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Richard Cobden on War, Peace, and Free Trade (1848)
On January 4, 1848, the Morning Chronicle published a letter from the Duke of Wellington to Sir John Burgoyne in which Wellington argued that, due to changes in military technology, a large addition must be made to the military forces of Great Britain. Cobden responded with this speech at a political meeting in Manchester.


See also the CENTRAL guide to Classics of Political Economy.






    I believe that the question of Free Trade, the question of Free Trade in all its details, is understood by this assembly — that what I have told you to be the future objects of this meeting has the concurrence of every one in this assembly, and I have no doubt that every Member of Parliament now upon this platform will aid us in carrying our principles into effect.

    But now, gentlemen, I wish to allude to another subject, and although I deem that subject to have an intimate connection with the question of Free Trade, yet I wish to be distinctly understood, and I do not for a moment presume that, in what I am going to say, I shall speak the sentiments of any Member of Parliament or gentleman beside me. I speak only for myself, and I wish to be understood as compromising no other individual. I allude, as you may probably anticipate, to the intention which has been announced of increasing our warlike armaments.

    Now, gentlemen, you will bear me out, that throughout the long agitation for Free Trade, the most earnest men who co-operated with us were those who constantly advocated Free Trade, not merely on account of the material advantages which it would bring to the community, but for the far loftier motive of securing permanent peace between nations. I believe that it was that consideration which mainly drew to our ranks that great accession of ministers of religion which gave so powerful an impetus to our progress at the commencement of our agitation; and I, who have known most of the leading men connected with the struggle, and have had the opportunity of understanding their motives, can say that I believe that the most earnest, the most persevering, the most devoted of our coadjutors, have been prompted by those lofty, those purely moral and religious motives to which I have referred, especially for the object of peace. Well, gentlemen, I am sure that every one of those men have shared with me the shock which my feelings sustained, when, within one short twelvemonths after we had announced our adoption of Free Trade to the world, we were startled with the announcement that we were going to increase our warlike armaments.

    I ask, what is the explanation of this? Probably we may find it in the Duke of Wellington’s letter — in the private efforts which he announces therein that he has made with the Government, and to the correspondence which he has had with Lord John Russell. I may attribute this, then, to the Duke of Wellington and his letter, and to his persevering efforts. Well, I do not profess to share the veneration which some men entertain for successful warriors. But is there amongst the most ardent admirers of the Duke one man, possessing the ordinary feelings of humanity, who would not wish that that letter had never been written or never published? His Grace has passed the point of the ordinary duration of human existence, and I may say, almost without a figure of speech, that he is tottering on the verge of the grave. Is it not a most lamentable spectacle that that hand, which is no longer capable of wielding a sword, should devote its still remaining feeble strength to the penning of a letter, — and that letter may possibly be the last public letter which he may address to his fellow-countrymen, — which is more calculated than anything in the present day to create evil passions and animosities in the breasts of two great and neighbouring nations? Would it not have been a better employment for him to have been seen preaching forgiveness and oblivion of the past, rather than in reviving recollections of Toulon, and Paris, and Waterloo; and, in fact, doing everything to invite a brave people to retaliatory measures, to retrieve themselves from past disasters and injuries? Would it not have been a more glorious object to contemplate, had he poured the oil into those wounds which are now almost healed, rather than have thus applied the cautery — reopening those wounds, and leaving to other generations the task of repairing the mischief which he has perpetrated? I will leave the subject of the Duke’s letter with this remark, which I made when I read it and came to the conclusion, where he says, ‘I am in my 77th year’’ — I said, that explains it all, and excuses it all. We have not to deal with the Duke of Wellington; we have to deal with those younger men, who want to make use of his authority to carry out their own special purposes.

    Now, what I wish to impress on you and the people of England is, that the question before us is not a military, not a naval question, but a question for civilians to decide. When we are at war, then the men with red clothes and swords by their sides may step in to do their work — and, as Sir H. Smith fitly described it, in a speech which he recently made, a damnable trade it is. But we are now at peace, and we wish to reap the fruits of peace, and in order to do so we must calculate for ourselves the contingency of a possible war. That is a civilian’s question — that is a question for the decision of the tax-payers who have to pay the cost of a war. It is a question for the merchant; it is a question for the manufacturer, for the shopkeepers, for the operatives, for the farmers of this country — ay, and, pardon me, my Lord Ellesmere, it is a question for the calico-printer.

    What is this prospect of a war? Where does it come from? You, I say, are competent to judge on this subject better than military men. You are more impartial; you are disinterested; at all events, your interest does not lie on the side of war. Any man who can read a book giving an account of France — any man who can read a translation from a French newspaper — any man who will take the trouble of studying the statistics of the progress of their commerce and wealth — any man who can study these things, is as competent as a soldier to pronounce an opinion on the probability of a war. I have had better opportunities than any soldier of studying these things, and I say that there never was a time in the history of France and England when there was a greater tendency to a pacific policy in France, and especially towards this kingdom, than there is at the present time. Why, the French people have gone through a process which almost disqualifies them for going to war. They have gone through a social revolution, which has so much equalised property that the tax-payers are equally spread all over the country, and, paying a large portion of the taxes in indirect taxation, they have a direct interest and a most sensitive feeling in the expenditure which would be necessary to go to war. There are in France far more people of property than in England. There are some five or six millions of real proprietors of the soil in France. You have not one-tenth of that number in England. These are all thrifty, painstaking, careful men — all with their little savings, their little hoards of five-franc pieces — all anxious to do something for their children, for there is not a more domestic and affectionate race in the world than the French. I have seen with horror, and shame, and indignation, the way in which some of our newspapers speak of the French people. They have placed us before the community, before the world, in so ignominious, so degraded a condition — they have marked us as such an ignorant people, to say nothing of our prejudices and want of Christian charity, that, I say, nothing but an uprising of the people in multitudinous assemblages like this, and repudiating the doctrines put forth by those pretending to speak and write in their behalf, can set us right with the world or with ourselves.

    There is one paper in this city, which I would always wish to treat with respect, if it will allow me — there is, I say, one paper here which, I see, last week gravely entered into this argument, gravely adopted this line of reasoning, that it is necessary we should have a police in Manchester, and that we have had a constantly increasing police here to protect us — against what? thieves, ruffians, pickpockets, and murderers; and, therefore, we must have increasing naval and military armaments to protect us against the French. Are the majority of the French people thieves and pickpockets, ruffians and murderers? If they are, could they exist as an organised community? And yet they are a community as orderly as ourselves, for there has been as little tumult in France during the last five or six years as there has been in England.

    I see that there is another newspaper in London, a weekly newspaper, which used to write with some degree of credit to itself, but I presume that it has been panic-stricken, — that it has lost its wits. That paper tells us that the next war with France will take place without any declaration of hostilities on the part of that country, and that, literally, we have to protect our Queen at Osborne House against these ruffianly Frenchmen, who may, otherwise, come and carry her off. What a lesson has our courageous Queen read to these men! She went over to France, unfriended, unprotected, and threw herself on shore at the Chateau d’Eu, literally in a bathing-machine. Now, there is either great courage on one side, or great cowardice on the other.

    But, gentlemen, this is a sort of periodical visitation which we have. I sometimes compare it to the cholera — for I believe that the last infection which we had of this kind came about the time of the cholera. The last time that a cry of this sort was got up, we were threatened with an invasion of the Russians, which my friend (Mr. Milner Gibson) has told you of. Now, I am rather identified with and interested in that invasion of Russia. It was that which made me an author; it was that which made me a public man; and it is quite possible, if it had not been for the insanity of some of the public newspapers — and some of them are just as insane now as they were then — that I should not have come into public life. They then told us that the Russians would be coming over here some foggy day, and that they would land at Yarmouth. If it had not been for that insanity I should never have turned author, never have written pamphlets, but must have been a thrifty, painstaking calico-printer to this day.

    Now, again, what I want is, that you should understand a little better about these foreigners. You may remember that about three weeks or a month ago I had occasion to address a few remarks to the electors assembled at Newton, on the occasion of the election of my friend Mr. Henry; and that there I let fall some observations favourable to the reduction of our armaments, and showing how necessary it was that we should reduce our expenditure in that department, in order to enable us to carry out fiscal reform. I little dreamt then, that within a few hours of the time when I was speaking, a large meeting was being held at Rouen, the Manchester of France, at which there were 1,800 electors assembled, to promote, at a public dinner, the progress of parliamentary reform, and that a gentleman was there making a speech so similar to my own, that he sent me a newspaper containing a report of it, and expressed his astonishment that two speeches, made without collusion, should have so nearly resembled each other. I will, if you please, read that gentleman’s remarks, and notice the cheers of the company as I go on. It is Mons. Vicienne who speaks: —

    ‘How long will it take to turn from theory into practice the very simple idea that, apart from the precepts of religion, which we do so often quote, but so seldom practise, and upon the merest calculations of an enlightened self-interest, nations have a far different mission upon earth than to excite in each other mutual fear? How long will it be before they discover the selfish objects of those who have an interest in persuading them that the name of a foreigner is synonymous with that of enemy? When will they learn that, as children of the same Father, their real and only enemies, those which they ought to struggle to destroy, are ignorance, oppression, misery, and superstition? — [cheers] — that in proclaiming their mutual friendships, they will tend to the consolidation of peaceful relations with each other? When will they discover that the maintenance of formidable armaments, in countries whose nationality is not seriously menaced, inflicts an evil upon all, and confers benefits on none? [Shouts of “That’s true — that’s true.”] But, better to define my idea, do you not think that if, confident in the maintenance of an honourable peace, we were to deduct from the 500 millions francs which our army and navy cost us, 20 millions to be applied to the education of the people, and a like sum for the purpose of converting 20,000 soldiers into road-makers; if we gave back to agriculture and manufactures 50,000 more soldiers, leaving in our pockets the sum which they cost to pay and support them — think you not that this would be a good result of the entente cordiale, I will not say between the Governments — we know what that is worth — [laughter] — but the nations, which have no dynastic interests to serve, and do not play at diplomacy. [Cheers.] Do you not think that this example of common sense and feeling of security given by us would have its influence upon the other countries of Europe, would lead to other disarmaments, would facilitate everywhere those fiscal reforms which are postponed from day to day on the plea of the necessities of the treasury, and would give to productive industry that capital and labour which are now diverted into unproductive channels? [Expressions of assent.]’

    Now, at the same meeting, another gentleman, an eminent Member of the Chamber of Deputies, spoke, and said: —

    ‘Heaven grant that the day may come when the world shall be one nation! God gave us the earth, not to bathe it with blood, but that we might make it smile with fertility. [Cheers.] Oh! gentlemen, which nation has found the grandest success in war? What country can exhibit such glorious triumphs as France, whose soldiers rushed to the field of battle in search of death, or rather immortality? [Applause.] But after glory comes reverses; we have found that if war has its immense triumphs, it has also its immense disasters. Besides, what changes are going on around us! If war, during so many ages, was the rule, and peace the exception, in our day peace ought to be the rule and war the exception. [Cheers.] See, in fact, what is passing throughout civilised Europe. People are fraternising by their industry, and by those novel means of communication which are almost annihilating distances. In four days you are at the extremity of Germany; in five days you may visit Berlin and Vienna; in seven days you are upon the banks of the Vistula. In a short time we shall be as near to the empire of Russia; already travellers are carrying ideas of liberty into that country, frightening tyranny, which will one day fall from its seat. Enough of conquering! Who would wish again to arm people against each other? Why should they think of the aggrandisement of territory when there are no longer any barriers between nations? [Prolonged cheering.] Let me not be told that this is a dream — a Utopia; already we begin to realise it. By their intercourse, nations are beginning to know and understand each other; they are ridding themselves, one and all, of those ancient prejudices and hatreds which have hitherto separated them. Why should they not fraternise together? Why should they be enemies? Are they not the children of one God? Have they not all the same immortal spirit, which is the emanation from heaven? And, upon earth, have they not the same interests to protect and develope? [Prolonged sensation — bravos!] And I demand of you, if France, warlike and conquering, has seen the nations offering to her the tribute of their acclamations, what a part will she perform in this long peace of the world! [Applause and long interruption.]’

    Now, gentlemen, those extracts are very long, but I thought they would interest you — to know what was passing in a popular assembly, representing the active public opinion of the chief manufacturing town in France; and when you see such sentiments as those applauded in the way in which they were in a French assembly, why will you, people of Manchester, believe that the French are that nation of bandits which some of your newspapers would make you believe? I do not mean to say that there may not be predjudices in France to root out; and Heaven knows that we have prejudices enough in England to extirpate; but this I do say, that it is not with a few insignificant brawlers in Paris — men without station, stake, or influence in their country — it is not with those we should attempt to pick a quarrel, but it is rather to such men as those from whose speeches I have quoted that we should hold out the right hand of fellowship.

    Now, I will be practical with you on this question of armaments, for I shall not have another opportunity of speaking to you again before this question comes before the House of Commons. I have said that it is a question for civilians to determine — that military and naval men should have no voice in it — that it is for you only, the tax-payers. Do not let me be misunderstood. I am not going to enter into the technicalities of war. I do not claim for civilians — Heaven forbid I should — a knowledge of the horrid trade of war. I only contend that, whilst we are in a state of profound peace, it is for you, the tax-payers, to decide whether you will run the risk of war, and keep your money in your pockets, or allow an additional number of men in red coats and blue jackets to live in idleness under the pretence of protecting you. Now, I say this, that I am for acting justly and fairly, for holding out the olive-branch to all the world, and I am for taking on myself, so far as my share goes, all the risk of anything that may happen to me, without paying for more soldiers and sailors.

    But it is not merely the question, whether you will have more armaments, that you civilians are competent to decide. You have already expended this year 17,000,000l. sterling in your armaments, and it is a question on which you are competent to decide, whether the best possible use is made of your money — whether, for instance, the navy, for which you pay so largely, is really employed in the way best calculated to answer the design of those men who profess themselves so anxious to accomplish it, if you will give them more money — that is, the protection of your shores. Where do you think all your great line-of-battle ships go? I have picked up a few secrets abroad — for you know that I have travelled by water as well as by land. I venture to say that there is not more perfect idleness, nor more demoralisation, the consequence of idleness, going on in the same space on the face of the earth as in our ships of war, from their want of having something to do. Where do you find them? Where are those great line-of-battle ships, of whose payment and equipment you hear, and which you read of going out of your harbours with such a display of power? Do they go where we have any great commerce? Go to Hamburg, and there you will never see an English man-of-war. Go to the Baltic, where we carry on so much trade, and you will rarely see one. There is rough weather, and not many attractions on shore there. Well, go, then, to America. There is North America, with which, I suppose, we do one-fifth or one-sixth of the foreign trade of this country — at least, I hope we shall very shortly come to that. Do you think any of these great men-of-war are upon that coast? Why it is the rarest thing indeed for one to be seen in those waters, and if one does appear there the fact is recorded in the American newspapers. They do not go there; for there are no idle people on shore, and the officers do not like the society they meet with. In fact, the ships are not wanted there, and they would do more harm than good if they went there.

    Well, then, where do they go? I am trying to get the information for you. I moved for a return, just before the close of the last little session of Parliament, which will throw some light on the subject, and I ask you to keep your eye on that return. I will tell you what it is. I moved for a return of the amount of our naval force that has been in the Tagus, and the waters of Portugal, on the 1st of each month during the last twelve months — the name of the ships, the complement of guns, and the number of men. Now, when that report turns up, I should not be surprised if you see that you have had a naval force in the Tagus and the Douro, and on the coast of Portugal, which, in the number of guns, will not fall much short of the whole American navy. Lisbon is a pleasant place to be at, as I can vouch, for I have seen it. The climate is delightful. Geraniums grow in the open air in the month of January. I do not quarrel with the taste of the admirals or captains who go and spend twelve months in the Tagus, if you will let them. But now, I ask, what are they doing in return for the money which they cost you? Are they promoting, even in the remotest degree, English interests there? Nothing of the kind. Our fleet has been in the Tagus, at the absolute disposal of the Queen of Portugal, positively and literally nothing else. Our papers have avowed that our fleet went there to protect her Majesty of Portugal, and to give her and her court an asylum, in case the conduct of her people should compel her to seek it.

    Now, this is a subject upon which every gentleman, nay, every lady, is competent to judge. I never like to speak disrespectfully of any country, and, therefore, I do not wish to be thought to speak slightingly of Portugal, when I say that it is one of the smallest, poorest, and one of the most decayed and abject of European countries. I am sorry for it, but such is the fact. What in the world has England to gain by going and taking this country under her protection? Is it her commerce that you seek for? Why, you are sure of her commerce, for this simple reason — that you take four-fifths of all her port wine, and if you did not, no one else would drink it. Now, I would not like to be thought capable of using an atrocious sentiment, and what I am about to say I mean only as an illustration of an economical argument; but, positively, if the earthquake which once demolished Lisbon were to come again, and sink the whole of Portugal under the sea, it would be an immense gain to the English people. That, however, is not the fault of Portugal; for our ships go there — to do what? Why, to help the Queen and Government of Portugal to misgovern the people. When they rebel, our forces go on shore and put them down by the strong arm. Why, our statesmen actually undertook to say who should govern Portugal, and to exclude a particular family from all participation in the Government. They also stipulated that the Cortes should be elected on constitutional principles. Well, the Cortes was elected, and the people have returned almost every man favourable to that very statesman whom Lord Palmerston and Co. said should not have any influence in Portugal.

    Now, gentlemen, I ask you just to follow out this question of English interference with Portugal. Understand the whole subject — the increase of your armaments which is thus caused; apply your common sense to it. There is a constant complaint that the English public do not give any attention to foreign politics. What is the reason of that? It is common sense, and a very sound instinct on the part of the English people. They turn their heads and eyes from foreign politics, because they know that they have never done them any good. But you must do one thing: you must change from apathy to knowledge; you must superintend your foreign minister; and when you do that, I undertake to say that you may save a great deal of money — and that will be one good result, at all events, in these bad times. What I wish to bring home to your convictions is this, that if the people in Brighton — if the old ladies of both sexes there are frightened lest they should be taken out of their beds some night by the French — why not bring home the fleet from the Tagus, and let it cruise in the Channel? I am no sailor, but I feel sure that no sailor would gainsay this, — that it would be a great deal better practice, better exercise, better for the crew, for the condition of the ships, for the quality of the officers and men, if the fleet were sailing in the Channel, than lying in demoralising idleness at Lisbon.

    Now, gentlemen, if you go into the Mediterranean — if you follow your ships there — you will find precisely the same thing going on. Why, the Mediterranean is crowded with English ships of war — not to look after your commerce: they can do no good in that way. We have settled that question: we have repudiated protection. But there you find them, nevertheless. Leaving Portsmouth, they sail directly for Malta; and Malta is the great skulking-hole for your navy. I was at Malta at the commencement of winter, in the month of November. Whilst I was at Malta, a ship arrived there from Portsmouth; it had come direct; it had 1,000 hands on board when it left Portsmouth; it came into Valetta Harbour, when I was there, with 999 people on board, men and boys, having lost one hand on the passage. Soon after the arrival of that vessel I started from Valetta, went to Naples, and from thence to Egypt and Greece, and when I returned she had never stirred. Her officers had gone on shore to live in the club, and the lieutenant and other officers in command found the utmost difficulty for even a pretence of work. The crew were ordered to hoist up the sails and to let them down again; and they scrubbed the decks until they scrubbed the planks almost through. Well, I was introduced to the American Consul at Malta, and he spoke to me in a very friendly manner on the subject of our navy. He said, ‘We Americans consider your navy to be very slack.’ ‘Slack!’ I said; ‘what do you mean by slack?’ ‘Why,’ he said, ‘they are too idle; they are not sufficiently worked. You cannot have a crew in good order if they lie for three or four months in a harbour like this. We have never more than three or four vessels in the Mediterranean, and rarely one larger than a frigate; but the instructions which we have from the Government at Washington are these, — that the American ships are never to be kept in port at all; that they are to go from one port to another, to take care of the traders, and see if there are any pirates, although there are not often any of them in the Mediterranean. But the vessels are always in motion, and the American sailors and American ships are in a better state of discipline and equipment than the English ships, on account of their idleness.’ Now, again, this is a question on which every man and woman in the country is competent to form an opinion; and I say that if any one talks to me about increasing our armaments, I tell them, if they are frightened in the Channel, let them bring home those useless ships which are lying in the Tagus and the Mediterranean. If they tell me that the ships of war in the Tagus are lying there for the protection of the Queen of Portugal, I tell them that her subjects are her proper protectors.

    Now, one word, rather personal to myself, without the slightest reference to the opinions of the gentlemen around me; I had been, somehow or another, rather singled out on this question of armaments. I dropped a few remarks at Stockport on the subject, in the most harmless and incidental way. To confess the honest truth, I did not go there to say anything about armaments or taxation; but, in the course of my speech, as people here can testify, a man shouted out, ‘But ain’t taxation something to do with it?’ and then, under the impulse of the moment, I alluded to the army, navy, and ordnance, as the only item on which a reduction of taxation can be effected. The papers in London — I suppose for their own convenience’ sake — tried to make me ridiculous, if they could, by making me say that I wanted to save the whole expenditure on the army, navy, and ordnance. I have no hesitation in declaring what my opinions are on this subject. I stated at Stockport, very candidly, what I shall state here — what I stated in my pamphlets twelve years ago on this subject — that you cannot have a material reduction in your armaments until a great change takes place in public opinion in this country with regard to our foreign policy. I have stated that opinion over and over again in my writings. I said at Stockport that you cannot reduce that item until there is a change in public opinion, and the English people abandon the notion that they are to regulate the affairs of the world. Indeed, those were my very words at Stockport, as people here can testify. I wished to do no injustice — to offer no factious opposition to Ministers with respect to the maintenance of our armaments. All I wanted was to invoke public opinion, as I do now, and as I always will invoke public opinion. When the public opinion, the majority of the influential opinion of the country, is on my side, I shall be content to see my views carried out. Until that time, I am content to be on this question, as I have been on others, in a minority, and in a minority to remain, until I get a majority.

    But, gentlemen, the real and practical question before the country is not the question of a reduction of armaments. This, however, has been very carefully mystified. It is not a question, as this paper in Manchester, in its latest number, says, whether we shall dismantle fleets and leave our arsenals defenceless. That is not the question, and it is dishonest to put that as the question. The real question is, will we have an increase of the army, navy, and ordnance? Now, when I admit that public opinion does not go with me to the extent which would enable me to carry a great reduction in our armaments, I at the same time maintain — speaking for the West Riding of Yorkshire — speaking for Lancashire — speaking for Middlesex — speaking for London — speaking for Edinburgh — speaking for Glasgow — I say that, on the question of the increase of our armaments, public opinion is with me in those places, and against the Ministers. And if that public opinion is expressed, and expressed through public meetings, I, for one, have no hesitation in saying that a large portion of the press has neglected and forsaken its duty on this question. I say that if public opinion be expressed in public meetings throughout the country, before the estimates are brought on in the House of Commons, there will be no increase of our armaments. But whether that manifestation of public opinion takes place or not, I — speaking for myself, as an individual Member of the House of Commons — say that not one shilling shall be added to the estimates for our armaments, without my having forced a division of the House upon it.

    I began by identifying this question of our armaments with the question of Free Trade, and I tell you, in conclusion, that the question of Free Trade is jeopardised all over Europe by the course which it is intended to take. Why, I receive the papers from Paris, and what do they tell me? There is a band of Free-traders there associated together; they publish their weekly organ, as we published our Anti-Corn-law paper. It is called the Libre Exchangé, and is edited by my talented and excellent and able friend, M. Bastiat. That paper, last week, was mourning in sackcloth and ashes over the course which they there think England is going to pursue. And what says the organ of the protectionists, the Moniteur Industriel? They are deluging, not only France, but England, with the last week’s number of that paper, in which they leap with exultation at the condition of this country. ‘We told you,’ says that journal, ‘that England was not sincere on the Free trade question. She has no faith in her principles; she sees that other nations are not following her example, and she is preparing her armaments to take that by force which she thought to take by fraud.’

    Now, I exhort my countrymen everywhere to resist this attempt to throw odium on our principles, which, if carried out, the Free-Traders believe would bring peace and harmony among the nations. The most enthusiastic of us never said, as some of the papers pretend that we did say, that we expected the millennium soon after we had got Free Trade. We never expected but that we should have to give time to other nations for the adoption of our principles, precisely as we required time to adopt them ourselves. But what we did hope was this: that the Continent of Europe, with eyes steadily fixed on this country, in connection with this question, would, at all events, not have seen that we were the first to have doubt as to the tendency of our own principles, and to be arming against the world when we pretended to be seeking only their friendship and kindness. We permitted too many of the good and peaceful men who joined this agitation to try to make it the harbinger of peace, which it was intended to be; we planted the olive-tree, never expecting to gather the fruit in a day; but we expected it to yield fruit in good season, and, with Heaven’s help and yours, it shall do so yet.