Excerpt from The Political Writings of Richard Cobden Part II

It will be seen that all which has been stated bears indirectly, but conclusively, upon the question of Russia and Turkey, and affords an unanswerable argument against going to war to defend our commerce by means of naval armaments; since it is plain, from the example of Gibraltar, that, even were Constantinople in our own power, its commerce could be retained only by our selling cheaper than other nations; whilst, supposing it to be in the possession of Russia or any other people, the cheapness of our commodities will eventually command that market, in the same manner as the cheap drills and prints of Saxony and Switzerland supplant our goods, in spite of the batteries and fleets which defend our Spanish fortress.


Having thus shown that cheapness, and not the cannon or the sword, is the weapon through which alone we possess and can hope to defend or extend our commerce—having proved, also, that an increase of trade, so far from demanding an augmentation of warlike armaments, furnishes an increased safeguard against the chances of war—is it not clear that, to diminish the taxes and duties which tend to enhance the cost of our manufactures, by a reduction of our navy and army, is the obvious policy of a ministry which understands and desires to promote the true interests of this commercial nation? Were our army and navy reduced to one-half of their present forces, and the amount saved applied to the abolition of the duties upon cotton, wool, glass, paper, oil, soap, drugs, and the thousand other ingredients of our manufactures, such a step would do more towards protecting and extending the commerce of Great Britain than an augmentation of the naval armaments to fifty times their present strength, even supposing such an increase could be effected with no addition to the national burdens.


Experience has shown that an overwhelming power at sea, whilst it cannot dictate a favourable commercial treaty with the smallest independent State (for such a spectacle of violence was never seen as a victorious admiral, sword in hand, prescribing the terms of a tariff to his prostrate foe), has had the effect of rousing national fear, hatred, and envy, in the breasts of foreigners; and these vile feelings of human nature, awakened and cultivated by our own appeal to the mere instinct of brute force, have been naturally directed, in every possible way, to thwart and injure our trade. During the latter half of the French revolutionary wars, England, owing to successive victories, became the mistress of the ocean; her flag floated triumphantly over every navigable parallel of latitude, and her merchants and manufacturers commanded a monopoly of the markets of the globe. For a period of more than ten years an enemy’s ship was scarcely to be seen, unless as a fugitive from the thunder of our vessels of war; no neutrals were allowed to pass along that thoroughfare of nations, the ocean, without submitting to pay the homage to British power of undergoing the humiliation of a search by our cruisers. There was something inconceivably flattering to the vulgar mind in this exhibition of successful violence. Our naval supremacy, consequently, became the theme and watchword of all those orators, statesmen, and writers who had an interest in perpetuating the war. Poets, too, were put in requisition; and a thousand songs, all breathing such sentiments as “Rule Britannia,” were heard in the theatres, taverns, and streets. Cupidity, as well as pride, was appealed to. Our merchants were continually reminded, by the minister and his minions, that they alone possessed the markets of the world; and, even whilst our yearly national expenditure reached nearly double the amount of the whole of our exports,such was the intoxication, such the infatuation of the moment, owing to the gross appeals made to national vanity, that the multitude were not only impressed with the belief that our commerce was profitable, but convinced that England was destined to remain permanently the same trading monopolist. Peace cured us of this maddening fever; but, in exchange, it brought the lumbago of debt, which still oppresses and torments our body politic. Not only this; the moral is yet to follow. The brute force which we had exercised towards foreign nations, at sea, during the war, had naturally excited the animal feelings of hatred, fear, and revenge, in return. Every country began to establish manufactures, in order to become independent of and secure against Great Britain. Russia, Austria, and France, now commenced the war of interdicts; and Ferdinand of Spain had no sooner succeeded in re-establishing the Inquisition, than he—for whom, to the everlasting infamy of that epoch of our history, the blood and treasure of England were squandered—repaid us with a prohibition of our cottons.


We cannot give proofs of the motives which actuate the councils of despotic princes, for they furnish none to the world; but the discussions on the tariff laws in France and the United States, which were necessarily public, fully disclosed that the reason which led their governments to seek to become themselves manufacturers, was to render those countries independent of the power of Great Britain at sea. The French nation, which, in 1786 had concluded a treaty of commerce with Great Britain upon terms very favourable to the latter, and which would, had it not been interrupted by war, have consolidated the two countries by a complete identification of interests, long before the period we are now speaking of, proceeded, immediately on the close of hostilities, to prohibit the introduction of every article of our manufacture. The spirit which operated then is still alive, and with the avowal of the self-same motives; for, during the late discussions in the Chamber of Deputies upon the revisal of the tariff, a discriminating duty was laid upon the coal coming from this country (by the unprecedented scheme of dividing France into three zones for that very purpose), and it was defended upon the plea of protection against inconvenience during war!


America, however, presents us with the severest lesson, as the moral of that policy which relies upon violence and war for the support or acquisition of commerce. In the report of the committee on manufactures of cotton, presented in the Congress of the United States, February 13, 1816—a paper drawn up with great moderation and delicacy, so far as relates to the allusions to British violence during the war just concluded—it is stated that, “Prior to the years 1806 and 1807, establishments for manufacturing cotton wool had not been attempted but in a few instances, and on a limited scale. Their rise and progress are attributable to embarrassments to which commerce was subjected; which embarrassments originated in causes not within the control of human prudence.” The causes here alluded to are the British orders in council and Bonaparte’s decrees. Then follows a statement of the quantity of cotton wool manufactured at successive periods in the United States:—

1800… 500 bales.
1805… 1,000 bales.
1810… 10,000 bales.
1815… 90,000 bales.

And afterwards it goes on to say, in speaking of Great Britain—”No improper motives are intended to be imputed to that government. But does not experience teach a lesson that should never be forgotten, that governments, like individuals, are apt ‘to feel power and forget right’? It is not inconsistent with national decorum to become circumspect and prudent. May not the Government of Great Britain be inclined, in analysing the basis of her political power, to consider and regard the United States as her rival, and to indulge an improper jealousy, the enemy of peace and repose?” And, in proposing on February 12, 1816, a new tariff to the Senate, in which cotton goods are subjected to 331/3 per cent. duty, the Secretary of the Treasury, in the course of his report, has this passage:—”But it was emphatically during the period of the restrictive system and of the war that the importance of domestic manufactures became conspicuous to the nations, and made a lasting impression upon the mind of every statesman and every patriot.” It is not, however, by state papers that we can fully estimate the sentiments of the nation at large. Immediately on the cessation of war a strong feeling was manifested in all parts of the Union in favour of protecting the manufactures of the country. This feeling prevailed with the democratic party, which was then in the ascendant, quite as much as with the federalists, although the former had previously been opposed to protecting duties. We cannot better illustrate this than by giving the following extract from a letter, written at this time by the great leader and champion of that party, Jefferson, who, in his “Notes on Virginia,” written in 1785, had given his opinion, “that the workshops of Europe are the most proper to furnish the supplies of manufactures to the United States;” but, after the experience of the war, changed his opinion to the following:—”The British interdicted to our vessels all harbours of the globe, without they had at first proceeded to some one of hers, there paid tribute proportioned to their cargo, and obtained a licence to proceed to the port of their destination. Compare this state of things with that of 1785, and say whether an opinion, founded in the circumstances of that day, can be fairly applied to those of the present. We have experienced what we did not then believe, that there does exist both profligacy and power enough to exclude the United States from the field of intercourse with foreign nations. We therefore have a right to conclude, that to be independent for the comforts of life we must fabricate them for ourselves. We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturist. The question of 1785 is suppressed, or rather assumes a new form. The question is, Shall we manufacture our own comforts, or go without them at the will of a foreign nation? He, therefore, who is now against domestic manufactures, must be for reducing us to a dependence upon foreign nations. I am not one of these.


We have illustrated this matter with reference to the United States more clearly than in relation to France, because, as we have elsewhere stated, it is our conviction, after giving considerable attention to the subject, that future danger to our manufacturing and commercial supremacy impends from America rather than from any European nation. It will be seen from the preceding quotations, that from the first independence of that country, the democratic party was inimical to the establishing of protective duties; that party, under Jefferson, then was, and down to this day it continues to be triumphant; and we therefore possess unquestionable evidence that, by the hand of violence of England herself in 1806 and subsequently, the cotton manufacture was planted in the United States; and it may be seen, in the foregoing table, how, watered by the blood of our succeeding ten years’ French war, it flourished an hundred and eighty fold! That manufacture is not destined to perish; it now equals the fifth of our own staple industry. We do not predict such a retributive visitation; we are proof against despair, when the energies of our countrymen are the grounds of hope; but if, in consequence of past wastefulness, or future extravagance and misgovernment here, a people beyond the Atlantic, free of debt, resolute in peacefulness, and of severe economy, should wrest, by the victory of “cheapness,” that main prop of our national prosperity, the cotton manufacture, from our hands—how greatly will it aggravate a nation’s sufferings, to remember the bitter historical truth, that that people was goaded to the occupations of the spinning-jenny and the loom by the violence of Great Britain herself!


We mention these facts for the purpose of appealing, on a fresh ground, against the policy of maintaining enormous standing armaments. It has been seen that armies and ships cannot protect or extend commerce; whilst, as is too well known, the expenses of maintaining them oppress and impede our manufacturing industry—two sufficient grounds for reducing both. There is another motive in the above facts. That feeling which was awakened by our overwhelming power at sea, at the conclusion of the war—the feeling of fear and mistrust lest we should be, in the words of the American state paper, just quoted, “apt to feel power and forget right”—is kept alive by the operation of the same cause, which tends still, as we have seen by the last debates in the French Chamber of Deputies, to afford excuses for perpetuating the restrictive duties upon our fabrics. The standing armies and navies, therefore, whilst they cannot possibly protect our commerce—whilst they add, by the increase of taxation, to the cost of our manufactures, and thus augment the difficulty of achieving the victory of “cheapness”—tend to deter rather than attract customers. The feeling is natural; it is understood in the individual concerns of life. Does the shopkeeper, when he invites buyers to his counter, place there, as a guard to protect his stock or defend his salesmen from violence, a gang of stout fellows, armed with pistols and cutlasses?