William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister of Great Britain four times in the nineteenth century, boasted near the end of his life that during his years in government the country’s tariffs on foreign goods were nearly abolished. Britain, the “workshop of the world,” became perhaps the freest of free-trade nations by 1900. London was the global capital of financial capital. Not by coincidence, the British enjoyed the highest per capita income in the world until they were surpassed by America around the time of World War I.
Gladstone rightly deserves much credit for reducing the State’s interference in commerce. An ardent protectionist and defender of the status quo early in his parliamentary career, he learned enough economics to turn to tax cuts on enterprise at home and free trade abroad. As chairman of the Board of Trade, chancellor of the Exchequer, and later prime minister, he played a key role in ridding the books of about 95 percent of Britain’s tariffs. But even Gladstone would acknowledge an intellectual debt to the one man regarded above all others as free trade’s greatest champion of the century, Richard Cobden.
“Amongst the most memorable men of the nineteenth century,” wrote Lewis Apjohn in his 1881 biography of Cobden, “we must assuredly count the small and active band who, first by popular agitation then by a gallant Parliamentary struggle, assailed and abolished the monopolies by which the material growth of the nation had so long been checked.”
Cobden was set on an arduous path to greatness early on. Born in 1804 on a farm that could hardly support the family, Richard was sent to work as a clerk in an uncle’s warehouse at an early age. There he learned some important principles of business and later was a traveling salesman before becoming an entrepreneur in the calico printing business in Manchester. In his twenties and early thirties, a keen mind and humanitarian impulses led him to speak out against harmful government policies—an interest that became a lifelong avocation thanks in no small part to the influence of another Victorian-era libertarian, John Bright.
Half a century before Cobden’s intellectual pursuits, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations made the case for free trade in a world that was then highly protectionist. In 1815 Britain’s Parliament passed the infamous Corn Laws to protect domestic producers of grain against cheap imports, but Smith’s arguments ensured it was only a matter of time before principled opposition would arise. In 1839 Cobden and Bright formed the Anti-Corn Law League to promote free trade.
Writing in the June 1995 issue of this magazine, Jim Powell explained how this remarkable pair collaborated to make the League an extraordinary force:
Cobden and Bright helped focus free traders on three principal issues. First, they set an inspiring, radical objective—repealing the Corn Laws. Cobden convinced all 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 would capture the imagination of people if it became 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. This, in turn, called for vigorous fundraising. Cobden made arrangements to turn his calico printing and marketing business over to his partners.
Cobden hammered the Corn Laws for making people miserable. “He knew of a place,” noted biographer [John] 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 carcass of a cow rather than perish of hunger.”
The Anti-Corn Law League proved to be a remarkably effective grassroots campaign. By 1846 popular sentiment (and the plight of the starving Irish amid the potato famine) pressured Parliament to abolish the Corn Laws. Fourteen years later Cobden successfully negotiated for the British what became known as the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860, the first free-trade pact between France and Britain, historic foes and once-ardent protectionist countries.
Signed just five years before Cobden’s death, the treaty was the fulfillment of something he said a few years before: “Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less.” In the decade after the signing of the treaty, the volume of trade between the two nations nearly doubled.
Cobden would deserve a place of high honor in the history of liberty for his work on trade alone, but he had much to say about other issues, too. He was consistently noninterventionist, both at home and abroad.
In another Freeman article about Cobden (March 1993), John Chodes presented Cobden’s view that Britain’s leaders had long “inhibited discovery and improvements by wasting millions on the military.” Cobden saw Britain’s “obsession with the doctrine of the balance of power as a source of conflict, not stability. ‘Empires have arisen unbidden by us; others have departed despite our utmost efforts to preserve them,’ ” Cobden wrote. Gladstone was echoing Cobden’s sentiments precisely when he declared, “Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home.”
When Cobden died in 1865 at the age of 60, the French minister of foreign affairs eulogized him with these words: “He is above all in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear. . . . Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man.”
Perhaps the greatest words of tribute came from Benjamin Disraeli, twice prime minister and an opponent of Cobden’s at the time of the Corn Law debate: “[H]e was, without doubt, the greatest politician that the upper middle class of this country has yet produced . . . not only an ornament to the House of Commons but an honour to England.”
I proudly display a sketch of Richard Cobden in my home office. The world needs his idealistic spirit now more than ever.