Despite his humble origins as the son of a failed farmer, Cobden became a celebrity within his life as both a politician and activist. Cobden spent much of his career attacking the Corn Laws, a set of restrictive policies that dramatically increased the price of food in Britain. But an often overlooked aspect of Cobden’s career is his staunch opposition to British wars abroad. He saw no benefit for Britain in meddling in the affairs of other nations.
Across the globe, the reputation of politicians deteriorates with every passing day. It is easy to flick through history books and find the worst of the worst holding public office. But today I want to discuss a person who ought to be considered a model statesman for his dedication to peace and free trade. Richard Cobden led a revolution of ideas, overthrowing the restrictive and dangerous thinking on economics and foreign policy, which prevailed in 19th century Britain. By no means was this revolution restricted solely to Britain, Cobden became a figure of international renown influencing liberal movements in places like France, Spain, and Italy.
Richard Cobden was born on the 3rd of June 1804, the fourth of eleven children. The Cobden family lived and worked around the village of Heyshott in Sussex for a number of generations. But this was all to change. Richard’s father, William, did not follow in his father’s footsteps as a maltster, instead deciding to try his luck at farming. William’s poor farming skills resulted in the Cobden family selling their property in Sussex, being forced to move multiple times before finally settling down in Hampshire as tenant farmers. Cobden gained an elementary education at a Dame school but then transferred to a boarding school with his uncle’s financial support until he was fourteen.
Despite a natural passion for learning, Cobden was forced by economic circumstances to cut his studies short and search for employment. Thankfully his uncle Richard Ware Cole who owned a warehouse business in London, gave him a job as a clerk, and eventually, Cobden became a traveling salesman selling cotton prints earning commission on each sale. While it was not the most glamorous of jobs, Cobden excelled, sharpening his skills of persuasion, which would come to serve him later in life. Cobden’s uncle noticed his success and observed that he was addicted to reading and studying all kinds of ideas. He warned Cobden that his “fondness for book‐knowledge” was an “evil omen for his future as a man of business.” But Cobden was undeterred by his uncle’s pessimism. Even if he could not have a traditional education through formal schooling, Cobden spent as much time as possible reading in the public libraries of London about his favorite subject, political economy. In a letter to his brother, Cobden expressed his deep love for learning, writing that “You know that I do not live except to learn.”
Through his work as a salesman, Cobden had become intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the muslin and calico business. By 1828, Cobden established his own business along with two former co‐workers. By 1831 the trio became confident enough to take over an old calico printing factory and print calicos of their own.
Cobden’s business venture was a success, but he always dedicated ample time to his studies. He became familiar with the writings of Adam Smith, who had argued in his seminal work, the Wealth of Nations, that free‐trade, not protectionism was the surest path to prosperity. Equipped with Smith’s teachings, in 1835, Cobden wrote a series of letters for the Manchester Times, which under the editorship of Archibald Prentice was a radical newspaper that often published articles advocating for free trade.
Itching to engage further with intellectual matters, Cobden penned his first‐ever pamphlet in 1836 entitled England, Ireland, and America, under the pseudonym, a Manchester Manufacturer. Despite being nearly 200 years old the arguments Cobden made in this pamphlet are profoundly applicable to the modern world. He advocated for cutting military expenditures, a foreign policy of non‐intervention, and an economic policy of free trade.
Cobden began by stressing the opportunity costs of military spending, explaining that “every farthing of which goes, in the shape of taxation, from the pockets of the public.” Military expenditures were not a public good, but in fact, often a drain on the economy. Unlike private spending, which can generate further wealth, money spent on the military produces no new wealth. Politicians, generals, and government workers benefit from this influx of cash, but the vast majority of people gain no advantage from excessive military spending. Politicians often evoked the common good of all, but in reality, the benefits all flowed to special interest groups, Cobden argued that “The honours, the fame, the emoluments of war belong not to [the middle and industrious classes]; the battle‐plain is the harvest‐field of the aristocracy, watered with the blood of the people.” Across the pond, America flourished economically, and Cobden attributed this to the low taxes in America that allowed for industrious individuals to save and invest their wealth to create products more worthwhile than weapons. All that military spending had achieved was to accrue hundreds of millions of pounds of debt, which would have to be repaid by future generations.
“Our history during the last century may be called the tragedy of “British intervention in the politics of Europe;” in which princes, diplomatists, peers, and generals have been the authors and actors—the people the victims; and the moral will be exhibited to the latest posterity in 800 millions of debt.”
In Cobden’s day, England was the country that was continually sending troops abroad to meddle in foreign affairs in much the same way that the United States does today in its role as the so‐called policeman of the world. Intervention abroad was often justified on the grounds of maintaining a “ balance of power” in European affairs. Since 1701, starting with King William, English politicians regularly brought up concerns over the balance of power that it was up to England to uphold. But Cobden showed that this idea was wholly inconsistent and had no real meaning and that it was merely a pretense for politicians to launch others headlong into foreign wars. Cobden described the concept of the balance of powers as “a chimera! It is not a fallacy, a mistake, an imposture, it is an undescribed, indescribable, incomprehensible nothing; mere words.” In reality, politicians used this vague term to justify their expeditions abroad for their own aggrandizement.
After examining the various contemporary definitions of the balance of power, Cobden concluded that “the theory of a balance of power is a mere chimera – a creation of the politician’s brain – a phantasm, without definite form or tangible existence – a mere conjunction of syllables, forming words which convey sound without meaning.” Cobden pointed to America as a shining example of a country that followed the most beneficial foreign policy. Unlike England, America had experienced fifty years of peace, except two years of a defensive war.
Cobden was firmly against intervention abroad. He believed it did not benefit the intervening nation or the nation in question. He concluded that “the wisest policy for England is to take no part in these remote quarrels.” But what if a country had an oppressive government which ought to be toppled? Yet again, Cobden answered in the negative. Contra to some modern‐day advocates of nation‐building, Cobden reminded those who wished to implement enlightened government abroad that “it is not by means of war that states are rendered fit for the enjoyment of constitutional freedom.” The push towards greater freedom was, in Cobden’s eyes, the result of education, not force. Therefore any sort of paternalistic intervention would end in merely perpetuating further miseries. The best policy for England was to focus inward, not outward, by serving as a beacon for other countries.
Cobden believed that free trade was a prudent economic policy that would improve material prosperity, but he also theorized that free trade amongst nations would bring about lasting peace. Cobden concurred with George Washington, who said, “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” When nations have no trade relations, there is nothing to lose from conflict. But when military might is replaced by commercial ties and interdependency, countries would see no reason to go to war with one another. Evoking the example of America again, Cobden explained that “England and America are bound up together in peaceful fetters by the strongest of all ligatures that can bind two nations to each other, commercial interests.” This makes it near impossible for the two to ever even conceive of war with one another. If all nations adopted free trade and mutually relied on one another, world peace would become achievable because in Cobden’s words, “the more any nation traffics abroad upon free and honest principles, the less it will be in danger of wars.” In short, Cobden advocated for “As little intercourse as possible betwixt Governments, as much connection as possible between the nations of the world.” Free trade was the key to lasting peace among nations.
By June in the same year, Cobden toured America for three months while writing his next pamphlet entitled quite simply Russia in which he argued against the prevailing fears of Russia and yet again advocated for non‐intervention and commerce. Throughout 1836–1837 Cobden traveled to Spain, Turkey, and Egypt. Cobden’s travels affirmed the importance of trade, he observed that whenever he went trade promoted the breakdown of former animosities between different races and religions.
By his return in 1837, Cobden had become a leading citizen in Manchester, now a member of the chamber of commerce and an alderman. Remembering his own deprivations, Cobden took great interest in extending a non‐sectarian education to a more significant number of people. While speaking at towns near Manchester Cobden met John Bright, who would become an important ally and friend. Cobden was increasingly confident in his abilities and decided to partake as a candidate in the general election but was narrowly defeated.
Cobden was not swayed instead, he began to turn his attention towards an issue that would define his career, the Corn Laws. During the Napoleonic wars lasting from 1803–1815, the British blockade imports from continental Europe in an attempt to economically isolate Napoleon’s empire. But the war had ended in 1815, there was no reason to continue the blockade. But the corn laws were introduced to protect British farmers from cheaper foreign imports. The Corn Laws barred the entry of any foreign corn unless the price was above eighty shillings a quarter. These rules were happily received by aristocratic landlords, who made a hefty profit from the higher prices and were insulated comfortably from any foreign competition. Corn was a staple of their diet for the poorest of Britain, but the corn laws dramatically raised the price of corn, causing immense suffering on the most deprived people, with some even starving.
As we have already seen, Cobden supported free trade, but this issue was more than just a matter of prudent economics. Cobden saw the Corn Laws not only as an economic issue but a moral one. Aristocrats and large landowners grew rich from high prices. At the same time, starving families scrimped and saved to buy meager loaves of bread. For Cobden, few things were more morally repugnant than the disgusting behavior of aristocrats who used the law for their own benefit.
The first anti‐corn law association was founded in London in 1836. Under Cobden’s guidance, another association was established in Manchester, which soon became a nationwide league with Cobden and John Bright, who were now firm friends, at the helm. The Anti‐Corn Law League had a simple singular aim, to abolish the Corn Law. But how was this to be achieved?
Cobden was the mastermind behind the League’s strategy organizing a pressure group unprecedented in intensity and single‐mindedness. Impressive numbers of meetings, lectures, and debates were held across the country while at the same newspapers, journals, and pamphlets were distributed in massive quantities to the public. The repeal of the Corn Laws was turned into a moral issue that invigorated the middle and working classes to become involved in politics to an extent unheard of before the League’s creation. But members of the League were not merely arguing against the corn laws, they were arguing for a monumental shift towards free trade. Cobden stressed time and time again that if one was an advocate of free trade they ought to also be an advocate of peace because free trade was the best method of promoting peace. In one speech he stated that “I see in the Free Trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe — drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race and creed and language, and uniting us in the bonds of universal peace.”
The Anti‐Corn Law League was an unprecedented campaign of changing public opinion, and through a myriad of tracts, advertisements, lectures, debates, pamphlets, and speeches, the League was starting to have an effect upon people’s minds and was shifting the public towards free trade, but changing people’s minds alone was not enough, the League organized candidates throughout the country to run for election.
By 1841 a general election was called, and Cobden ran for election representing Stockdale, one of the most populous districts in Britain. Cobden stormed the polls and was elected as a member of parliament.
Cobden was nothing like the majority of parliament. He was middle class, he had actually worked a proper job in his life. He had felt the pressures of economic necessity, something alien to most members of parliament who were born into wealthy families. Most, if not all of parliament was formally educated at prestigious places such as Oxford and Cambridge, where they had taken part in debating societies honing their oratory for years on end in what were the nurseries of statesmen. The majority of Cobden’s education had taken place in the library. Seeing just how different Cobden was from the average member of parliament, it is no wonder that when he first entered parliament, he was not given the courtesies usually expected to be accorded to a member of parliament. His opponents didn’t expect much. After all, he was the son of a failed farmer. His Tory opponents expected him to flounder, flop, and fail, only then he would know his place.
When Cobden first addressed parliament, he dispelled any doubt of his credentials as a first‐rate orator. Cobden had spent his life dealing with and talking to ordinary people, he put no stock in flowery language or quoting great ancient authorities. He spoke with an unadorned eloquence. Directness, simplicity, and rationality were the defining characteristics of his oratory. He rarely raised his voice or harangued his adversaries. Instead he opted for a style of argument that emphasized the reasonableness of his position. In his first address to parliament in August, Cobden gave a simple yet compelling speech in which he deftly articulated his views on the Corn Laws and how they needed to be repealed immediately to alleviate the suffering of the poor. He had transformed what could have been a dry economic debate into a discussion of a moral issue now placed at the heart of British life. His speech shocked parliament, who did not expect such eloquence from a common man.
Throughout the seven‐year struggle to repeal the Corn Laws, Cobden dedicated himself wholly to the cause being on the move, perpetually delivering speeches, organizing rallies, and writing for newspapers. Bright often accompanied him on the road and on the stage the two complementing each other’s style with Cobden explaining the facts of the Corn Laws and Bright delivering the emotionally charged invective to hammer home the point. The two became the best of friends without a hint of rivalry between the pair. An anecdote recorded by Bright shows the true dedication of Cobden to the cause of free trade to alleviate poverty. In 1841 Bright’s wife of a mere two years tragically succumbed to tuberculosis. Bright was distraught at the loss of his wife, who he loved dearly. Cobden approached the grief‐stricken Bright and offered his condolences. After some silence, he sternly turned to Bright and explained that “there are thousands of houses in England at this moment where wives, mothers, and children are drying of hunger.” He advised that once Bright was ready, he should follow him unto the breach once more and keep fighting until the Corn Laws were repealed.
The relationship between them was not one‐sided by any means. By September of 1845, Cobden had run himself ragged on the road for five years, delivering speeches to thousands, day after day. Because of his dedication, Cobden had barely seen his wife, and his business was suffering from his neglect. He wanted to quit, but Bright refused to allow him to leave and convinced Cobden that without him, the fight couldn’t continue. The duo are a testament to friendship’s importance, neither would let the other quit on their ambitions.
And their hard work paid off. In 1846 the Tory prime minister Robert Peel put forward a bill proposing the gradual repeal of the corn laws over three years with the bill eventually being altered to accommodate an immediate and total repeal. On the 16th of May the House of Commons passed the bill 327–229, the house of Lords astonished by the immense support for the repeal complied and passed the bill 211–164. In his resignation speech, Peel acknowledged Cobden was the man behind the repealing of the corn laws, a Tory praising a radical such as Cobden was a rare sight indeed. Still, he was a man deserving of lavish praise even though he was often too humble to accept it in earnest.
The Anti‐Corn Law League has been recognized by historians as one of the most effective single‐issue pressure groups to have ever existed. Future reform movements would follow the Anti‐Corn Law League’s example and adopt similar strategies. The League would not have been nearly as successful without Cobden’s practical organizational skills and strategic approach.
With its objective completed, the League held its final meeting to disband but not before rewarding the weary Cobden. Over the course of seven years, Cobden had wholly dedicated himself to repealing the Corn Laws, neglecting his business, ignoring his own health, and being apart from his family. Cobden had spent so much time away from home that his five‐year‐old son did not even recognize him. In recognition of his tireless service to Britain, a public subscription of 80,000 pounds was raised, which he used to repay his debts and buy back his childhood home he had lost all those years ago in Sussex.
The success of the anti‐corn law league made Cobden a major celebrity not only in his native Britain but also across Europe.
Cobden decided to strike while the iron was hot and toured Europe throughout 1846 and 1847 to convince the intelligentsia, politicians, and leaders to adopt free trade. Over fourteen months, Cobden visited France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Prussia, and even Russia. For Cobden, free trade was the great panacea that would bring material prosperity and peace. In his mind, it was only logical that all nations, not just Britain, ought to adopt free trade policy. While abroad, a general election was held, and despite being absent, Cobden was elected MP for two different constituencies.
Following his return from the continent, Cobden funneled his efforts towards promoting peace by urging the government to adopt a foreign policy of non‐intervention and reducing military spending. To this end, Cobden proposed bills in favor of arbitration and mutual arms reduction. Although Cobden fought valiantly, he was ultimately unsuccessful, a trend that would continue as he struggled to persuade his peers in parliament of the dangers of meddling in others affairs. Not budging an inch, Cobden over several years, opposed the Opium Wars, the Crimean War, and intervention in the American Civil War. Cobden was often referred to as anti‐English by his detractors. Venting his infuriation to his confidant Bright Cobden condemned Britain stating, “I consider that we as a nation are little better than brigands, murderers, and poison ers, in our dealings at this moment with half the population of the globe.” With a distinct distate for aristocratic rule, Cobden placed the blame for pointless wars on the aristocratic classes brash attitude towards war, that often plunged Britain headlong into an endless cycle of foreign wars for their own self‐aggrandisement.
After declining a position in Lord Palmerson’s administration in 1859, Cobden made contact with the French economist and free marketeer Michel Chevalier. While visiting France, Chevalier urged Cobden to meet with the French emperor Napoleon III and convince him of the benefits of free trade. Despite some initial skepticism of Cobden’s arguments, the emperor was won over eventually signing a trade agreement drafted by Chevalier in1860. This treaty has now been dubbed by historians as the first modern trade deal. The treaty was named the Cobden‐ Chevalier Treaty after the pair that made the deal happen in the first place. With this new treaty in place, trade rapidly increased between both France and Britain enriching both nations. Upon his return home, Cobden was offered titles and another position in government that he promptly declined, favoring independence over personal advancement.
By 1865 Cobden was suffering from bronchial irritation, making breathing agonizing. Despite his best attempts at looking after his health, Cobden passed away on the 2nd of April in 1865 at the age of sixty in London, surrounded by his family and, of course, his dearest friend John Bright. After his death, Bright expressed his deep love for Cobden “I have only to say that after twenty years of the most intimate and almost brotherly friendship, I little knew how much I loved him until I had lost him.”
Bright’s sentiment was not only shared in Britain but across Europe, where Cobden had inspired budding liberals such as Frederic Bastiat to promote free trade in their countries. Cobden had become a living legend within his own lifetime, attaining acclaim from all sections of society. In many ways, he was an unconventional politician for his time and even today. He did not follow party lines and instead always sided with his conscience, not the demands of careerism. For his refusal to take part in party politics throughout his career, Cobden was viewed as a man above self‐interest. But this moral virtue did not come from the upper echelons of society but instead from below. Much of Cobden’s positive traits can be traced to his middle‐class background, his plain style of speaking, excellent organizational skills, and his faith in the efficacy of free trade, all stemmed from his humble origins. Cobden was not a great politician in spite of his lack of aristocratic status, he was a great politician because he lacked aristocratic status. He was immensely proud that his lot in life was not decided at birth but by his own efforts.
Cobden and the Anti‐Corn Law League did not repeal every protectionist tariff. However, they did create the intellectual environment as well as the precedent to show that the free market was not merely a theory but a real practical policy. This task of cutting tariffs would be taken up by the prime minister William Ewart Gladstone who had praised Cobden by saying “I do not know that I have ever seen in public life a character more truly simple, noble, and unselfish.” By 1890, Gladstone had reduced the number of tariffs from 1,200 to 12, it is hard to imagine this happening without people such as Cobden creating a fertile environment in which free‐market ideas could flourish. Until the very end of his life, Cobden had been an apostle of free trade describing a world where antagonisms of race, country, and creed were subsumed by the mutually beneficial cooperation of nations spanning the globe.
Sadly today, barriers to trade are being re‐erected by nationalist movements, and endless wars perpetuate misery. Thankfully Cobden’s advice is the perfect antidote to chauvinistic economic nationalism and hawkish neoconservatism. Free trade promotes both material prosperity and peace, the prerequisites for any form of societal progress. Cobden would be aghast if he could see the state of American foreign policy today. The America he had hailed as a beacon of free trade and non‐intervention has morphed into an empire maintained by the most gargantuan military budget on the planet. The words, passion and actions of people like Cobden are needed now, more than ever, to combat the growing list of illiberal opponents of cosmopolitanism and free trade.