William Cobbett Essay - Critical Essays

Cobbett, William


William Cobbett 1763-1835

English journalist and essayist.

Cobbett was a leading advocate of parliamentary reform in the quarter century before the Reform Bill of 1832. A lifelong advocate of social justice for England's rural poor and a defender of freedom of the press, he sought to break the power of the ruling oligarchy of politics and business to restore what he perceived as an earlier, better England. Superficially radical and profoundly conservative, Cobbett despised political parties and industrialism, championing an ideal of the common people. He crafted a distinctly vigorous, biting prose style, which characterizes both his voluminous journalism and the two works considered his most distinguished, Rural Rides (1830) and Advice to Young Men (1831).

Biographical Information

Cobbett was born into an innkeeper's family in Farnham, Surrey. He had little formal education and left home at age 20, working as a clerk and then becoming a soldier. Assigned to work as a copyist for a garrison commandant, Cobbett was compelled to improve his writing and grammatical skills. He read and reread Robert Lowth's eight-volume Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) until he had memorized it. While in the military, he witnessed and documented numerous cases of abuse and corruption in his unit; discharged with the rank of sergeant-major in 1791, Cobbett filed complaints against the government for the misdeeds he had seen. When a hearing was eventually scheduled on his charges, Cobbett left the country, convinced that he had no chance of winning his case. He lived in France for a year, then fled to America as the prospect loomed of war between France and Britain. In America, Cobbett established himself as a journalist, living in Philadelphia and publishing a daily journal, Porcupine's Gazette, under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine. Returning to England in 1800, he opened a bookshop and founded the most acclaimed of the fourteen or more periodicals he started during his lifetime, Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, which he published until his death. Initially Cobbett devoted the Political Register and his other pamphleteering to support of the government against "Jacobinism" at home and French imperialism abroad. Gradually, though, he came to believe that the real enemy of the English common people, with whom Cobbett identified, was not France but Prime Minister William Pitt's financial system of paper money, stock jobbing, taxation, placement, and sinecurists. He formed the conviction that there were no true political parties in England, only coalitions of selfish men bent on plunder and power. Opposing this system, Cobbett adapted to the revolutionary world of 1800 many of the notions of a Tory squire of 1700, becoming a leader of industrial, working-class radicalism. His writings called for reform of English laws to make life more amenable for working-class families, especially farmers, whose livlihood was threatened by the growth of industrialization. In early 1817, largely in an effort to stifle Cobbett, Parliament passed the Power of Imprisonment Bill, which made it easier to successfully prosecute seditious writing and allowed the suspension of habeas corpus. Cobbett retreated to America, where he leased a farm on Long Island for two years. During this time he continued publishing the Register and wrote his Grammar of the English Language (1818) and A Year's Residence in the United States of America (1818). Cobbett returned to England in late 1819; two years later he took the first of his "rural rides," travelling by horse-back throughout southern England to observe and report on the condition of the poor and to speak on parliamentary reform. He harangued for reform for the rest of his life, eventually seeing a degree of progress when Parliament passed the moderate Reform Bill of 1832, which made for fairer parliamentary representation among the laboring centers of England and extended the franchise to the propertied middle class. Cobbett was himself elected to Parliament within a year of the Reform Bill's passage, but was not an effective representative: he refused to master the rules of the House of Commons, was rude to his opponents during debates, and had difficulty adjusting to Parliament's nocturnal schedule. During his last years, and in declining health, he divided his time between London and his farm in Surrey, where he died of influenza at age seventy-two.

Major Works

Cobbett's effectiveness lay less in his theories about paper money, electoral reform, or whatever, than in his creation of a mythical, but not insubstantial, lost Eden of old rural England. Cobbett glorified agricultural labor in its hardihood, innocence, and usefulness—and by its associations with patriotism, morality, and the beauties of nature. Cobbett exaggerated the material comforts of laborers in Old England, but he did not exaggerate the beauty of the man-made (yet natural) landscape where they worked and the decency of a life regulated by the cycle of the seasons rather than the steam engine. Cobbett's readers may have been mostly in the industrial towns, but many of them had only recently abandoned an agricultural way of life. Cobbett kept alive in the consciousness of urban workers a folk memory of rural beauty and seemliness, and an allied sense of lost rights in the land. On this theme, his Rural Rides (1830) has proved his most enduring work. It is a collection of journals written during his tours on horseback between 1822 and 1826, observing rural conditions and discussing the political perceptions of the agricultural community. Another enduring work is his Advice to Young Men (1829-1830). While not primarily political, in this work Cobbett counters the denunciations of his character by government officials and churchmen, providing a self-portrait demonstrating all the benefits of industry, sobriety, independence, and thrift. Cobbett also involved himself in the struggle for Roman Catholic emancipation; to that end he wrote his best-selling A History of the Protestant "Reformation" in England and Ireland (1824-1826). His theme is that the Reformation was not an act of purification but one of bloody devastation, a fraud "engendered in lust and brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy," which had engendered more and more monstrous "reformations" in the shape of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth and the "Glorious Revolution," which had brought into being the national debt and all present woe. Here as in his other books, an ideal pre-Reformation England is contrasted to a miserable present reality.

Critical Reception

Much of what Cobbett wrote was ephemeral, addressing small but important events of his own era. Despised by business and political leaders during his lifetime, he was recognized by even those critics who opposed his ideas as the writer of vigorous, effective, clear prose, what William Hazlitt called "plain, broad, downright English," without artifice. With the triumph of large-scale industrialism and the decline of agricultural small-holding, much of what Cobbett wrote has been deemed dated and at best quaint, despite the passage of successive labor reforms in England for which he was undeniably a major if indirect source. Much criticism today focuses on Rural Rides, a work which is seen as a pleasant and appealing portrait of both the author and of a homely, rural England which is, for the most part, no more.

Principal Works

Observation on the Emigration of Dr. Joseph Priestley and on the Several Addresses Delivered to Him on His Arrival at New York (essay) 1794

Le tuteur anglais, ou grammaire reguliere de la langue anglaise (grammar) 1795

The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine (autobiography) 1796

Porcupine's Gazette and United States Daily Advertiser (journal) 1797-1800

The Rush-Light (journal) 1800

Porcupine's Works. 12 vols. (pamphlets) 1801

Cobbett's Weekly Political Register. 89 vols. (journal) 1802-35

A Grammar of the English Language (grammar) 1818

A Journal of a Year's Residence in the United States. 3 vols. (journal) 1818-19

The American Gardener (nonfiction) 1821

Cobbett's Sermons (sermons) 1821-22

Cottage Economy: Containing Information Relating to the Brewing of Beer, Making of Bread, Keeping of Cows … (treatise) 1822

A History of the Prostestant "Reformation" in England and Ireland 2 vols. (history) 1824-27

Cobbett's Poor Man's Friend (journal) 1826-27

The Woodlands; or, A Treatise on the Preparation of the Ground for Planting (treatise) 1828

The English Gardener (nonfiction) 1829

Rural Rides in the Counties of Surrey, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somersetshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Hertfordshire (essay) 1830

Advice to Young Men and (Incidentally) to Young Women (essay) 1831

Cobbett's Twopenny Trash (journal) 1830-32

Life of Andrew Jackson (biography) 1834

Selections from Cobbett's Political Works. 6 vols. (essays and treatises) 1835-37


Francis Jeffrey (review date 1807)

SOURCE: A review of Cobbett's Political Register, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. X, No. 20, July, 1807, pp. 386-421.

[Jeffrey was a founder and editor of the Edinburgh Review, one of the most influential nineteenth-century British magazines. A liberal Whig, he often allowed his political beliefs to color his critical opinions. In the following excerpt, Jeffrey writes of Cobbett as a political opportunist who overstates the issue of corruption in British politics.]

We are induced to take some notice of [CobbeUt's Political Register] because we are persuaded that it has more influence with that most important and most independent class of society,...

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Leigh Hunt (essay date 1820)

SOURCE: "Mr. Cobbett, and What is Wanted in Parliament," in Leigh Hunt's Political and Occasional Essays, edited by Lawrence Huston Houtchens and Carolyn Washburn Houtchens, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 228-35.

[An English poet and essayist, Hunt as literary critic encouraged and influenced several Romantic poets, especially John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hunt was a cofounder of the weekly liberal newspaper the Examiner. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in the Examiner in 1820, Hunt proclaims the salutary effect of Cobbett's pending election to Parliament.]

There are things in Mr. Cobbett which are not to our...

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William Hazlitt (essay date 1821)

SOURCE: "Character of Cobbett," in The College Book of Essays, edited by John Abbott Clark, Henry Holt and Company, 1939, pp. 517-28.

[One of the most important commentators of the Romantic age, Hazlitt was an English critic and journalist. He is best known for his descriptive criticism in which he stressed that no motives beyond judgment and analysis are necessary on the part of the critic. In the following essay, originally written in 1821, Hazlitt examines Cobbett's character as reflected in his writings, offering numerous illustrations.]

People have about as substantial an idea of Cobbett as they have of Cribb. His blows are as hard, and he himself is as...

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William Cobbett (review date 1829)

SOURCE: "On His Writings," in The Opinions of William Cobbett by William Cobbett, edited by G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, The Cobbett Publishing Co. Ltd., 1944, pp. 42-3.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1829, Cobbett expresses contempt for critics while stating the intent of his own writing.]

As to merit, as an author or writer, I have always despised what is generally called criticism. I know well that those who carry on the trade of critics are a base and hireling crew; more corrupt, perhaps, than any other set of beings in the world. The only critics that I look to are the public; and my mode of estimating a writing, is by the...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

James Fitzjames Stephen (review date 1866)

SOURCE: A review of Selections from Cobbett's Political Works, in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 22, No. 558, July 7, 1866, pp. 17-20.

[James Fitzjames Stephen was an English jurist and literary critic, best known for his Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), a detailed, conservative counterblast to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). In the following excerpt, he attempts "to give some estimate of the man [Cobbett] himself and some account of his more characteristic opinions. "]

If we had to take a representative man from each of the three kingdoms, Cobbett, O'Connell, and Walter Scott would be by no means bad men to choose. Cobbett was a...

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Hugh E. Egerton (essay date 1885)

SOURCE: "A Scarce Book," in The National Review, London, Vol. V, No. 27, May, 1885, pp. 413-28.

[In the following excerpt, Egerton discusses Rural Rides, citing several lengthy quotations to illustrate Cobbett's handling of various concerns and emphases.]

Were the well-meaning persons to have their way who long for the establishment of an English Academy, one wonders what would be the attitude of such an august body towards a writer like Cobbett. And yet his claim to rank as a classic admits, I suppose, of little question. The position he holds among the immortals he has taken, as it were, by storm; and what no favour of literary clique helped to gain, no...

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George Saintsbury (essay date 1891)

SOURCE: "William Cobbett," in The Collected Essays and Papers of George Saintsbury, 1875-1920, Vol. I, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1923, pp. 269-301.

[Saintsbury was a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century English literary historian and critic. Hugely prolific, he composed histories of English and European literature as well as numerous critical works on individual authors, styles, and periods. In the following essay, originally published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1891, Saintsbury discusses Cobbett's career and significance.]

To acquaint oneself properly with the works of Cobbett is no child's play. It requires some money, a great deal of time, still...

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Leslie Stephen (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: "William Cobbett," in The New Review, Vol. 9, No. 54, November 1893, pp. 482-93.

[Stephen is considered one of the most important English literary critics of the late Victorian and early Edwardian era. In his criticism, which was often moralistic, he argued that all literature is nothing more than an imaginative rendering, in concrete terms, of a writer's philosophy or beliefs. It is the role of criticism, he contended, to translate into intellectual terms what the writer has told the reader through character, symbol, and plot. In the following excerpt, Stephen provides an overview of Cobbett's beliefs regarding numerous social issues.]

Cobbett somehow or other...

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John Freeman (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: "William Cobbett," in English Portraits and Essays, Hodder and Stoughton, 1924, pp. 61-86.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in the London Mercury in 1921, Freeman surveys Cobbett's career and his reputation among his contemporaries.]

Born in 1762 at Farnham (Surrey) in a house upon which amused and affectionate eyes may, I think, still fall; guiltless of any enforced education other than lessons at a dame's school and, on winter evenings, from his father at home; walking to London when he was about thirteen and spending his last coppers on A Tale of a Tub by that earlier pamphleteer whose more powerful and sombre genius...

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Leonard Woolf (review date 1923)

SOURCE: "An Englishman," in Essays on Literature, History, Politics, Etc., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927, pp. 26-30.

[Woolf is best known as one of the leaders of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and thinkers, and as the husband of novelist Virginia Woolf with whom he founded the Hogarth Press. A Fabian socialist during the World War I era, he became a regular contributor to the socialist New Statesman and later served as literary editor of the Nation and the Athenaeum, in which much of his literary criticism is found In the following essay, originally published in 1923 in the Nation and the Athenaeum, he focuses on Rural Rides in discussing Cobbett's...

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G. D. H. Cole (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: "Advice to Young Men," in The Life of William Cobbett, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1924, pp. 306-18.

[Cole wrote extensively on Cobbett's life and work and was the author of a Cobbett biography long considered definitive. In the following excerpt, he comments on Advice to Young Men.]

[Advice to Young Men] was not intended mainly for a working-class public. The advice was addressed "to young men and (incidentally) to young women in the middle and higher ranks of life." It took the form, a favourite form with Cobbett, of letters to "a Youth, a Bachelor, a Lover, a Husband, a Father, a Citizen or a Subject." Its purpose was not primarily...

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G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: "The Revival of Cobbett" and "Last Days and Death," in William Cobbett, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1926, pp. 3-25, 219-54.

[Regarded as one of England's premier men of letters during the first half of the twentieth century, Chesterton is best known today as a colorful bon vivant, a witty essayist, and as the creator of the Father Brown mysteries. Chesterton shared Cobbett's belief that the Reformation brought on many of modern Europe's social problems. In the excerpt below, Chesterton discursively examines the paradoxes ofCobbett's beliefs and the significance of his work as a reformer, comparing Cobbett's thought with that of Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle.]

It is but...

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Edmund Blunden (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: "Rural Rides," in Votive Tablets: Studies Chiefly Appreciative of English Authors and Books, Cobden-Sanderson, 1931, pp. 268-80.

[Blunden was associated with the Georgians, an early twentieth-century group of English poets who reacted against the prevalent contemporary mood of disillusionment and the rise of artistic modernism by seeking to return to the pastoral, nineteenth-century poetic traditions associated with William Wordsworth. As a literary critic and essayist, he often wrote of the lesser-known figures of the Romantic era as well as of the pleasures of English country life. In the following essay, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1930,...

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Crane Brinton (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "The Revolution of 1832: Cobbett," in English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Ernest Benn Limited, 1933, pp. 61-74.

[In the following excerpt, Brinton provides an overview of Cobbett's political thought, especially in regard to its effect on the Reform Bill of 1832.]

To write about Cobbett as a political thinker implies, in a sense, a false start. For, properly speaking, Cobbett never thought at all. Let us hasten to add that this remark is not a snobbishly intellectualist condemnation of Cobbett, but an attempt to give to the word thought a decently precise meaning. To think implies an effort on the part of the thinker to construct a coherent...

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A. R. Orage (essay date 1934?)

SOURCE: "Purified Talk," in Selected Essays and Critical Writings, edited by Herbert Read and Denis Saurat, Stanley Nott, 1935, pp. 23-4.

[Orage was an English editor, reviewer, and essayist who edited the influential periodical New Age from 1907 to 1922. In 1932 he founded the New English Weekly, which he edited until his death two years later. In the following essay, he praises the simplicity and naturalness of Cobbett's prose.]

Cobbett does not deserve what Green says of him, that he was 'the greatest tribune the English poor ever possessed'. Cobbett had not sufficient appreciation of the real enemy of the English poor, and it is safe to say of his...

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V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "Current Literature," in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. XXI, No. 517, January 18, 1941, pp. 62, 64.

[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following excerpt, he focuses on the paradoxical nature of Cobbett's character as reflected in his writings.]

In the panorama of English history from the time of the French revolution to the Reform, the huge steam-rolling person of Wm. Cobbett stands out among his contemporaries like a figure drawn out of scale. There are more sensational, more momentous and more intricate...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)

W. Baring Pemberton (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: A chapter in William Cobbett, Penguin Books, 1949, pp. 180-85.

[Below, Pemberton summarizes Cobbett's accomplishment as a rough-hewn thinker and his significance to the future of English culture.]

With the death of William Cobbett it was as if a blustering gale from off the saltings had ceased abruptly. It had been a gale which, according to the politics of a man, intoxicated him like wine or doubled him up as with a blow in the pit of the stomach. In either case it had been a gale to which all had become accustomed and when it blew no more it was as if a familiar sound had ended. With his Weekly Political Registers, his rural ridings, his...

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James Sambrook (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Rural Rides and Advice to Young Men: 1830," in William Cobbett, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 143-64.

[In the following chapter from his critical biography of Cobbett, Sambrook examines Rural Rides and Advice to Young Men, quoting at length from each to illustrate the characteristics of Cobbett's thought.]

Towards the end of 1829 Cobbett announced the forthcoming publication of a collection of the 'Rural Rides' which had first appeared in the Political Register, but the book did not appear until October 1830. Though the confused pagination and unaccountable omission of parts of certain 'Rides' indicate some...

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George Spater (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Writer," in William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 427-56.

[Spater's William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend (1982) is considered the definitive biography of Cobbett. In the following excerpt, he offers a broad, thematic survey of Cobbett's writings.]

Nearly all of Cobbett's writing that was published in book form was for the purpose of instruction, and nearly all the instruction related to four subjects: language, gardening or farming, personal behavior, and government affairs, with a goodly amount of overlap among categories. The language books of this period include a grammar for use by those who...

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Daniel Green (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Climactic Years," in Great Cobbett: The Noblest Agitator, 1983. Reprint by Oxford University Press, Inc., 1985, pp. 423-54.

[In the following excerpt, Green discusses Cobbett's skill as a writer and the characteristics of his thought, touching on a wide range of Cobbett's writings.]

Because Cobbett's most enduring achievement was to turn author at a comparatively late stage in his career, it is, in the end, not his politics nor his journalism nor even his character that we have to examine, but his books. There is more of the real William Cobbett in them than there was in the ageing, failing and increasingly erratic man who finally achieved what...

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Roger Sale (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "William Cobbett," in Closer to Home: Writers and Places in England, 1780-1830, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 67-86.

[In the following essay, Sale discourses on Cobbett's significance and the nature of his philosophical outlook, referring recurrently to Rural Rides.]

Cobbett wrote a shelf of books, including the Political Register, which once a week for many years offered itself as the political and economic conscience of England. He was born in 1763 and had a long career that to some looks like failure and to others like success. For instance, it is frequently said that Cobbett was the single person most responsible for the...

(The entire section is 8018 words.)

David A. Wilson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Epilogue," in Paine and Cobbett: The Transatlantic Connection, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988, pp. 184-92.

[Below, Wilson summarizes the findings of his full-length comparison of Paine and Cobbett's political thought.]

Tom Paine and William Cobbett, founding fathers of British popular Radicalism, developed their ideology in an Anglo-American context during the Atlantic Revolution. They responded to the American Empire of Liberty in separate and distinct ways, although they eventually came to share many ideas about political liberty in the United States and its relevance to Britain. For Paine, the American experience was central. He became aware of Real...

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Ian Dyck (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Cottage Economy," in William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 107-24.

[In the following chapter, Dyck discusses the background, intent, and critical reception of Cottage Economy.]

In 1823 The Edinburgh Review imposed a sudden if temporary ceasefire in its fifteen-year battle with Cobbett's politics and economics by declaring his new work Cottage Economy to be 'an excellent little book … abounding with kind and good feelings, as well as with most valuable information'. The Review (Henry Brougham was the author of the praise) recognized that Cobbett's work was addressed to 'them', or 'the labouring...

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Further Reading


Bowen, Marjorie. Peter Porcupine: A Study of William Cobbett, 1762-1835. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1935, 312 p.

Broad-stroked life of Cobbett which attempts "to reduce to their simplest elements the problems that vexed Cobbett and his contemporaries.…

Briggs, Asa. William Cobbett. London: Oxford University Press, 1967, 63 p.

Succinct, well-informed, illustrated biography.

Clarke, John. The Price of Progress: Cobbett's England, 1780-1835. London: Granada Publishing, 1977, 200 p.

Supplies background on the state of agricultural England during the years 1780 to 1835,...

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