Richard Cobden was the premiere advocate of free trade in 19th century Britain.
The 19th century was the most peaceful period in modern history. There weren’t any general wars between the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. This extraordinary peace followed centuries of endless wars and preceded the colossal carnage of the 20th century.
Peace prevailed, in large part, because nations seldom tried to push each other around, and economic policy was a major reason why. There was unprecedented freedom of movement for people goods and capital. By reducing intervention in economic affairs, governments reduced the risks that economic disputes would escalate into political disputes. There wasn’t much economic incentive for military conquest, because people on one side of a border could tap resources about as easily as people on the other side of a border. Trade expanded, strengthening the stake that nations had in the continued prosperity of one another as customers and suppliers. While free trade was never a guarantee of peace, it reduced the danger of war more than any public policy ever had.
In all this, one name towers above the rest: Richard Cobden, the straight talking English textile entrepreneur who gave up his business to crusade during three crucial decades. He pursued the most successful political strategies for free trade. He articulated the moral case which proved decisive. His inspired speeches attracted thousands of people at a time and raised plenty of money. He traveled throughout Europe, the United States, North Africa and the Near East, spreading the gospel of free trade to kings and commoners alike.
“He had no striking physical gifts,” noted biographer John Morley. “In his early days, he was slight in frame and build. He afterwards grew nearer to portliness. He had a large and powerful head, and the indescribable charm of a candid eye. His features were not of a commanding type; but they were illuminated and made attractive by the brightness of intelligence, of sympathy, and of earnestness. About the mouth there was a curiously winning mobility and play. His voice was clear, varied in its tones, sweet, and penetrating; but it had scarcely the compass, or the depth, or the many resources that have usually been found in orators who have drawn great multitudes of men to listen to them. Of nervous fire, indeed, he had abundance, though it was not the fire which flames up in the radiant colors of a strong imagination. It was rather the glow of a thoroughly convinced reason, of intellectual ingenuity, of argumentative keenness. It came from transparent honesty, thoroughly clear ideas, and a very definite purpose.”
Biographer Nicholas C. Edsall reported: “Cobden was not given to lengthy speeches. He was, moreover, a restrained orator by the standards of the time. He rarely raised his voice or indulged in rhetorical flourishes. He did not harangue his enemies; his preferred weapons were sarcasm and cold contempt. Nor was he the sort of speaker who sought to bring audiences to their feet or to the verge of tears. He was most comfortable and most effective as an expository speaker appealing to reason.”
Biographer Wendy Hinde: “Apart from his personal charm and his intellectual liveliness, what most impressed contemporaries was his single‐mindedness, his simplicity, his complete disinterestedness and his ability to exclude bitterness and rancor from fierce political controversy.”
Cobden was born June 3, 1804, the fourth of 11 children, near Heyshott, Sussex, England. His father William Cobden was apparently an inept farmer, and he and his wife Millicent Amber went bankrupt.
In 1819, Richard started working as a clerk at his uncle’s textile warehouse. He became a travelling salesman, and a dozen years later he and two partners launched a textile warehouse business, specializing in calicos and muslins. By 1831, they were doing well enough to take over an old calico‑printing factory in Sabden and print their own calicos. Family burdens fell on Cobden when his mother died, his father remained idle, a brother and sister died, and another brother’s business failed. He took care of everybody and helped start the first school in his town.
Recognizing that he needed knowledge to get ahead, he began educating himself. He sent away for books on mathematics. He read books about European history, English and European literature. He wrote his first political pamphlet, England, Ireland and America (1835) which, among other things, made a case for not starting wars or getting involved in other people’s wars.
During the next several years, he traveled to France, Switzerland, Spain and the United States. He observed how all kinds of people cooperate peacefully in markets. For example, in Gibraltar he observed “English, French, Spanish, Italian, Mahometans, Christians, and Jews, all bawling and jostling each other, some buying, others selling or bartering…” Cobden wrote Russia (1836), a pamphlet which attacked the popular British view that Russia posed a national security threat justifying a big boost in the military budget.
In 1836 or 1837, Cobden was asked by a man named John Bright to give a talk on education, and the two hit it off. Bright was born on November 16, 1811, the son of a Rochdale cotton spinner. According to one biographer, he had a “beautiful, mild, and intelligent eye, fringed with long and dark lashes, an expansive and noble forehead, over which hung in thick clusters his rich brown, naturally curly hair.” Like Cobden, his formal education ended with grammar school, but he pursued his love for English literature. As a Quaker whose ancestors had been imprisoned for their Nonconformist (non‐Church of England) views, Bright expressed passion for liberty. He honed his speaking abilities in public squares, church meetings and other gatherings.
Cobden and Bright weren’t the first to attack the corn laws, as grain tariffs were called, but they made a successful national movement. First, they set an inspiring goal — repealing the corn laws. Cobden convinced supporters that every shilling of tariff inflicted misery on people. Modifying the tariffs, a position favored by compromise‐minded chamber of commerce people, was out. Second, free trade could capture the imagination of people as a moral issue. “It appears to me,” Cobden wrote an Edinburgh publisher, “that a moral and even a religious spirit may be infused into that topic [free trade], and if agitated in the same manner that the question of slavery has been, it will be irresistible.” Third, success would require a national campaign coordinating anti‑corn‑law associations throughout England — the mission of the Anti‑Corn‑Law League, launched in March 1839. A national campaign would call for vigorous fundraising. Cobden made arrangements to turn his calico printing and marketing business over to his partners.
Cobden’s mastery of facts helped win supporters. For example, he noted that while farmers in Chester, Gloucester and Wilts wanted high tariffs to protect their cheese, they had to pay needlessly high costs for tariff‐protected commodities they wanted, such as oats and beans. Similarly, farmers in the Lothians supported high tariffs on wheat, but this was offset by the extra cost of tariff‐protected linseed cake and other foodstuffs for their cattle.
Cobden hammered the corn laws for making people miserable. “He knew of a place,” noted biographer Morley, “where a hundred wedding rings had been pawned in a single week to provide bread; and of another place where men and women subsisted on boiled nettles, and dug up the decayed carcase of a cow rather than perish of hunger.”
Increasingly, Cobden and Bright appeared together on the same platform, and they achieved far greater impact than either could alone. “Cobden always spoke first,” explained Bright biographer George Macaulay Trevelyan, “disarming prejudice and exposing with clear economic arguments set off in homely illustration the wrongs that farmers and laborers, or manufacturers and operatives, suffered through the working of Protection. When the audience had thus been brought round into a sympathetic state of mind, then — to use Bright’s own words — ‘I used to get up and do a little prize‑fighting.’…his characteristic and vital contribution was the passion with which he reinforced reason, and the high tone of moral indignation and defiance which he infused into his listeners. And this was exactly where Cobden, the persuader, was necessarily weakest. Each supplied the defects of the other’s qualities. The known friendship between them, the utter absence of rivalry and self‑interest, the apostolic fervor that made these missionaries so unlike the common Whig and Tory politician…”
Cobden and Bright were on the road almost non‐stop. “We spoke to about two thousand persons in the parish church [Aberdeen],” he wrote his brother, “travelled thirty‑five miles, held a meeting at Montrose, and then thirty‐five miles to Dundee, for a meeting the same evening. To‐morrow we go to Cupar Fife, next day, Leith, the day following, Jedburgh…I got here [Newcastle‐on‐Tyne] last night from Jedburgh, where we had the most extraordinary meeting of all. The streets were blocked up with country people as we entered the place, some of whom had come over the hills for twenty miles.”
While the free trade campaign was still a long way from its climax, Cobden got married. His bride was Catherine Anne Williams, a charming Welsh woman who was one of his sister’s friends. They went on a honeymoon through France, Switzerland and Germany — the last time they saw much of each other in quite a while, as it turned out.
Although Cobden and Bright generated increasing popular support for free trade, Tory‐dominated Parliament moved slowly. Tories — and probably most Whigs for that matter — were notorious protectionists representing landlords convinced that the corn laws helped maintain the value of their agricultural land. But pro‐free trade historian Thomas Babington Macaulay noted in his diary, 1839: “The cry for free trade in corn seems to be very formidable. If the Ministers play their game well, they may now either triumph completely, or retire with honor. They have excellent cards, if they know how to use them.”
Cobden concluded he wasn’t likely to succeed if he were only an outside agitator. He had to work within Parliament, too. After an unsuccessful bid, Cobden won an election in 1841. He exerted considerable influence because of his ability to get popular support.
Bright’s wife Elizabeth died of tuberculosis on September 10, 1841. They had been married less than two years, and he was devastated. Three days later, his partner was by his side. “Mr. Cobden,” recalled Bright, “called upon me as his friend, and addressed me, as you might suppose, with words of condolence. After a time he looked up and said, ‘There are thousands of houses in England at this moment where wives, mothers, and children are dying of hunger. Now,’ he said, ‘when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Law is repealed.’ I felt in my conscience that there was a work which somebody must do, and therefore I accepted his invitation, and from that time we never ceased to labour hard on behalf of the resolution which we had made.”
By September 1845, as torrential rains swept across the British Isles, Cobden told Bright that he was worn out. They had been on the road almost non‑stop for more than five years, addressing large crowds night after night. He hadn’t seen much of his wife, and his business was in bad shape. He wanted to quit. Bright replied: “your retirement would be tantamount to a dissolution of the League; its mainspring would be gone. I can in no degree take your place. As a second I can fight; but there are incapacities about me, of which I am fully conscious, which prevent my being more than second in such work as we have laboured in.”
Meanwhile, rains continued, accelerating the spread of a potato blight which had recently ruined crops in the United States, Holland and France. Signs of the blight appeared in England. Informed people worried about what might be going on in miserable Ireland where nearly everyone depended on potatoes to survive. Except for northeastern Ulster, Ireland had never gone through an industrial revolution, and Irish peasants were believed to be the poorest in Europe — even worse off than American black slaves. As historian Cecil Woodham‑Smith reported, “all nostrums were useless. Whether ventilated, desiccated, salted, or gassed, the potatoes melted into a slimy, decaying mass…” Peasants began dying from famine and related epidemics of typhus, cholera and other diseases. Eventually, over a million Irish perished, and many more emigrated.
Cobden and Bright intensified the pressure, holding Anti‐Corn‐Law League meetings in Manchester, London and other cities, each of which attracted many thousands of people. They began holding meetings every night, raising as much as L60,000 in just two hours.
Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel reluctantly announced his bill for total repeal of the corn laws, phased over a three‐year period, by February 1, 1849. In the House of Commons, Whigs were split. The House of Lords, overwhelmingly against repeal, had the power to delay any consideration of Peel’s bill. Cobden and Bright denounced proposals for some kind of compromise which would keep the corn laws.
On May 16th, Cobden recalled, he “had the glorious privilege of giving a vote in the majority for the third reading of the bill for the total repeal of the Corn Law…Macaulay and others came and shook hands with me, and congratulated me on the triumph of our cause.” The House of Commons passed the bill by a vote of 327 to 229. Against such sustained support for repeal, opposition in the House of Lords faded, and repeal won 211 to 164.
Repeal of the corn laws ushered in an era of trade liberalization and goodwill. In 1849, England abolished the 200‑year‑old Navigation Acts, opening its ports to foreign ships. Between 1853 and 1879, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cut the number of dutiable imports from 1,152 to 48. Duties ‑‑ low ‑‑ were retained mostly on luxury items like sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, liquor, wine and chicory. Everything else came into England duty‑free.
Free trade boosted incentives for English entrepreneurs to adapt in changing markets. When entrepreneurs failed to deliver what was needed, customers were free to protect their interests by seeking alternatives elsewhere. Problems weren’t spread from moribund businesses to millions of people.
Although European countries retained their prohibitive tariffs, England prospered. Cheap food poured into the country, and workers shifted out of agriculture into manufacturing. Then as other countries industrialized, many workers shifted into services. England became the leader of world shipping, commerce, insurance and finance. From 1846 until the outbreak of World War I, England’s industrial output soared 290%. Imports were up 701% and exports, 673%. Money wages in England increased about 59% for agricultural workers, 61% for industrial workers.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell observed, “if the Corn Laws had remained in force, much more agricultural labor would have been required to feed the increasing population, and less food would have been secured by a given amount of labor on British land than by exchanging manufactures for food produced abroad.” Cobden, Russell added, “certainly desired to improve the condition of the working classes, and he certainly did improve their condition most remarkably.”
Cobden and his family toured Europe. “His reception,” reported biographer Morley, “was everywhere that of a great discoverer in a science which interests the bulk of mankind much more keenly than any other, the science of wealth. He had persuaded the richest country in the world to revolutionize its commercial policy. People looked on him as a man who had found out a momentous secret.” In Europe Cobden met friends of liberty like Wilhelm von Humboldt in Prussia and Alexis de Tocqueville and Frederic Bastiat in France.
Soon after his return to England, Cobden became alarmed by those like Lord Palmerston who believed Britain should get more involved with global politics. As Cobden wrote Bright, September 1847, “In all my travels, three reflections constantly occur to me: how much unnecessary solicitude and alarm England devotes to the affairs of foreign countries; with how little knowledge we enter upon the task of regulating the concerns of other people; and how much better we might employ our energies in improving matters at home.” He continued, “It will be a happy day when England has not an acre of territory in Continental Asia.” Finally, this warning: “if we do not draw in our horns, this country, with all its wealth, energy, and resources, will sink under the weight of its extended empire.”
In 1854, Britain entered the Crimean War, purportedly to maintain the balance of power by preventing Russia from grabbing the Turkish empire. Cobden and Bright stood virtually alone for non intervention — and for setting Britain’s colonies free. During the next parliamentary elections, in 1857, both were defeated. The two‐year war turned out to be a pointless bloodbath which cost the lives of some 25,000 English soldiers.
For several decades, English foreign policy returned to non‐intervention as Cobden and Bright had advocated. England stayed out of the Franco‑Austrian War, the American Civil War, the Danish War, the Franco‑German War and later wars between Turkey and Russia. By 1859, both Cobden and Bright had been reelected to Parliament.
On July 21, 1859, Bright gave a speech in which he suggested that Britain could cut its military spending — much of which was to protect against a possible attack from France — and that both countries should open their markets. This idea inspired French government trade advisor Michel Chevalier who had met Cobden through Frederic Bastiat. Chevalier urged Cobden to try converting the French emperor Louis‐Napoleon, since Cobden had been so successful converting England to free trade. “We came to the conclusion,” he recalled, “that the less we attempted to persuade foreigners to adopt our trade principles, the better; for we discovered so much suspicion of the motives of England, that it was lending an argument to the protectionists abroad to incite a popular feeling against the Free Traders, by enabling them to say — ‘See what these men are wanting to do; they are partisans of Englishmen, and they are seeking to prostrate our industries at the feet of that perfidious nation’…To take away this pretense we avowed our total indifference whether other nations became free traders or not: but we should abolish Protection for our own sakes, and leave other countries to take whatever course they liked best.”
The resulting commercial treaty provided that Britain would end its tariffs on French goods and cut its tariffs on French wines 85%. France would convert its import bans to tariffs which would be reduced to less than 25% within five years. The initial term of the treaty would be 10 years. On January 23, 1860, the treaty was signed by Louis Napoleon.
The treaty had a dynamic impact. Between 1862 and 1866, the French negotiated trade liberalization treaties with the Zollverein (German customs union), Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Papal States and North German commercial cities. Most of these, in turn, liberalized trade with each other. Trade restrictions were reduced or eliminated on international waterways such as the Baltic and North Sea channel (1857), Danube (1857), Rhine (1861), Scheldt (1863) and Elbe (1870). Even Russia lowered tariffs somewhat, in 1857 and 1868. Because each treaty accepted the “most favored nation” principle, subsequent commercial treaties would offer newcomers the best terms available. Never before in European history had people been able to go about their daily business so freely.
“To the surprise of adamant protectionists,” noted Harvard University economic historian David Landes, “all nations saw their volume of exports grow. Home industries did not collapse before British competition, but rather changed and grew stronger in the process. Marginally inefficient firms, vegetating in the shelter of protective duties, were compelled to retool or close. In France especially, where the high tariff had long been a fetish, the effect of the commercial treaties, coming as they did on the heels of a severe commercial crisis (1857‑9), was to purge manufacturing enterprise and hasten its relocation along rational lines.”
On one occasion during his last years, Cobden strolled with a friend through St. Paul’s Cathedral cemetery, burying ground for many of England’s most famous heroes. The friend suggested Cobden might find an honored place there. Cobden replied: “I hope not. My spirit could not rest in peace among these men of war. No, no, cathedrals are not meant to contain the remains of such men as Bright and me.”
Approaching his 61st birthday, Cobden suffered serious asthma attacks. Breathing became a deadly struggle. In a London lodging house, where he went to relax near the House of Commons, he died on Sunday, April 2, 1865. John Bright was among those by his side. “I have only to say that after twenty years of most intimate and almost brotherly friendship,” Bright mourned, “I little knew how much I loved him until I had lost him.”