The English politician John Bright (1811-1889) was one of the leading figures in 19th-century British radicalism. An outstanding orator, he was the most prominent British supporter of the North during the American Civil War.
Born at Rochdale, Lancashire, on Nov. 16, 1811, John Bright was strongly influenced first by the Quaker religion of his family and second by the industrial environment in which he was brought up. His father was a textile manufacturer, and he himself went into the business when he was 16 years old. He revealed a growing interest in the politics of reform throughout the early 1830s, but it required an exceptional sense of commitment to break away from Quaker quietism into platform agitations.
The turning point of Bright's life was his meeting with the reformer Richard Cobden and his involvement in the Anti-Corn Law League, founded in 1839. He was returned to Parliament in 1843, and although his share in the affairs of the League was far smaller than that of Cobden, with whom his name was later bracketed both by contemporaries and historians, his share in following up the work of the league after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was greater. He pressed not only for further measures of free trade but for further extension of the franchise. He was also bitterly critical of aristocratic influences in British political life and of active British foreign policies which cost money and lives.
Although Bright's political career was lengthy, it was also fitful and interrupted. He was unpopular with most sections of political opinion for his opposition to the Crimean War, and in 1857, for local as well as national reasons, he lost his parliamentary seat at Manchester, the symbolic center of free trade. Instead, he secured a seat at Birmingham, which he represented until his death. Between 1858 and 1867 he was at the head of a reform agitation which he did much to inspire and to guide. He extended his appeal from religious dissenters to workingmen and in the course of devoted campaigns won disciples and made enemies. There was no subtlety in his approach, but he appealed with supreme confidence to underlying moral principles.
More interested in political activism than in administration, Bright nonetheless served under Gladstone as president of the Board of Trade (1868-1870) and in a later government as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (1880-1882). He admired Gladstone and contributed to the mobilization of working-class support for Gladstone in the industrial districts. Yet he resigned in 1882, when Gladstone intervened in Egypt, and opposed him in 1886 in the crucial debates on Irish home rule.
During the last phases of his career Bright was dogged by illness, and an element of conservatism, which had never been entirely missing from his temperament, came to the forefront. Animosity toward him disappeared in his last years, when he had the reputation of a patriarch. Yet he was a lonely man after the death of his second wife in 1878—his first had died in 1841 after less than 2 years of marriage— and he was out of touch with new forces in national politics. He died on March 27, 1889, and was buried simply in the Friends' Meeting House in Rochdale.
Further Reading on John Bright
Bright's speeches, which must be carefully studied to understand the kind of appeal he made, were edited by James E. Thorold Rogers in 1879, his letters by H. J. Leech in 1885, and his diaries by R. A. J. Walling in 1930. The standard biography of Bright is George Macaulay Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright (1913), but it is circumscribed and dated in its approach and needs to be supplemented by Herman Ausubel, John Bright, Victorian Reformer (1966), and Donald Read, Cobden and Bright: A Victorian Political Partnership (1967). The most penetrating account of Bright's political milieu and claim to leadership is given in J. Vincent, The Formation of the Liberal Party, 1857-1868 (1966). See also the essay on Bright in Asa Briggs, Victorian People: Some Reassessments of People, Institutions, Ideas and Events, 1851-1867 (1954; rev. ed. 1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Joyce, Patrick, Democratic subjects: the self and the social in nineteenth-century England, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Robbins, Keith, John Bright, London; Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1979.
Trevelyan, George Macaulay, The life of John Bright, London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press; Tokyo: Kinokuniya Co., 1993.