The Life of William Cobbett: A Summary

WILLIAM COBBETT (1763-1835)

 

1817-1819 Cobbett in exile on his farm on long Island, where he continued to write his daily newspaper.

Contemporaries of William Cobbett, who was born in Farnham and is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, would have known of him as a radical politician and the foremost political journalist of the age. Writing in the 1790’s (under the pseudonym of “Peter Porcupine”) in the United States, and then under his own name in England from 1800 onwards, Cobbett became the scourge of successive governments. In pamphlets, newspapers and books he mercilessly exposed corruption, nepotism and maladministration in high places, cried out about the miserable conditions of the agricultural labourers, and, undeterred by fines and imprisonment (1810-1812) for seditious libel, exile to the US, and enforced bankruptcy he repeatedly called for a radical reform of Parliament and the Church. His efforts were rewarded by the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, and he spent the last two and a half years of his life as the Member of Parliament for Oldham, fighting on the floor of the House of Commons for his “beloved country­men“, the labourers of the United Kingdom. Today, Cobbett is probably best remembered as the founder of Hansard and for such books as Cottage Economy, The English Gardener and A Grammar of the English Language, though the 89 volumes of his weekly newspaper The Political Register are greatly valued, as much by social historians as by students of nineteenth century politics. Best known of all is his book Rural Rides, an account of a series of rides on horseback in the 1820’s in which he combines brilliant political polemic with marvelous and moving descriptions of the increasingly impoverished English countryside. Cobbett was a compulsive author – twenty million words, much of which is available on the Internet. Apart from his books, he wrote on many other topics, including the Church of England, farming, paper money, education and the Press. He was frequently contentious, sometimes contradictory, always readable and often funny.


COBBETT SKETCHES HIS TURBULENT LIFE


“Talk of rocks and breakers and quagmires and quicksands, who has ever escaped from amidst so many as I have! Thrown on the wide world (by my own will indeed) at an early age without money to support and without book-learning to assist me; then becoming a common soldier and leading a military life for eight years; marrying, going at once to France to acquire the language, thence to America; passing eight years there, becoming bookseller and author and taking part in all the important discussions of the interesting period from 1793-1799… conducting myself… in such a way as to call forth marks of unequivocal approbation from the Government at home; returning to England in 1800, resuming my labours here, suffering during these past twenty-nine years, two years of imprisonment, heavy fines, three years’ self-banishment to the other side of the Atlantic, and a total breaking of fortune, so as to be left without a bed to lie on, and during these twenty-nine years of troubles and punishment, writing and publishing every week of my life… a periodical paper containing more or less of matter worthy of public attention…and publishing books of great and continued sale, and introducing into England several valuable trees and the cultivation of the Corn-plant, so manifestly valuable as a source of food; and having during these same twenty-nine years of troubles, embarrassments, prisons, fines and banishments, bred up a family of seven children to man’s and woman’s state – if such a man be not, after he has survived and accomplished all this, qualified to give Advice to Young Men, no man is qualified for that task.” From Advice to Young Men, published in 1829.


WILLIAM COBBETT (1763-1836): HIS LEGACY


 

As William Cobbett Society members will know, 2013 was the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Cobbett, Farnham’s most famous son, who was born in the Wm Cobbett pub and is buried in St Andrews Churchyard. We learnt about his importance and relevance on 5th June 2013 when Dr Richard Thomas ,Vice-Chairman of the William Cobbett Society, gave us the following lecture in St Joan’s Hall, Farnham. Cobbett was undoubtedly the most famous journalist of his age. However,  It could be argued, when considering his legacy, that he achieved very  little—after all, journalists, politicians and bankers still behave badly and it would be a brave person who tried  to claim that ‘The Thing’, Cobbett’s name for the Establishment, did not control the levers of economic and political power in the UK today.

Although best known for Rural Rides and for founding Hansard he should be better known for his religious tolerance, his progressive views on education, his views on paper money and the national debt, his sympathy for the Irish and the unnecessary suffering  which they endured at the hands of  grasping landlords, and for  his enthusiasm for Cottage Economy and self-help. His views are consistently humane and pro-poor but they locate him as a nostalgic pre-industrial radical with little to say about how to deal with the rapid and destructive changes which were affecting everyone in Europe in the early 19th century.

It could be claimed that while he was an important witness of a vanishing age history has passed him by. However, a more careful look at the evidence shows a more complex picture.

He was a leading figure among the radicals, who successfully pushed for electoral reform.  The eventual passage of the reform act of 1832, although also called ‘the great Whig betrayal’, began the process of electoral and hence parliamentary reform. This in turn led to minor but real changes to the law (such as the 10 hour Bill) which slightly improved the lot of children in factories. These changes started a process which enabled Britain to follow the reform rather than the revolutionary route in the mid 19th century. His  attacks on Malthus and  the Poor Law reform were heard in the House of Commons by a young shorthand reporter, Charles Dickens, who with the publication of Oliver Twist , brought the terrible conditions of the workhouses to the attention of the book buying middle classes who could, and eventually did, support social reforms.

In foreign affairs he wrote approvingly of the kindness of the French citizens he met while briefly in France. He even noted the value of some of Napoleon’s reforms while, nevertheless, excoriating the brutality of the revolutionary leaders. It is undeniable that his patriotic writings while in the US helped to keep the US from supporting the French side in the Anglo-French (Napoleonic Wars). This accounts for the otherwise remarkable fact that having left in a hurry in 1792 to avoid prosecution he was, within days of his return to the UK in 1800, dining with Pitt and Canning. His refusal to accept government jobs and become a government toady may not have been followed very often in the subsequent 200 years but it shows that it can be done. He was also, unusually for the time, against foreign adventures and knew from his army experience the real, human, costs of our involvement in India. ‘The recent intelligence from India is of a gloomy complexion … as it gives an account of the loss of a great number of English Officers and Soldiers. …what right have we to do this?  Conquests in India are not at all necessary either to our safety our comfort. There is no glory attending such conquests and their accompanying butcheries.

We must be actuated by a shere love of gain; a shere love of plunder. PR XIII 16/04/08 Although his best known book is undoubtedly Rural Rides with its mixture of sentimentality, acute observation of conditions in the country and occasional angry outburst about the new ‘gentleman’ farmers and landowners (who neglected their responsibility to their workers–thus increasing the number who ended up in the workhouse), it could be argued that it was not his most significant achievement. Rural Rides is reportage of the first order and although full of sympathy for the agricultural workers, it did not hurt the establishment; nor was it likely to lead to any significant changes in the law or in the direction of social change, because it had no theoretical underpinning or predictive quality. Karl Marx, who read and admired Cobbett, did have a theory and did change the way people thought about the world. It is the quality of Cobbett’s observation and the power of his writing which enabled others to use what he wrote.  To Marx he was a writer who ‘saw the effects but did not understand the causes of the new social agencies at work’. Cobbett’s ‘field work’ and observations informed The Making of the Working Class, a seminal work of social history by E P Thompson, who quotes Cobbett more than any other writer. As Thompson says: ‘Cobbett’s ideas can be seen less as a one-way propagandist than as the incandescence of an alternating current between his readers and himself…Few writers can be found who were so much the ‘voice ‘of their own audience’ (Making of the English Working Class p833). This was a major achievement—so was his impact on future writers and journalists. Despite being dismissive of the poets and writers of the period he was respected by those with radical leanings. Shelley insisted that the Political Register was sent to him in Italy and he was visited, while in prison, by the writer William Godwin, widower of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary (Frankenstein) Shelley.

His writing style and his self-taught understanding of grammar produced not only a best-selling English Grammar but also a new accessible style of journalism. He maintained in the Grammar that ‘the only use of words is to cause our meaning to be clearly understood; and that the best words are those which are familiar to the ears of the greatest number of people’. This sharply contrasts with the long Latinate sentences which many 19th century journalists used to impress and confuse their readers. Hazlett called him ‘a virtual Fourth Estate’ and Leigh Hunt,  as early as 1819, said ‘the invention of printing itself scarcely did more for the diffusion of knowledge and the enlightening of the mind than has been effected by the Cheap Press of this country. Thanks to Cobbett!  The commencement of his two-penny register was an era in the annals of knowledge and politics which deserves eternal commemoration.’ This is not completely fanciful since Cobbett’s cheap version of the Political Register sold between 40-70,000 copies and was read by, or to, all classes of society. Indeed,  Linda Colley argued, in 2003, that his influence survives in the British Press today: ‘His brilliant , pithy, bellicose  writing transformed British political journalism, and has left a mark even today. His true successors may be the violent un-deferential, hugely popular and not unimportant Sun newspaper.’ (LRB 20 Nov 2003). Cobbett might not think of this as praise, but being widely read in taverns, being seen as a friend of the marginalised  and  being always ready to thumb a nose at the establishment is a  comparison he would accept.

His perceptive writing on ‘the condition of England’ was a forerunner to Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. It is doubtful if he would survive unscathed today. His industry would be noted, (he wrote over 20m words with a quill pen) but his inconsistencies would be attacked, his sympathy for the underdog would be ridiculed and his attacks on governments, journalists and bankers might make him popular but would leave him short of influential friends who could ensure that he would continue to be published and read. We are all the poorer for it. See ‘The Opinions of William Cobbett’, J Grande, J Stevenson and R Thomas,  Ashgate, (2013) for a fuller treatment of his enthusiasms and his legacy.