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TGIF: The Greatness of Peace Activist John Bright


As we approach Memorial Day — or what I like to call Revisionist History Day — it’s fitting to contemplate the words of one of the world’s great peace activists, John Bright (1811–1889). Bright, a Quaker and Nonconformist, is best known for leading (with Richard Cobden) Britain’s Anti-Corn Law League, the organization that fought successfully to abolish the tariff on grain imports, which had benefited the landed aristocracy by raising the price of food for working people. He was also a manufacturer, a member of Parliament, and an eloquent orator. Bright passionately opposed war — however popular — whenever it threatened to rear its ugly head. Free trade (free markets generally) and peace were not separate matters for Bright. On the contrary, they were (in Cobden’s phrase) “one and the same cause.”

Bright made many speeches on behalf of peace and against Britain’s interventionist foreign policy, both in Parliament and before private meetings. One admires his ability to weave his knowledge of history, economics, and morality into a single seamless fabric. These speeches are entirely relevant today.

In March 1854, Britain and France joined the Ottoman Empire in a war against Russia. This was the Crimean War (1853–1856). On Oct. 13, 1853, as the war was starting, Bright stood before the Conference of the Peace Society in Edinburgh. There he said,

Now, what is it that we really want here? We wish to protest against the maintenance of great armaments in time of peace; we wish to protest against the spirit which is not only willing for war, but eager for war; and we wish to protest, with all the emphasis of which we are capable, against the mischievous policy pursued so long by this country, of interfering with the internal affairs of other countries, and thereby leading to disputes, and often to disastrous wars.

War, he said, takes bread from the working class.

Every twenty years — in a nation’s life nothing, in a person’s life something — every twenty years a thousand millions sterling out of the industry of the hard-working people of this United Kingdom, are extorted, appropriated, and expended to pay for that unnecessary and unjust war, and for the absurd and ruinous expenditure which you now incur. A thousand millions every twenty years! Apply a thousand millions, not every twenty years, but for one period of twenty years, to objects of good in this country, and it would be rendered more like a paradise than anything that history records of man’s condition, and would make so great a change in these islands, that a man having seen them as they are now, and seeing them as they might then be, would not recognize them as the same country, nor our population as the same people. But what do we expend all this for?…

What is war? I believe that half the people that talk about war have not the slightest idea of what it is. In a short sentence it may be summed up to be the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable.… [Emphasis added.]

Rely on it, that injustice of any kind, be it bad laws, or be it a bloody, unjust, and unnecessary war, of necessity creates perils to every institution in the country…. I confess when I think of the tremendous perils into which unthinking men — men who do not intend to fight themselves — are willing to drag or to hurry this country, I am amazed how they can trifle with interests so vast, and consequences so much beyond their calculation.…

Almost a year after Britain entered the war, in February 1855, Bright took to the floor of the House of Commons to deliver what is regarded as the best speech of his career. In that speech he said,

I should like to see any man get up and say that the destruction of 200,000 human lives lost on all sides during the course of this unhappy conflict is not a sufficient sacrifice.… I am certain that many homes in England in which there now exists a fond hope that the distant one may return — many such homes may be rendered desolate when the next mail shall arrive. The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two sideposts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on; he takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and the lowly, and it is on behalf of all these classes that I make this solemn appeal.… I would ask, I would entreat the noble Lord [Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen] to take a course which, when he looks back upon his whole political career —whatever he may therein find to be pleased with, whatever to regret — cannot but be a source of gratification to him. By adopting that course he would have the satisfaction of reflecting that, having obtained the object of his laudable ambition — having become the foremost subject of the Crown, the director of, it may be, the destinies of his country and the presiding genius in her councils — he had achieved a still higher and nobler ambition; that he had returned the sword to the scabbard — that at his word torrents of blood had ceased to flow — that he had restored tranquillity [sic] to Europe, and saved this country from the indescribable calamities of war.

Because of his opposition to the war, Bright was not returned to Parliament from Manchester in 1857. But in 1858 Birmingham elected him to a seat he would hold for the next 30 years. In that year Bright spoke at a banquet in Birmingham held in his honor. In it he surveyed Britain’s foreign policy since the Glorious Revolution (1688) while defending his advocacy of noninterference in the affairs of other nations. In that speech he spoke of other, unseen, costs of war:

Do not all statesmen know, as you know, that upon peace, and peace alone, can be based the successful industry of a nation, and that by successful industry alone can be created that wealth which, permeating all classes of the people, not confined to great proprietors, great merchants, and great speculators, not running in a stream merely down your principal streets, but turning fertilizing rivulets into every bye-lane and every alley, tends so powerfully to promote the comfort, happiness, and contentment of a nation?…

We have that which some people call a great advantage — the National Debt — a debt which is now so large that the most prudent, the most economical, and the most honest have given up all hope, not of its being paid off, but of its being diminished in amount. We have, too, taxes which have been during many years so onerous that there have been times when the patient beasts of burden threatened to revolt — so onerous that it has been utterly impossible to levy them with any kind of honest equality, according to the means of the people to pay them. We have that, moreover, which is a standing wonder to all foreigners who consider our condition — an amount of apparently immovable pauperism, which to strangers is wholly irreconcileable with the fact that we, as a nation, produce more of what should make us all comfortable than is produced by any other nation of similar numbers on the face of the globe. Let us likewise remember that during the period of those great and so-called glorious contests on the continent of Europe every description of home reform was not only delayed but actually crushed out of the minds of the great bulk of the people. There can be no doubt whatever that in 1793 England was about to realize political changes and reforms such as did not appear again until 1830; and during the period of that war, which now almost all men agree to have been wholly unnecessary, we were passing through a period which may be described as the dark age of English politics; when there was no more freedom to write or speak, or politically to act, than there is now in the most despotic country of Europe.…

True to his radical liberalism, Bright applied sound class analysis to his study of foreign policy. War, he might have said, is merely another way to use the political means to gain wealth.

But, it may be asked, did nobody gain? If Europe is no better, and the people of England have been so much worse, who has benefited by the new system of foreign policy? What has been the fate of those who were enthroned at the Revolution, and whose supremacy has been for so long a period undisputed among us?… Do you not observe at a glance that, from the time of William III, by reason of the foreign policy which I denounce, wars have been multiplied, taxes increased, loans made, and the sums of money which every year the Government has to expend augmented, and that so the patronage at the disposal of Ministers must have increased also, and the families who were enthroned and made powerful in the legislation and administration of the country must have had the first pull at, and the largest profit out of, that patronage? There is no actuary in existence who can calculate how much of the wealth, of the strength, of the supremacy of the territorial families of England has been derived from an unholy participation in the fruits of the industry of the people, which have been wrested from them by every device of taxation, and squandered in every conceivable crime of which a Government could possibly be guilty.

The more you examine this matter the more you will come to the conclusion which I have arrived at, that this foreign policy, this regard for “the liberties of Europe,” this care at one time for “the Protestant interests,” this excessive love for the “balance of power,” is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of out-door relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.… [Emphasis added.]

And Bright rejected the claim that war and armaments are good for the economy.

Perhaps there are in this room, I am sure there are in the country, many persons who hold a superstitious traditionary belief that, somehow or other, our vast trade is to be attributed to what we have done in this way, that it is thus we have opened markets and advanced commerce, that English greatness depends upon the extent of English conquests and English military renown. But I am inclined to think that, with the exception of Australia, there is not a single dependency of the Crown which, if we come to reckon what it has cost in war and protection, would not be found to be a positive loss to the people of this country.… Wherever you turn, you will find that the opening of markets, developing of new countries, introducing cotton cloth with cannon balls, are vain, foolish, and wretched excuses for wars, and ought not to be listened to for a moment by any man who understands the multiplication table, or who can do the simplest sum in arithmetic.

He summed up with an appeal to morality:

I believe there is no permanent greatness to a nation except it be based upon morality. I do not care for military greatness or military renown. I care for the condition of the people among whom I live. There is no man in England who is less likely to speak irreverently of the Crown and Monarchy of England than I am; but crowns, coronets, mitres, military display, the pomp of war, wide colonies, and a huge empire, are, in my view, all trifles light as air, and not worth considering, unless with them you can have a fair share of comfort, contentment, and happiness among the great body of the people. Palaces, baronial castles, great halls, stately mansions, do not make a nation. The nation in every country dwells in the cottage; and unless the light of your Constitution can shine there, unless the beauty of your legislation and the excellence of your statesmanship are impressed there on the feelings and condition of the people, rely upon it you have yet to learn the duties of government.…

I shall repudiate and denounce the expenditure of every shilling, the engagement of every man, the employment of every ship which has no object but intermeddling in the affairs of other countries, and endeavouring to extend the boundaries of an Empire which is already large enough to satisfy the greatest ambition, and I fear is much too large for the highest statesmanship to which any man has yet attained.…

May I ask you, then, to believe, as I do most devoutly believe, that the moral law was not written for men alone in their individual character, but that it was written as well for nations, and for nations great as this of which we are citizens. If nations reject and deride that moral law, there is a penalty which will inevitably follow. It may not come at once, it may not come in our lifetime; but, rely upon it, the great Italian is not a poet only, but a prophet when he says,—

“The sword of heaven is not in haste to smite,

Nor yet doth linger.”

Perhaps Memorial Day would be a good time to ponder Bright’s stirring words.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.