COBDEN, Richard.

Autograph letter signed to William Molesworth, proposing a national campaign for the secret ballot.

2 September 1837 Stock Code: 145140
Reserve Ask us a question

"The result of the elections has brought to light such a mass of fraud, violence & degradation"

In the immediate aftermath of the July-August 1837 General Election, where the parliamentary share held by liberals and reformers was weakened, the reformer Richard Cobden (1804-1868) writes at length to the radical Member of Parliament Sir William Molesworth (1810-1855), calling Molesworth to cooperate in a national campaign for the introduction of a secret ballot, following the abuses of the election. The secret ballot would become a major pillar of the reform movement in Britain, and one of the six demands of the Chartists, until its eventual adoption in 1872.

The 1837 election saw Viscount Melbourne's liberal Whig government remain in power, but with a large fall in the number of Whig seats, leaving Robert Peel's Conservatives closing in behind their narrow majority (Peel would in fact be victorious in the following election). The election, as always, had been conducted with an open ballot, leading to accusations of voter intimidation and bribery. Molesworth was elected on a radical ticket, standing in Leeds, as his radicalism had alienated the voters of his native Pencarrow in Cornwall. The letter is irrespectively addressed to him at his Pencarrow home.

This letter appears to be the first formal point of contact between Cobden and Molesworth. Cobden writes he will perhaps not recognize his name, although they met at the home of their fellow political radical George Grote (1794-1814) the previous June. At this date, Cobden was growing in influence in political circles, but had yet to reach his later national fame. Cobden had published his first pamphlet in 1835, under the pseudonym of a "Manchester Manufacturer", which he refers to in this letter as an introduction.

Cobden writes that the result of the election, and the abuses of the ballot without secrecy, had made the case for the adoption of a secret ballot irrefutable: "In common with a great number of political acquaintances in this quarter of the kingdom, I feel very anxious to set something down to concentrate & accelerate the opinion of reforms upon the subject of the ballot. The result of the elections has brought to light such a mass of fraud, violence & degradation on the part of the electors, that it only requires to be collected & judiciously applied to place the majority of secret voting in an irresistible point of view. The facts are not only abundant but they are now on the surface in every part of the kingdom & might be gathered up with very little difficulty. I am anxious to see a society organised in London for the express purpose of advocating the cause of the ballot".

Cobden moves to set out the case for this society, and how it would promote its cause, hiring an individual to tour the country defending the secret ballot and demonstrating its use as it existed in other countries: this individual "should be employed to go through the country to lecture upon the subject he should give practical exhibitions of the ballot, as it is practiced in France, & America, & of the mechanist scheme devised by Mr Grote - he should carry blank forms of petitions, which might be distributed in every town & even signed by the persons attending the meetings. The provincial press should be roused - public spirited individuals appealed to & waited upon; and in a word every thing must be done that was found so effectual in the case of the slave-emancipation labors of Geo. Thompson". The "mechanist scheme" refers to the voting machine designed by George Grote, where a lever would be pulled to choose a candidate cheaply, secretly, and efficiently. The cause of voting machines would be adopted by some Chartists, although the idea never made much headway in Britain.

Cobden recognizes the opposition the secret ballot will face: "The ballot is not understood by the people at large; and all sorts of absurd notions exist about the phrase 'vote by ballot': and to this ignorance the Tories will successfully appeal so long as the liberals allow it to exist". Cobden relates this to the broader issues of reform, that the "ten-pounders" (those who paid the yearly rental of 10 necessary to have the vote) are in "dark ignorance still upon all vital questions", and that the same agitation must be followed through upon such issues as the Corn Laws, army, colonies, and the Bank of England. His opinion in this has been encouraged by Lieutenant Fabian, who has likewise encouraged a campaign of public education for the secret ballot, "now when the public mind is excited upon the subject of the late elections, ready to respond to a call of the kind".

This cause, hiring "a man of talents & education" is the best use of the funds of the London Reform Association. Cobden contrasts this unfavourably with the Association funding the publications of Lords Durham and Russell during the election, which, Cobden writes, worked to their disadvantage: "I speak from experience; for the rabid Tory who nominated my opponent at Stockport actually read a passage from the former of the above productions printed by the Reform Association in favour his political views!". Consequently, the publications "fell like a wet blanket on the fire of reform".

Cobden hopes that members of the Reform Association, mostly Whigs, will fund his "ballot association", the primary effort being provincial lectures. He will subscribe 50, and hopes he can raise something from his neighbours; he will form an auxiliary society in Manchester, expanding to other northern towns. Cobden has written to Grote on the same subject, although he is away on the continent, and therefore "to yourself I naturally must direct myself for counsel & assistance upon this question of questions". Cobden does not specifically ask for money for the organization, although the direction of the letter is quite evident.

Overall, a significant letter, from one English radical to another, supporting a cause - the secret ballot - which has since become one of the hallmarks of any valid democratic system. Written at a momentous time, the letter precedes by a year the foundation of the Chartist movement, and of Cobden's own Anti-Corn Law League. The latter League consumed much of Cobden's time, somewhat distracting him from the campaign for the secret ballot, but significantly, the activities of the League mirrored the model here suggested by Cobden, of a national movement based around grass-roots mobilization and dedicated activists.

A full transcript is available upon request.

Confused? Read our glossary


4 pages quarto (page size 246 x 198 mm), integral address label, same-day postmark, remnants of original wax seal; letter tipped-on to card backing.


Small chip to second leaf with minor loss to lettering, closed tear to same reinforced with paper on verso without loss. In very good condition.


With the exception of framed items*, Peter Harrington offers free delivery on all UK orders of rare books, maps and prints placed through this website. Delivery to USA and the rest of the world is similarly free for orders over £200.

View Full Delivery Details



Established in 1969, Peter Harrington is one of the leading rare book firms in the world. It is a proud member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association – along with ILAB, the PBFA and Lapada – and from shops in Mayfair and Chelsea, London, sells rare books, prints and ephemera to customers across the world.


Tel: +44 (0)20 7591 0220

ABA Antiquarian Bookseller Association ILAB International League of Antiquarian Booksellers LAPADA The Association of Art and Anatique Dealers PBFA Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association

Our Guarantee Page

Ask us a question


Contact us with details of the book you are interested in or selling and we will contact you

Sell Old Books Help me find a book