Jun 1, 1978

Richard Cobden

Historian Ralph Raico shares selections from the writings of Richard Cobden.

Richard Cobdena self-made, self-educated cotton manufacturer from the north of England, is one of the greatest names in the history of classical liberalism. For decades—up until his death in 1865—he persevered in employing his sharp, fresh intellect and his enormous polemical talents in the struggle for libertarian principles: for the free market at home, free trade among peoples, and international peace. Through his many writings and public speeches, through acting as a gadfly in the House of Commons to successive governments, and through organizing and promoting mass movements among the citizens, Cobden did perhaps more than any other individual of his time to make mid-19th century England a relatively free country.

Cobden and his friend John Bright were the mainstays of the Manchester School in British politics and thought. Together they led the Anti-Corn Law League, a mass movement that finally broke the back of the privileged aristocracy and brought complete free trade and increasing prosperity to England. Cobden fought untiringly for lower expenditures and taxes (“retrenchment”), for freedom of opinion and religion, and against paper money—which he called “the curse and scourge of the working classes.”

His greatest passion, however, was peace. War he saw not only as an evil in itself, but as producing every other political evil, particularly repression, inflation, high taxes, and poverty. Because of their adherence to principle, even in the midst of the Crimean War, Cobden and the other Radicals of his time were opposed and vilified by the conservatives, who attacked them as enemies of the poor and rootless cosmopolites, and looked on them as men who had no respect for the greatness and power of their own nation. Nonetheless, Cobden was admired and even loved by many in the working and middle classes, who saw him as the great champion of their interests against the establishment. But the greatest tribute to the man is, oddly enough, a point of terminology: Sometimes, especially in Europe, “Cobdenism” is simply used as a synonym for the philosophy of classical liberalism.

—Ralph Raico

“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.”—Washington’s Farewell Address to the American People

To maintain what is denominated the true balance of European power has been the fruitful source of wars from the earliest time; and it would be instructive, if the proposed limits of this work permitted it, to bring into review all the opposite struggles into which England has plunged for the purpose of adjusting, from time to time, according to the ever-varying theories of her rulers, this national equilibrium. Let is suffice to say that history exhibits us, at different periods, in the act of casting our sword into the scale of every European State. In the meantime, events have proclaimed, but in vain, how futile must be our attempts to usurp the sceptre of the Fates. Empires have risen unbidden by us; others have departed, despite out utmost efforts to preserve them. All have undergone a change so complete that, were the writers who only a century ago lauded the then existing state of the balance of Europe to reappear, they would be startled to find, in the present relations of the Continent, no vestige of that perfect adjustment which had been purchased at the price of so much blood. And yet we have able writers and statesmen of the present day who would advocate a war to prevent a derangement of what we now choose to pronounce the just equipoise of the power of Europe… .

In truth, Great Britain has, in contempt of the dictates of prudence and self-interest, an insatiable thirst to become the peace-maker abroad, or, if that benevolent task fails her, to assume the office of gendarme and keep in order, gratuitously, all the refractory nations of Europe. Hence does it arise that, with an invulnerable island for our territory, more secure against foreign molestation than is any part of the cost of North America, we magnanimously disdain to avail ourselves of the privileges which nature offers to us, but cross the ocean in quest of quadripartite treaties or quintuple alliances, and, probably, to leave our own good name in pledge for the debts of the poorer members of such confederacies. To the same spirit of overweening national importance may in great part be traced the ruinous wars and yet more ruinous subsidies of our past history. Who does not now see that to have shut ourselves in our own ocean fastness and to have guarded its shores and its commerce by our fleets was the one of policy we ought never to have departed from—and who is there that is not now feeling, in the burden of our taxation, the dismal errors of our departure from this rule during the last war?

… We have the argument which has, immediately or remotely, decided us to undertake almost every war in which Great Britain has been involved—namely, the defense of our commerce. And yet it has, over and over again, been proved to the world, that violence and force can never prevail against the natural wants and wishes of mankind: in other words, that despotic laws against freedom of trade never can be executed… . and yet people would frighten us into war, to prevent the forcible annihilation of our trade! [Cobden cites the famous example of Napoleon’s attempted embargo on Continental trade with England.] Where, then, is the wisdom of our fighting European battles in defense of a commerce which knows so well of itself how to elude all its assailants? And what have we to show as a per-contra for the four hundred millions of debt incurred in our last continental wars? …

We have dwelt at greater length upon this point, because the advocates of an intermeddling policy always hold up the alluring prospect of benefiting commerce; and we think we have said enough to prove that Russian violence cannot destroy, or even sensibly inure, our trade.

… We know of nothing that would be so likely to conduce to a diminution of our burdens, by reducing the charges of army, navy and ordnance (amounting to fourteen millions annually) as a proper understanding of our relative position with respect to our colonial possessions. We are aware that no power was ever yet known voluntarily to give up the dominion over a part of its territory. But if it could be made manifest to the trading and industrious portions of this nation—who have no honors or interested ambition of any kind at stake in the matter—that whilst our dependencies are supported at an expense to them, in direct taxation, of more than five millions annually, they serve but as gorgeous and ponderous appendages to swell our ostensible grandeur, but in reality to complicate and magnify our government expenditure, without improving our balance of trade—surely under such circumstances it would become at least a question for anxious inquiry with a people so overwhelmed with debt, whether those colonies should not be suffered to support and defend themselves as separate and independent existences… .


There is no remedy for this but in the wholesome exercise of the people’s opinion in behalf of their own interests. The middle and industrious classes of England can have no interest apart from the preservation of peace. The honors, the fame, the emoluments of war belong not to them; the battle-plain is the harvest-field of the aristocracy, watered with the blood of the people.

We know of no means by which a body of members in the reformed House of Commons could so fairly achieve for itself the patriotic title of a national party as by associating for the common object of deprecating all intervention on our part in continental politics. Such a party might well comprise every representative of our manufacturing and commercial districts and would, we doubt not, very soon embrace the majority of a powerful House of Commons. At some future election, we may probably see the test of “no foreign politics” applied to those who offer to become the representatives of free constituencies. Happy would it have been for us, and well for our posterity, had such a feeling predominated in this country 50 years ago! …

Nor do we think it would tend less to promote the ultimate benefit of our continental neighbors than our own, were Great Britain to refrain from participating in the conflicts that may arise around her… . England, by calmly directing her undivided energies to the purifying of her own internal institutions, to the emancipation of her commerce-above all, the unfettering of her press from its excise bonds—would, by thus serving as the beacon of other nations, aid more effectually the cause of political progression all over the continent than she could possibly do by plunging herself into the strife of European wars… .

If ever there was a territory that was marked out by the finger of God for the possession of a distinct nation, that country is ours; whose boundary is the ocean, and within whose ramparts are to be found, in abundance, all the mineral and vegetable treasures requisite to make us a great commercial people. Discontented with these blessings, and disdaining the natural limits of our empire, in the insolence of our might and without waiting for the assaults of envious enemies, we have sallied forth in search of conquest or rapine and carried bloodshed into every quarter of the globe. The result proves, as it ever must, that we cannot violate the moral law with impunity. Great Britain is conscious that she is now suffering the slow but severe punishment inflicted at her own hands—she is crushed beneath a debt so enormous that nothing but her own mighty strength could have raised the burden that is oppressing her.

Again we say, England cannot survive its financial embarrassment except by renouncing that policy of intervention in the affairs of other states which has been the fruitful source of nearly all our wars… .

—from EnglandIrelandand America (1835)

We shall offer no excuses for so frequently resolving questions of State policy into matters of pecuniary calculation. Nearly all the revolutions and great changes in the modern world have had a financial origin. The exaction of the tenth penny operated far more powerfully than the erection of the Council of Blood to stir the Netherlands into rebellion in 1569 against the tyranny of Charles V. Charles I of England lost his head in consequence of enforcing the arbitrary tax called ship-money. The independence of America, and indirectly through that event, all the subsequent political revolutions of the entire world, turned upon a duty of threepence a pound, levied by England upon tea imported into that colony… .

Remembering that to nineteen-twentieths of the people—who never encounter a higher functionary than the tax-gatherer, and who meet their rulers only in duties upon beer, soap, tobacco, etc.—politics are but an affair of pounds, shillings and pence, we need not feel astonished at such facts as the preceding… .

If government desires to serve the interests of our commerce, it has but one way. War, conquest, and standing armaments cannot aid, but only oppress, trade. Diplomacy will never assist it, commercial treaties can only embarrass it. The only mode by which government can protect and extend our commerce is by retrenchment and a reduction of the duties and taxes upon the ingredients of our manufactures and the food of our artisans.

The British nation—the productive classes—pay in taxation as much in proportion to support well-dressed lookers-on in ships of war, garrisons and civil offices, as their goods sell for to the West Indians. … It is customary, however, to hear our standing army and navy defended as necessary for the protection of our colonies—as though some other nation might otherwise seize them. Where is the enemy(?) what would be so good as to steal such property? We should consider it to be quite as necessary to arm in defense of our national debt!…

Those who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence. For as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments… .

—from Russia (1836)

I wish … that all might understand the “true secret” of despots, which is to employ one nation in cutting the throats of another, so that neither may have time to reform the abuses in their own domestic government. I would say, on the contrary, the true secret of the people is to remain at peace; and not only so, but to be on their guard against false alarms about the intended aggressions of their neighbors, which when too credulously believed, give to government all the political advantages of a war, without its risks. For they keep men’s minds in a degrading state of fear and dependence, and afford the excuse for continually increasing government expenditure.

—from 1793 and 1833 (1853)

The Peace party will never rouse the conscience of the people so long as they allow them to indulge the comforting delusion that they are a peace-loving nation. We have been the most combative and aggressive community that has existed since the days of the Roman dominion. Since the Revolution of 1688 we have expended more than 1500 millions of money upon wars—not one of which has been upon our own shores or in defense of our hearths and homes. “For so it is,” says a not unfriendly foreign critic [the Minister from the United States], “other nations fight at or near their own territory—the English everywhere.”

—from 1793 and 1833

In the name of every artisan in the kingdom, to whom war would bring the tidings, once more, of suffering and despair; in behalf of the peasantry of these islands, to whom the first cannon would sound the knell of privation and death; on the part of the capitalists, merchants, manufacturers, and traders, who can reap no other fruits from hostilities but bankruptcy and ruin—in a word, for the sake of the vital interests of these and all other classes of the community, we solemnly protest against Great Britain being plunged into war with Russia, or any other country, in defense of Turkey—a war which, while it would inflict disasters upon every portion of the community, could not bestow a permanent benefit upon any class of it, and one upon our success in which, no part of the civilized world would have cause to rejoice.

Having the interests of all orders of society to support our argument in favor of peace, we need not dread war. These, and not the piques of diplomats, the whims of crowned heads, the intrigues of ambassadors, or schoolboy rhetoric on the balance of power, will henceforth determine the foreign policy of our government. That policy will be based on the bona fide principle of non-intervention in the political affairs of other nations. And from the moment this maxim becomes the lodestar by which our government shall steer the vessel of the state—from that moment the good old ship Britannia will float triumphantly in smooth and deep water, and the rocks, shoals, and hurricanes of foreign war are escaped forever.

—from Russia

(From The Political Writings of Richard Cobden (2 vols.), reprinted by Garland Press, New York, 1973.)%