Birthday: November 16, 1811
Died At Age: 77
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Born in: Rochdale, Lancashire
Famous as: British Radical and Liberal Politician
political ideology: Liberal
Spouse/Ex-: Elizabeth Priestman
father: Jacob Bright
mother: Martha Wood
siblings: Jacob Bright
children: William Leatham Bright
Died on: March 27, 1889
John Bright was a British Liberal politician. A contemporary of Queen Victoria, this radical politician was a great orator. Belonging to a respectable Quaker family, he was introduced to public life by his friend Richard Cobden. He was first elected to the British House of Commons from Durham, and later from Manchester and Birmingham. He was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster towards the end of his life. As a member of the Anti-Corn League, he successfully spearheaded the opposition to the Corn Laws, which made import of wheat and food grains very costly. The Laws protected the privileged landowners, but added to the misery of the poorer sections of people. Working with Cobden, he made possible the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty which was the first step towards free trade policy. Another instance of the success of his liberalism is found in the Reform Act, which gave the right of vote to every male of a constituency, and also initiated changes in the way constituencies were drawn. As a Quaker, he was opposed to slavery and was a pacifist. He denounced the Crimean War and stood his ground, despite losing his seat in the Commons. He is remembered for his speeches delivered in clear and commanding style and garnished with similes, biblical allusions and wit.
Childhood & Early Life
John Bright was born on November 16, 1811, in Rochdale England. He was one of the 11 children born to Jacob Bright and his second wife Martha Wood. Jacob, like his wife, was a Quaker and ran a profitable cotton-spinning mill.
He was a day-scholar at a boarding school run by William Littlewood near his home and also went to the Ackworth School, the Bootham School, York, and a school in Newton, near Clitheroe.
He learnt Latin and Greek, and loved English literature. He was member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band and fine-tuned his oratorical skills during its meetings.
After his formal schooling ended, he joined the family business. He joined his brother in a campaign that opposed compulsory tax support of the Anglican Church in Rochdale.
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John Bright met Richard Cobden, an alderman of the Manchester Corporation, who invited him to speak against the Corn Laws in Rochdale, in 1838. He joined the Anti-Corn Law League, the following year.
In the national campaign against the Corn Laws, he gave many speeches calling for its reform. He attacked it for widening the divide between the landed aristocracy and the poor peasants and workers.
In 1843, he was elected to the House of Commons from Durham. He led deputations to the home-secretary and to the representatives of the Board of Trade, seeking the repeal of the Corn Laws.
In his first speech in the Commons in 1843, he supported the motion by liberal politician William Ewart calling for lesser import duties. However, the motion was defeated.
Led by Cobden and Bright, the Anti-Corn Law League intensified its campaign and could no longer be ignored. The leaders complemented each other well¬¬ – Cobden’s speeches were argumentative while Bright’s were rhetorical.
He opposed the aggressive foreign policy of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Palmerston. He agreed with Cobden’s views on the Crimean War that began in 1854, and campaigned against it.
The British public passionately supported their government’s war efforts. In the General Election of 1857, Bright lost his seat but was reelected in a by-election. He never changed his stance on the war.
In 1857, the Indian Mutiny broke out. He held the British misrule responsible for the Mutiny and supported the idea of allowing the Indians to elect their own government.
He supported universal suffrage and declared in a speech in 1858, that only 1/6 of adult males had the vote in Britain. He also sought the introduction of secret ballot and redrawing of constituencies.
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True to his Quaker background, he opposed slavery and applauded Abraham Lincoln. His religion, however, forbade him to demand that his government send troops to help the Unionists.
Appointed as President of the Board of Trade by Prime Minister Gladstone in 1868, he saw many measures close to his heart being passed, including reforms in education and the introduction of secret ballot.
He did not support Gladstone on Home Rule for Ireland. Bright announced that he was not prepared to see power given to Irish nationalists who had shown contempt for parliamentary government.
In 1846, John Bright’s fight against the unjust Corn-law bore fruit when PM Robert Peel’s government passed a law that cut the duty on oats, barley and wheat to only one shilling per quarter.
The first to broach the issue of free trade with France in the parliament, he supported Cobden’s effort in the direction. The Cobde-Chevalier Treaty or the Anglo-French Free Trade treaty was signed in 1860.
The 1867 Reform Act was a victory for him, as it gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a constituency; smaller constituencies were also redrawn, keeping in mind their population.
Oxford presented John Bright an honorary Doctor of Civil Law in 1886. It is the second highest degree awarded by the University after Doctor of Divinity and is usually awarded to heads of states.
Personal Life & Legacy
John Bright married Elizabeth Priestman of Newcastle in 1839, and had a daughter, Helen, with her. After Elizabeth’s death, he married Margaret Elizabeth Leatham and fathered seven more children.
Suffering from lung congestion complicated by diabetes and chronic nephritis, he died on March 27, 1889, in his home, One Ash, and was buried in Rochdale. A funeral service was held at Westminster Abbey.
This British Quaker politician said, “I am for peace, retrenchment and reform, the watchword of the great Liberal Party thirty years ago”.
This British statesman known for his rhetorical speeches is credited with coining phrases such as ‘flog a dead horse’ and ‘mother of parliaments’.