The English Peasant/William Cobbett
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Types of English Agricultural Life — William Cobbett
TYPES OF ENGLISH AGRICULTURAL LIFE.
A Peasant Politician.
(Golden Hours, 1874.)
Cobbett was perhaps the most perfect specimen of the typical "John Bull" this country ever produced. Born and bred in Surrey, he knew every inch of the county, traversing it in a way scarcely any other man ever did, and coming at last to end his days there. His father was a small farmer at Farnham, and here, in a house now marked out with pride by his fellow-townsmen, William Cobbett first saw the light on the 9th of March 1762.
"With respect to my ancestors," he says in a graphic bit of autobiography which he gave his foes in America, "I shall go no further back than my grandfather, and for this plain reason—that I never heard talk of any prior to him. He was a day labourer, and I have heard my father say that he worked for one farmer from the day of his marriage to that of his death, upwards of forty years. He died before I was born, but I have often slept beneath the same roof that sheltered him, and where his widow dwelt for several years after his death. It was a little thatched cottage with a garden before the door. It had but two windows—a damson tree shaded one, and a clump of filberts the other. Here I and my brothers went every Christmas and Whitsuntide to spend a week or two, and torment the poor old woman with our noise and dilapidations. She used to give us bread-and-milk for breakfast, an apple-pudding for dinner, and a piece of bread and cheese for our supper. Her fire was made of turf cut from the neighbouring heath; and her evening light was a rush dipped in grease."
Cobbett's description of the locality of his grandmother's cottage, more than once repeated, is so exact that there is not much difficulty in deciding where it once stood. About a half-mile on the road from Farnham to Waverley is a turning to the left, which leads across a wild, sandy Surrey common, rich with brake, and heather, and ling, and broken up everywhere into dells and lanes. Two paths cross each other at right angles, and the cottages, which are scattered all over the common, have to some extent taken their line in connection with these paths. Each stands in its own little garden, or sometimes large garden. On the verge of this common, looking across the valley of the Wey, about a mile from Farnham, just where the road from Moor Park runs into the Farnham Road, stood two little cottages, one of which would, in all probability, have been Grandmother Cobbett's.
What a playground was that wild bit of common for the sturdy little Surrey urchin! It was such a spot as this, if not this very spot, which he pointed out to his son as the sand-hill to which he owed so much. Down its steep sides he and his two brothers rolled each other until their hair, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth were filled with sand, each roll ending in shouts of laughter "Happy as a sand-boy on a Surrey common" is his own description of the culmination of all human felicity, and probably it was the sense of the unending stock of health and good spirits which he then laid in that made him affirm with his usual emphasis that it was owing to the education received on that sand-hill that he was so vastly superior to "the frivolous idiots" turned out from "those dens of dunces called colleges and universities."
No pinching hunger stunted his mind or body. His father was well-to-do, as one may see from his birthplace. It is impossible to read his books, and doubt that he had a soul all alive to the influences of Nature. Up at early dawn, what sights such a boy would see and unconsciously treasure up in his memory! The hill on which his grandmother's cottage stood rises between the two noble demesnes of Moor Park and Waverley Abbey. The road in front immediately curved beneath the woods of Waverley; while to the left stretched the valley of the Wey, its green pastures following its still waters as they flow gently along at the base of the wooded range of hills which form the outworks of Moor Park, and which end in the noble eminence of Crooksbury Hill—an eminence, unlike any other in Surrey, rising into a cone, crested with Scotch firs. "Here," he says, "I used to take the eggs and young ones of crows and magpies. The hill was a famous object in the neighbourhood. It served as the superlative degree of height. 'As high as Crooksbury Hill' meant with us the utmost degree of height."
"A father like ours," he goes on to say, "it will be readily supposed, did not suffer us to eat the bread of idleness. I do not remember the time when I did not earn my own living. My first occupation was driving the small birds from the turnip seed and the rooks from the peas. When I first trudged a field, with my wooden bottle and my satchel swung over my shoulders, I was hardly able to climb the gates and stiles; and at the close of the day to reach home was a task of infinite difficulty. My next employment was weeding wheat, and leading a single horse at harrowing barley. Hoeing peas followed; and hence I arrived at the honour of joining the reapers in harvest, driving the team, and holding the plough. We were all strong and laborious; and my father used to boast that he had four boys, the eldest of whom was but fifteen years old, who did as much work as any three men in the parish of Farnham. Honest pride and happy days!"
"At eleven years," he told the public, in a choice morsel of autobiography which he introduced into an electioneering address, " my employment was clipping of box edges and weeding beds of flowers in the garden of the Bishop of Winchester, at the castle of Farnham, my native town. I had always been fond of beautiful gardens; and a gardener who had just come from the King's gardens at Kew gave such a description of them as made me instantly resolve to work in these gardens. The next morning, without saying a word to any one, off I set, with no clothes except those on my back, and with thirteen halfpence in my pocket. I found that I must go to Richmond, and I accordingly went on, from place to place inquiring my way thither. A long day (it was in June) brought me to Richmond in the afternoon. Two pennyworth of bread and cheese and a pennyworth of small beer, which I had on the road, and one halfpenny that I had lost somehow or other, left threepence in my pocket; with this for my whole fortune I was trudging through Richmond in my blue smock frock, and my red gaiters tied under my knees, when, staring about me, my eyes fell on a little book in a bookseller's window, on the outside of which was written, 'Tale of a Tub,' price threepence. The title was so odd that my curiosity was excited. I had the threepence, but then I could have no supper. In I went and got the little book, which I was so impatient to read that I got over into a field at the upper corner of Kew Gardens, where there stood a haystack. On the shady side of this I sat down to read. The book was so different from anything that I had ever read before, it was something so new to my mind, that though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark without any thought about supper or bed. When I could see no longer I put my little book in my pocket and tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning; when off I started to Kew reading my little book."
Cobbett was a writer who always tried to express in words the exact meaning of his thoughts. This statement of his, therefore, that reading "The Tale of a Tub" produced in him a birth of intellect is not to be dismissed as a mere so-to-speak. lie here claims the author of " The Tale of a Tub" as his literary parent; and it is a singular fact that in the development of his intellectual powers Cobbett manifested a likeness to Swift so marked, that we are forced to say, as we should do in an analogous case of a physical resemblance, "Why, he is the very image of his father."
At the end of the vale of which we have spoken as opening up just in front of Grandmother Cobbett's cottage, is a substantial red-bricked house, with gable roof and three dormer windows. The walls are covered with ivy, and festooned with American creepers. All around are woods rising high above the house. In front are roads cut through the sand-rock, their sides being perforated with martins' nests and crowned by tall firs, at whose feet brake and ling and prodigious fungi grow. By the side of the house a little gate opens into the most picturesque of walks, leading along a level terrace cut right through the hanger, and so entirely shaded by trees, to the mansion once occupied by Sir William Temple in Moor Park. It is no stately avenue, but a wild path through the woods; yet perfectly passable, and as agreeable walking as the turf of a park.
In this cottage, thus romantically situated, lived Hester Johnson, the ill-fated but famous Stella; and along this path she, clad in hooped dress and high-heeled shoes, and her whimsical lover, in his long periwig and rusty black clothes, must have had many a stroll.
It is certainly a curious and perhaps an idle thought to suppose that the spirit which got possession of Swift among these scenes, should have returned after the lapse of a generation to the same place, and found another mind ready for its operation?
However, Cobbett developed almost every one of Swift's characteristics of style; but what we chiefly note is, that from the very first he courted and delighted in his spirit. In Cobbett's "Advice to Young Men" he says: "When I read the work of Pope and Swift, I was greatly delighted with their lashing Dennis." One of Cobbett's favourite maxims, "If a flea or a louse bite me, I'll kill it if I can," is said to have been borrowed from Swift. And he concludes one of his tirades with this remark—"I always say with Swift —
'Hated by fools, and fools to hate,—
A few yards from Stella's cottage stand the park gates of "Waverley," the place from which it is said Scott got the famous title by which his novels are known to the world. If the influence of Swift is visible in Cobbett's style and temper, that of Waverley Park is even more so in his opinions. The demesne had belonged in former times to a monastery of the Cistercian order, founded in 1128 by Giffard, Bishop of Winchester. Two hundred years ago Waverley Abbey was in a very different condition from what it is now. In Cobbett's boyhood there were still the remains of a fine church, and a part of the cloisters. There was also a portion of a magnificent chapel, larger than that of Trinity College, Oxford. Tall and ancient trees everywhere overshadowed the ruins, and there were still the remains of the groves and alcoves of the beautiful gardens which once surrounded the abbey. The kitchen-garden still existed; and in his "English Gardener" Cobbett describes how well it was situated, looking full to the south, with a high hill behind it. He tells how the earliest birds used to sing there, and what prodigious quantities of fruit it used to bear; how the peaches, nectarines, apricots, and fine plums never failed; and how, if the workmen had not lent a helping hand, not a fourth part would have been got rid of. And now he says it is nothing but a coarse,' rushy meadow, all the drains which formerly took away the oozings of the hill having been choked up or broken up; the very spot where he had seen bushels of hautboy strawberries, such as he had never seen since, now nothing but a swampy meadow, producing sedgy grass and rushes. "This most secluded and beautiful spot," he bursts out, "was given away by that ruthless tyrant, Henry VIII., to one of the basest and greediest of cormorant courtiers. Sir W. Fitzwilliams, and finally came into the hands of Sir Robert Rich, who 'tore everything to atoms.' I must be excused," he adds, "for breaking out into these complaints. It was the spot where I first began to learn to work, or rather, where I first began to eat fine fruit in a garden; and though I have now seen and observed upon as many quarters as any man in England, I have never beheld a garden equal to that of 'Waverley.'"
Here we have some inkling of the feelings the frequent sight of these venerable ruins stirred up in his youthful mind. That he loved this place many references in his books testify. To his son in after days he pointed out a tree close to the ruins of the abbey, from a limb of which he fell into the river, trying to take a crow's nest; and another, a hollow elm up which he affirmed that he had once seen a wild cat go that was as big as a middle-sized spaniel dog, and for standing to which slight exaggeration he got a beating.
Many a time as he worked or played in the gardens, or about the ruins, wondering thoughts would no doubt enter his mind as to who the builders of the abbey were, and what kind of men they must have been who could have left such memorials of their power. But it was not until he read the history of his country that the deep impression left on his mind by his early and familiar acquaintance with Waverley Abbey took form, and how it did this passage from his "Protestant Reformation" will show:—
"The monastics built and wrote for posterity. They executed everything in the very best manner; their gardens, fish ponds, farms, in all, in the whole of their economy, they set an example, tending to make the country beautiful, to make it an object of pride with the people, and to make the nation truly and permanently great. Go into any country, and survey, even at this day, the ruins of its perhaps twenty abbeys and priories; and then ask yourself, 'What have we in exchange for these?' Go to the site of some once opulent convent. Look at the cloister, now become, in the hands of a rack-renter, the receptacle for dung, fodder, and faggot-wood; see the hall, where for ages the widow, the orphan, the aged, and the stranger found a table ready spread; see a bit of its walls now helping to make a cattle-shed, the rest having been hauled away to build a workhouse; recognise in the side of a barn a part of the once magnificent chapel"; and so on, until he brings you to "listen to an account of the hypocritical pretences, the base motives, the tyrannical and bloody means under which, from which, and by which, that devastation was affected, and that hospitality banished for ever from the land."
It was the indelible impression which this early acquaintance with Waverley Abbey made on his mind which led him into such a fierce and life-long opposition to all modern social arrangements. In a dashing, witty critique which William Hazlitt wrote on Cobbet's character he says, "He is not wedded to his notions—not he. He had not one Mrs Cobbett among all his opinions." This may seem true to any one who dives . here and there at haphazard into his numerous works, but there is one notion, one opinion, he set out with, which he never changed—a conviction which had its birth in the gardens of Waverley Abbey, which gained strength with every book he read, every experience he passed through, and every scene he saw. And it was this:—that in one way or another the arrangements of modern society all tend to crush the poor man, poor being here a relative term, and not to be understood as merely meaning the "submerged tenth"; but the poor farmer, for instance, as much as the poor labourer. To the last he remained an enthusiastic mediaevalist, never tired of insisting on the greatness and happiness of England in the olden times.
"If I am an extraordinary man," he says in one of his writings, "as I have been called by some persons who ought to have found a different epithet, I was a still more extraordinary boy." For if he was wilful, he was independent—two qualities not always linked together.
To judge from the many inns and public-houses which to our own day attract custom under the sign of "The Rodney," that naval commander would appear to have been one of the most popular of our sea-kings. In April 1782 he obtained a great victory over the French in the Carribee Islands. No doubt it was the national enthusiasm which this victory evoked that aroused in young Cobbett's mind the desire to become a sailor. In the autumn of 1782 he went down to Portsmouth to visit his uncle. At Portsdown he caught sight of the sea for the first time, and the sight caused his heart to glow with patriotic fire.
For two years Gibraltar had been besieged by the Spaniards, and just at the very time that young Cobbett arrived at Portsdown, the fleet under Lord Howe intended for its relief lay at Spithead. "It was not," he says, "the sea alone that I saw; the grand fleet was riding at anchor at Spithead. I had heard of the wooden walls of old England; I had formed my ideas of a ship, and of a fleet: but what I now beheld so far surpassed what I had ever been able to form a conception of, that I stood lost between astonishment and admiration. I had heard talk of the glorious deeds of our admirals and sailors, of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and of all those memorable combats that good and true Englishmen never fail to relate to their children about a hundred times a year. The brave Rodney's victories over our natural enemies, the French and the Spaniards, have long been the theme of our praise and the burden of our songs. The sight of our fleet brought all these into my mind—in confused order, it is true, but with irresistible force. My heart was inflated with national pride. The sailors were my countrymen; the fleet belonged to my country; and surely I had my part in it, and in all its honours: yet these honours I had not earned. I took to myself a sort of reproach for possessing what I had no right to, and resolved to have a just claim by sharing in the hardships and dangers."
He could not sleep that night for thinking of that wonderful fleet, but rose up with the daylight, went down to the old castle on the beach, got on the battlements, and had a nearer look at it. He was impatient to be off at once, so he went without delay to Portsmouth, got into a boat, and in a few minutes was on board the Pegasus man-of-war.
The captain looked at the ruddy-cheeked youth, and, thinking perhaps it was a pity that the owner of such an honest, ingenuous face should be exposed to the corruptions of the forecastle, tried to dissuade him by telling him, in sailor-like fashion, that if he became one of his crew, he would have to be married to Miss Roper. Strange to say, Captain Berkeley had a stronger will than even young Cobbett, and by no entreaties could he be prevailed upon to allow him to stay. The would-be sailor, determined not to be balked, went to the Port-Admiral, but he, directly he learnt what Captain Berkeley had said, refused to entertain the application.
"It is not in a man that walketh to direct his steps." Who would have supposed that in the days of press-gangs, on the eve of active service, two naval commanders would have refused a healthy, intelligent, ardent young volunteer? But so it was! William Cobbett was intended for other work than to help in the relief of Gibraltar, and perhaps get shot for his pains.
However, the sea had inoculated him with its own restless nature. Next year he was off again, and this, time it was to London.
"It was," he relates, "on the 6th of May 1783, that I, like Don Quixote, sallied forth to seek adventures. I was dressed in my holiday clothes, in order to accompany two or three lasses to Guildford Fair. They were to assemble at a house about three miles from my home, where I was to attend them; but, unfortunately for me, I had to cross the London turnpike road. The stage-coach had just turned the summit of a hill, and was rattling towards me at a merry rate. The notion of going to London never entered my mind till this very moment, yet the step was completely determined upon before the coach came to the spot where I stood. Up I got, and was in London about nine o'clock in the evening."
It so happened that going to the fair he had put all the money he possessed in the world into his pocket. He had been years slowly amassing it; but it all went, save one half-crown, by the time he had paid his fair, and had alighted on Ludgate Hill.
Fortunately, there was a gentleman in the coach who had dealt with his father at Weyhill Fair. He was a hop merchant in Southwark, and seeing the danger the young man was in, he took him to his own house, and endeavoured to induce him to return home. But against this young Cobbett's pride rebelled. Finding him so determined, the hop merchant gave up pressing him, and found him a situation as a lawyer's clerk in Gray's Inn.
Here he began to learn something of the slavery of self-will. He had to work from five in the morning until eight or nine at night, and sometimes all night long. However, this new occupation taught him to spell correctly, and gave him an insight into the law.
Walking about one Sunday in St James's Park, his eye caught a placard describing in glowing colours the glory and profit of entering His Majesty's service as a marine.
He was sick of the high stool and dark office in Gray's Inn; so without much thought he started for Chatham to enlist. He took the king's shilling, but to his surprise he learnt the next morning that he had not enlisted in the marine service at all, but that the regiment he had joined was a marching one, the main body of which was then serving in Nova Scotia. The Captain was an Irishman, and with a very little touch of the auctioneer's art quite enchanted the young recruit with a description of the country, and made him wild to be off without a moment's delay; instead of which he was compelled to remain a whole year in the barracks at Chatham. This delay proved to be of great advantage to him, for it gave him leisure to commence that course of self-education which raised him to the position he afterwards occupied. He subscribed to a library in the neighbourhood, and so keen was his appetite for knowledge that he had soon read the greater part of the books some twice over. His intelligence quickly made itself felt. The commandant of the garrison, General Deberg, employed him to copy out his letters; and perceiving his ignorance of grammar, pointed out his mistakes, and advised him to remedy the deficiency. He set about the task with the utmost assiduity. He wrote out the whole of Lowth's Grammar two or three times; got it by heart, and every time he was posted sentinel repeated it to himself from the beginning to the end.
Under what difficulties he carried on the study he relates in a passage which shows the indomitable energy of his character. "I learned grammar," he says in his "Advice to Young Men," "when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day. The edge of my berth, or that of the guard-bed, was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit of board lying on my lap was my writing-table; and the task did not demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candle or oil. In winter-time it was rarely that I could get any evening light but that of the fire and only my turn even of that. To buy a pen or a sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of food, though in a state of half-starvation. I had no moment of time that I could call my own; and I had to read and to write amidst the talking, laughing, singing, whistling, and brawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men, and that too in the hours of their freedom from all control. Think not lightly of the farthing that I had to give now and then for ink, pen, or paper. That farthing was, alas! a great sum for me! I was as tall as I am now; I had great health and great exercise. The whole of the money not expended for us at market was twopence a week for each man. I remember—and well I may—that upon one occasion I, after all absolutely necessary expenses, had, on a Friday, made shift to have a halfpenny in reserve, which I had destined for the purchase of a red herring in the morning; but when I pulled off my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life, I found that I had lost my halfpenny! I buried my head under the miserable sheets and rug, and cried like a child.
Such efforts compelled him to be an early riser, and most correct and regular in all his habits. He was soon marked as a self-reliant and reliable man. He was made a corporal, and then advanced at one leap over the heads of thirty sergeants to be serjeant-major.
The day came at last when his regiment was to sail for Nova Scotia. To men like Cobbett such a voyage is the veritable discovery of a new world. Soon after his arrival the regiment was ordered to St John's, in the province of New Brunswick; and it was while here that he fell in love. It was, as will be supposed, in his own characteristic fashion. To begin with, it was love at first sight. He had not been in Anne Reid's company an hour before he had made up his mind. But nothing so enhanced his opinion of his own judgment as a trifling circumstance which happened shortly after. "It was my habit," he says, "when I had done my morning's writing, to go out at break of day to take a walk on a hill at the foot of which our barracks lay. In about three mornings after I had first seen her I had, by an invitation to breakfast with me, got up two young men to join me in my walk; and our road lay by the house of her father and mother. It was hardly light, but she was out on the snow, scrubbing out a washing tub. 'That's the girl for me,' said I when we had got out of her hearing."
With his usual positiveness and self-confidence he writes, "From the day that I first spoke to her I never had a thought of her ever being the wife of any other man, more than I had a thought of her being transformed into a chest of drawers; and I formed my resolution at once—to marry her as soon as we could get permission, and to get out of the army as soon as I could."
However, his fidelity was destined to a severe trial. The artillery, in which his sweetheart's father was a sergeant-major, was ordered back to England, while his own regiment was sent to Fredericton, a hundred miles up the river St John.
Rambling about the woods of New Brunswick, he lost his way. Night came on, but he could not sleep on account of the cold, and the noise of bears. There was a moon shining, and he wandered on until at last he came on a log hut. The master, a loyalist Yankee farmer, received him with the utmost cordiality. The enjoyment of a good bed and a sumptuous breakfast was intensified by the fact that the house was adorned by the presence of the farmer's daughter, a young girl with the loveliest of blue eyes, and the most bewitching manners and costume.
The young soldier often found his way again to the hospitable log-house, so often indeed that both he and the young damsel and all her family allowed themselves to live quite oblivious to the fact that he had already entered into a prior engagement. Had Anne Reid given him the slightest reason to think she wished to break with him, he would have consented at once, but she did not do so, and the time came when everybody's delusion had to be dispelled, and a shadow left upon the sunlight of that hitherto happy log-house.
Cobbett was rewarded beyond his deserts for his fidelity to Anne Reid. When she had left St John's he had sent her a purse of a hundred and fifty guineas—being, in fact, the whole of his accumulations since he had been in the army; begging her, if she found the military society in her own home at Woolwich disagreeable, not to spare the money, but to take lodgings with respectable people until he returned to England to marry her; to buy herself good clothes, and not to live by hard work. On his return he found that she had not spent a farthing of the money, but had been drudging away during their separation as a maid of all work at five pounds a year.
They were soon married; Cobbett having, immediately after his arrival in England, procured his discharge from the army.
This step had not been taken from any disgust for the profession. On the contrary, it would appear from his rapid promotion and good standing in the regiment that his character and talents were singularly suited to the military life. His commanding officer. Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and his colonel, General Frederick, urged him to remain, offering to use their influence with the King to get him promoted to the rank of an ensign. But Cobbett had long made up his mind, and no prospect, however fine, could affect him; so they gave him his discharge, accompanied by a handsome testimonial of his good conduct while under their command.
What then was his motive? Simply this,—that he might expose and bring to punishment certain officers in the regiment, who he believed guilty of malversation in their several departments. His indefatigable endeavours to improve himself in the three R's had led to his virtually becoming clerk to the whole regiment. The papers and books of the various departments came into his hands, and he soon found that manifold wrongs were done by the officers to the soldiers, and to the public. The quartermaster, for instance, who had the issuing of the provisions, kept the fourth part to himself. Cobbett astonished his fellow-sergeants by proposing to put a stop to such proceedings. But when he made the attempt, he found that it involved him in much disgrace, and would probably only lead to his own degradation; so he thought it best to give up his design until he returned to England, and could get out of the army. Meanwhile he determined to take notes and copies from the regimental books, that he might have evidence of the charges when the time came to make them. To attest the truth of these notes and copies he knew that it would be necessary for him to produce a witness. After some hesitation, therefore, he confided his plan to a young corporal who assisted him in keeping the regimental accounts. But to the last he was in dread lest he and his comrade should be discovered, and made to suffer the wrath of the officers.
Once discharged, he hastened to London and saw Sir George Young, the Secretary of War. A court-martial being ordered, Cobbett requested that it should be held in London, and the books immediately secured. The former demand was acceded to, but no order was issued concerning the latter until two months had elapsed from the time of the charge being made. Cobbett had done this in the middle of January 1792. On the 24th of March he was at Portsmouth, and learnt the books were still in the officers' hands. He immediately wrote to the Judge-Advocate to say that unless the authorities would consent to give a discharge to the soldier he should name as the witness in proof of his charges, he should not appear in the case, as he was sure that otherwise justice would not be done. To this communication no answer was returned.
He was at this time totally ignorant of the nature of the laws relating to sedition, and, like all persons in such case, had an undefined terror of their possible power. When, therefore, he heard it said that he was about to be prosecuted for sedition, and that he stood a chance of being sent to Botany Bay, he became alarmed, and determined at once to put himself out of the reach of such a contingency.
Before the month of March 1792 was out he had accordingly crossed the Channel. The place to which he fled was a little village called Tilq, near St Omer's, where he and his wife lodged in the house of the maire of the commune, a certain M. Le Grand. When Cobbett arrived in France, its unhappy King was just entering the vortex of the Revolution. On the 20th of June the Tuileries was attacked by the mob, and Louis XVI. was compelled to wear the cap of liberty. In July a number of republicans arrived from the south singing the Marseillaise. Suddenly, like a bomb in the midst of a powder magazine, fell the Duke of Brunswick's proclamation, announcing that the German armies would shortly be in Paris to restore order, and threatening the people with wholesale military execution and the total overthrow of their city if the slightest insult was offered to the royal family. The explosion was terrific. The Tuileries was again attacked, the King and the royal family fled for their lives. The blood which trickled down the stairs and under the door-sills of the Tuileries on that fatal August the 9th announced the coming flood.
News travelled slowly in those days, but the tremor of such portentous events soon penetrated the obscurest villages, and made the dullest hearts beat more rapidly. Cobbett felt the fascination; he must go to Paris. But he had no idea of the fearful character of the storm raging there. When he reached Abbeville he learnt that the very day he left Tilq the King had been put in prison and his Swiss guard slaughtered; upon which he determined to make the best of his way to Havre, and set sail without delay for America. On the voyage a French vessel overtook them, bringing news of the September massacres. He disembarked at Philadelphia, his mind filled with horror at what he had seen and heard of the character and results of democratic principles. He found a residence for a time at Wilmington, where a number of emigrants from France and from St Domingo were living, and he was welcomed into their society as one who shared their political opinions, and could teach them English. His pupils soon become very numerous, so that ere long he was making four or five hundred pounds a year. Amongst those who sought to enlist his services was the celebrated M. de Talleyrand, who offered him twenty dollars a month; but Cobbett, suspecting his intentions, resolutely refused. "I did not want," he said, "a French spy to take a survey either of my desk or my house." The exercises that he wrote for his pupils became a grammar, which he published in Philadelphia under the title of the "Maitre d'Anglais." It had a large sale in America, and soon became known in France, so that it was ordered to be used in the public schools. A certain individual named Du Roure, who afterwards edited it, and sent forth five editions in Paris, sought in the fifth edition to deny Cobbett's claim to be its author; but in vol. 33 of the Register the latter fully exposed the Frenchman's attempt to deprive him of the paternity of his first-born literary child.
The event which first brought Cobbett before the world as a political writer was the arrival of Dr Priestley in New York. Burnt out of house and home by the turbulent friends of " King and Church" in Birmingham, this friend of freedom determined to go to the United States. Cobbett, who regarded him as one of the leaders of English Jacobinism, made up his mind to salute his arrival with a broadside. He accordingly attacked him in a pamphlet, which he proposed to call "The Tartuffe detected; or. Observations on the Emigration of a Martyr to the Cause of Liberty." The pamphlet was, however, published without the first title, and became the commencement of that celebrated series afterwards known as The Works of Peter Porcupine, a pseudonym which had its origin in some correspondent accusing Cobbett of writing as savagely as if his pen was the quill of an porcupine. These productions soon made manifest his wonderful talent for writing plain but racy English, as well as for finding out witty titles, and for fastening clever nicknames on every one of his victims. Thus his next pamphlet was entitled "A Bone to gnaw for the Democrats; another, "A Kick for a Bite;" and so on.
Finding his writings sell, he determined to set up in business for himself. Accordingly, in the spring of 1796 he took a house for the purpose in Second Street, Philadelphia, and celebrated the opening in his own original way by firing a volley into the popular political creed of the city. The whole of the previous Sunday he spent in preparing such an exhibition as had never been known before in Philadelphia. His window was a large one, but he determined to fill it with engravings of all the kings, queens, and princes he could lay his hands upon; with portraits of the various members of the English ministry; several English bishops, generals, admirals; and, in short, with every picture which he thought would excite the rage of the enemies of Great Britain. In order to make the exhibition more exasperating, he linked together the most terrible of the French Revolutionists with certain popular Americans—Marat with Franklin, for example. The next day the people came—stared in amazement at the audacity of the new English bookseller, but not a stone was thrown. The town, however, soon teemed with angry pamphlets, in which he was attacked in his own style. The more he was abused the more he enjoyed the situation. "I am one," he told them, "whose obstinacy only increases with opposition." He now commenced a new series of pamphlets, which he entitled "The Political Censor," and in which he not only attacked democratic principles, but tried to pillory popular American leaders.
The yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia; Cobbett would not flee, as many did, but philosophically sought to divert his mind by reading a book called "Mes Périls," an exciting account of the adventures of M. Lovet, a Brissotin, who fled for his life during the Reign of Terror.
This epidemic was, however, the ultimate cause of Cobbett's return to England. There was a certain Dr Rush who professed that he had done great things during the fever. Cobbett considered this person as a quack, and that it was his duty to expose his pernicious system. He called him a Sangrado, the Samson of Medicine, charging him with murdering his patients, and slaying his thousands and tens of thousands. Rush brought an action for libel, and Cobbett, who had done his best to incense the American public, met with no mercy from judge or jury. He was condemned to pay five thousand dollars for the damage done to the reputation of his antagonist, and to pay the costs of the trial, which, together with other losses incurred in consequence, amounted to three thousand dollars more.
This judgment almost mined him. But Cobbett was a man of war by nature, and only regarded the loss of his hardly-earned money as a general would that of his impedimenta. He prepared himself afresh for the battle, and with that singular humour which seems to take the sting out of all his quarrels, he started a new publication called the Rush-light, in which he attacked, with the utmost hostility, judge, jury, and plaintiff.
But he felt the time had come for him to quit America, and in the first year of the present century he returned to England.
On his arrival he was welcomed by the Government as a man who had done distinguished service. Mr Wyndham especially appears to have entertained an admiration for him, and on one occasion invited him to dinner, asking Mr Pitt to meet him.
During the next year the Treaty of Amiens was concluded, and peace was proclaimed. Cobbett considered that treaty a mistake, and refused to illuminate. The people, who had suffered terribly by the war, were ardently in favour of the Peace, and it was probable his house would be attacked. By the direct intervention of the Home Secretary a number of Bow Street officers were sent to protect it. The people overcame them, and were not driven off until the Horse Guards appeared.
In 1804 there were fears of an invasion. Napoleon was making alarming preparations at Boulogne. Cobbett wrote a paper, which he entitled "Important Considerations for the People of this Kingdom." The manuscript was laid before the Prime Minister by Mr Yorke, the Home Secretary. Mr Addington was so pleased with it that he caused it to be printed, and sent to every parish in the kingdom. Mr Wyndham was equally enthusiastic in his praise.
If Cobbett had been a man seeking his own interest, or reckless of principle, as his detractors represent, his shrewd, business-like nature would have prompted him to seize the opportunity now afforded him of rising high in influence with, and gaining such rewards as he would from the British Government. But just as he had been indifferent to promotion in the army, if it had to be purchased at the cost of conniving at official corruption, he now disdained the thought of political advancement if it was to be obtained at the cost of stifling his opinions.
A year before his return from America, the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland had been passed. It was notorious that it had been effected by the most disgraceful means. However, Mr Pitt tried to reconcile himself and the greater portion of the public to the transaction, by the plea that it would enable the Government more easily to remove the Catholic disabilities. But when the question was settled, Mr Pitt found that the King was so obstinately opposed to Catholic relief, that, if the idea was pressed, it would in all probability drive him out of his senses. Pitt accordingly resigned, and a ministry composed of men pledged against the claims of the Roman Catholics came in. Now, Cobbett's conservatism was of a much more antique and thorough character than that of the Tory gentlemen with whom he was allied. He had a rooted conviction that in every sense the Old times, the Old ways, and the Old laws were better than the New. He reverenced every institution which he could trace back to those times. "The Crown, the Mitre, and the Bible"—this was the sign over his shop in Pall Mall. He firmly believed England was a far happier country, and had a larger, more prosperous, and nobler population in Catholic times than in Protestant ones.
Nothing, therefore, was more consistent than that he, high-flying Tory as he was, should sympathise deeply with wrongs suffered by the professors of the old form of faith. When, therefore, this question came to be a party one, he was compelled to ally himself with the Radicals. Driven by the force of circumstances into new connections, he came to see things in a fresh light, but it was always from the old standpoint. Catholic Emancipation was the bridge which led him from one party to the other; but, Tory or Radical, his root convictions were the same from the beginning of his life to the end.
Soon after his arrival in England he started the Weekly Register, a periodical he kept up until the day of his death. In 1803 there appeared in that journal a series of anonymous letters attacking the various members of the Irish Government. The times were critical. Colonel Despard and his associates had been executed early in the year for conspiring against the King and the Government. Bonaparte was busy preparing for an invasion of either England or Ireland, probably the latter, for he was well aware that its population was desperate with discontent. Cobbett's views with reference to the Catholics were, no doubt, well known, and had already caused the Government to regard him as more likely to prove their enemy than their ally. It was determined, therefore, to indict him for libel. He was convicted, and fined £500. Another prosecution was then commenced by Mr Plunkett, the Irish Attorney-General. Cobbett was again convicted, and fined an additional £500.
His early impressions, his rural sympathies, his enthusiastic patriotism, his military education, and his six months' stay in revolutionary France, had sent Cobbett to America a Tory of the most extreme type; but his eight years' residence there had prepared his mind for very different views.
He had not only to read much said on the other side, but his own eyes constantly bore witness to him of the vast contrast between the condition and prospects of the mass of the community in America to what he had known it in England. Describing a few years earlier the very district in which Cobbett had resided, Dr Franklin wrote:—"The lands (the farmer) possesses are continually rising in value with the increase of population; and, on the whole, he is enabled to give such good wages to those who work for him, that all who are acquainted with the Old World must agree that in no part are the labouring poor so generally well fed, well [clothed, well lodged, and well paid, as in the United States of America." A happy mediocrity in wealth prevailed everywhere; there were few rich men, and hardly one who could be called very poor. The hard-working cultivator of the soil worked, as a rule, for himself, and was able to support his family in decent plenty. In the cities the workmen all had higher wages than in any other part of the world, and were paid moreover] in ready money. Cobbett himself, therefore, in spite of all his horror for democratic institutions, was compelled to share Franklin's conviction, that, as far as material well-being went, "no nation enjoyed a greater share of human felicity."
When he returned to England in 1800 the state of things was much worse than when he had left, so that the contrast was brought home to him in the most vivid manner. Corn he found at 134s. the quarter: in the spring of 1801 it rose to 156s. On the 5th of March in that year the quartern loaf was 1s. 10½d. As to the poor labourers, the men who had toiled all the year round beneath the sun and the rain to raise this bread for others, they had to put up with what no one else would touch. They ate, as an old man in Northamptonshire once told me, what we now give to the pigs. Their barley bread was such poor stuff that it fell out of the crust directly it was cut. The English rural poor would have died off every winter by thousands had not the local authorities throughout the country kept them alive by charity. The custom was that when the gallon loaf of 8 lbs. 11 oz. rose to 1s., every man was to be allowed 3s. weekly, and to have is. 6d. in addition for each member of his family. In this way the whole agricultural population became pauperized. Cobbett found that one person in every seven throughout the country received parochial relief!
A Royal proclamation was put forth exhorting the people to eat brown bread, and bounties were offered on the introduction of maize and rice. Riots were general. The people, blinded by ignorance and hunger, supposed it was the fault of the millers and bakers, and tried to burn the mills and break open the bakers' shops.
The war was, of course, the immediate cause of this extreme misery, but for its ultimate cause we must look much further back. Not only in France, but also in England, had the poorer classes been degrading for generations. The cry of the labourer had long gone up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and did much, we may be sure, to bring about that Revolution in whose surges we still are.
A poet, remarkable for the extreme fidelity of his painting rather than for the high flight of his sentiment Or language, has given us graphic pictures of the woeful misery in which the poor of England were existing years before the war. Crabbe had the very best opportunities of knowing the truth as a country clergyman, and had no reason for exaggerating.
At the time he published that which I am about to quote (1783) he was the friend of Burke, and the domestic chaplain of the Duke of Rutland, so that no doubt these very lines were read with admiration in Belvoir Castle, and admitted to be only too true.
Speaking of the poor labourers as "the slaves that dig the golden ore," he says—
"Go, then, and see them rising with the sun,
Bitter are the poor man's reflections as he thinks over his toilsome life:—
"These fruitful fields, these numerous flocks I see.
How could a man with such a passion for rural pursuits, a man all eyes and ears as Cobbett was, how could such a man not fail to see and to be deeply affected by so violent a contrast in the condition of his own countrymen, and that of the people he had been living amongst? Nor would his shrewd and penetrating intellect have been long before it sought to trace out the causes which had produced such a state of things. He soon came to the conclusion that the cause was simply this,—that England was ruled by a Oligarchy for its own benefit. Henceforth he waged as bitter war against the landowners and stockjobbers in England as he had done against the democrats in the United States.
To have left the Tories merely for the Whigs would in no way have expressed the conviction which was thus forced on his mind. From the point of view at which he surveyed the social condition of his country, "Caesar and Pompey were very much alike, specially Pompey." He therefore went straight over to the Radicals, and allied himself with their leaders, Major Cartwright and Sir Francis Burdett. Animated by his new ideas, the Weekly Register gradually became an enormous power in the country. All parties read it: it was so hot, spicy, and invigorating. Statesmen felt the pepper fall on their jaded consciences, and enjoyed the titillation rather than otherwise. The fashionable world, ever craving for scandal, delighted in its personalities, and entered with as much zest into the way its Editor riveted a nickname on one of his foes as a pack of dirty urchins would in hunting a poor cur with an old tin kettle tied to its tail. To people of quality he was only a blind Samson who every week made sport of them; to the suffering people he was a veritable Hercules, who had undertaken the prodigious task of cleansing the Augean stables of the British Constitution from all their foulness and corruption. He told the masses of his countrymen—its bankrupt traders and farmers, its starving artisans and labourers—that the one thing needful was Parliamentary Reform. He stretched the liberty of plain speaking to the utmost point, and beat the British Government in their endeavours to put him down.
But it was a life-long fight before he succeeded. At first he was nearly crushed. In July 1809 there was a mutiny among the militiamen at Ely. Four squadrons of German cavalry stationed at Bury were sent for, the mutiny suppressed, and the ringleaders sentenced to 500 lashes each, Cobbett's national feeling was aroused, and he wrote a strong article in his Register, making a great point of Englishmen being flogged in their own country by foreigners. He was at once prosecuted, and sentenced to pay a fine of £1000 to the king, and to suffer two years' imprisonment! to give security for his good behaviour for seven years, himself in £3000, and two sureties in £1000 each!
It was a tremendous blow. Cobbett staggered, reeled, and, as some said, cried Peccavi. It was a moment of human weakness, very natural to a man of such intense and contending sympathies. On the one hand there was the conviction that he had a work to do—a work which, look at it how he might, or we may, was the same in reality as that of the old Hebrew judges—a call to the high and perilous task of delivering his people; on the other, he was a typical Englishman, never more happy than at his own fireside, alone with his wife and children.
Of that wife he wrote several years after his marriage as the being "to whose gentleness, prudence, and fortitude I owe whatever I enjoy of pleasure, of fortune, or of reputation;" while Miss Mitford, who visited the Cobbetts when they lived at Botley, in Hampshire, speaks of her as a "sweet motherly woman, realizing our notion of one of Scott's most charming characters, Alie Dinmont, in her simplicity, her kindness, and her devotion to her husband and children."
The house Cobbett had bought at Botley was one of those ugly red-bricked mansions so common in the Georgian era. It stood on an eminence, and had "a beautiful lawn and gardens sweeping down to the river." Miss Mitford is enthusiastic in her description of the place. "His fields," she says, "might have been shown to a foreigner as a specimen of the richest and loveliest English scenery. In the cultivation of his garden, too, he displayed the same taste." She eulogizes his green Indian corn, his Carolina beans, his water-melons, and his wall-fruit; and concludes by declaring that she "never saw a more glowing or a more fragrant autumn garden than that at Botley, with its pyramids of hollyhocks, and its masses of China asters, of foxgloves, of mignonette, and of varied geranium."
The house, she says, was full of guests of almost all ranks and descriptions. There was "room for all, and the hearts of the owners would have had room for three times the number. I never saw hospitality more genuine, more simple, or more thoroughly successful in the great end of hospitality—the putting everybody completely at ease. There was not the slightest attempt at finery, or display, or gentility. They called it a farmhouse, and everything was in accordance with the largest idea of a great English yeoman of the old time."
The host she describes as "a tall, stout, man, fair and sunburnt, with a bright smile, and an air compounded of the soldier and the farmer, to which his habit of wearing a red waistcoat contributed not a little. He was, I think, the most athletic and vigorous person that I have ever known. Nothing could tire him. At home in the morning he would begin his active day by mowing his own lawn, beating his gardener Robinson, the best mower except himself in the parish, at that fatiguing work." Samuel Bamford, the author of "Passages in the Life of a Radical," who saw him under very different circumstances, namely, at a political meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in London, gives essentially the same impression of him. "Had I met him," he says, "anywhere save in that room and on that occasion, I should have taken him for a gentleman farming his own broad estate. He seemed to have that kind of self-possession and ease about him, together with a certain bantering jollity, which are so natural to fast-handed and well-housed lords of the soil. He was, I suppose, not less than six feet in height, portly, with a fresh, clear, and round cheek, and a small grey eye, twinkling with good-humoured archness. He was dressed in a blue coat, yellow swans-down waistcoat, drab kersey small-clothes, and top-boots. His hair was grey, and his cravat and linen were fine, and very white. In short he was a perfect representative of what he always wished to be, an English gentleman farmer."
In his "Advice to Young Men," Cobbett has given a beautiful picture of the family life he sought to cultivate at Botley. "My first duty," he says, "was to make [my family] healthy and strong, if I could, and to give them as much enjoyment of life as possible. Born and bred up in the sweet air myself, I was resolved that they should be bred up in it too. … I effected everything without scolding, and even without command. My children are a family of scholars; each sex has its appropriate species of learning; and I could safely take my oath that I never ordered a child of mine, son or daughter, to look into a book in my life. … I accomplished my purpose indirectly. The first thing of all was health, which was secured by the deeply interesting and never-ending sports of the field and pleasures of the garden. Luckily these things were treated of in books and pictures of endless variety so that, on wet days, in long evenings, these came into play. A large strong table, in the middle of the room, their mother sitting at her work, used to be surrounded with them—the baby, if big enough, set up in a high chair. Here were inkstands, pens, pencils, india-rubber, and paper, all in abundance, and every one scrabbled about as he or she pleased. There were prints of animals of all sorts; books treating of them; others treating of gardening, of flowers, of husbandry, of hunting, coursing, shooting, fishing, planting, and, in short, of everything with regard to which we had something to do. One would be trying to imitate a bit of my writing, another drawing the pictures of some of our dogs or horses, a third poking over Bewick's Quadrupeds, and picking out what he said about them; but our book of never-failing resource was the French Maison Rustique, or Farmhouse,"—a book full of illustrations; and " there " he goes on to say, " was I, in my leisure moments, to join this inquisitive group, to read the French, and tell them what it meaned in English, when the picture did not sufficiently explain itself. …
"To teach the children the habit of early rising was a great object. This was a capital matter; because here were industry and health both at stake. Yet I avoided command even here; and merely offered a reward. The child who was downstairs first was called the lark for the day, and further sat at my right hand at dinner."
Miss Mitford says that "'the Lark' had, amongst other indulgences, the pretty privilege of making his mother's nosegay, and that of any other lady visitors."
"But to do the things that I did," continues Cobbett, "you must love home yourself; to rear up children in this manner you must live with them; you must make them, too, feel, by your conduct, that you prefer this to any other mode of passing your time. … I never spent an idle week, or even day, in my whole life. Yet I found time to talk with them, to walk, to ride about with them; and when forced to go from home, always took one or more with me. … When my business kept me away from the scrabbling-table a petition often came that I would go and talk with the group, and the bearer generally was the youngest, being the most likely to succeed. When I went from home all followed me to the outer gate, and looked after me, till the carriage, or horse, was out of sight. At the time appointed for my return all were prepared to meet me; and, if it were late at night, they sat up as long as they were able to keep their eyes open. … We lived in a garden of about two acres, partly kitchen-garden with walls, partly shrubbery and trees, and partly grass. There were the peaches, as tempting as any that ever grew, and yet as safe from fingers as if no child were ever in the garden. … In the meanwhile the book-learning crept in of its own accord by imperceptible degrees. … They began by taking words out of printed books; finding out which letter was which; … and by imitating bits of my writing. … The first use that any one of them made of the pen was to write to me, though in the same house with them; … and they were sure to receive, prompt answer with most encouraging compliments.
"In this happy state we lived until the year 1810, when the Government laid its merciless fangs upon me, dragged from me these delights, and crammed me into a jail amongst felons. … It was in the month of July when the horrible sentence was passed upon me. My wife, having left the children in the care of her good and affectionate sister, was in London, waiting to know the doom of her husband. When the news arrived at Botley, the three boys, one eleven, another nine, and the other seven years old, were hoeing cabbages in that garden which had been the source of so much delight. When the account of the savage sentence was brought to them, the youngest could not for some time be made to understand what a jail was; and when he did, he all in a tremor exclaimed, 'Now I'm sure, William, that papa is not in a place like that.' The other, in order to disguise his tears and smother his sobs, fell to work with the hoe, and chopped about like a blind person."
Is it surprising that a man who possessed such strong domestic instincts should have wavered and doubted whether he was justified in sacrificing the interests of those he loved? His offer to capitulate certainly shows that Cobbett had nothing of the martyr in him. The Government refused his submission, and as might be expected, the depth of his power to love became the measure of the intensity of his hate. When he heard how his children were affected by his sentence, it filled him with the deepest resentment; and in the recollection of all that he and his family endured, he breaks out into a strain of the most intense animosity against all who were trying to crush him.
"What!" he exclaims, "I am to forgive, am I, injuries like this; and that, too, without any atonement? Oh no! I have not so read the Holy Scriptures; I have not from them learned that I am not to rejoice at the fall of unjust foes; and it makes a part of my happiness to be able to tell millions of men that I do thus rejoice, and that I have the means of calling on so many just and merciful men to rejoice along with me."
Shut up in Newgate, he continued his Weekly Register, his chief solace being a hamper which he received every week from Botley, containing fruit and country fare, specimens of plants, bulbs, and roots. Each child sent him a letter, and some of his or her most beautiful flowers. Moreover, the hamper always contained a journal of the week's labours, proceedings, and occurrences. After a time he had one or more of his children with him, to carry on his correspondence. But he had seen the meridian of his prosperity. The vindictive sentence passed upon him, with the immense expense it entailed, and the confusion into which it brought all his affairs, was the primary cause of the pecuniary troubles which henceforth dogged his steps.
His sanguine temperament did not foresee these disasters, and the two years in Newgate passed quickly away, thanks to his indefatigable industry. When he came out of prison a dinner was given to him in London, at which 600 persons were present. When he went home he was welcomed at Alton by the ringing of the church bells; by another dinner, which was given him at Winchester; and finally his neighbours met him on the road, and dragged him for more than a mile into Botley.
The great war into which England plunged in 1793 was openly avowed to be a political one. "It was necessary," its supporters said, "to excite the English people against France, in order to prevent French principles from spreading and fixing themselves England." When Fox spoke of the misery and privation such war would occasion to the bulk of the people, Burke contemptuously replied, "The ground of a political war is of all things that which the poor labourer and manufacturer are the least capable of conceiving. This sort of people know in general what they must suffer by war. It is a matter to which they are sufficiently competent, because it is a matter of feeling. The causes of a war are not matters of feeling, but of reason and foresight, and often of remote considerations, and of a very great combination of circumstances, which they are utterly incapable of comprehending; and, indeed, it is not every man in the higher classes who is altogether equal to it."
The wonderful prescience which the great anti-Jacobin thus arrogated to a select few among the higher classes turned out to be the direst of delusions.
It led, as we know, to an amount of distress and privation never before endured in England. It saddled the country with a debt of £600,000,000; and what in the eyes of a commercial community would have been a still greater calamity, it very nearly broke the Bank of England!
The Government had kept up the cry of "Wolf! wolf!" until at last the wolf did come, and in a most unexpected form. As long as an invasion was only a possibility, its mere dread sustained the flame of patriotism; but the instant it seemed likely to prove a reality, patriotism melted before self-interest, and there was a general rush to turn everything into gold. The country banks were resting on the Bank of England, and that institution had lent so much of its money to the Government that it was quite unequal to meet the demand for gold which now began to be made upon it. On Saturday, the 25th of February 1797, its stock of bullion had got so low that, to keep off the crowd, every demand was paid in sixpences. Some of the Directors were already with Pitt, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer. On Sunday the Cabinet met, and determined that the Bank must stop cash payments the next morning.
For a whole generation this condition of things lasted. It was not until four-and-twenty years after that the Bank was able to pay demands once more in gold. Guineas had almost disappeared, and crown pieces were only preserved in circulation by being raised to the value of five shillings and sixpence.
Cobbett had an inveterate hatred of the whole system of funding and stockjobbing, and linked it with the decline of the true greatness and prosperity of England. During the two years he was in prison he wrote that famous series of letters to the people of Salisbury, which he afterwards published under the title of "Paper against Gold, or the History and Mystery of the Bank of England." He therein strives to show that ever since the introduction of the Funding System, taxation, pauperism, misery, and crime have all increased; but his chief aim was to convince his countrymen that a paper currency must in the end destroy public credit.
For twenty years the British Government had exerted all its energies in order to crush the Revolution. To this end the lives of hundreds of our soldiers and sailors had been sacrificed, and the productive energies of the country mortgaged to all time. Meanwhile the rulers who had directed the war, and the people by whose opinion it had been sustained, had alike suffered. The misery, bankruptcy, and crime, which had prevailed among the latter, were, as we have seen, terrible, but so also was the strain the public men of those days had to endure. The war killed Pitt quite as much as it did Nelson. Neither Fox nor Canning lived to be sixty. Whitbread, Romilly, and Castlereagh all destroyed themselves. Percival was shot at the door of the House of Commons by a Liverpool merchant who had become bankrupt and mad, and who attributed his ruin to the policy of the Government.
To find that after all this frightful expenditure of treasure and strength the Revolution was not only alive, but raising its head in their own country, was provoking to the last degree. Samson was waking up from his sleep, and shaking his chains, blindly stretch ing forth his hands, intent upon doing some damage to his masters. Not only were the Midland weavers breaking the new frames, but in Wales the ironworkers had assembled to the number of ten or twelve thousand, and were putting out the furnaces. The Staffordshire colliers were marching up to London to present a petition to the Regent, while the starving agricultural labourer were firing the ricks and destroying the threshing machines. In (Manchester the artisans were proposing to march in a body to London, each man with a blanket strapped to his back and a petition in his hand. In the metropolis itself an attempt was made to take the Tower by a mob led on by a young fanatic.
Cobbett's writings became the most popular reading of the country. In nearly every cottage in the manufacturing districts of South Lancashire, of Leicester, Derby, and Nottingham, as well as in similar districts in Scotland, he was looked up to as an oracle. Soon after he was set at liberty he commenced to publish his Weekly Register in the form of a twopenny weekly pamphlet, that he might bring his writings within the reach of the great body of the people. He laboured to convince his countrymen that it was not machinery, but misgovernment, that had been the cause of all their misery, and that to reform Parliament was the only way to effect an alteration.
Clubs were formed to bring this about; the agitation gradually took form, and Cobbett was regarded by the people as one of the most trusted of their leaders.
The Government were much alarmed at the reappearance of the Revolution, which they supposed finally crushed by the battle of Waterloo and the treaty of Vienna. Breaking of frames had already been made a hanging matter; now they induced Parliament to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act, and pass the celebrated "Six Acts."
These laws put a most effectual gag on the liberty of the press, since newspaper writers henceforth became liable to transportation if found guilty of seditious libel. Still more, they enabled the Government to suppress anything like public agitation for Parliamentary Reform, since they expressly forbade any cooperation or correspondence for the purpose of amending the Constitution.
Cobbett considered these new laws were levelled mainly at him; he was moreover involved in a whirlpool of difficulties, the result of his two years' imprisonment. So a few days before the "Six Acts" became law he set sail once again for America.
This time he went to Long Island, and took a farm at North Hampstead. But although he had crossed the Atlantic, he did not relinquish his Weekly Register, It had reached the enormous sale, for those days, of 50,000 copies. He continued now to write the paper in Long Island, just as he had formerly written it in Newgate. This work, and managing a farm, did not, however, exhaust all his energies. He was still actively employed in educating his younger children. To his son James he wrote a series of letters on English Grammar, which he afterwards published as a book. This amusing and characteristic work has always been very popular. 10,000 copies were sold in one month.
Wherever he went it might be said that the schoolmaster was abroad, for he immediately began to take upon himself the office of Educator-in-general to the people. Long Island he found singularly deficient in gardens, so in a short time he brought out for the benefit of its inhabitants a little book called "The American Gardener."
"Some persons may think," he says in the Preface, "that flowers are things of no use; that they are nonsensical things. … For my part, as a thing to keep and not to sell, as a thing the possession of which is to give me pleasure, I hesitate not a moment to prefer the plant of a fine carnation to a watch set with diamonds."
Nothing, perhaps, so marks the change which had taken place in his views as the way in which he now regarded the American people and their institutions. He saw everything couleur de rose, "America was a land of universal civility, of unbounded hospitality. Everybody's circumstances were so easy that there was no occasion for hypocrisy; there was no boasting of wealth, no attempt to disguise poverty, no over-anxious desire to get on, and no attempt to get distinction from mere riches. Every farmer was good-humoured, well-informed, modest, and sedate. So far from being a land of paupers, there was, properly speaking, no class like that to which the French have applied the degrading appellation of Peasantry. All were living in peace and prosperity, and to crown all, they enjoyed what England did not—freedom of representation, and freedom of the press."
Such, in brief, was his account of America "revisited." He had dropped his green spectacles, and saw through a pair of magnifiers.
Nevertheless his heart yearned after his native land. He was born for England, and was never intended to become a Yankee. In May 18 19, a fire having destroyed his dwelling-house burnt most of his stock, he determined to return home.
The act by which he signalized his reappearance in England no one but Cobbett would or could have done. It was in the highest degree idiosyncratic.
He had achieved so much by self-help that he treated the experience of other men with about as little respect as a millionaire would the gift of a sixpence. For forms of literary ability which were not his he professed contempt. Thus he sneered at Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and said that Shakespeare and Milton were overrated.
But let some circumstance open his eyes, let him imagine himself a new Columbus, let him awake to the existence of a fresh continent of knowledge, and in, the very degree he had before depreciated it he now proceeded to laud and magnify its importance. William Cobbett was not the man to bow before other people's idols. He must make them for himself, or they were no gods at all. He found an author believed in by every one. He stood stiffly up in the crowd and cursed the image to its face. The time came when the idol was forsaken and cast down from its throne. Cobbett saw it lying in the dirt; some circumstance induced him to pick it up, and to his amazement he perhaps found that its head really was made of gold. Astonished at his own good fortune and sagacity, he at once sets about rehabilitating the poor ill-used thing; and placing it again on its pedestal, he commanded, in a loud tone, all men, on pain of being demonstrated fools or knaves, to fall down and worship the golden image which he, their great teacher, had set up.
When he first went to America he found the democrats bowing low at the shrine of Tom Paine. Without more ado he went to the nearest gutter, filled his hands with mud, and threw it all over their idol. When he returned the worship had died down, Paine's reputation lay in the dirt, and no one would soil his fingers to lift it out.
Cobbett, however, had meanwhile become deeply interested in the currency question, and had found out that Paine had written an able and masterly book on the subject. Paine then, whom he had so abused, was, after all, a great man, a man who had long ago seen the true principles of a national currency, and had exposed the fallacies of Pitt and the stock-jobbers. He was just then so filled with the importance of the subject that Paine's prescience seemed to him wonderful. Words were not strong enough to describe his wisdom. He was the enlightener of the human race, the immortal Thomas Paine!
But Cobbett's enthusiasm underlay a most practical nature. His thoughts were always turned into deeds as quickly as may be. The great Englishman must not lie and rot in a foreign land: his bones must rest in his native soil, he must have a public funeral, he must be carried to his grave amidst twenty wagon-loads of flowers. Accordingly Cobbett, having had the bones exhumed, brought them across the Atlantic, and landed at Liverpool with the sacred relics in a wooden box!
But he soon found that he had committed an anachronism. The majority of Englishmen, especially the Radicals, rather prided themselves on a contempt for such things. A living fox, they thought, was better than a dead lion. To propose the worship of relics to men whose notions were all based on the idea of utility is another proof, if such were wanting, that Cobbett's Radicalism was founded on quite other grounds to those of his contemporaries.
Of course, the appearance of the relics produced a storm of ridicule; but Cobbett braved it, and if any one mockingly asked him what had become of the old Quaker's bones, he referred to them as a priceless treasure, to which he intended at some future day to pay signal honour.
When he left England his affairs were inextricably involved. His return, therefore, brought him a shoal of lawsuits. But his courage and energy were inexhaustible. He dared to go, on one occasion, and argue in his own cause, with Brougham for his adversary, in the Court of King's Bench, and, what was more, as good as beat him, for the plaintiff had asked for £3000, and tlhe jury only gave him 40s.!
He was now more entirely than ever a political man, and felt that his natural bourn was the House of Commons. He accordingly called upon the Reformers of England, Scotland, Ireland to subscribe £5000 in order that he might be sent to Parliament. He stood for Coventry early in 1820, but the opposition was so powerful that on the fourth day of the election he retired from the contest.
Foiled for a time in these efforts, he began to make journeys about the country, in order to collect facts in support of the views which he advocated, and at the same time to propagate those views among the farmers. He published his journal from time to time, relating his observations and adventures with the utmost humour.
Nothing, perhaps, would give a better idea of Cobbett's peculiar character than a rural ride taken in his company. If he stays at an inn, he rises with the chickens, and rousing up waiters and maids and boots, demands his breakfast almost before it is day, light. Little cares he for the ill-humour in the kitchen, or the objurgations which are audibly muttered as he leaves the yard. To rise early suits him, and is an excellent lesson for them, so he sets off on his journey, bright as a lark, and cheerful as a grasshopper. The rays of the morning sun have just begun to light up the landscape, and the soul of the peregrinating politician, ever attuned to the harmonies of nature, revels in the song of the birds in the sparkle of the dew, in the bloom of the purple heather, in the mist which still lies in the valley, in the wisps of blue smoke curling from the cottage chimneys. The strife with which he commenced the day seems to act as a tonic. The wrath of men no more jars the tuneful chords of his being than the anger of nature. Nothing can depress his inexhaustible spirits. Cold and damp fogs, soaking rains, and dreary, monotonous Lincolnshire fens, he will describe them all with such a perfect touch as to prove that he heartily enjoys and enters into their spirit. Those little shrewd, twinkling eyes of his, in fact, see everything: the nature of the soil, and of the subsoil; what it produces, and how it is cultivated. In a sentence, in a word, he paints a picture of the agriculture of a locality. He talks to every one, he enters the cottages, he sees the labourers in the misery of their homes, broken down and demoralised by starvation; he sees farmhouses going, the larger farms gradually devouring the smaller ones; he sees villages which were once towns; churches far too large for the present number of their worshippers; he sees game eating up the people's food, while farmers are fined, and poachers hanged, to preserve it; in fine, he sees the hereditary patrimonies of hundreds of yeomen, once the pride and strength of England, fall one after the other into the maw of those who have become wealthy on Government sinecures, or by gambling in the public stocks; and the sight so arouses his indignation that he cannot contain his wrath, but pours it out, hot and scalding, on those who he believes are robbing and destroying his poor countrymen!
Towards noon he approaches where a market is being held. A perfect specimen of an old-fashioned English farmer in his dress, manners, and language, he is hail-fellow-well-met with all in the market-place. He talks with every one, and at last, when the farmers are all turning into the inn, he goes with them too, and dines at their table. Dinner over, some one proposes his health; this gives him an opportunity of making a speech on the miseries of the country, the folly of the Government, and the burden of the "Dead Weight," as he calls the National Debt; and he rarely concludes without having a fling at Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, Parsons, and Stockjobbers—classes of men to whom he specially objects.
On other occasions when the company is very numerous, his appearance is sure to be the cause of disturbance, for he has made himself many enemies by his strong language.
Some one will rise and read a paragraph from the Register, in which its Editor appears to exult over the ruin of the farmers. There is a great hubbub, and another opponent moves that Mr Cobbett be put out of the room. He rises that they may all see the man they have to put out. His robust figure and obstinate, rosy-cheeked, imperturbable face make them think it prudent to give up the project; so, instead, the opposition demonstrate their antipathy by a general stampede to the door. But Cobbett has begun to speak, and ready as they were a moment ago to expel him, they have an Englishman's love of a good speech, well seasoned with personalities; and the whole body of dissentients turn back and crowd about the -doorway, just to hear what "the mountebank" has to say for himself. His case is clear; the person who read from the Register only gave portions of the article, and in this way a man may be made to say anything.
All these things—his enjoyment of the country, his agricultural notes, his political and social reflections, his evening speeches, and his whimsical adventures—are related with such a mingling of fierce earnestness and racy humour that the "Rural Rides" will immortalise him if all his other works should come to be forgotten. They embalm a character, the like of which the world may never see again; while at the same time they contain a storehouse of material for students of the social condition of England during the third decade of the present century.
Just as he went about the country to find facts to support his political doctrine, so he made his researches into its past history. For the former task he was admirably fitted by all his previous experience and peculiar talents; for the latter he was just as incompetent. His preconceived opinions, his obstinate prejudices, his utter incapacity to sympathise with the mental peculiarities of those who did not think and feel as he did, rendered it impossible that he could write true history. Nevertheless he undertook to give the world the history of the Protestant Reformation, and the result was, as might have been expected, a violent ex parte statement from a Roman Catholic point of view. So long, however, as history continues to be written in the interest of certain political or religious principles, a book like Cobbett's will have a value for the judicious reader. Moreover, it contains an account of the shameful way in which the large estates of the Church were disposed,—often a series of iniquitous acts which have never yet been atoned for, and therefore cannot and must not be forgotten.
Although the author of "The Protestant Reformation" writes as if he held a brief for Rome, he was in truth no more a Papist than he was an Atheist. He was far too English for the former position, far too religious for the latter.
Two or three years before he wrote the "Reformation" he published a series of religious tracts. They were twelve in number, and the titles will give some idea of their contents, and the spirit in which they were conceived:—1. "Naboth's Vineyard, or God's Vengeance against Hypocrisy;" 2. "The Sin of Drunkenness in Kings, Priests, and People;" 3. "The Fall of Judas, or God's Vengeance against Bribery;" 4. "The Rights of the Poor, or the Punishment of Oppressors;" 5. "God's Judgment on Unjust Judges;" 6. "The Sluggard;" 7. "God's Vengeance against Murderers;" 8. "The Gamester;" 9. "God's Vengeance against Public Robbers;" 10. "The Unnatural Mother;" 11. "The Sin of forbidding Marriage;" 12. "Parsons and Tithes."
These twelve sermons—for so he called them—were published in 1823, and sufficiently prove that his sudden esteem for Paine had nothing to do with that writer's sceptical opinions. Not to have reverenced and believed in the Bible would have required Cobbett to do positive violence to his deepest convictions, and perhaps we may add to his very nature. For though it may seem to the superficial observer a strange thing to say, William Cobbett was, in the strictly literal meaning of the term, a very religious man. No one could entertain a more intense belief than he did in the laws which God has written in the course and constitution of nature, and of the paramount duty of every man to obey those laws. As far as he had light, he sought sincerely to regulate his own life by them, and made it the task of his existence to assert, maintain, and render them dominant over the lives of his fellow-men. William Cobbett was always and everywhere a preacher of righteousness. He had, as we have seen, a natural piety. Old age, helpless infancy, suffering poverty, always commanded his ready and reverential sympathy. In all the domestic relations he was admirable—he was a dutiful son, a loving husband, and a tender father both from choice and conviction. Of his devotion to his country we cannot speak too highly; to it he sacrificed everything.
Such a man could not help seeing that the Bible was the chief exponent and witness of those great primal laws by which he felt himself and all men bound, and in the fulfilment of which he was convinced men, families, and nations could alone find happiness and true prosperity.
Yet his contemporaries might have said concerning him, "The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." For he was not permitted to see beyond the confines of the visible; the spiritual was a sphere of which he had no conception. Cobbett was well-nigh a perfect instance of the mens sanum in corpore sano. Yet "the open eye" possessed by many more or less suffering in body and mind was not vouchsafed to him.
Yet this very limitation of the range of his vision probably gave a force and concentration to his intellect which it would not otherwise have possessed. It made it more easy for him to believe himself capable of understanding and teaching all that it was necessary for men to know. In addition to his writings in America, which of themselves fill ten or twelve volumes—to his Weekly Register, extending over thirty-five years; to his laborious "Parliamentary Register;" to his work on the Currency; to his "Protestant Reformation," and to his Sermons—he wrote a series of educational works. Beginning with the child, he published a really interesting spelling-book; grammars not only of the English, but also of the French and Italian languages; a geographical dictionary of England and Wales; and several histories, among which we find a Roman history in two volumes. When his pupils had passed from the schoolroom to the business of life he followed them as their daily Mentor. His "Advice to Young Men, and incidentally to Young Women" is full of valuable suggestions, conveyed in a most original way, on the choice of a profession, the temptations of youth, self-culture, love-making, marriage, rearing and educating children, and the duties of citizens. Of this work it is impossible to speak too highly. It is wholesome food, served up in the best style, every dish being flavoured with the purveyor's own piquant sauce. But to the improvement of the small farmers and rural labourers, his peculiar people, the class from whence he sprang, he devoted all his powers. For the labourers he wrote his "Poor Man's Friend," his "Cottage Economy," and his "Legacy to Labourers;" while the higher price of his "English Gardener," his "Woodlands," and his edition of "Tull's Husbandry" mark them out as intended for the farmers.
Such was the versatility of his genius that he attempted a comedy. In a laughable little play, entitled "Surplus Population: a Comedy in Three Acts," he ridicules the Malthusian theories. The principal characters are Sir Gripe Grindum, the squire; Peter Thimble, Esq., a great anti-population philosopher; and Dick Hazle, a labourer, in love with Betsy Birch, one of a family of seventeen.
Not a page of his books, however uninteresting the subject may be to the ordinary reader, can be called dry. Cobbett has the wondrous art of making the most ponderous subject light reading. Perhaps the secret of this is that he used literature as a vehicle, not as an end. It was not so much his object to be thought a great author as to preach his ideas. Like his literary progenitor, he so felt his vocation to be that of a political writer that he never could quite throw it off, even in the most homely of his works. In his Spelling-book the very first fable has a political moral, while his Grammar is full from beginning to end with the most amusing thrusts at distinguished statesmen, bishops, and other highly placed persons.
His style has been compared in its power of graphic narration to Defoe, in its charming simplicity and homely wisdom to Franklin; but it is to the writer whom we have denominated his literary progenitor that we must look for an almost complete parallel. Cobbett wrote, like Swift, in the most nervous, racy, homely, yet absolutely correct English. Both aimed to be thought writers of the utmost simplicity and honesty of character. Both cultivated a habit of minute observation and description. On the road to the most vindictive political warfare, both linger by the way to relate, with Dutch-like painting, trifling circumstances in their lives, singular adventures, or homely scenes, in which they have taken part, touching off their own characters or those of their companions in such a way as to render questions long since settled full of interest to the most unlearned and non-political of readers.
There is a passage in Lord Jeffreys' remarks on the literary characteristics of Swift, almost applicable word for word to Cobbett:—"It is no small proof of the vigour and vivacity of his genius that posterity should have been so anxious to preserve these careless and hasty productions upon which the author appears to have set no other value than as means for the attainment of an end. The truth is, accordingly, that they are very extraordinary performances, and considered with a view to the purposes for which they were intended, have probably never been equalled in any period of the world. They are written with great plainness and intrepidity, advance at once to the matter in dispute, give battle to the strength of the enemy, and never seek any kind of advantage from darkness or obscurity. Their distinguishing feature, however, is the force and vehemence of the invective in which they abound—the copiousness, the steadiness, the perseverance, and the dexterity with which abuse and ridicule are showered upon the adversary." Swift, however, had one great characteristic which Cobbett did not possess. Swift could veil his sarcasm in irony, Cobbett was too ferociously honest to attempt anything of the kind.
It was his ambition to be thought a plain speaker, one who called a spade a spade; but plain speaking, especially when made the medium of political warfare, is usually attained by the easy process of refusing to see any side but one. Into this Cobbett fell to such an extent that it may well be called his besetting sin. His enemies asserted on more than one occasion that he told a downright lie. If he did, it was like that of a child, as roundly affirmed and as easy of detection. He was the very last man in the world to be guilty of that life-long acted lie, "that" dreadful sort of "lie which," as Lord Bacon says, "eateth in." William Cobbett had, in fact, a singularly transparent nature.
When we reflect on the enormous tasks Cobbett undertook, he appears as a Hercules or a Samson. He set at defiance and fought single-handed every power of note or influence in the kingdom. Like Don Quixote's hero, Felixmarte of Hircania, he gave battle to five swinging giants at once—the Landlords and the Rural Clergy, the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange, and most difficult of all to manage, a hydra-headed monster called the London Press. And as if this was not enough sport for one man, with back-handed strokes he attacked his own allies.
But as the strong man always has some compensating weakness to prevent him overpowering all his fellows, Cobbett's herculean force of body, mind, and spirit was marred, and its power singularly destroyed, by the way in which he blew his own trumpet. Just as there was no epithet too scathing for his adversary, the English language wanted words in which to express a sense of his own merits. We must not, however, measure him by the standard of his contemporaries. Cobbett was a child of nature, and refused to be tied by the green withes of conventionality and civilization. Cobbett was a giant, and giants have always been remarkable for their simplicity. We have never read of one who did not advance to the encounter proclaiming his own might and renown.
But what are the faults of a life compared with its purpose? Did the Hebrews fail to recognise Samson as one of the greatest of their heroes, because his weakness and folly on one point rendered all his prodigious efforts for their deliverance abortive? The Word of God taught them to judge a man not by the result of his life, but by its object; not by its weakness or its strength, but by its spirit. Judged by this standard, Cobbett will more and more appear what he really was—a great English patriot. The paramount object of his life was the. well-being of England. To that end he devoted all he possessed; to it he sacrificed his own interests, and the interests of those who were dearest to him.
His critics cannot understand a man who at one time works with Tories, at another time with Radicals, who defends in turn the National Church, the old Catholic Church, and Dissent. See, say they, he has not one Mrs Cobbett amongst his opinions. No, indeed, for he was a man who lived by convictions, not by opinions. For these convictions he fought, using opinions just as a warrior would a sword and a shield. And chiefest among all his convictions was this: that nothing unfair, unjust, or unrighteous could be for the true prosperity of England, however firmly it had come to be established by law or by public opinion.
A few more struggles, and this career, so deeply interesting to Englishmen, comes to a close. In 1826 he made another attempt to enter Parliament for Preston, this time having for his adversary the late Lord Derby, then Mr Stanley. The enthusiasm among the Lancashire artisans was intense. On his road to Preston he passed through Bolton, and several other towns and villages. Thousands of the working people, bearing flags and banners, and carrying green boughs, turned out to welcome him. Standing upon the seat of his carriage with his hat off, the people followed with the cry, "Here's the cleverest man in England;" "Here we have got the cleverest man in England." That day was one of the proudest in his life; in it he realized his kingship over the hearts of men. "The King," he said, "had some precious praises bestowed upon him by his Irish, Scotch, and Hanoverian subjects; in exchange for the whole of them I would not give the words of a poor weaver at Blackburn, who, lifting his little girl up in crowd, and pretty nearly in the dark, held her towards me to shake hands with her; and then, taking her down, said, 'Theere, now, th'ast shooken honds wi' th' cleverest mon in England.'"
But all this popular enthusiasm was of no avail against the territorial influence of the Stanleys. Cobbett stood lowest on the poll. But so far from being disheartened, he averred that numerically he was the real representative of the town, and such was the faith the people had in him that he returned home, to use his own powerful language, "through forty miles of huzzas from the lips of a hundred thousand people."
"You are always in spirits, Cobbett!" "To be sure: for why should I not be? Poverty I have always set at defiance, and I could therefore defy the temptations of riches; and as to home and children, I had taken care to provide myself with an inexhaustible store of that sobriety;—the truth is, that throughout nearly forty years of troubles, losses, and crosses, assailed all the while by more numerous and powerful enemies than ever man had before to contend with, and performing at the same time labours greater than man ever before performed—all these labours requiring mental exertion, and some of them mental exertion of the highest order,—the truth is, that throughout the whole of this long time of troubles and labours I have never known a single hour of real anxiety; the troubles have been no troubles to me; I have not known what lowness of spirits meaned; have been more gay, and felt less care than any bachelor that ever lived."
"A merry heart doeth good like medicine," and surely the man who undertakes to do battle for the poor and the oppressed needs to have a constant supply of this medicine, or else the world of trouble he has taken upon himself will produce "that sorrow of heart" by which the wise man says "the spirit is broken." For Cobbett, above all men, needed this never-failing spring of joyousness. His latter years were cast in the very darkest days of all the sad history of the English agricultural poor. Since the termination of the war things had got worse and worse. In various counties their wages averaged from 7s. to 12s. Labourers on the lower wage could not get enough food to work upon. The unhappy men grew mad with hunger and despair. In 1830 incendiary fires began to break out in Wiltshire, in Hampshire, in Buckinghamshire, and in Berwickshire, keeping the country districts for more than eighteen months in terror.
Cobbett could scarcely contain himself when he thought of the unhappy, hopeless state of the class from whence he sprang, and the more so when he compared it with the condition of the small French agriculturists, so wonderfully altered by the Revolution. He refused as he always had done, to be quiet, and his articles were spoken of in the House of Commons as seditious. Six months elapsed and the Government determined to indict him for seditious libel Denman, Gurney, Wightman, and Maule, all of whom afterwards rose to the Bench, were retained for the Crown; Cobbett, single handed, entered the lists against them.
All through the trial he insisted on identifying himself in the most complete way with his unhappy brethren. His designation in the indictment had been "William Cobbett, labourer." Never, therefore, did he allow the Attorney-General to mention his name without obliging him to add to it the title, labourer. The speech he made in his defence took six hours, but the argument was simply the tu quoque one, and went to prove that the Whigs had completely destroyed their right to bring such a charge against him, since they had allowed their own adherents to utter things far more seditious. It was throughout an appeal to the political prejudices of at least a portion of the jury, a proceeding not unfair in a political trial where a man is his own defender. It was completely successful, for the jury were equally divided in their verdict, and had to be discharged.
Cobbett's victory concluded the era of State press prosecutions. But his animosity to the Whigs was implacable. He passed his days in traversing the country and pouring out his maledictions upon them. His great power was in the North, and here he spent most of his time in giving political lectures. At the general election in 1832 he was nominated a candidate both for Manchester and Oldham. At Manchester he stood lowest on the poll, but he was returned for Oldham in company with his friend Mr Fielden.
Cobbett's efforts to get into Parliament had been like those of the valiant man that Christian saw in the Interpreter's house. "Set down my name, sir," he said to the British public; "the which done the man drew his sword, and put an helmet upon his head, and rushed toward the door upon the armed men who kept it, who laid upon him with deadly force; but he, not at all discouraged, fell to cutting and hacking most fiercely. So after he had received and given many wounds to those that attempted to keep him out, he cut his way through them all, and pressed forward into the palace."
But alas for the great cause Cobbett represented! The House of Commons proved to him not a palace, but a tomb. The close confinement, the late hours, the strain of an unnatural social life, was too much for the man who had for threescore years and ten lived on fresh air and cultivated early habits. He threw himself into his new life with his usual ardour. In the House he showed himself the same as he had been out of it. He would not bow down to its idols: he attacked Macaulay in his first speech; and in another proposed that Sir Robert Peel should be removed from the Privy Council. Just as he had stood up fearlessly against the tumultuous curses of a market-room, he now maintained himself against the contemptuous clamour of the House of Commons.
On one occasion members grew impatient when he attempted to speak; but he told them that they should not proceed to a division for two hours unless they consented to hear him.
But it was long before he could believe that even his wonderful health was beginning to give way. To the public, as usual, he poured out his complaints. "Why," he says, "are 658 of us crammed into a space that allows to each of us no more than a foot and a half square?"
How often do we find men of heart who have passed tumultuous lives yearning in moments of depression for the scenes of their childhood. Like David, they long for a drink of the water of the well at Bethlehem. A touch of this home-sickness seems now to have come upon William Cobbett.
He took a farm at Normandy, a small straggling village on the verge of Bagshot Heath, where for many a mile nothing is to be seen but sandy common, covered with furze, and dotted with ranges of fir-trees. Cobbett hoped at Normandy Farm to refresh body and soul by recalling, if it were possible, the time when he was free and " happy as a sandboy on a Surrey common."
It was only on Sunday, however, that he could get this relaxation, and even then he often spent the time in writing.
It is clear he grew more earnest and more bitter as the tim! approached that he must give up his work. How near it was he had no conception. In 1834 he stood again for Oldham, and was once more returned.
In the spring of the next year there was a debate in the House upon a motion for a repeal of the malt tax. Cobbett was present during the whole of the debate, and would have made a speech but for a sudden attack of the throat. On the 25th of May he spoke in favour of the motion for an inquiry into the causes of Agricultural distress. He went home exhausted, and got down immediately into the country. His disorder increased, and on the nth of July he was alarmingly ill. On Monday, the 15th, he was so much better that he was able to talk about political affairs, and said that he wished for four days' rain for the "Cobbett corn"—the Indian corn he cultivated on his farm, and wished to introduce into England. But a dread instinct told him that he] was approaching the spot
"Where sat the shadow feared of man."
He tried to throw the impression off. He would prove to himself, and every one else, that he was not going to die. So he had himself carried round the farm by four men in a sort of sedan-chair, made by tying two poles to the legs of a large arm-chair. It was a desperate effort, and when he returned to his bed it was evident that it was his last. But his indomitable spirit would not give in without a struggle. He fought his last enemy inch by inch. I won't die," he exclaimed to his attendant. But in that war there is no discharge, the most determined is soon overcome; and long before the morning light broke, long before all those joyous sounds began which he had a thousand times welcomed, his great heart ceased to beat, and the artisans of the north, and the labourers of the south, soon learnt to their dismay that William Cobbett, their champion and their friend, was no more.
His corpse was taken to his birthplace, and there, followed by thousands of labouring men in smock frocks, it was carried to its burial-place, close by the porch of the church where he had been baptized, and where he had learnt his first ideas of God and the world to come.
No spot could have been more happily chosen. There his father lies, and his grandfather, the worthy old-fashioned labourer who served but one master during the whole of a long life; there, too, for nearly a generation, has the faithful wife rested by the side of her lord. Thus the domestic piety which shines so brightly through the whole of his career was honoured, and William Cobbett was gathered to his own people.
When the waves of time have passed again and again over the records of this century, obliterating much that now fills the minds of men, the memory of William Cobbett and his endless struggles will appear in their true significance, and his countrymen will assuredly enrol his name among their worthies as one who lived and fought and died in the service of England.