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human progress lesson

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 9: Richard Cobden

Cobden’s work turned Britain, the global hegemon at the time, into a free trading nation – an act that set in motion global trade liberalization that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

By Sean Kinnard

Published

Heroes of Progress

13-part unit
  • Tu Youyou
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 25: Tu Youyou

    In this article, Alexander C. R. Hammond explains how Tu Youyou’s discovery of artemisinin was “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half [of the 20th] century.”

  • Richard Cobden
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 9: Richard Cobden

    Cobden’s work turned Britain, the global hegemon at the time, into a free trading nation – an act that set in motion global trade liberalization that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

  • John Snow
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 45: John Snow

    This lesson is about John Snow, an English physician and pioneer in anesthesia and epidemiology. Snow’s groundbreaking work led to the widespread adoption of anesthesia as well as a significant improvement in public health around the world.

  • James Watt
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 13: James Watt

    Some historians believe that the Industrial Revolution has been the most fundamental change in human life since the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. James Watt was a key figure in this transformation.

  • Alan Turing
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 34: Alan Turing

    In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

  • Kate Sheppard
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 27: Kate Sheppard

    In this lesson, students will learn about the extraordinary life of Kate Sheppard, the inspirational suffragist whose tireless work and petitioning of New Zealand’s parliament in the latter half of the 19th century is largely credited for the nation becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

  • astell and wollstonecraft
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

  • green borlaug
    Heroes of Progress: Norman Borlaug

    In this lesson, you’ll explore the life of Norman Borlaug, Ph.D. using text and video and consider the lessons we can apply from his story to our own lives and to current world problems.

  • Rosemary Fike
    Rosemarie Fike: Women and Progress

    Rosemarie Fike is an instructor of economics at Texas Christian University and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of different types of economic institutions on women’s status and lives.

  • Lucy Wills cover
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills

    In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women.

  • Babbage and Lovelace hero
    Heroes of Progress, Pt. 49: Babbage and Lovelace

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of two 19th‐​century mathematicians and computing pioneers: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. These two English polymaths conceived the first automatic computer and recognized that it could have applications beyond mere calculation. Together, they laid the groundwork for modern computing.


Warm‐​Up

  • Have you ever heard of Richard Cobden? Probably not. Watch this short video about him from Human​Progress​.org.
    In partners, in small groups, or as a whole class, answer these questions:
    • What was the prevailing economic system that Cobden was advocating against?
    • Which powerful groups in Great Britain do you think were opposed to repealing the Corn Laws? Why do you think these groups were opposed to revoking them?
    • What parallels do you see between the Corn Laws and tariffs on imported products today? •

  • How much do you know about free trade? Why do most economists and policymakers think free trade is such a good thing? What are some of the downsides of free trade?
  • Watch this video and then answer the following questions.
    • How is free trade an extension of a free‐​market economy?
    • Think about the many ways that free trade benefits consumers, companies, and the economies of entire countries. Complete the chart below
Aspect of free trade How does this aspect of free trade benefit consumers, companies, and whole economies?
Comparative advantage
Specialization
Efficiency
Economies of scale
Competition

  • Now reflect on how free trade harms consumers, companies, and the economies of entire countries. Complete the chart below.
Aspect of free trade How does this aspect of free trade harm consumers, companies, and whole economies?
Dependency
Overspecialization
Dumping
Race to the bottom
Competition

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

  • Think about context. What was going on in Britain in the early 19th century that allowed Richard Cobden to become rich in such a short time?
  • Why is it significant that Cobden ended up in Manchester after he had made his fortune?
  • What happened in 1840–1842 that convinced many people that the Corn Laws should be thrown out?
  • Which socioeconomic group benefited the most from the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846?
  • What were the short‐ and long‐​term historical effects of the free trade agreement that Cobden negotiated with France?

Extension Activity/​Homework

  • Take a Stand on Free Trade
    First, read this 2016 article from Harvard Business Review about the history of free trade in the United States.
    Then, imagine that you are running for senator of your state. As senator, you will be responsible for signing off on any trade treaty negotiated by the president. Your state has a large population and a diverse economy partly based on trade with other countries.
    As senator, what will be your position on free trade? Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs? Why or why not?
    Write a short essay for the voters of your state explaining your position on free trade. This essay will be published on the op‐​ed page of the most‐​read newspaper in your state. Remember that your opponent will refute your position, so include counterarguments and explain why they are wrong.

  • Analyze a Data Set and Graph
    Visual literacy is the ability to create meaning from images. You will practice this skill by analyzing a data set about Trade and Globalization on the website Our World in Data.
    First, go to the page on Trade and Globalization. Choose one data set you are interested in and look at its accompanying image (e.g., graph, map, or table).
    After examining the image and reading its description, answer the following questions:
    • What information is being presented in the data set and graphic?
    • What are the patterns of trendlines over time?
    • What historical developments impacted this data? For example, on the data set showing European exports, there is a sharp dip in 1940–1945 due to World War II.
    • How is this information important to our understanding of global trade?
    • Why did you choose to analyze this particular information set?