Bright was born at Rochdale in Lancashire -- one of the early centres of the Industrial Revolution. His father, Jacob Bright, was a much-respected Quaker, who had started a cotton mill at Rochdale in 1809. His own father, Abraham Bright, had been a Wiltshire yeoman, who, early in the 18th century, removed to Coventry, where his descendants remained. Jacob Bright had been educated at the Ackworth school of the Society of Friends, and apprenticed to a fustian manufacturer at New Mills. John Bright was his son by his second wife, Martha Wood, daughter of a tradesman of Bolton-le-Moors. She had been educated at Ackworth school, and was a woman of great strength of character and refined taste. There were eleven children of this marriage, of whom John was the eldest surviving son. He was a delicate child, and was sent as a day pupil to a boarding school near his home, kept by William Littlewood. A year at the Ackworth school, two years at a school at York, and a year and a half at Newton, near Clitheroe, completed his education. He learned, he himself said, but little Latin and Greek, but acquired a great love of English literature, which his mother fostered, and a love of outdoor pursuits. In his sixteenth year he entered his father's mill, and in due time became a partner in the business.
In Rochdale, Jacob Bright was a leader of the opposition to a local church-rate. Rochdale was also prominent in the movement for parliamentary reform, by which the town successfully claimed to have a member allotted to it under the Reform Bill. John Bright took part in both campaigns. He was an ardent Nonconformist, proud to number among his ancestors John Gratton, a friend of George Fox, and one of the persecuted and imprisoned preachers of the Society of Friends. His political interest was probably first kindled by the Preston election in 1830, in which Lord Stanley, after a long struggle, was defeated by "Orator" Hunt. But it was as a member of the Rochdale Juvenile Temperance Band that he first learned public speaking. These young men went out into the villages, borrowed a chair of a cottager, and spoke from it at open-air meetings. John Bright's first extempore speech was at a temperance meeting. Bright got his notes muddled, and broke down. The chairman gave out a temperance song, and during the singing told Bright to put his notes aside and say what came into his mind. Bright obeyed, began with much hesitancy, but found his tongue and made an excellent address. On some early occasions, however, he committed his speech to memory. In 1832 he called on the Rev. John Aldis, an eminent Baptist minister, to accompany him to a local Bible meeting. Mr Aldis described him as a slender, modest young gentleman, who surprised him by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but who seemed nervous as they walked to the meeting together. At the meeting he made a stimulating speech, and on the way home asked for advice. Mr Aldis counselled him not to learn his speeches, but to write out and commit to memory certain passages and the peroration. This "first lesson in public speaking," as Bright called it, was given in his twenty-first year, but he had not then contemplated a public career. He was a fairly prosperous man of business, very happy in his home, always ready to take part in the social, educational and political life of his native town. A founder of the Rochdale Literary and Philosophical Society, he took a leading part in its debates, and on returning from a holiday journey in the East, gave the society a lecture on his travels.
He first met Richard Cobden in 1836 or 1837. Cobden was an alderman of the newly formed Manchester corporation, and Bright went to ask him to speak at an education meeting in Rochdale. Cobden consented, and at the meeting was much struck by Bright's short speech, and urged him to speak against the Corn Laws. His first speech on the Corn Laws was made at Rochdale in 1838, and in the same year he joined the Manchester provisional committee which in 1839 founded the Anti-Corn Law League He was still only the local public man, taking part in all public movements, especially in opposition to John Feilden's proposed factory legislation, and to the Rochdale church-rate. In 1839 he built the house which he called "One Ash", and married Elizabeth, daughter of Jonathan Priestman of Newcastle-on-Tyne.
In November of the same year there was a dinner at Bolton to Abraham Paulton, who had just returned from a successful Anti-Corn Law tour in Scotland. Among the speakers were Cobden and Bright, and the dinner is memorable as the first occasion on which the two future leaders appeared together on a Free Trade platform. Bright is described by the historian of the League as "a young man then appearing for the first time in any meeting out of his own town, and giving evidence, by his energy and by his grasp of the subject, of his capacity soon to take a leading part in the great agitation."
In 1840 he led a movement against the Rochdale church-rate, speaking from a tombstone in the churchyard, where it looks down on the town in the valley below. A daughter, Helen, was born to him; but his young wife, after a long illness, died of tuberculosis in September 1841. Three days after her death at Leamington, Cobden called to see him. "I was in the depths of grief," said Bright, when unveiling the statue of his friend at Bradford in 1877, "I might almost say of despair, for the life and sunshine of my house had been extinguished." Cobden spoke some words of condolence, but "after a time he looked up and said, 'There are thousands of homes in England at this moment where wives, mothers and children are dying of hunger. Now, when the first paroxysm of your grief is past, I would advise you to come with me, and we will never rest till the Corn Laws are repealed.' I accepted his invitation," added Bright, "and from that time we never ceased to labour hard on behalf of the resolution which we had made."
At the general election in 1841 Cobden was returned for Stockport, and in 1843 Bright was the Free Trade candidate at a by-election at Durham. He was defeated, but his successful competitor was unseated on petition, and at the second contest Bright was returned. He was already known as Cobden's chief ally, and was received in the House of Commons with suspicion and hostility. In the Anti-Corn Law movement the two speakers complemented of each other. Cobden had the calmness and confidence of the political philosopher, Bright had the passion and the fervour of the popular orator. Cobden did the reasoning, Bright supplied the declamation, but mingled argument with appeal. No orator of modern times rose more rapidly. He was not known beyond his own borough when Cobden called him to his side in 1841, and he entered parliament towards the end of the session of 1843 with a formidable reputation. He had been all over England and Scotland addressing vast meetings and, as a rule, carrying them with him; he had taken a leading part in a conference held by the Anti-Corn Law League in London had led deputations to the duke of Sussex, to Sir James Graham, then home secretary, and to Lord Ripen and Gladstone, the secretary and under secretary of the Board of Trade; and he was universally recognized as the chief orator of the Free Trade movement. Wherever "John Bright of Rochdale" was announced to speak, vast crowds assembled. He had been so announced, for the last time, at the first great meeting in Drury Lane theatre on March 15 1843; henceforth his name was enough. He took his seat in the House of Commons as one of the members for Durham on July 28 1843, and on August 7 delivered his maiden speech in support of a motion by Mr Ewart for reduction of import duties. He was there, he said, "not only as one of the representatives of the city of Durham, but also as one of the representatives of that benevolent organization, the Anti-Corn Law League." A member who heard the speech described Bright as "about the middle size, rather firmly and squarely built, with a fair, clear complexion, and an intelligent and pleasing expression of countenance. His voice is good, his enunciation distinct, and his delivery free from any unpleasant peculiarity or mannerism." He wore the usual Friend's coat, and was regarded with much interest and hostile curiosity on both sides of the House.
Mr Ewart's motion was defeated, but the movement of which Cobden and Bright were the leaders continued to spread. In the autumn the League resolved to raise £100,000; an appeal was made to the agricultural interest by great meetings in the farming counties, and in November The Times startled the country by declaring, in a leading article, "The League is a great fact. It would be foolish, nay, rash, to deny its importance." In London great meetings were held in Covent Garden theatre, at which William Johnson Fox was the chief orator, but Bright and Cobden were the leaders of the movement. Bright publicly deprecated the popular tendency to regard Cobden and himself as the chief movers in the agitation, and Cobden told a Rochdale audience that he always stipulated that he should speak first, and Bright should follow. His "more stately genius," as John Morley calls it, was already making him the undisputed master of the feelings of his audiences. In the House of Commons his progress was slower. Cobden's argumentative speeches were regarded more sympathetically than Bright's more rhetorical appeals, and in a debate on Villiers's annual motion against the Corn Laws Bright was heard with so much impatience that he was obliged to sit down.
In the next session (1845) he moved for an inquiry into the operation of the Game Laws. At a meeting of county members earlier in the day Peel had advised them not to be led into discussion by a violent speech from the member for Durham, but to let the committee be granted without debate. Bright was not violent, and Cobden said that no did his work admirably, and won golden opinions from all men. The speech established his position in the House of Commons. In this session Bright and Cobden came into opposition, Cobdev voting for the Maynooth Grant and Bright against it. On only one other occasion—a vote for South Kensington—did they go into opposite lobbies, during twenty-five years of parliamentary life.
In the autumn of 1845 Bright retained Cobden in the public career to which Cobden had invited him four years before; Bright was in Scotland when a letter came from Cobden announcing his determination, forced on him by business difficulties; to retire from public work. Bright replied that if Cobden retired the mainspring of the League was gone. "I can in no degree take your place," he wrote. "As a second I can fight, but there are incapacities about me, of which I am fully conscious, which prevent my being more than second in such a work as we have laboured in." A few days later he set off for Manchester, posting in that wettest of autumns through "the rain that rained away the Corn Laws," and on his arrival got his friends together, and raised the money which tided Cobden over the emergency. The crisis of the struggle had come. Peel's budget in 1845 was a first step towards Free Trade. The bad harvest and the potato disease drove him to the repeal of the Corn Laws, and at a meeting in Manchester on July 2 1846 Cobden moved and Bright seconded a motion dissolving the league. A library of twelve hundred volumes was presented to Bright as a memorial of the struggle.
Bright married, in June 1847, Margaret Elizabeth Leatham, of Wakefield, by whom he had seven children, John Albert Bright being the eldest. In the succeeding July he was elected uncontested for Manchester, with Milner Gibson. In the new parliament, he opposed legislation restricting the hours of labour, and, as a Nonconformist, spoke against clerical control of national education. In 1848 he voted for Hume's household suffrage motion, and introduced a bill for the repeal of the Game Laws. When Lord John Russell brought forward his Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, Bright opposed it as "a little, paltry, miserable measure," and foretold its failure. In this parliament he spoke much on Irish questions. In a speech in favour of the government bill for a rate in aid in 1849, he won loud cheers from both sides, and was complimented by Disraeli for having sustained the reputation of that assembly. From this time forward he had the ear of the House, and took effective part in the debates. He spoke against capital punishment, against church-rates, against flogging in the army, and against the Irish Established Church. He supported Cobden's motion for the reduction of public expenditure, and in and out of parliament pleaded for peace. In the election of 1852 he was again returned for Manchester on. the principles of free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. But war was in the air, and the most impassioned speeches he ever delivered were addressed to this parliament in fruitless opposition to the Crimean War. Neither the House nor the country would listen. "I went to the House on Monday," wrote Macaulay in March 1854, "and heard Bright say everything I thought." His most memorable speech, the greatest he ever made, was delivered on February 23 1855. "The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of his wings," he said, and concluded with an appeal to the prime minister that moved the House as it had never been moved within living memory.
Bright had much literary and social recognition in his later years. In 1882 he was elected lord rector of the University of Glasgow, and Dr Dale wrote of his rectorial address: " It was not the old Bright." He was given an honorary degree of the University of Oxford in 1886, and in 1888 a statue of him was erected at Birmingham. The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury said of him, and it sums up his character as a public man:
"He was the greatest master of English oratory that this generation--I thay say several generations--has seen. At a time when much speaking has depressed, has almost exterminated eloquence, he maintained that robust, powerful and vigorous style in which he gave fitting expression to the burning and noble thoughts he desired to utter."
On his death, Bright was buried in the graveyard of the meeting-house of the Society of Friends in Rochdale.
See The Life and Spoeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., by George Barnett Smith, 2 vols. 8vo (1881); The Life of John Bright, M.P., by John M Gilchrist, in Cassell's Representative Biographies (1868); John Bright, by CA Vince (1898); Speeches on Parliamentary Reform by John Bright, M.P., revised by Himself (1866); Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, by John Bright, M.P., edited by JE Thorold Rogers, 2 vols. 8vo (1868); Public Addresses, edited by JE Thorold Rogers, 8vo (1879); Public Letters of the Right Hon. John Bright, MP., collected by HJ Leech (1885).