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Richard Cobden

English manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman

Richard Cobden (3 June 18042 April 1865) was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League.




  • I am ever solicitous for your future prosperity, and I wish that I could convince you, as I feel convinced, that it all depends upon your bringing out with spirit the talents you possess. I wish that I could impart to you a little of that Bonapartian feeling with which I am imbued—a feeling that spurs me on with the conviction that all the obstacles to fortune with which I am impeded, will (nay, shall) yield if assailed with energy. All is lost to you, if you succumb to those desponding views which you mentioned when we last spoke. Dame Fortune, like other fair ones, loves a brisk and confident wooer. I want to see you able to pitch your voice in a higher key, especially when you are espousing your own interests, and above all, never to see you yield or become passive and indifferent when your cause is just, and only wants to be spiritedly supported to be sure of a triumph. But all this must proceed from within, and can be only the fruits of a larger growth of spirit, to the cultivation of which without further lecture I most earnestly commend you.
    • Letter to his brother (30 January 1832), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 20.
  • I have generally made it a rule to parry the inquiries and comparisons which the Americans are so apt to thrust at an Englishman. On one or two occasions, when the party has been numerous and worth powder and shot, I have, however, on being hard pressed, and finding my British blood up, found the only mode of allaying their inordinate vanity to be by resorting to this mode of argument:—"I admit all that you or any other person can, could, may, or might advance in praise of the past career of the people of America. Nay, more, I will myself assert that no nation ever did, and in my opinion none ever will, achieve such a title to respect, wonder, and gratitude in so short a period; and further still, I venture to allege that the imagination of statesmen never dreamed of a country that should in half a century make such prodigious advances in civilization and real greatness as yours has done. And now I must add, and I am sure you, as intelligent, reasonable men, will go with me, that fifty years are too short a period in the existence of nations to entitle them to the palm of history. No, wait the ordeal of wars, distresses, and prosperity (the most dangerous of all), which centuries of duration are sure to bring to your country. These are the test, and if, many ages hence, your descendants shall be able only to say of their country as much as I am entitled to say of mine now, that for seven hundred years we have existed as a nation constantly advancing in liberty, wealth, and refinement; holding out the lights of philosophy and true religion to all the world; presenting mankind with the greatest of human institutions in the trial by jury; and that we are the only modern people that for so long a time withstood the attacks of enemies so heroically that a foreign foe never put foot in our capital except as a prisoner (this last is a poser);—if many centuries hence your descendants will be entitled to say something equivalent to this, then, and not till then, will you be entitled to that crown of fame which the historian of centuries is entitled to award."
    • Letter to F. Cobden (5 July 1835) during his visit to the United States, quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), pp. 33-34.
  • My estimate of American character has improved, contrary to my expectations, by this visit...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. They have not, ‘tis true, the force of Englishmen in personal weight or strength, but they have compensated for this deficiency by quickening the momentum of their enterprises. All is in favour of celerity of action and the saving of time. Speed, speed, speed, is the motto that is stamped in the form of their ships and steamboats, in the breed of their horses, and the light construction of their wagons and carts: and in the ten thousand contrivances that are met with here, whether for the abridging of the labour of months or minutes, whether a high-pressure engine or a patent boot-jack. All is done in pursuit of one common object, the economy of time.
    • Letter to F. Cobden (5 July 1835) during his visit to the United States, quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), pp. 39-40.
  • ...the twelve or fifteen millions in the British Empire, who, while they possess no electoral rights, are yet persuaded they are freemen, and who are mystified into the notion that they are not political bondmen, by that great juggle of the ‘English Constitution’—a thing of monopolies, and Church-craft, and sinecures, armorial hocus-pocus, primogeniture, and pageantry!
    • Letter to F. Cobden (11 September 1838), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 130.
  • Do not let your zeal for the cause of democracy deceive you as to the fact of the opaque ignorance in which the great bulk of the people of England are wrapt. If you write for the masses politically, and write soundly and honestly, they will not be able at present to appreciate you, and consequently will not support you...There is no remedy for all this but improved education. Such as the tail and the body are, such will be the character of the head. Nature does not produce such monsters as an ignorant or vicious community, and virtuous and wise leaders. In Scotland you are better off because you are better educated. The great body of the English peasants are not a jot advanced in intellect since the days of their Saxon ancestors. I hope you will join us in a cry for schoolmasters as a first step to Radicalism.
    • Letter to W. Tait (17 August 1838), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 127.
  • Is not selfishness, or systematic plunder, or political knavery as odious as the blunders of democracy? We must choose between the party which governs upon an exclusive or monopoly principle, and the people who seek, though blindly perhaps, the good of the vast majority...I think the scattered elements may yet be rallied round the question of the corn laws. It appears to me that a moral and even a religious spirit may be infused into that topic, and if agitated in the same manner that the question of slavery has been, it will be irresistible.
    • Letter to F. Cobden (5 October 1838), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 126.


  • When I go down to the manufacturing districts, I know that I shall be returning to a gloomy scene. I know that starvation is stalking through the land, and that men are perishing for want of the merest necessaries of life. When I witness this, and recollect that there is a law which especially provides for keeping our population in absolute want. I cannot help attributing murder to the Legislature of this country—and wherever I stand, whether here or out of doors, I will denounce that system as legislative murder which denies to the people of the land food in exchange for the produce of their industry.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (24 September 1841) against the Corn Laws.
  • When I see a disposition amongst you to trade in humanity, I will not question your motives, I will not deny that it is really felt; but this I tell you, that if you would give force and grace to your professions of humanity, it must not be confined to the negro at the Antipodes, nor to the building of churches, nor the extension of the Church Establishment, nor to occasional visits to factories to talk sentiment over factory children—you must untax the people's bread. Whilst you retain that law, which raises rents but does not raise wages, you may be humane, kind and beneficent, but your benevolence and humanity, more showy than substantial, will soon become a mockery and a bye-word.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (24 September 1841) against the Corn Laws.
  • I do ask the right hon. Baronet what is the meaning of overproduction? It means that too much is produced; and what can be thought of a country which produces so much, and where the great mass of the inhabitants possess so little? Does it not show that there is some mal-distribution of production? It is because we have lost sight of that science which teaches the right distribution of wealth...Those who are so fond of laughing at political economy, forget that they have a political economy of their own; and what is it? That they will monopolise to themselves the fruits of the industry of the great body of the community—that they allow the productions of the spindle and the loom to go abroad to furnish them with luxuries from the farthest corners of the world, but refuse to permit to be brought back in exchange what would minister to the wants and comforts of the lower orders. This, in one word, is the true reason why the mass of the people is at this time so wretchedly clothed and so miserably fed.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (8 July 1842) against the Corn Laws.
  • I cannot give a stronger proof of the perils which I think surrounds us, than to say that I shall feel it my duty to stop the wheels of Government if I can, in a way which can only be justified by an extraordinary crisis...I do not mean to threaten outbreaks—that the starving masses will come and pull down your mansions; but I say that you are drifting on to confusion without rudder or compass. It is my firm belief that within six months we shall have populous districts in the north in a state of social dissolution. You may talk of repressing the people by the military, but what military force would be equal to such an emergency? ...I do not believe that the people will break out unless they are absolutely deprived of food; if you are not prepared with a remedy, they will be justified in taking food for themselves and their families...Is it not important for Members for manufacturing districts on both sides to consider what they are about? We are going down to our several residences to face this miserable state of things, and selfishness, and a mere instinctive love of life ought to make us cautious. Others may visit the continent, or take shelter in rural districts, but the peril will ere long reach them even there. Will you, then, do what we require, or will you compel us to do it ourselves? This is the question you must answer.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (8 July 1842) against the Corn Laws.
  • Depend upon it, nothing can be got by fraternizing with trades unions. They are founded upon principles of brutal tyranny and monopoly. I would rather live under a Dey of Algiers than a Trades Committee.
    • Letter to F. W. Cobden (16 August 1842), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 299.
  • The hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Gentlemen, are pleased to designate me as the arch enemy of the farmers. Sir, I have as good a right as any hon. Gentleman in this House to identify myself with the order of farmers. I am a farmer's son. The hon. Member for Sussex has been speaking to you as the farmer's friend; I am the son of a Sussex farmer; my ancestors were all yeomen of the class who have been suffering under this system; my family suffered under it, and I have, therefore, as good or a better right than any of you to stand up as the farmer's friend, and to represent his wrongs in this House.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (17 February 1843).
  • The danger which menaces you will come from the agricultural districts, for the next time there is any outbreak, the destitute hands of the agricultural districts will be added to the destitute hands of the manufacturing districts. Does the right hon. Gentleman, who must know the state of the country, doubt whether this be the fact? ...The right hon. Baronet cannot conceal from himself what is that condition: capital is melting away, pauperism is increasing, trade and manufactures are not reviving. What worse description can be given of our condition?—and what can be expected if such a state of things continue but the disruption and dissolution of the State?
    • Speech in the House of Commons (17 February 1843) against the Corn Laws.
  • The present condition of the farmers and labourers of this country is the severest condemnation of the Corn-laws that can possibly be produced...let the farmer perfectly understand that his prosperity depends upon that of his customers—that the insane policy of this House has been to ruin his customers, and that acts of Parliament to keep up prices are mere frauds to put rents into the landlords' pockets, and enable him to juggle his tenants.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (15 May 1843).
  • Free Trade! What is it? Why, breaking down the barriers that separate nations; those barriers, behind which nestle the feelings of pride, revenge, hatred, and jealousy, which every now and then burst their bounds, and deluge whole countries with blood; those feelings which nourish the poison of war and conquest, which assert that without conquest we can have no trade, which foster that lust for conquest and dominion which sends forth your warrior chiefs to scatter devastation through other lands, and then calls them back that they may be enthroned securely in your passions, but only to harass and oppress you at home.
    • Speech at Covent Garden (28 September 1843), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 40.
  • Well, our forefathers abolished this system [of monopolies]; at a time, too, mark you, when the sign manual of the sovereign had somewhat of a divine sanction and challenged superstitious reverence in the minds of the people. And shall we, the descendants of those men, be found so degenerate, so unworthy of the blood that flows in our veins, so recreant to the very name 'Englishman,' as not to shake off this incubus, laid on as it is by a body of our fellow-citizens? … We advocate the abolition of the Corn Law because we believe that to be the foster-parent of all other monopolies; and if we destroy that—the parent, the monster monopoly—it will save us the trouble of devouring the rest.
    • Speech in London (8 February 1844), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 59.
  • I did not vote upon the Factory question. The fact is the Government are being whipped with a rod of their own pickling. They used the ten hours’ cry, and all other cries, to get into power, and now they find themselves unable to lay the devil they raised for the destruction of the Whigs. The trickery of the Government was kept up till the time of Ashley's motion, in the confident expectation that he would be defeated by the Whigs and Free Traders...The Whigs very basely turned round upon their former opinions to spite the Tories. The only good result is that no Government or party will in future like to use the factory question for a cry...One other good effect may be that men like Graham and Peel will see the necessity of taking anchor upon some sound principles, as a refuge from the Socialist doctrines of the fools behind them.
    • Letter to F. W. Cobden (23 March 1844) on the Factory Act 1844, quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 302.
  • With regard to certain other fallacies with which the farmers have been beset, and latterly more so than ever; the farmer has been told that if there was a free trade in corn, wheat would be so cheap, that he would not be able to carry on his farm. He is directed only to look at Dantzic, where corn, he is told, was once selling at 15s. 11d. per quarter, and on this the Essex Protection Society put out their circulars, stating that Dantzic wheat is but 15s. 11d. per quarter, and how would the British farmer contend against this? ...As far as I can obtain information from the books of merchants, the cost of transit from Dantzic, during an average of ten years, may be put down at 10s. 6d. a quarter, including in this, freight, landing, loading, insurance, and other items of every kind. This is the natural protection enjoyed by the farmers of this country.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (12 March 1844).
  • I cannot believe that the gentry of England will be made mere drumheads to be sounded upon by a Prime Minister to give forth unmeaning and empty sounds, and to have no articulate voice of their own. No! You are the gentry of England who represent the counties. You are the aristocracy of England. Your fathers led our fathers: you may lead us if you will go the right way. But, although you have retained your influence with this country longer than any other aristocracy, it has not been by opposing popular opinion, or by setting yourselves against the spirit of the age. In other days, when the battle and the hunting-fields were the tests of manly vigour, why, your fathers were first and foremost there. The aristocracy of England were not like the noblesse of France, the mere minions of a court; nor were they like the hidalgoes of Madrid, who dwindled into pigmies. You have been Englishmen. You have not shown a want of courage and firmness when any call has been made upon you. This is a new era. It is the age of improvement, it is the age of social advancement, not the age for war or for feudal sports. You live in a mercantile age, when the whole wealth of the world is poured into your lap. You cannot have the advantages of commercial rents and feudal privileges; but you may be what you always have been, if you will identify yourselves with the spirit of the age. The English people look to the gentry and aristocracy of their country as their leaders. I, who am not one of you, have no hesitation in telling you, that there is a deep-rooted, an hereditary prejudice, if I may so call it, in your favour in this country. But you never got it, and you will not keep it, by obstructing the spirit of the age.
  • The first act of my public life was to publish my views and opinions of the evils under which Ireland laboured, and that subject is one that, amidst all the public questions in which I have been engaged, I have always had deeply and painfully at heart. I know I am taunted by some of my friends with giving a bad vote on this occasion. I shall give a conscientious vote, and if in doing so I am to make personal sacrifices, and lose the good opinion of those with whom I have long acted and have a deep respect for, I shall regret it; but, next to the satisfaction of having acted conscientiously, will be that I shall feel in voting for that which I believe will tend to heal the festering wounds of Irish society.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (18 April 1845) in favour of the Maynooth College Act 1845.
  • He [Cobden] said that the great mass of the labouring classes, the unskilled labouring class, were in a condition which permanently was one disgraceful to the Government of the country...The system of protection had produced nothing but misery to the labouring population of this country, and until it was removed misery would continue to be their inheritance. He would meet the opponents of free trade with this simple proposition—they could not benefit the condition of the mass of the people of this country but by the admission of more food.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (10 June 1845).
  • I believe that if you abolish the Corn-law honestly, and adopt Free Trade in its simplicity, there will not be a tariff in Europe that will not be changed in less than five years to follow your example.
    • Speech in Manchester (15 January 1846).
  • What, then, is the good of this "protection"? Why, the country have come to regard it, as they regard witchcraft, as a mere sound and a delusion. They no more regard your precautions against free trade, than they regard the horse-shoes that are nailed over the stables to keep the witches away from the horses.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (27 February 1846).
  • How can protection, think you, add to the wealth of a country? Can you by legislation add one farthing to the wealth of the country? You may, by legislation, in one evening, destroy the fruits and accumulation of a century of labour; but I defy you to show me how, by the legislation of this House, you can add one farthing to the wealth of the country. That springs from the industry and intelligence; you cannot do better than leave it to its own instincts. If you attempt by legislation to give any direction to trade or industry, it is a thousand to one that you are doing wrong; and if you happen to be right, it is work of supererogation, for the parties for whom you legislate would go right without you, and better than with you.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (27 February 1846), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 197.
  • I know that there are many heads which cannot comprehend and master a proposition in political economy. I believe that study is the highest exercise of the human mind.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (27 February 1846).
  • We are on the eve of great changes...We have set an example to the world in all ages; we have given them the representative system. The very rules and regulations of this House have been taken as the model for every representative assembly throughout the whole civilised world; and having besides given them the example of a free press and civil and religious freedom, and every institution that belongs to freedom and civilisation, we are now about giving a still greater example; we are going to set the example of making industry free—to set the example of giving the whole world every advantage of clime, and latitude, and situation, relying ourselves on the freedom of our industry. Yes, we are going to teach the world that other lesson. Don't think there is anything selfish in this, or anything at all discordant with Christian principles. I can prove that we advocate nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity. To buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest. What is the meaning of the maxim? It means that you take the article which you have in the greatest abundance, and with it obtain from others that of which they have the most to spare; so giving to mankind the means of enjoying the fullest abundance of earth's goods, and in doing so, carrying out to the fullest extent the Christian doctrine of 'Doing to all men as ye would they should do unto you'.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (27 February 1846), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 198.
  • He (Mr. Cobden) wanted hon. Gentlemen opposite to bring in a little head, as well as a little heart, when they were dealing with this question...he trusted the time was coming when men would no longer rush into hasty legislation prompted by feelings of benevolence and philanthropy alone, but repudiating the facts of that science which taught how to legislate with something like probability of the result being for the general benefit of the community. He did not oppose interference between masters and men for the sake of employers alone; he opposed all interference whatever with the labour of adults, primarily for the sake of the adults themselves. If they were to establish the principle that Parliament would not interfere at all with labour, and would not interfere between masters and workmen, it would be the best thing for the working men that that House could do.
  • If the right hon. Baronet [Peel] chooses to retire from office in consequence of this vote, he carries with him the esteem and gratitude of a larger number of the population of this Empire than ever followed any Minister that was ever hurled from power...I am not misinterpreting the opinion of the people, not only of the electors, but especially of the working classes, when I tender the right hon. Baronet, in my own name, as I might do in theirs, my heartfelt thanks for the unwearied perseverance, the unswerving firmness, and the great ability with which he has during the last six months conducted one of the most magnificent reforms ever carried in any country, through this House of Commons.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (25 June 1846).
  • What we want before all things is a bold retrenchment of expenditure. I may take a too one-sided view of the matter, but I consider nine-tenths of all our future dangers to be financial, and when I came home from the continent, it was with a determination to go on with fiscal reform and economy as a sequence to Free Trade.
    • Letter to W. R. Greg (15 May 1848), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 487.
  • It is not with a view of overturning our institutions that I advocate these reforms in our representative system. It is because I believe that we may carry out these reforms from time to time, by discussions in this House, that I take my part in advocating them in this legitimate manner. They must be effected in this mode, or as has been the case on the Continent, by bayonets, by muskets, and in the streets. Now, I am no advocate for such proceedings. I conceive that men of political standing in this country—any Members of this House for instance—who join in advocating the extension of the suffrage at this moment, are the real conservators of peace.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (6 July 1848) in favour of a Reform Bill that would have extended the vote to middle class men.
  • My object in supporting this Motion is, that I may bring to bear upon the legislation of this House those virtues and that talent which have characterised the middle and industrious classes of this country. If you talk of your aristocracy and your traditions, and compel me to talk of the middle and industrious classes, I say it is to them that the glory of this country is owing. You have had your government of aristocracy and tradition; and the worst thing in this country has been its government for the last century and a half. All that has been done to elevate the country has been the work of the middle and industrious classes. Whether in literature, in arts, in science, in commerce, or in enterprise—all has been done by the middle and industrious classes; and it is because I wish to bring their virtue, intelligence, industry, and frugality, to bear upon the proceedings of this House, that I support the Motion of the hon. Member for Montrose.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (6 July 1848) in favour of a Reform Bill that would have extended the vote to middle class men.
  • No man can defend or palliate such conduct as that of Smith O'Brien and his confederates. It would be a mercy to shut them up in a lunatic asylum. They are not seeking a repeal of the legislative union, but the establishment of the Kings of Munster and Connaught! But the sad side of the picture is in fact that we are doing nothing to satisfy the moderate party in Ireland, nothing which strengthens the hands even of John O'Connell and the priest party, who are opposed to the 'red republicans' of the Dublin clubs. There seems to be a strong impression here that this time there is to be a rebellion in Ireland. But I confess I have ceased to fear or hope anything from that country. Its utter helplessness to do anything for itself is our great difficulty. You can't find three Irishmen who will co-operate together for any rational object.
    • Letter to Henry Ashworth (21 July 1848), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 488.
  • I say that if England takes due advantage of her insular position, and confines herself to her own affairs, and does not run into needless and rash disputes with other countries, there never was a time when she stood so free from danger of war as at the present moment.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 February 1849).


  • It was for the purpose of guarding against another outlet of expenditure that he exhorted the Committee to pause before they recognised the principle of extending their possessions in tropical climates. He said tropical climates, because there was a great difference between acquiring territory where the race might become indigenous, so as to extend commerce and to spread the principle of self-government over the world, and taking possession of tropical territory, where their own race was not indigenous, where Government must be upheld by force, and where there was no prospect of being able to disembarrass themselves of the responsibility of governing the people.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (19 July 1850).
  • I agree with you to the letter in all you say about Ireland. There is no doubt that the land question (coupled with the Church Establishment) is at the root of the evil. And here let me say that I go heartily with you in the determination to attack the land monopoly root and branch both here and in Ireland and Scotland....Wherever the deductions of political economy lead I am prepared to follow. By the way, have you had time to read Bastiat's partly posthumous volume, 'Les Harmonies Economiques'? If not, do so; it will require a studious perusal, but will repay it. He has breathed a soul into the dry bones of political economy, and has vindicated his favourite science from the charge of inhumanity with all the fervour of a religious devotee.
    • Letter to John Bright (1 October 1851), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 561.
  • Never was the military spirit half so rampant in this country since 1815 as at the present time. Look at the news from Rangoon...This makes 5400 persons killed by our ships in the East during the last five years, without our having lost one man by the butcheries. Now give me Free Trade as the recognized policy of all parties in this country, and I will find the best possible argument against these marauding atrocities.
    • 'How Wars are got up in India' (1853), The Political Writings of Richard Cobden (1903), pp. 457-8.
  • Yes; I am indebted for that estate, and I am proud here to acknowledge it, to the bounty of my countrymen. That estate was the scene of my birth and of my infancy; it was the property of my ancestors; it is by the munificence of my countrymen that this small estate, which had been alienated by my father from necessity, has again come into my hands, and that I am enabled to light up again the hearth of my fathers; and I say that there is no warrior duke who owns a vast domain by the vote of the Imperial Parliament who holds his property by a more honourable title than that by which I possess mine.
    • Speech in Aylesbury, responding to a heckler who accused Cobden of getting his property through Anti-Corn Law League funds (9 January 1853), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume I (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), pp. 225-6.
  • I am not sanguine as you know about the success of any effort to recall to the attention of the public the details of our long agitation – I doubt the possibility of any body making the history an interesting one. In fact, it is not a pleasant chapter to go over again in all its minutiae; for it was but a blundering unsystematic series of campaigns, in which we were indebted for our success to the stupidity of our foes, & still more to the badness of their cause.
    • Letter to Archibald Prentice (13 September 1853), quoted in Archibald Prentice, The History of the Anti-Corn Law League. Volume I (London: Routledge, 1968), p. xxi.
  • I'm as much satisfied as ever that we have followed a right course on the war question. It must be right for us, because we have followed our own conscientious convictions. But in proportion as we are devoted to our principles must be our regret to see so little prospect of their being adopted as the practical guide of our foreign policy. It is no use blinking the fact that there are not a score of men in the House, and but few out of the ranks of the Friends in the country, who are ready to take their stand upon the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. This is no reason why we should hold our peace; but it shows that we have to begin at the beginning, by converting to our views that public opinion which is at present all but unanimously against us.
    • Letter to John Bright (14 September 1854), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 626.
  • The idea of defending, as integral parts of our Empire, countries 10,000 miles off, like Australia, which neither pay a shilling to our revenue...nor afford us any exclusive about as quixotic a specimen of national folly as was ever exhibited.
    • A note to Edward Ellie (1856), quoted in James E. Thorold Rogers (ed.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden M.P. (1878), p. 248.
  • Trade has passed out of the hands of British merchants, and into the hands of the Greeks, Swiss, or Germans, all belonging to countries that have no navy to protect them at all. This is the fact; and what is the inference? It may be that English merchants are not educated sufficiently in foreign languages. But it may be also that Englishmen carry with them their haughty and inflexible demeanour into their intercourse with the natives of other countries. The noble Lord [Palmerston] inscribes "Civis Romanus sum" on our passports, which may be a very good thing to guard us in our footsteps. But "Civis Romanus sum" is not a very attractive motto to put over the door of our counting-houses abroad.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 February 1857).
  • Here is an empire in which is the only relic of the oldest civilization of the world—one which, 2,700 years ago, according to some authorities, had a system of primary education—which had its system of logic before the time of Aristotle, and its code of morals before that of Socrates. Here is a country which has had its uninterrupted traditions and histories for so long a period—that supplied silks and other articles of luxury to the Romans 2,000 years ago! They are the very soul of commerce in the East, and one of the wealthiest nations in the world. They are the most industrious people in Asia, having acquired the name of the ants of the East...You find them not as barbarians at home, where they cultivate all the arts and sciences, and where they have carried all, except one, to a point of perfection but little below our own—but that one is war. You have there a people who have carried agriculture to a state of horticulture, and whose great cities rival in population those of the Western world. Now, there must be something in such a people deserving of respect. If in speaking of them we stigmatize them as barbarians, and threaten them with force because we say they are inaccessible to reason, it must be because we do not understand them; because their ways are not our ways, nor our ways theirs. Now, is not so venerable an empire as that deserving of some sympathy—at least of some justice—at the hands of conservative England?
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 February 1857) on China.
  • You have seized upon the most important of our social and political questions in the laws affecting the transfer of land. It is astonishing that the people at large are so tacit in their submission to the perpetuation of the feudal system in this country as it affects the property in land, so long after it has been shattered to pieces in every other country except Russia. The reason is, I suppose, that the great increase of our manufacturing system has given such an expansive system of employment to the population, that the want of land as a field of investment and employment for labour has been comparatively little felt. So long as this prosperity of our manufactures continues, there will be no great outcry against the landed monopoly. If adversity were to fall on the nation, your huge feudal properties would soon be broken up, and along with them the hereditary system of government under which contentedly live and thrive.
    • Letter to James White, MP for Brighton (22 November 1857), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 679.


  • I have told you before that Gladstone has shown much heart in this business. He has a strong aversion to the waste of money on our armaments. He has much more of our sympathies. He has more in common with you and me than any other man of his power in Britain.
    • Letter to John Bright (1860) on the negotiations for his free trade treaty with France, quoted in W. E. Williams, The Rise of Gladstone to the Leadership of the Liberal Party, 1859 to 1868 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934), p. 20.
  • Has he not accurately anticipated both the fact and the motive of the present attitude of the State of New York? Is it not commercial gain and mercantile ascendancy which prompt their warlike zeal for the Federal Government? At all events, it is a little unreasonable in the New York politicians to require us to treat the South as rebels, in the fact of the opinion of our highest European authority as to the right of secession.
    • Letter to W. Hargreaves (22 June 1861), after reading de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 850.
  • I am not one to advocate the reducing of our navy in any degree below that proportion to the French navy which the exigencies of our service require; and, mind what I say, here is just what the French Government would admit as freely as you would. England has four times, at least, the amount of mercantile tonnage to protect at sea that France has, and that surely gives us a legitimate pretension to have a larger navy than France. Besides, this country is an island; we cannot communicate with any part of the world except by sea. France, on the other hand, has a frontier upon land, by which she can communicate with the whole world. We have, I think, unfortunately for ourselves, about a hundred times the amount of territory beyond the seas to protect, as colonies and dependencies, that France has. France has also twice or three times as large an army as England had. All these things give us a right to have a navy somewhat in the proportion to the French navy which we find to have existed if we look back over the past century. Nobody has disputed it. I would be the last person who would ever advocate any undue change in this proportion. On the contrary—I have said it in the House of Commons, and I repeat it to you—if the French Government showed a sinister design to increase their navy to an equality with ours; then, after every explanation to prevent such an absurd waste, I should vote 100 millions sterling rather than allow that navy to be increased to a level with ours—because I should say that any attempt of that sort without any legitimate grounds, would argue some sinister design upon this country.
    • Speech in Rochdale (26 June 1861), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), pp. 433-4.
  • I think we have been the most Conservative. I think that myself, and my friend Mr. Bright, and many I see about me, who have voted for twenty years for what have been considered revolutionary measures, have been the great Conservatives of our own age.
    • Speech in Rochdale (26 June 1861), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 437.
  • The whole system of the Foreign Enlistment Act is, I may add, only 200 years old. The ancients did not know the meaning of the word "neutrality" as we know it at the present day. In the Middle Ages people were hardly aware of such a thing as neutrality; the first Foreign Enlistment Act is hardly 200 years old, and since that time that system of legislation has grown up. It has been a code of legislation that has gradually grown up, and is now looked to by the nations to assist in keeping the peace and preventing the catastrophe of a general war. Shall we be the first to roll back the tide of civilization, and thus practically go back to barbarism and the Middle Ages, by virtually repealing this international code by which we preserve the rights and interests of neutrality? I cannot but think that this House and the country, when they reflect on the facts of the case, will consider that if they in any way lend their sanction to such a retrograde policy, they would be unworthy of themselves, and would be guilty of a great crime against humanity.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (24 April 1863).
  • With this question of Denmark and Germany, two issues are brought clearly before us—I mean the question as to the dynastic, secret, irresponsible, engagements of our Foreign Office, and also the question which is not ancient but new, and which must be taken into consideration in all our foreign policy from this time—the question of nationalities—by which I mean the instinct, now so powerful, leading communities to seek to live together, because they are of the same race, language, and religion. Now, what is the Treaty of 1852, of which we have heard so much, and which forms the pivot and basis of this discussion? Eight gentlemen met in London about the celebrated round table to settle the destinies of a million of people, who were never consulted on the matter at issue. Let us take note of this event. It is the last page in the long history of past diplomatic action. It will not be repeated again. I mean that there will never again, in all probability, be a Conference meeting together to dispose for dynastic purposes of a population whose wishes they do not take into account.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (5 July 1864).
  • The Blockade Laws are about as rascally an invention as the old Corn Laws. Suppose Tom Sayers lived in a street, and on the opposite side lived a shopkeeper with whom he has been in the habit of dealing. Tom quarrels with his shopkeeper and forthwith sends him a challenge to fight, which is accepted. Tom, being a powerful man, sends word to each and every householder in the street that he is going to fight the shopkeeper, and that until he has finished fighting no person in the street must have any dealings with the shopkeeper. "We have nothing to do with your quarrel," say the inhabitants, "and you have no right to stop our dealings with the shopkeeper".
    • Letter to Henry Asworth (3 September 1864), quoted in John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 916.
  • If ever there was a hard-headed and not a soft-hearted Sovereign it was she; if ever there was a place where there was little of that romantic sentiment of going abroad to do right and justice to other people, I think it was in that Tudor breast of our 'Good Queen Bess,' as well call her. … When I see the accounts of what passed when the [Dutch] envoys came to Queen Elizabeth and asked for aid, how she is huckstering for money while they are begging for help to their religion,—I declare that, with all my principles of non-intervention, I am almost ashamed of old Queen Bess. And then there were Burleigh, Walsingham, and the rest, who were, if possible, harder and more difficult to deal with than their mistress. Why, they carried out in its unvarnished selfishness a national British policy; they had no other idea of a policy but a national British policy, and they carried it out with a degree of selfishness amounting to downright avarice.
    • Speech in Rochdale (23 November 1864), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), pp. 484-5.
  • If I were five-and-twenty or thirty, instead of, unhappily, twice that number of years, I would take Adam Smith in hand—I would not go beyond him, I would have no politics in it—I would take Adam Smith in hand, and I would have a League for free trade in Land just as we had a League for free trade in Corn. You will find just the same authority in Adam Smith for the one as for the other; and if it were only taken up as it must be taken up to succeed, not as a political, revolutionary, Radical, Chartist notion, but taken up on politico-economic grounds, the agitation would be certain to succeed; and if you apply free trade in land and to labour too—that is, by getting rid of those abominable restrictions in your parish settlements, and the like—then, I say, the men who do that will have done for England probably more than we have been able to do by making free trade in corn.
    • Speech at Rochdale (23 November 1864), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 493.
  • ...the principles of political economy have elevated the working class above the place they ever filled before.
    • Speech at Rochdale (23 November 1864), quoted in John Bright and J. E. Thorold Rogers (eds.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P. Volume II (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 496.
  • I believe that the harm which Mill has done to the world by the passage in his book on Political Economy in which he favours the principle of Protection in young communities, has outweighed all the good which may have been caused by his other writings.
    • Said to Sir Louis Mallet by Cobden on his death bed within two days before his death, quoted in Richard Gowing, Richard Cobden (London: Cassell, 1890), p. 130.


  • In reference to our proposing these measures, I have no wish to rob any person of the credit which is justly due to him for them. But I may say that neither the gentlemen sitting on the benches opposite, nor myself, nor the gentlemen sitting round me—I say that neither of us are the parties who are strictly entitled to the merit. There has been a combination of parties, and that combination of parties together with the influence of the Government, has led to the ultimate success of the measures. But, Sir, there is a name which ought to be associated with the success of these measures: it is not the name of the noble Lord, the member for London, neither is it my name. Sir, the name which ought to be, and which will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of a man who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, has advocated their cause with untiring energy, and by appeals to reason, expressed by an eloquence, the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned—the name which ought to be and will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of Richard Cobden. Without scruple, Sir, I attribute the success of these measures to him.
    • Sir Robert Peel's resignation speech as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, crediting Cobden for the repeal of the Corn Laws (29 June, 1846).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 388.
  • The unquestionably greatest Englishman whom the present century has produced.
    • J. Toulmin Smith, Parliamentary Remembrancer, vii, 1865, p. 61.
  • Cobden was the greatest statesman and prophet of the century. His speeches are an inspiration. A man whose disciple I am willing to confess I am.
    • Speech by Anthony John Mundella (4 July, 1884).
    • W. H. G. Armytage, A. J. Mundella. 1825–1897. The Liberal Background to the Labour Movement (London: Ernest Benn, 1951), p. 32.
  • The motive which inspired those who composed the assemblage was twofold. They wished to show their admiration of, and their gratitude towards, a great Englishman whose sympathetic heart, wisdom, intuition, courage, and praise-worthy eloquence wrought for them a great deliverance in the days of their fathers. They also wished to declare their adherence to the doctrines which he taught, and their determination that the power of those doctrines should not, God helping them, be impaired. What they owed to him and to themselves was to make it clear in the sight of all men that they meant to hold fast to the heritage which he, perhaps more than any other individual, won for them; and that the fruits of the battle which he waged against tremendous odds should not be lightly wrested from them. They were not there to acclaim Cobden as an inspired prophet, but they saw in him a great citizen, a great statesman, a great patriot, and a great and popular leader...Cobden spent his life in pulling down those artificial restrictions and obstructions which at the present time rash and reckless men were seeking to set up again—obstructions not merely to commerce, but also to peace and good will, and mutual understanding; yes, and obstructions to liberty and good government at home. Those who expressed astonishment that the intelligent workman did not look askance at the manufacturer, Cobden, had overlooked the fact that he gave the people cheap food and abundant employment, and did far more—that he exploded the economic basis of class government and class subjection.
    • Speech by Liberal Party leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at Alexandra Palace to celebrate the centenary of Cobden's birth (3 June, 1904).
    • Speeches by The Rt. Hon. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. From His Election as Leader of the Liberal Party to His Resignation of Office as Prime Minister. 1899-1908. Selected and Reprinted from The Times (London: The Times, 1908), pp. 152-153.
  • Cobden's international ideas were based on patriotism and peace, the harmony of classes, reform by constitutional methods, goodwill among men and nations. Cobden...believed in individual liberty and enterprise, in free markets, freedom of opinion and freedom of trade. [His] whole creed was anathema to Karl Marx. He had no sense of patriotism or love of country. He urged what he called "the proletariat" in all countries to overthrow society by a violent revolution, to destroy the middle classes and all employers of labour, whom he denounced as capitalists and slave drivers. He demanded the confiscation of private property and a new dictatorship, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Just as Cobden interpreted and practised the precepts of Adam Smith, so Lenin interpreted and practised the precepts of Karl Marx. These two great men though dead yet speak. They stand out before the civilised world as protagonists of two systems of political economy, political thought and human society...when this war is over, we in Britain will certainly have to choose whether our Press and Parliament are to be free, whether we are to be a conscript nation, whether private property and savings are to be secured or confiscated, whether we are to be imprisoned without trial; whether we are again to enjoy the right of buying and selling where and how we please—in short whether were are to be ruled as slaves by the bureaucracy of a Police State or as free men by our chosen representatives. This conflict will be symbolised and personified by Richard Cobden and Karl Marx.
    • Francis W. Hirst, Richard Cobden and John Morley. Being the Richard Cobden Lecture for 1941 (The Cobden Club, 1941), pp. 37-38.

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