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Thursday, April 5, 2018

John Bright Was the Voice of Victorian Liberalism

John Bright did more than anyone else to bring about the great advances for liberty in 19th-century Britain.

Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like. — Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).

Heroes for liberty are not particular to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause—that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.

In my last bookReal Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions, and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing while keeping that to a minimum to preserve the author’s voice. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.

This week we dust off an oldie from the FEE archives, a 1988 article on the great 19th Century classical liberal and free trader, John Bright. At the time he wrote this, author Nicholas Elliott, a graduate of the University of York, was a regular contributor to the publications of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs.

—Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education

John Bright did more than anyone else to bring about the great advances for liberty in 19th-century Britain. A leading orator and agitator, he was considered by many to be the best political speaker of the century. His voice contained a quiet passion which captivated fellow members of Parliament and roused the many thousands he addressed at public meetings.

Born in Rochdale (a town north of Manchester) in 1811, Bright was raised in the individualistic tradition of the Society of Friends. From the faith of his family, he learned that there is a natural equality of mankind and that any individual can communicate with God. He later recognized this connection between his religion and his politics:

We have no creed which monarchs and statesmen and high priests have written out for us. Our creed, so far as we comprehend it, comes pure and direct from the New Testament. We have no thirty-seven articles to declare that it is lawful for Christian men, at the command of the civil magistrate, to wear weapons and to serve in wars.[1]

For many years, Nonconformists—those who did not conform to the established Church of England—had been persecuted and forced to finance the state church. Because of this, they also tended toward political individualism. John’s father, Jacob Bright, was liberal in his politics, and a supporter of the radical Member of Parliament Joseph Hume. He was also one of the many Nonconformists who refused to pay the church rate—a local tax to finance the state religion—and as a result, had silver spoons taken from his house by church officials.

As a young man, John worked in his father’s cotton mill, he kept a collection of books in a room above the counting-house, and in spare moments went there to expand his knowledge. His favorite writer was the poet and liberal scholar John Milton. At the same time, John was tutored in politics by his fellow workers, supporters of the Chartist movement, which called for universal male suffrage and the elimination of property qualifications for members of Parliament.

Bright established his reputation in an 1840 debate over church rates, an issue close to his heart. In his hometown of Rochdale, he led a rebellion against the local vicar. A large gathering was held in the local churchyard, at which John mounted a tombstone to denounce the “foul connection” of church and state.

The Campaign Against the Corn Laws

Bright is most famous for his part in the successful campaign for the repeal of the corn laws. During the Napoleonic War, English landowners had enjoyed a monopoly in the production of food. At the end of the war, they instituted the corn laws—a form of import control—to protect their domestic monopoly from competition. The laws kept the price of grain high, and since bread was the primary sustenance for most families, the laws created particular hardship for the poor. The issue had been brewing for some time. Charles Villiers had proposed corn law repeal in Parliament every year, and the Anti-Corn Law League was formed in Manchester in 1839. Richard Cobden and John Bright were instrumental in its founding.

The campaign gathered impetus in the “hungry forties” with a succession of poor harvests. The poverty was very real—observers reported seeing people with “withered limbs” in Manchester. Cobden was elected to Parliament from Stockport, and Bright was elected in 1843 to represent Durham. The League developed into a highly efficient political machine with mass support. They distributed millions of leaflets, held gatherings up and down the country, and published their own newspaper, The League. In addition, they gained the support of the fledgling Economist. In 1845, when Ireland was struck by a potato blight, pressure for repeal grew even stronger.

Bright and Cobden embarked upon a hectic speaking tour. The climax was a meeting in the Covent Garden Theatre, where Bright railed against the protectors of upper-class privilege:

The law is, in fact a law of the most ingeniously malignant character … 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…[2]

Leading Whigs and Tories were convinced of the need for repeal, and on June 25, 1846, a bill for repeal was carried. The elimination of other import duties followed, and a 70-year era of British free trade began; in the popular mind, free trade now signified cheap bread.

The event was also a momentous one for the landscape of British politics. Division in the Tories was irreconcilable. The landowning interests had stubbornly resisted repeal, and Prime Minister Robert Peel, who had supported repeal, was forced to resign. The division excluded the conservatives from government for the next twenty years.

In his activity in support of free trade, Bright was motivated above all by a concern for the plight of ordinary people. From the same motive, he opposed all the legislation which regulated working conditions in factories. The Factory Act of 1847 was in part a retaliation by the landowners for the corn law repeal: regulation of factories was a means of penalizing manufacturers. Bright was certain that it would make people worse off by reducing the number of hours in which they could earn money.

Opposition to the Crimean War

In their campaign against the corn laws, Bright and Cobden rode a wave of public adoration. But in their opposition to the Crimean War, the contrast could not have been greater, for they had to endure derision from a jingoistic public. Despite this, they produced some of the most lucid statements of non-interventionist foreign policy ever made, and Bright contributed some of his most memorable oratory.

For Bright, Cobden, and other leaders of the “Manchester School,” free trade was inseparable from a pacific foreign policy. Trade is based on mutual cooperation and evokes goodwill among nations. They rejected the argument that foreign alliances were needed to enforce a “balance of power” in Europe, and warned that such alliances would drag Britain into future conflicts. The only people who would benefit from war were the “tax-eating” class—government bureaucrats. Common people would suffer from the burden of taxes to fund foreign adventures. Bright and Cobden reserved no cordiality for Liberal Party Prime Minister Palmerston, a notorious interventionist whose policies attracted the description of “gun-boat diplomacy.”

As the war continued, Bright became deeply distressed by the loss of life: 22,000 British soldiers died, but only 4,000 in action; the rest died from malnutrition, exposure, and disease. His passionate speeches left a lasting impression on the House of Commons. His most famous words were these:

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two sideposts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on; he takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and lowly.[3]

India and the American Civil War

At the end of the Crimean War, Bright suffered a nervous collapse and was unseated in the general election. However, it was not long before he was returned as member for Birmingham, and with renewed energy, he sought better government for India. Bright argued that the mutiny of 1857 was caused by the ineptitude of colonial government. Capable Indians were excluded from the administration of their own country, positions being allocated instead by personal favor.

Bright assailed the economic management which imposed onerous taxes on the Indian peasantry, stunting development to maintain a vast, inefficient Indian civil service. He was ahead of his time in recognizing that Britain would not rule India forever. He also saw the potential for conflict in a country of “twenty nations, speaking twenty different languages,” and argued for a confederacy of smaller states.

He encouraged caution and diplomacy.

For many years, Bright had been an admirer of the United States—he was sometimes known in the House of Commons as the Honourable Member for the United States. He thought that the free and democratic style of government in America should be a model for Britain. When civil war erupted, Bright was concerned for the future of the republic but allied himself with the cause of the North.

English liberals weren’t unanimous in supporting the North. Cobden initially inclined toward the South, and The Economist sympathized with the South throughout. A humanitarian always, Bright supported the North because of the issue of slavery, which appalled him. In the early part of the war, when military intervention on the side of the South seemed likely, Bright urged neutrality. He also maintained a correspondence with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner. He encouraged caution and diplomacy; some of the letters he wrote to Sumner were read to President Lincoln.

It was always a matter of regret for Bright that he never visited North America. He maintained his admiration for the United States and saw in it the potential of a great world power.

Parliamentary Reform

Before 1867, only 16 percent of British adult males had the right to vote. In the 1860s, Bright led a vigorous campaign for full manhood suffrage, secret ballots, and equal representation for industrial cities like Birmingham and Manchester.

Bright’s efforts in the campaign for electoral reform made him a formidable adversary of the Conservative government.

He rested his case upon two principles. First, since working people must pay taxes and bear the impact of legislation, they should also have a voice in government. Second, he expressed faith in the decision-making ability of ordinary people. A frequent claim of reactionary conservatives was that common people are incapable of making important decisions. Bright reversed this and argued that progress had been achieved only by enforcing working-class opinion. He was somewhat naive in supposing that a mass franchise would lead to low taxes, free trade, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

With his ability to rouse passions, Bright’s efforts in the campaign for electoral reform made him a formidable adversary of the Conservative government. Previous campaigns had often suffered from having the support of only one class, whereas Bright rallied the middle and working classes into unity. Ironically, in the same way as corn law repeal, reform was introduced by a Conservative prime minister. Benjamin Disraeli presided over the 1867 Reform Act, which enfranchised two million additional men, and cleared the way for later reforms.

Later Years: Cabinet and Ireland

As a parliamentary back-bencher, Bright had been enormously influential. Nearing the end of his campaigning career, he entered William Gladstone’s cabinet in 1868. He never was happy in assuming collective responsibility, and soon had cause to disagree with his government colleagues.

He rejected all attempts to impose the Church of England upon the native Catholics.

The Forster Act of 1870 laid the foundations of state education, and it incorporated the teaching of state religion which was anathema to Bright. He wrote to Gladstone that it had done a “tremendous mischief” to the party.[4] 

After the 1880 election, Bright was again invited into government. Soon after, Britain initiated a war with Egypt, and Bright’s objection was so great that he felt compelled to resign.

Ireland was another longstanding interest. Bright had been a personal friend of Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell, who had supported the Anti-Corn Law League. Bright took up the grievances of the Irish and, after O’Connell’s death in 1847, was often their most persistent representative in Parliament. He rejected all attempts to impose the Church of England upon the native Catholics; instead, he called for the withdrawal of this “symbol of conquest.”

The other issue was land policy: Irish agriculture had always been weak because large-scale English owners maintained idle lands and because tenants scratched a precarious existence with no legal right of tenancy. Bright offered three solutions: an end to the law of primogeniture which ensured the continuation of concentrated ownership; compensation for evicted tenants and loans for those who wanted to buy land; and land purchase from English owners, to be sold at a discount to Irish buyers.

He was also a committed opponent of capital punishment and addressed a variety of issues involving religious freedom.

Some of these proposals were implemented, as Gladstone had been taking note of Bright’s suggestions. But in Parliament, the Irish Nationalist representatives became increasingly militant. They used disruptive techniques which led, in response, to the rules of procedure which still are with us today. Bright deplored all this, and it significantly changed his attitude.

In 1886, Gladstone introduced a land purchase scheme to buy out the English landlords, along with a proposal for Irish home rule. By this time, Bright was so disgusted with the activities of the Nationalists in Parliament that he opposed the land purchase scheme, and he regarded home rule as a policy which would endanger the “Protestant and loyal people of the north.”[5]

As a figure of importance among the Liberals, Bright’s opposition was very damaging to Gladstone. Home rule was defeated, and the Liberals were hopelessly divided on the issue. It pained Bright to speak out against Gladstone because they had been good friends.

In an essay of this length, it isn’t possible to describe all of Bright’s arguments. He was also a committed opponent of capital punishment, spoke on many aspects of colonial government, and addressed a variety of issues involving religious freedom. His speeches are a pleasure to read, and one can imagine the impact they made on listeners.

John Bright, as a consistent and principled defender of individual liberty, imparted a widespread and lasting acceptance of liberal politics.

Bright lived from 1811 to 1889, and when looking at the political events during those years, the advance of liberal principles is quite momentous. In 1819, when demonstrators protested against the corn laws and the lack of parliamentary representation, they were cut down by a cavalry charge. As late as 1859, Queen Victoria expressed her concern to Lord Palmerston that John Bright was attempting to undermine British institutions. Yet by 1868, when Bright became the first Nonconformist to hold a cabinet post, he was respected, as were the principles he enunciated.

In the campaign against the corn laws, he helped to establish free trade as a popular principle which no politician would dare to interfere with for years to come. His stand with Cobden against the Crimean War inspired a later generation of liberals to follow the idea of non-intervention. Opening up Parliament to the scrutiny of ordinary people marked an end to the high-handed government of earlier times. In these, as in many other issues, John Bright, as a consistent and principled defender of individual liberty, imparted a widespread and lasting acceptance of liberal politics.

1.   William Robertson, The Life & Times of John Bright (London: Fisher Unwin. 1912), p. 203.

2.   Speech at Covent Garden Theatre, December 19, 1845, in J. E. Thorold Rogers (ed.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy (London: Macmillan, 1878), pp. 419-420.

3.   Speech to the House of Commons, February 23. 1855. in Rogers, p. 251.

4.   Quoted in G. M. Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright (London: Constable, 1913), p. 409.

5.   Quoted in Keith Robbins, John Bright (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 256.