Richard Cobden

The Letters of Richard Cobden, Vol. 4: 1860–1865

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To JOHN BRIGHTMidhurst, 4 February 1865

Text: MS BL Add. MS 43652, fos. 218–20; CP45 (TS)

Midhurst 4 Feby 1865


My dear Bright

I am sorry I can't meet you in London, but I have not yet been out of the house & should be useless if I were in London.—But I am better, & require only a little care until the weather is better.—

You ask me what course I would take about Reform.1—The leadership in that question has been going sadly astray.—I have little confidence in the Leeds liberals, or the Yorkshire politicians generally.—Nothing could seem to me more unwise than for reformers out of the House to call on the Government now to bring in a measure of Reform.—One would think that with all his shamelessness the old Premier would be abashed at such a transparent attempt at delusion.—But as the public meetings in Lancashire & Yorkshire seem to have given a sanction to that course, I don't see with what force you can at the opening of the Session deprecate such a proceeding.2—It is however a point on which you will be guided by your

pg 578

Fig. 12. Cobden, after a photograph by Downey. Private collection.

Fig. 12. Cobden, after a photograph by Downey. Private collection.

own judgment & feelings at the moment.—Perhaps there may be an attempt to get up a meeting of liberal MPs to urge the government to act, in a similar way to the meeting at the Thatched House Tavern in 1841 to urge Lord Melbournes government3 to announce their Free trade policy.4—For my own part, if I were in Town, nothing would induce me to join in such a demonstration. I look with horror & disgust at any step which would imply an acquiescence on my part of <in> a renewal of the tenure of office after the election by this old man as the representative of the so-called liberal party. Rather than join in the repetition of this game of imposture, I should infinitely prefer to see my seat filled by Mr Brett.

pg 579I got a letter from Mr Mason Jones5 (perhaps he wrote to you) some days ago saying it was proposed to set the working class in London in motion6—that he had been consulting S. Morley, Lucas, Miall, &c, & that they had concurred with him in opinion that nothing but registered manhood suffrage would induce the masses to agitate & that they would not identify themselves with Baines motion.7

The Reform question is at present in an unintelligible shape to my apprehension.—In Baines' speech in the House last autu session he said he proposed to add only 240,000 to the borough electors.8—Now this opens up another question. It was formerly the understood policy in moving for reform to include a redistribution of seats in the motion.—But it was latterly thought, & I concurred in the idea, that it might be better to concentrate our force on the suffrage, & that once enlarged all the rest would follow.—But in acquiescing in this policy I had always in my view a real reform such as the poor-law rating suffrage for which I always voted.—But I am by no means certain that an addition of 240,000 to the Borough lists would secure all the rest.—They would be hardly enough to leaven double their number of old voters of a richer class than themselves. Baines' plan will not excite any sympathy from the working class, & in my opinion nothing will be done until the excluded classes demand in loud tones their rights.9Then if they call for household suffrage the Lords will pass a substantial measure to escape something worse.—But nothing will be got by cooing, & I look on what is coming from Leeds as little better than childs play.—I should be sorry to see you identified now with any small & abortive measure.—

I suppose you will be in Town at the opening scene.10

There seems every evidence that the "South" is in the last stage of exhaustion. "Society" will be very angry that the Great Republic has not allowed itself to be torn in pieces. "Society" has played the fool sadly in puffing the triumph of the North by declaring so loudly the impossibility of putting down the rebellion!

Ever Yours truly | R Cobdenpg 580

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 The last extant letter from Bright is dated 12 Dec., JBP, Street. Although Bright had looked forward to a reform measure, his enthusiasm evaporated with the death of his son Leonard. He included reform in his speech at Birmingham on 18 Jan., referring to the broader electorates in Canada and Australia, but made no specific proposals and showed no wish imminently to take up the issue: Speeches, by John Bright, ii. 103–29; Robbins, 173–4. See too 10 May 1864 to Potter.
Editor’s Note
2 See 25 May 1864 to Wilson for the formation of the Manchester-based National Reform Union; the Leeds Working-Men's Reform Association sought manhood suffrage but was prepared to accept a lesser measure as an instalment towards this, F. E. Gillespie, Labor and Politics in England, 1850–1867 (Durham, NC, 1927), 238–44; Finn, 234–7.
Editor’s Note
4 A meeting, held on 20 Feb. 1841, Hume in chair, following which resolutions signed by 140 free trade MPs in favour of adopting the proposals of the Select Committee on Import Duties, were sent to Melbourne, LM (27 Feb.); MC (23 Feb.); MP (24 Feb.); L. Brown, The Board of Trade and the Free Trade Movement (Oxford, 1958), 216.
Editor’s Note
5 Thomas Mason Jones (1833–73), journalist and lecturer; born in Ireland, supposedly educated at Trinity College, Dublin but not listed in its published registers, wellknown as an orator before moving to England in 1858; visited Naples in 1860, meeting Garibaldi; visited the American North in 1863, and lectured extensively on the Civil War, e.g. at Manchester (Jan. 1864) and Rochdale (Mar. 1864); member of the Manchester and London Emancipation Societies; involved in reform movement, and stood as Lib-Lab candidate at Coventry in June and July 1865, and at Boston, 1868; later active on financial reform and Irish disestablishment, described in 1869 as 'the pet orator of the Liberation Society', Reynold's News (22 Nov.); president of the Religious Equality and Sunday Leagues; supporter of women's suffrage; author, Old Trinity: A story of real life (3 vols. London, 1867); left a widow and children in 'absolute destitution', Freeman's Journal (27 Dec. 1873); Reynold's News (21 Dec. 1873); Auckland Star (4 Jan. 1874). Although his enthusiasm soon waned, Jones appears to have been instrumental in creating the Reform League, in pursuit of manhood suffrage, F. M. Leventhal, Respectable Radical: George Howell and Working-Class Politics (London, 1971), 55–6, 62–3, 66; for his 'somewhat wild and visionary views', Lord Elcho (Ante, iii. 438 n. 6), Hansard, clxxviii. 1602–3 (8 May 1865). In 1864, when Jones was lecturing in the North, Cobden had asked Thomas Potter, 'Who is Mr Mason Jones? His addresses have the true ring in them', 17 Feb., WSRO Add. MS 2761, fo. B71; CP39 (copy).
Editor’s Note
6 Mason Jones to Cobden, reporting that a few friends of real reform were to form a National Reform League; they now favoured 'pressure from without' on the model of the ACLL, 'with the right men leading it', and sought Cobden's advice on this, 25 Jan., CP8, fo. 30. For a recent review of working-class agitation preceding the Second Reform Act, see K. McCelland, 'England's Greatness, the Working Man', in C. Hall, K. McCelland, and J. Rendall (eds), Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (Cambridge, 2000), 71–118.
Editor’s Note
7 This resulted in the meeting of working-class reformers at St Martin's Hall on 23 Feb. which set up the Reform League to obtain registered and manhood suffrage and the ballot, Leventhal, Respectable Radical, 56. Bright remained aloof from the Reform League, for, although he met its committee on 11 Mar., he would not support any more than a household suffrage bill; interestingly Howell (who became its secretary) claimed Cobden would have been favourable to its programme, a view this letter in part supports. Among Cobden's close associates, Samuel Morley, Hargreaves, and Thomas Bayley Potter became financial supporters of the League. See 10 May 1864 to Potter, n. 4, for the link back to Garibaldi's visit. The League publicly came into existence on 13 May 1865. Its first minutes (15 Apr.) recorded a unanimous resolution lamenting Cobden's death, Finn, 238.
Editor’s Note
9 For the part of popular pressure in the passing of the Second Reform Act, see Saunders, Democracy, 226–40.
Editor’s Note
10 The opening of Parliament on 7 Feb., JBD (11 Feb.).
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