« PreviousContinue »
Now this was no trivial influence. It is specially mentioned by Huskisson, with other factors, as tending to cause that excessive fluctuation in the price of wheat which he so much deplored. It was this which acted, together with other forces, to prevent a fairly remunerative price to the grower, and a steady one to the consumer. All who have pursued with attention Huskisson's policy, will remember that the attainment of this steady price was his chief object; that in this consisted "his" settlement of the corn question. To seize upon a single unqualified assertion, with no reference to the peculiarity of the circumstances under which it was uttered, and to call it "the last codicil of Huskisson's will,"1 this, we are inclined to think, would in the instance of any other individual but Cobden, be regarded as a questionable means of arriving at a safe conclusion.2 It is all the more wonderful in Cobden's case, for he had already drawn the attention of the multitude to exactly the same procedure on the part of his opponents. He had, antecedent to this example of it in himself, exposed the invidious practice of snipping with a pair of scissors certain sentences of an opponent's argument, till what is left makes directly against what that opponent intended to advocate; and we can imagine the horror of the ignorant crowd when such an unjust practice was discovered to them by the enthusiastic and persuasive Cobden. But we do not impute impure motives to Cobden on this account. In such a busy
1 Cobden's Speeches, p. 7.
2 Sir Robert Pool also remarked upon the influence of the corn merchants in causing great variations in the price of wheat. — Vide his Memoirs, vol. ii. part 3, " The Repeal of the Corn Laws."
mind, where there was not the most desirable arrangement of ideas, it is impossible but that he should fall into unguarded inconsistencies. Taken in conjunction with the shallow treatment of those problems to which we have alluded, we regard this as a sign of Cobden's superficiality.1 We think there can be no doubt that he was too fascinated with the apparent grandeur of his ends; and that in his endeavour to reach them, he lost sight of the best practicable method, and plunged into the darkness of a hypothetical region, in which he was unable to guide the nation's progress with certainty. It must be allowed that to judge from a part when you have the opportunity of examining the whole of a statesman's policy, and to adduce that tainted judgment as proof of the soundness of the views you are advancing, is a treacherous method, and must eventually end in disgrace. But Cobden had the power of impressing his audience, and his system of dwindling proof down to the lowest possible limit, is, or may be taken as, evidence that his mind, comprehensive as it was in a very large degree, was not sufficiently trained in that profoundly intensive treatment of economical questions which their very nature requires. He was comprehensive and superlicial; but he did not discern with clearness many of the points which were present, and more might have been presented to his view. He was not, certainly, comprehensive and profound. Had he been less comprehensive and more profound; had he
1 But it must not lie supposed from this that Cobden was not comprehensive. He tells us himself that he took a comprehensive view of the question. But a view may be comprehensive, so far as breadth is concerned, without being deep enough.
studied all the peculiar circumstances which extracted from Huskisson an unfortunate statement1—unfortunate, because liable to be exaggerated and likely to be misinterpreted by shallow or cunning men; had he more closely examined the nature of rent, instead of losing the control of his reason in an outburst of passion against the wicked landowners; and had he portrayed all those possible surrounding conditions which were likely to appear in the course of free trade,—then he might have attained to a firmer and still more comprehensive grasp of his subject—such an one whose handling could not by any means have led himself into error, and his country to the verge of ruin.
It may seem to some a strong, but it is not a novel view, to look upon Cobden's emotional susceptibilities as being somewhat akin to fanaticism. His attitude towards the proprietors of the land, founded as it was on very imperfect evidence, almost suffices to substantiate this charge.2 How, then, do you explain the phenomenon, that Cobden managed to keep the field so
1 Huskisson stated that the Corn Law of 1815 might be repealed. But this did not exclude the imposition of another Corn Law. We have Cobden's authority for this. On p. 162, we read: "It is admitted that the present Corn Law cannot stand. It seems to be doubtful what we shall get instead of it. Are we to have another Corn Law?" Yet Cobden believed that Huskisson was a free-trader in corn.
2 Cobden's relation to the landowners was peculiar. It appears he entertained at one time a deadly hatred towards the Whig aristocracy. But afterwards, we find him acting in conjunction with them. On the whole, we conclude that he was not averse to the aristocracy, as a class, provided only that they did not oppose what he regarded as the "progressive" spirit of the age. Indeed he recognised their import-, ance in the British constitution, if they performed their functions honestly and efficiently.
long, alone protected by an artillery of errors? One reason is at once forthcoming, in the moral force of the man; the power which he possessed, in such brilliant degree, of making those with whom he came into contact believe in the rectitude of his ends, by a powerful description of the results of those ends (if they happened !), drawn at the expense of the elucidation of the means by which they were to be effected. Another reason is found in the following fact. It was unlikely that the poorer classes, being opposed to the richer, would believe in the protestations of the latter; these protestations were, however, put forward by a small and determined section, which announced that the welfare of agriculture was inseparably associated with the welfare of the country. Thus, a strong prejudice being aroused against the landlords, they endeavoured to rebut, so far as in them lay, the cruel and unjust calumny flung at them. And they did this in very different ways. Some of them, indeed, even went the length of actually believing the charges which were openly made against them—which were to this purport, that their excessive rents went to pay either mortgages or else the dowries of their eldest daughters. Their excessive rents being purely arbitrary, and gradually increased for definite objects, they were ultimately borne by the consumer of corn ;1 and as the labouring classes formed by far the larger part of the community, nearly the whole of the burden weighed upon them. Hence the
1 On some occasions, Cobden said the landlords throve on the increased price of bread at the labourer's expense; on others, he stated the "increased" price came out of the manufacturer's profits. But he never tells us on whom they finally fell—the foreign consumers of English manufactures.
picture drawn by Cobden, of the working man feeding his hungry children upon half a loaf, the other half being removed by a spectre, and conveyed, in the shape of money, into the coffers of the landlord. It was easy, then, for Cobden to infuse some angry enthusiasm in the breasts of those who heard him, by thus "proving" to them that they, the larger part of the community, had been constantly subscribing, and were doing so still, to the excesses and extravagances of the upper classes. No matter whether the cause was true or false, Cobden was dexterous in putting his audience in touch with it. But before attacking an influential and respectable class, before accusing the landlords of acts of tyranny and rapacity, it seems but reasonable, at this distance of time — but again, Cobden only regarded that side of the argument which made in his favour—that he should have inquired into the antecedents of the body of men whom he succeeded in dragging into the public odium. He would then have discovered that, under the system of things which appeared to him disgraceful, the nation had flourished, and that this flourishing condition was expressed in a slow and equable progress.1 Besides, he would have perceived that the very factor which he desired to abolish—the high and fluctuating price of
1 As matter of fact, the manufacturers and merchants made far higher profits than the farmer and landlord. ISesides, they acquired a much larger revenue, as attested by David Hume in a letter to Turgot: "Je suis persuade qu'en France et en Angleterre les revenues de cctte nature sont bcaucoup plus grands que ceux qu'on tire de la terre." —Les Grands Eerivains Franyais: Tin-got, par M. Leon Say, Paris, 1887 (p. 51). On what proper grounds, then, could the merchants desire to make higher profits?