Richard Cobden

views updated May 21 2018

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

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 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. □

Cobden, Richard

views updated May 29 2018


COBDEN, RICHARD (1804–1865), British political and economic reformer.

Richard Cobden was the leading spokesman in mid-nineteenth-century Britain for free trade, laissez-faire, and internationalism. He was the very personification of the "Manchester school" of political and economic reform—opposed equally to the corn laws and to trade unions as restricting the free movement of goods and persons. Cobden came from a rural southern background (he was born in Heyshott, Sussex) and often styled himself the friend of the farmer. Underlying his various campaigns for free trade, retrenchment in defense spending, and nonintervention in European affairs was a consistent commitment to land reform. His vision of a future of social stability, prosperity, and peace throughout Britain and Europe was premised on the redistribution of land ownership: the demise of large "feudal" landowners with a concomitant increase in individual "freehold" proprietorship of the soil. However, his work in the freehold land movement and for land reform generally has not featured prominently in most biographical accounts.

Cobden is remembered as the manufacturer turned consummate political agitator who secured the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the smooth operator who complemented the more emotive approach of his famous political partner, John Bright (1811–1889). Cobden certainly contributed much to the success of the Anti–Corn Law League, the most famous example of "pressure from without" in Victorian politics. Having moved north in 1832 to be close to his calico-printing business interests, Cobden was soon involved in the campaign to gain incorporation for Manchester, acquiring in the process an expertise in organization, lecturing, and election tactics, which he was later to impart with dramatic effect to the League.

Following fierce Chartist opposition to its initial efforts to maximize extraparliamentary support, the League, steered by Cobden, quickly took steps to avoid unwelcome intervention. The unruly crowd was excluded by ticketing, direct mailing, door to door canvassing, registration of voters, and other mechanisms of the "politics of electoral pressure": the mobilization of electoral pressure to persuade candidates and political parties to commit themselves to promote particular legislation. In Cobden's unashamed words, the League became rather "a middle-class set of agitators," concentrating its efforts on existing and "respectable" voters, to whose numbers provident free-trade supporters were to be appended by purchase of forty-shilling freeholds.

Cobden also provided ideological inspiration, transforming the level of economic argument in League propaganda, showing how the Corn Laws were not only a check on consumption but also an obstacle to the balanced economic progress of both manufacturing and agriculture. Free admission of foreign corn would increase overseas demand for British manufactures while the lifting of protection would encourage domestic agriculture into more modern and competitive processes with improved drainage, crop rotation, and enhanced investment. Much influenced by the economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), Cobden viewed freedom in utilitarian terms as the absence of all restraint (except in education, where as a leading supporter of the National Public Schools Association he contended that "government interference is as necessary for education as its non-interference is essential to trade"). Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 raised Cobden to iconic status, but despite such celebrity his political influence diminished: a great symbolic victory, the defeat of agricultural protection did not presage a middle-class "Manchester" revolution. Ranged across a number of issues, including various schemes (forerunners of today's building societies) to create freehold votes in large county electorates surrounding the towns, Cobden's subsequent campaigns lacked emotive focus and proved no match for Lord Palmerston's (Henry John Temple; 1784–1865) unashamed patriotism.

As the critic of Palmerston's aggressive foreign policy, Cobden has been lauded as an anti-imperialist, but his noninterventionist stance rested on what has itself been called the "imperialism of free trade": expensive gunboat diplomacy was not required when Britain's dominance of world trade was assured by virtue of its manufacturing and commercial supremacy. Although he was to fall from public favor, reaching a nadir during the Crimean War (1854–1856) and his defeat at the 1857 election, Cobden was not without some success in his later political life, most notably the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860. A symbol of international harmony between Britain and France, this was the first of eight "most favored nation" treaties that Britain negotiated in the 1860s, and the model that other European countries followed until the revival of protectionism in the 1880s. Cobden was in poor health thereafter but continued when possible to attend to his parliamentary duties as MP for Rochdale where he was elected in 1859, having previously served as MP for Stockport (1841–1847) and the West Riding (1847–1857).

See alsoChartism; Cobden-Chevalier Treaty; Commercial Policy; Corn Laws, Repeal of; Liberalism; Protectionism; Trade and Economic Growth.


Hinde, Wendy. Richard Cobden: Victorian Outsider. New Haven, Conn., 1983.

Morley, John. The Life of Richard Cobden. 2 vols. London, 1881.

Taylor, Miles. "Richard Cobden." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

John Belchem

Cobden, Richard

views updated May 23 2018

Cobden, Richard (1804–65). A British radical politician, Cobden was devoted to free trade and international peace, and hostile to aristocratic rule. After the successful campaign for the incorporation of Manchester, he joined the Anti-Corn Law League. Dissatisfied with propaganda campaigns, early in 1841 he persuaded the league to fight a by-election. Although this was lost, by forcing a moderate Whig to withdraw the League had shown that it could affect election results. Cobden became MP for Southport in 1841 and proved a competent speaker both in and out of Parliament. His speaking style was simple and straightforward. In the aftermath of the Conservative victory in 1841, Cobden contemplated militant action, but eventually decided on exploiting all legitimate opportunities, both electorally and in the propaganda war. He was largely responsible for the League's increasing prominence. In 1846 he received from Peel an exaggerated tribute as the man primarily responsible for repeal of the Corn Laws. Thereafter, Cobden remained a prominent reformer, but opposition to the Crimean War and Palmerston's popular foreign policy reduced his influence. In 1859–60 he negotiated an important commercial treaty with France. He died too early to take a place in the leadership of the emerging Liberal Party.

Norman McCord

Cobden, Richard

views updated May 23 2018

Cobden, Richard (1804–65) British Radical politician. With John Bright, he led the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws and was the chief spokesman in Parliament (1841–57, 1859–65) for the ‘Manchester School’ of free trade. He opposed Britain's participation in the Crimean War, supported the Union in the US Civil War and negotiated a major trading agreement with France (1860).

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