HC Deb 03 April 1865 vol 178 cc673-7

said: Mr. Speaker, it is impossible for this House to have that order put without calling to its mind the great loss which this House and the country have sustained by the event which took place yesterday morning. Sir, Mr. Cobden, whose loss we deplore, occupied a pre-eminent position both as a Member of this House and as a member of the British nation. I do not mean, in the few words I have to say, to disguise or to avoid stating that there were many matters upon which a great number of people differed from Mr. Cobden, I among the rest. But those who differed from him the most never could doubt the honesty of his purpose or the sincerity of his convictions. They felt that his object was the good of his country, however they might differ on particular questions from him as to the means by which that end was to be accomplished. But we all agree in burying in oblivion every point of difference, and think only of the great and important services he rendered to our common country. Sir, it is many years ago since Adam Smith elaborately and conclusively, as far as argument could go, advocated as the fundamental principles of the wealth of nations freedom of industry and unrestricted exchange of the objects which are the results of industry. These doctrines were inculcated by learned men, by Dugald Stewart and others. They were taken up in process of time by leading statesmen, such as Mr. Huskisson and those who agreed with him. But the barriers which long-established prejudice—honest and conscientious prejudice—had raised against the practical application of those doctrines prevented for a long series of years their coming into use as instruments of progress in the country. To Mr. Cobden it was reserved by his untiring industry, his indefatigable personal activity, the indomitable energy of his mind, and by—I will say—that forcible and Demosthenic eloquence with which he treated all the subjects which he took in hand—it was reserved to Mr. Cobden, aided, no doubt, by a great phalanx of worthy associates—by my right hon. Friend the President of the Poor Law Board (Mr. Villiers) and by Sir Robert Peel, whose memory will ever be associated with the principles Mr. Cobden so ably advocated—it was reserved, I say, to Mr. Cobden, by exertions which never were surpassed, to carry into practical application those abstract principles with the truth of which he was so deeply impressed, and which at last gained the acceptance of all reasonable men in the country. He rendered an inestimable and enduring benefit to our country by the result of those exertions. But, Sir, great as were Mr. Cobden's talents, great as was his industry, and eminent as was his success, the disinterestedness of his mind more than equalled all of these. He was a man of great ambition, but his ambition was to be useful to his country; and that ambition was amply gratified. When the present Government was formed I was authorized graciously by Her Majesty to offer to Mr. Cobden a seat in the Cabinet. Mr. Cobden declined, and frankly told me that he thought he and I differed a good deal upon many important principles of political action, and therefore he could not either comfortably for me or for himself join the Administration of which I was the head. I think he was wrong. I lamented it, but it was he who had to decide. But this I will say of Mr. Cobden, that no man, however strongly he may have differed from him upon general political principles, or the application of those principles, could come into contact with him without carrying away the strongest personal esteem and regard for the man with whom he had the misfortune not entirely to agree. Sir, the two great achievements of Mr. Cobden were, in the first place, the abrogation of those laws which regulated the importation of corn and the great development which that gave to the industry of the country, and next the commercial arrangements which he negotiated with France, which paved the way for improving the trade, and tended greatly to extend the intercourse between the two countries. When the latter achievement was accomplished, it was my lot to offer to Mr. Cobden—not office, for that I knew he would not take, but to offer him those honours which the Crown can bestow—a Baronetcy and the rank of a Privy Councillor, honourable distinctions which it would have gratified the Crown to be3tovv for important services rendered to the country, and which I think it would not have been at all derogatory for him to accept. But the same disinterested spirit which actuated all his conduct, whether in private or in public, led him to decline even the acknowledgments which would properly have been made for the services he had rendered. Sir, I can only say that we have sustained a loss which every man in the country will feel. We have lost a man who may be said to have been peculiarly emblematical of the Constitution under which we have the happiness to live, because he rose to great eminence in this House, and acquired an ascendancy in the public mind not by virtue of any family connections, but solely and entirely by means of the power and vigour of his mind, that power and vigour being applied to purposes eminently advantageous to the country. Sir, Mr. Cobden's name will be for ever en graved on the most interesting pages of the history of this country; and I am sure there is not one in this House who does not feel the deepest regret that we have lost one of its brightest ornaments, and that the country has been deprived of one of her roost useful servants.


Sir, having been a Member of this House when Mr. Cobden first took his seat, and having remained in the House during the whole of his lengthened career, I cannot reconcile it to myself to he silent on this occasion, when we have to deplore the loss of one so eminent, and that too in the ripeness of his manhood and the full vigour of his intellect.

Although it was the fortune of Mr. Cobden to enter public life at a time when passions ran high, and he himself by no means a man insensible to political excitement, still when the strife was over, there was soon observed in him a moderation and a tempered thought that indicated a large intellectual horizon, and the possession of statesmanlike qualities. Though formed in the tumult of popular opinions, with which he identified himself, there was in his character a vein of reverence for tradition which, even un-t consciously to himself, subdued and softened the acerbity of the cruder conclusions at which he may have arrived. That in my mind is a quality which in some degree must be possessed by any one who attempts or aspires to sway this country. For, not withstanding the rapid changes in which we live, and the numerous improvements and alterations we anticipate, this country is still Old England, and the past is one of the elements of our power.

What the qualities of Mr. Cobden were in this House all present are aware, yet, perhaps, I may be permitted to say that as a debater he had few equals. As a logician he was close and complete; adroit, acute, perhaps even subtle; yet at the same time he was gifted with such a degree of imagination that he never lost sight of the sympathies of those whom he addressed, and so, generally avoiding to drive his argument to extremity, he became as a speaker both practical and persuasive.

The noble Lord, who is far more competent than myself to deal with such subjects, has referred the House to Mr. Cobden's conduct as an administrator. It would seem that, notwithstanding the eminent position which he had achieved and occupied, and the various opportunities which offered for the exercise of that ambition which he might legitimately enter- tain, his life was destined to pass without his being afforded an occasion of showing that he possessed those qualities which are invaluable in council and in the management of public affairs. Still, fortunately, it happened, that before he quitted us, there came to him one of the finest opportunities that a public man could well enjoy, and it may be truly said that by the transaction of great affairs he obtained the consideration of the two leading countries of the world.

Sir, there is something mournful in the history of this Parliament, when we remember how many of our most eminent and valued public men have passed from among us. I cannot refer to the history of any other Parliament which will bear to posterity so fatal a record. But there is this consolation when we remember these unequalled and irreparable visitations—that these great men are not altogether lost to us; that their opinions will be often quoted in this House; their authority appealed to, their judgments attested; even their very words will form part of our discussions and debates. There are some Members of Parliament who, though not present in the body, are still Members of this House: independent of dissolutions, of the caprice of constituencies, even of the course of time. I think, Sir, Mr. Cobden was one of these men. I believe that when the verdict of posterity shall be recorded on his life and conduct, it will be said of him that he was, without doubt, the greatest political character the pure middle class of this country has yet produced—an ornament to the House of Commons, and an honour to England.


Sir, I feel that I cannot address the House on this occasion; but every expression of sympathy which I have heard has been most grateful to my heart. But the time which has elapsed since, in my presence, the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quitted or tenanted ft human form took its flight is so short that I dare not even attempt to give utterance to the feelings by which I am oppressed. I shall leave to some calmer moment when I may have an opportunity of speaking before some portion of my countrymen, the lesson which I think may be learned from the life and character of my friend. I have only to say that after twenty years of most intimate and almost brotherly friendship with him, I little know how much I loved him until I found that I had lost him.

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