Page images
PDF
EPUB

RICHARD COBDEN (1804-1865)

THE ORATOR OF FREE TRADE

high duty on imported grain, greatly increased the cost of food in England, favoring the land-holding gentry at the expense of the poor—that made Richard Cobden famous. Conservatism, and the political influence of the gentry, preserved these laws with little change, and Cobden was the first to make a determined assault upon them. In 1839 the Anti-Corn Law League was formed, with him for its principal champion and orator. Elected to Parliament in 1841, he kept up the fight actively and earnestly in the House and before the people, with the result that the obnoxious laws were repealed in 1846. An able orator and a born reformer, Mr. Cobden was a powerful ally of Bright and Gladstone in their Liberal campaign. He favored electoral reform, vote by ballot, and a pacific foreign policy, and was the author, in 1860, of an important commercial treaty with France, which greatly increased the trade between the two countries.

I T was the contest against the Corn Laws—which, by imposing a

THE GENTRY AND THE PROTECTIVE SYSTEM

[From Cobden's many eloquent speeches on the subject of his great free-corn conflict, we select the following example, in which he clearly points out to the landholders of England the selfish character of their course, and the perils they ran in opposing the demand for cheap food from the great industrial population.]

I tell you that this “Protection,” as it has been called, is a failure. It was so when you had the prohibition up to 80s. You know the state of your farming tenantry in 1821. It was a failure when you had a protection price of 60s.; for you know what was the condition of your farm tenantry in 1835. It is a failure now with your last amendment, for you have admitted and proclaimed it to us; and what is the condition of your agricultural population at this time 2 I ask, what is your plan P I hope

RICHARD COBDEN 541

it is not a pretense; a mere political game that has been played throughout the last election, and that you have not all come up here as mere politicians. There are politicians in the House; men who look with an ambition—probably a justifiable one—to the honors of office. There may be men who, with thirty years of continuous service,—having been pressed into a groove from which they can neither escape nor retreat, may be holding office, high office, maintained there, probably, at the expense of their present convictions, which do not harmonize very well with their early opinions. I make allowances for them ; but the great body of the honorable gentlemen opposite came up to this House, not as politicians, but as the farmers' friends, and protectors of the agricultural interests. Well, what do you propose to do 2 You have heard the Prime Minister declare that, if he could restore all the protection which you have had, that protection would not benefit agriculturists. Is that your belief? If so, why not proclaim it? and if it is not your conviction, you will have falsified your mission in this House, by following the right honorable baronet out into the lobby, and opposing inquiry into the condition of the very men who sent you here. With mere politicians I have no right to expect to succeed in this motion. But I have no hesitation in telling you that, if you give me a committee of this House, I will explode the delusion of agricultural protection. I will bring forward such a mass of evidence, and give you such a preponderance of talent and of authority, that when the Blue-Book is published and sent forth to the world, as we can now send it, by our vehicles of information, your system of protection shall not live in public opinion for two years afterward. Politicians do not want that. This cry of protection has been a very convenient handle for politicians. The cry of protection carried the counties at the last election, and politicians gained honors, emoluments, and place by it. But is that old tattered flag of protection, tarnished and torn as it is already, to be kept hoisted still in the counties for the benefit of politicians; or will you come forward honestly and fairly to inquire into this question ? 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

Ö42 RICHARD COBDEN

of manly vigor, 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 hidalgos 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 favor in this country. But you never got it, and you will not keep it, by obstructing the spirit of the age. If you are indifferent to enlightened means of finding employment to your own peasantry; if you are found obstructing that advance which is calculated to knit nations more together in the bonds of peace by means of commercial intercourse; if you are found fighting against the discoveries which have almost given breath and life to material nature, and setting up yourselves as obstructives of that which destiny has decreed shall go on, why, then, you will be the gentry of England no longer, and others will be found to take your place. And I have no hesitation in saying that you stand just now in a very critical position. There is a wide-spread suspicion that you have been tampering with the best feelings and with the honest confidence of your constituents in this cause. Everywhere you are doubted and suspected. Read your own organs, and you will see that this is the case. Well, then, this is the time to show that you are not the mere party politicians which you are said to be. I have said that we shall be opposed in this measure by politicians; they do not want inquiry. But I ask you to go into this committee with me. I will give you a majority of county members. You shall have a majority of the Central Society in that committee. I ask you only to go into a fair inquiry as to the causes of the distress of your own population. I only ask that this matter be fairly examined. Whether you establish my principle or yours, good will come out of the inquiry; and I do, therefore, beg and entreat the honorable independent country gentlemen of this House that they will not refuse, on this occasion to go into a fair, a full, and an impartial inquiry.

BENJAMIN DISRAELI (1805–1881)

GLADSTONE'S RIVAL IN ORATORY AND OFFICE

... IN speaking of Disraeli as a rival of Gladstone in oratory, it is I meant only to indicate that these distinguished men came frequently into conflict in speech-making, not that there was any equality or resemblance between them as orators. As one writer says of Disraeli, “In almost every thing he was the very opposite of his great adversary, Mr. Gladstone. He was a master of epigram, a splendid debater, rather than an orator; he possessed that first-rate requisite of statecraft, lack of zeal.” His maiden speech was not wanting in cleverness, yet was so lame in delivery that it was greeted in Parliament with shouts of laughter. He cried out in response, “I have begun several things many times, and have often succeeded at last; ay, and though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me.” The time indeed came. Before many years he was a prominent debater in the House of Commons, and the leading Conservative orator in the Corn Law agitation, while by his talent as a speaker and his spirit and persistency under defeat he compelled the admiration of his opponents. From 1868 onward he was the rival of Gladstone for the highest office under the British Government. In that year he became Prime Minister, and alternated with Gladstone in this post of honor and power till his death, his terms of Premiership being 1868 to 1869, and from 1874 to 1880. Many of the great questions of public policy and the management of the Empire were before parliament and in their discussions Disraeli shone as a speaker of rare powers. In 1875 he conferred on the Queen the title of Empress of India, and was himself rewarded by the rank of Earl of Beaconsfield. In addition to his parliamentary labors, he found time to devote himself somewhat to literature, writing several novels which attracted much

544 BENJAMIN DISRAELI

attention at the time, alike from their literary power and their authorship. While out of office in 1870 he wrote his novel of “Lothair,” a work which was very widely read, and was exposed to much severe criticism. THE DANGERS OF DEMOCRACY

[The question of electoral reform and extension of the suffrage, which had been so prominent in England about 1830, was renewed at a later date, being supported by Gladstone and Russell, and opposed by Disraeli and Derby. Yet in 1867, finding that the people were thoroughly in earnest, Disraeli changed front suddenly, posed as a reformer, and brought in a suffrage reform bill which conceded all that Gladstone had demanded, giving the right to vote to every householder in a borough, every fortyshilling freeholder, etc. He had shrewdly accepted that which he had bitterly opposed before. We give some of his reasons for opposing suffrage, from a speech made by him in 1864.]

That tremendous reckless opposition to the right honorable gentleman, which allowed the bill to be read the second time, seems to have laid the Government prostrate. If he had succeeded in throwing out the bill, the right honorable gentleman and his friends would have been relieved from great embarrassment. But the bill, having been read a second time, the Government were quite overcome, and it appears they never have recovered from the paralysis up to this time. The right honorable gentleman was good enough to say that the proposition of his Government was rather coldly received upon his side of the House, but he said “nobody spoke against it.” Nobody spoke against the bill on this side, but I remember some most remarkable speeches from the right honorable gentleman's friends. There was the great city of Edinburgh, represented by acute eloquence of which we never weary, and which again upon the present occasion we have heard; there was the great city of Bristol, represented on that occasion among the opponents, and many other constituencies of equal importance.

But the most remarkable speech, which “killed cock robin,” was absolutely delivered by one who might be described as almost a member of the Government—the chairman of ways and means (Mr. Massey,) who I believe, spoke from immediately behind the Prime Minister. Did the Government express any disapprobation of such conduct? They have promoted him to a great post, and have sent him to India with an income of fabulous amount. And now they are astonished they cannot carry a Reform Bill. If they removed all those among their supporters who oppose such bills by preferring them to posts of great confidence and great lucre, how can they suppose that they will ever carry one 2 Looking at the policy of the Government, I am not at all astonished at the speech which

« PreviousContinue »