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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.


  • ...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).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 130.
  • 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).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 299.
  • 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).
  • 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).
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
    • 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.
  • 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).
    • 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.
  • 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, 1846).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 488.
  • 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).
    • 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).
    • 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.
  • 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 Ellice, 1856.
    • James E. Thorold Rogers (ed.), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden M.P. (1878), p. 248.
  • 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).
    • John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905), p. 679.
  • 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.
    • 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).
    • 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).
    • 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 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).
    • 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).
    • 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).
    • 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).
    • 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.
    • 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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