Manchester, and the other free to go wherever the interests of the firm required. Cobden visited France and the United States. He was here in 1835, when he thought the American people were the vainest in the world of their country. He said it was almost impossible to praise America enough to satisfy the people. He evidently did not think much of us then. American men, he thought, were a most degenerate race. And as for the women: –
„My eyes,” said he, „have not found one resting place that deserves to be called a wholesome, blooming, pretty woman, since I have been here. One fourth part of the women look as if they had just recovered from a fit of the jaundice, another quarter would in England be termed in a stage of decided consumption, and the remainder are fitly likened to our fashionable women when haggard and jaded with the dissipation of a London season.”
This was forty-nine years ago. Let us hope that we have improved since then. I think I could now find some American ladies to whom no part of this description would apply.
After a prosperous business career of a few years he left its details more and more to his partners, and devoted himself to public affairs.
Richard Cobden, I repeat, was a public man by nature. He belonged to what I call the natural nobility of a country; by which I mean the individuals, whether poor or rich, high or low, learned or unlearned, who have a true public spirit, and take care of the public weal. As soon as he was free from the trammels of poverty he fell into the habit of taking extensive journeys into foreign countries, a thing most instructive and enlarging to a genuine nobleman. His first public act was the publication of a pamphlet called, „England, Ireland and America,” in which he maintained that American institutions and the general policy of the American government were sound, and could safely be followed; particularly in two respects, in maintaining only a very small army and navy, and having no entangling alliances with other countries.
„Civilization,” said the young pamphleteer, „is peace; war is barbarism. If the great states should devote to the development of business and the amelioration of the common lot only a small part of the treasure expended upon armaments, humanity would not have long to wait for glorious results.”
He combated with great force the ancient notion that England must interfere in the politics of the continent; and if England was not embroiled in the horrible war between Russia and Turkey, she owes it in part to Richard Cobden. He wrote also a pamphlet containing the results of his observations upon Russia, in which he denied that Russia was as rich as was generally supposed. He was the first to discover what all the world now knows, that Russia is a vast but poor country, not to be feared by neighboring nations, powerful to defend herself, but weak to attack. In a word, he adopted a line of argument with regard to Russia very similar to that recently upheld by Mr. Gladstone. Like a true American, he was a devoted friend to universal education, and it was in connection with this subject that he first appeared as a public speaker. Mr. Bright said in his oration: –
„The first time I became acquainted with Mr. Cobden was in connection with the great question of education. I went over to Manchester to call upon him and invite him to Rochdale to speak at a meeting about to be held in the school-room of the Baptist chapel in West Street. I found him in his counting-house. I told him what I wanted. His countenance lighted up with pleasure to find that others were working in the same cause. He without hesitation agreed to come. He came and he spoke.”
Persons who heard him in those days say that his speaking then was very much what it was afterward in Parliament – a kind of conversational eloquence, simple, clear, and strong, without rhetorical flights, but strangely persuasive. One gentleman who was in Parliament with him mentioned that he disliked to see him get up to speak, because he was sure that Cobden would convince him that his own opinion was erroneous; „and,” said he, „a man does not like that to be done.”
Soon after coming upon the stage of active life, he had arrived at the conclusion that the public policy of his country was fatally erroneous in two particulars, namely, the protective system of duties, and the habit of interfering in the affairs of other nations. At that time even the food of the people, their very bread and meat, was shopped at the custom houses until a high duty was paid upon them, for the „protection” of the farmers and landlords. In other words, the whole population of Great Britain was taxed at every meal, for the supposed benefit of two classes, those who owned and those who tilled the soil.
Richard Cobden believed that the policy of protection was not beneficial even to the protected classes, while it was most cruel to people whose wages were barely sufficient to keep them alive. For several years, aided by Mr. Bright and many other enlightened men, he labored by tongue and pen, with amazing tact, vigor, persistence, and good temper, to convince his countrymen of this.
The great achievement of his life, as all the world knows, was the repeal of those oppressive Corn Laws by which the duty on grain rose as the price declined, so that the poor man’s loaf was kept dear, however abundant and cheap wheat might be in Europe and America. It was in a time of deep depression of trade that he began the agitation. He called upon Mr. Bright to enlist his coöperation, and he found him overwhelmed with grief at the loss of his wife, lying dead in the house at the time. Mr. Cobden consoled his friend as best he could; and yet even at such a time he could not forget his mission. He said to Mr. Bright: –
„There are thousands and thousands of homes in England at this moment, where wives, mothers, and children are dying of hunger! Now when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest until the Corn Laws are repealed.”
Mr. Bright joined him. The Anti-Corn-Law-League was formed; such an agitation was made as has seldom been paralleled; but, so difficult is it to effect a change of this kind against interested votes, that, after all, the Irish famine was necessary to effect the repeal. As a writer remarks: –
„It was hunger that at last ate through those stone walls of protection!”
Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister, a protectionist, as we may say, from his birth, yielded to circumstances as much as to argument, and accomplished the repeal in 1846. When the great work was done, and done, too, with benefit to every class, he publicly assigned the credit of the measure to the persuasive eloquence and the indomitable resolution of Richard Cobden.
Mr. Cobden’s public labors withdrew his attention from his private business, and he became embarrassed. His friends made a purse for him of eighty thousand pounds sterling, with which to set him up as a public man. He accepted the gift, bought back the farm upon which he was born, and devoted himself without reserve to the public service. During our war he was the friend and champion of the United States, and he owed his premature death to his zeal and friendly regard for this country. There was a ridiculous scheme coming up in Parliament for a line of fortresses to defend Canada against the United States. On one of the coldest days of March he went to London for the sole purpose of speaking against this project. He took a violent cold, under which he sank. He died on that Sunday, the second of April, 1865, when Abraham Lincoln, with a portion of General Grant’s army, entered the city of Richmond. It was a strange coincidence. Through four years he had steadily foretold such an ending to the struggle; but though he lived to see the great day he breathed his last a few hours before the news reached the British shore.
There is not in Great Britain, as Mr. Bright observed, a poor man’s home that has not in it a bigger and a better loaf through Richard Cobden’s labors. His great measure relieved the poor, and relieved the rich. It was a good without alloy, as free trade will, doubtless, be to all nations when their irrepressible Cobdens and their hungry workmen force them to adopt it.
The time is not distant when we, too, shall be obliged, as a people, to meet this question of Free Trade and Protection. In view of that inevitable discussion I advise young voters to study Cobden and Bright, as well as men of the opposite school, and make up their minds on the great question of the future.