Richard Cobden: the unsung hero of free trade
Cobden was a 19th century British politician and textile manufacturer who was born in 1804 in rural Sussex. Commonly dubbed the “Father of Free Trade”, Cobden’s work helped set in motion trade liberalisation efforts around the world which have helped to lift millions of people out of poverty.
Richard Cobden was born on 3 June 1804, in rural Sussex, England. He was the son of a poor farmer and spent his early years in abject poverty. Cobden received little formal education and, at the age of 14, he became a clerk in a textile factory. In 1828, Cobden and two other young men started a company selling calico prints in London. The business was an immediate success and within a few years he was living an affluent life in Manchester.
In 1833, the now-prosperous Cobden began travelling the world. He visited much of Europe, the United States and the Middle East. While on his travels in 1835, Cobden wrote an influential pamphlet titled England, Ireland and America. In the pamphlet, he advocated for a new approach to foreign policy based on free trade, peace and non-interventionism.
Cobden returned to England in 1839 to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Enacted in 1815, the Corn Laws were tariffs placed on imported food and grain into Britain. They kept grain prices artificially high to favour domestic producers. Cobden argued that these laws raised the price of food and the cost of living for the British public while hampering the growth of other economic sectors.
In March 1839, Cobden created the Anti-Corn Law League – an organisation campaigning in favour of the repeal. Cobden, with the support of the talented orator John Bright, spoke to audiences across the country. He presented a petition to Parliament urging the end of protectionism, but it was rejected, and Cobden realised that petitions would achieve little. It was direct political action that was needed.
In 1841, Cobden became a Member of Parliament for Stockport. The economic hardship associated with the recession that lasted from 1840 to 1842 pushed more people in favour of free trade and thanks to Cobden’s advocacy, the Corn Laws were eventually repealed in 1846.
Prime Minister Robert Peel acknowledged Cobden as the man responsible for enabling those who lived in extreme poverty to access cheaper foodstuffs from abroad. Moreover, the repeal of the Corn Laws forced many of Britain’s colonies to embrace freer trade.
In 1859, with tensions between Britain and France high, Michel Chevalier, a French statesman, urged Cobden to persuade the French Emperor Napoleon III about the benefits of free trade. Cobden, with the blessing of the Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, met the Emperor to discuss a potential Anglo-French trade deal.
The Emperor was receptive to Cobden’s arguments and, on 23 January 1860, Britain and France signed the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty. Princeton University economist Gene Grossman described the treaty as the “first modern trade agreement”. Cobden died in London on 2 April 1865.
On the 155th anniversary of his passing, we should spare a thought for the “Father of Free Trade”, Richard Cobden. His work in repealing the Corn Laws brought a fundamental shift in attitudes towards trade. Cobden’s influence on the creation of the Cobden-Chevalier treaty also laid the foundation for the modern trade agreements that continue to bring benefits to the world today. Rest in Peace, Richard Cobden.
A version of this article first appeared on HumanProgress.org.