History of Literature

English literature



William Cobbett

born March 9, 1763, Farnham, Surrey, Eng.
died June 18, 1835, London

English popular journalist who played an important political role as a champion of traditional rural England against the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

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. Cobbett’s careers as a journalist and, for the last three years of his life, as a member of the House of Commons were devoted to restoring his ideal of rural England in a country rapidly being transformed by the Industrial Revolution into the world’s foremost manufacturing nation.

Although he embraced advanced political ideas, Cobbett was at heart not 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, in part because of his lucid, racy 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.

At the age of 21, Cobbett joined the army, in which he eventually rose to the rank of sergeant major. He taught himself English grammar and thus laid the foundation of his future career as a journalist. After serving in Canada, he returned to England in 1791 and charged certain of his former officers with corruption. Although venality was all but general in the army, indeed in the whole of public life, his charges boomeranged when the officers sought to bring countercharges against him. Rather than appear at a court-martial, Cobbett fled to France. Quickly realizing that France in the throes of revolution was no place for an Englishman, he sailed for America, settling in Philadelphia, where he supported himself and his family by teaching English to French émigrés.

An effusive welcome accorded Joseph Priestley by radical republican groups in the United States after the radical scientist 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. It 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 12 volumes. His violent journalism won him many enemies and the nickname “Peter Porcupine.” After paying a heavy fine in a libel judgment, Cobbett returned to England in 1800.

The Tory government of William Pitt welcomed Cobbett and offered to subsidize his powerful pen in further publishing ventures. But Cobbett, whose journalism was entirely personal and always incorruptible, rejected the offer and in 1802 started a weekly, Political Register, which he published until his death in 1835. Though the Register at first supported the government, the Treaty of Amiens (1802) with France disgusted him, and he promptly called for a renewal of the war. Cobbett believed that commercial interests were dictating English 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 jail (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 recognized 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. 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. The government, seeing sedition in even the most moderate proposals for change, repressed dissent, and the following year 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 unsuccessfully tried to be elected to the House of Commons in 1820 from Coventry and in 1826 from 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.

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 his beloved southern England had rioted in protest against their low wages. Cobbett defended them and as a result 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 jail 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, in 1835.

Passionate and prejudiced, Cobbett’s prose, full of telling phrases and inspired ridicule, 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.

John W. Osborne



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