Bright, John (1811-1859)
John Bright was a British radical, statesman, and advocate of free trade. With Richard Cobden, Bright successfully agitated for the repeal of Great Britain’s Corn Laws, which were import tariffs on grain. Bright also was a proponent of a peaceful, noninterventionist foreign policy, arguing, for instance, against British involvement in the Crimean War, a position that briefly cost him his seat in Parliament. In addition, Bright argued passionately against the Established Church and slavery, as well as for greater independence for Britain’s colonies. Indeed, during his life, Bright was best known as an orator, fiery and radical in speech, whereas Cobden, his associate in the Anti-Corn Law League, was considered more pragmatic and measured.
Bright was born in Rochdale in the north of England to a Quaker family. His father, Jacob, owned a cotton mill, where John worked as a young man and eventually became a partner. In 1839, he married Elizabeth Priestman, with whom he had a daughter, Helen. Elizabeth died shortly after Helen’s birth, and Bright later married Margaret Elizabeth Leatham, with whom he would have seven children. Bright was precocious, but had little formal schooling, his father believing that practical experience to be more valuable than academic training. Following a long trip through Europe and the Middle East, Bright returned to Rochdale and soon became involved in politics. The cause that concerned him most, and with which he would forever be associated, was trade. He believed that Britain’s tariffs on agricultural goods were impoverishing a large share of its citizenry while benefiting only the landed aristocracy. In 1839, he joined with Cobden, already a well-established statesman, to found the Anti-Corn Law League, tirelessly arguing across the British Isles for free trade. In their near-constant tours on behalf of the cause of liberalized trade, Cobden would speak first, giving the reasoned case for reform, with Bright to follow with a more polemical appeal. In 1843, Bright joined Cobden in Parliament, representing Durham and, later, Manchester and Birmingham.
In 1845, in a speech before the league, Bright made the case against the protection of Great Britain’s agricultural sector from foreign competition. He argued that,
by withdrawing the stimulus of competition, the law prevents the good cultivation of the land of our country, and therefore diminishes the supply of food which we might derive from it. It prevents, at the same time, the importation of foreign food from abroad, and it also prevents the growth of supplies abroad, so that when we are forced to go there for them they are not to be found… . The most demoniacal ingenuity could not have invented a scheme more calculated to bring millions of the working classes of this country to a state of pauperism, suffering, discontent, and insubordination than the Corn-law which we are now opposing.
The same year that Bright delivered this speech, Ireland suffered a tragic famine, which eventually cost the lives of well over 1 million people (about 15%) of its population and drove roughly the same number abroad. The famine also led the Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel to introduce a bill to phase out the Corn Laws over a 3-year period. On June 25, 1846, the bill passed the House of Lords. Bright wrote George Wilson, another prominent member of the 1eague, that “we have not seen the last of the Barons, but we have taught them which way the world is turning.” In fact, during the ensuing decades, Great Britain as well as much of continental Europe moved toward a general program of freer trade. In July 1846, with the Corn Laws repealed, the 1eague was disbanded.
Bright’s commitment to liberalism extended beyond foreign affairs. When Peel proposed to reintroduce an income tax, Bright expressed his outrage in a letter to Cobden. “No government,” he wrote, “can have a right to make me state the amount of my profits and it is a vile system of slavery to which Englishmen are about to be subjected.” Cobden died in 1865, with Bright at his side. Although he would continue to push for liberal reforms until his own death more than 20 years later, Bright will forever be best known for his efforts to repeal the Corn Laws and bring peace and free trade to Great Britain.
Ausubel, Herman. John Bright: Victorian Reformer. New York: Wiley, 1966.
Bright, John. Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, Vols. I-II. James E. Thorold Rogers, ed. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1970 .
Robbins, Keith. John Bright. London: Routledge, 1979.
Originally published .