The English radical journalist and politician William Cobbett (1763-1835) was an advocate of parliamentary reform and a critic of the new industrial urban age.
William Cobbett was born at Farnham, Surrey, on March 9, 1763. His father, a small farmer, could afford him little schooling. Cobbett worked briefly with a copying clerk in London in 1783; he enlisted in the army in 1784 and served until 1791, mostly in Canada. In 1792 he wrote a pamphlet exposing military corruption but was unable to supply adequate evidence to press his case and fled to France and then to America.
Writing under the name of "Peter Porcupine" in Philadelphia, he attacked the French Revolution and defended England, then at war with France. During his American sojourn Cobbett wrote numerous pamphlets and founded and edited several small periodicals, including the Political Censor and Porcupine's Gazette. At this stage in his career he was clearly anti-Radical and anti-Jacobin (pro-Federalist and anti-Democrat in American terms). Cobbett savagely criticized the English scientist Joseph Priestley, who had also settled in Philadelphia, for his support of the French Revolution. But criticism of Dr. Benjamin Rush ended Cobbett's American journalistic career; he accused the famous physician and Democrat of killing patients (George Washington, among others) through his bleeding and purging technique. This brought a charge of libel against Cobbett, and he returned to England in 1800.
Britain's Tory government welcomed him as a literary asset in the struggle against republican France. He opened a bookshop in London and in 1802 began his famous Weekly Political Register. Gradually moving toward radicalism, he criticized the government's conduct of the long Napoleonic War. He was especially concerned about the war's economic repercussions on the home front. Because of his criticism of the government's handling of an army mutiny, in 1810 Cobbett was convicted of sedition and imprisoned for 2 years. Upon his release in 1812, he emerged as the great popular spokesman for the working classes. In his new, cheaper Register, he championed parliamentary reform and attacked the government for the high taxation and widespread unemployment of the postwar period.
Cobbett's newfound radicalism alarmed the government, and he went to America in 1817. On his return to England in 1819 Cobbett discovered a new enemy of the people—industrialism—and he repeatedly attacked this development in his famous Rural Rides. These essays, which praise old agricultural England, were first published in the Register and in book form in 1830.
Although his grand projects, the Parliamentary Debates and the Parliamentary History of England, were taken over by others while he was in prison, Cobbett never lost his interest in politics. He ran for Parliament unsuccessfully twice but was elected in 1832 from Oldham, following the acceptance of the Great Reform Bill. The parliamentary reform implemented by the bill fell far short of the demands of Cobbett and the Radicals, since the working class was still denied the vote. He opposed much of the legislation of the new Whig government in the reformed Parliament, especially the New Poor Law of 1834. He died on his farm near Guilford on June 18, 1835.
Cobbett has been praised as the prophet of democracy, but most of his writings look back to the old agrarian England of responsible landlords and contented tenants. He was not a profound thinker; his comments on economic matters were nearly always erroneous. Emotion rather than reason dictated many of his conclusions. But his passion for the interests of the common man and his ability to write in a jargon that was understood by the working class made him the leading English Radical of the early 19th century.
The range in the evaluation of Cobbett is suggested by the two standard biographies: G.D.H. Cole, William Cobbett (1925), views him as a Radical leader of the working classes, while G.K. Chesterton, William Cobbett (1925), considers him a Conservative. More recent biographies of Cobbett are William Baring Pemberton, William Cobbett (1949), and John W. Osborne, William Cobbett: His Thought and His Times (1966). Osborne more than the earlier biographers minimizes Cobbett's significance, calling him "a failure in politics … and of very limited influence in his lifetime." Mary Elizabeth Clark wrote a specialized study, Peter Porcupine in America (1939). There is a provocative chapter on Cobbett in Crane Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1933).
Booth, Simon, William Cobbett: an introduction to his life and writings, Farnham Eng.: Farnham Museum Society, 1976.
Clark, Mary Elizabeth, Peter Porcupine in America: the career of William Cobbett, 1792-1800, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977 1939.
Cole, G. D. H. (George Douglas Howard), 1889-1959., William Cobbett, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Osborne, John Walter, William Cobbett, his thought and his times, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981, 1966.
Schweizer, Karl W., Cobbett in his times, Savage, Md.: Barnes &Noble Books, 1990.
Williams, Raymond, Cobbett, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. □
COBBETT, WILLIAM (1763–1835), English journalist and essayist known as the "poor man's friend."
William Cobbett, a plowboy turned self-taught writer, achieved enduring fame and transient fortune through the power of his brilliant and vitriolic pen, publishing some thirty million words over the course of forty years. Having come to notice for his vigorous defense of the British establishment under the pen name Peter Porcupine, Cobbett changed his politics but not his unbuttoned style and converted to radicalism in horror at the scandals and incompetence revealed during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1802 he established the weekly Political Register to expose the workings of "the Thing," the war-einflated rentier culture of political corruption and financial plunder that imposed an intolerable tax burden on the poor. The first periodical to introduce a leading article as a regular feature, the Register was to run for eighty-nine volumes, or some 402,000 pages, until his death. Cobbett also undertook other major publishing ventures linked to his commitment to open access to public information, which he saw as the necessary first stage in political education toward the panacea of parliamentary reform: these included the publication of a complete collection of state trials and the collecting and printing of parliamentary debates, a project he was soon forced to sell to the printer T. C. Hansard, who was to gain eponymous credit for this enduring and indispensable public service. No less important were Cobbett's efforts to broaden the audience by a number of innovations and exercises (including self-help spelling and grammar guides) in cheap publication. Here the agenda extended no further than the political basics: no space was allowed for the theoretical stuff and nonsense of those he termed (with characteristic prejudice) "Scottish feelosofers." The self-proclaimed "poor man's friend," Cobbett brought out a special cheap broadsheet edition in 1816 of his weekly Register, promptly dubbed by opponents "two-penny trash," a title he was delighted to appropriate. This was to prove a vital contribution to what historians have called the politicization of discontent: throughout the land, impoverished workers, thrown into dire distress by the transition to peace without plenty after Waterloo, took heed of Cobbett's advice not to riot but to agitate instead for parliamentary reform, their only guarantee of economic amelioration.
When the government shortly afterward introduced special legislation to curb the exponential growth of the radical movement, Cobbett left for the United States, a controversial course of action that allowed him to continue publishing but provoked censure from other radical leaders who remained to contest (and endure) repression. Cobbett returned in late 1819, bearing with him the bones of the republican revolutionary Tom Paine, hallowed testimony, as it were, of his radical credentials. But his reputation remained in question until his whole hearted support (and speechwriting) for Queen Caroline in the unseemly divorce proceedings instigated by George IV on his accession to the throne. When public interest in the affair waned, Cobbett, having established himself as a successful experimental farmer, turned his attention to the depressed state of English agriculture. Relishing the opportunity to escape London, "the Great Wen," he toured his beloved southern England, raising the standard of parliamentary reform at county meetings and conversing on diverse topics with rural laborers, or "chopsticks," the "very best and most virtuous of all mankind." Published in 1830 as evocative travel literature, these Rural Rides, with their occasional detours into the alien North and beyond, have retained a powerful appeal to those whose imagined sense of Englishness centers on an idyllic, preindustrial, anti-urban, southern pastoral. The image was to be complemented by Cobbett's portrayal of social Catholicism, a nostalgic reconstruction (subsequently echoed by late Victorian socialists) of inclusive welfare and care in preindustrial merrie England—a damning benchmark by which to expose and condemn the harsh utilitarianism of the Whig and Benthamite reforms of the 1830s.
Ironically, when Cobbett was able to fulfill his long-held ambition to enter Parliament after the Reform Act of 1832, his constituency, Oldham, was located in the industrial North. By no means the high point of his lengthy public career, his spell in the Commons was also a time of difficulty on his farm in Surrey, which he was compelled to leave to his wife and seven children as a bankrupt estate. This unfortunate ending notwithstanding, Cobbett's reputation has remained high among succeeding generations. The personification of the English yeoman, Cobbett the radical reformer embodied the English sense of fair play, old-time hospitality, and manly sports, hence his continuing appeal across the political spectrum.
Dyck, Ian. William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.
Spater, George. William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.
John F. C. Harrison