Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1942
Article abstract: Cobbett, “the Poor Man’s Friend,” was the leading radical journalist of his day and was among the more prolific writers in English history. For thirty-three years (1802-1835), The Political Register led the popular attack on privilege and corruption in English government.
William Cobbett was born on March 9, 1763, into the “Old England” of the picture books. His father, George Cobbett, was a farmer and publican in the quiet Surrey village of Farnham, forty miles southwest of London. His mother figures little in Cobbett’s fragmentary memoirs. Apart from his father’s tutelage, Cobbett had no formal education. His childhood was given completely to traditional rural pursuits: riding, hunting, visiting fairs, or working in the fields, gathering in crops that in his later recollection were always rich and bountiful. Over the whole scene of his remembered youth there hangs a golden glow that determined the peculiarly retrospective nature of his radicalism. Whatever else he became, Cobbett was first to last a farmer. To preserve the rural virtues in the new industrial age was his sustaining political purpose.
Yet for all his love of it, the English countryside could not long contain Cobbett. At age fourteen, he went on a whim to London, where he happened on a copy of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704). Swift produced in him “a sort of birth of the intellect.” He learned from A Tale of a Tub the power of prose satire and political common sense. After a few more restless years on the farm, Cobbett returned to London as a legal clerk in Gray’s Inn. He “sighed for a sight of the world,” however, and in 1784 enlisted in the army. His public career began five years later, when, upon return from his posting in Nova Scotia, he published his first pamphlet, The Soldier’s Friend (1792), exposing the corruption of the officer class and expressing the grievances of the common infantryman.
After his marriage to Ann Reid in 1792 and a brief sojourn in revolutionary France, Cobbett went to America. From his father, he had “imbibed principles of republicanism” and was thus “ambitious to become a citizen of a free state.” Yet the United States brought out the English patriot in Cobbett. In a series of polemical pamphlets, he denounced Jeffersonian Democrats (he was only slightly more approving of the Anglophilic Federalists), French revolutionaries, Thomas Paine (“mad Tom”), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and anyone else who indulged “this eternal cant about virtue and liberty.” Cobbett spent eight years in the United States, first in Wilmington, then in New York, teaching English, becoming a self-taught authority on English grammar, and acquiring a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as a determined defender of the English government. Indeed, upon his return to London in 1800, Cobbett was offered control of one of the two government newspapers, but he declined it, preferring, he said, to remain independent. On January 16, 1802, he brought out the first issue of The Political Register, destined to make him, as Hazlitt later remarked, “a fourth estate in the politics of the country.”
Initially in The Political Register, Cobbett simply carried on his patriotic diatribe against democratic reformers at home and abroad. With a subscription list headed by the Prince of Wales, he published in twelve volumes his American writings, dedicating the lot to the founder of a “Loyal Association against Republicans and Levellers.” Slowly, however, he began to realize that the England he defended was not the England he had long imagined, was not the England of his idyllic youth. Living in London, he became aware of the extent of corruption in high places, of the essential injustice of England’s system of taxation, of the whole body of pensioners and placemen that lived, so it soon seemed to him, at the crippling expense of the honest provincial laborer. In 1803, Cobbett reread Paine, whose diagnosis of the English financial system he now found astute. When nothing came of his several proposals for fiscal and military reform, when in fact he found himself under the suspicious scrutiny of the very Tory government he had so long professed to support, Cobbett committed himself to the necessity of parliamentary reform. He undertook to publish verbatim transcripts of parliamentary debates (since 1812 known as Hansards Parliamentary Debates) in order to strengthen the principle of public accountability. He wrote a popular Parliamentary History of England (1804-1812), in which he traced the decline of democratic institutions since 1066. By 1806, this erstwhile anti-Jacobin had embraced the French and American revolutions and was intervening in constituency by-elections on behalf of “we, the people.”
Physically, Cobbett was well suited to the life of public agitation that he now undertook. At six feet, one inch, he dwarfed most of his contemporaries. His voice was strong and deliberate, his countenance hale and portly. In dress, complexion, and manner, he was the perfect representation of what he always wished to be—an English gentleman farmer. He was supremely confident, even in the face of repeated disappointment, of his own ability to alter the course of his nation’s history. Indeed, he was justified in his belief: By 1818, circulation of The Political Register had risen to more than fifty thousand copies a week. Avoiding theoretical abstraction, relying instead on perfected rhythms of everyday English and the powerfully distilled prejudices of ordinary people, Cobbett achieved a unique relationship with his readers. He became the voice of his own audience and thus represented a potentially explosive force in domestic politics.
Cobbett’s first run-in with the government came in 1810, when he was convicted of sedition for having satirically exposed the practice of military flogging. For the next two years, he edited The Political Register from a comfortable cell in Newgate Prison, where he also wrote his well-known monetarist treatise, Paper Against Gold (1815); he was not alone in finding the innovation of paper currency responsible for much of England’s economic distress. Upon his release in 1812, Cobbett affirmed his radicalism by repudiating the war against France, which had been fought, he now thought, in the interests not of the people but of autocracy and corruption. At the same time, he began to interest himself in the plight of industrial workers. He blamed the cotton masters—seigneurs of the twist, he called them—for the social crises attendant upon industrialization, and he recommended working-class enfranchisement as the only remedy for the recent outbreak of industrial violence: the Luddite Riots. Indeed, in spite of all of his agrarian predilections, in the years after the war Cobbett became the leading public spokesman for the rights of industrial labor. He advocated controlled agitation rather than sporadic violence, but the authorities could not appreciate the distinction. When in 1817 the government suspended habeas corpus as part of its ongoing suppression of popular discontent, Cobbett fled to the United States. There, he lost much of his direct influence over political events in England. He returned in 1819, having written three more books and bringing with him the now sanctified bones of Thomas Paine, to find a radical movement that had gone on without him and did not seem to need him. He regained prominence in 1820 as a champion of Queen Caroline, whose husband, the degenerate George IV, was attempting to renounce her. He stood twice unsuccessfully for Parliament, first at Coventry and then at Preston, and wrote a series of highly personal radical advice books: The Farmer’s Friend (1822), The Poor Man’s Friend (1826), Advice to Young Men (1829). In all these, and in the pages of The Political Register (which he had continued to produce even from the United States), Cobbett propounded upon his now familiar themes: agricultural distress, industrial exploitation, governmental corruption, and aristocratic profligacy. In 1830, in the midst of the rural “Swing Riots,” he was again tried for sedition, but this time he acquitted himself to the government’s grave discomfiture. After the reform of Parliament in 1832, he was finally returned, at age sixty-nine, for the industrial borough of Oldham. He spent three years in the Commons championing the cause of factory reform and resisting the introduction of the infamous Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. He died on June 18, 1835, at home on his farm near Guildford.
Much has been made of William Cobbett’s “conversion” from Toryism to radicalism. Indeed, historians frequently resort to the awkward formula “Tory Radical” to describe the oddly nostalgic progressivism that Cobbett represented. Yet if one thinks of him essentially as a populist, the conversion looms less large and the emotive consistency of his politics begins to emerge. In his youth, Cobbett defended an England of self-subsisting yeoman farmers that in fact existed only in his imagination. Once aware of that, he turned not so much radical as angry, in a desperate effort to restore what he perceived as lost democratic liberties. His enemies were the oligarchs, plutocrats, speculators, and sinecurists whose privileged grasp was strangling the decent, hardworking men and women of England. He was no political theorist, no Socialist, no revolutionary. He was simply a journalist, inspired to political activism by a populist faith in the rightness of common people.
Politically, his influence passed quickly. Industrialization proceeded apace in England, independent farming went into precipitous decline, and universal manhood suffrage was, at his death, still the better part of a century away. Yet Cobbett’s style lingered. Simplicity, truthfulness, and directness in writing was the creed he passed on to well-known masters of the political essay such as George Orwell. Rural Rides (1830), Cobbett’s volume of ruminations on the state of the English countryside, and country, in the 1820’s, is an acknowledged, though neglected, classic of English prose. Through The Political Register, Cobbett established the tradition in England of independent journalism. As an editorial critic of established elites, he has never been matched.
Chesterton, G. K. William Cobbett. London: Hodder and Staughton, 1926. More revealing of Chesterton perhaps than Cobbett, but a pungent and brilliantly written testament to Cobbett’s hold over the English political imagination in the early twentieth century.
Cobbett, William. The Opinions of William Cobbett. Edited by G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole. London: Cobbett Publishing Co., 1944. A useful and representative sample of Cobbett’s writing, all of which, but for Rural Rides, Cottage Economy (1822), The English Gardener (1828), and Advice to Young Men, is out of print.
Cole, G. D. H. The Life of William Cobbett. London: William Collins Sons and Co., 1924. The once-definitive biography by a figure significant to British labor history in his own right. Still invaluable for a sense of what Cobbett meant to English Socialists a century after his death.
Green, Daniel. Great Cobbett: The Noblest Agitator. London: Hodder and Staughton, 1983. A highly approving biography by a latter-day Cobbettite. Concentrates deliberately, and, again, approvingly, on Cobbett’s “Tory” phase, but prefers to stress the “populist” theme.
Sambrook, James. William Cobbett. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Written for the publishers’ Authors Guides series; combines an alternative critical reading of Cobbett with rare literary appreciation.
Spater, George. William Cobbett: The Poor Man’s Friend. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. The most recent definitive biography of Cobbett. Great detail and able handling.
Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Gollancz, 1963. Only passingly about Cobbett, Thompson’s work offers a broad sense of the popular movement in which he was involved. Contains an invaluable discussion of Cobbett’s relationship to the emergent working-class consciousness in England.
Williams, Raymond. Cobbett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. A brief but dense volume in the Oxford Past Masters series by a highly learned literary and cultural critic. Passes quickly over Cobbett’s life to a deft discussion of themes and issues.
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