Son of an English self-made textile manufacturer, John Bright entered his father's business after leaving school. Upon the death of his wife in 1841, Bright and his colleague Richard Cobden began the Anti-Corn Law campaign (1838-1846) which ultimately succeeded in lowering import tariffs, producing freer trade. He became a Member of Parliament in 1843 and accepted appointment to the Board of Trade in Gladstone's administration in 1868. In contrast to Cobden, who favored the Southern free-traders, Bright supported the Northern states during the Civil War because of the slavery issue. Wary of tyrannical government, Bright opposed the manufacture of munitions by the state.
He devoted much of his public life to the agitation against church-rates. He supported Gladstone's efforts in 1868 to de-establish the church of Ireland. He did not believed in state subsidies for education and in state interference with the conditions of working adults. Because of this, Bright opposed the ten hours' bill in 1847 which intended to limited the work day. He was strongly opposed to war, convinced that it was the amusement of an aristocracy, but also because of its negative economic repercussions, particularly in the case of the Crimean war of 1854.
Bright's family moved in Quaker circles. In many respects he was a typical Englishman of his time. He was an active member of a local cricket club as well as a founder of a literary and philosophical society. A great orator, he read widely, and based his style upon the Bible and Milton. When speaking, he often neglected the seriousness, and even the charity, of his religious upbringing, and used a sarcasm and irony foreign to the religiosity of his letters and diaries.