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Reading: Richard Cobden as a Middle-Class Hero: Public Speaking and Political Debate in Victorian Bri...


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Richard Cobden as a Middle-Class Hero: Public Speaking and Political Debate in Victorian Britain


Rosario López

University of Málaga, ES
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This paper explores Richard Cobden’s parliamentary career, political thinking, and activism as illustrating the role of debate and the value of dissent in nineteenthcentury British political culture. Cobden was unusual among British politicians of the time; he was a self-made man, experienced traveller, and middle-class hero, yet managed to retain a seat in Parliament between 1841 and 1865 (with a two-year interval outside Parliament between 1857–59). One of my aims is to reassess Cobden’s significance as a politician. I ask in what ways he was seen by contemporaries as an ambivalent figure who represented both radical, democratic activism as the leader of the anti-Corn Law League and a moderate cosmopolitanism as a professional politician, and the role that public speaking played in fostering his profile. My reading may challenge some contemporary interpretations, providing a balanced portrait of Cobden as an activist and politician genuinely concerned with the general welfare of all European countries rather than exclusively the interests of Great Britain (Gott, 1988: 90–101). Focusing on Cobden and the success of the anti-Corn Law League is also a way of exploring how material culture and public speaking were linked in Victorian Britain. Cobden’s popularity can be explained as a result of his eminence as a public speaker, yet discussing his popularity cannot be reduced to his rhetorical abilities. Representations of Cobden’s image and the different anti-Corn Law League symbols in a variety of objects constitute an opportunity to explore the role of nonverbal aspects in the political culture at the time. This paper takes on board Joseph Meisel’s claim that historians have neglected nineteenth-century public speaking culture, while it suggests that, at least when considering Cobden as a study case, verbal and nonverbal communication converge (Meisel, 2001: 2).

How to Cite: López, Rosario. 2017. “Richard Cobden as a Middle-class Hero: Public Speaking and Political Debate in Victorian Britain”. Redescriptions: Political Thought, Conceptual History and Feminist Theory 20 (1): 49–67. DOI:
Published on 01 Apr 2017.
Peer Reviewed


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