English School 19th, Century
Portrait of Richard Cobden, MP 1804 - 1865
Portrait of Richard Cobden, MP
1st April 1855
oil on canvas
52.32 x 40.64 cm. (20.3/4 x 16 in.)


Cobden, Richard (1804–1865), manufacturer and politician, was born on 3 June 1804 in a small farmhouse at Dunford near the village of Heyshott in Sussex, the fourth of eleven children of William Cobden (1775–1833) and his wife, Millicent, née Amber (1775–1825).

Early life and business career

The Cobdens had been small farmers in the Midhurst area of Sussex for several centuries. In 1809 William Cobden bought a small farm at Guillard's Oak, but it fared badly and in 1814 he was forced to sell and move to Hampshire, Surrey, and finally Barnet. He later established a shopkeeping business, but this too failed, in 1826. When the Guillard's Oak farm was sold relatives took charge of the eleven Cobden children, and Richard was sent to school at Bowes Hall in Teesdale, Yorkshire. On finishing school at the age of fifteen, Cobden joined his uncle's warehousing business in Old Change, in the City of London, where he started out as a clerk, before becoming a commercial traveller, seeking muslin and calico orders in Ireland, Scotland, and the north of England. He was not particularly happy in this position. He tried to escape the firm by getting a job in the Southern Netherlands in 1823, and in 1826, following the collapse of his uncle's firm, he joined his uncle's partner's new firm, Partridge and Price.

In partnership with his friends Sheriff and Gillett, Cobden set up his own business in 1828 in Watling Street, not far from Partridge and Price, having raised £2000 to do so, some of it from John Lewis, the Regent Street retailer. The firm's initial business came from acting as London commission agents for Fort Brothers, the Manchester calico printers. In 1831 the duty on calico was repealed and Cobden and his partners leased a factory from Forts in Sabden, a small village near Burnley in Lancashire, and began printing their own calicoes. In January 1832 Cobden moved from London to Manchester, and bought a house there in Mosley Street shortly afterwards. Cobden's business thrived. By 1836 the firm had an annual turnover of £150,000, with profits of £23,000. It was not all plain sailing, however. In 1840 Cobden claimed the firm lost £20,000 in the 1837 trade crisis, and throughout the 1840s the firm's fortunes continued to fluctuate. However, in the mid-1830s the outlook was sufficiently stable to allow Cobden time to devote to other concerns, and in 1839 his elder brother Frederick (whose own business had failed in 1831) was put in charge of Cobden's interest in the firm.

Travels and early political writings

Although Cobden's formal schooling ended at the age of fifteen, he read widely during his early adulthood, and broadened his horizons through travel in his early thirties. His diaries record acquaintance with Shakespeare, Burns, Washington Irving, and Cervantes among others, and from the library he left on his death it is clear that throughout his life he enjoyed works of history and political economy, especially those connected with France and America. But the earliest and most lasting impressions were made by the work of the Scottish rationalist writer and phrenologist George Combe (who became a friend) and of Adam Smith. Cobden's lifelong faith in individual improvement was derived initially from Combe'sEssay on the Constitution of Man (1828), and his positive approach to economic development (often at odds with the political economy of the day) came from his reading of Smith'sThe Wealth of Nations (1776).

Cobden's first intervention in public affairs came as tensions worsened between whigs and radicals at Westminster. In September 1834, using the pseudonym Libra, he wrote a letter to the Manchester Times in which he defended Lord Brougham from the attacks of the London Times. Archibald Prentice, the manager of the Manchester Times, was clearly impressed by Libra's contribution, although the paper's editorial did wish that Libra's ‘abilities had been occupied on some matter of more national importance’ (27 Sept 1834, 3). Prentice later claimed that Cobden went on to write a series of letters for his paper in 1835. However, neither Cobden nor Libra reappeared in the paper in the ensuing months. Instead, Cobden did indeed turn his attention to national affairs, and using another pseudonym, this time A Manchester Manufacturer, wrote a pamphlet entitled England, Ireland and America, which was published by the London publisher Ridgway in the spring of 1835. In this pamphlet Cobden attacked David Urquhart, the secretary to the British embassy in Constantinople, who, along with some sections of radical opinion in the House of Commons, was calling for British intervention to prevent Russian encroachment on Turkey. Cobden argued that instead of costly intervention in the unstable affairs of the continent, Britain should look to her own problems, notably Ireland, and also strengthen the Atlantic economy.

In the summer of 1835 Cobden visited America for the first time, spending three months touring the eastern seaboard and travelling through Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and Massachusetts. The visit confirmed his earlier impressions of America's infinite capacity for the development of wealth and commerce, and made him realize that unless Britain changed its commercial policy America would soon outstrip all the old economies. In 1836 Cobden returned to his polemic with Urquhart, writing the pamphlet Russia, which was published in July, and which analysed the Russo-Turkish dispute in much more detail, attempting to play down the Turcophilia that was rife in Britain in the 1830s. In October Cobden embarked on a long tour, sailing via Lisbon, Gibraltar, and Malta to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, as far as Constantinople, meeting Mehmet Ali in Egypt, before returning via Greece in April 1837.

Municipal politics, 1836–1839

Despite the pamphlets, Cobden remained relatively unknown in national political circles. He did continue the polemic with Urquhart in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine during 1837–8 (Cobden probably came into contact with William Tait through Combe), but these contributions were not signed. In Manchester, however, Cobden became increasingly prominent in local affairs, and it was on the basis of this activity that he became more widely known in London. Cobden's initial involvement was in the field of education and social enquiry. He supported the founding of an infant school in Sabden, established a phrenological society in Manchester, joined the Manchester Literary Society (becoming vice-president in 1836) and the Manchester Statistical Society (in 1835), and helped found the Manchester Athenaeum (1836). Cobden played a leading role in the local Friends of Education, which in October 1837 organized a large public meeting in favour of national education. Through this particular organization Cobden first met John Bright, when the latter invited him to speak on educational reform in Rochdale two months later. Cobden was also very active in municipal politics. He became a police commissioner, and in 1836 was elected to the board of the Manchester chamber of commerce. As a member of the chamber of commerce, he gave evidence to two important parliamentary select committees—on the postage in May 1838, and on banks of issue in April 1840, when he called for there to be only one bank of issue, though not necessarily the Bank of England.

In 1836 Cobden was called to serve as a juror on the court leet of the manor of Manchester, the main parochial body responsible for municipal administration in Manchester. The court leet had become increasingly ineffectual, and Cobden and other local Liberals (mainly dissenters) decided to avail themselves of the Municipal Corporations Act and gain incorporation for Manchester and for nearby Bolton as well. To do this meant not only defeating entrenched tory opinion in the city, but also winning the moderate and extreme wings of local radicalism, who were suspicious of what were seen as whig centralizing measures. With this in mind, at the end of 1837 Cobden wrote a pamphlet entitled Incorporate your Borough, in which he urged his fellow citizens to use incorporation to end landed dominion over the towns. Cobden's involvement in the campaign for incorporation took him to London, and there he met up with the leading radicals of the day, including Joseph Parkes (who knew of Cobden by reputation). Parkes masterminded many of the incorporation campaigns and became a lifelong friend. Through these metropolitan contacts, Cobden was put in touch with James Coppock, the prominent Stockport Liberal election agent, and he stood for that constituency in the general election of July 1837, appearing on a platform alongside Daniel O'Connell, but was unsuccessful. Manchester gained its charter of incorporation in September 1838, with Cobden promising that the flunkeyism of the old system—‘the maces, cloaks, chains’—would be done away with. He became one of its first aldermen, although he rarely attended council meetings after 1839.

The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838–1846

Later in 1838 Cobden began his involvement with the campaign to repeal the corn laws, a campaign that was to occupy virtually all his time for the next eight years. Inspired largely by J. B. Smith, several Manchester merchants and manufacturers set up the Anti-Corn Law Association in October 1838. Cobden, who had left the country in August for a three-month tour of the German states, Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium, was not among the initial members, but did join later in the same month. Influenced by Smith, and also by G. R. Porter, the Board of Trade statistician, whom he had met at the British Association meeting in Manchester in 1837, Cobden had come round to believing the case for total repeal. However, as with the campaign for incorporation, Cobden and the other members of the Anti-Corn Law Association found that the rest of Manchester was reluctant to be dragged into an agitation for total repeal, and its sitting MPs were anxious not to do anything contrary to the whigs. In a move that anticipated the later tactics of the Anti-Corn Law League, Cobden, Smith, and others converted local opinion by acting on the electoral process. In December 1838 the anti-cornlaw advocates dominated the town council and mayoral elections, and in 1839 they purged the Manchester chamber of commerce of its moderate elements. The chamber of commerce then orchestrated the local petitioning campaign in support of C. P. Villiers's Commons motion for repeal in March 1839, and Cobden also sought to enlist Lord Brougham's support. When this motion was defeated, Cobden realized that more direct action would be required to convert parliament to repeal. MPs, he declared, needed to be ‘made uncomfortable in their seats’ (Edsall, 72). On 20 March 1839, the day after the defeat of Villiers's motion, the Anti-Corn Law League was formed at a meeting in Manchester.

Although still based in Manchester, the Anti-Corn Law League embarked on a national campaign, which had little impact initially. J. B. Smith gave up the league's leadership in 1841, owing to illness, and Cobden along with John Bright spearheaded the league's public agitation, especially during 1841–4, attending meetings in London and nationwide, in both rural and urban areas. Bright's first wife died in September 1841, and, encouraged by Cobden, he buried his grief by working flat out for the league, and the friendship between the two men intensified. They did hold different opinions on some subjects—notably education (they voted against one another over the Maynooth grant)—and had different priorities when it came to financial as opposed to parliamentary reform (a difference of view particularly evident after 1848). On several occasions Cobden also privately criticized Bright's direct, sometimes vituperative, style of public speaking. But such differences were seldom aired in public.

Cobden's contribution to the league was significant in several respects. Schooled in the municipal battles of the 1830s, Cobden understood the importance of organization, lecturing, and above all, election tactics, and his voice became one of the most influential when the council of the league determined strategy. The league's agitation changed constantly. The initial foray into the countryside, using paid lecturers, was a disaster, but the tactic, recommended by Cobden and adopted towards the end of 1840, of targeting electoral registers in the boroughs and fighting by-elections proved more successful, although it did alienate moderate whig supporters in the towns. In the latter stages of the league's campaign Cobden was the principal inspiration behind the move to create freehold votes in the large county electorates, which proved especially effective in south Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Cobden's rural background was also a great asset, particularly when the league devoted its resources to campaigning in the countryside from 1843 onwards. On many occasions Cobden styled himself as the friend of the farmer, telling the Commons in February 1843 that his

ancestors were all yeomen of the class who have been suffering under this system … and I have therefore as good or a better right than any of you to stand up as the farmer's friend, and to represent his wrongs in this House. (Speeches, 1.32)

His knowledge of husbandry and the actual conditions of land tenure, both at home and on the continent, were vital in getting the league's message across in rural areas and, perhaps more importantly, in assuaging the fears of landowning Liberals in parliament.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of Cobden's contribution to the league came through his economic arguments. During the 1830s opposition to the corn laws had come mainly from those who wanted to reduce all indirect taxation, or from those who wanted to negotiate reciprocal commercial treaties with other European powers. Cobden gave the anti-cornlaw movement a more coherent ideology, by attacking the corn laws as a check on consumption, and, drawing on Adam Smith's ideas, as an obstacle to the balanced progress of both manufacturing and agriculture. Cobden argued that free admission of foreign corn would increase European demand for British manufactures, and the lifting of protection would make agriculture more competitive, leading to improvements in drainage and crop rotation, and increase investment in the land. Free trade would also enhance Britain's comparative advantage by discouraging the growth of manufacturing on the continent.

On 14 May 1840 Cobden married a Welsh woman, Catherine Anne Williams (1815–1877), who had attended school with several of Cobden's sisters before becoming a governess; among their six children were (Julia Sarah) Anne Cobden-Sanderson, socialist and suffragette, and (Emma) Jane Catherine Cobden Unwin. Cobden and Kate (as she was known in the family) made a ten-week honeymoon tour of Switzerland, taking in the French Alps and Savoy, before returning to London via Cologne and the Netherlands. Never one to miss an opportunity to proselytize, Cobden sent back accounts of the state of farming and industry in France, Switzerland, and along the Rhine which were published between June and December as a series of letters in the Anti-Corn Law Circular. In 1841 Kate Cobden moved into lodgings in Leamington Spa, and later in Tunbridge Wells, and Cobden kept in almost daily contact while on speaking tours, or from his own rented accommodation in London. In 1845 Cobden bought a new house in Victoria Park, Manchester, and the family, now including two children (another child had died in infancy), moved there and stayed for three years.

At the general election of 1841 Cobden stood again at Stockport and was this time successful. He had also been courted by the Bolton Liberals, and Prentice had tried to get him selected in Manchester. In parliament Cobden initially cut rather a lonely figure. Few of the other league leaders or orators were MPs at this time, and parliamentary radicals were less influential than they had been when the whigs were in office. Cobden was reluctant to stand forth in the Commons as the spokesman for the league. In his first speech, in August 1841, he couched much of his argument against the corn laws within a Christian framework, alluding to the concern at the distress in the manufacturing districts which had been expressed at a meeting of religious leaders in Manchester. Bright joined Cobden in parliament in 1843, and gradually from then on the two became more active there.

In 1842, as the economic distress spread and the league expanded its organization, the anti-cornlaw campaign gathered momentum. Headquarters were set up in London, a free-trade newspaper, The Economist, was established in the capital, and the league's Anti-Bread Tax Circular was renamed The League and it too began publication from London. The growing influence of the league brought with it more active opposition and notoriety, however. Many Chartists saw the repeal of the corn laws as a device to benefit those merchants and manufacturers involved in export industries, and suspected that wages might be driven down as a result. Some of this criticism fed into the question of factory legislation, with Cobden's opposition to statutory control of the length of the working day coming under attack. During the corn law debates in parliament in February 1842 Cobden's reputation as a factory master was attacked by W. B. Ferrand, the Knaresborough MP. The Anti-Corn Law League also came under fire as its opponents attributed violent language and tactics to the league's lecturers. Cobden did toy with the idea of a campaign of civil disobedience, involving refusal to pay taxes, and the closing down of factories, but such plans never left the drawing board. None the less, there was widespread suspicion that the league might have been involved in the ‘plug’ plots in Lancashire, and the Home Office authorized the opening of Cobden's personal mail. Leading whigs and Conservatives joined in as well. J. W. Croker published one such attack in the Quarterly Review in December 1842, and at the beginning of the parliamentary session that followed Lord Brougham denounced the methods of the league (although he was careful not to attack the league leaders in person). Matters came to a head on 17 February 1843, when Cobden stated in the Commons that he held Sir Robert Peel personally responsible, as head of the government, for the country's economic distress. This accusation, following a recent assassination attempt on Peel, touched a raw nerve and Peel charged Cobden with using language that might invite personal outrage.

During the remainder of 1843 and through the winter of 1843–4 the league turned its attention to the countryside, employing more effective rural lecturers and activists such as Alexander Somerville (the ‘Whistler at the Plough’) and Andrew Bisset. Along with Bright, Cobden travelled the length and breadth of the nation. In 1845 Cobden was more active in parliament, calling in a memorable and influential speech on 13 March for a select committee to inquire into the effects of the corn laws on the agricultural community. Cobden's reputation in parliament now reached a high point, but his business concerns plummeted. In June he contemplated retiring from public life and was dissuaded by Bright, who suggested he borrow money to prop up his firm.

By the following autumn, with the onset of the famine in Ireland, it was clear that corn law repeal or at least suspension of the corn duties was necessary. Cobden made sure the league maintained the pressure for total repeal. Peel's administration resigned in December, after defeat on the Irish Coercion Bill, but Lord John Russell was unable to form an administration (Cobden was offered the position of vice-president of the Board of Trade). Peel resumed office, proposing a phased total repeal (barring the retention of a duty of 1s.), a measure which Cobden supported, and which was passed before Peel resigned once more in June.

As repeal was enacted, Peel greatly offended his own supporters by praising the contribution of Cobden, and Cobden in turn privately urged Peel to now head a new party—a ‘mixed progressive party’—based on further practical reforms. In July Russell formed his administration and wrote to Cobden leaving open the question of his joining the cabinet. Cobden's influence and role in the repeal of the corn laws were thus widely recognized, although he himself was more sanguine. In 1853 he told Prentice, who had completed writing the first history of the league, that ‘it was but a blundering unsystematic series of campaigns, in which we were partly indebted for our triumph to the stupidity of our foes, and still more to the badness of their cause’ (Prentice, 53).

The league campaign left Cobden almost ruined financially. As the agitation drew to a close a public subscription was organized on his behalf, which raised £76,759. The sum was used to pay off debts he had incurred; some was later invested in the shares of the Illinois Railway Company and in the Safety Life Assurance Company. A major part of the testimonial was used to purchase and renovate property at Dunford in Sussex, where he had been born. In 1848 Cobden sold his Manchester home, moved to Westbourne Terrace in London, and spent weekends at Dunford while extensive building and landscaping works were going on. The family moved permanently to Dunford in 1853, although the works were only finally completed in 1856. Between 1848 and 1861 Kate gave birth to four more daughters.

The struggle for repeal had also left Cobden physically exhausted, and at the beginning of August 1846 he and Kate embarked on a fourteen-month tour of the continent, travelling through France, Spain, the Italian and German states, Prussia, and Russia (Cobden completed the Russian portion of the trip on his own). Although the tour was intended to be recuperative, and Cobden did play the part of the tourist, he was overwhelmed by invitations to soirées, banquets, and lectures almost wherever he went (with the exception of Vienna). In France, free-traders led by Frédéric Bastiat provided the acclaim, as did the free-traders of the Hanseatic ports; in the Italian states he was hosted by agricultural reformers. He met with the monarchs of France, Spain, Sardinia, the Two Sicilies, and Prussia, and statesmen such as Thiers, Narvaez, Cavour, Metternich, Canitz, and Nesselrode. The tour impressed upon Cobden the extent to which the European states were undergoing what he called a ‘social revolution’, based on the subdivision of landownership, and convinced him that such was the growth of prosperity and social equality that governments would no longer have to resort to war or colonization in order to contain domestic strife. He welcomed the 1848 revolutions, for, although he distrusted the republicans, he believed that the 1848 uprisings would lead to greater civil freedom to accompany the social and economic progress he had witnessed.

The struggle for retrenchment, 1847–1853

Cobden returned from the continent in October 1847. In his absence, a general election had taken place, and he had been chosen for both Stockport and the West Riding of Yorkshire, where some of his Manchester friends had solicited support on his behalf. He chose to sit for the latter, at that time one of the largest constituencies in the country. Cobden occupied a pivotal place in Liberal Party politics in the late 1840s. Whig leaders were anxious lest he join forces with the Peelites, moderate London Chartists sought his backing, and radical MPs such as Sir Joshua Walmsley and Joseph Hume enlisted his co-operation in their parliamentary reform campaigns. Cobden was also by now a public celebrity: he made a cameo appearance in William Thackeray's Pendennis (1850), handkerchiefs bearing his portrait were sold, and he was made a commissioner for the Exhibition of All Nations, alongside Peel. (In fact, Cobden and Peel attended a meeting of the commission only hours before Peel's fatal accident.)

In the years after 1847 Cobden resumed many of the political campaigns with which he had been associated during the previous decade. Incurring the disapproval of his nonconformist constituents, Cobden became a leading supporter of the National Public Schools Association, believing that ‘government interference is as necessary for education as its non-interference is essential to trade’ (Cobden to James Coppock, 15 June 1847, Cobden MSS, W. Sussex RO). He continued his involvement in the freehold movement, helping to establish the National Freehold Land Society in 1850, and he pushed another organization, the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association, into a campaign to create freehold votes in the large county electorates surrounding London. Cobden joined the committee of the Association for Promoting the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge, and he also took up the cause of colonial reform, in Ceylon, Borneo, and India, writing a pamphlet on the Second Anglo-Burmese War, How Wars are Got up in India, which was published in 1853.

But for all his stature in the late 1840s, Cobden's influence turned out to be limited. Joseph Parkes compared him to ‘a whale on shore, alive’—magnitude without purpose (Parkes to Charles Wood, 31 Dec 1849, Hickleton MSS, University of York). Despite his commitment to a range of reform issues, Cobden became most associated in the late 1840s and 1850s with what proved to be an unpopular campaign for retrenchment in defence spending at home and non-intervention in European affairs. Cobden unveiled this new strategy in the new year of 1849, using his ‘National Budget’ to call for a return to the defence expenditure levels of the mid-1830s. In June he brought in a motion in parliament calling for international arbitration, and in October he set out his views on non-intervention in an article published in the Westminster Review. Cobden also became a leading supporter of the Peace Society. Its secretary, Henry Richard, became one of his main confidants, and he attended four international peace congresses between 1849 and 1853. In these years Cobden also sat on several parliamentary select committees—army expenditure (1848 and 1851) and official salaries (1850)—attempting to force reductions in the defence and diplomatic establishments.

After 1850 Cobden found little support in the Liberal Party for his campaign of peace and retrenchment. This was owing partly, as Cobden suspected, to the influence of Lord Palmerston as foreign secretary and later prime minister, against whose style of ‘meddling’ foreign policy Cobden spoke out in the Don Pacifico debate in the Commons in June 1850. But Palmerston was not the only factor. The Lancashire and Yorkshire merchants and manufacturers who had bankrolled the league were reluctant to throw their weight behind Cobden, although they responded rapidly to the return of the Conservatives in February 1852 by re-establishing the Anti-Corn Law League. Furthermore, the resurgence of fears of French invasion which followed Louis Napoleon's coup d'état of December 1851 increased calls for greater rather than less national defence, and Cobden was left arguing a lonely case for Anglo-French co-operation in his ‘South Saxon’ letters to The Times (January 1852) and later in his most controversial and hard-hitting pamphlet 1793 and 1853, which was published in the new year of 1853.

The era of Palmerston

The Crimean War delivered the final blow to Cobden's hopes for retrenchment and non-intervention. He was typically strident and outspoken in the months preceding Britain's intervention, arguing that British intervention on behalf of Turkey was a misguided policy, inasmuch as Turkey was a Muslim state in decline, while the interests of Russia, the perceived aggressor, lay in peaceful, commercial relations with the west. Once war was declared, Cobden fell relatively silent, reduced to ‘let[ting] the flood roll on’ (Cobden to J. B. Smith, 12 Jan 1854, J. B. Smith MSS, Manchester Central Library). He appeared before his constituents at Leeds in January 1855 but he was generally disillusioned by the outbreak of popular support for the war, especially that kindled by his old sparring partner the Russophobe David Urquhart. Towards the end of the war Cobden returned to active politics, writing the pamphlet What next? And next? (1856)—an attack on those wanting to continue the war at all costs—and he was also involved in establishing the London-based newspaper the Morning Star.

In April 1856 Cobden's life was overtaken by domestic tragedy with the sudden death of his only son, Dick, aged fifteen, who was away studying at a school near Heidelberg. Kate Cobden was particularly struck by this heavy blow. Her hair blanched almost immediately, and she became over-dependent on opium to ease her bereavement. As a result Cobden was homebound at Dunford for long periods. About the same time John Bright suffered a physical breakdown.

Public humiliation was added to private grief in the general election of 1857, which followed the British bombardment of the Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou). John Bowring, Cobden's former friend and parliamentary colleague (the two men had drifted apart in the 1850s), had ordered this action, after the Chinese had unlawfully boarded a ship alleged to be British. Initially, Cobden assumed that Bowring had been merely carrying out the instructions of the Foreign Office, but he later found out that this was not so. In parliament Cobden sought to criticize British policy without a direct motion of censure, which he knew would play straight into Palmerston's hands, as it had in the case of Don Pacifico. So, on 26 February he introduced a motion containing two resolutions. The first stated that the papers presented to the Commons failed to establish grounds for the bombardment of Canton; the second called for the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the state of commercial relations with China. However, only the first resolution was discussed and, although carried in Cobden's favour by a majority of sixteen (with the support of the Peelites, Disraeli, and Russell), it proved a pyrrhic victory, as Cobden had feared, for Palmerston dissolved parliament and called an election.

As the election got under way, Cobden's canvass of electors in the West Riding revealed that his chances of re-election there were slim, so he opted to stand in Huddersfield instead. At the same time he campaigned on behalf of the absent Bright in Manchester. Along with many other independent Liberal and radical MPs Cobden lost his seat in the 1857 election, and he remained absent from public life for the next two years. This respite was not altogether unwelcome. Cobden's faith in the body politic reached its nadir in 1857. He despaired at the once radical electorates of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and he told friends that he had no desire to enter a ‘servile’ parliament under Palmerston. There were private reasons too. Cobden's wife's grief continued unabated, and in the spring of 1858 Fred, Cobden's elder brother, died after a long illness. Cobden's financial affairs were in a poor state by this time, too, mainly as a result of his speculative investment in the Illinois Railway Company. He was forced to borrow from friends in order to meet the company's further calls on shareholders, and in 1859 a further public subscription, totalling £40,531, was required to help him out. (Another subscription was mooted in 1861 but never undertaken.)

In February 1859 Cobden left Britain for his second visit to the United States, his main aim being to investigate the affairs of the Illinois Railway Company for himself. He spent four months there, criss-crossing between New York, Washington, and Chicago, impressed by the great progress the country had experienced since his first visit in the mid-1830s. On his return at the end of June Cobden found that Palmerston was forming a new government, and both he and Russell wanted Cobden to join the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. From Liverpool, where he disembarked, Cobden travelled immediately to London to respond in person to Palmerston's offer. He declined the position, pointing out that to accept would be an act of inconsistency on his part as he had opposed Palmerston for so long.

The Cobden–Chevalier treaty

In his absence Cobden had been returned as MP for Rochdale, partly through Bright's efforts. However, he took little part in parliament during the next two years, as he spent most of that time negotiating a treaty of commerce with France. In 1856, when Lord Clarendon, the British foreign secretary, visited Paris, Michel Chevalier had suggested to Cobden that the time was right for establishing free trade between the two countries, as a treaty did not have to be steered through the largely protectionist French legislature. Nothing came of this in 1856, but in the autumn of 1859 Chevalier renewed his suggestion, and Cobden contacted W. E. Gladstone, now chancellor of the exchequer, and visited him at Hawarden on 12 September 1859, when the issue was discussed at length. Both men were convinced that a commercial treaty would not only continue the reduction of indirect tax, but could also be the means of ensuring peaceful relations between the two countries. Gladstone backed Cobden's plan to undertake a voluntary mission to Paris in order to sound out the views of Napoleon III. Russell, the foreign secretary, and Palmerston were cooler, but they allowed the mission to go ahead.

Cobden left for Paris on 18 October, and despite ill health and the opposition of some of the emperor's ministers, he had two successful meetings with Napoleon III. It is doubtful whether the emperor was actually converted by Cobden's advocacy—he was not opposed to tariff reform, and Chevalier had already paved the way for Cobden through his own contacts with the emperor. Once committed to the idea of the treaty, however, the emperor sought its rapid completion. In the new year Cobden was given plenipotentiary powers by the British government and on 23 January 1860 the treaty was signed by Cobden and Lord Cowley, the British ambassador, on behalf of Britain. Duties were abolished on most French imports into Britain, although some duty was retained on French wines, while duties on British imports into France were gradually reduced.

The actual tariff schedules remained to be negotiated, and after a holiday in Cannes and a short visit to London, Cobden returned to Paris on 20 April, where he remained until November, in order to complete the task as chief commissioner. Apart from settling the details of the tariff, better postal facilities between the two countries were agreed, and passports were eliminated. Once the negotiations were over, Cobden headed south to Algiers with Kate and their eldest daughter and stayed there until the following April. The treaty was a major achievement, not so much for its actual provisions—which many felt benefited France more than Britain—as for the international harmony it symbolized. The treaty had been settled despite hostile protectionism in France, the emperor's vacillation, and a new invasion panic back in Britain. As in 1846, honours were now heaped upon Cobden—by chambers of commerce, manufacturers' associations, and various cities. In April 1861 Palmerston offered him a baronetcy or the rank of privy councillor, but Cobden declined. Throughout the negotiations Cobden felt he had not had sufficient backing from Palmerston. In the spring of 1860 Palmerston had announced new coastal fortifications, despite Cobden's plea that this be delayed until the completion of the treaty negotiations. Not surprisingly, on his return Cobden resumed his attack on the Palmerstonian system, producing in October 1861 a long memorandum on the Anglo-French naval build-up and, the following year, a pamphlet on The Three Panics of 1848, 1853, and 1862.

Final years

Cobden's support for non-intervention intensified during the American Civil War, which broke out in 1861. He never doubted that morality was on the side of the Union, and that the future of America lay with the industrial and commercial supremacy of the north. However, Cobden remained suspicious of the protectionist tendencies of the Union, as manifested in the Morrill tariff of 1861, and he had a low opinion of the administrative abilities of the Republican Party: in March 1864 he commented to his friend Thomas Thomasson that ‘if their [the North's] cause was not so good, I should certainly back the South whose men are much more capable whether as statesmen or generals’ (R. Cobden to T. Thomasson, March 1864, Thomas Thomasson MSS, BLPES). Moreover, he opposed the blockade tactics used by the North, which had led to the drying up of the supply of southern cotton to Europe. But he thought throughout the war that Britain, along with the other European powers, should remain neutral. Cobden used his contacts with leading Americans such as Sumner and Adams, within the British and French governments, and also among the Lancashire cotton manufacturers to dampen calls for armed intervention to end the blockade. And he joined in attempts to relieve the distress of cotton workers during the Lancashire famine.

By the early 1860s it was clear that Cobden had aged considerably. He had lost much of his vigour and put on weight, and his hair was now greying rapidly. Although revered as an elder statesman within the Liberal Party, he lacked his usual fire and some of his judgement. In December 1863 he became embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with The Times, some thirty years after he had first stepped into public life in order to sound off against the paper. In November a Times editorial had accused Bright of wanting to divide the land of the rich among the poor, and had called on both Bright and Cobden to disavow any such schemes. Cobden leapt to Bright's defence, attacking J. T. Delane, the paper's editor, for making scandalous aspersions behind the screen of anonymous journalism. The Times refused to publish Cobden's reply to Delane, and a rather petty correspondence ensued. Cobden was by now an infrequent attender of parliament—in 1864 he spoke during the Schleswig-Holstein affair and on Chinese affairs—although he could at last draw some comfort from the waning of Palmerston's influence over foreign policy.

In November 1864 Cobden addressed a large meeting in his Rochdale constituency. It proved to be one public speech too many. For two months he was confined to Dunford, with asthma and bronchial and throat problems. When parliament reassembled the following year he was determined to take part in the debates on Canadian fortifications and on 21 March he travelled up to London, where he suffered another asthmatic attack on arrival. He died just under a fortnight later on 2 April 1865 in his lodgings at 23 Suffolk Street, Pall Mall. Palmerston, Disraeli, and Bright gave tributes in the Commons, and newspapers throughout Britain, America, and Europe provided fulsome obituaries, praising his achievements of 1846 and 1860, but passing over his political isolation during the 1850s. Cobden was buried on 6 April in the same grave as his son in the churchyard at West Lavington, a simple grave which looks out through the woods towards the gentle rolling hills of Sussex farmland.

As Cobden died, the principles of retrenchment and non-intervention for which he had campaigned so relentlessly in the last two decades of his life were becoming an integral part of the Gladstonian Liberal Party's philosophy. In the years after his death his reputation grew and his pamphlets and speeches were edited and expounded by the Cobden Club, and by Liberal Party luminaries such as J. E. T. Rogers, Louis Mallet, and Goldwin Smith. After 1900, when the Edwardian Liberal Party needed reminding of the first principles of free trade and anti-imperialism it looked to John Morley's Life of Richard Cobden (2 vols., 1881), a book that established new standards of biographical documentation and comment. But as internationalism and free trade have declined so too has Cobden's reputation, and his modern biographers have been rather disappointed by his commitment to the peace question, and generally been more interested in his role in early Victorian middle-class culture. Cobden's work as a land reformer has not featured so largely in his changing reputation. Yet his belief in the necessity of redistribution of land ownership was arguably the connecting arch in his whole political outlook, for he was convinced that individual proprietorship of the soil, both on the continent and in Britain, was the precondition for social stability, prosperity, and peace. As he told a journalist who visited him during his last illness, ‘the decrease in the number of landowners has ever been the forerunner of decay in empires’ (Edge, 26).

Miles Taylor  DNB