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...
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