(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.