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William Cobbett (1763-1835)

William Cobbett was born on 9 March 1763 at Farnham in Surrey. His father was a small farmer and innkeeper. Cobbett's memories of his early life were pleasant, and, although he moved to London when he was 19, his experiences on the land left their impressions on his life. He enlisted in the British army in 1783 at the age of 21 and eventually rose to the rank of sergeant major. He taught himself English grammar and laid the foundation of his future career as a journalist.

After serving in Canada, he returned to England in 1791 and charged some of his former officers with corruption. Although venality was common in the army, his charges boomeranged when the officers sought to bring countercharges against him. Rather than appear at a court-martial, Cobbett fled to France. Realising that France in the throes of revolution was no place for an Englishman, he sailed for America and settled in Philadelphia, where he supported himself and his family by teaching English to French émigrés.

The welcome that was given by radical republican groups in the United States to Joseph Priestley after he had left England in 1794 drew Cobbett into controversy. Convinced that Priestley was a traitor, Cobbett wrote a pamphlet, Observations on the Emigration of Joseph Priestley, which launched his career as a journalist. For the next six years he published enough writings against the spirit and practice of American democracy to fill twelve volumes. He violently attacked corruption and hypocrisy and personal abuse of power in the American democratic system. His journalism won him many enemies and the nickname "Peter Porcupine". After paying a heavy fine in a libel judgement, Cobbett returned to England in 1800.

Although he embraced advanced political ideas, Cobbett was not really a radical but instead deeply conservative, even reactionary. His object was to use radical means to break the power of what he regarded as a selfish oligarchy and thus establish the earlier England of his imagination. In his England, political parties, the national debt, and the factory system would not exist. Instead, all classes would live in harmony on the land. Despite this seemingly backward-looking viewpoint, Cobbett's writings were widely read. This was partly because of his lucid style but mainly because he struck a powerful chord of nostalgia at a time when rapid economic changes and war with France had produced widespread anxiety. The Tory government of William Pitt welcomed Cobbett and offered to subsidise his powerful pen in further publishing ventures. Cobbett, whose journalism was entirely personal and always incorruptible, rejected the offer and in 1802 started the weekly Political Register, which he published until his death in 1835. The Register at first supported the government, the Peace of Amiens (1802) with France disgusted him, and he called for a renewal of the war.

Cobbett believed that commercial interests were dictating foreign policy and were responsible for all that was wrong with the country. In 1805 he announced that England was the victim of a "System", which debauched liberty, undermined the aristocracy and the Church of England and almost extinguished the gentry. His conviction grew in the following year after he witnessed the widely accepted corruption in parliamentary elections. Cobbett's career as an orthodox Tory was over. Advocacy of radical measures brought him into an uneasy association with reformers. Cobbett and the radicals could never be close, however, since his goals were so different from theirs.

Cobbett was at his best when condemning specific abuses. He spent two years in gaol (1810-12) and paid a fine of £1,000 after denouncing the flogging of militiamen who had protested against unfair deductions from their pay. He also recognised that unrest among the poor was caused by unemployment and hunger and not, as the government had alleged, by a desire to overthrow English society. One of his most appropriate comments was: I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach.

Cobbett could see no solution to economic distress without a reform of Parliament and reduction of interest on the national debt. In 1816, at the height of his influence, he was able to reach the common man by putting out the Political Register (denounced as Cobbett's "two-penny trash") in a cheap edition that avoided the heavy taxes on ordinary newspapers. Samuel Bamford commented that

At this time the writings of William Cobbett suddenly became of great authority; they were read on nearly every cottage hearth in the manufacturing districts... He directed his readers to the true cause of their sufferings - misgovernment; and to its proper corrective - parliamentary reform. Riots soon became scarce... Hampden clubs [organizations pressing for reform of Parliament] were now established... The Labourers ... became deliberate and systematic in their proceedings. [Samuel Bamford, Passages in the life of a Radical, 1839]

and Cobbet himself said

I missed scarcely a week to inculcate the doctrine of absolute necessity to avoid all acts of violence of every sort, and to observe strict and real obedience to the laws. . .. I did more in the space of a month, to prevent depredations of this sort, than all the new penal laws, all the magistrates, and all the troops, had been able to do in seven years. [Political Register, 16 August 1817]

The government, seeing sedition in even the most moderate proposals for change, repressed dissent, and in 1817 Cobbett was forced to flee to the United States to avoid arrest. Renting a farm on Long Island, New York, Cobbett continued to edit and write for the Political Register, which was published by his agents in England. When he returned to England at the end of 1819, his influence had waned and he was insolvent.

During the 1820s he supported many causes in an attempt to regain his standing and in the hope that they would lead to the changes in England's political and economic system that he desired. He tried unsuccessfully to be elected to the House of Commons in 1820 for Coventry and in 1826 for Preston. His famous tours of the countryside began in 1821 and were to lead to his greatest book, Rural Rides, which was an unrivalled picture of the land and championed traditional rural England against the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

In 1825, William Hazlitt wrote this criticism of Cobbett, in his Spirit of the Age,

He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist, 'lays waste' a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country... Mr. Cobbett speaks almost as well as he writes. The only time I ever saw him he seemed to me a very pleasant man: easy of access, affable, clear-headed, simple and mild in his manner, deliberate and unruffled in his speech, though some of his expressions were not very qualified... As a political partisan, no one can stand against him. With his brandished club, like Giant Despair in the Pilgrim's Progress, he knocks out their brains: and not only no individual, but no corrupt system, could hold out against his powerful and repeated attacks. But with the same weapon swung round like a flail, with which he levels his antagonists, he lays his friends low, and puts his own party hors de combat...

Though he is not servile or mercenary, he is the victim of self-will. He must pull down and pull in pieces: it is not in his disposition to do otherwise. It is a pity; for with his great talents he might do great things, if he would go right forward to any useful object, make thorough-stitch work of any question, or join hand and heart with any principle... Mr. Cobbett is great in attack, not in defence: he cannot fight an uphill battle. He will not bear the least punishing. If any one turns on him (which few people like to do) he immediately turns tail...

Although he had no love for the Whigs, Cobbett supported the parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832, which, despite its limited nature, he sensed was the best that could be had. In 1830 agricultural labourers in southern England had rioted in protest against their low wages. Cobbett defended them and was prosecuted in 1831 by a Whig government that was anxious to prove its zeal in moving against "sedition". Acting as his own counsel, Cobbett confounded his opponents and was set free. Yet, despite this threat of another gaol term, he supported his persecutors on the issue of parliamentary reform. In 1832 Cobbett was elected to Parliament as a member from Oldham. At 69 years of age he found the nocturnal schedule of Parliament an unpleasant contrast to his lifelong preference for early rising and working in the morning. Essentially an individualist and a man of action, he chafed at parliamentary routine. Most members of the House of Commons did not respect him, and Cobbett's parliamentary career was a failure. The unnatural hours hastened his death, from influenza, on 18 June 1835.

Passionate and prejudiced, Cobbett's prose was completely personal. He had no theoretical understanding of the complicated issues about which he wrote. While his views of the ideal society were retrograde, no one could excel him in specific criticisms of corruption and extravagance, harsh laws, low wages, absentee clergymen-indeed, nearly everything that was wrong with England.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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