1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cobbett, William
COBBETT, WILLIAM (1766–1835), English politician and writer, was born near Farnham in Surrey, according to his own statement, on the 9th of March 1766. He was the grandson of a farm-labourer, and the son of a small farmer; and during his early life he worked on his father’s farm. At the age of sixteen, inspired with patriotic feeling by the sight of the men-of-war in Portsmouth harbour, he thought of becoming a sailor; and in May 1783, having, while on his way to Guildford fair, met the London coach, he suddenly resolved to accompany it to its destination. He arrived at Ludgate Hill with exactly half-a-crown in his pocket, but an old gentleman who had travelled with him invited him to his house, and obtained for him the situation of copying clerk in an attorney’s office. He greatly disliked his new occupation; and rejecting all his father’s entreaties that he would return home, he went down to Chatham early in 1784 with the intention of joining the marines. By some mistake, however, he was enlisted in a regiment of the line, which rather more than a year after proceeded to St John’s, New Brunswick. All his leisure time during the months he remained at Chatham was devoted to reading the contents of the circulating library of the town, and getting up by heart Lowth’s English Grammar. His uniform good conduct, and the power of writing correctly which he had acquired, quickly raised him to the rank of corporal, from which, without passing through the intermediate grade of sergeant, he was promoted to that of sergeant-major. In November 1791 he was discharged at his own request, and received the official thanks of the major and the general who signed his discharge. In February 1792 Cobbett married the daughter of a sergeant-major of artillery, whom he had met some years before in New Brunswick. But his liberty was threatened in consequence of his bringing a charge of peculation against certain officers in his old regiment, and he went over to France in March, where he studied the language and literature. In his absence, the inquiry into his charges ended in an acquittal.
In September he crossed to the United States, and supported himself at Wilmington, Delaware, by teaching English to French emigrants. Among these was Talleyrand, who employed him, according to Cobbett’s story, not because he was ignorant of English, but because he wished to purchase his pen. Cobbett made his first literary sensation by his Observations on the Emigration of a Martyr to the Cause of Liberty, a clever retort on Dr Priestley, who had just landed in America complaining of the treatment he had received in England. This pamphlet was followed by a number of papers, signed “Peter Porcupine,” and entitled Prospect from the Congress Gallery, the Political Censor and the Porcupine’s Gazette. In the spring of 1796, having quarrelled with his publisher, he set up in Philadelphia as bookseller and publisher of his own works. On the day of opening, his windows were filled with prints of the most extravagant of the French Revolutionists and of the founders of the American Republic placed side by side, along with portraits of George III., the British ministers, and any one else he could find likely to be obnoxious to the people; and he continued to pour forth praises of Great Britain and scorn of the institutions of the United States, with special abuse of the French party. Abuse and threats were of course in turn showered upon him, and in August 1797, for one of his attacks on Spain, he was prosecuted, though unsuccessfully, by the Spanish ambassador. Immediately on this he was taken up for libels upon American statesmen, and bound in recognizances to the amount of $4000, and shortly after he was prosecuted a third time for saying that Dr Benjamin Rush, who was much addicted to blood-letting, killed nearly all the patients he attended. The trial was repeatedly deferred, and was not settled till the end of 1799, when he was fined $5000. After this last misfortune, for a few months Cobbett carried on a newspaper called the Rushlight; but in June 1800 he set sail for England.
At home he found himself regarded as the champion of order and monarchy. Windham invited him to dinner, introduced him to Pitt, and begged him to accept a share in the True Briton. He refused the offer and joined an old friend, John Morgan, in opening a book shop in Pall Mall. For some time he published the Porcupine’s Gazette, which was followed in January 1802 by the Weekly Political Register. In 1801 appeared his Letters to Lord Hawkesbury (afterwards earl of Liverpool) and his Letters to the Rt. Hon. Henry Addington, in opposition to the proposed peace of Amiens. On the conclusion of the peace (1802) Cobbett made a still bolder protest; he determined to take no part in the general illumination, and—assisted by the sympathy of his wife, who, being in delicate health, removed to the house of a friend—he carried out his resolve, allowing his windows to be smashed and his door broken open by the angry mob. The letters to Addington are among the most polished and dignified of Cobbett’s writings; but by 1803 he was once more revelling in personalities. The government of Ireland was singled out for wholesale attack; and a letter published in the Register remarked of Hardwicke, the lord-lieutenant, that the appointment was like setting the surgeon’s apprentice to bleed the pauper patients. For this, though not a word had been uttered against Hardwicke’s character, Cobbett was fined £500; and two days after the conclusion of this trial a second commenced, at the suit of Plunkett, the solicitor-general for Ireland, which resulted in a similar fine. About this time he began to write in support of Radical views; and to cultivate the friendship of Sir Francis Burdett, from whom he received considerable sums of money, and other favours, for which he gave no very grateful return. In 1809 he was once more in the most serious trouble. He had bitterly commented on the flogging of some militia, because their mutiny had been repressed and their sentence carried out by the aid of a body of German troops, and in consequence he was fined £1000 and imprisoned for two years. His indomitable vigour was never better displayed. He still continued to publish the Register, and to superintend the affairs of his farm; a hamper containing specimens of its produce and other provisions came to him every week; and he amused himself with the company of some of his children and with weekly letters from the rest. On his release a public dinner, presided over by Sir F. Burdett, was held in honour of the event. He returned to his farm at Botley in Hampshire, and continued in his old course, extending his influence by the publication of the Twopenny Trash, which, not being periodical, escaped the newspaper stamp tax. Meanwhile, however, he had contracted debts to the amount of £34,000 (for it is said that, notwithstanding the aversion he publicly expressed to paper currency, he had carried on his business by the aid of accommodation bills to a very large amount); and early in 1817 he fled to the United States. But his pen was as active as ever; from Long Island his MS. for the Register was regularly sent to England; and it was here that he wrote his clear and interesting English Grammar, of which 10,000 copies were sold in a month.
His return to England was accompanied by his weakest exhibition—the exhuming and bringing over of the bones of Thomas Paine, whom he had once heartily abused, but on whom he now wrote a panegyrical ode. Nobody paid any attention to the affair; the relics he offered were not purchased; and the bones were reinterred.
Cobbett’s great aim was now to obtain a seat in the House of Commons. He calmly suggested that his friends should assist him by raising the sum of £5000; it would be much better, he said, than a meeting of 50,000 persons. He first offered himself for Coventry, but failed; in 1826 he was by a large number of votes last of the candidates for Preston; and in 1828 he could find no one to propose him for the office of common councillor. In 1830, that year of revolutions, he was prosecuted for inciting to rebellion, but the jury disagreed, and soon after, through the influence of one of his admirers, Mr Fielden, who was himself a candidate for Oldham, he was returned for that town. In the House his speeches were listened to with amused attention. His position is sufficiently marked by the sneer of Peel that he would attend to Mr Cobbett’s observations exactly as if they had been those of a “respectable member”; and the only striking part of his career was his absurd motion that the king should be prayed to remove Sir Robert Peel’s name from the list of the privy council, because of the change he had proposed in the currency in 1819. In 1834 Cobbett was again member for Oldham, but his health now began to give way, and in June 1835 he left London for his farm, where he died on the 16th of that month.
Cobbett’s account of his home-life makes him appear singularly happy; his love and admiration of his wife never failed; and his education of his children seems to have been distinguished by great kindliness, and by a good deal of healthy wisdom, mingled with the prejudices due to the peculiarities of his temper and circumstances. Cobbett’s ruling characteristic was a sturdy egoism, which had in it something of the nobler element of self-respect. A firm will, a strong brain, feelings not over-sensitive, an intense love of fighting, a resolve to get on, in the sense of making himself a power in the world—these are the principal qualities which account for the success of his career. His opinions were the fruits of his emotions. It was enough for him to get a thorough grasp of one side of a question, about the other side he did not trouble himself; but he always firmly seizes the facts which make for his view, and expresses them with unfailing clearness. His argument, which is never subtle, has always the appearance of weight, however flimsy it may be in fact. His sarcasm is seldom polished or delicate, but usually rough, and often abusive, while coarse nicknames were his special delight. His style is admirably correct and always extremely forcible.
Cobbett’s contributions to periodical literature occupy 100 volumes, twelve of which consist of the papers published at Philadelphia between 1794 and 1800, and the rest of the Weekly Political Register, which ended only with Cobbett’s death (June 1835). An abridgment of these works, with notes, was published by his sons, John M. Cobbett and James P. Cobbett. Besides this he published An Account of the Horrors of the French Revolution, and a work tracing all these horrors to “the licentious politics and infidel philosophy of the present age” (both 1798); A Year’s Residence in the United States; Parliamentary History of England from the Norman Conquest to 1800 (1806); Cottage Economy; Roman History; French Grammar and English Grammar, both in the form of letters; Geographical Dictionary of England and Wales; History of the Regency and Reign of George IV., containing a defence of Queen Caroline, whose cause he warmly advocated (1830–1834); Life of Andrew Jackson, President of the United States (1834); Legacy to Labourers; Legacy to Peel; Legacy to Parsons (1835), an attack on the secular claims of the Established Church; Doom of Tithes; Rural Rides (1830; new ed. 1885), an account of his tours on horse-back through England, full of admirable descriptive writing; Advice to Young Men and Women; Cobbett’s Corn (1828); and History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1824–1827), in which he defends the monasteries, Queen Mary and Bonner, and attacks the Reformation, Henry VIII., Elizabeth and all who helped to bring it about, with such vehemence that the work was translated into French and Italian, and extensively circulated among Roman Catholics.
In 1798 Cobbett published in America an account of his early life, under the title of The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine; and he left papers relating to his subsequent career. His life has been written by R. Huish (1835), E. Smith (1878), and E. I. Carlyle (1904). See also the annotated edition of the Register (1835).