Richard Cobden

Associated Locations:

  • Dunford, Sussex

Associated Dates:

  • 3 June 1804 – Born

Richard Cobden is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

“Richard Cobden earned his place in history as an ambassador of good will, advocate for free trade, and enemy to injustice. He is perhaps best known for his work on the repeal of the Corn Law, which opened the way for free trade. Established in 1436, the Corn Law had worked moderately well under the stewardship of Sir Issac Newton. However, by 1815, it had become extremely prohibitive, restricting the importation of grain and keeping domestic prices low. This one law literally strangled the farmers in England as well as the people of Ireland. After seven long years of dedicated work, through his efforts, the Corn law was repealed.”1

“Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less.”

– Richard Cobden

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.

English Leader of the Free Trade 1804-1865

Early Life

Richard Cobden was born on a farm near Midhurst, Sussex, England, on 3 June 1804, the fourth of eleven children of a poor farmer. The farm did not do well and Cobden’s father died while Cobden was a child and he was raised by his relatives. who helped him get the beginnings of his education. Outside of this education, Cobden was virtually self-taught.

Birthplace of Richard Cobden–Dunford Farm, Midhurst, Sussex, England

At the age of fifteen, Cobden went to work in his uncle’s warehouse in London. In spite of his uncle’s warning that it would interfere with his success in business, Cobden spent every spare hour studying. At twenty he began to travel as a salesman and became known for his great energy and lively discussions on political economy. He also became known for his genteel speech, He never indulged in the crude talk of men on the road, always seeking a high tone in his discussion. 2

In the Printing Business

On 1830, he joined two friends to buy out the cotton print business of some retiring gentlemen. The three young men having little capital were able to convince the retiring gentlemen to remain in the business as silent partners until enough cash was generated to buy them out. Once this was agreed upon, Cobden immediately introduced into the business a new system of management. This led to the opening of several new stores. The business became so successful under his direction that it became known as “Cobden Prints.”

Cobden’s excellent business sense brought success to all his efforts, and he was soon on his way to become extremely wealthy. In spite of this success he had a great desire to give his heart and soul to the betterment of his fellowmen, to lift the status of ever citizen.

Married Life

In 1840 he married Miss Catherine Anne Williams, by whom he had five daughters and one son. Devoted to his family and his religion, he thoroughly valued the religious character in others and he deeply loved his country. His work, he felt, supported the best purposes of Providence.

Ensuring Free Trade

Cobden wrote several clear and concise articles on commerce and economic which he submitted to the Manchester Times under the pen name “Libra.” His understanding of countries and governments grew as he traveled on business, going as far as Russia, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and America.

Upon his return to England he published a pamphlet entitled “England, Ireland, and America by a Manchester Manufacturer.” This pamphlet created quite a stir, for in these articles Cobden outlined certain issues that became the hallmark of his life work. The mos prominent themes were peace, non-intervention, and free trade. He also warned England that her developing fear of Russia would allow her to be drawn into an unnecessary war. His fears proved correct when England involved herself in the Crimean War.

It was the establishment of the railroad by Stephenson that enabled the lectures of the League to talk with people in all parts of the country. The whole country was informed because of this new mode of transportation.

In 1838 the Anti Corn-Law league was established in Manchester. Though not one of the original members, Cobden put a large amount of energy and money into this group and was assisted by good friend John Bright. (These two men had already worked to promote public education.)

Elected to Parliament

In 1841, Cobden was elected to Parliament. Because of his opposition to the Corn Law, he was treated with great contempt by the other members. He was not intimidate by this attitude, however, and he began almost immediately presenting his argument to repeal the Corn Law. His speeches were interrupted with jeers. But he compelled attention and respect by his thorough knowledge of the subject, Because of his knowledge of economics and commerce and the difficulty of the times, Cobden soon became a major force in Parliament.

The power source of the movement to repeal the Corn Law, Cobden used up his wealth in the pursuit of the repeal of the Corn Law. To show their gratitude, his friend, admirers, and supporters collected funds for him in recognition of his service. All together some £80,000 were raised.

In 1846, after the great Potato Famine in Ireland, the Corn Law was repealed. Simultaneously, in order to avoid total devastation in Ireland, Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, established the policy of Free Trade. Cobden’s plan had worked–an injustice had been stopped and free trade begun,

When Lord John Russel offered Cobden a seat in the Cabinet, Cobden declined preferring to be free of government obligations in order to serve his fellowmen as he saw fit. Since Cobden felt that he would best serve by teaching the principles of free trade, he went to the continent to promote free trade, traveling as far as Russia. As he traveled he visited with rulers and statesmen. To a friend he wrote:

Well, I will, with God’s assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavor to enforce those truths which had been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the the means of traveling as their missionary I will be the first ambassador from the people or this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinct emotion such as has never deceived me for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than I had here to overturn our protection policy.3

Upon his return Cobden again entered Parliament. Free trade having been establish, Cobden now turned to the promotion of peace. In 1849 he presented a plan for the establishment of international arbitration and the reduction of arms. He participated in the Peace Congresses held in Brussels, Paris, London, and other cities.

When Louis Napoleon took over France in 1851, the English people feared an invasion. Cobden openly pretested against such alarms, giving speeche sand writing a pamphlet “1793 and 1853.” Once the popular spokeman for free trade, Cobden quickly became on of the most abused men in England because of his stand for Louis Napoleon. However, Cobden’s reservations proved wise, for it was no long until t he Emperor became the ally of Great Britain. The British, left without an enemy, turned their fears and energies against Russia nad her dispute with Turkey.

This was another action against which Cobden had warned. He had been in Turkey and had an understanding of its difficulties. He also knew that the dyasty which ruled Turkey had become decadent. He conceeded that it was right and proper to recognize Turkey as a country, but he repeatedly couseled Parliament not to support such a vicious and cruel government. He pleaded wtih them not to be hasty in their decision to join with Turkey in a war against Russia. England refused to see the logic of his arguments and was drawn into the Crimean War.4

Meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Exeter Hall in 1846.

It was in this parliamentary seat that Cobden remained for over ten years, advocating among other things parliamentary reform, free hold land societies, suffrage and, as always, peace with other nations, In 1857, new reached England of a conflict in China where a British Admiral destroyed the river forts and 23 ships of the Chinese navy. Upon thorough investigation, Cobden became convinced that the British had not acted in a defensive manner but were actually the aggressor. He submitted a motion in Parliament to this effect. A long debate followed, in which he was supported by several notables of Parliament including Disraeli and Gladstone. It all ended in the defeat of Lord Palmerston then Prime Minister, Cobden also, however, lost his seat. 5 Cobden took advantage of his time away from Parliament to one again visit the United Sates. When he returned he was sought out and invited to sit in government. He again refuse the honor, preferring on his own initiative to negotiate a freer trade agreement between England and France. The English press greatly maligned his efforts, but undaunted, Cobden preserved and completed the treaty. He was offered the honors of royalty for his accomplishment but that had not been his purpose and these too went unaccepted. He felt the highest moral purpose on earth was not monetary gain but “peace on earth goodwill among men.” 6

Concerned about the hatred and the fear that the press was promoting, Cobden wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Three Great Panics.” In an effort to expose the absurdity of some of the power plays of the press, these pamphlets traced patterns of the press through history.

When the Civil War broke out in the Untied States Cobden was deeply distressed. His sympathies were wholly with the North for he detested slavery. His concerns grew as he realized that his own country England was detaining American ships. He vigorously opposed all schemes that were continually made in an effort to aid the South. His life had been of such integrity to correct principles that he fought to keep his country from any unworthy course.

Cobden’s Death

Cobden had for some years been suffering from bronchial irritation and, during this stressful time, he became seriously ill. In spite of his Illness Cobden returned to Parliament to oppose a bill designed to build large defensive forts along that Canadian border. Had they been built, the North would have had to defend itself on two fronts, thereby dividing its strength. 7

He was able to stop the bill, but the demands of doing so left him physically vulnerable. When he caught a chill, its effect coupled with his bronchial weakness cause his strength to give away entirely. He died on 2 April 1865. His last act was to seek for peace in a country that was not his own.

Richard Cobden’s name now rarely appears in the annals of noted men. But the imprint of his character has been felt by all the world. Without him, Ireland might have been completely annihilated,. He led the crusade for free trade, for international arbitration, for disarmament of nations, and for universal peace. He was always a just and good man. Peace and understanding were always his national and international aims, the hallmark of his life.

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.8

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute
  2. See Encyclopedia Brittanica. 11th ed., 1910, 6:608.
  3. Ibid., p. 609.
  4. See Lambertson, J. P., ed. Characters and Famous Events of All Nations and All Ages. Boston: B. Millet, 1902, p. 205.
  5. See Encyclopedia Brittanica, 6:610.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See ibid., 6:611.
  8. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
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