Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 11.djvu/156

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Cobden
Cobden
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two signal recommendations which never fail to command a position in the House of Commons he abounded in apt information, and he was always known to be in earnest. The chief scene of his labours, however, was not in the House of Commons, but on the platform. In his own phrase, he lived in public meetings. In company with Mr. Bright, whose name and his own became a pair of household words, he year after year traversed the island from end to end, arguing, replying, exhorting, organising, and raising funds, which, "before the agitation reached its goal, are calculated to have amounted to nearly half a million of money. The Anti-Cornlaw League was the first organised appeal on a gigantic scale in Great Britain to popular judgment and popular power ; and its operations were viewed with lively alarm. It was denounced by tory landlords, with entire sincerity, as 'the most cunning, unscrupulous, knavish, pestilent body of men that ever plagued this or any other country.' Loud cries were raised for its suppression as a seditious conspiracy. In the session of 1843, Sir Robert Peel charged Cobden with using language that held him up to public odium, and, by implication, invited personal outrage. The incident was the most painful in Cobden's parliamentary life. In the question of factory legislation, which was raised into prominence at this time by Lord Ashley, Cobden, though he did not vote against the bill of 1844, always deprecated the regulation of the hours of labour by law, maintaining that the work-men were strong enough to protect themselves. In 1845 Peel proposed the augmentation of the grant to the catholic college at Maynooth, and Cobden supported it as a means of extending the education of a body of men who were the instructors of millions of the population. This, and a proposal relating to the outlay at South Kensington, were the only two occasions in five-and-twenty years in which Cobden and Mr. Bright took different sides in parliamentary divisions.

The cause, meanwhile, moved slowly. In 1844 trade revived, and the condition of the people began rapidly to improve. This weakened the practical force of Cobden's argument, that the duty on corn was the great obstacle to a vast increase in the foreign demand for British manufactures ; in other words, that extended markets could only be secured by the free admission of foreign corn in exchange for our goods. He now turned to the agricultural side of the question, and began to ask the farmers and the labourers what advantage the corn law had brought to either of them. Cobden spoke at his best in 1845. Probably the most powerful speech that he ever made was that of 13 March in this year. The men on the tory benches whispered eagerly among one another, 'Peel must answer this.' But the minister is said to have crumpled up the notes that he had taken, with the words, 'Those may answer him who can.'

Events told more powerfully than the most persuasive logic. By the middle of October the government found themselves face to face with the prospect of famine in Ireland, and Peel proposed to his cabinet to summon parliament and advise a temporary suspension of the corn duties. After three meetings of the cabinet the question was left undecided. Lord John Russell then launched the Edinburgh letter, in which he gave up the old whig principle of a fixed duty, and advocated total repeal. The cabinet was again called together, and as they were still unable to come to an Agreement, Sir Robert Peel resigned (5 Dec.) Cobden had plunged into the work of agitation with more energy than ever. It was essential to impress on the government, whoever they might be, the impossibility of meeting the crisis by the temporary expedient of opening the ports, or by anything short of total, immediate, and final repeal. On Peel's resignation the queen sent for Lord John Russell, and Lord John invited Cobden to become vice-president of the board of trade. Cobden declined on the ground that he should be able to render more efficient assistance as the out-of-doors advocate of free trade, than in an official capacity. Owing to internal dissensions among the whig chiefs, the administration was not formed. Peel returned to office, and at the opening of the session of 1846 proposed the total repeal of the corn duty, though the ports were not to be entirely open until 1849. When the bill had passed, and the minister announced to the House of Commons that his defeat on the Irish Coercion Bill compelled him to resign (29 June), he explained the success of the great measure of 1846 in well-known words : 'The name which ought to be, and which will be, associated with the success of these measures is the name of a man who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, has advocated their cause with untiring energy, and by appeals to reason, expressed by an eloquence the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned the name of Richard Cobden.'

Cobden's earnest wish at this great party crisis was that Peel, instead of resigning, should dissolve parliament, should place himself at the head of the representatives of the middle class, and should go to the country with the cry of practical reforms, as distin-