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THE COBDEN-DELANE CONTROVERSY.—THE LAND QUESTION.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, ETC.
Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright at Rochdale. Speeches on the Land and the Labourers.
--Misrepresentation by the Times.-Correspondence between Mr. Delane and Mr. Cobden.-Mr. Bright defends his Opinions and those of Mr. Cobden at Birmingham.-Severe strictures upon the Times.-—The Land and the Labourers.—Evils of Primogeniture.—Effects of the Territorial System.Proposed Reforms.-Inducements to Emigration offered by the United States. -Mr. Bright on the History of the Reformed Parliament.-Great Triumphs achieved. -- Reform and Emigration. — Ireland and Foreign Affairs. - Mr. Bright on the Death Punishment and Townley's Case.-Important Speech on Capital Punishment.-Temperance and the Permissive Bill.–Arguments against Arbitrary Legislation.
W HEN Mr. Cobden met his constituents at
Rochdale on the 24th of February, 1863, he was accompanied by Mr. Bright, and their speeches on that occasion—which were chiefly on the subject of the English laws affecting land and labourers—led to a controversy well known as “the Cobden-Delane dispute. In the course of his speech, Mr. Cobden said, “With regard to some things in foreign countries, we don't compare favourably. You have no peasantry but that of England which is entirely divorced from the land. I don't want any agrarian outrages by which we should change all this; but this I findand it is quite consistent with human nature—that wherever I go the condition of the people is generally pretty good, in comparison with the power they have to take care of themselves; and if you have a class entirely divorced from political power, while in another country they possess it, they will be treated there with more consideration, they will have greater advantages, they will be better educated, and have a better chance of holding property, than in a country where they are deprived of the advantage of political power.'
What Mr. Bright said at the meeting on the subject of the land was this: 'I should say, if we were fairly represented, that feudalism, with regard to the land of England, would perish, and that the agricultural labourer throughout the United Kingdom would be redeemed from that poverty and serfdom which, up to this time, have been his lot. It would take a night, it would take a long speech, to go into the question of the condition of that unfortunate class; but with laws such as we have, which are intended to bring vast tracts of land into the possession of one man—that one man may exercise great political power—that system is a curse to the country, and dooms the agricultural labourer, I say, to perpetual poverty and degradation.'
There was nothing of a revolutionary character in this language; it was a fair and legitimate expression of opinion, however others might differ from the view put forward. But the Times, in commenting upon the above passages, and upon others delivered in the course of the evening, said that the language was calculated to excite discontent among the poor and half-informed, and had really only one intelligible meaning—“Reduce the electoral franchise; for when you have done so you will obtain an assembly which will seize on the estates of the proprietors of land, and divide them gratuitously among the poor.” Mr. Cobden naturally protested against this gross misrepresentation of his views, and addressed himself direct to Mr. J. T. Delane, the editor of the Times, who personally assumed the responsibility of the interpretation put upon the speeches. Mr. Cobden thereupon described this interpretation as a libellous outrage upon two members of the House of Commons, and an insult to millions of honest, industrious Englishmen. “Nobody,' he said, “knows better than yourself, except the writer who actually penned the scandalous passage in question, that this accusation against Mr. Bright, of wishing to divide the land of the rich amongst the poor, is nothing but the resort to a stale historical trick—(this only aggravates the character of the libel)—to draw away public attention from the real issue, and thus escape from the discussion of a serious but for the moment an inconvenient public topic. In order to trail a red-herring across the true scent, a cry of spoliation was raised.' Mr. Delane defended himself by saying he had never insinuated that Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright proposed to accomplish the division of land by violent means, but they had suggested that the end could be achieved by legislative measures—by giving political power to the peasantry.
The matter was not allowed to rest with this unsatisfactory and inadequate conclusion to the correspondence. On the 26th of January, 1864, Mr. Bright addressed a meeting of his constituents in the Town Hall, Birmingham, and his speech on that occasion was mainly devoted to the question of the distribution of land, and to a defence of the views held by Mr. Cobden and himself.
He began, however, with a reference to one or two other matters. At that time the Danish and German dispute kept Europe in a state of suspense which it was feared might end in war. Mr. Bright, happily anticipating our policy in that matter, said that any Government which would plunge this country into war under the pretence of maintaining the balance of power in Europe, and sustaining any kingdom there, little or great, was not worthy of the confidence of the people of England, but deserved their execration and abhorrence. As to a second important question, that of the recognition of the Southern Confederacy, Mr. Bright said that such recognition, if it could take place, would only exasperate still more the terrible strife existing on the North American continent, and would spread that strife even to Europe itself. He believed that in the providence of the Supreme, the slaveholder had been permitted to commit the act of suicide ; and he must be worse than deaf and blind who could not see that slavery—the most odious and the most indescribable offence against man and
against Heaven—was coming to a certain and rapid end.
Mr. Bright then came to the question of the Rochdale speeches. He first read the extracts and the comments from the Times we have given above, and then referred to the editor's defence. Next, defending Mr. Cobden and himself from the strictures of Mr. Delane, he said :
“This is the gentleman who professes to counsel and lead the nation. Now, suppose he had charged Adam Smith, the great apostle of political economy, with approving piracy, or if he had charged John Wesley with being an encourager of drunkenness and profanity, would it have been more extraordinary than that he should charge Mr. Cobden and myself with instigating agrarian outrages and the seizure of the estates of those who now hold them, for the purpose of dividing them among the people, of course taking nothing from the people for them, and therefore giving nothing to the rich for them? If there be two men in England, I will undertake to say, who have more conscientiously and more faithfully than others preached for twenty-five years the doctrines of absolute honesty with regard to political questions in England, those two men are Mr. Cobden and myself. But Mr. Cobden came forward to assail Mr. Delane when he made this charge against me. He found a man in a mask endeavouring to stab me in the back,—for he had not seen that the same man had been, in a previous article, also stabbing him, -and he came forward and dragged his mask from him, and he showed him to the gaze of the whole nation and of the world. And at last, after denial and equivocation of every kind, this unmasked editor of this great journal was obliged to retire from the personal part of this controversy, and to skulk back into his anonymous hiding-place, which suits him better.'
Mr. Cobden lamented, continued Mr. Bright, as he did, the anonymous system of writing, which was inevitably a shelter for a man who had no sense of honour. There was a description of a notorious American politician which suited Mr. Delane admirably. It was said of this politician that he was a .