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Richard Cobden on how free trade would unite mankind in the bonds of peace (1850)

Richard Cobden (1804-1865) did not advocate free trade just because it would increase the production of goods, but primarily on the moral grounds that it would reduce violence and “unite mankind in the bonds of peace”:

But when I advocated Free Trade, do you suppose that I did not see its relation to the present question, or that I advocated Free Trade merely because it would give us a little more occupation in this or that pursuit? No; I believed Free Trade would have the tendency to unite mankind in the bonds of peace, and it was that, more than any pecuniary consideration, which sustained and actuated me, as my friends know, in that struggle. And it is because I want to see Free Trade, in its noblest and most humane aspect, have full scope in this world, that I wish to absolve myself from all responsibility for the miseries caused by violence and aggression, and too often perpetrated under the plea of benefiting trade.

Before I sit down, let us prepare for what will be said of this meeting. We shall be called enthusiasts and Utopians, who think the millennium is coming. Now, as the gentlemen who use these phrases are very much at a loss for something new, I will say, once for all, that I am not dreaming of the millennium. I believe that long after my time iron will be used to make the spear, as well as the pruning-hook and the ploughshare. I do not think the coming year is to produce any sudden change in the existing practice, or that the millennium will be absolutely realised in my time; but I think, if the principles of the Peace Society are true, we are engaged in a work in which conscience, and, I believe, Heaven itself, will find cause for approbation. In that course, therefore, I shall persevere, in spite of sneers and sarcasms. I believe we shall not have long to wait before we shall find from our opponents admissions that they are wrong and we right. I have seen some such things before from the same quarters on another question; and I expect to hear the same things again, Those parties tell us that we must look to Free Trade and to other causes to accelerate the era of Peace—those parties who opposed Free Trade. But when I advocated Free Trade, do you suppose that I did not see its relation to the present question, or that I advocated Free Trade merely because it would give us a little more occupation in this or that pursuit? No; I believed Free Trade would have the tendency to unite mankind in the bonds of peace, and it was that, more than any pecuniary consideration, which sustained and actuated me, as my friends know, in that struggle. And it is because I want to see Free Trade, in its noblest and most humane aspect, have full scope in this world, that I wish to absolve myself from all responsibility for the miseries caused by violence and aggression, and too often perpetrated under the plea of benefiting trade. I may at least be allowed to speak, if not with authority, yet certainly without the imputation of trespassing on ground which I may not reasonably be supposed to understand as well as most people, and to say, when I hear those who advocate warlike establishments or large armaments for the purpose of encouraging our trade in distant parts of the world, that I have no sympathy with them, and that they never shall have my support in carrying out such measures. We have nothing to hope from measures of violence in aid of the promotion of commerce with other countries.

Away with all attempts to coerce any nation, whether civilised or barbarous, by ships of war, into the adoption of those principles of Free Trade, which we ourselves only adopted when we became convinced by the process of reason and argument that they were for our own interest. If we send ships to enforce by treaties this extension of trade, we shall be doing more harm than good to the cause we pretend to aid. Such a policy is calculated to react on the people, by imposing on them great burdens, in order to support those armaments by which it is endeavoured to force our views on other nations. I shall have something to say on another occasion about China and Borneo. I will give some facts, and, before long, I will adopt the most effectual mode which I can, and show the people of this country that they are mistaken, in a pecuniary point of view, when they think that they enforce their interests by ships of war or troops. Therefore, as a Free-trader, I oppose every attempt to enforce a trade with other countries by violence or coercion.

About this Quotation:

In a speech given in Wrexham, Wales for the Peace Society on November 14, 1850 Richard Cobden discussed many arguments which opponents of the free trade and the peace movement in England kept raising and put forward his own view of what strategy the Peace Society should adopt to counter this. It should be kept in mind that the Crimean War (against Russia) would break out in 1854 and that he would lose his seat in Parliament in 1857 because of his anti-war stance. Cobden argued that since the biggest single item in the government’s budget of 55 million pounds for the year of 1850 was for the military (43.6 million pounds), either directly (15.1 million pounds) or indirectly (payments of 28.5 million pounds for past debt (793.5 million pounds) which was primarily the result of previous wars) the only way to cut taxes on the poor and middle class was to cut spending on “the great military establishments, and diminishing the money paid to fighting men in time of peace;” this would be difficult because there was a large military establishment with a strong vested interest in continuing expenditure on the military in time of peace (“War is the profession of some men, and war, therefore, is the only means for their occupation and promotion in their profession”); that the members of the Society had to organise public opinion “to prevent people lending money to those bankrupt Governments (in Europe) in order that they may keep soldiers;” and that he promised he would vote in Parliament to cut taxes and thus force the government “to cut the coat according to the cloth” they were given. His final remarks concerned the clever strategy being used by defenders of military spending to urge the use of the British Navy to force open the markets of other countries under the guise of “free trade,” prompting Cobden’s categorial opposition: “as a Free-trader, I oppose every attempt to enforce a trade with other countries by violence or coercion.”

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