The Life of Richard Cobden
The perpetual chagrin of his life was the obstinate refusal of those on whom he had helped to shower wealth and plenty to hear what he had to say on the social ideals to which their wealth should lead. At last he was obliged to say to himself, as he wrote to a friend: 'Nations have not yet learnt to bear prosperity, liberty, and peace. They will learn it in a higher state of civilization. We think we are the models for posterity, when we are little better than beacons to help it to avoid the rocks and quicksands.'
'When I come here,' he wrote to Mr. Hargreaves from Dunford, 'to ramble alone in the fields and to think, I am impressed with the aspect of our political and social relations. We have the spirit of feudalism rife and rampant in the midst of the antagonistic development of the age of Watt, Arkwright, and Stephenson! Nay, feudalism is every day more and more in the ascendant in political and social life. So great is its power and prestige that it draws to it the support and homage of even those who are the natural leaders of the newer and better civilization. Manufacturers and merchants as a rule seem only to desire riches that they may be enabled to prostrate themselves at the feet of feudalism. How is this to end? And whither are we tending in both our domestic and foreign relations? Can we hope to avoid collisions at home or wars abroad whilst all the tendencies are to throw power and influence into the wrong scale?'
He had begun life with the idea that the great manufacturers and merchants of England should aspire to that high directing position which had raised the Medici, the Fuggers, and the De Witts to a level with the sovereign princes of the earth. At the end he still thought that no other class possessed wealth and influence enough to counteract the feudal class. Through all his public course Cobden did his best to moralize this great class; to raise its self-respect and its consciousness of its own dignity and power. Like every one else, he could only work within his own limits. It is too soon yet to say how our feudal society will ultimately be recast. So far, plutocracy shows a very slight gain upon aristocracy, of which it remains, as Cobden so constantly deplored, an imitation, and a very bad imitation. The political exclusiveness of the oligarchy has been thoroughly broken down since Cobden's day. It seems, however, as if the preponderance of power were inevitably destined not for the middle class, as he believed, but for the workmen.
For this future régime Cobden's work was the best preparation. He conceived a certain measure of material prosperity, generally diffused, to be an indispensable instrument of social well-being. For England, as with admirable foresight he laid down in his first pamphlet in 1835, the cardinal fact is the existence of the United States—its industrial competition and its democratic example. This has transformed the conditions of policy. This is what warns English statesmen to set their house in order. For a country in our position, to keep the standard of living at its right level, free access to the means of subsistence and the material of industry was the first essential. Thrift in government and wise administration of private capital have become equally momentous in presence of the rising world around us. To abstain from intervention in the affairs of other nations is not only recommended by economic prudence, but is the only condition on which proper attention can be paid to the moral and social necessities at home. Let us not, then, tax Cobden with failing to do the work of the social moralist. It is his policy which gives to the social reformer a foothold. He accepted the task which, from the special requirements of the time, it fell to him to do, and it is both unjust and ungrateful to call him narrow for not performing the tasks of others as well as his own.
It was his view of policy as a whole, connected with the movement of wealth and industry all over the world, that distinguished Cobden and his allies from the Philosophic Radicals, who had been expected to from so great and powerful a school in the reformed Parliament. Hume had anticipated him in attacking expenditure, and Mr. Roebuck in preaching self-government in the colonies. It was not until Retrenchment and Colonial Policy were placed in their true relation to the new and vast expansion of commerce and the growth of population, that any considerable number of people accepted them. The Radical party only became effective when it had connected its principles with economic facts. The different points of view of the Manchester School and of the Philosophic Radicals was illustrated in Mr. Mill's opposition to the alterations which Cobden had advocated in international maritime law. Mr. Mill argued that the best way of stopping wars is to make them as onerous as possible to the citizens of the country concerned, and therefore that to protect the goods of the merchants of a belligerent country is to give them one motive the less for hindering their Government from making war. With all reverence for the ever admirable author of this argument, it must be pronounced to be abstract and unreal, when compared with Cobden's. You are not likely to prevent the practice of war, he contended, but what you can do is to make it less destructive to the interests and the security of great populations.