Bagehot’s obituary of Richard Cobden – 1865

Walter Bagehot’s 1865 obituary of Richard Cobden, from the Online Library of Liberty
(H/T Sean Corrigan).


Twenty-three years ago—and it is very strange that it should be so many years—when Mr. Cobden first began to hold Free-trade meetings in the agricultural districts, people there were much confused. They could not believe the Mr. Cobden they saw to be the “Mr. Cobden that was in the papers”. They expected a burly demagogue from the North, ignorant of rural matters, absorbed in manufacturing ideas, appealing to class-prejudices—hostile and exciting hostility. They saw “a sensitive and almost slender man, of shrinking nerve, full of rural ideas, who proclaimed himself the son of a farmer, who understood and could state the facts of agricultural life far better than most agriculturists, who was most anxious to convince every one of what he thought the truth, and who was almost more anxious not to offend any one”. The tradition is dying out, but Mr. Cobden acquired, even in those days of Free-trade agitation, a sort of agricultural popularity. He excited a personal interest, he left what may be called a sense of himself among his professed enemies. They were surprised at finding that he was not what they thought; they were charmed to find that he was not what they expected; they were fascinated to find what he was. The same feeling has been evident at his sudden death—a death at least which was to the mass of occupied men sudden. Over political Belgravia—the last part of English society Mr. Cobden ever cultivated—there was a sadness. Every one felt that England had lost an individuality which it could never have again, which was of the highest value, which was in its own kind altogether unequalled.

What used to strike the agricultural mind, as different from what they fancied, and most opposite to a Northern agitator, was a sort of playfulness. They could hardly believe that the lurking smile, the perfectly magical humour which they were so much struck by, could be that of a “Manchester man”. Mr. Cobden used to say, “I have as much right as any man to call myself the representative of the tenant farmer, for I am a farmer’s son,—I am the son of a Sussex farmer”. But agriculturists keenly felt that this was not the explanation of the man they saw. Perhaps they could not have thoroughly explained, but they perfectly knew that they were hearing a man of singular and most peculiar genius, fitted as if by “natural selection” for the work he had to do, and not wasting a word on any other work or anything else, least of all upon himself.

Mr. Cobden was very anomalous in two respects. He was a sensitive agitator. Generally, an agitator is a rough man of the O’Connell type, who says anything himself, and lets others say anything. You “peg into me and I will peg into you, and let us see which will win,” is his motto. But Mr. Cobden’s habit and feeling were utterly different. He never spoke ill of any one. He arraigned principles, but not persons. We fearlessly say that after a career of agitation of thirty years, not one single individual has—we do not say a valid charge, but a producible charge—a charge which he would wish to bring forward against Mr. Cobden. You cannot find the man who says, “Mr. Cobden said this of me, and it was not true”. This may seem trivial praise, and on paper it looks easy. But to those who know the great temptations of actual life it means very much. How would any other great agitator, O’Connell or Hunt or Cobbett look, if tried by such a test? Very rarely, if even ever in history, has a man achieved so much by his words—been victor in what was thought at the time to be a class-struggle—and yet spoken so little evil as Mr. Cobden. There is hardly a word to be found, perhaps, even now, which the recording angel would wish to blot out. We may on other grounds object to an agitator who lacerates no one, but no watchful man of the world will deny that such an agitator has vanquished one of life’s most imperious and difficult temptations.

Perhaps some of our readers may remember as vividly as we do a curious instance of Mr. Cobden’s sensitiveness. He said at Drury Lane Theatre, in tones of feeling, almost of passion, curiously contrasting with the ordinary coolness of his nature, “I could not serve with Sir Robert Peel”. After more than twenty years, the curiously thrilling tones of that phrase still live in our ears. Mr. Cobden alluded to the charge which Sir Robert Peel had made, or half made, that the Anti-Corn-Law League and Mr. Cobden had, by their action and agitation, conduced to the actual assassination of Mr. Drummond, his secretary, and the intended assassination of himself—Sir Robert Peel. No excuse or palliation could be made for such an assertion except the most important one, that Peel’s nerves were as susceptible and sensitive as Mr. Cobden’s. But the profound feeling with which Mr. Cobden spoke of it is certain. He felt it as a man feels an unjust calumny, an unfounded stain on his honour.

Mr. Disraeli said on Monday night [1] (and he has made many extraordinary assertions, but this is about the queerest), “Mr. Cobden had a profound reverence for tradition”. If there is any single quality which Mr. Cobden had not, it was traditional reverence. But probably Mr. Disraeli meant what was most true, that Mr. Cobden had a delicate dislike of offending other men’s opinions. He dealt with them tenderly. He did not like to have his own creed coarsely attacked, and he did—he could not help doing—as he would be done by; he never attacked any man’s creed coarsely or roughly, or in any way except by what he in his best conscience thought the fairest and justest argument. This sensitive nature is one marked peculiarity in Mr. Cobden’s career as an agitator, and another is, that he was an agitator for men of business.

Generally speaking, occupied men charged with the responsibilities and laden with the labour of grave affairs are jealous of agitation. They know how much may be said against any one who is responsible for anything. They know how unanswerable such charges nearly always are, and how false they easily may be. A capitalist can hardly help thinking, “Suppose a man was to make a speech against my mode of conducting my own business, how much would he have to say!” Now it is an exact description of Mr. Cobden, that by the personal magic of a single-minded practicability he made men of business abandon this objection. He made them rather like the new form of agitation. He made them say, “How business-like, how wise, just what it would have been right to do”.

Mr. Cobden of course was not the discoverer of the Free-trade principle. He did not first find out that the Corn-laws were bad laws. But he was the most effectual of those who discovered how the Corn-laws were to be repealed, how Free-trade was to change from a doctrine of The Wealth of Nations into a principle of tariffs and a fact of real life. If a thing was right, to Mr. Cobden’s mind it ought to be done; and as Adam Smith’s doctrines were admitted on theory, he could not believe that they ought to lie idle, that they ought to be “bedridden in the dormitory of the understanding”.

Lord Houghton once said, “In my time political economy books used to begin, ‘Suppose a man on an island’ ”. Mr. Cobden’s speeches never began so. He was altogether a man of business speaking to men of business. Some of us may remember the almost arch smile with which he said “the House of Commons does not seem quite to understand the difference between a cotton mill and a print work”. It was almost amusing to him to think that the first assembly of the first mercantile nation could be, as they were and are, very dim in their notions of the most material divisions of their largest industry. It was this evident and first-hand familiarity with real facts and actual life which enabled Mr. Cobden to inspire a curiously diffused confidence in all matter-of-fact men. He diffused a kind of “economic faith”. People in those days had only to say, “Mr. Cobden said so,” and other people went and “believed it”.

Mr. Cobden had nothing classical in the received sense about his oratory; but it is quite certain that Aristotle, the greatest teacher of the classical art of rhetoric, would very keenly have appreciated his oratory. This sort of economic faith is exactly what he would most have valued, what he most prescribed. He said: “A speaker should convince his audience that he was a likely person to know”. This was exactly what Mr. Cobden did. And the matter-of-fact philosopher would have much liked Mr. Cobden’s habit of “coming to the point”. It would have been thoroughly agreeable to his positive mind to see so much of clear, obvious argument. He would not, indeed, have been able to conceive a “League Meeting”. There has never, perhaps, been another time in the history of the world when excited masses of men and women hung on the words of one talking political economy. The excitement of these meetings was keener than any political excitement of the last twenty years, keener infinitely than any which there is now. It may be said, and truly, that the interest of the subject was Mr. Cobden’s felicity, not his mind, but it may be said with equal truth that the excitement was much greater when he was speaking than when any one else was speaking. By a kind of keenness of nerve, he said the exact word most fitted to touch, not the bare abstract understanding, but the quick individual perceptions of his hearers.

We do not wish to make this article a mere panegyric Mr. Cobden was far too manly to like such folly. His mind was very peculiar, and like all peculiar minds had its sharp limits. He had what we may call a supplementary understanding, that is, a bold, original intellect, acting on a special experience, and striking out views and principles not known to or neglected by ordinary men. He did not possess the traditional education of his country, and did not understand it. The solid heritage of transmitted knowledge has more value, we believe, than he would have accorded to it. There was too a defect in business faculty not identical, but perhaps not altogether without analogy. The late Mr. James Wilson used to say, “Cobden’s administrative power I do not think much of, but he is most valuable in counsel, always original, always shrewd, and not at all extreme”. He was not altogether equal to meaner men in some beaten tracks and pathways of life, though he was far their superior in all matters requiring an original stress of speculation, an innate energy of thought.

It may be said, and truly said, that he has been cut off before his time. A youth and manhood so spent as his, well deserved a green old age. But so it was not to be. He has left us, quite independently of his positive works, of the repeal of the Corn-laws, of the French treaty, a rare gift—the gift of a unique character. There has been nothing before Richard Cobden like him in English history, and perhaps there will not be anything like him. And his character is of the simple, emphatic, picturesque sort which most easily, when opportunities are given as they were to him, goes down to posterity. May posterity learn from him! Only last week we hoped to have learned something ourselves:—

  • “But what is before us we know not,
  • And we know not what shall succeed”.[2]

[1] The day after Cobden’s death.

[2] Matthew Arnold, “The Future”.

1 Comment

  • Quite interesting really. I can only imagine, if Mr. Cobden had only recently died, how different their obit would have been. There may have been a time when the Economist espoused a free market philosophy, but now they simply adhere to statism in all its supposed glory. In other words, this is not the same Economist that I canceled after their advocacy of the bail outs a few years back.

    On another note, I enjoy the website and I am very happy Mr. Cobden has been resurrected, so to speak, in the 21st century.

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