Richard Cobden, 1804-1865

Richard Cobden is most famous for his advocacy of free trade and as a leader of the Anti-Corn Law League. He has been described as clothing free trade with a moral cloak. The repeal of the Corn Laws, and the subsequent embedding of the cause of free trade and cheap food in working-class beliefs, were personal triumphs for Cobden above anyone else.

Cobden, the son of a farmer, was born on 3 June 1804 in Heyshott, Sussex. After attending school in Yorkshire, he began a career as a travelling salesman, trading calicoes and muslins. He founded a calico printing firm in 1831, and moved to Manchester a year later, where he found almost immediate success. In 1840, he married Catherine Anne Williams from Wales; they had one son, who died in 1856 of scarlet fever whilst at school at Germany.

Cobden first sought election to Parliament after the succession of Queen Victoria in 1837, but he was defeated at Stockport. In March 1839 Cobden helped to launch the Anti-Corn Law League. His connection with the free trade movement had begun in 1836 when he was elected to the Board of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Cobden was in many ways the leader of the League throughout its existence, and it is to him that much of the credit should go for the most successful mass campaign of the nineteenth century, and the creation of the first modern pressure group, culminating in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws. Cobden, like John Bright, managed to convince a wider audience that repeal was not just a policy for the benefit of manufacturers, by lowering the cost of cotton goods and opening new export markets, but would also make a major contribution to the standard of living of the working class through cheap bread.

For Cobden the campaign against the Corn Laws was part of a wider concern for free trade and peace. He saw these two goals sitting together. He was convinced that the economic interests of manufacturers and the middle classes were naturally disposed towards peace and free trade, and against high military expenditure and high taxes, in dorect contrast to his perception of the aristocracy as naturally bellicose. He continued to advocate these causes after repeal, opposing the Crimean War and negotiating a free trade treaty with France in 1860 (the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty).

Cobden became MP for Stockport in 1841. At the general election of 1847, he was elected as MP for both Stockport and the West Riding of Yorkshire. He chose the latter constituency; it was the largest in the country (and therefore an honour to represent) and his election secured the local victory of town Liberals over the traditional Whig leadership. After the repeal of the Corl Laws Cobden swithched his energy to, amongst other things, campaigning for national educational reform. This brought him into conflict with Liberal interests in the West Riding, and his position in the 1857 general election was further weakened by his opposition to the Crimean War. He fought the election in Huddersfield, having decided not to contest the West Riding, but, like Bright and other opponents of the was, he was defeated. At the next general election in 1859, he was returned unopposed in Rochdale, which he represented until his death in 1865.

Cobden never held ministerial office. In 1846, Lord John Russell intimated that he would have a cabinet post in future if first he was prepared to join the government, but Cobden refused. In 1859 he again refused to join the cabinet, as President of the Boartd of Trade, following an offer made by Russell to join Palmerston’s administration. Cobden was a consistent critic of Palmerston, arguind that he shifted the basis of his parliamentary position so often that, rather than representing any principles, ne had become a despot. Following the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, Palmerston offered Cobden both a baronetcy and the position of privy councillor, but he declined both. He remarked that his sole satisfaction lay in the furtherance of peaceful commercial relations between neighbouring countries.

Cobden was an accomplished suthor and orator. Despite little formal education, he taught himself French and composition, and studiededucation and European history. He bagan writing early in his career, producing two pamphlets entitled England, Ireland and America (1835) and Russia (1836), both by a ‘Manchester Manufacturer’, advocating free trade and non-intervention. In 1852 he wrote 1792 and 1853, in Three Letters, which spoke of the fear of invasion after the rise of the Second Empire in France, and How Wars are Got Up in India, on the second Burmese War. Then in 1856, he published another pamphlet called What Next? and Next? After his defeat in 1857, he turned, not for the first time, to travel, and spent three months in the United States, fascinated by its substantial advances. He wrote a final pamphlet entitled The Three Panics of 1848, 1853 and 1862.

Cobden’s business career was much less successful, largely because, by his own admission, he neglected it for his public campaigns. Twice, public subscriptions were organised to bail out his finances, but financial stress and his heavy commitments took a severe toll on his health. He died of acute bronchitis, from which he had suffered over a long period, in Suffolk Street House, Pall Mall on 2 April 1865.

Publications on his life and works include: John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers (eds), Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden (1870); The Political Writings of Richard Cobden (1867); Morley’s Life of Richard Cobden (1881); Ashworth’s Recollections of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League (1876); Archibald Prentice, History of the Anti-Corn Law League (1968); Norman McCord, The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838-46 (1958); Nicholas C. Edsall, Richard Cobden: Independent Radical (1986); Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey, The Rise of Free Trade (1997) (especially, vols. I & II).

Cheryl Schondhardt-Bailey and Elizabeth Flanagan Prueher

This biography first appeared in the Dictonary of Liberal Biography (Politico’s Publishing, 1998).