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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

This quotation is part of a series for “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on the theme of “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men” [Luke 2:14]

In the mid-1860s Cobden was moved to write a lengthy letter to an unnamed minister who had been using his pulpit to praise the military exploits of the Duke of Wellington and to urge another war against the French. He chastises the minister for misusing his pulpit to promote war instead of taking Saint Luke’s advice to seek “peace on earth and good will towards men”. In the course of this long letter Cobden argues that the British people were traditionally a very bellicose people and that “we have been the most combative and aggressive community that has existed since the days of the Roman dominion.” He argues that the wars against the French between 1793 and 1815 were undertaken not to promote liberty but “to deprive the French people of the right of self-government, and to place their liberties at the disposal of an arbitrary king, a corrupt church, and a depraved aristocracy”. But this unthinking support for the government was beginning to change as a few small groups of committed individuals in the anti-slavery and free trade movements had shown. They had helped turn British public opinion against the slave trade (1808) and then slavery itself (1833), and most recently the policy of agricultural protection (1846). Cobden believed that the next cause for enlightened British public opinion to take up was that of opposition to war in which a new “peace party” would challenge the traditional British veneration of their “war heroes” and their victories in battles which were demonstrated in public monuments, the naming of streets and bridges after famous British victories, and even the erection of militaristic art in cathedrals and churches. Cobden believed the minister had erred in “join(ing) in the exaltation of military genius, or shar(ing) in the warlike triumphs of nation over nation, (instead of preaching) “Peace on EARTH and good will toward MEN.”

Other quotes about War & Peace:

3 January, 2013

Cobden250

The 10th Day of Christmas: Richard Cobden on public opinion and peace on earth (c. 1865)

Read the full quote in context here.

The British advocate of free trade and peace Richard Cobden (1804-1865) chides an unnamed reverend for using his pulpit to praise the bellicose statements of the Duke of Wellington. He reminds the reverend that he serves a higher master who urged mankind to pursue the goals of “peace on earth, good will towards men”:

Will you pardon me if, before I lay down my pen, I so far presume upon your forbearance as to express a doubt whether the eagerness with which the topic of the Duke of Wellington’s career was so generally selected for pulpit manifestations was calculated to enhance the influence of ministers of the Gospel, or promote the interests of Christianity itself. Your case and that of public men are very dissimilar. The mere politician may plead the excuse if he yields to the excitement of the day that he lives and moves and has his being in the popular temper of the times. Flung as he is in the mid-current of passing events, he must swim with the stream or be left upon its banks, for few have the strength or courage to breast the rising wave of public feeling or passion. How different is your case! Set apart for the contemplation and promotion of eternal and unchanging feelings of benevolence, peace, and charity, public opinion would not only tolerate but applaud your abstinence from all displays where martial enthusiasm and hostile passions are called into activity. But a far higher sanction than public opinion is to be found for such a course. When the Master whom you especially serve, and whose example and precepts are the sole credentials of your faith, mingled in the affairs or this life, it was not to join in the exaltation of military genius, or share in the warlike triumphs of nation over nation, but to preach “Peace on EARTH and good will toward MEN.” Can the humblest layman err, if, in addressing the loftiest dignitary of the Christian Church, he says “GO THOU AND DO LIKEWISE?”

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

If, on the other hand, the real origin of the war be impressed upon the mind of the present generation, and it be known, popularly known, that, far from having been, as we are told it was, undertaken in behalf of liberty, or for the defence of our own shores, it was hatched upon the Continent in the secret counsels of despotic courts, and fed from the industry of England by her then oligarchial government; that its object was to deprive the French people of the right of self-government, and to place their liberties at the disposal of an arbitrary king, a corrupt church, and a depraved aristocracy; then the opinion of the country, and its language and acts, will be totally different from what we have just described. Instead of feelings of resentment, there will be sentiments of regret; far from suspecting attacks from the French, the people of England, seeing through, and separating themselves from the policy by which their fathers were misled, will be rather disposed to level their suspicion at those who call upon them again, without one fact to warrant it, to put themselves in an attitude of defiance against their unoffending neighbour; and in lieu of constantly invoking the memory of their own exploits, or the reverses of their opponents, the English people will, under the circumstances which I have supposed, be anxious only for an oblivion of all memorials of an unjust and aggressive war….

But the most consolatory fact of the times is the altered feelings of the great mass of the people since 1793. There lies our great advantage. With the exception of a lingering propensity to strike for the freedom of some other people, a sentiment partly traceable to a generous sympathy, and in some small degree, I fear, to insular pride and ignorance, there is little disposition for war in our day. Had the popular tone been as sound in 1792, Fox and his friends would have prevented the last great war. But for this mistaken tendency to interfere by force in behalf of other nations there is no cure but by enlightening the mass of the people upon the actual condition of the Continental populations. This will put an end to the supererogatory commiseration which is sometimes lavished upon them, and turn their attention to the defects of their own social condition. I have travelled much, and always with an eye to the state of the great majority, who everywhere constitute the toiling base of the social pyramid; and I confess I have arrived at the conclusion that there is no country where so much is required to be done before the mass of the people become what it is pretended they are, what they ought to be, and what I trust they will yet be, as in England. There is too much truth in the picture of our social condition drawn by the Travelling Bachelor∗ of Cambridge University, and lately flung in our faces from beyond the Atlantic, to allow us any longer to delude ourselves with the idea that we have nothing to do at home, and may therefore devote ourselves to the elevation of nations of the Continent. It is to this spirit of interference with other countries, the wars to which it has led, and the consequent diversion of men’s minds (upon the Empress Catherine’s principle) from home grievances, that we must attribute the unsatisfactory state of the mass of our people.

But to rouse the conscience of the people in favour of peace, the whole truth must be told them of the part they have played in past wars. In every pursuit in which we embark, our energies carry us generally in advance of all competitors. How few of us care to remember that, during the first half of the last century, we carried on the slave-trade more extensively than all the world besides; that we made treaties for the exclusive supply of negroes; that ministers of state, and even royalty were not averse to profit by the traffic. But when Clarkson (to whom fame has not yet done justice) commenced his agitation against this vile commerce, he laid the sin at the door of the nation; he appealed to the conscience of the people, and made the whole community responsible for the crimes which the slave-traders were perpetrating with their connivance; and the eternal principles of truth and humanity, which are ever present in the breasts of men, however they may be for a time obscured, were not appealed to in vain. We are now, with our characteristic energy, first and foremost in preventing, by force, that traffic which our statesmen sought to monopolise a century ago.

It must be even so in the agitation of the peace party. They will never rouse the conscience of the people, so long as they allow them to indulge the comforting delusion that they have been a peace-loving nation. We have been the most combative and aggressive community that has existed since the days of the Roman dominion. Since the revolution of 1688 we have expended more than fifteen hundred millions of money upon wars, not one of which has been upon our own shores, or in defence of our hearths and homes. “For so it is,” says a not unfriendly foreign critic,! “other nations fight at or near their own territory: the English everywhere.” From the time of old Froissart, who, when he found himself on the English coast, exclaimed that he was among a people who “loved war better than peace, and where strangers were well received,” down to the day of our amiable and admiring visitor, the author of the Sketch Book, who, in his pleasant description of John Bull, has portrayed him as always fumbling for his cudgel whenever a quarrel arose among his neighbours, this pugnacious propensity has been invariably recognised by those who have studied our national character. It reveals itself in our historical favourites, in the popularity of the madcap Richard, Henry of Agincourt, the belligerent Chatham, and those monarchs and statesmen who have been most famous for their warlike achievements. It is displayed in our fondness for erecting monuments to warriors, even at the doors of our marts of commerce; in the frequent memorials of our battles, in the names of bridges, streets, and omnibuses; but above all in the display which public opinion tolerates in our metropolitan cathedral, whose walls are decorated with bas-reliefs of battle scenes, of storming of towns, and charges of bayonets, where horses and riders, ships, cannon and musketry, realise by turns, in a Christian temple, the fierce struggle of the siege and the battle-field. I have visited, I believe, all the great Christian temples in the capitals of Europe; but my memory fails me, if I saw anything to compare with it. Mr. Layard has brought us some very similar works of art from Nineveh, but he has not informed us that they were found in Christian churches….

Will you pardon me if, before I lay down my pen, I so far presume upon your forbearance as to express a doubt whether the eagerness with which the topic of the Duke of Wellington’s career was so generally selected for pulpit manifestations was calculated to enhance the influence of ministers of the Gospel, or promote the interests of Christianity itself. Your case and that of public men are very dissimilar. The mere politician may plead the excuse if he yields to the excitement of the day that he lives and moves and has his being in the popular temper of the times. Flung as he is in the mid-current of passing events, he must swim with the stream or be left upon its banks, for few have the strength or courage to breast the rising wave of public feeling or passion. How different is your case! Set apart for the contemplation and promotion of eternal and unchanging feelings of benevolence, peace, and charity, public opinion would not only tolerate but applaud your abstinence from all displays where martial enthusiasm and hostile passions are called into activity. But a far higher sanction than public opinion is to be found for such a course. When the Master whom you especially serve, and whose example and precepts are the sole credentials of your faith, mingled in the affairs or this life, it was not to join in the exaltation of military genius, or share in the warlike triumphs of nation over nation, but to preach “Peace on EARTH and good will toward MEN.” Can the humblest layman err, if, in addressing the loftiest dignitary of the Christian Church, he says “GO THOU AND DO LIKEWISE?”

[More works by Richard Cobden (1804 – 1865) and on War and Peace]