Excerpt from The Political Writings of Richard Cobden

Volume I, Part II.

Chapter IV.


WE began the preceding remarks upon a question which, however universally recognised in former times, has now almost fallen into neglect, by quoting a passage from the last speech of King William III. to his Parliament; and—before proceeding to discuss that other, but still more popular, pretence for wars and standing armaments, the protection of our commerce—we shall give an extract or two from the latest (though we sincerely hope not the last) address of William IV. to his Reformed Parliament, delivered on the 4th of February, 1836:—

“I continue to receive from my allies, and, generally, from all foreign powers, assurances of their unaltered desire to cultivate with me those friendly relations which it is equally my wish to maintain with them; and the intimate union which happily subsists between this country and France is a pledge to Europe for the continuation of general peace.”


After the above passage, which contains, one would suppose, ample guarantees against war—since it not only conveys assurances of the peaceful disposition of all foreign powers towards this country, but adds, by way of making those assurances doubly sure, that the union which happily subsists between England and France is a pledge for the continuance of a general peace—comes the following:—

“The necessity of maintaining the maritime strength of the country, and of giving adequate protection to the extended commerce of my subjects, has occasioned some increase in the estimates for the naval branch of the public service.”


Now, if we felt some difficulty in apprehending the question of the “balancing principle,” we confess ourselves to be much more at a loss to understand what is here meant by the protection of commerce through an increase in the navy estimates. Our commerce is, in other words, our manufactures; and the first inquiry which occurs necessarily is, Do we need an augmentation of the naval force, in order to guard our ingenious artisans and industrious labourers, or to protect those precious results of their mechanical genius, the manufactories of our capitalists? This apprehension vanishes, if we refer to the assurances held out in the above double guarantee for the continuance of peace, that our shores are safe from foreign aggression. The next idea that suggests itself is, Does piracy increase the demand for vessels of war? We, who write in the centre of the largest export trade in the world, have not heard of even one complaint of violence done to British interests upon the ocean; and probably there are not to be found a dozen freebooters upon the face of the aquatic globe. South America demands no addition to the force upon its coasts at the present moment, when those several Governments are more firmly organised, and foreign interests consequently more secure, than at any previous period. China presents no excuse; for her policy is, fortunately for her territorial integrity, invulnerable to foreign attempts at “intervention.” The rest of Asia is our own. Where, then, shall we seek for a solution of the difficulty, or how account for the necessity which called for the increase of our naval strength?


The commerce of this country, we repeat, is, in other words, its manufactures. Our exports do not consist, as in Mexico or Brazil, of the produce of our soil and our mines; or, as in France and the United States, of a mixture of articles of agricultural and manufacturing origin: but they may be said to be wholly produced by the skill and industry of the manufacturing population of the United Kingdom. Upon the prosperity, then, of this interest, hangs our foreign commerce; on which depends our external rank as a maritime state; our customs duties, which are necessary to the payment of the national debt; and the supply of every foreign article of our domestic consumption—every pound of tea, sugar, coffee, or rice, and all the other commodities consumed by the entire population of these realms. In a word, our national existence is involved in the well-doing of our manufacturers. If our readers—many of whom will be of the agricultural class, but every one of them nevertheless equally interested in the question—should ask, as all intelligent and reasoning minds ought to do, To what are we indebted for this commerce?—we answer, in the name of every manufacturer and merchant of the kingdom—The cheapness alone of our manufactures. Are we asked, How is this trade protected, and by what means can it be enlarged? The reply still is, By the cheapness of our manufactures. Is it inquired how this mighty industry, upon which depends the comfort and existence of the whole empire, can be torn from us?—we rejoin, Only by the greater cheapness of the manufactures of another country. These truths are, we presume, well known to the Government of Great Britain; at least, one member of the present cabinet is vigilantly alive to their momentous character, as we are going to show, by referring to a fact coming within our personal experience, and which bears pointedly upon the question in hand.


The Directors of the Chamber of Commerce of Manchester (of which board the author has the honour of being a member) were favoured, a short time since, with a communication from the Right Hon. C. P. Thomson, accompanied by an assortment of samples of various fabrics, which, in the diligent fulfilment of his official duties, he had caused to be procured from the several manufacturing districts of the Continent; and requesting a report as to the comparative relation which, after due examination, they might be found to bear towards the manufactures of England. Among these were patterns of Swiss Turkey-red chintz prints and of mixed cotton and linen Saxony drills—both of which commodities have been for some time sold in those quarters—superior, both in cheapness and quality, to similar articles produced in this country: and, consequently, in reporting to the Board of Trade, the Directors of the Chamber of Commerce had the disagreeable duty of stating that, in those particular products of the loom and printing machine, we were beaten by our foreign rivals, and superseded in third or neutral markets. The causes of the advantage thus possessed over us by our competitors on the Continent, and which were pointed out to the attention of the Right Hon. President, are the heavy imposts still fettering our manufacturing energies, and the greater cost of the food of our workmen: the remedy is, obviously, a reduction of the duties on corn, oil, soap, &c. But, if, instead of naming such causes and remedies as these, the Manchester Chamber of Commerce had stated in its report that the prints of Switzerland and the drills of Saxony (the governments of which two countries do not together own a ship of war, as we believe) were cheaper than the like articles fabricated here, because the British navy was not sufficiently strong,and had advised for relief that half a million a year should be added to the navy estimates—would not a writ de lunatico inquirendo have justly been issued against those intelligent Directors, the writer’s colleagues, without further evidence of their insanity! Yet, having seen that the only way in which we can protect our commerce is the cheapness of our manufactures, what other object can be meant, when the Government calls for an augmentation of the navy, with a view to the protection of our commerce, but some plan, however inappreciable to common minds, for reducing the expenditure of the country, and thereby relieving us from some of the burdensome imposts with which our race of competition is impeded?


But there is, in the second passage which we have just quoted from his Majesty’s speech, a part which tends to throw more light upon the whole—where it refers to the necessity of giving adequate protection to the “extended” commerce of the country. By which we are to infer that it is the principle of the government that the extension of our trade with foreign countries demands for its protection a corresponding augmentation of the royal navy. This, we are aware, was the policy of the last century, during the greater part of which the motto, “Ships, Colonies, and Commerce,” was borne upon the national escutcheon, became the watchword of statesmen, and was the favourite sentiment of public writers; but this, which meant, in other words—”Men of war to conquer colonies, to yield us a monopoly of their trade,” must now be dismissed, like many other equally glittering but false adages of our forefathers, and in its place we must substitute the more homely, but enduring maxim—Cheapness, which will command commerce; and whatever else is needful will follow in its train.


At a time when all beyond the precincts of Europe was colonial territory, and when the trade of the world was, with the exception of China, almost wholly forced into false channels, by the hand of violence, which was no sooner withdrawn than, by its own inherent law—the law of nature—it again sought its proper level course, the increase of the navy necessarily preceded and accompanied an extension of our commerce. The policy of nations, then, if judged by the standard which we apply to the conduct of individuals now—and there can be no exculpation in multitudinous immorality—was, to waylay their customers, whom they first knocked down and disabled, and afterwards dragged into their stores and compelled to purchase whatever articles they chose to offer, at such prices as they chose to ask! The independence of the New World has for ever put an end to the colonial policy of the Old, and with it that system of fraud and violence which for centuries characterised the commercial intercourse of the two hemispheres. And in that portentous truth, the Americas are free, teeming as it does with future change, there is nothing that more nearly affects our destiny than the total revolution which it dictates to the statesmen of Great Britain, in the commercial, colonial, and foreign policy of our Government. America is once more the theatre upon which nations are contending for mastery: it is not, however, a struggle for conquest, in which the victor will acquire territorial dominion—the fight is for commercial supremacy, and the battle will be won by the cheapest!


Whilst our trade rested upon our foreign dependencies, as was the case in the middle of the last century—whilst, in other words, force and violence were necessary to command customers for our manufactures—it was natural and consistent that almost every king’s speech should allude to the importance of protecting the commerce of the country, by means of a powerful navy; but whilst, under the present more honest principles of trade, cheapness alone is necessary to command free and independent purchasers, and to protect our commerce, it must be evident that such armaments as impose the smallest possible tax upon the cost of our commodities must be the best adapted for the protection of our trade. But, besides dictating the disuse of warlike establishments, free trade (for of that beneficent doctrine we are speaking) arms its votaries by its own pacific nature, in that eternal truth—the more any nation traffics abroad upon free and honest principles, the less it will be in danger of wars.


If, by way of example, we refer to the present commercial intercourse between the United States and this empire, how completely does it illustrate the force of the above maxim! At no period of history were two people, aliens to each other by birth, government, laws, and institutions, united indissolubly by one common interest and mutual dependence, like these distant nations. One-third of our whole exports consists of cotton manufactures, the raw material of which is produced from the soil of the United States. More than a million of our population depend upon the due supply of this cotton wool for the labour of every succeeding day, and for the regular payment of their weekly wages. We sometimes hear objections against the free importation of corn, made on the ground that we should become dependent upon foreigners for bread; but here we have a million of people, whose power of purchasing not only bread, but meat, ay, or even potatoes, as well as clothing, is supplied from the annual growth of lands possessed by an independent nation, more than three thousand miles off. The equilibrium of this stupendous industry is preserved by the punctual arrival from the United States of a quantity of raw cotton, averaging 15,000 bales weekly, or more than 2,000 bales a day; and it depends also upon the equally constant weekly departure of more than a quarter of a million sterling worth of cotton goods, exported to foreign parts. Now, what precaution is taken by the Government of this country to guard and regulate this precious flood of traffic? How many of those costly vessels of war, which are maintained at an expense to the nation of many millions of pounds annually, do our readers suppose, are stationed at the mouths of the Mersey and Clyde, to welcome and convoy into Liverpool and Glasgow the merchant ships from New York, Charleston, or New Orleans, all bearing the inestimable freight of cotton wool, upon which our commercial and social existence depends? Not one! What portion of our standing army, costing seven millions a year, is occupied in defending this more than Pactolus—this golden stream of trade, on which floats not only the wealth, but the hopes and existence of a great community? Four invalids at the Perch Rock Battery hold the sinecure office of defending the port of Liverpool! But our exports to the United States will reach this year, perhaps, in real or declared value, more than ten millions sterling, and nearly one half of this amount goes to New York:—what portion of the Royal navy is stationed off that port to protect our merchants’ ships and cargoes? The appearance of a King’s ship at New York is an occurrence of such rarity as to attract the especial notice of the public journals; whilst, all along the entire Atlantic coast of the United States—extending, as it does, more than 3,000 miles, to which we send a quarter of our whole yearly exports—there are stationed two British ships of only, and these two have also their stations at the West Indies.


No! this commerce, unparalleled in magnitude, between two remote nations, demands no armament as its guide or safeguard; nature itself is both. And will one rational mind recognise the possibility of these two communities putting a sudden stop to such a friendly traffic, and, contrary to every motive of self-interest, encountering each other as enemies? Such a rupture would be more calamitous to England than the sudden drying up of the river Thames; and more intolerable to America than the cessation of sunshine and rain over the entire surface of one of her maritime states?


And if such is the character of free trade (or, in other words, all trade between independent nations), that it unites, by the strongest motives of which our nature is susceptible, two remote communities, rendering the interest of the one the only true policy of the other, and making each equally anxious for the prosperity and happiness of both; and if, moreover, every addition to the amount of traffic between two independent States forges fresh fetters, which rivet more securely these amicable bonds—how can the extension of our commerce call for an increase in our armaments, or how can a Government stand excused from the accusation of imposture, unless by the plea of ignorance, when it calls for an augmentation of the navy estimates, under the pretence of protecting our extended commerce?


But, to put this matter in another point of view, let us suppose that this mighty traffic between England and the United States, which is wholly governed by the talismanic law of “cheapness,” were suddenly interrupted, in the only way in which it can be disturbed—by some other people producing cheaper hardware, woollens, pottery, etc., to whom the Americans, guided solely by that self-interest which controls alike the commerce of every nation, could sell their cotton for a greater amount of those manufactures in return—could our Royal navy, were it even augmented to tenfold its present monstrous force, protect us from the loss of our commerce? To answer this question, we need only appeal to the experience of facts, to be found at this time operating in another quarter.


At the moment when we write the British naval force stationed in the Mediterranean amounts to thirty-six vessels of war, mounting altogether 1,320 guns, being rather more than a third of the death-dealing metal afloat in our King’s ships. Our entire trade to all the nations bordering on this sea, and including the whole of that with Spain and France, amounts to very nearly the same as our exports to the United States; in value or importance, however, it is not equal to the latter. Now, leaving for the present the question of the profitableness of carrying on a traffic with such heavy protecting expenses annexed, let us proceed to ascertain whether or not this prodigious and costly navy affords an efficient protection to our commerce in those quarters. The reader will bear in mind our statement, that the Chamber of Commerce of Manchester had the unpleasant task of reporting to the Board of Trade that the drill manufacturers of Saxony and the calico printers of Switzerland had superseded goods of the same descriptions, made in England, in third or neutral markets. Those markets were in the Mediterranean! This is not all. One of those markets, from which our manufacturers were reported to have been expelled, by a decree of far more potency than was penned by the hand of violence at Berlin and Milan, and prohibited by an interdict ten times more powerful than ever sprang from the Prussian league—the interdict of dearness; one of those markets was Gibraltar!! (We promised, a few pages back, to prove that the industrious middling and working classes of this empire have no interest in the violent and unjust seizure and retention of an integral portion of the Spanish territory; and we have, in this simple fact, redeemed our pledge.) We give it to the reflecting portion of our readers, as a truth authenticated by the very best authority, and worthy of deep attention from the economist, the statesman, and the advocate of peace and of a moral ascendency over physical force—that the artisans of Switzerland and of Saxony have achieved a victory over the manufacturers of England, upon her own fortress—the free port of Gibraltar! We kiss the rod—we dote upon this fact, which teaches, through us, a lesson to mankind, of the inefficacy of brute violence in the trading concerns of the world. Let us pause, then, to recapitulate our facts. On the one hand, behold a commerce with America, amounting to a quarter of the whole trade of the kingdom—upon which depends, from week to week, the subsistence of a million of people, and whereon rests our very existence as a commercial empire—conducted regularly, day by day, without the aid or intervention of ships of war to guide or coerce it; on the other, an armament, avowedly to protect our commerce, of 1,320 cannon, unable to guard our manufactures against the successful cheapness of the poorest, the weakest, and humblest community of the Continent—a community destitute of fleets, and without a standing army. The inference is plain—we have succeeded in establishing our premises; for, having proved that the (physically speaking) impregnable fortress of Gibraltar, with its triple lines of batteries, aided by thirty-six vessels of war, and altogether combining a greater quantity of artillery than was put in requisition to gain the victory of Waterloo, Trafalgar, or the Nile, surrenders our commerce into the hands of the Swiss and Saxons, unable to protect us against the cheaper commodities of those countries—we need not go further to show, since these two countries without navies are our witnesses of the facts, that armed fleets, armies, and fortresses, are not essential to the extension of commerce, and that they do not possess the power of protecting it against the cheapness of rivals. These may appear trite and familiar truths to our intelligent readers; our justification may be found, if needed, in the fact, that the Government has demanded and obtained an addition to our navy estimates, this session of Parliament, amounting to nearly half a million sterling per annum, under the pretence of protecting our commerce; and we do not recollect that one of our representatives rose from his seat to tell the minister, as we now tell him, that his is that kind of protection which the eagle affords to the lamb—covering it to devour it.