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Thursday, June 1, 1995

Richard Cobden’s Triumphant Crusade for Free Trade and Peace

With Trade Liberalization, England Prospered

The nineteenth 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 twentieth century.

Peace prevailed, in large part, because non-intervention became the hallmark of foreign policy. Nations seldom tried to bully one another, 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 his principal 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.”

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, proved unable to avoid bankruptcy. In 1819, Richard started working as a clerk at his uncle’s textile warehouse, and he regularly sent money home. He became a traveling salesman, and a dozen years later launched his own textile warehouse business, specializing in calicos and muslins.

In 1833, Cobden made his first overseas business trip—to Paris. The next year, he traveled to France and Switzerland. Two years later, he spent more than a month in the eastern United States, very much impressed by the American spirit of enterprise. Soon afterwards, he traveled through Spain and the Mediterranean, observing how all kinds of people cooperate peacefully in markets.

Meanwhile, there was a growing political movement for free trade. The most obnoxious trade barriers were tariffs on “corn,” as the English referred to grain. Such tariffs amounted to taxes on bread, a primary food for millions of poor people. In 1836, the Anti-Corn-Law Association was formed. Although its founders presented a strong logical case for free trade, they didn’t get anywhere.

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, born on November 16, 1811, was the son of a Rochdale cotton spinner. 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 developed a moral fervor about current affairs. He honed his speaking abilities in public squares, church meetings, and other gatherings.

The Anti-Corn Law Movement

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 fund-raising. 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 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.”

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 labourers, 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, often attracting crowds which numbered in the thousands.

While the free trade campaign was still a long way from its climax, Cobden 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.

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 speaking ability and popular influence outside Parliament.

On September 10, 1841, Bright’s wife, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis. 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 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. Millions of Irish peasants lived in mud huts without a scrap of furniture. Well, the potato crop rotted everywhere. Peasants began dying from famine and related epidemics of typhus, cholera, and other diseases. Eventually, over a million Irish perished, and hundreds of thousands more emigrated.

Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel reluctantly concluded that the only immediate solution was to abolish the corn laws and let starving Irish buy cheap imported food—even though this was likely to trigger a Tory rebellion which would end his political career. Peel announced his bill for total repeal of the corn laws, phased over a three-year period. It became law on June 26, 1846. He was ousted three days later.

Liberalized Trade

Repeal of the corn laws was just the beginning of trade liberalization. During the next three decades, England reduced the number of dutiable imports from 1,152 to 48—remaining items were mostly luxury items with low duties.

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 unquestioned leader of world shipping, commerce, insurance, and finance. From 1846 until the outbreak of World War I, England’s industrial output soared 290 percent. Imports were up 701 percent, and exports 673 percent. Money wages in England increased about 59 percent for agricultural workers, 61 percent for industrial workers.

Cobden and his family spent a month resting in Wales, then 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.”

Travel affirmed Cobden’s humane, cosmopolitan world view. “I am not one who likes to laud the Anglo-Saxon race as being superior to all others in every quality,” he wrote a friend, “for when we remember that we owe our religion to Asiatics, our literature, architecture, and fine arts greatly to the Greeks, our numeral signs to the Arabs, our civilization to the inhabitants of Italy, and much of our physical sciences and mechanical inventions to the Germans; when we recollect these things it ought to make us moderate in our exclusive pretensions.”

The Crimean War

Soon after his return to England, Cobden was drawn back into public policy debates by the appointment of belligerent Lord Palmerston to the Foreign Office. In 1854, Palmerston plunged England into the Crimean War, purportedly to maintain the balance of power by saving the corrupt Turkish empire from grasping Russia which had just ravaged Hungary. Cobden and Bright stood virtually alone for nonintervention—and for setting England’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. It tarnished the reputation of generals and the prestige of England. The only star to emerge was Florence Nightingale. She organized efficient nursing services which dramatically reduced the death rate among wounded soldiers. Her valiant work inspired the Red Cross movement.

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 FrancoGerman War, and later wars between Turkey and Russia. By 1859, both Cobden and Bright had been re-elected to Parliament.

On July 21, 1859, Bright gave a speech in which he suggested that England could cut its military spending–much of which was to protect against a possible attack from France—and that both countries should liberalize their trade restrictions to help promote peace. Inspired by this idea, French government trade adviser Michel Chevalier urged Cobden to try converting the French emperor Louis Napoleon, since Cobden had been so successful converting England to free trade. Cobden consulted with English government officials and negotiated a commercial treaty which provided that England would end its tariffs on French goods and cut its tariffs on French wines 85 percent. France would convert its import bans to tariffs which would be reduced to less than 25 percent within five years. The initial term of the treaty would be for 10 years. By January 23, 1860, the treaty was signed by Louis Napoleon as he invoked his executive powers. Despite stubborn Tory opposition, Parliament approved the treaty.

It 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 observed the “most favored nation” principle, it liberalized trade not only for the signatory nations, but for everyone else as well. Never before in European history had people been able to go about their daily business so freely.

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.”

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.