Richard Cobden

The Letters of Richard Cobden, Vol. 2: 1848–1853

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To GEORGE COMBEMidhurst, 15 October 1852

Text: MS BL Add. MS 43661, fos. 38–42; CP33 (copy)

Midhurst 15 Octr 1852

My dear Sir

I remember that about ten years ago when Sir Robert Peel was in power I was spoken to by Kay Shuttleworth upon the education question with a view to enlist my cooperation in carrying out some plan then contemplated by the Privy pg 433Council Committee.—In reply I remarked that it was a question so incomparably more difficult to solve than any other political problem, that having tried my hand at it in conjunction with others in 1836 & 7, I took up the repeal of the corn law as a mere pastime (in 1838) compared with the task I had previously undertaken.—I give this anecdote in answer to the parallel you draw of the two agitations.1—Since that time (1842) the difficulties have greatly increased.—The dissenters were previously unanimous in favor of "National Education."—The liberal party presented an unbroken front upon the question.—But then came Sir James Grahams bill, which frightened the dissenters, & drove many of them into hostility against the very principle of National education.2—From that time to this we have gone from bad to worse.—To meet the sectarian objection, we started the secular scheme, with local management.—We were opposed by high Church, Low Church, & Dissenters.—A few, very few radicals, philosophers & unitarians stood by us—but these have little real power with a middle class constituency. I speak my honest & unwilling conviction when I repeat that I cannot see my way at present to a chance of carrying any system of education worthy the name of national through parliament.—I have tried to get consolation & hope from Fox,3 & find him as desponding as myself.—I shall not waste words by dwelling upon the importance of education.—You & I are agreed upon that.—I regard it as the standard of all progress political or social.—Nay I hold that institutions however free & admirable in themselves (such as many of ours undoubtedly are) can never be held by a secure tenure until they rest upon the intelligent support of the mass of the people. But the majority of our population are as you know almost as uneducated as were their Saxon forefathers a thousand years ago.—When I speak in this way of our prospects, I am giving you the result of my observation & experience, & I must say I have many good opportunities of forming a judgement upon the tendencies of public opinion.—But I hope you will not draw the inference that I am going to abandon the question.—All I wish to impress on you is my conviction that it is not in that stage when the efforts of any one individual can insure a decisive result, like the repeal of the Corn law.—I can't help thinking that if the working class had a voice in the elections we should make much better progress.—They would make many mistakes I dare say, but, really, if the masses had votes, I would back them to make a better use of them than the middle class—upon education & its kindred question of religious equality.—With the progress of democracy I look for increased success in our educational projects, & hence I am in favor of extending the suffrage, acknowledging all the risks one runs in giving power to a badly educated people.—But I feel that it is a primary duty to endeavor to remove those impediments which stand in the way of the voluntary education of the people.—We raise double as much in taxes upon newspapers, advertisements, & paper, as we vote annually for the education of the people.—Is not this very like political hypocrisy?—It is to get rid of this reproach that I give my active support to the agitation against the taxes on knowledge.—In talking with some of the most intelligent Americans who visited the Exhibition last pg 434year, I found that they relied as much upon the penny & half-penny newspapers of that Country as upon the schoolmasters.—The mechanics of New York & Boston subscribe for daily papers which are left at their houses before breakfast as regularly as at the offices of our bankers & merchants in London.—I am quite sure that if we had penny newspapers here as well as penny magazines they would give a stimulus to the reading tastes of the working <classes> which is wanting whilst our newspapers are sold at 5d.—But we shall have a fierce resistance to the removal of the penny stamp from all those who dread the enlightenment of the masses, & I fear they include more than you suppose.—There is unfortunately too an opposition from the existing newspaper proprietors, especially in Scotland, led on by the Scotsman,4 from a dread of increased competition consequent upon the abolition of the stamp.—I confess after giving much attention to the subject that so greatly do I value an unstamped & untaxed newspaper press as an educational means that I would give up the present annual votes <for education> altogether to purchase the emancipation of the press if it could be accomplished in no other way.—What do you think of our French neighbors?—Their conduct seems to me to go far to justify Louis Napoleon.—It is clear that the nation was fatiguée of their representative forms of government, & they are only perhaps obeying an instinct of their nature when they call upon somebody to rescue them from themselves.—We are apt to forget in criticising the French <masses> that they have very few motives left for assuming the reins of self-government.—They have not an aristocracy to destroy, or tithes to confiscate; or the land to distribute amongst the whole people by abolishing primogeniture & entail; or taxes to equalize.—All this has been done, & the old monarchy swept off into the bargain.—Demagoguism having therefore nothing to promise the people at the expense of their superiors, fell into the blunder of proposing to rob every body for the sake of a theory which nobody understood. The consequence is that to escape Socialism the people rush into the arms of despotism.—Surely we ought to leave them to their choice, & not quarrel with them for being in a panic.—But I forget, John Bull claims the right of grumbling for himself & every body else.—We are delighted to hear of your improved health.—My wife joins me in kind regards to Mrs Combe & yourself & I remain

very truly Yours | R. Cobdenpg 435

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 In his letter of 11 Oct. 1852 (BL Add. MS 43661, fos. 35–7), Combe, in replying to Cobden, 4 Sept. on national education (BL Add. MS 43661, fos. 29–34; CP33, copy), spoke of his 'feelings of upset at the unfavourable view you take of its prospects', while standing by the practicability of his own scheme: 'The scheme which I desire to see recommended to Parliament, & the people, is one which should simply form the inhabitants of a school district into a corporation, with power to tax themselves, to erect & maintain a school for instruction in the conditions of social well-being.' He also urged Cobden ('You, my respected Friend, in Parliament stand in the position which Horace Mann does in America') to continue to campaign in Parliament for a better system of education.
Editor’s Note
2 For the opposition to the 1843 Education Bill; J. T. Ward and J. H. Treble, 'Religion and Education in 1843: Reaction to the "Factory Education Bill"', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 20 (1969), 79–110; G. I. Machin, Politics and the Churches in Great Britain, 1832 to 1868 (Oxford, 1977), 151–60.
Editor’s Note
3 W. J. Fox(q.v.).
Editor’s Note
4 The editor of The Scotsman Alexander Russel (ante, i. 373 n. 1) was a leading opponent of the campaign against the taxes on knowledge, to whom Combe had shown Cobden's 4 Sept. letter. See his evidence to the SC on Newspaper Stamps, PP (1851), xvii (558), qq. 1466–1617 (21 May 1851). His views were shared by the proprietor John *Ritchie (1788–1870).
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