William Cobbett

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William Cobbett
William Cobbett, portrait in oils, possibly by George Cooke, about 1831. National Portrait Gallery, London.
William Cobbett, portrait in oils, possibly by George Cooke, about 1831. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Born(1763-03-09)9 March 1763
Farnham, Surrey, England
Died18 June 1835(1835-06-18) (aged 72)
Normandy, Surrey, England
OccupationPamphleteer, journalist
Notable worksRural Rides
William Cobbett
Member of Parliament
for Oldham
In office
1832–1835
Succeeded byJohn Frederick Lees
Personal details
Political partyLiberal Party

William Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer, journalist and member of parliament, who was born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament including abolishing the "rotten boroughs" would help to end the poverty of farm labourers. Relentlessly he sought an end to the borough-mongers, sinecurists and "tax-eaters" . He was against the Corn Laws, which imposed a tax on imported grain. Early in his career, he was a loyalist devotee of King and Country: but later he joined and publicised radicalism, which helped the Reform Act 1832, and to his being elected that year as one of the two Members of Parliament for the newly enfranchised borough of Oldham. Not a Catholic, he became an forceful advocate of Catholic Emancipation in Britain. He wrote many polemics, concerning subjects from political reform to religion, but is best known for his book from 1830, Rural Rides, which is still in print today.

Early life and military career: 1763–1791[edit]

William Cobbett's birthplace.

William Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 9 March 1763, the third son of George Cobbett (a farmer and publican) and Anne Vincent.[1] He was taught to read and write by his father, and first worked as a farm labourer at Farnham Castle. He also worked briefly as a gardener at Kew in the King's garden.[2]

Cartoon of Cobbett enlisting in the army. From the Political Register of 1809. Artist James Gillray.

On 6 May 1783, due to a whim, he took the stagecoach to London and spent eight or nine months as a clerk in the employ of a Mr Holland at Gray's Inn. He joined the 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot during 1783 and made good use of the soldier's copious spare time to educate himself, particularly in English grammar.[1] Between 1785 and 1791 Cobbett was stationed with his regiment in New Brunswick and he sailed from Gravesend in Kent to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cobbett was in Saint John, Fredericton and elsewhere in the province until September 1791, being promoted through the ranks to become Sergeant Major, the most senior rank of Non-commissioned officer.

He returned to England with his regiment, landing at Portsmouth on 3 November 1791, and obtained his discharge from the army on 19 December 1791. In Woolwich during February 1792, he married Anne Reid, whom he had met while stationed at Fort Howe in Saint John.[3][4]

France and the United States: 1792–1800[edit]

Cobbett had developed an animosity towards some corrupt officers, and he gathered evidence on the issue while in New Brunswick, but his charges against them were ignored. He wrote The Soldier's Friend (1792) protesting against the low pay and harsh treatment of enlisted men in the British army.[1] Sensing that he was about to be indicted in retribution he fled to France during March 1792 to avoid imprisonment. Cobbett had intended to stay a year to learn the French language but he found the French Revolution and the French Revolutionary Wars in progress, so he sailed for the United States during September 1792.

He was first at Wilmington, then Philadelphia by the Spring of 1793. Cobbett initially prospered by teaching English to Frenchmen and translating texts from French to English. He became a controversial political writer and pamphleteer, with pro-British opinions, using the pseudonym "Peter Porcupine".

Cobbett also campaigned against the eminent physician and abolitionist Benjamin Rush,[5] whose advocacy of bleeding during the yellow fever epidemic may have caused many deaths.[6] Rush won a libel lawsuit against Cobbett, who never fully paid the $8,000 judgment, but instead fled to New York and back to England during 1800, via Halifax, Nova Scotia to Falmouth in Cornwall.

Political Register[edit]

The government of William Pitt the Younger offered Cobbett the editorship of a government newspaper, but he refused, as he preferred to remain independent.[1] His own newspaper The Porcupine, bearing the motto "Fear God, Honour the King", first started on 30 October 1800, but it was not a success, and he sold his interest in it during 1801.[1]

Less than a month later, however, he started his Political Register, a weekly newspaper that was published almost every week from January 1802 until 1835, the year of Cobbett's death.[1] Although initially staunchly anti-Jacobin, by 1804 Cobbett was questioning the policies of the Pitt government, especially the immense national debt and the profligate use of sinecures that Cobbett believed was ruining the country and increasing class antagonism.[1] By 1807 he endorsed reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Cartwright.[1]

Cobbett opposed attempts in the House of Commons to propose bills against boxing and bull-baiting, writing to William Windham on 2 May 1804 that the Bill "goes to the rearing of puritanism into a system".[7]

Cobbett published the Complete Collection of State Trials in between 1804 and 1812 and amassed accounts of parliamentary debates from 1066 onwards, but he sold his shares in this to T. C. Hansard during 1812 due to financial difficulties.[1] This unofficial record of Parliamentary proceedings later became known officially as Hansard.

Cobbett intended to campaign for Parliament in Honiton during 1806, but was persuaded by Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald to let him campaign in his stead. Both men campaigned together but were unsuccessful, for they refused to bribe the voters by "buying" votes; the situation also encouraged him in his opposition to rotten boroughs and the need for parliamentary reform.[8]

Prison: 1810–1812[edit]

Contemporary engraving of Cobbett in prison, captioned "The Hampshire Hog in the Pound".

Cobbett was found guilty of treasonous libel on 15 June 1810 after objecting in The Register to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen by Hanoverians. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment in Newgate Prison. While in prison he wrote the pamphlet Paper Against Gold,[9] warning of the dangers of paper money, as well as many essays and letters. On his release a dinner was given in his honour in London. Attended by 600 people, it was directed by Sir Francis Burdett, who, like Cobbett, was an enthusiast for parliamentary reform.

"Two-Penny Trash": 1812–1817[edit]

By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached 4d. per copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a daily newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes. Cobbett could sell only just over a thousand copies a week. Nonetheless, he began criticising William Wilberforce for his endorsement of the Corn Laws, as well as his personal wealth, his opposition to bull- and bear-baiting, and particularly for his approval of "the fat and lazy and laughing and singing negroes".[10]

The next year Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett now sold the Political Register for only 2d. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000. Critics termed it "two-penny trash", a phrase Cobbett adopted.[1]

Cobbett's journal was soon the main newspaper read by the working class. This made Cobbett a dangerous man, and during 1817 he learned that the government was planning to arrest him for sedition.

United States: 1817–1819[edit]

Rural rides in the southern, western and eastern counties of England, 1930.

After the passage of the Power of Imprisonment Act 1817, and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings, Cobbett fled to the United States. On Wednesday 27 March 1817, at Liverpool, he embarked aboard the ship Importer, D. Ogden master, bound for New York, accompanied by his two eldest sons, William and John.

For two years, Cobbett lived on a farm on Long Island where he wrote Grammar of the English Language and with the help of William Benbow, a friend in London, continued to publish the Political Register. He also wrote The American Gardener (1821), which was one of the earliest books concerning horticulture published in the United States.[2]

Cobbett also closely observed alcohol drinking habits in the United States. During 1819, he stated, "Americans preserve their gravity and quietness and good-humour even in their drink." He believed it "far better for them to be as noisy and quarrelsome as the English drunkards; for then the odiousness of the vice would be more visible, and the vice itself might become less frequent."[11]

A plan to return to England with the remains of the British-American radical pamphleteer and revolutionary Thomas Paine (who had died during 1809) for a proper burial resulted in the ultimate loss of Paine's remains. The plan was to remove Paine's remains from his New Rochelle, New York, farm and give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the bones were still among Cobbett's effects when he died more than 20 years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to them after that, although down the years various people have claimed to own parts of Paine's remains, including his skull and right hand.

Cobbett arrived back in Britain at Liverpool by ship during November 1819.

England: 1819–1835[edit]

Cobbett arrived back in England soon after the Peterloo Massacre. He joined with other Radicals in his attacks on the government and three times during the next couple of years was charged with libel.

The introduction of horse-powered threshing machines to farms was one of the principal causes of the Swing Riots.

During 1820, he campaigned for Parliament in Coventry, but finished last of the poll. That year he also established a plant nursery at Kensington, where he grew many North American trees, such as the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and a variety of maize, which he called "Cobbett's corn".[2] Cobbett and his son tried a dwarf strain of maize they had found growing in a French cottage garden and found it grew well in England's shorter summer. To help sell this variety, Cobbett published a book titled, A Treatise on Cobbett's Corn (1828).[2] Meanwhile, he also wrote the popular book Cottage Economy (1822), which taught the cottager some of the skills necessary to be self-sufficient, such as instructions on how to make bread, brew beer and keep livestock.[12]

Not content to let information be brought to him for his newspaper, Cobbett did his own journalistic work—- especially for the theme which he publicized repeatedly: the plight of the rural Englishman. He began riding around the country on horseback, observing what was happening in the towns and villages. Rural Rides, a work for which Cobbett is still known, was published first in serial form in the Political Register, from 1822 to 1826. It was published in book form during 1830. While writing Rural Rides, Cobbett also published The Woodlands (1825), a book concerningsilviculture.[2]

Although not a Catholic,[13] Cobbett at this time also advocated the cause of Catholic Emancipation. Between 1824 and 1826, he published his History of the Protestant Reformation, a broadside against the traditional Protestant historical narrative of the British reformation, stressing the lengthy and often bloody persecutions of Catholics in Britain and Ireland. At that time, Catholics were still forbidden to enter certain professions or to become members of parliament. Although the law was no longer enforced, it was officially still a crime to attend mass or build a Catholic church. Although Wilberforce also worked and spoke against discrimination against Catholics, Cobbett resumed his strident opposition to the noted reformer, particularly after Wilberforce during 1823 published his Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies.[14] Wilberforce, long suffering from ill health, retired the next year.

William Cobbett (left foreground), John Gully (middle) and Joseph Pease (right) (the first Quaker elected to Parliament) arriving at Westminster, during March 1833. Sketch by John Doyle.

During 1829, Cobbett published Advice To Young Men in which he criticised An Essay on the Principle of Population published by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. That year, he also published The English Gardener, which he later updated and expanded. This book has been compared with other contemporary garden tomes, such as John Claudius Loudon's Encyclopædia of Gardening.[15]

Cobbett continued to publish controversial material in the Political Register, and during July 1831 he was charged with seditious libel after writing a pamphlet entitled Rural War endorsing the Captain Swing Riots, the rioters of which were smashing farm machinery and burning haystacks. Cobbett successfully performed his own defence.[16]

Cobbett still wanted to be elected to the House of Commons. He was defeated in Preston in 1826 and in Manchester during 1832, but after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act Cobbett won the parliamentary seat of Oldham. In Parliament, Cobbett concentrated his energies on attacking corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law. During his later life, however, Thomas Macaulay, a fellow MP, remarked that Cobbett's faculties were impaired by age; indeed that his paranoia had developed to insanity.

From 1831 until his death, he managed a farm named Ash, in Surrey in a village named Normandy, a few miles from his birthplace at Farnham. Cobbett died there after a brief illness during June 1835 and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's Parish Church, Farnham.

Parliamentary career[edit]

During his lifetime Cobbett campaigned for parliament five times, of which four attempts were unsuccessful:

During 1832 he was successful and elected as Member of Parliament for Oldham.

Legacy[edit]

The tomb of William Cobbett in the churchyard of St Andrew's church in Farnham.

Cobbett is considered to have begun as an inherently conservative journalist who, angered by the corrupt British political establishment, became increasingly radical and sympathetic to anti-government and democratic ideals. He provides an alternative opinion of rural England in the age of an Industrial Revolution with which he was not in sympathy. Cobbett wished England would return to the rural England of the 1760s to which he was born. Unlike fellow radical Thomas Paine, Cobbett was not an internationalist cosmopolitan and did not endorse a republican Britain. He boasted that he was not a "citizen of world.... It is quite enough for me to think about what is best for England, Scotland and Ireland".[1] Possessing a national identity, he often criticised rival countries and warned them that they should not "swagger about and be saucy to England".[1] He said his identification with the Church of England was due in part because it "bears the name of my country".[1] Ian Dyck claimed that Cobbett rndorsed "the eighteenth-century Country Party platform".[17] Edward Tangye Lean described him as "an archaic English Tory".[18]

Cobbett has been praised by thinkers of various political persuasions, such as Matthew Arnold, Karl Marx, G. K. Chesterton, A. J. P. Taylor, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson and Michael Foot.[1] A story by Cobbett during 1807 resulted in the use of the term 'red herring' to mean a distraction from the important issue.[19][20]

Cobbett's sons were trained as solicitors and founded a law business in Manchester, named Cobbetts in his honour. The business dissolved during 2013.

Cobbett's birthplace, a public house in Farnham once named "The Jolly Farmer", has been renamed "The William Cobbett". The Brooklyn-based history band Piñataland has performed a song about William Cobbett's quest to rebury Thomas Paine entitled "An American Man". An equestrian statue of Cobbett is planned for a site in Farnham.[21][22] William Cobbett Junior school in Farnham was named in his honour; its logo is a porcupine. After Cobbett’s death, Benjamin Tilly, who had served Cobbett as companion, secretary and factotum, initiated The Cobbett Club. Members sent petitions in to Parliament demanding radical reform and produced radical pamphlets and leaflets to keep Cobbett's politics alive. Some of these are still available in various libraries. The William Cobbett Society, based in Farnham, produces a yearly edition of ‘Cobbett’s New Register’, and celebrates Cobbett’s life, works and spirit in various activities including an annual Rural Ride and lecture.

Publications[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Tilford – an ancient oak tree described by Cobbett.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Ian Dyck, 'Cobbett, William (1763–1835)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 23 July 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e Clifford-Smith, S., 'William Cobbett: cottager’s friend’, Australian Garden History, 19 (5), 2008, pp. 4–6.
  3. ^ John Robert Colombo Canadian literary landmarks p47
  4. ^ Jenny's Spring
  5. ^ Cobbett, William (1817). "The Pride of Britannia Humbled". Belmont Abbey College NC USA. Retrieved 27 May 2009.
  6. ^ Brodsky, Alyn (2004). Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician. pp. 337–343.
  7. ^ The Earl of Rosebery (ed.), The Windham Papers. Volume Two (London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1913), p. 234.
  8. ^ David Cordingly, Cochrane the Dauntless: The Life and Adventures of Thomas Cochrane, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-7475-8545-9), p. 105-113.
  9. ^ Cobbett, William. "Paper Against Gold". Cobbett's Paper Against Gold. California Digital Library. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
  10. ^ Metaxas, Eric (2007). Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. pp. 251–252.
  11. ^ Walters, Ronald G., Getting Rid of Demon Alcohol
  12. ^ Clifford-Smith, S., "William Cobbett: cottager’s friend", Australian Garden History, 19 (5), 2008, pp. 4–6.
  13. ^ Hanink, James G (November 2005). "William Cobbett. By G.K. Chesterton. Review". New Oxford Review. LXXII (10). Retrieved 30 March 2009.
  14. ^ Metaxas, pp. 264–265.
  15. ^ Clifford-Smith, S., "William Cobbett: cottager’s friend", Australian Garden History, 19 (5), 2008, pp. 4–6.
  16. ^ State Trials (New Series) II, 789.
  17. ^ Ian Dyck, 'Introduction' in William Cobbett, Rural Rides (Penguin Classics, 2005), p. xxiii.
  18. ^ Edward Tangye Lean, The Napoleonists. A Study in Political Disaffection. 1760–1960 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 206.
  19. ^ Martin Chilton, William Cobbett: forgotten chronicler of England, The Telegraph, 9 March 2015.
  20. ^ World Wide Words
  21. ^ BBC Home town plans statue of Cobbett 21 January 2009
  22. ^ Waverley Borough Council Committee Document William Cobbett Statue

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
New constituency Member of Parliament for Oldham
18321835
With: John Fielden
Succeeded by
John Fielden and
John Frederick Lees