Richard Cobden (3 June 1804 – 2 April 1865) was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League as well as with the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty. He has been called “the greatest classical-liberal thinker on international affairs” by historian Ralph Raico.
In 1838, an association was formed in Manchester in opposition to the Corn Laws, which, on Cobden’s suggestion, subsequently became a national association, under the title of the Anti-Corn Law League. During the league’s seven years, Cobden was its chief spokesman and animating spirit. He was not afraid to take his challenge in person to the agricultural landlords or to confront the Chartists, led by Feargus O’Connor.
In 1841, Sir Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in Parliament, there was a general election, Cobden being returned as MP 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 19 August. On the 24th, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, Cobden delivered his first address. “It was remarked,” reported Harriet 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.” Undeterred, he gave a simple and forceful exposition of his position on the Corn Laws. This marked the start of his reputation as a master of the issues.
On 17 February 1843 Cobden launched an attack on Peel, holding him responsible for the miserable state of the nation’s workers. Peel did not respond in the debate, but the speech was made at a time of heightened political feelings. Edward Drummond, Peel’s private secretary, had recently been mistaken for the prime minister and shot dead in the street by a lunatic.
However, later in the evening, Peel referred in excited and agitated tones to the remark, as an incitement to violence against his person. Peel’s party, catching at this hint, threw themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and when Cobden attempted to explain that he meant official, not personal responsibility, he was drowned out.
Peel went on to “fully and unequivocally withdraw the imputation which was thrown out in the heat of debate under an erroneous impression,” and was eventually swayed by Cobden’s arguments, at the cost of splitting his own party. The bill to repeal the Corn Laws passed the House of Commons on 16 May 1846 by 98 votes. In the next month Peel was forced to resign the Prime Ministership, and in his resignation speech he credited Cobden, more than anyone else, with the repeal of the Corn Laws.
The goal of the league was the abolition of the Corn Laws; this was achieved in 1846, and on 4 July 1846 the League dissolved itself.
Many of its members continued their political activism in the Liberal Party, with the goal of establishing a fully free-trade economy and thus decreasing the price of basic food products (such as bread and agricultural produce), enhancing the performance of agriculture and industry, and creating stronger commercial relations – supposedly the guarantors of peace – with other nations.