TABLE OF CONTENTS
The late Robert Ernst, a professor of history at Adelphi, wrote the following essay about Cobbett and Hunt. It is a fitting introduction to the list of manuscript material in The William Cobbett Collection.
"If you were to die I should think the world a great deal less worth living for." So wrote William Cobbett from Newgate Prison to his sick friend, Henry Hunt, in the year 1811. The full story of the relationship of these two scrappy English radicals is long and turbulent, and Adelphi University's collection of Cobbett's fascinating letters to Hunt during the period 1809-1829 sheds much light on these men and their times.
Cobbett (1763-1835) and Hunt (1773-1835) were both farmers' sons and never lost their interest either in agriculture or in improving the sad condition of the impoverished rural population of England. Both became radical reformers and anticipated the Chartist movement by advocating universal suffrage, voting by ballot, and the annual election of Parliament. Both ran afoul of the authorities and landed in jail -- Hunt apparently more often than Cobbett -- and both eventually were elected to Parliament a few years before their deaths. Cobbett was a pungent journalist, who loved a fight and whose style was racy, sarcastic, and savage, while Hunt was a popular political orator, who, as an accomplished debater in the House of Commons, attacked the moderate reformers, demanded repeal of the Corn Laws, and presented the earliest petition in favor of women's rights.
As a young militiaman, Hunt had been fined and had served his first jail term at the turn of the century for challenging his commanding officer to a duel and refusing to apologize for his conduct. In 1810, for assaulting a gamekeeper, he was again sent to prison. Soon Cobbett was incarcerated there for another offense, and these two prisoners shared the same room. The two radicals already had become friends, Hunt having introduced himself to Cobbett sometime between May 1805 and January 1806. Hunt had presented Cobbett with a freehold tenement in Bristol in 1809 to enable him to address a political meeting which Hunt had organized there.
After serving their prison terms, these indomitable reformers became ever more popular among the masses. They exploited working class discontent during and after the Napoleonic Wars and tirelessly flayed the Tory politicians in power, Cobbett in his Political Register, and both of them in stump speeches. In 1812 Cobbett canpaigned for Hunt Adelphi now possesses the manuscript of a speech he delivered in Bristol -- but his friend failed of election to Parliament in that year. About the same time, Cobbett vented his disgust at the use of troops at elections. "This employment of soldiers is abominable," he wrote Hunt on July 4, 1812. "It is the last stage of degradation of the system. The nature of that system now stands confessed."
It was Hunt who presided at the famous meeting in Manchester on August 16, 1819, which was dispersed by troops in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. The object of the meeting was to demand the reform of Parliament. Some 60,000 people, including many women and children were present. Suddenly the 15th Hussars and the Cheshire Yeomanry swooped down upon the unarmed crowd, and when the slaughter was over at least 600 were killed or wounded. Hunt was arrested and convicted on a political charge, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. While in jail he wrote his wordy memoirs. He emerged in 1822 amid the carefully staged rejoicing of his followers. It was he who set the fashion in the 1820's of wearing a white hat as a symbol of radicalism and defiance of the Tory regime.
Handsome and vivacious, with a powerful physique, Hunt was vain, domineering, capricious, and jealous of political rivals. Eventually he alienated even his old friend Cobbett. When he died he was buried in the family vault of his mistress, who evidently was one of the few who befriended him to the last.
Publications from the pens of William Cobbett and his children, and other Cobbett imprints, form a major part of the Adelphi collection, which now has over 300 titles and editions in approximately 500 volumes and 43 manuscripts. Included in the manuscript materials are 33 letters written by William Cobbett from 1809 to 1829 to Henry Hunt which are considered to be an important holding of Cobbett letters by an American library. Cobbett and Hunt were both leaders of the parliamentary reform movement, Cobbett being the master of the press of his day, and Hunt the master of oratory.
The collection contains material about the Cobbetts and their time: Cobbett-related pamphlets and Cobbett biography, criticism and bibliography. Also in the collection are numerous examples of anti-Cobbett literature, which appeared at all periods of Cobbett’s life and which forms a significant facet of his history, reflecting in its own manner the extraordinary power of his influence and the independence of his character.
Preferred citation for this material is as follows:
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); The William Cobbett Collection; Box and folder number; Adelphi University Archives and Special Collections, Garden City, NY.
Established by the Friends of the Adelphi University Library in 1948 as one of its first interests, the William Cobbett collection has become the major special author collection of the Library. The collection continues to be supported by the Friends and over the years has also benefitted from the generosity of many other donors, most notably a gift by Mrs. C. Rexford Davis of her husband’s Cobbett library; the collection is therefore named in memory of Dr. Davis, Cobbett scholar and bibliographer at Rutgers University.
The Cobbett collection is open to research. Photocopies of fragile materials are provided for researchers in lieu of the originals.
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish materials from the collection must be requested from Adelphi University Archives and Special Collections. Researchers are responsible for copyright compliance.
Cobbett, William 1763-1835
Hunt, Henry, 1773-1835 Correspondence
Great Britain—Politics and Government –1800-1837
Press and Politics—Great Britain
Publishers and Publishing—Great Britain—Archives
Satirists, English—18th century –Biography
Social reformers—Great Britain—Biography
Materials in the collection are arranged into two series:
Series 1: Cobbett Correspondence
Series 2: Cobbett Miscellany
The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.