B R I G H T, 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first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Laws are repealed.’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 7 th 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 Yilliers’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,”