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Augustine Birrell: Richard Cobden, visionary of world peace


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war


Augustine Birrell
From Cobden (1919)

Cobden was too bent on immediate persuasion ever to be offensively didactic. Yet in his hearty and noble detestation of Palmerston’s wars and ways he incurred great unpopularity by using language about England that went far to support the allegation, in itself untrue, that he was one of those men who, in Chatham’s language, had devoured the strange herb which makes men forget their native country. For example, he writes:

“We shall do no good until we can bring home to the conviction and consciences of men the fact that, as in the slave trade, we had surpassed in guilt the whole world , so in foreign wars we have been the most aggressive, quarrelsome, warlike and bloody nation under the sun.” Again: “I wish we had a map, with a red spot printed upon those places by land and sea where we have fought battles since 1688. It would be seen at a glance that we have (unlike any other nation under the sun), been fighting foreign enemies upon every part of the earth’s surface, excepting our own territory – thus showing that we have been the most warlike and aggressive people that ever existed.”


Cobden sought peace, as President Wilson is doing, through a League of Nations. Before our Russian War began he wrote: “I should appeal not only to Germany, but to all the States, small as well as great, on the Continent, for such a union as would prevent the possibility of any act of hostility from a common enemy.”

So long ago as 1849 (before President Wilson was born ), Cobden attended a Peace Congress in Paris, which set itself seriously to consider how best to promote the cause of Universal Peace. France, Germany, Belgium, England, and the United States were represented by men at least as eminent as any of those who are to-day making it impossible to get a bed in Paris. Victor Hugo, France incarnate, the mighty lord “of human tears,” was its President. M. de Girardin, the most famous editor in Europe, Lamartine, who was once, at all events, a name to conjure with, Chevalier, Say, and Bastiat, political economists of renown, and many others, unanimously recommended the friends of peace to prepare public opinion in their respective countries for the formation of a Congress of Nations, to revise the existing International Law, and to constitute a High Tribunal for the decision of controversies among nations. In support of their objects the Congress, acting, I am sure, in all good faith and sincerity, called to their aid “the representatives of the Press, so potent to diffuse truth, and also all ministers of religion, whose holy office it is to encourage goodwill among men.” This in August, 1849! What mockery it now sounds! The coup d ‘état, the Italian War; the Chinese War; the Crimean War; the Battle of Sadowa; the Franco-German War, bringing in its train the horrors of the Commune; the Boer War; the last War, and the present state of Europe! We have, indeed, supped full of horrors since 1849, despite all the efforts of a truth-diffusing Press, and the pulpit-eloquence of the ordained preachers of good-will among men.

None the less, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” and it is possible to meet in that same Paris to-day and discuss a League of Nations without even an augural grin appearing upon our speaking countenances. Cobden was on the right lines all his life.

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