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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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 cooeperation, 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
"It was hunger that at last ate through those stone walls of
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
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
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.