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Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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He was certainly a wonderful man, but he was as certainly not a great one. Physically, even, he was wonderful; for sixty years a member of the House of Commons, for nearly fifty a minister of the Crown, the mere amount of work that he got through was marvellous. This was especially so in the latter half of his Parliamentary life. " It was amazing," said the memoir in the Times, "to see how he could sit out the whole House of Commons in its longest sittings. At three o'clock in the morning, he was the freshest and liveliest man there, ready with his joke or a clever explanation to appease the irritability of a worn assembly. Besides the toil of debate and incessant watching in the House of Commons, his office work was enormous.... His minutes upon every conceivable subject of interest in the last fifty years would fill many volumes. We may add, in a parenthesis, that he generally wrote standing." And then the chronicler goes on to describe Lord Palmerston's sparing diet, his activity in the field, his love of society, his eager delight in all the excitements of the day, from a public dinner to the coming Derby; in a word, his " prodigious vitality." It was this prodigious vitality which made him what he was, and made his policy what it was. His activity must find scope somewhere, and found it in the field of foreign policy, for " English interests," he said, " encircled the globe," and his energy must encircle the globe too. And yet if one asks what has been the result of all this energy, one is compelled to answer "very little." The truth, is that his view of life was essentially superficial, and his policy, home and foreign, was superficial too. His mission, he might have truly said, was to " keep things going." But he kept them going abroad by playing off Court against Court and Cabinet against Cabinet. He was nominally a Liberal, but he had very little insight into the real life of peoples. Hence, too, the radical emptiness of his home policy, which, after all, was rather an administration than policy properly so called. He had no profound belief; he had tact and good-nature, and thought that men might very well be governed by those two qualities. For ideas of all kinds he had a hearty contempt; he never, not even in the matter of Catholic Emancipation, gave a vote on the ground of abstract justice, but always on the ground of political advantage. It follows that he led the House of Commons as no one has led it in this century; that the aristocracy admired his cleverness, and called him " safe that the middle classes found him indispensable; but that the people never liked him, save for his good humour, and that he never kindled a spark of enthusiasm in any human breast. In foreign policy he was respected, because he always knew when to strike, and struck; he did not first threaten and then retreat; in home affairs, the wonder is that he kept things straight so long. Reform, Education, the Reorganisation of the Army, the great Irish questions - he kept them all at bay by his inimitable power of diverting the national mind from really important problems. He died, if one may say so, in the nick of time, " full of years and honours," and just in time to escape being an anachronism. England could not have borne much longer with a Liberal leader who distrusted Liberal policy, and contrived, with wonderful success, to postpone from year to year the discussion of burning questions. Lord Palmerston was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.

Just six months before his own death, Lord Palmerston rose in Parliament to call attention to " the great loss which the House and the country had sustained in the death of Mr. Cobden." There was something strange and a little jarring in the words of official praise in which the successful veteran spoke of the merits of the simple, unobtrusive, yet infinitely greater man that was gone. More true, more touching, were the few sentences in which his friend and brother-worker, Mr. Bright, told of his own sorrow in Cobden's death; and all who read the words the next morning felt a throb of sympathy. " Sir," he said, " I feel I cannot address the House on this occasion, though every expression of sympathy has been most grateful to my heart; but the time which has elapsed since I was present when the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever actuated or tenanted a human form took its flight is so short, that I dare not even attempt to give utterance to the feelings by which I am oppressed. I shall leave it to some calmer moment, when I may have an opportunity of stating to some portion of my countrymen the lesson which I think may be learned from the life and character of my friend. I have only to say now that, after twenty years of the most intimate and the most brotherly friendship with him, I little knew how much I loved him until I found that I had lost him."

Mr. Cobden was not yet sixty-one when he died. He was born near Midhurst, in Sussex, on June 3, 1804, and was the son of a yeoman-farmer. From school he went into business in London, in a Manchester warehouse, and at the age of twenty-six, joined some relatives in the cotton-printing business in Lancashire. Here his genius for business began to tell; the firm prospered greatly, and he, both by home study of the principles of trade, and by foreign travel in pursuit of trade, laid up the stores of knowledge on which in after years he based his political action. At about thirty years of age, he began to write! on questions of commercial politics, and that soon led to politics in general. His first two pamphlets, " England, Ireland, and America," and " Russia," both signed " By a Manchester Manufacturer," attracted great attention; for it was just at the time when the Free Trade controversy was beginning to agitate at least the vanguards of the two armies. In 1838, the battle began in earnest; the Anti-Corn-Law League was formed. We need not tell in detail the history of the struggle; for three years, one may almost say, the history of the Corn Laws is the history of England. In another sense, and with almost equal truth, one may say that the history of the Corn Laws is the history of Mr. Cobden. Neither he nor Mr. Bright were original members of the League, but they were early recruits, and its importance dates from their admission. It was they, and notably Mr. Cobden, who presided over the division of England into districts; who chose agents to go through every village and along every highway and byway in England, taking notes of the cultivation of every field, asking every labourer what his weekly wages were, what his food was, what his home; who appointed lecturers to visit every important town, to stir up public opinion in England against the monstrous monopoly of the landlords. It was not till 1841 that Mr. Cobden entered Parliament; in that year, the year of Sir R. Peel's becoming Premier, he was returned for Stockport. From that time, or from an even earlier date, he gave himself up, body and soul, money and mind, to securing the repeal of the Corn Laws. His first speech struck the key-note of his life; it was a statement - simple, serious, uncompromising, in the midst of a House pledged to Protection - of the case of the Repealers. It was significant that the advocacy supported itself, if it did not base itself, on a great meeting of the ministers of religion - Churchmen, Catholics, and Protestant Dissenters - assembled at Manchester to petition against the Corn Laws. He said, speaking from the bottom of his heart, that this singular unanimity among ministers of hostile denominations seemed to stamp the cause as a sacred cause; " and where," he said, addressing the Protectionists, "the sympathy and respect of the English people are enlisted on behalf of a sacred cause, you and yours will vanish like chaff before the whirlwind." In this spirit of profound conviction Mr. Cobden carried on his campaign, and at last the day of victory came. He had said in his first speech - the speech which the House would hardly listen to - that ho was a man of no party; that he was a Free-trader, and would vote with Whig or Tory for Free Trade. Hence his readiness to support Sir Robert Peel when the Prime Minister's conversion to Repeal was assured; and hence the significance of the double tribute from Whig and Tory which was paid him at the moment of the victory of the cause. Sir Robert Peel's words are well known: - " The name, which ought to be, and will be, associated with those measures is not that of the noble lord (Lord John Russell), the organ of the party of which he is the leader, nor is it mine. The name which ought to be, and will be, associated with those measures is that of one who, acting as I believe from pure and disinterested motives, has, with untiring energy, made appeals to our reason, and has enforced those appeals with an eloquence the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned; the name which ought chiefly to be associated with those measures is the name of Richard Cobden." In like words, Lord Palmerston, in the same debate, paid the debt of the Whigs to the man who had taught them to be true to their principles. " When the House and the country look," he said, " to the highest point in the history of these events, they will see the name of Richard Cobden - a man distinguished by great zeal and enlightenment in advancing a great and important change in our commercial code, and a man, likewise, who presents in his own person a distinguished result of that Parliamentary Reform which has produced this among other great results"

It will be seen on a review of Mr. Cobden's life as a whole, that his advocacy of Free Trade was only a consequence of certain still more general views of the conditions necessary to human welfare; but it may here be remarked that it, in its turn, had consequences, though indirect ones, of great political importance. When it came home to the minds of the Free-traders that the existing Parliament would never pass their bill, they set themselves at once to prepare for the next general election, so as to secure a Free Trade majority in a new House of Commons. Of the boroughs they were sure enough; but not so in the counties. Here Mr. Cobden, solely as a means to his end, took the great and original step of defeating, by a device of his own, what was called the Chandos clause of the Reform Bill. That clause allowed persons holding a joint tenancy to have, under certain circumstances, separate votes; and hence the landlords, who invariably commanded the votes of their tenants, were always able to bring a vast number of votes to the poll by the simple expedient of dividing their tenancies into nominal partnerships. A landlord, for instance, let his farm really to A, but nominally to a partnership consisting of A, his father, his two uncles, his eldest son, and his nephew. Hence while A was for every purpose, except the political one, the real tenant, for the purpose of voting he was only one of six.

To meet this, Mr. Cobden fell back upon the clause which gave votes to " forty-shilling freeholders " - that is, to persons owning freehold property of the value of forty shillings a year. He set on foot an immense subscription to raise a fund, from which money might be advanced to artisans for the purpose of providing them with such freehold houses as would give them the franchise. The plan succeeded; several counties were carried by it; and what is still more important, an example and an impulse were given to the operative class throughout the country. Whatever has been done - and it is much - in the manufacturing districts and elsewhere towards providing, on a great scale, the English artisans with freehold houses of their own, may be traced to this best and most honest of electioneering devices, the " Forty-shilling Freehold Fund" of Mr. Cobden.

When the great work of the League was done, when the Corn Laws had ceased to exist, and the principle of the protection of the interest of one class at the expense of others had been for ever abandoned, Mr. Cobden could rest from his labours. He had lost much besides his time; he had injured his health, and sacrificed at least 20,000 in money. But money was always ready at the call of the League. They raised a monster subscription for him, and presented him with 80,000, to make good his losses, and to enable him to devote his whole life to the political service of his fellows. The two purchases which were made with this money were characteristic. One was the Midhurst estate, the scene of his boyhood; the other was American railway stock - a share in one of the great industries of the Western Republic, which he admired so profoundly. The unfortunate decline of this stock some years after the investment caused him great anxiety and seriously injured his health.

For eleven years after the repeal of the Corn Laws lie sat for the West Riding of Yorkshire, holding to the views which he had always maintained, and in the end offending those who could not see how one of those views depended on another. He was one of the strong, uncompromising opponents of the Russian War, the war into which we drifted, and which is now owned to have been so resultless. In 1857, following the same line of pacific thought, he carried a vote of censure on Lord Palmerston's Government for their policy in China, which he and the majority thought to be unjust to the Chinese. But Yorkshire, which had gone wild for Free Trade, went wild against the principle which is the justification of Free Trade, namely, the principle of the community of nations. Cobden's popularity was gone, and he did not again offer himself for election in Yorkshire. He had two years' rest,, and then in 1859 was, in his absence, elected for Rochdale. Lord Palmerston, who just then came into office again, offered him the Presidency of the Board of Trade, but he declined it, because, as Lord Palmerston afterwards- said, " his opinions were not on all points in unison with those of the Head of the Government." It was impossible, as he saw, that he could ever sit in Palmerston's Cabinet. He, to whom the love of peace between nations was a passion, to whom patriotism was but a rude and1 imperfect virtue, could never have consented to be an agent of the policy of a " fighting minister," who piqued himself on his John Bullism. So Cobden remained a private member till he died. One piece of official business he did, however, perform. In 1859, there was at last a chance of a Commercial Treaty with France being effected, and Cobden was sent to Paris with full powers to negotiate it. The Emperor, as is well known, was favourable to Free Trade; for his throne reposed on the bourgeoisie, and it is the bourgeoisie who are especially profited by freedom of exchange. Hence Mr. Cobden had an easy task, and he performed it successfully. Still he would take no reward for his services, even though Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a place in the Privy Council. To be a simple representative of the people in the House of Commons was enough for him; as such, and no more, he died. He took no very great part in the debates during the last few years of his life; his health was weak and failing, broken down by long and hard labour in early and middle life. An attack of bronchitis carried him off on the 2nd of April, 1865.

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Pictures for Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2

King Leopold I
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Funeral of Lord Palmerston
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