1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bright, John
BRIGHT, JOHN (1811–1889), British statesman, was born at Rochdale on the 16th of November 1811. His father, Jacob Bright, was a much-respected Quaker, who had started a cotton-mill at Rochdale in 1809. The family had reached Lancashire by two migrations. Abraham Bright was a Wiltshire yeoman, who, early in the 18th century, removed to Coventry, where his descendants remained, and where, in 1775, Jacob Bright was born. Jacob Bright was educated at the Ackworth school of the Society of Friends, and was apprenticed to a fustian manufacturer at New Mills. He married his employer’s daughter, and settled with his two brothers-in-law at Rochdale in 1802, going into business for himself seven years later. His first wife died without children, and in 1809 he married Martha Wood, daughter of a tradesman of Bolton-le-Moors. She had been educated at Ackworth school, and was a woman of great strength of character and refined taste. There were eleven children of this marriage, of whom John Bright was the second, but the death of his elder brother in childhood made him the eldest son. He was a delicate child, and was sent as a day-scholar to a boarding-school near his home, kept by Mr William Littlewood. A year at the Ackworth school, two years at a school at York, and a year and a half at Newton, near Clitheroe, completed his education. He learned, he himself said, but little Latin and Greek, but acquired a great love of English literature, which his mother fostered, and a love of outdoor pursuits. In his sixteenth year he entered his father’s mill, and in due time became a partner in the business. Two agitations were then going on in Rochdale—the first (in which Jacob Bright was a leader) in opposition to a local church-rate, and the second for parliamentary reform, by which Rochdale successfully claimed to have a member allotted to it under the Reform Bill. In both these movements John Bright took part. He was an ardent Nonconformist, proud to number among his ancestors John Gratton, a friend of George Fox, and one of the persecuted and imprisoned preachers of the Society of Friends. His political interest was probably first kindled by the Preston election in 1830, in which Lord Stanley, after a long struggle, was defeated by “Orator” Hunt. But it was as a member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band that he first learned public speaking. These young men went out into the villages, borrowed a chair of a cottager, and spoke from it at open-air meetings. In Mrs John Mills’s life of her husband is an account of John Bright’s first extempore speech. It was at a temperance meeting. Bright got his notes muddled, and broke down. The chairman gave out a temperance song, and during the singing told Bright to put his notes aside and say what came into his mind. Bright obeyed, began with much hesitancy, but found his tongue and made an excellent address. On some early occasions, however, he committed his speech to memory. In 1832 he called on the Rev. John Aldis, an eminent Baptist minister, to accompany him to a local Bible meeting. Mr Aldis described him as a slender, modest young gentleman, who surprised him by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but who seemed nervous as they walked to the meeting together. At the meeting he made a stimulating speech, and on the way home asked for advice. Mr Aldis counselled him not to learn his speeches, but to write out and commit to memory certain passages and the peroration. Bright took the advice, and acted on it all his life.
This “first lesson in public speaking,” as Bright called it, was given in his twenty-first year, but he had not then contemplated entering on a public career. He was a fairly prosperous man of business, very happy in his home, and always ready to take part in the social, educational and political life of his native town. He was one of the founders of the Rochdale Literary and Philosophical Society, took a leading part in its debates, and on returning from a holiday journey in the East, gave the society a lecture on his travels. He first met Richard Cobden in 1836 or 1837. Cobden was an alderman of the newly formed Manchester corporation, and Bright went to ask him to speak at an education meeting in Rochdale. “I found him,” said Bright, “in his office in Mosley Street, introduced myself to him, and told him what I wanted.” Cobden consented, and at the meeting was much struck by Bright’s short speech, and urged him to speak against the Corn Laws. His first speech on the Corn Laws was made at Rochdale in 1838, and in the same year he joined the Manchester provisional committee which in 1839 founded the Anti-Corn Law League He was still only the local public man, taking part in all public movements, especially in opposition to John Feilden’s proposed factory legislation, and to the Rochdale church-rate. In 1839 he built the house which he called “One Ash,” and married Elizabeth, daughter of Jonathan Priestman of Newcastle-on-Tyne. In November of the same year there was a dinner at Bolton to Abraham Paulton, who had just returned from a successful Anti-Corn Law tour in Scotland. Among the speakers were Cobden and Bright, and the dinner is memorable as the first occasion on which the two future leaders appeared together on a Free Trade platform. Bright is described by the historian of the League as “a young man then appearing for the first time in any meeting out of his own town, and giving evidence, by his energy and by his grasp of the subject, of his capacity soon to take a leading part in the great agitation.” But his call had not yet come. In 1840 he led a movement against the Rochdale church-rate, speaking from a tombstone in the churchyard, where it looks down on the town in the valley below. A very happy married life at home contented him, and at the opening of the Free Trade hall in January 1840 he sat with the Rochdale deputation, undistinguished in the body of the meeting. A daughter, Helen, was born to him; but his young wife, after a long illness, died of consumption in September 1841. Three days after her death at Leamington, Cobden called to see him. “I was in the depths of grief,” said Bright, when unveiling the statue of his friend at Bradford in 1877, “I might almost say of despair, for the life and sunshine of my house had been extinguished.” Cobden spoke some words of condolence, but after a time he looked up and said, 'There are thousands of homes in England at this moment where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger. Now, when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Laws are repealed.' “I accepted his invitation,” added Bright, “and from that time we never ceased to labour hard on behalf of the resolution which we had made.” At the general election in 1841 Cobden was returned for Stockport, and in 1843 Bright was the Free Trade candidate at a by-election at Durham. He was defeated, but his successful competitor was unseated on petition, and at the second contest Bright was returned. He was already known in the country as Cobden’s chief ally, and was received in the House of Commons with a suspicion and hostility even greater than had met Cobden himself. In the Anti-Corn Law movement the two speakers were the complements and correlatives of each other. Cobden had the calmness and confidence of the political philosopher, Bright had the passion and the fervour of the popular orator. Cobden did the reasoning, Bright supplied the declamation, but like Demosthenes he mingled argument with appeal. No orator of modern times rose more rapidly to a foremost place. He was not known beyond his own borough when Cobden called him to his side in 1841, and he entered parliament towards the end of the session of 1843 with a formidable reputation as an agitator. He had been all over England and Scotland addressing vast meetings and, as a rule, carrying them with him; he had taken a leading part in a conference held by the Anti-Corn Law League in London, had led deputations to the duke of Sussex, to Sir James Graham, then home secretary, and to Lord Ripon and Mr Gladstone, the secretary and under secretary of the Board of Trade; and he was universally recognized as the chief orator of the Free Trade movement. Wherever “John Bright of Rochdale” was announced to speak, vast crowds assembled. He had been so announced, for the last time, at the first great meeting in Drury Lane theatre on 15th March 1843; henceforth his name was enough. He took his seat in the House of Commons as one of the members for Durham on 28th July 1843, and on 7th August delivered his maiden speech in support of a motion by Mr Ewart for reduction of import duties. He was there, he said, “not only as one of the representatives of the city of Durham, but also as one of the representatives of that benevolent organization, the Anti-Corn Law League.” A member who heard the speech described Bright as “about the middle size, rather firmly and squarely built, with a fair, clear complexion, and an intelligent and pleasing expression of countenance. His voice is good, his enunciation distinct, and his delivery free from any unpleasant peculiarity or mannerism.” He wore the usual Friend’s coat, and was regarded with much interest and hostile curiosity on both sides of the House.
Mr Ewart’s motion was defeated, but the movement of which Cobden and Bright were the leaders continued to spread. In the autumn the League resolved to raise £100,000; an appeal was made to the agricultural interest by great meetings in the farming counties, and in November The Times startled the world by declaring, in a leading article, “The League is a great fact. It would be foolish, nay, rash, to deny its importance.” In London great meetings were held in Covent Garden theatre, at which William Johnson Fox was the chief orator, but Bright and Cobden were the leaders of the movement. Bright publicly deprecated the popular tendency to regard Cobden and himself as the chief movers in the agitation, and Cobden told a Rochdale audience that he always stipulated that he should speak first, and Bright should follow. His “more stately genius,” as Mr John Morley calls it, was already making him the undisputed master of the feelings of his audiences. In the House of Commons his progress was slower. Cobden’s argumentative speeches were regarded more sympathetically than Bright’s more rhetorical appeals, and in a debate on Villiers’s annual motion against the Corn Laws Bright was heard with so much impatience that he was obliged to sit down. In the next session (1845) he moved for an inquiry into the operation of the Game Laws. At a meeting of county members earlier in the day Peel had advised them not to be led into discussion by a violent speech from the member for Durham, but to let the committee be granted without debate. Bright was not violent, and Cobden said that he did his work admirably, and won golden opinions from all men. The speech established his position in the House of Commons. In this session Bright and Cobden came into opposition, Cobden voting for the Maynooth Grant and Bright against it. On only one other occasion—a vote for South Kensington—did they go into opposite lobbies, during twenty-five years of parliamentary life. In the autumn of 1845 Bright retained Cobden in the public career to which Cobden had invited him four years before. Bright was in Scotland when a letter came from Cobden announcing his determination, forced on him by business difficulties, to retire from public work. Bright replied that if Cobden retired the mainspring of the League was gone. “I can in no degree take your place,” he wrote. “As a second I can fight, but there are incapacities about me, of which I am fully conscious, which prevent my being more than second in such a work as we have laboured in.” A few days later he set off for Manchester, posting in that wettest of autumns through “the rain that rained away the Corn Laws,” and on his arrival got his friends together, and raised the money which tided Cobden over the emergency. The crisis of the struggle had come. Peel’s budget in 1845 was a first step towards Free Trade. The bad harvest and the potato disease drove him to the repeal of the Corn Laws, and at a meeting in Manchester on 2nd July 1846 Cobden moved and Bright seconded a motion dissolving the league. A library of twelve hundred volumes was presented to Bright as a memorial of the struggle.
Bright married, in June 1847, Miss Margaret Elizabeth Leatham, of Wakefield, by whom he had seven children, Mr John Albert Bright being the eldest. In the succeeding July he was elected for Manchester, with Mr Milner Gibson, without a contest. In the new parliament, as in the previous session, he opposed legislation restricting the hours of labour, and, as a Nonconformist, spoke against clerical control of national education. In 1848 he voted for Hume’s household suffrage motion, and introduced a bill for the repeal of the Game Laws. When Lord John Russell brought forward his Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, Bright opposed it as “a little, paltry, miserable measure,” and foretold its failure. In this parliament he spoke much on Irish questions. In a speech in favour of the government bill for a rate in aid in 1849, he won loud cheers from both sides, and was complimented by Disraeli for having sustained the reputation of that assembly. From this time forward he had the ear of the House, and took effective part in the debates. He spoke against capital punishment, against church-rates, against flogging in the army, and against the Irish Established Church. He supported Cobden’s motion for the reduction of public expenditure, and in and out of parliament pleaded for peace. In the election of 1852 he was again returned for Manchester on the principles of free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. But war was in the air, and the most impassioned speeches he ever delivered were addressed to this parliament in fruitless opposition to the Crimean War. Neither the House nor the country would listen. “I went to the House on Monday,” wrote Macaulay in March 1854, “and heard Bright say everything I thought.” His most memorable speech, the greatest he ever made, was delivered on the 23rd of February 1855. “The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of his wings,” he said, and concluded with an appeal to the prime minister that moved the House as it had never been moved within living memory. There was a tremor in Bright’s voice in the touching parts of his great speeches which stirred the feelings even of hostile listeners. It was noted for the first time in this February speech, but the most striking instance was in a speech on Mr Osborne Morgan’s Burials Bill in April 1875, in which he described a Quaker funeral, and protested against the “miserable superstition of the phrase 'buried like a dog.'” “In that sense,” he said, “I shall be buried like a dog, and all those with whom I am best acquainted, whom I best love and esteem, will be ‘buried like a dog.’ Nay more, my own ancestors, who in past time suffered persecution for what is now held to be a righteous cause, have all been buried like dogs, if that phrase is true.” The tender, half-broken tones in which these words were said, the inexpressible pathos of his voice and manner, were never forgotten by those who heard that Wednesday morning speech.
Bright was disqualified by illness during the whole of 1856 and 1857. In Palmerston’s penal dissolution in the latter year, Bright was rejected by Manchester, but in August, while ill and absent, Birmingham elected him without a contest. He returned to parliament in 1858, and in February seconded the motion which threw out Lord Palmerston’s government. Lord Derby thereupon came into office for the second time, and Bright had the satisfaction of assisting in the passing of two measures which he had long advocated—the admission of Jews to parliament and the transfer of the government of India from the East India Company to the crown. He was now restored to full political activity, and in October addressed his new constituents, and started a movement for parliamentary reform. He spoke at great gatherings at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bradford and Manchester, and his speeches filled the papers. For the next nine years he was the protagonist of Reform. Towards the close of the struggle he told the House of Commons that a thousand meetings had been held, that at every one the doors were open for any man to enter, yet that an almost unanimous vote for reform had been taken. In the debates on the Reform Bills submitted to the House of Commons from 1859. to 1867, Bright’s was the most influential voice. He rebuked Lowe’s “Botany Bay view,” and described Horsman as retiring to his “cave of Adullam,” and hooking in Lowe. “The party of two,” he said, “reminds me of the Scotch terrier, which was so covered with hair that you could not tell which was the head and which was the tail.” These and similar phrases, such as the excuse for withdrawing the Reform Bill in the year of the great budget of 1860—“you cannot get twenty wagons at once through Temple Bar”—were in all men’s mouths. It was one of the triumphs of Bright’s oratory that it constantly produced these popular cries. The phrase “a free breakfast table” was his; and on the rejection of Forster’s Compensation for Disturbance Bill he used the phrase as to Irish discontent, “Force is not a remedy.”
During his great reform agitation Bright had vigorously supported Cobden in the negotiations for the treaty of commerce with France, and had taken, with his usual vehemence, the side of the North in the discussions in England on the American Civil War. In March 1865 Cobden died, and Bright told the House of Commons he dared not even attempt to express the feelings which oppressed him, and sat down overwhelmed with grief. Their friendship was one of the most characteristic features of the public life of their time. “After twenty years of intimate and almost brotherly friendship with him,” said Bright, “I little knew how much I loved him till I had lost him.” In June 1865 parliament was dissolved, and Bright was returned for Birmingham without opposition. Palmerston’s death in the early autumn brought Lord John Russell into power, and for the first time Bright gave his support to the government. Russell’s fourth Reform Bill was introduced, was defeated by the Adullamites, and the Derby-Disraeli ministry was installed. Bright declared Lord Derby’s accession to be a declaration of war against the working classes, and roused the great towns in the demand for reform. Bright was the popular hero of the time. As a political leader the winter of 1866–1867 was the culminating point in his career. The Reform Bill was carried with a clause for minority representation, and in the autumn of 1868 Bright, with two Liberal colleagues, was again returned for Birmingham. Mr Gladstone came into power with a programme of Irish reform in church and land such as Bright had long urged, and he accepted the post of president of the Board of Trade. He thus became a member of the privy council, with the title of Right Honourable, and from this time forth was a recognized leader of the Liberal party in parliament and in the country. He made a great speech on the second reading of the Irish Church Bill, and wrote a letter on the House of Lords, in which he said, “In harmony with the nation they may go on for a long time, but throwing themselves athwart its course they may meet with accidents not pleasant for them to think of.” He also spoke strongly in the same session in favour of the bill permitting marriage with a deceased wife’s sister. The next session found him disqualified by a severe illness, which caused his retirement from office at the end of the year, and kept him out of public life for four years. In August 1873 Mr Gladstone reconstructed his cabinet, and Bright returned to it as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. But his hair had become white, and though he spoke again with much of his former vigour, he was now an old man. In the election in January 1874 Bright and his colleagues were returned for Birmingham without opposition. When Mr Gladstone resigned the leadership of his party in 1875, Bright was chairman of the party meeting which chose Lord Hartington as his successor. He took a less prominent part in political discussion till the Eastern Question brought Great Britain to the verge of war with Russia, and his old energy flamed up afresh. In the debate on the vote of credit in February 1878, he made one of his impressive speeches, urging the government not to increase the difficulties manufacturers had in finding employment for their workpeople by any single word or act which could shake confidence in business. The debate lasted five days. On the fifth day a telegram from Mr Layard was published announcing that the Russians were nearing Constantinople. The day, said The Times, “was crowded with rumours, alarms, contradictions, fears, hopes, resolves, uncertainties.” In both Houses Mr Layard’s despatch was read, and in the excited Commons Mr Forster’s resolution opposing the vote of credit was withdrawn. Bright, however, distrusted the ambassador at the Porte, and gave reasons for doubting the alarming telegram. While he was speaking a note was put into the hands of Sir Stafford Northcote, and when Bright sat down he read it to the House. It was a confirmation from the Russian prime minister of Bright’s doubts: “There is not a word of truth in the rumours which have reached you.” At the general election in 1880 he was re-elected at Birmingham, and joined Mr Gladstone’s new government as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. For two sessions he spoke and voted with his colleagues, but after the bombardment of the Alexandria forts he left the ministry and never held office again. He felt most painfully the severance from his old and trusted leader, but it was forced on him by his conviction of the danger and impolicy of foreign entanglements. He, however, gave a general support to Mr Gladstone’s government. In 1883 he took the chair at a meeting of the Liberation Society in Mr Spurgeon’s chapel; and in June of that year was the object of an unparalleled demonstration at Birmingham to celebrate his twenty-five years of service as its representative. At this celebration he spoke strongly of “the Irish rebel party,” and accused the Conservatives of “alliance” with them, but withdrew the imputation when Sir Stafford Northcote moved that such language was a breach of the privileges of the House of Commons. At a banquet to Lord Spencer he accused the Irish members of having “exhibited a boundless sympathy for criminals and murderers.” He refused in the House of Commons to apologise for these words, and was supported in his refusal by both sides of the House. At the Birmingham election in 1885 he stood for the central division of the redistributed constituency; he was opposed by Lord Randolph Churchill, but was elected by a large majority. In the new parliament he voted against the Home Rule Bill, and it was generally felt that in the election of 1886 which followed its defeat, when he was re-elected without opposition, his letters told with fatal effect against the Home Rule Liberals. His contribution to the discussion was a suggestion that the Irish members should form a grand committee to which every Irish bill should go after first reading. The break-up of the Liberal party filled him with gloom. His last speech at Birmingham was on 29th March 1888, at a banquet to celebrate Mr Chamberlain’s return from his peace mission to the United States. He spoke of imperial federation as a “dream and an absurdity.” In May his illness returned, he took to his bed in October, and died on the 27th of March 1889. He was buried in the graveyard of the meeting-house of the Society of Friends in Rochdale.
Bright had much literary and social recognition in his later years. In 1882 he was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow, and Dr Dale wrote of his rectorial address: “It was not the old Bright.” “I am weary of public speaking,” he had told Dr Dale; “my mind is almost a blank.” He was given an honorary degree of the university of Oxford in 1886, and in 1888 a statue of him was erected at Birmingham. The 3rd marquess of Salisbury said of him, and it sums up his character as a public man: “He was the greatest master of English oratory that this generation—I may say several generations—has seen.... At a time when much speaking has depressed, has almost exterminated eloquence, he maintained that robust, powerful and vigorous style in which he gave fitting expression to the burning and noble thoughts he desired to utter.”
See The Life and Speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., by George Barnett Smith, 2 vols. 8vo (1881); The Life of John Bright, M.P., by John M‘Gilchrist, in Cassell’s Representative Biographies (1868); John Bright, by C. A. Vince (1898); Speeches on Parliamentary Reform by John Bright, M.P., revised by Himself (1866); Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, by John Bright, M.P., edited by J. E. Thorold Rogers, 2 vols. 8vo (1868); Public Addresses, edited by J. E. Thorold Rogers, 8vo (1879); Public Letters of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., collected by H. J. Leech (1885). (P. W. C.)