[BITList] Life in the late 1700s and early 1800s in the UK.

John Feltham wantok at me.com
Wed Mar 10 07:35:00 GMT 2010

This may interest some Listers...

To read this Life of the Day complete with a picture of the subject,

visit http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/lotw/2010-03-09

Cobbett,  William  (1763-1835), political writer and farmer, was born on 9 March 1763 in Farnham, Surrey, the third of four children of George Cobbett, publican and farmer, and his wife, Anne Vincent.

Early life and the army

As a youth Cobbett worked chiefly as a ploughboy and gardener: he frequently boasted in adult life that he was 'bred at the plough-tail'  (W. CobbettA Year's Residence in the United States of America, 1818, general preface, paragraph 8). Although he vaguely recalled attending school for a brief period during his youth, Cobbett learned his letters at home, chiefly from his father. In 1783, longing for new horizons and adventure, he attempted to enlist in the Royal Navy, though by inadvertence he found himself in a marching regiment, the West Norfolk 54th foot. For the first year of his enlistment Cobbett was stationed at Chatham, where he worked at his military exercises and read voraciously: 'novels, plays, history, poetry, all were read', he later wrote, 'and nearly with equal avidity'  (W. CobbettLife and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, ed. G. D. H. Cole, 1927, 33). Between 1785 and 1791, while stationed in New Brunswick, Cobbett put his knowledge of English grammar and letters to good effect, quickly becoming clerk to his regiment and rising from the rank of corporal to sergeant-major. In his office as clerk Cobbett believed that he encountered instances of peculation by the officers of his regiment, and upon returning to England and receiving his military discharge in 1791, wrote an anonymous pamphlet entitled The Soldier's Friend (1792), a passionate indictment of the harsh treatment and poor pay of the common soldier. At the same time Cobbett attempted to launch a court martial against the offending officers, and when this threatened to rebound on Cobbett himself, he and his new wife, Nancy Anne Reid (1774-1848)-an English woman whom he had first met in New Brunswick and married at Woolwich on 5 February 1792-fled to France for six months and subsequently to the United States, where they remained from 1792 to 1800.

In America, 1792-1800

For the first eighteen months of his American residence Cobbett was employed tutoring French emigres in the English language, but in the summer of 1794 he ventured into the American public press by authoring a pamphlet that vehemently denounced the scientist and democrat Dr Joseph Priestley, who had recently fled Britain and been jubilantly received by republican and democratic supporters at New York. For the next five years, usually under the pen-name of Peter Porcupine, Cobbett wrote numerous pamphlets and newspapers articles (he subsequently collected and reprinted his American writings in Porcupine's Works, 12 vols., 1801) which vigorously condemned the French Revolution as well as other expressions of democratic and republican thought-he characterized Thomas Paine, for example, as 'an unconscionable dog', 'a wretched traitor and apostate', and 'a man famous for nothing but his blasphemy and his hatred of England' (W. CobbettPorcupine's Works, 4.79, 4.87; 5.165; Political Register, 8 Jan 1803, 2). As an anti-Jacobin polemicist, Cobbett identified his politics most closely with the federalists-the pro-British and anti-French faction under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton-while taking angry aim at the pro-French, Jacobin-sympathizing democratic faction led by Thomas Jefferson. Yet despite his high profile in the United States, Cobbett always remained ambivalent towards American culture and society, and when pressed by a severe libel case in 1800, he and his family, which now included a daughter, Anne, and a son, William, packed their belongings and set sail for England. Cobbett's farewell message to Americans observed that 'when people care not two straws for each other, ceremony at parting is mere grimace'  (W. CobbettPorcupine's Works, 12.109-10).

The Porcupine and the Political Register

The government of William Pitt, delighted with Cobbett's contributions to the anti-Jacobin cause, immediately offered him control over a government-owned newspaper, but Cobbett declined the offer, preferring to launch his own daily newspaper, and thus to maintain at least the appearance of independence. Cobbett's daily paper The Porcupine, bearing the motto 'Fear God, Honour the King', was duly launched on 30 October 1800, but circulation remained low, and late in 1801 he sold his interest in it. Within a few months, however, he began the Political Register, a periodical which was published, almost without exception, every week between January 1802 and Cobbett's death in 1835. Totalling eighty-nine volumes, or some 42,000 pages, the Political Register is the most important and detailed record of Cobbett's career. Most of his twenty books were serialized in the Register in whole or in part, and in almost each issue he set forth his political and social viewpoints in the leading article-an editorial innovation that Cobbett himself introduced to English journalism. Between 1809 and 1812 Cobbett was jointly involved in the editing and publishing of Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials, and between 1804 and 1812 he was active in collecting and printing parliamentary debates from the Norman conquest onward. Owing to financial difficulties he sold his shares in both projects in 1812 (as the purchaser of the latter was T. C. Hansard, it might be said that the official record of parliamentary proceedings that today is called 'Hansard' could justly be termed 'Cobbett').

Cobbett's political commentary in the early numbers of the Register was thoroughly anti-Jacobin, but by 1804 he began questioning the financial and political policies of the government. Under William Pitt's administration, Cobbett complained, the growing national debt and numerous awards of unmerited sinecures were beggaring the country and heightening animosity between those who paid taxes and those who lived off taxes. At first Cobbett's answer was to support the election of more independent country gentlemen to parliament, but by 1807 he was lending his support to Francis Burdett, John Cartwright, and other campaigners for parliamentary reform. At the same time Cobbett became increasingly obsessed with financial issues, especially the national debt and the government's increasing reliance upon paper money. He opposed these trends for the rest of his days, regularly decrying government debts and paper currencies in his writings, notably in his Paper Against Gold (1815). By the early 1820s Cobbett was convinced that the debt was too large ever to be paid off, and accordingly vowed to roast himself on a gridiron if the government could restore payment in specie without defaulting on the debt (henceforth Cobbett and his critics included sketches of gridirons in their writings and cartoons).

Cobbett and rural England

During the early 1800s the Register focused chiefly on metropolitan politics but gradually from 1805 onwards Cobbett became increasingly concerned with rural England, particularly the economic hardship of farmworkers. In 1805 he purchased a farm at Botley in Hampshire, and it was here that Cobbett (save for the years 1810-12, which he spent imprisoned in Newgate after he was prosecuted by the government for publicly criticizing the flogging of several militiamen at Ely), together with his wife and four children, made his primary residence between 1805 and 1817. Life at Botley was happy for the Cobbetts. Political reformers were frequent guests and the Cobbett family became deeply involved in Hampshire rural society and in the daily routine of farming. As Mary Russell Mitford observed in 1806, Cobbett's ready hospitality, together with his ruddy complexion, red waistcoat, ample mid-section, and twinkling eye, gave him the appearance 'of a great English yeoman of the old time'  (M. R. MitfordRecollections of a Literary Life, 1883 edn, 200-01). Similarly, William Hazlitt saw in Cobbett a Georgian gentleman farmer who 'speaks and thinks plain, broad, downright English'  (W. HazlittThe Spirit of the Age, ed. E. D. Mackerness, 1969, 244-56). Cobbett's countryman appearance came as a surprise to some observers, such as the tory adversary at a Hampshire county meeting in 1813 who nearly mistook Cobbett for 'one of the innocent bacon-eaters of the New forest'. Wisely, this same commentator went on to observe that 'when I knew that it was Cobbett, you may believe I did not allow his placid easy smile to take me in'  (Letters of Timothy Tickler, esquire, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 14, 1823, 329).

Radicalism and its price

The years 1816-17 were important but difficult ones for Cobbett. The massive demobilization which followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, together with the disastrous grain harvest of 1816, brought acute hunger and unemployment to the countryside. Cobbett's response was to launch a mass-circulation, broadsheet edition of the Political Register (priced at 2d. it was derisively labelled 'two-penny trash' by its detractors, a title that Cobbett gleefully adopted for the new venture), in which he urged English workers not to riot but to pursue parliamentary reform as the great answer to their economic plight. The election of radical reformers to parliament, he argued, would ensure lower taxes, fuller employment, and increased earnings for all working people. The first cheap Register alone sold 44,000 copies in the first month, and Home Office records for 1816-17 indicate that its distribution was sufficiently widespread to cause great concern to the government, particularly to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, who early in 1817 rushed several acts through parliament in an attempt to reverse the growth of public support for parliamentary reform. Fearing incarceration because of the new measures, Cobbett set sail for the United States, and arrived in New York on 5 May 1817. Having taken a lease on a Long Island farm, Cobbett lived a quieter life than during his first American sojourn, but he continued the Political Register from abroad as well as writing more books and tracts, most notably the agricultural treatise A Year's Residence in the United States of America (1818) and his widely selling Grammar of the English Language (1818). This latter work, which Cobbett saw as a testament to the intellectual capacity of himself and of the common people as a whole, was intended especially for the use of 'soldiers, sailors, apprentices, and plough-boys'; accordingly Cobbett cheekily drew his examples of faulty grammar from the writings and speeches of such renowned political leaders as the duke of Wellington, Lord Castlereagh, and George III himself. The English Grammar continued to be used in English schools into the 1920s and 1930s; Cobbett's French Grammar, first published in 1824, enjoyed rather less success, though even it had passed into fifteen editions by 1862.

When Cobbett returned from the United States in October 1819 his personal and political fortunes were at a low ebb. He was bankrupt and lost his farm at Botley as a result. The flight to America had damaged his relations with other leaders of the radical movement, most notably his erstwhile ally Henry Hunt, who had remained in Britain during Sidmouth's repressions and stoically endured a prison sentence. None the less, Cobbett believed that he brought with him-in the form of the bones of Thomas Paine-a powerful and emotive symbol around which all parliamentary reformers could rally. But it was not to be. After the Peterloo massacre of August 1819 a new cast of radical leaders began to emerge, and Cobbett himself proved uncomfortable on the hustings during his unsuccessful candidacy in a Coventry by-election in March 1820. During the latter half of 1820, however, Cobbett's fortunes began to improve, chiefly because of the increased circulation of the Register which resulted from his involvement with the Queen Caroline affair. Cobbett devoted numerous Registers to Queen Caroline's cause as well as writing some of her public statements, including the letter to the king which was published in prominent newspapers shortly before her trial in 1820. Happier times were also ushered in when Cobbett resumed his gardening and agricultural interests by beginning a 4 acre seed farm in Kensington. At the same time he wrote several 'sermons' (so-called to avoid the stamp tax), which were in part intended as answers to the conservative and moralizing tracts of Hannah More and the Cheap Repository Tract Society, and also his little manual Cottage Economy (1821), a delightful and highly readable book which instructs English workers in how to brew their own beer, keep bees, and fatten hogs.

Rural distress and Rural Rides

The distressed state of English farming was Cobbett's single greatest concern throughout the 1820s. Sometimes to the irritation of local landlords and farmers, Cobbett would make uninvited appearances at county meetings, where he sought to convince landholders that the only solution to their post-war economic distress lay in a radical reform of parliament, which by 1820 he saw as entailing nothing less than universal manhood suffrage. It was partly to spread this message, and partly to strengthen his knowledge of rural England, that Cobbett now undertook his celebrated rural rides, most of them between 1821 and 1826. Describing his purpose as to hear 'what gentlemen, farmers, tradesmen, journeymen, labourers, women, girls, boys, and all have to say; reasoning with some, laughing with others, and observing all that passes'  (W. CobbettPolitical Register, 14 Dec 1822, 686), Cobbett rode on horseback through most of the southern counties, attending county meetings, conversing with villagers, and then putting his observations into writing for the Political Register. A separate volume of his travel writings, entitled Rural Rides, first appeared in 1830 and the 'rides' have subsequently appeared in many different versions and editions on account of their accurate and colourful presentation of the English countryside and rural society of Cobbett's time. Late in the 1820s and early in the 1830s, Cobbett periodically ventured into the midlands, but owing to his frequently expressed disdain for 'northern' diets and Scottish 'feelosofers', he made only one trip to the north and only one to Scotland (he made his first and only trip to Ireland during the last year of his life). It was Cobbett's great boast that he was a 'South-of-England' countryman who disliked factories, industrial cities, and even the metropolis itself. He characterized London as the 'Great Wen' on account of its tendency to consume the lion's share of the produce of the countryside and, through its absorption of tax revenues, to deprive rural workers of their traditional fare of bread, bacon, and beer. Meanwhile, from 1827 Cobbett resumed large-scale farming upon leasing an 80 acre farm on the south side of the Thames at Barn Elms. Here he experimented with crops of maize (which he encouraged for human consumption) as well as growing a special straw, which he hoped would allow England to rebuild its straw-plait industry and thereby provide more winter employment for country workers. The results of his experiments are duly noted in his agricultural writing of these years, most notably The Woodlands (1825), Treatise on Corn (1828), and The English Gardener (1829).

Cobbett's rural involvements left him well placed to represent the interests of England's farmworkers, with whom he identified more and more closely during the last fifteen years of his life. It came to Cobbett's notice during his rural rides that the agricultural workers were barely subsisting, especially in the southern, south-eastern, and western counties. From 1828 until 1830 he frequently warned the government that a major rural revolt was in the making, and that steps should be taken to ensure that rural workers were amply provided with employment opportunities, a living wage, and the full protection of the poor law. True to Cobbett's predictions, the southern rural workers arose in rebellion during the Captain Swing disturbances of 1830-31. The new whig government of Lord Grey, suspecting that Cobbett had helped to foment the rising, put him on trial in 1831 for inciting rural workers to commit acts of violence and incendiarism. But Cobbett, conducting his own defence, received an acquittal when the twelve-person jury could not agree on a verdict. Cobbett's national reputation was now enhanced. Even some of his supposedly quirky opinions, such as his claim that the rural workers of southern England would rather be hanged than live on potatoes and tea, were now found to constitute part of the platform of the Swing rioters. Immediately in the aftermath of the revolt Cobbett used his political momentum to agitate for the Reform Bill of 1832, though on this matter he enlarged his constituency to include anyone-whether landlord, farmer, banker, or merchant (he worked closely in 1831-2 with the Birmingham banker Thomas Attwood)-who was prepared to support the terms of the bill, even though the proposed enlargement of the suffrage fell far short of what Cobbett and other radical leaders had hoped for.

In the Commons

The passage of the Reform Act in 1832 paved the way for Cobbett to realize his long-standing quest to be elected to the House of Commons. After unsuccessfully standing for Manchester in December 1832, he joined his friend and political ally John Fielden in a successful contest for the two seats representing the new parliamentary borough of Oldham. Cobbett had a short but distinguished career in parliament, frequently bringing on his head the ire of the house by such daring moves as his unsuccessful motion that the king be asked to dismiss Robert Peel from the privy council for gross mismanagement of the nation's finances. As he knew himself, he was more adept at representing the interests of southern agricultural workers than those of northern industrial labourers, a matter which brought praise from southern rural counties but complaints from some of Cobbett's Oldham electors. Opportunities to federate agricultural and industrial concerns were taken up by Cobbett from time to time, most notably in his support for the Tolpuddle Martyrs and in his unsuccessful but profound opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The eventual passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act by the whig government demoralized Cobbett to the point where, for the first time in his public life, he called clearly and unequivocally for popular insurrection against the government. Two of his last books, Legacy to Labourers (1834) and Legacy to Parsons (1835), much like his earlier treatises The Poor Man's Friend (1826-7) and his best-selling History of the Protestant Reformation (1824-7), describe at length the means employed by the state to dispossess the English poor, beginning with the crown's appropriation of church lands during the Reformation.

Final years, death, and reputation

Cobbett, though, was nearing the end of his long and varied career. Plagued by unhappy conflicts with his wife and the rest of his family during his final years, he continued to write and to farm until his death. In 1832 he agreed to rent a farm of 130 acres at Normandy, near Ash in Surrey, some 7 miles from his birthplace at Farnham. It was here, surrounded by family members, that he died on 18 June 1835. Nine days later, on 27 June 1835, he was buried in the graveyard of St Andrew's Church in Farnham. Leaving a bankrupt estate, Cobbett was survived by his wife, Nancy, three daughters (Anne, Eleanor, and Susan) and four sons (William, John, James, and Richard). There are no direct descendants remaining.

There are now a dozen biographies of Cobbett, and he has attracted interest and accolades from an enormous variety of thinkers and writers, including persons of such diverse political views as Karl Marx, Matthew Arnold, G. K. Chesterton, A. J. P. Taylor, Raymond Williams, Michael Foot, and E. P. Thompson. Cobbett's writings can appeal to both left- and right-wing thinkers on account of his populist style: he was conservative and backward-looking in many of his social and cultural ideals (one of his most resounding aims was to see a return to the rural England into which he was born in the 1760s) but at the same time he devised and fiercely promoted a thoroughly radical and democratic agenda in politics and economics. Unlike his mentor Thomas Paine, Cobbett was not interested in pursuing a republican programme for Britain; nor was he much interested in international politics. Cobbett was a 'Little Englander' who liked to boast that he was not a 'citizen of the world', for 'it is quite enough for me to think about what is best for England, Scotland and Ireland'  (W. CobbettPolitical Register, 20 Aug 1831, 495). Never forgetting his origins as a self-taught ploughboy, Cobbett sought to rest his platform and writing upon popular English ideals, perhaps most notably in his enthusiasm for fair play, old-style hospitality, manly sports, and preference for a vigorous rural culture over the supposedly effeminate and degenerative environment of the towns. Cobbett retained to the last a strong sense of national identity, frequently chiding the United States and other rival powers that they had better not 'swagger about and be saucy to England'  (W. CobbettPolitical Register, 2 June 1832, 545-6), and he stated that his attachment to the Church of England was partly motivated by the fact that it 'bears the name of my country'  (W. CobbettLife and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, ed. G. D. H. Cole, 1927, 33). Altogether Cobbett wrote and published some 30 million words over the course of forty years (perhaps more than any other English writer), and while many of these words can be exposed as contradictory and self-serving, it can be said wholeheartedly with Karl Marx that Cobbett was 'a plebeian by instinct and sympathy'  (K. Marx, letter to New York Daily Tribune, 22 July 1853).

For Cobbett the essence of England was its countryside, not the 'wen' of London or the industrial cities of the midlands and north. Although his agrarian and rural devotions sometimes drew criticism from even his fellow radicals, Cobbett's response was fair, simple, and personal: 'Born amongst husbandmen, bred to husbandry ... it is natural that I should have a strong partiality for country life, and that I should enter more into the feelings of labourers of husbandry than into those of other labourers'  (W. CobbettPolitical Register, 5 May 1821, 343). Non-agricultural workers were also of concern to Cobbett, but it became his great mission to articulate the wants and aspirations of the 'chopsticks' (as he fondly called the rural labourers) because they were in his estimation, 'the very best and most virtuous of all mankind'  (W. CobbettPolitical Register, 29 Jan 1831, 288). Numerous commentators during the past century and a half have sought to measure or understand Cobbett in relation to urban and industrial models of politics, culture, and society. As a result Cobbett has too often been presented as anti-urban, anti-industrial, anti-modern. He was, in some ways, all of these things, but he was also a positive and original writer who sought to unite English workers, whether of town or country, on a national reform platform that would bring about a new democratic order.

Ian Dyck 

Sources  G. D. H. Cole, The life of William Cobbett, 3rd edn (1947) + G. Spater, William Cobbett: the poor man's friend, 2 vols. (1982) + I. Dyck, William Cobbett and rural popular culture (1992) + J. Sambrook, William Cobbett (1973) + R. Williams, Cobbett (1983) + K. Schweizer and J. Osborne, Cobbett in his times (1990) + P. W. Gaines, William Cobbett and the United States, 1792-1835 (1971) + M. L. Pearl, William Cobbett: a bibliographical account of his life and times (1953) + L. Melville [L. S. Benjamin], The life and letters of William Cobbett in England and America, 2 vols. (1913) + M. Wiener, 'The changing image of William Cobbett', Journal of British Studies, 13/2 (1973-4), 135-54 + L. Nattrass, William Cobbett: the politics of style (1995) + E. I. Carlyle, William Cobbett: a study of his life as shown in his writings (1904)
Archives Adelphi University, New York + BL, Add. MSS 31125-31127, 31857 + Boston PL + Farnham Museum + FM Cam. + Harvard U., Houghton L. + Hunt. L. + JRL + Nuffield Oxf. + NYPL + Rutgers University, Alexander Library + Trinity Cam. + University of Illinois | BL, letters to Akerman, Wright, Swann, Windham, Egerton MS 3808, Add. MSS 22906-22907, 37853 + Bodl. Oxf., correspondence with Wright, Swann + Hist. Soc. Penn., letters to James Mathieu + NL Wales, letters to William Williams + Som. ARS, correspondence with Daniel Badcock + Trinity Cam., Sraffa MSS + Yale U., Beinecke L., Osborn MSS
Likenesses  J. R. Smith, portrait, 1800, priv. coll. · F. Bartolozzi, stipple, pubd 1801 (after J. R. Smith), BM, NPG · W. Ward, mezzotint, pubd 1812 (after J. R. Smith), BM · G. V. Palmer, line engraving, pubd 1817 (after miniature by G. M. Brighty), NPG · etching, c.1817 (after A. Buck), NPG · portrait, c.1830, priv. coll. · G. Cooke?, portrait, c.1831, Botley Market Hall [see illus.] · J. P. Dantan, caricature, plaster statue, 1834 (with Daniel O'Connell), Musee Carnavelet, Paris · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG · bust, Farnham · monuments, Botley · oils, NPG · watercolour drawing, NPG
Wealth at death  bankrupt

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