Among libertarians and classical liberals, the name Richard Cobden (1804–1865) evokes admiration and applause. His activities — and successes — on behalf of freedom, free markets, and government retrenchment are legendary. Most famously, he co-founded — with John Bright — the Anti–Corn Law League, which successfully campaigned for repeal of the import tariffs on grain. Those trade restrictions had made food expensive for England’s working class while enriching the landed aristocracy.
But Cobden did not see free trade in a vacuum. He and Bright linked that cause with their campaign against war and empire, arguing that trade among the people of the world was not just beneficial economically but also conducive to world peace. Unlike other liberals of his time (and since), Cobden understood that free trade means trade free of government even when it pursues what are alleged to be pro-trade policies. As he said (in one of my favorite Cobden quotations),
They who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world, forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments.
Unfortunately, this brilliant insight has eluded most advocates of international trade, especially in the United States going back to its founding, who have looked to government to open foreign markets — by force if necessary.
Cobden’s legacy is much appreciated by libertarians, but one aspect of it is largely unknown. (I only just learned of it, thanks to my alert friend Gary Chartier.) Cobden’s third daughter and fourth child, Emma Jane Catherine Cobden (later Unwin after she married publisher Thomas Fisher Unwin), carried on his work. Born in 1851, she was a liberal activist worthy of her distinguished father.
The Wikipedia article on Jane Cobden, which I draw on here, relies heavily on two sources: Anthony Howe’s entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Sarah Richardson’s “‘You Know Your Father’s Heart’: The Cobden Sisterhood and the Legacy of Richard Cobden” in Re-thinking Nineteenth-century Liberalism, edited by Howe and Simon Morgan (2006).
“From her youth Jane Cobden, together with her sisters, sought to protect and develop the legacy of her father,” according to Wikipedia. “She remained committed throughout her life to the ‘Cobdenite’ issues of land reform, peace, and social justice, and was a consistent advocate for Irish independence from Britain.”
The triplet land reform, peace, and social justice has a left-wing sound today, but that’s because the modern classical liberal/libertarian movement from the 1930s onward got sidetracked by an alliance of convenience with the conservative and nationalist American Right, which, like the liberals, also opposed the New Deal and (in those days, but alas no more) militarism. That alliance, which was fortified in the 1950s owing to the common opposition to Soviet communism, had the unfortunate effect of cutting libertarians off from their true heritage.
That heritage included a focus on the class conflict and rights violations inherent in mercantilism (protectionism, corporatism), government control of land distribution, and many other state activities. The libertarian abandonment of some of those concerns in the second half of the 20th century in effect bequeathed them to the antimarket Left. Today a growing number of libertarians have reclaimed them.
Jane Cobden was also a prominent voice for extending the vote to women. Wikipedia says, “The battle for women’s suffrage on equal terms with men, to which she made her first commitment in 1875, was her most enduring cause.” Cobden was a member of the Liberal Party” (which was hardly a libertarian party) and she “stayed in the Liberal Party, despite her profound disagreement with its stance on the suffrage issue.” (The Liberals tended to favor the vote for women but had higher priorities.) The libertarians of her day, both in England and the United States, also made women’s legal and social equality a major part of their agenda.
In 1888 Jane Cobden and other Liberal women ran for seats on the new London County Council. It was a controversial move because up till then women could not hold office and not everyone interpreted the Local Government Act of 1888 as permitting it. She and Margaret Sandhurst won seats in 1889. Sandhurst was disqualified under the act after a challenge from her defeated rival, but Cobden was not challenged.
Even so, her position on the council remained precarious, particularly after an attempt in parliament to legalise women’s rights to serve as county councillors gained little support. A provision of the prevailing election law provided that anyone elected, even improperly, could not be challenged after twelve months, so on legal advice Cobden refrained from attending council or committee meetings until February 1890. When the statutory twelve months elapsed without challenge, she resumed her full range of duties.
But her problems were not over.
A Conservative member took her to court, arguing she had been illegally elected, that her council votes were therefore illegal, and thus that she should be severely fined. The court agreed, but an appeal cut the fine to a nominal amount. Her allies hoped she would go to jail instead of paying the fine, but she did not take their advice.
After a further parliamentary attempt to resolve the situation failed, she sat out the remaining months of her term as a councillor in silence, neither speaking nor voting, and did not seek re-election in the 1892 county elections.
Irish home rule
In 1892 Cobden married Unwin (whose company published Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche, H.G. Wells, and Somerset Maugham), at which point, Wikipedia says,
Jane Cobden extended her range of interests into the international field, in particular advancing the rights of the indigenous populations within colonial territories. As a convinced anti-imperialist she opposed the Boer War of 1899–1902, and after the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 she attacked its introduction of segregationist policies. In the years prior to the First World War she opposed Joseph Chamberlain’s tariff reform crusade on the grounds of her father’s free trade principles, and was prominent in the Liberal Party’s revival of the land reform issue.
Again, she was carrying on her father’s antiwar, anti-imperialist, and free-trade campaign and his concern with social-legal equality. Wikipedia quotes Richard Cobden from 1848:
Almost every crime and outrage in Ireland is connected with the occupation or ownership of land.… If I had the power, I would always make the proprietors of the soil resident, by breaking up the large properties. In other words, I would give Ireland to the Irish.
He also wrote,
Hitherto in Ireland the sole reliance has been on bayonets and patching. The feudal system presses upon that country in a way which, as a rule, only foreigners can understand, for we have an ingrained feudal spirit in our English character. I never spoke to a French or Italian economist who did not at once put his finger on the fact that great masses of landed property were held by the descendants of a conquering race, who were living abroad, and thus in a double manner perpetuating the remembrance of conquest and oppression, while the natives were at the same time precluded from possessing themselves of landed property, and thus becoming interested in the peace of the country.
Here Cobden asserted an idea from John Locke: that the criterion for ownership of a parcel of land is not conquest but homesteading through labor.
Jane Cobden thus “embraced the cause of Irish home rule — on which she lectured regularly.” She also “was a strong supporter of the Land League,” which strove to “enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on.”
“After visiting Ireland with the Women’s Mission to Ireland in 1887,” the Wikipedia article continues, “she subsequently used the pages of the English press to expose the mistreatment of evicted tenants.”
Reflecting her interest in land reform, Jane Cobden published The Land Hunger: Life under Monopoly in 1913.
Along with these causes she maintained a keen interest in her father’s passion, free trade.
In 1904, Richard Cobden’s centenary year, she published [and wrote an introduction to] The Hungry Forties [subtitle: Life under the Bread Tax, Descriptive Letters and Other Testimonies from Contemporary Witnesses], described by Anthony Howe in a biographical article as “an evocative and brilliantly successful tract.” It was one of several free trade books and pamphlets issued by the Fisher Unwin press which, together with celebratory centenary events, helped to define free trade as a major progressive cause of the Edwardian era.
With the coming of World War I in 1914
Cobden became increasingly involved in South African affairs. She supported Solomon Plaatje’s campaign against the segregationist Natives’ Land Act of 1913, a stance that led, in 1917, to her removal from the committee of the Anti-Slavery Society. The Society’s line was to support the Botha government’s land reform policy.… Cobden maintained her commitment to the cause of Irish freedom, and offered personal help to victims of the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence, 1919–21.
She spent the late 1920s and 1930s organizing her father’s papers and otherwise carrying on his work.
One final — and telling — story:
In 1920 Cobden gave Dunford House [the Cobden family home in Sussex] to the London School of Economics (LSE), of which she had become a governor. According to Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the School, she soon regretted the gift; Webb wrote in her diary on 2 May 1923, “The poor lady … makes fretful complaints if a single bush is cut down or a stone shifted, whilst she vehemently resents the high spirits of the students … not to mention the opinions of some of the lecturers.” Later in 1923 LSE returned the house to Cobden; in 1928 she donated it to the Cobden Memorial Association. With the help of the writer and journalist Francis Wrigley Hirst and others, the house became a conference and education centre for pursuing the traditional Cobdenite causes of free trade, peace and goodwill. [Emphasis added.]
Beatrice Webb co-founded the LSE with her husband Sidney. Both were leading advocates of state socialism and the reformist welfare-state strategy known as Fabianism. (They were also among the many prominent welfare statists who favored eugenics.) We can imagine which opinions Cobden resented.
Jane Cobden, who died at age 96 in 1947, still has a place in modern culture. She was made a character in the BBC television series Ripper Street, and her portrait hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
This article was originally published in the November 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.