was, however, irresistible; and Cobden and Bright were overwhelmed with obloquy.
At the beginning of 1857 tidings from China reached England of a rupture between the British plenipotentiary in that country and the governor of the Canton provinces in reference to a small vessel or lorcha called the “Arrow,” which had resulted in the English admiral destroying the river forts, burning 23 ships belonging to the Chinese navy and bombarding the city of Canton. After a careful investigation of the official documents, Cobden became convinced that those were utterly unrighteous proceedings. He brought forward a motion in parliament to this effect, which led to a long and memorable debate, lasting over four nights, in which he was supported by Sydney Herbert, Sir James Graham, Gladstone, Lord John Russell and Disraeli, and which ended in the defeat of Lord Palmerston by a majority of sixteen. But this triumph cost him his seat in parliament. On the dissolution which followed Lord Palmerston’s defeat, Cobden became candidate for Huddersfield, but the voters of that town gave the preference to his opponent, who had supported the Russian War and approved of the proceedings at Canton. Cobden was thus relegated to private life, and retiring to his country house at Dunford, he spent his time in perfect contentment in cultivating his land and feeding his pigs.
He took advantage of this season of leisure to pay another visit to the United States. During his absence the general election of 1859 occurred, when he was returned unopposed for Rochdale. Lord Palmerston was again prime minister, and having discovered that the advanced liberal party was not so easily “crushed” as he had apprehended, he made overtures of reconciliation, and invited Cobden and Milner Gibson to become members of his government. In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Lord Palmerston offered him the presidency of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept; but without a moment’s hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour. On his arrival in London he called on Lord Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister. Lord Palmerston tried good-humouredly to combat his objections, but without success.
But though he declined to share the responsibility of Lord Palmerston’s administration, he was willing to act as its representative in promoting freer commercial intercourse between England and France. But the negotiations for this purpose originated with himself in conjunction with Bright and Michel Chevalier. Towards the close of 1859 he called upon Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Gladstone, and signified his intention to visit France and get into communication with the emperor and his ministers, with a view to promote this object. These statesmen expressed in general terms their approval of his purpose, but he went entirely on his own account, clothed at first with no official authority. On his arrival in Paris he had a long audience with Napoleon, in which he urged many arguments in favour of removing those obstacles which prevented the two countries from being brought into closer dependence on one another, and he succeeded in making a considerable inpression on his mind in favour of free trade. He then addressed himself to the French ministers, and had much earnest conversation, especially with Rouher, whom he found well inclined to the economical and commercial principles which he advocated. After a good deal of time spent in these preliminary and unofficial negotiations, the question of a treaty of commerce between the two countries having entered into the arena of diplomacy, Cobden was requested by the British government to act as their plenipotentiary in the matter in conjunction with Lord Cowley, their ambassador in France. But it proved a very long and laborious undertaking. He had to contend with the bitter hostility of the French protectionists, which occasioned a good deal of vacillation on the part of the emperor and his ministers. There were also delays, hesitations and cavils at home, which were more inexplicable. He was, moreover, assailed with great violence by a powerful section of the English press, while the large number of minute details with which he had to deal in connexion with proposed changes in the French tariff, involved a tax on his patience and industry which would have daunted a less resolute man. But there was one source of embarrassment greater than all the rest. One strong motive which had impelled him to engage in this enterprise was his anxious desire to establish more friendly relations between England and France, and to dispel those feelings of mutual jealousy and alarm which were so frequently breaking forth and jeopardizing peace between the two countries. This was the most powerful argument with which he had plied the emperor and the members of the French government, and which he had found most efficacious with them. But while he was in the midst of the negotiations, Lord Palmerston brought forward in the House of Commons a measure for fortifying the naval arsenals of England, which he introduced in a warlike speech pointedly directed against France, as the source of danger of invasion and attack, against which it was necessary to guard. This produced irritation and resentment in Paris, and but for the influence which Cobden had acquired, and the perfect trust reposed in his sincerity, the negotiations would probably have been altogether wrecked. At last, however, after nearly twelve months’ incessant labour, the work was completed in November 1860. “Rare,” said Mr Gladstone, “is the privilege of any man who, having fourteen years ago rendered to his country one signal service, now again, within the same brief span of life, decorated neither by land nor title, bearing no mark to distinguish him from the people he loves, has been permitted to perform another great and memorable service to his sovereign and his country.”
On the conclusion of this work honours were offered to Cobden by the governments of both the countries which he had so greatly benefited. Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, and the emperor of the French would gladly have conferred upon him some distinguished mark of his favour. But with characteristic disinterestedness and modesty he declined all such honours.
Cobden’s efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinated to what he deemed the highest moral purposes—the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men. This was his desire and hope as respects the commercial treaty with France. He was therefore deeply disappointed and distressed to find the old feeling of distrust still actively fomented by the press and some of the leading politicians of the country. In 1862 he published his pamphlet entitled The Three Panics, the object of which was to trace the history and expose the folly of those periodical visitations of alarm as to French designs with which England had been afflicted for the preceding fifteen or sixteen years.
When the Civil War threatened to break out in the United States, Cobden was deeply distressed. But after the conflict became inevitable his sympathies were wholly with the North, because the South was fighting for slavery. His great anxiety, however, was that the British nation should not be committed to any unworthy course during the progress of that struggle. And when relations with America were becoming critical and menacing in consequence of the depredations committed on American commerce by vessels issuing from British ports, he brought the question before the House of Commons in a series of speeches of rare clearness and force.
For several years Cobden had been suffering severely at intervals from bronchial irritation and a difficulty of breathing. Owing to this he had spent the winter of 1860 in Algeria, and every subsequent winter he had to be very careful and confine himself to the house, especially in damp and foggy weather. In November 1864 he went down to Rochdale and delivered a speech to his constituents—the last he ever delivered. That effort was followed by great physical prostration, and he determined not to quit his retirement at Midhurst until spring had fairly set in. But in the month of March there were discussions