noting the lad’s passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him against indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life. But the admonition was unheeded, for while unweariedly diligent in business, he was in his intervals of leisure a most assiduous student. During his residence in London he found access to the London Institution, and made ample use of its large and well-selected library.
When he was about twenty years of age he became a commercial traveller, and soon became eminently successful in his calling. But never content to sink into the mere trader, he sought to introduce among those he met on the “road” a higher tone of conversation than usually marks the commercial room, and there were many of his associates who, when he had attained eminence, recalled the discussions on political economy and kindred topics with which he was wont to enliven and elevate the travellers’ table. In 1830 Cobden learnt that Messrs Fort, calico printers at Sabden, near Clitheroe, were about to retire from business, and he, with two other young men, Messrs Sheriff and Gillet, who were engaged in the same commercial house as himself, determined to make an effort to acquire the succession. They had, however, very little capital among them. But it may be taken as an illustration of the instinctive confidence which Cobden through life inspired in those with whom he came into contact, that Messrs Fort consented to leave to these untried young men a large portion of their capital in the business. Nor was their confidence misplaced. The new firm had soon three establishments,—one at Sabden, where the printing works were, one in London and one in Manchester for the sale of their goods. This last was under the direct management of Cobden, who, in 1830 or 1831, settled in the city with which his name became afterwards so closely associated. The success of this enterprise was decisive and rapid, and the “Cobden prints” soon became known through the country as of rare value both for excellence of material and beauty of design. There can be no doubt that if Cobden had been satisfied to devote all his energies to commercial life he might soon have attained to great opulence, for it is understood that his share in the profits of the business he had established amounted to from £8000 to £10,000 a year. But he had other tastes, which impelled him irresistibly to pursue those studies which, as Bacon says, “serve for delight, for ornament and for ability.” Prentice, the historian of the Anti-Corn-Law League, who was then editor of the Manchester Times, describes how, in the year 1835, he received for publication in his paper a series of admirably written letters, under the signature of “Libra,” discussing commercial and economical questions with rare ability. After some time he discovered that the author of these letters was Cobden, whose name was until then quite unknown to him.
In 1835 he published his first pamphlet, entitled England, Ireland and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer. It attracted great attention, and ran rapidly through several editions. It was marked by a breadth and boldness of views on political and social questions which betokened an original mind. In this production Cobden advocated the same principles of peace, non-intervention, retrenchment and free trade to which he continued faithful to the last day of his life. Immediately after the publication of this pamphlet, he paid a visit to the United States, landing in New York on the 7th of June 1835. He devoted about three months to this tour, passing rapidly through the seaboard states and the adjacent portion of Canada, and collecting as he went large stores of information respecting the condition, resources and prospects of the great western republic. Soon after his return to England he began to prepare another work for the press, which appeared towards the end of 1836, under the title of Russia. It was mainly designed to combat a wild outbreak of Russophobia which, under the inspiration of David Urquhart, was at that time taking possession of the public mind. But it contained also a bold indictment of the whole system of foreign policy then in vogue, founded on ideas as to the balance of power and the necessity of large armaments for the protection of commerce. While this pamphlet was in the press, delicate health obliged him to leave England, and for several months, at the end of 1836 and the beginning of 1837, he travelled in Spain, Turkey and Egypt. During his visit to Egypt he had an interview with Mehemet Ali, of whose character as a reforming monarch he did not bring away a very favourable impression. He returned to England in April 1837. From that time Cobden became a conspicuous figure in Manchester, taking a leading part in the local politics of the town and district. Largely owing to his exertions, the Manchester Athenaeum was established, at the opening of which he was chosen to deliver the inaugural address. He became a member of the chamber of commerce, and soon infused new life into that body. He threw himself with great energy into the agitation which led to the incorporation of the city, and was elected one of its first aldermen. He began also to take a warm interest in the cause of popular education. Some of his first attempts in public speaking were at meetings which he convened at Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Rochdale and other adjacent towns, to advocate the establishment of British schools. It was while on a mission for this purpose to Rochdale that he first formed the acquaintance of John Bright, who afterwards became his distinguished coadjutor in the free-trade agitation. Nor was it long before his fitness for parliamentary life was recognized by his friends. In 1837, the death of William IV. and the accession of Queen Victoria led to a general election. Cobden was candidate for Stockport, but was defeated, though not by a large majority.
In 1838 an anti-Corn-Law association was formed at Manchester, which, on his suggestion, was afterwards changed into a national association, under the title of the Anti-Corn-Law League (see Corn Laws). Of that famous association Cobden was from first to last the presiding genius and the animating soul. During the seven years between the formation of the league and its final triumph, he devoted himself wholly to the work of promulgating his economic doctrines. His labours were as various as they were incessant—now guiding the councils of the league, now addressing crowded and enthusiastic meetings of his supporters in London or the large towns of England and Scotland, now invading the agricultural districts and challenging the landlords to meet him in the presence of their own farmers, to discuss the question in dispute, and now encountering the Chartists, led by Feargus O’Connor. But whatever was the character of his audience he never failed, by the clearness of his statements, the force of his reasoning and the felicity of his illustrations, to make a deep impression on the minds of his hearers.
In 1841, Sir Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in parliament, there was a general election, when Cobden was returned for Stockport. His opponents had confidently predicted that he would fail utterly in the House of Commons. He did not wait long, after his admission into that assembly, in bringing their predictions to the test. Parliament met on the 19th of August. On the 24th, in course of the debate on the Address, Cobden delivered his first speech. “It was remarked,” says Miss Martineau, in her History of the Peace, “that he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member, and it was perceived that he did not need such observance.” With perfect self-possession, which was not disturbed by the jeers that greeted some of his statements, and with the utmost simplicity, directness and force, he presented the argument against the corn-laws in such a form as startled his audience, and also irritated some of them, for it was a style of eloquence very unlike the conventional style which prevailed in parliament.
From that day he became an acknowledged power in the House, and though addressing a most unfriendly audience, he compelled attention by his thorough mastery of his subject, and by the courageous boldness with which he charged the ranks of his adversaries. He soon came to be recognized as one of the foremost debaters on those economical and commercial questions which at that time so much occupied the attention of parliament; and the most prejudiced and bitter of his opponents were fain to acknowledge that they had to deal with a man whom the most practised and powerful orators of their party found it hard to cope with, and to whose eloquence, indeed, the great statesman