|Born||9 March 1763|
Farnham, Surrey, England
|Died||18 June 1835 (aged 72)|
Normandy, Surrey, England
|Occupation||Pamphleteer, journalist, soldier|
|Notable works||Rural Rides|
|Member of Parliament|
|John Frederick Lees|
William Cobbett (9 March 1763 - 18 June 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer, journalist and member of parliament born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament, including abolishing "rotten boroughs", would ease the poverty of farm labourers. Relentlessly he sought an end to borough-mongers, sinecurists and "tax-eaters" (meaning a wide class of overpaid or corrupt bureaucrats). He opposed the Corn Laws, which imposed a tax on imported grain. Early in life he was a loyal devotee of King and Country, but he later pushed for radicalism, which helped the Reform Act 1832 and his election that year as one of two MPs for the newly enfranchised borough of Oldham. He strongly advocated of Catholic Emancipation. His polemics cover subjects from political reform to religion. His best known book is Rural Rides (1830, still in print).
William Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 9 March 1763, the third son of George Cobbett (a farmer and publican) and Anne Vincent. 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 in the King's garden at Kew.
On 6 May 1783, on a whim, he took the stage coach 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. 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 sergeant major, the most senior rank of non-commissioned officer.
Cobbett 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 American-born Anne Reid (1774-1848), whom he had met while stationed at Fort Howe in Saint John. His children with her were: Anne Cobbett (1795-1877), William Cobbett (1798-1878), John Morgan Cobbett (1800-1877), James Paul Cobbett (1803-1881), Eleanor Cobbett (1805-1900), and Susan Cobbett (1807-1889).
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. Sensing that he was about to be indicted in retribution, he fled to France in 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, and so he sailed for the United States in 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, whose advocacy of bleeding during the yellow fever epidemic may have caused many deaths. 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.
The government of William Pitt the Younger offered Cobbett the editorship of a government newspaper, but he refused, as he preferred to remain independent. His own paper The Porcupine, bearing the motto "Fear God, Honour the King", started up on 30 October 1800, but without success, and he sold his interest in it in 1801.
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. Although initially staunchly anti-Jacobin, by 1804 Cobbett was questioning the policies of the Pitt government, especially the immense national debt and profligate use of sinecures that Cobbett believed was ruining the country and increasing class antagonism. By 1807 he was endorsing reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Cartwright.
Cobbett opposed attempts in the House of Commons to introduce 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."
Cobbett published the Complete Collection of State Trials between 1804 and 1812 and amassed accounts of parliamentary debates from 1066 onwards, but sold his shares in it to T. C. Hansard in 1812 due to financial difficulties. This unofficial record of parliamentary proceedings later became known officially as Hansard.
Cobbett intended to campaign for Parliament in Honiton in 1806, but was persuaded by Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald to let him campaign in his stead. Both men campaigned together but failed, having refused to bribe voters by "buying" votes. This situation also encouraged his opposition to rotten boroughs and belief in parliamentary reform.
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, 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.
By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached four pence a copy. As few people could afford to pay six or seven pence for a daily newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most journals to those 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, and for 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".
The next year Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett now sold the Political Register for only two pence. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000. Critics termed it "two-penny trash", a phrase Cobbett adopted. Cobbett's journal was soon the main newspaper read by the working class. This made Cobbett a dangerous man, and he learnt in 1817 that the government was planning to arrest him for sedition.
After the passage of the 1817 Coercion Act and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings, Cobbett fled to the United States. On Wednesday 27 March 1817, he embarked at Liverpool for New York on the ship Importer, with D. Ogden as master, accompanied by his two eldest sons, William and John.
Cobbett lived for two years on a farm on Long Island, where he wrote Grammar of the English Language and with help from William Benbow, a friend in London, continued to issue the Political Register. He also wrote The American Gardener (1821), one of the earliest horticultural books published in the United States.
Cobbett closely observed alcohol-drinking habits in the United States. He stated in 1819, "Americans preserve their gravity and quietness and good-humour even in their drink." He believed it would be "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."
A plan to return to England with the remains of the British-American radical pamphleteer and revolutionary Thomas Paine (who had died in 1809) for a proper burial resulted in the ultimate loss of the remains. The plan was to remove them 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 16 years later. There is no confirmed story of what happened to them after that, although claims to parts of the body have been made down the years, including his skull and right hand.
Cobbett arrived back in Britain at Liverpool by ship in November 1819.
In 1820, he campaigned for Parliament in Coventry, but finished last in 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 with his son, a variety of maize he called "Cobbett's corn". This was a dwarf strain found growing in a French cottage garden that turned out to grow well in England's shorter summer. To help sell the variety he issued a book entitled A Treatise on Cobbett's Corn (1828). Meanwhile he also wrote his popular Cottage Economy (1822), which taught cottagers some skills necessary for self-sufficiency, such as bread-making, beer-brewing, and livestock farming.
Not content to let information be brought to him for his newspaper, Cobbett did his own journalistic work - especially on his repeated theme of the plight of the rural Englishman. He began riding about the country on horseback, observing events in towns and villages. Rural Rides, a work for which Cobbett is still known, appeared first in serial form in the Political Register from 1822 to 1826, and then in book form in 1830. While writing Rural Rides, Cobbett also produced The Woodlands (1825), a book on silviculture.
Although not a Catholic, 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. Catholics were still forbidden at that time to enter certain professions or 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 in 1823 published his Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. Wilberforce, long suffering from ill health, retired the next year.
In 1829, Cobbett published Advice To Young Men, in which he criticised An Essay on the Principle of Population 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 favourably with other contemporary garden tomes, such as John Claudius Loudon's Encyclopædia of Gardening.
Cobbett continued to publish controversy in the Political Register and was charged in July 1831 with seditious libel for a pamphlet entitled Rural War, endorsing the Captain Swing Riots, in which rioters were smashing farm machinery and burning haystacks. Cobbett successfully conducted his own defence.
Cobbett still sought to be elected to the House of Commons. He was defeated in Preston in 1826 and in Manchester in 1832, but after the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, Cobbett won the seat of Oldham. In Parliament, Cobbett concentrated his energies on attacking corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law. During later life, however, Thomas Macaulay, a fellow MP, remarked that Cobbett's faculties were impaired by age; indeed that his paranoia had reached insanity.
From 1831 until his death, Cobbett managed a farm named Ash in the village of Normandy, Surrey, a few miles from his birthplace at Farnham. Cobbett died there after a brief illness in June 1835 and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's Parish Church, Farnham.
During his lifetime Cobbett campaigned for parliament five times, of which four attempts were unsuccessful:
In 1832 he was successfully elected as member for Oldham.
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 provided 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, in which he had been 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". Possessing a national identity, he often criticised rival countries and warned them that they should not "swagger about and be saucy to England". He said his identification with the Church of England was due in part because it "bears the name of my country".Ian Dyck claimed that Cobbett endorsed "the eighteenth-century Country Party platform".Edward Tangye Lean described him as "an archaic English Tory".
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. A story by Cobbett issued in 1807 coined the term 'red herring' to mean a distraction from an important issue.
Cobbett's sons were trained as barristers and founded a partnership in Manchester named Cobbetts in his honour. The firm dissolved in 2013. His second son John Morgan Cobbett (1800-1877) followed him into politics and like his father became MP for Oldham.
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 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. Farnham has the William Cobbett Junior School 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 to Parliament demanding radical reform and produced radical pamphlets and leaflets to keep Cobbett's politics alive. Some of these are still available in 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.