WHO WAS WILLIAM COBBETT?

 

William Cobbett, son of an English small farmer and grandson of a day laborer, was one of the most controversial political journalists during the revolutionary and Napoleonic era and in the agitation to reform the British Parliament.

He was twice a political refugee in the United States: from October 1792 to June 1800, and again from May 1817 to October 1819. His first trip to the new world followed an unsuccessful attempt to expose corruption in his former army regiment: unable to secure essential witnesses and the release of vital data for the trial he demanded, he failed to appear in court, fled to France, and upon the outbreak of war, sailed with his wife to America.

Living most of the time in Philadelphia, Cobbett at first taught English to French émigrés, but this obscure life did not last long. He joined in the pamphlet warfare between Federalists and Jeffersonians, patriotically defending Britain and attacking its detractors. He enjoyed vindictive journalism, as is shown by such titles as: A Bone to Gnaw for the Democrats, A Kick for a Bite, and A Little Plain English Addressed to the People of the United States (all in 1795). Opening a bookshop in 1796, he filled his window with portraits of George III, Lord Howe, and other controversial figures -- all in the face of a mob which threatened to tar and feather him. In 1797 he launched Porcupine's Gazette and Daily Advertiser to advocate alliance with England, war with France, and damnation for the Jeffersonians. The sarcasm and savagery of his humor which outdid that of all his contemporaries, won him little money but much attention. Several times he narrowly escaped prosecution, and President John Adams seriously thought of deporting him. During the yellow-fever epidemic of 1797 Cobbett mercilessly criticized the bleeding and purging of patients. He was sued by Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of his major protagonists, for libel, which cost him $5,000, and not long afterward, homesick and uncertain of the future, he returned to England.

From 1802, with but few interruptions, until his death he published Cobbett's Weekly Political Register. This journal became justly famous for its intelligence and accurate news reporting. But it was also notorious as an example of personal journalism, becoming after 1805 an ardent advocate of political and social reform, for which Cobbett served a jail term. In 1816 he reduced its price to twopence and continued to hammer away against the government, thereby gaining an enormous circulation among the working classes. The Tory regime cracked down on radicalism and suspended the Habeas Corpus Act; Cobbett, fearing prosecution, fled once more across the Atlantic. Landing at New York in 1817, Cobbett rented the Governor Dongan farm at New Hyde Park, and settled down to his favorite routine of farming and writing. Happy only on English soil, he could not conscientiously urge his countrymen to seek liberty and happiness in America. He strongly advised Englishmen not to settle on the western prairies and replied to hearsay accusations that he was in the pay of eastern land dealers. It was at this time that he wrote his Journal of a Year's Residence in the United States (1818-1819).

It was here too that Cobbett wrote his Grammar which became famous. But he was not to stay long for on May 28, 1819, his house burned down and a few months later he returned to England with the bones of Thomas Paine in his baggage.

Back in England he resumed his pursuits of agriculture and agitation. He made a number of political tours, riding about England on horseback and printing his observations in the Political Register. These were later published as Rural Rides (1830). In them we find racy bits of autobiography and outspoken political tirades, descriptions of farming methods and agricultural conditions, country houses of bankers, stock jobbers and successful army contractors, the "rotten boroughs," and especially the misery and starvation among the common people.

Cobbett had long been an outstanding spokesman of the poor. Once again he got into trouble with the authorities and was tried for sedition. When the jury disagreed, he was triumphantly vindicated. He tried several times to secure election to Parliament and eventually succeeded, after the passage of The Great Reform Bill of 1832. Before he could accomplish much, however, he died of the flu in 1835, leaving a wife and seven children.

"[Cobbett] was often wrong; he was a supreme egotist; he was harder on both his friends and his enemies than he should have been; he lied on occasion, possibly as much as the 'great men' of his day; his attainments frequently fell short of his goals. Yet there were elements of greatness in the man. He reminds one at times of Rousseau, of Tolstoy, of Jonathan Swift, of King Lear, of old Harlov in Turgenev's A Lear of the Steppes, or of an Old Testament prophet." George Spater, William Cobbett: the Poor Man's Friend.

Robert Ernst
Professor of History
(The above essay was written by the late Robert Ernst, Professor of History, Adelphi University.)