The family returned to Midhurst where Cobden attended a dame school and then Bowes Hall School in Teesdale, Yorkshire. When fifteen years of age he went to London to the warehouse business of his uncle Richard Ware Cole where he became a commercial traveller in muslin and calico. His relative, noting the lad's passionate addiction to study, solemnly warned him against indulging such a taste, as likely to prove a fatal obstacle to his success in commercial life. Cobden was undeterred and made good use of the library of the London Institution. When his uncle's business failed, he joined that of Partridge & Price, in Eastcheap, one of the partners being his uncle's former partner.
In 1828, Cobden set up his own business with Sheriff and Gillet, partly with capital from John Lewis, acting as London agents for Fort Brothers, Manchester calico printers. In 1831, the partners sought to lease a factory from Fort's at Sabden, near Clitheroe They had, however, insufficient capital between them. Cobden and his colleagues so impressed Fort's that they consented to retain a substantial proportion of the equity. The new firm prospered and soon had three establishments: Sabden, where the printing works were, and sales outlets in London and Manchester. The latter came under the direct management of Cobden, who, in 1832, settled there beginning a long association with the city. The success of this enterprise was decisive and rapid, and the "Cobden prints" soon became well known for their quality.
Had Cobden devoted all his energies to the business, he might soon have become very wealthy. His earnings in the business were typically £8,000 to £10,000 a year. However, his life-long habit of learning and inquiry absorbed much of his time. Writing under the byname Libra, he published many letters in the Manchester Times discussing commercial and economic questions.
On the establishment of the Second French Empire in 1851–1852, a violent panic, fuelled by the press, gripped the public. Louis Napoleon was represented as contemplating a sudden and piratical descent upon the English coast without pretext or provocation. By a series of speeches and pamphlets, in and out of parliament, Cobden sought to calm the passions of his countrymen. In doing so, he sacrificed the great popularity he had won as the champion of free trade, and became for a time the best-abused man in England.
However, owing to the quarrel about the religious sites of Palestine, which arose in the east of Europe, public opinion suddenly veered round, and all the suspicion and hatred which had been directed against the emperor of the French were diverted from him to the emperor of Russia. Louis Napoleon was taken into favour as England's faithful ally, and in a whirlwind of popular excitement the nation was swept into the Crimean War.
Again confronting public sentiment, Cobden, who had travelled in Turkey, and had studied its politics, was dismissive of the outcry about maintaining the independence and integrity of the Ottoman empire. He denied that it was possible to maintain them, and no less strenuously denied that it was desirable. He believed that the jealousy of Russian aggrandizement and the dread of Russian power were absurd exaggerations. He maintained that the future of European Turkey was in the hands of the Christian population, and that it would have been wiser for England to ally herself with them rather than with what he saw as the doomed and decaying Islamic power. "You must address yourselves," he said in the House of Commons, "as men of sense and men of energy, to the question—what are you to do with the Christian population? for Mahommedanism [Islam] cannot be maintained, and I should be sorry to see this country fighting for the maintenance of Mahommedanism ... You may keep Turkey on the map of Europe, you may call the country by the name of Turkey if you like, but do not think you can keep up the Mahommedan rule in the country." The torrent of popular sentiment in favour of war was, however, irresistible; and Cobden and Bright were overwhelmed with obloquy.
Bad health obliged him to leave England, and for several months, at the end of 1836 and the beginning of 1837, he travelled in Spain, Turkey and Egypt. During his visit to Egypt he had an interview with Mehemet Ali, of whose character as a reforming monarch he did not bring away a very favourable impression. He returned to England in April 1837.
Cobden soon became a conspicuous figure in Manchester political and intellectual life. He championed the foundation of the Manchester Athenaeum and delivered its inaugural address. He was a member of the chamber of commerce and was part of the campaign for the incorporation of the city, being elected one of its first aldermen. He began also to take a warm interest in the cause of popular education. Some of his first attempts in public speaking were at meetings which he convened at Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Rochdale and other adjacent towns, to advocate the establishment of British schools. It was while on a mission for this purpose to Rochdale that he first formed the acquaintance of John Bright. In 1837, the death of William IV and the accession of Queen Victoria led to a general election. Cobden was candidate for Stockport, but was narrowly defeated.
In 1841, Sir Robert Peel having defeated the Melbourne ministry in parliament, there was a general election, Cobden being returned as MP for Stockport. His opponents had confidently predicted that he would fail utterly in the House of Commons. He did not wait long, after his admission into that assembly, in bringing their predictions to the test. Parliament met on August 19. On the 24th, during the debate on the Queen's Speech, Cobden delivered his first address. "It was remarked," reported Harriet Martineau in her History of the Peace, "that he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member, and it was perceived that he did not need such observance." Undeterred, he gave a simple and forceful exposition of his position on the Corn Laws. This marked the start of his reputation as a master of the issues.
On February 17, 1843 Cobden launched an attack on Peel, holding him responsible for the miserable state of the nation's workers. Peel did not respond in the debate but the speech was made at a time of heightened political feelings. Edward Drummond, Peel's private secretary, had recently been mistaken for the prime minister and shot dead in the street by a lunatic. However, later in the evening, Peel referred in excited and agitated tones to the remark, as an incitement to violence against his person. Peel's party, catching at this hint, threw themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and when Cobden attempted to explain that he meant official, not personal responsibility, he was drowned out.
Peel went on to "fully and unequivocally withdraw the imputation which was thrown out in the heat of debate under an erroneous impression," and was eventually swayed by Cobden's arguments, at the cost of splitting his own party. The bill to repeal the Corn Laws passed the House of Commons on May 16, 1846 by 98 votes. In the next month Peel was forced to resign the Prime Ministership, and in his resignation speech he credited Cobden, more than anyone else, with the repeal of the Corn Laws.
Cobden had hoped to find some restorative privacy abroad but his fame had spread throughout Europe and he found himself lionised by the radical movement. In July 1846, he wrote to a friend "I am going to tell you of a fresh project that has been brewing in my brain. I have given up all idea of burying myself in Egypt or Italy. I am going on an agitating tour through the continent of Europe." He referred to invitations he had received from France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Spain and added, "Well, I will, with God's assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the people of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinctive emotion such as has never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than I had here to overturn our protection policy."
He visited in succession France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia, and was honoured everywhere he went. He not only addressed public demonstrations but also had several private audiences with leading statesmen. During his absence there was a general election, and he was returned (1847) for Stockport and for the West Riding of Yorkshire. He chose to sit for the latter.China reached England of a rupture between the British plenipotentiary in that country and the governor of the Canton province in reference to a small vessel or lorcha called the Arrow, which had resulted in the English admiral destroying the river forts, burning 23 ships belonging to the Chinese navy and bombarding the city of Canton. After a careful investigation of the official documents, Cobden became convinced that those were utterly unrighteous proceedings. He brought forward a motion in parliament to this effect, which led to a long and memorable debate, lasting over four nights, in which he was supported by Sidney Herbert, Sir James Graham, William Gladstone, Lord John Russell and Benjamin Disraeli, and which ended in the defeat of Lord Palmerston by a majority of sixteen.
But this triumph cost him his seat in parliament. On the dissolution which followed Lord Palmerston's defeat, Cobden became candidate for Huddersfield, but the voters of that town gave the preference to his opponent, who had supported the Russian War and approved of the proceedings at Canton. Cobden was thus relegated to private life, and retiring to his country house at Dunford, he spent his time in perfect contentment in cultivating his land and feeding his pigs.
He took advantage of this season of leisure to pay another visit to the U.S.. During his absence the general election of 1859 occurred, when he was returned unopposed for Rochdale. Lord Palmerston was again prime minister, and having discovered that the advanced liberal party was not so easily "crushed" as he had apprehended, he made overtures of reconciliation, and invited Cobden and Thomas Milner Gibson to become members of his government. In a frank, cordial letter which was delivered to Cobden on his landing in Liverpool, Lord Palmerston offered him the role of President of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the Cabinet. Many of his friends urgently pressed him to accept but without a moment's hesitation he determined to decline the proposed honour. On his arrival in London he called on Lord Palmerston, and with the utmost frankness told him that he had opposed and denounced him so frequently in public, and that he still differed so widely from his views, especially on questions of foreign policy, that he could not, without doing violence to his own sense of duty and consistency, serve under him as minister. Lord Palmerston tried good-humouredly to combat his objections, but without success.
But though he declined to share the responsibility of Lord Palmerston's administration, he was willing to act as its representative in promoting freer commercial intercourse between England and France. But the negotiations for this purpose originated with himself in conjunction with Bright and Michel Chevalier. Towards the close of 1859 he called upon Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Gladstone, and signified his intention to visit France and get into communication with Napoleon III of France and his ministers, with a view to promote this object. These statesmen expressed in general terms their approval of his purpose, but he went entirely on his own account, clothed at first with no official authority. On his arrival in Paris he had a long audience with Napoleon, in which he urged many arguments in favour of removing those obstacles which prevented the two countries from being brought into closer dependence on one another, and he succeeded in making a considerable impression on his mind in favour of free trade. He then addressed himself to the French ministers, and had much earnest conversation, especially with Eugène Rouher, whom he found well inclined to the economical and commercial principles which he advocated. After a good deal of time spent in these preliminary and unofficial negotiations, the question of a treaty of commerce between the two countries having entered into the arena of diplomacy, Cobden was requested by the British government to act as their plenipotentiary in the matter in conjunction with Henry Wellesley, 1st Earl Cowley, their ambassador in France. But it proved a very long and laborious undertaking. He had to contend with the bitter hostility of the French protectionists, which occasioned a good deal of vacillation on the part of the emperor and his ministers. There were also delays, hesitations and cavils at home, which were more inexplicable.
He was, moreover, assailed with great violence by a powerful section of the English press, while the large number of minute details with which he had to deal in connection with proposed changes in the French tariff, involved a tax on his patience and industry which would have daunted a less resolute man. But there was one source of embarrassment greater than all the rest. One strong motive which had impelled him to engage in this enterprise was his anxious desire to establish more friendly relations between England and France, and to dispel those feelings of mutual jealousy and alarm which were so frequently breaking forth and jeopardizing peace between the two countries. This was the most powerful argument with which he had plied the emperor and the members of the French government, and which he had found most efficacious with them. But while he was in the midst of the negotiations, Lord Palmerston brought forward in the House of Commons a measure for fortifying the naval arsenals of England, which he introduced in a warlike speech pointedly directed against France, as the source of danger of invasion and attack, against which it was necessary to guard. This produced irritation and resentment in Paris, and but for the influence which Cobden had acquired, and the perfect trust reposed in his sincerity, the negotiations would probably have been altogether wrecked. At last, however, after nearly twelve months' incessant labour, the work was completed in November 1860. "Rare," said Mr Gladstone, "is the privilege of any man who, having fourteen years ago rendered to his country one signal service, now again, within the same brief span of life, decorated neither by land nor title, bearing no mark to distinguish him from the people he loves, has been permitted to perform another great and memorable service to his sovereign and his country."
On the conclusion of this work honours were offered to Cobden by the governments of both the countries which he had so greatly benefited. Lord Palmerston offered him a baronetcy and a seat in the privy council, and the emperor of the French would gladly have conferred upon him some distinguished mark of his favour. But with characteristic disinterestedness and modesty he declined all such honours.
Cobden's efforts in furtherance of free trade were always subordinated to what he deemed the highest moral purposes: the promotion of peace on earth and goodwill among men. This was his desire and hope as respects the commercial treaty with France. He was therefore deeply disappointed and distressed to find the old feeling of distrust still actively fomented by the press and some of the leading politicians of the country. In 1862 he published his pamphlet entitled The Three Panics, the object of which was to trace the history and expose the folly of those periodical visitations of alarm as to French designs with which England had been afflicted for the preceding fifteen or sixteen years.
For several years Cobden had been suffering severely at intervals from bronchial irritation and a difficulty of breathing. Owing to this he had spent the winter of 1860 in Algeria, and every subsequent winter he had to be very careful and confine himself to the house, especially in damp and foggy weather. In November 1864 he went down to Rochdale and delivered a speech to his constituents—the last he ever delivered. That effort was followed by great physical prostration, and he determined not to quit his retirement at Midhurst until spring had fairly set in. But in the month of March there were discussions in the House of Commons on the alleged necessity of constructing large defensive works in Canada. He was deeply impressed with the folly of such a project, and he was seized with a strong desire to go up to London and deliver his sentiments on the subject. He left home on March 21, and caught a chill. He recovered a little for a few days after his arrival in London; but on the 29th there was a relapse, and on April 2, 1865 he expired peacefully at his apartments in Suffolk Street.
On the following day there was a remarkable scene in the House of Commons. When the clerk read the orders of the day Lord Palmerston rose, and in impressive and solemn tones declared "it was not possible for the House to proceed to business without every member recalling to his mind the great loss which the House and country had sustained by the event which took place yesterday morning." He then paid a generous tribute to the virtues, the abilities and services of Cobden, and he was followed by Disraeli, who with great force and felicity of language delineated the character of the deceased statesman, who, he said, "was an ornament to the House of Commons and an honour to England." Bright also attempted to address the House, but, after a sentence or two delivered in a tremulous voice, he was overpowered with emotion, and declared he must leave to a calmer moment what he had to say on the life and character of the manliest and gentlest spirit that ever quitted or tenanted a human form.
In the French Corps Législatif, also, the vice-president, Forçade la Roquette, referred to his death, and warm expressions of esteem were repeated and applauded on every side. "The death of Richard Cobden," said M. la Roquette, "is not alone a misfortune for England, but a cause of mourning for France and humanity." Drouyn de Lhuys, the French minister of foreign affairs, made his death the subject of a special despatch, desiring the French ambassador to express to the government "the mournful sympathy and truly national regret which the death, as lamented as premature, of Richard Cobden had excited on that side of the English Channel." "He is above all," he added, "in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man."
He was buried at West Lavington church, on April 7. His grave was surrounded by a large crowd of mourners, among whom were Gladstone, Bright, Milner Gibson, Charles Villiers and a host besides from all parts of the country. In 1866 the Cobden Club was founded in London, to promote free-trade economics, and it became a centre for political propaganda on those lines; and prizes were instituted in his name at Oxford and Cambridge.
Cobden had married in 1840 Catherine Anne Williams, a Welsh lady, and left five surviving daughters. Of these, one married the publisher Fisher Unwin and was known as Mrs Cobden-Unwin; Ellen was the first of the painter Walter Sickert's three wives; and Anne married the bookbinder T J Sanderson and he added her surname to his . They afterwards became prominent in various spheres, and inherited their father's political interest. His only son died, to Cobden's inexpressible grief, at the age of fifteen, in 1856.
Cobden left a deep mark on English history. Though he was not a "scientific economist," many of his ideas and prophecies were valid. He considered that it was "natural" for Britain to manufacture for the world and exchange for agricultural products of other countries. Modern economists call this comparative advantage. He advocated the repeal of the Corn Laws, which not only made food cheaper, but helped develop industry and benefit labour. He correctly saw that other countries would be unable to compete with England in manufacture in the foreseeable future. "We advocate," he said, "nothing but what is agreeable to the highest behests of Christianity—to buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest." After the repeal of the Corn Laws, British manufacturing did see significant productivity rises, while British agriculture ultimately went into decline due to import competition. He perceived that the rest of the world should follow England's example: "if you abolish the corn-laws honestly, and adopt free trade in its simplicity, there will not be a tariff in Europe that will not be changed in less than five years" (January 1846). His cosmopolitanism—which made him in later Imperialists' eyes a "Little Englander"—led him to deplore any survival of the colonial system. Cobden also saw the connection between peace and free trade. "Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less." "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is—in extending our commercial relations—to have with them as little political connection as possible."
Cob Stenham was also named after him.
The Richard Cobden pub in Worthing is named after him and the Cobden View Pub in Sheffield has his face above the door.
The statue of Cobden in Stockport town centre was relocated in 2006 as part of an urban regeneration scheme.