Richard Cobden

The English politician Richard Cobden (1804-1865) was leader of the free-trade movement. He strenuously opposed war and worked unceasingly for the cause of international peace.

The son of a farmer, Richard Cobden was born on June 3, 1804, near Midhurst, Sussex. There were 11 children in the Cobden family, and poverty was an obstacle in Cobden's youth. His formal education was an unhappy experience. He worked for a time for his uncle in London; then in 1828 he became a calico merchant near Manchester. Prosperity followed, and he soon added Manchester municipal politics to his interests. Repeal of the Corn Laws was the issue that attracted him, and Manchester was the center of the Anti-Corn Law League, which was founded in 1838. This led him to national politics, as he emerged the leader of the free-trade movement.

During these years Cobden visited Europe, America, and Africa, and his travels gave him a perspective in international affairs. Cobden believed that free trade would promote international cooperation. His first attempt at a parliamentary career failed, but he was successful in 1841, when he was elected to Parliament from Stockport. In the same year he persuaded the orator and statesman John Bright to work toward repeal of the Corn Laws. Bright's oratory coupled with Cobden's organizational skills made the Anti-Corn Law League a great success. Prime Minister Peel's conversion to free trade was the final step, and the repeal of the Corn Laws came in 1846.


Opposition to British Policies

Cobden was victorious, but he was also bankrupt; politics and the league had swallowed up his fortune. But a public subscription in 1847 returned him to financial solvency, and his interests turned more to foreign affairs. He became increasingly alarmed by the bellicose policies of Lord Palmerston. Cobden supported a reduction in armaments and suggested a possible trade alliance with Russia in direct opposition to Palmerston's position. Cobden wrote a number of pamphlets condemning the traditional "balance of power" approach in international politics.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851 Cobden's position of "free trade and peace" seemed triumphant; Palmerston was dismissed from office at the end of the year. But the Crimean War (1853-1856) changed all that as the anti-Russian crusade became the order of the day. In 1855 Palmerston returned as prime minister and war leader, and Cobden, who opposed the war, was severely criticized in the press and was defeated in the parliamentary election of 1857. He was, however, returned to Parliament in 1859. He was offered a position in Palmerston's Cabinet but declined. Cobden, partly through William Gladstone's influence, was sent to Paris to prepare an Anglo-French commercial treaty; his efforts led to the signing in 1860 of a 10-year reciprocal "most favored nation" treaty (Cobden-Chevalier Treaty). This was one of his greatest accomplishments.

Britain's colonial policy was also a target of Cobden's criticism. His attacks in this area were closely related to his opposition to British foreign policy. Britain had acquired huge areas of land all over the world without any regard for basic economic laws; extent of territory, not commercial value, had dictated acquisition. Cobden held that the colonies, if given up, would remain good customers of England but would cease to involve the nation in international difficulties.

America always attracted Cobden's interest. He visited the United States twice and was impressed by the absence of an entrenched landed aristocracy. In contrast to England, the United States was essentially a middle-class nation. The American Civil War deeply disturbed Cobden. He wavered (hating Southern slavery but also disliking Northern protectionism) but finally supported the North. He died in London on April 2, 1865.


Assessment of Political Role

Cobden's outlook was based on an intense internationalism. He firmly believed that free trade would create prosperity at home and introduce a new era of international peace. The main obstacle to both free trade and peace, in Cobden's view, was the aristocracy. He felt that as a class aristocrats were naturally bellicose and believed that the sooner power was transferred from the aristocracy to the middle class, the better for the destiny of all nations.

To the historian Cobden appears as a strange combination of realist and visionary. His work for the Anti-Corn Law League was that of a hard-headed businessman, a man of action. The practical implications for manufacturers (new markets for products) were stressed. But in foreign affairs he was not so well informed; and although his conclusions, dogmatic as they were, may have been correct, he was not able to convince the majority of his countrymen. The bulk of his career in domestic politics, however, must be considered a success. Cobdenite reforms in education as well as in economics were adopted. He was, according to one biographer, "the greatest non-party statesman ever to figure in British politics."


Further Reading on Richard Cobden

The standard biography of Cobden is John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (1881; 12th ed. 1905). There are newer biographies by Ian Ivor Bowen, Cobden (1935), and by Donald Read, Cobden and Bright: A Victorian Political Partnership (1967). A specialized study of value is Norman McCord, The Anti-Corn Law League (1958; 2d ed. 1968). Recommended for general historical background are E.L. Woodward, The Age of Reform (1938; 2d ed. 1962); Norman Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953); and George Sidney Roberts Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Edsall, Nicholas C., Richard Cobden, independent radical, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Hinde, Wendy, Richard Cobden: a Victorian outsider, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.