Richard Cobden, the great libertarian of the 19th century, man of peace, leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, and anti-imperialist, was once considered in line to be Prime Minister. Yet, like so many libertarians after him, he was destroyed for his opposition to nationalism and war. In Cobden’s case, his opposition to the Crimean War sent his political capital into a tailspin as not only the ruling classes savagely attacked him, but he was also abandoned by the liberal rank and file and who had supported his economic positions, but who shunned Cobden once he refused to jump on the war-hysteria bandwagon. One of the Cobden’s great “crimes,” according to his critics, was that he was an apologist for the Russian Empire. Cobden was no such thing, of course, but Cobden’s recognition of the motivations behind Russian actions in Europe and Crimea earned him condemnations from narrow-minded liberals who were more concerned with criticizing the Russians (who of course couldn’t have cared less what the British liberals thought) than with criticizing the British Empire, a leading source of political instability and despotism worldwide.
Speeches like this, in which Cobden simply examines the Russian point of view on the Polish and Crimean questions, while pointing to the British Empire’s own imperialism, did not earn Cobden any friends:
Lord Dudley Stuart (whose zeal, we fear, without knowledge, upon the subject of Poland, and whose prejudice against Russia have led him to occupy so much of the public time uselessly upon the question before us), in the course of his long speech in the House of Commons (February 19th) upon introducing the subject of Russian encroachments, dwelt at considerable length upon the lust of aggrandisement by which he argued that the government of St. Petersburg was so peculiarly distinguished; and he brought forward, at considerable cost of labour, details of its successive conquests of territory during the last century. Where the human mind is swayed by any passion of however amiable a nature, or where the feelings are allowed to predominate over the reason, in investigating a subject which appeals only to the understanding, it will generally happen that the judgment is defective. We attribute to the well-known fervour of Lord Stuart’s sentiments upon Russia and Poland, the circumstance that, during the fortnight which he must have employed in collecting the dates of the several treaties by which the former empire has wrested its possessions from neighbouring states, the thought never once occurred to him—a reflection which would have entered the head of almost any other man of sense, who sat down coolly to consider the subject—that, during the last hundred years, England has, for every square league of territory annexed to Russia, by force, violence, or fraud, appropriated to herself three. Such would have been the reflection which flashed across the mind of a statesman who sat down, dispassionately, to investigate the subject of Russian policy;
and it must have prevented him by the consciousness of the egotism and arrogance—nay, the downright effrontery of such a course—from bringing an accusation against another people which recoils with threefold criminality upon ourselves. Nor, if we were to enter upon a comparison of the cases, should we find that the means whereby Great Britain has augmented her possessions, are a whit less reprehensible than those which have been resorted to by the northern power for a similar purpose. If the English writer calls down indignation upon the conquerors of the Ukraine, Finland, and the Crimea, may not Russian historians conjure up equally painful reminiscences upon the subjects of Gibraltar, the Cape, and Hindostan? Every one conversant with the history of the last century will remember that England has, during almost all that period, maintained an ascendancy at sea; and colonies, which were in times past regarded as the chief source of our wealth and power, being pretty generally the fruits of every succeeding war, the nation fell into a passion for conquest, under the delusive impression that those distant dependencies were, in spite of the debt contracted in seizing them, profitable acquisitions to the mother country.Hence the British Government was always eager for hostilities the moment an excuse presented itself with one of the maritime continental states possessing colonies; and of the several conflicts in which we have been involved since the peace of Ryswick, at least three out of four have been consequent upon declarations of war made by England. Russia, on the contrary, has been nearly surrounded by the territory of barbarous nations, one of which [namely, Turkey] — by the very nature of its institutions warlike and aggressive—was, up to the middle of the last century, prompted by a consciousness of strength, and, since then, by a haughty ignorance of its degeneracy, to court hostilities with its neighbours; and the consequence of this and other causes is, that, in the majority of cases, where Russiahas been engaged in conflicts with her neighbours, she will be found to have had a war of self-defence for her justification. If such are the facts—if England has, for the sake of the spoil which would accrue to her superiority of naval strength, provoked war, with all its horrors, from weak and unwilling enemies, whilst Russia, on the contrary, with ill-defined boundaries, has been called upon to repel the attacks of fierce and lawless nations—surely, we must admit, unless pitiably blind by national vanity, that the gain (if such there be) resulting from these contentions, is not less unholy in the former than the latter case; and that the title by which the sovereign of St. Petersburg holds his conquered possessions is just as good, at least, as that by which the government of St. James’s asserts the right to ours. In the case of Poland, to which we shall again have to recur by and by, there was, indeed, a better title than that of the sword, but which, amidst the clamour of fine sentiments, palmed by philanthropic authors and speakers upon the much abused public mind about Russian aggression in that quarter, has never, we believe, been mentioned by any orator, reviewer, or newspaper writer of the present day.The “Republic of Poland” (we quote the words of Malte-Brun) “had been chiefly composed of provinces wrested from Russia, or from the Great Dukes of Galitch, Vladimir, Volynski, Polotzk, and particularly Kiow by Boleslas the Victorious, Casimir the Great, Kings of Poland, and by Gedimir, Great Duke of Lithuania. Thus the nobles were the only persons interested in the defence of provinces whose inhabitants were estranged from the Poles, although they had remained under their government from the time of the conquest. All the peasants of Podolia and Volhynia were Rousniacs, or Little Russians, ignorant of the language or customs of Poland, which may partly account for the success of the Russians in their invasions of the Polish Republic. The Poles, who were persecuted by intolerant Catholic priests, who disregarded the constitutions of the Polish Diet, abandoned their lords without reluctance, and received willingly their countrymen, the Russian soldiers, who spoke the same dialect as themselves. The division of Poland was, on the part of Russia, not so much a lawless invasion as an act of reprisal on former invaders. Had this leading historical fact been explained in the Russian manifesto, which was published in 1772, so much obloquy might not have been attached to the conduct of that people.”
The similarity with the current Crimean situation here should be easy to detect. Cobden points to the fact that the Turkish and Polish “victims” of Russian aggression were hardly sinless in their own dealings with the Russians historically, and that (echoing the modern Crimean situation further) many of the Russian “conquests” were in fact developments that brought populations within the Russian Empire that were happier there than under the fist of the Poles.
I do not present Cobden’s historical analysis as infallible of course, but to read this and conclude that Cobden was therefore “pro-Russian” or willing to simply turn a blind eye to matters of personal liberty requires a grotesque ignorance of both Cobden’s actual position and the history of Europe. The same might be said of critics of peace advocates like Ron Paul today.