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Who is Richard Cobden? - Richard Cobden biography

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Who is Richard Cobden? Information on Richard Cobden biography, life story, political career and reforms.

Richard CobdenRichard Cobden; (1804-1865), British political leader and reformer. He was born at rural Midhurst, Sussex, on June 3, 1804, the fourth of 11 children. In 1828 he set up business as a calico merchant in the developing industrial district of Lancashire in the north of England. Thereafter, although he never prospered as a businessman, he became increasingly preoccupied with the problems and opportunities of his own and other countries in an industrializing world. In two pamphlets—England, Ireland, and America (1835) and Russia (1836)—he described the economic and political contours of the United States and Russia and argued strongly against traditional concepts of British foreign policy, particularly the concept of intervention to maintain the balance of power. At the same time he advocated free trade, a cause that he took up enthusiastically in 1838 and 1839 as one of the founders of the Anti-Corn-Law League.


Between 1841, when he was elected to Parliament from Stockport as a Leaguer, and 1846, when the corn laws were repealed, Cobden was the chief parliamentary spokesman of the movement. He succeeded in introducing a moral factor into what had been a largely economic debate, and the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, paid him a deserved tribute when the victory was won. After 1846, however, Cobden was unable to win large-scale public support for further measures of financial reform, and his cogent but passionate critique of the English landed interest, which he called “a feudal governing class,” went much further than most businessmen liked. Finally, as a result of his opposition to the Crimean War and his increasingly frank advocacy of far-reaching social change, Cobden lost his parliamentary seat at the general election of 1857. He was elected two years later by a different constituency, Rochdale, but refused an invitation from Lord Palmer-ston, the prime minister, to serve as president of the Board of Trade. Despite his long-standing objections to Palmerston’s foreign policy, Cobden agreed to represent Britain in the laborious discussions that led in 1860 to the commercial treaty with France that bears his name. Thereafter, his immediate interest in foreign affairs was the welfare of the Union in the American Civil War.


Cobden died in London on April 2, 1865. In his last years, while continuing to support free trade, international understanding, and the extension of democracy, he became disillusioned about the prospects of his own country. His hopes that “our mercantile and manufacturing classes,” which had played a decisive part in the politics of the 1840’s, would gain in wisdom and power were never realized. Although free trade seemed secure, the Cobden Club, a political club founded in his memory, had to deal with new demands for protection as early as the 1880’s. Cobden’s writings, nevertheless, remain persuasive and powerful.

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