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;