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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 82. Richard Cobden; John Bright

Inseparably linked together in political history, and most of all by the isolation in which the pair found themselves at more than one stage of their political career, are the great radical names of Cobden and Bright. From the days when the elder of them, Richard Cobden, first entered parliament, in order there to prosecute, with a single-mindedness as complete as that of the platform, the campaign for cheapening the food of the people, an absorbing care for the condition of the people, remained, from first to last, the note of his oratory, and of the remarkable political writings in which he gave occasional expression to his principles. In all his deliverances, he is found transparently sincere, perfectly definite in purpose and as free from ad captandum devices as any orator who has commanded the applause of vast popular audiences or has conquered the attention of a vigilantly antipathetic house of commons. His persuasiveness, which Bright described as irresistible, was based on a groundwork of facts, and their logic convinced his hearers, as his imperturbable sureness of himself showed them to have convinced the speaker. Although a self-taught orator as well as politician, Cobden was not wholly without a literary sense—the notorious reference to the Ilissus was a mere bit of mischief; but, neither fancy nor humour, nor even the deeper movements of indignation, entered much into the spirit of his speeches, which, penetrating to the kernel of the matter, scattered all the mistakes and false doctrines by which it was enveloped. In the Corn law meetings, he left it to his indefatigable coadjutor William Johnson Fox (Browning’s far-sighted friend), who was always intent upon the interests of the working classes, to draw touching pictures of the social suffering which the leaguers were seeking to remedy. Even his antagonism to war, to which he gave thoughtful expression long before he inveighed against the concrete example of the conflict with Russia, rested, primarily, on other than humanitarian grounds. He was not an enthusiast in either love or hate, and could believe in the sincerity of others—even of Palmerston—as he was absolutely sincere himself. John Bright—Cobden’s comrade in the earliest and most unequivocally successful phase of their public lives, and in their opposition to a national war which reason and conscience made them deem unjust, but virtually without his steadfast associate’s support in the long campaign for that extension of the franchise on which modern democracy is based—was, beyond all doubt, one of the greatest orators of his own or any other age of English life. The individuality which mirrored itself in his eloquence, and the ascendancy which it exercised, were those of genius. Although he insisted on yielding to Fox, who spoke less frequently and with more elaboration of art, the palm of orator of the anti-Corn-law league, he displayed, even in this early period of his life, those qualities which gradually developed into majestic grandeur. In many respects, the simplest of men, and an adherent of many of the homely ways of his community, he seemed to tower among those around him by an unquestioned, half-heroic, dignity of personality and presence. The arts of flattery were as strange to his oratory as they were to his daily converse; and irony and sarcasm seemed alien to the pure truthfulness of his nature. He was well-read—though not, perhaps, in the common sense of the phrase. His mind was steeped in the Bible; in his loftier flights, he seemed to be breathing the atmosphere of the Old Testament; the thoughts and cadences of Milton were ever on his lips; and he was familiar with a few other great writers capable of inspiring noble passages of his eloquence. Solemn reproof, lofty appeal, sympathy with woe and awe of the divine—all these are to be found in his speeches, where they touch the heights and depths of human feeling. Of himself, unlike many great orators, he says little; but the whole history of his public life reveals itself in his speeches on free trade, or peace and reform, on Ireland, on India and on that great transatlantic republic whose cause he upheld, by the side of John Stuart Mill, in the critical hour. His oratory resembled his life in the grandeur of its simplicity—hardly a gesture to heighten the effect of the magical voice, only an occasional sally of wit or humour to relieve the earnestness in which moral force was naturally blended with human-kindness, and the whole a self-consistent and unfaltering advance, and a repose on the heights when they had been reached, of prophetic faith. Milton, he said, had taught him, when in his youth he was beginning to think about public affairs, that true eloquence is “but the serious and hearty love of truth”; and the precept, from first to last, shone like a beacon on his path.

A place of his own among the political orators of his day must be assigned to Robert Lowe, afterwards viscount Sherbrooke, a liberal in the general tendency of his ideas and texture of his intellect, but raised to the height of his political influence and oratorical renown as the protagonist of the struggle against democratic reform, with Edward Horsman as the second spokesman of the Cave (1866–7). In Lowe’s speeches, as in his conversation (his writings were few), his academical training found very distinct expression, though antithetically mixed with a stinging wit and with a knowledge of registration and administration taught by eight years of colonial, followed by a long and varied home, experience of parliamentary and official life. But the intrinsic power of his oratory was such as to enable him to fight with unparalleled effect the battle on which he had chosen to enter against what he called the sentimental, the fatalistic and the aggressive or compulsory democracy, as represented by Mill, Gladstone and Bright; and his brief autobiography remains to illustrate the nature of his wit, under which all sentiment withered away.

In this enumeration, we must pass by those whose public life was mainly occupied with questions, whether of foreign or home policy, which did not reach their solution in the nineteenth century and some of which remain unsolved at the present day. Among these were, on the conservative side, at least one statesman of commanding personality—Robert Cecil, third marquis of Salisbury—who, without ever quite laying aside the “flouts” and “gibes” of less responsible days, and often, seemingly, careless of the immediate effect of indiscretions which would have shaken the trust in the self-control of a lesser man, impressed large audiences as well as the discerning few with his fitness to guide the vessel of state through storms or shoals.

The life of Joseph Chamberlain ended only yesterday, but in the chief campaign which it was not given to him to carry to an issue, he had exercised too potent an influence upon the future of the British empire to make it easy to pass by his name in silence in the present connection. But the whole of his parliamentary career, shortened as it was by physical failure, falls outside the limits within which we judge it right to confine this chapter.