Richard Cobden, an English statesman, born at Dunford, near Midhurst, Sussex, June 3, 1804, died in London, April 2, 1805. On the death of his father, a small farmer, he was taken charge of by his uncle, a warehouseman in London. Before he entered business on his own account he saw much of England as a commercial traveller, visiting also Egypt, Turkey, and Greece in 1834, and the United States in 1835. By this time he had become partner in a cotton-printing establishment near Manchester, and built up a prosperous business. In 1835 he pronounced the leading address at the opening of the Athenaeum of Manchester, which he had helped to establish. He also published two pamphlets, "England, Ireland, and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer," and "Russia." In the latter he questioned the extent of the vast resources generally attributed to Russia. In 1837, after having unsuccessfully contested the representation of the borough of Stockport, Mr. Cobden visited France, Belgium, and Switzerland. In 1838 he travelled through Germany, and on his return strongly declared in favor of free trade. In 1839, when the house of commons rejected a motion for the repeal of the bread tax, Mr. Cobden took a leading part in establishing the well known and powerful anti-corn-law league.
He was elected for Stockport in 1841, and immediately obtained a high place among the leading parliamentary speakers, from his oratorical ability and from the great extent and variety of his knowledge upon all subjects connected with trade and commerce. He spoke and voted in parliament for the repeal of the corn laws, and spoke and lectured in most of the counties of England on the same subject. Meanwhile the anti-corn-law league grew into power and popularity, strengthened with vast funds raised by the free-traders. Sir Robert Peel finally became a convert to the necessity of a change, and, with much opposition from the agricultural interest, succeeded in procuring the passage of the memorable act for repealing the duties on the importation of corn, to which the royal assent was given June 26, 1840. Driven out of power immediately after by a hostile vote on his Irish policy, Peel took leave of office in a speech which contained a handsome acknowledgment that the repeal of the corn laws was chiefly attributable to Mr. Cobden. National gratitude shortly after presented Mr. Cobden with a substantial pecuniary acknowledgment, raised by subscription, to the amount of £80,000, on the receipt of which he retired from business, and purchased the property near Midhurst on which he had been born, and which his family had formerly owned.
While absent in 1846-'7 on a continental tour through France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Sweden, he was reelected member of parliament for Stockport, and also for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He decided to sit for the great county rather than for the small borough. He was reelected in 1852. As an active member of the peace society, he had advocated the propriety of deciding national disputes by arbitration rather than by arms, and had published several pamphlets strongly urging these views. He discountenanced the war with Russia, which his constituents supported. In 1857 he was one of the majority which passed a vote of censure on Lord Palmerston for entering into the war with China, which caused his rejection by the electors of the West Riding. Soon afterward he went abroad, and spent nearly two years on the continent and in the United States. During his absence he had been returned to parliament from the borough of Rochdale, and upon his return in 1859 he was informed that Lord Palmerston had offered him a seat in his cabinet as president of the board of trade. This office he declined, on the ground that his views had always differed so much from those of the premier that he could not consis-tently serve in his cabinet.
In 1860, however, he consented to act as commissioner in negotiating a treaty of commerce with France, in which he was entirely successful. This treaty was regarded as a great triumph of diplomacy, but it was abandoned by the French in 1872. Mr. Gladstone, speaking in 1866, said in regard to it, "I don't believe that the man breathed upon earth at that epoch, or now breathes upon earth, that could have effected that great measure, with the single exception of Mr. Cobden." After the negotiation of the treaty he was offered a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, both of which he declined. The frail state of his health prevented his taking so active a part in public affairs as he had formerly done; nevertheless, he made occasional speeches in parliament, urged the repeal of the paper duty as a tax on knowledge, and the reduction of the national expenditure, particularly in the military and naval departments. He was always the earnest and consistent friend of the United States, never lost faith in the cause of the Union during the civil war, and vigorously opposed all schemes for recognizing or aiding the confederacy. Mr. Cobden was, with John Bright, a leader of the Manchester school or party, and, besides the measures above alluded to, favored electoral reform and the vote by ballot.
A marble statue of Cobden has been erected in the town hall of Bradford at the expense of Mr. Booth, an American merchant of that town. His works have been collected under the titles of "Political Writings of Richard Cobden" (2d ed., London, 1867), and "Speeches on Questions of Public Policy," edited by Bright and Rogers (1870). His biography has been written by J. Mc(Gilchrist (London, 1865), and in German by Von Holtzendorff (1866) and De Roth (1867).