Story type: Essay
What I contend is that England is today so situated in every particular of her domestic and foreign circumstances that, by leaving other governments to settle their own business and fight out their own quarrels, and by attending to the vast and difficult affairs of her own enormous realm, and the condition of her people, she will not only be setting the world an example of noble morality, which no other nation is so happily free to set, but she will be following the very course which the maintenance of her own greatness most imperatively demands. It is precisely because Great Britain is so strong in resources, in courage, in institutions, in geographical position, that she can, before all other European powers, afford to be moral, and to set the example of a mighty nation walking in the paths of justice and peace.
Richard Cobden never had any chance in life. He was born in an obscure hamlet of West Sussex, England, in Eighteen Hundred Four. His father was a poor farmer, who lost his freehold and died at the top, whipped out, discouraged, when the lad was ten years old. Richard Cobden became a porter, a clerk, a traveling salesman, a mill-owner, a member of parliament, an economist, a humanitarian, a statesman, a reformer. Up to his thirteenth year he was chiefly interested in the laudable task of making a living–getting on in the world. During that year, and seemingly all at once and nothing first, just as bubbles do when they burst, he beheld the problem of business from the broad vantage- ground of humanitarianism. But he did not burst, for his dreams were spun out of life’s realities, and today are coming true; in fact, many of them came true in his own time. Richard Cobden ceased to be provincial and became universal.
He saw that commerce, instead of being merely a clutch for personal gain, was the chief factor in civilization. He realized that we are educated through our efforts to get food and clothing; and therefore the man who ministers to the material wants of humanity is really the true priest. The development of every animal has come about through its love-emotions and its struggle to exist.
A factory in a town changes every person in the town, mentally and physically. This being true, does not the management of this factory call for men of heart and soul–broad-minded, generous, firm in the right? Then every factory is influenced by the laws of the land, and each country is influenced by the laws of other countries, since most countries that are engaged in manufacturing find a market abroad.
Cobden set himself to inquire into the causes of discontent and failure, of progress and prosperity. And not content merely to philosophize, he carried his theories into his own enterprises.
Many of our modern business betterments seem to have had their rise in the restless, prophetic brain of Richard Cobden. He of all men sought to make commerce a science, and business a fine art. The world moves slowly.
It is only a few years ago that we in America thought to have in our President’s Cabinet a Secretary of Commerce and Labor.
Listen to what Cobden wrote in Eighteen Hundred Forty-three:
In the close council of every king, or president, or prince, should be a man of affairs whose life is devoted to commerce and labor, and the needs and requirements of peace. His work is of far greater moment than that of men-of-war. Battleships ever form a suggestion for their use, and as long as we have armies, men will kill, fight and destroy. Soldiers who do not want to fight are not of this earth. Prepare for war and war will come. When government gives to the arts of peace the same thought and attention that it gives to the arts of war, we will have peace on earth and good-will among men. But so long as the soldier takes precedence of the businessman in the political courts of the world, famine, death, disease and want will crouch at our doors. Commerce is production, war is destruction. The laws of production and distribution must and will be made a science; and then and not until then will happiness come to mankind and this earth serve as a pattern for the paradise of another life, instead of being a pandemonium.
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Emerson defines commerce as carrying things from where they are plentiful to where they are needed. Business is that field of human endeavor which undertakes to supply the materials to humanity that life demands.
The clergy are our spiritual advisers, preparing us for a pleasant and easy place in another world. The lawyers advise us on legal themes– showing us how to obey the law, or else evade it, and they protect us from lawyers. The doctors look after us when disease attacks our bodies–or when we think it does.
We used to talk about “The Three Learned Professions”; if we use the phrase now, it is only in a Pickwickian sense, for we realize that there are at present fifty-seven varieties of learned men.
The greatest and most important of all the professions is that of Commerce, or Business. Medicine and law have their specialties–a dozen each–but business has ten thousand specialties, or divisions.
So important do we now recognize business, or this ministering to the material wants of humanity, that theology has shifted its ground, and within a few years has declared that to eat rightly, dress rightly, and work rightly are the fittest preparation for a life to come.
The best lawyers now are businessmen, and their work is to keep the commercial craft in a safe channel, where it will not split on the rocks of litigation nor founder in the shallows of misunderstanding. Every lawyer will tell you this, “To make money you must satisfy your customers.”
The greatest change in business came with the one-price system.
The old idea was for the seller to get as much as he possibly could for everything he sold. Short weight, short count, and inferiority in quality were considered quite proper and right, and when you bought a dressed turkey from a farmer, if you did not discover the stone inside the turkey when you weighed it and paid for it, there was no redress. The laugh was on you. And moreover a legal maxim–caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware”–made cheating legally safe.
Dealers in clothing guaranteed neither fit nor quality, and anything you paid for, once wrapped up and in your hands, was yours beyond recall–“Business is business,” was a maxim that covered many sins.
A few hundred years ago business was transacted mostly through fairs and ships, and by pedlers. Your merchant of that time was a peripatetic rogue who reduced prevarication to a system.
The booth gradually evolved into a store, with the methods and customs of the irresponsible keeper intact: the men cheated their neighbors and chuckled in glee until their neighbors cheated them, which, of course, they did. Then they cursed each other, began again, and did it all over. John Quincy Adams tells of a certain deacon who kept a store near Boston, who always added in the year 1775, at the top of the column, as seventeen dollars and seventy-five cents.
The amount of misery, grief, disappointment, shame, distress, woe, suspicion and hate caused by a system which wrapped up one thing when the buyer expected another, and took advantage of his innocence and ignorance as to quality and value, can not be computed in figures. Suffice it to say that duplicity in trade has had to go. The self- preservation of the race demanded honesty, square dealing, one price to all. The change came only after a struggle, and we are not quite sure of the one-price deal yet.
But we have gotten thus far: that the man who cheats in trade is tabu. Honesty as a business asset is fully recognized. If you would succeed in business you can not afford to sell a man something he does not want; neither can you afford to disappoint him in quality, any more than in count. Other things being equal, the merchant who has the most friends will make the most money. Our enemies will not deal with us. To make a sale and acquire an enemy is poor policy. To a pedler or a man who ran a booth at a bazaar or fair, it was “get your money now or never.” Buyer and seller were at war. One transaction and they never met again. The air was full of hate and suspicion, and the savage propensity of physical destruction was refined to a point where hypocrisy and untruth took the place of violence–the buyer was as bad as the seller: if he could buy below cost he boasted of it. To catch a merchant who had to have money was glorious–we smote him hip and thigh! Later, we discovered that being strangers he took us in.
The one-price system has come as a necessity, since it reduces the friction of life, and protects the child or simple person in the selection of things needed, just the same as if the buyer were an expert in values and a person who could strike back if imposed upon. Safety, peace and decency demanded the one-price system. And so we have it–with possibly a discount to the clergy, to schoolteachers, and relatives as close as second cousins. But when we reach the point where we see that all men are brothers, we will have absolute honesty and one price to all.
And this change in business methods, in our mental attitude towards trade, has all grown out of a dimly perceived but deeply felt belief in the brotherhood of man, of the solidarity of the race–also, in the further belief that life in all of its manifestations is Divine.
Therefore, he who ministers to the happiness and well-being of the life of another is a priest and is doing God’s work. Men must eat, they must be clothed, they must be housed. It is quite as necessary that you should eat good food as that you should read good books, hear good music, hear good sermons, or look upon beautiful pictures. The necessary is the sacred.
There are no menial tasks. “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” The physical reacts on the spiritual and the spiritual on the physical, and, rightly understood, are one and the same thing. We live in a world of spirit and our bodies are the physical manifestation of a spiritual thing, which for lack of a better word we call “God.” We change men by changing their environment. Commerce changes the environment and gives us a better society. To supply good water, better sanitary appliances, better heating apparatus, better food, served in a more dainty way–these are all tasks worthy of the highest intelligence and devotion that can be brought to bear upon them, and every Christian preacher in the world today so recognizes, believes and preaches. We have ceased to separate the secular from the sacred. That is sacred which serves.
Once, a businessman was a person who not only thrived by taking advantage of the necessities of people, but who also banked on their ignorance of values. But all wise men now know that the way to help yourself is to help humanity. We benefit ourselves only as we benefit others. And the recognition of these truths is what has today placed the businessman at the head of the learned professions–he ministers to the necessities of humanity.
Out of blunder and bitterness comes wisdom. Men are taught through reaction, and all experience that does not kill you is good.
When the father of Richard Cobden gave up hope and acknowledged defeat, the family of a full dozen were farmed out among relatives. The kind kinsmen who volunteered to look after the frail and sensitive Richard evaded responsibility by placing the lad in a boys’ boarding- school. Here he remained from his tenth until his sixteenth year. Once a year he was allowed to write a letter home to his mother, but during the five years he saw her but once.
Hunger and heartache have their uses. Richard Cobden lived to strike the boarding-school fallacy many a jolting blow; but it required Charles Dickens to complete the work by ridicule, just as Robert Ingersoll laughed the Devil out of church. We fight for everything until the world regards it as ridiculous, then we abandon it. So long as war is regarded as heroic, we will fight for it; when it becomes absurd it will die.
Said Richard Cobden in a speech in the House of Commons: “Of all the pathetic fallacies perpetuated, none seems to me more cruelly absurd than the English Boarding-School for boys. The plan of taking the child of seven, eight or ten years away from his parents, and giving him into the keeping of persons who have only a commercial interest in him, and compelling him to fight for his life among little savages as unhappy as himself, or sink into miserable submission, seems too horrible to contemplate.” Yet this plan of so-called education continued up to about fifty years ago, and was upheld and supported by the best society of England, including the clergy, who were usually directly “particeps criminis” in the business.
Logic and reason failed to dislodge the folly, and finally it was left to a stripling reporter, turned novelist, to give us Squeers and Dotheboys Hall. This fierce ridicule was the thing which finally punctured the rhinoceros hide of the pedagogic blunder.
There is one test for all of our educational experiments–will it bring increased love? That which breeds hate and fosters misery is bad in every star. Compare the boarding-school idea with the gentle philosophy of Friedrich Froebel, and note how Froebel always insists that the education of the mother and her child should go forward hand in hand. Motherhood is for the mother, and she who shifts the care of her growing child to a Squeers, not only immerses her child in misery but loses the opportunity of her life.
When Richard was sixteen he was transferred from the boarding-school to his uncle’s warehouse in London. His position was that of a poor relation, and his work in the warehouse was to carry bundles and manipulate a broom. His shy and sensitive ways caught the attention of a burly and gruff superintendent, whose gruffness was only on the outside. This man said to the boy, before he had been sweeping a week: “Young ‘un, I obsarve with my hown hies that you sweeps in the corners. For this I raises your pay a shilling a week, and makes you monkey to the shipping-clerk.”
In a year the shipping-clerk was needed as a salesman, and Richard took his place. In another year Richard was a salesman, and canvassing London for orders. Very shortly after he became convinced that to work for relations was a mistake. Twenty years later the thought crystallized in his mind thus: Young man, you had better neither hire relatives nor work for them. It means servility or tyranny or both. You do not want to be patronized nor placed under obligations, nor have other helpers imagine you are a favorite. To grow you must be free–let merit count and nothing else. Probably this was what caused a wise man to say, “The Devil sent us our relatives, but thank Heaven we can choose our friends for ourselves.”
Relatives often assume a fussy patronizing management which outsiders never do. And so at twenty we find Cobden cutting loose from relatives. He went to work as a commercial traveler selling cotton prints. That English custom of the “commercial dinner,” where all the “bagmen” that happened to be in the hotel dine at a common table, as a family, and take up a penny collection for the waiter, had its rise in the brain of Cobden. He thought the traveling salesman should have friendly companionship, and the commercial dinner with its frank discussions and good-fellowship would in degree compensate for the lack of home. This idea of brotherhood was very strong in Richard Cobden’s heart. And always at these dinners he turned the conversation into high and worthy channels, bringing up questions of interest to the “boys,” and trying to show them that the more they studied the laws of travel, the more they knew about commerce, the greater their power as salesmen. His journal about this time shows, “Expense five shillings for Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Essays,’” and the same for “‘Plutarch’s Lives.’” And from these books he read aloud at the bagmen’s dinners.
Cobden anticipated in many ways that excellent man, Arthur F. Sheldon, and endeavored to make salesmanship a fine art.
From a salesman on a salary, he evolved into a salesman on a salary and commission. Next he made a bold stand with two fellow-travelers and asked for the exclusive London agency of a Manchester print-mill. A year later he was carrying a line of goods worth forty thousand pounds on unsecured credit. “Why do you entrust me with all these goods when you know I am not worth a thousand pounds in my own name?”
And the senior member of the great house of Fort, Sons and Company answered: “Mr. Cobden, we consider the moral risk more than we do the financial one. Our business has been built up by trusting young, active men of good habits. With us character counts.” And Cobden went up to London and ordered the words, “Character Counts!” cut deep in a two-inch oak plank which he fastened to the wall in his office.
At twenty-seven his London brokerage business was netting him an income of twelve hundred pounds a year. It seems at this time that Fort and Sons had a mill at Sabden, which on account of mismanagement on the part of superintendants had fallen into decay. The company was thinking of abandoning the property, and the matter was under actual discussion when in walked Cobden.
“Sell it to Cobden,” said one of the directors, smiling.
“For how much?” asked Cobden.
“A hundred thousand pounds,” was the answer.
“I’ll take it,” said Cobden, “on twenty years’ time with the privelege of paying for it sooner if I can.” Cobden had three valuable assets in his composition–health, enthusiasm and right intent. Let a banker once feel that the man knows what he is doing, and is honest, and money is always forthcoming.
And so Cobden took possession of the mill at Sabden. Six hundred workers were employed, and there was not a school nor a church in the village. The workers worked when they wanted, and when they did not they quit. Every pay-day they tramped off to neighboring towns, and did not come back until they had spent their last penny. In an endeavor to discipline them, the former manager had gotten their ill- will, and they had mobbed the mill and broken every window. Cobden’s task was not commercial: it was a problem in diplomacy and education. To tell of how he introduced schools, stopped child labor, planted flowerbeds and vegetable-gardens, built houses and model tenements, and disciplined the workers without their knowing it, would require a book. Let the simple fact stand that he made the mill pay by manufacturing a better grade of goods than had been made, and he also raised the social status of the people. In three years his income had increased to ten thousand pounds a year.
“At thirty,” says John Morley, “Cobden passed at a single step from the natural egotism of youth to the broad and generous public spirit of a great citizen.” Very early in his manhood Cobden discovered that he who would do an extraordinary work must throw details on others, and scheme for leisure. Cobden never did anything he could hire any one else to do. He saved himself to do work that to others was impossible. That is to say, he picked his men, and he chose men of his own type–healthy, restless, eager, enthusiastic, honest men. The criticism of Disraeli that “Cobden succeeded in business simply because he got other people to do his work,” is sternly true. It proves the greatness of Cobden.
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And so we find Richard Cobden, the man who had never had any chance in life, thirty years old, with an income equal to thirty-five thousand dollars a year, and at the head of a constantly growing business. He had acquired the study habit ten years before, so really we need shed no tears on account of his lack of college training. He knew political history–knew humanity–and he knew his Adam Smith. And lo! cosmic consciousness came to him in a day. His personal business took second place, and world problems filled his waking dreams.
These second births in men can usually be traced to a book, a death, a person, a catastrophe–a woman. If there was any great love in the life of Cobden I would make no effort to conceal it–goodness me!
But the sublime passion was never his, otherwise there would have been more art and less economics in his nature. Yet for women he always had a high and chivalrous regard, and his strong sense of justice caused him to speak out plainly on the subject of equal rights at a time when to do so was to invite laughter.
And so let x–Miss X–symbol the cause of Richard Cobden’s rebirth. He placed his business in charge of picked men, and began his world career by going across to Paris and spending three months in studying the language and the political situation. He then moved on to Belgium and Holland, passed down through Germany to Switzerland, across to Italy, up to Russia, back to Rome, and finally took ship at Naples for England by way of Gibraltar. On arriving at Sabden he found that, while the business was going fairly well, it had failed to keep the pace that his personality had set. When the man is away the mice will play–a little. Things drop down. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty, but of everything else, and success in business most of all.
Cobden knew the truth–that by applying himself to business he could become immensely rich. But if he left things to others, he could at the best expect only a moderate income on the capital he had already acquired. Everything is bought with a price–make your choice! Richard Cobden chose knowledge, service to mankind, and an all-round education, rather than money. He spent six months at his print-mill, and again fared forth upon his journeyings.
He visited Spain, Turkey, Greece and Egypt, spending several months in each country, studying the history of the place on the spot. What interested him most was the economic reasons which led to advance and fall of nations. In Eighteen Hundred Thirty-five he started for America on a sailing-vessel, making the passage in just five weeks. One letter to his brother from America contains the following:
I am thus far on my way back again to New York, which city I expect to reach on the Eighth instant, after completing a tour through Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Lake Erie to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Albany (via Auburn, Utica, Schenectady), and the Connecticut Valley to Boston and Lowell. On my return to New York, I propose giving two days to the Hudson River, going up to Albany one day, and returning the next; after which I shall have two or three days for the purpose of taking leave of my good friends in New York, previous to going on board the “Britannia” on the Sixteenth. My journey may be called a pleasure-trip, for without an exception or interruption of any kind I have enjoyed every minute of the too short time allowed me for seeing this truly magnificent country. No writer has yet done justice to America. Her lakes, rivers, forests and cataracts are peculiarly her own, and when I think of their superiority to all that we have in the Old World, and still more, when I recollect that by a mysterious ordinance of their Creator, these were hid from “learned ken” till modern times, I fell into the fanciful belief that the Western continent was brought forth at a second birth, and intended by Nature as a more perfect specimen of her handiwork. But how in the name of breeding must we account for the degeneracy of the human form in this otherwise mammoth-producing soil? The men are but sorry descendants from the noble race that begot their ancestors. And as for the women–my eyes have not found one that deserves to be called a wholesome, blooming, pretty woman since I have been here! One-fourth part of the women look as if they had just recovered from a fit of jaundice; another quarter would in England be termed in a state of decided consumption; and the remainder are fitly likened to our fashionable women, haggard and jaded with the dissipation of a London season. There, now, haven’t I out-Trolloped Mrs. Trollope! But leaving the physical for the moral, my estimate of American character has improved, contrary to my expectations, by this visit. Great as was my previous esteem for the qualities of this people, I find myself in love with their intelligence, their sincerity, and the decorous self-respect that actuates all classes. The very genius of activity seems to have found its fit abode in the souls of this restless and energetic race.
Among other interesting items which Cobden made note of in America was that everywhere wood was used for fuel, “excepting at Brownsville, Virginia, where beds of coal jut out of the hillside, and all the people have to do is to help themselves.” Pittsburgh interested him, and he spent a week there: went to a theater and heard England hissed and Columbia exalted. Pittsburgh burned only wood for fuel, the wood being brought down on flatboats. At Youngstown, Ohio, were three hundred horses used on the many stagecoaches that centered there. There was a steamboat that ran from Cleveland to Buffalo in two days and a night, stopping seven times on the way to take on passengers and goods and wood for fuel. At Buffalo you could hear the roar of Niagara Falls and see the mist. Arriving at the Canada side of the Falls he was shaved by a negro who was a runaway slave, all negroes in Canada being free.
Cobden says: “The States are not especially adapted for agricultural products, the land being hilly and heavily wooded. American exports are cotton, wool, hides and lumber.” It will thus be seen that in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-six America had not been discovered.
Arriving in England, Cobden began to write out his ideas and issue them in pamphlet form at his own expense. For literature, as such, he seemed to have had little thought, literature being purely a secondary love-product.
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Cobden’s work was statistical, economic, political and philosophic. From writing he read his pamphlets before various societies and lyceums. Debates naturally followed, and soon Cobden was forced to defend his theories.
He was nominated for a seat in Parliament and was defeated. Next year he ran again and was elected. The political canvass had given freedom to his wings; he had learned to think on his feet, to meet interruption, to parry in debate. The air became luminous with reasons.
England then had a tax on everything, including bread. On grains and meat brought into England there was an import tax which was positively prohibitive. This tax was for the dual purpose of raising revenue for the Government, and to protect the English farmer. Of course, the farmer believed in this tax which prevented any other country from coming into competition with himself.
Cobden thought that food-products should pass unobstructed to where they were needed, and that any other plan was mistaken and vicious. The question came up in the House of Commons, and Cobden arose to speak. Anyone who then spoke of “free trade” was considered disloyal to his country. Cobden used the word and was hissed. He waited and continued to speak. “Famine is possible only where trade is restricted,” and he proved his proposition by appeals to history, and a wealth of economic information that hushed the House into respectful silence. As an economist he showed he was the peer of any man present. The majority disagreed with him, but his courteous manner won respect, and his resourceful knowledge made the opposition cautious.
Soon after he brought up a public-school measure, and this was voted down on the assumption that education was a luxury, and parents who wanted their children educated should look after it themselves, just as they did the clothing and food of the child. At best, education should be left to the local parish, village or city government.
Cobden was in the minority; but he went back to Manchester and formed the Anti-Corn-Law League, demanding that wheat and maize should be admitted to the United Kingdom free of duty, and that no tax of any kind should be placed on breadstuffs. The farmers raised a howl– incited by politicians–and Cobden was challenged to go into farming communities and debate the question. The enemy hoped, and sincerely believed, he would be mobbed. But he accepted the challenge, and the debate took place, with the result that he was for the most part treated with respect, since he convinced his hearers that agriculture was something he knew more about than did the landlords. He showed farmers how to diversify crops and raise vegetables and fruits, and if grains would flow in cheaper than they could raise them, why then take the money they received from vegetables and buy grain! It was an uphill fight, but Cobden threw his soul into it, and knew that some day it would win.
Cobden’s contention was that all money necessary to run the Government should be raised by direct taxation on land, property and incomes, and not on food any more than on air, since both are necessary to actual existence. To place a tariff on necessities, keeping these things out of the country and out of the reach of the plain and poor people who needed them, was an inhumanity. A tariff should be placed on nothing but articles of actual luxury–things people can do without–but all necessities of life should flow by natural channels, unobstructed. An indirect tax is always an invitation to extravagance on the part of Government, and also, it is a temptation to favor certain lines of trade at the expense of others, and so is class legislation. Government must exist for all the people, never for the few, and the strong and powerful must consider the lowly and weak.
The landed gentry upheld the Corn Laws and used the word “commercial” as an epithet. Very naturally they made their tenants believe that if free trade were allowed, the farmers would be worse than bankrupt, and commercialism rampant. Cobden stood for the manufacturing public and the cities. The landlords tried to disparage Cobden by declaring that smoky, dirty Birmingham was his ideal. Cobden’s task was to make England see that the less men tampered with the natural laws of trade the better, and that no special class of citizens should suffer that others might be prosperous, and that business and manufacturing must and could be rescued from their low estate and be made honorable. And so the fight went on. From a curiosity to hear what Cobden might say, interest in the theme subsided, and the opposition adopted the cheerful habit of trooping out to the cloakroom whenever Cobden arose to speak.
Cobden had at least one very great quality which few reformers have: he was patient with the fools. Against stupidity he never burst forth in wrath. Impatience with stupidity is a fine mark of stupidity. He knew the righteousness of his cause, and repeated and kept repeating his arguments in varied form. His platform manner was conversational and friendly. He often would use the phrase, “Come, let us just talk this matter over together.” And so he quickly established close, friendly terms with his hearers, which, while lacking the thrill of oratory, made its impress upon a few who grew to love the man. John Bright tells of “the mild, honest look of love and genuineness that beamed from his eyes,” and which told the story even better than his words.
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And so the Anti-Corn-Law agitation continued. Sir Robert Peel, as head of the Ministry, sought in every possible way to silence Cobden and bring him into contempt, even to denouncing him as “a dangerous agitator who would, if he could, do for London what Robespierre did for Paris.” But time went on as time does, and Cobden had been before the country as the upholder of unpopular causes for more than ten years. There was famine in Ireland. By the roadside famishing mothers held to their withered breasts dying children, and called for help upon the passers-by. Cobden described the situation in a way that pierced the rhinoceros hides of the landlords, and they offered concessions of this and that. Cobden said, “Future generations will stand aghast with amazement when they look back upon this year and see children starving for bread in Ireland, and we forbidding the entry of corn into the country with a prohibitive tariff, backing up this law with armed guns.”
The common people began to awake. If famine could occur in Cork and Dublin, why not in Manchester and London? The question came close, now. The Anti-Corn-Law League saw its opportunity. Mass meetings were held in all cities and towns. In Manchester, Cobden asked for funds to carry on the agitation. He himself headed the list with a thousand pounds. Twenty-three manufacturers followed his lead in three minutes. Windsor and Westminster now sat up and rubbed their sleepy eyes, and Sir Robert Peel sent word to Cobden asking for a conference. Cobden replied, “All we desire is an immediate repeal of the Corn Laws–no conference is necessary.”
Sir Robert Peel sent in his resignation as Prime Minister, saying he could not in conscience comply with the demands of the mob, and while compliance seemed necessary to avoid revolution, others must make the compromise. The Queen then appointed Lord John Russell as Prime Minister and ordered him to form a new Cabinet and give an office to Cobden. Lord Russell tried for four days to meet the issue, and endeavored to placate the people with platitude and promise. Cobden refused all office, and informed Lord Russell that he preferred to help the Crown by remaining an outside advocate.
Every Government, at the last, is of the people, by the people, but whether for the people depends upon whether the people are awake. And now England did not care for a radical change of rulers; all the citizens wanted was that those in power recede from their position and grant the relief demanded. The Queen now reconsidered the resignation of Sir Robert Peel and refused to accept it, and he again assumed the reins. An extraordinary session of the House of Commons was called and the Corn Laws were repealed. The House of Lords concurred. The nobility was absolutely routed, and Cobden, “the sooty manufacturer,” had won.
Strangely enough, panic did not follow, nor did the yeomanry go into bankruptcy. The breadstuffs flowed in, and the manufacturing population being better fed at a less outlay than formerly, had more money to spend. Great general prosperity followed, and the gentry, who had threatened to abandon their estates if the Corn Laws were repealed, simply raised their rents a trifle and increased the gaming limit.
Sir Robert Peel publicly acknowledged his obligation to Cobden, and Lord Palmerston, who had fought him tooth and nail, did the same, explaining, “A new epoch has arisen, and England is a manufacturing country, and as such the repeal of the Corn Laws became desirable.” As though he would say, “To have had free trade before this new epoch arose, would have been a calamity.” A large sum had been subscribed but not used in the agitation. And now by popular acclaim it was decided that this money should go to Cobden personally as a thank- offering. When the proposition was made, new subscriptions began to flow in, until the sum of eighty thousand pounds was realized. Cobden’s business had been neglected. In his fight for the good of the nation his own fortune had taken wing. He announced his intention of retiring from politics and devoting himself to trade, and this was that which, probably, caused the tide to turn his way. He hesitated about accepting the gift, which amounted to nearly half a million dollars, but finally concluded that only by accepting could he be free to serve the State, and so he acceded to the wishes of his friends. Some years later, Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the cabinet, but he preferred still to help the State as an outside advocate.
John Morley, the strongest and sanest of modern English statesmen, says:
“Cobden had an intrepid faith in the perfectibility of man. His doctrine was one of non-intervention; that the powerful can afford to be lenient; that mankind continually moves toward the light if not too much interfered with. By his influence the darker shapes of repression were banished from the education of the young; the insane were treated with a consideration before unknown; the criminal was regarded as a brother who deserved our gentlest consideration and patience; the time-honored and ineffective processes of violence and coercion fell into abeyance, and a rational moderation and enlightenment appeared on the horizon. He elevated and refined the world of business, just as he benefited everything he touched. His early death at the age of sixty-one seemed a calamity for England, for we so needed the help of his generous, gentle and unresentful spirit. He lived not in vain; yet years must pass before the full and sublime truths for which he stood are realized.”