William Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist, who was born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament and abolishing the rotten boroughs would help to end the poverty of farm labourers, and he attacked the borough-mongers, sinecurists and “tax-eaters” relentlessly. He was also against the Corn Laws, a tax on imported grain. Early in his career, he was a loyalist supporter of King and Country: but later he joined and successfully publicised the radical movement, which led to the Reform Bill of 1832, and to his winning the Parliamentary seat of Oldham. Although he was not a Catholic, he became a fiery advocate of Catholic Emancipation in Britain. Through the seeming contradictions in Cobbett’s life, his opposition to authority stayed constant. He wrote many polemics, on subjects from political reform to religion, but is best known for his book from 1830, Rural Rides, which is still in print today.
Early Life and Military Career: 1763–1791
William Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 9 March 1763, the third son of George Cobbett (a farmer and publican) and Anne Vincent. He was taught to read and write by his father and first worked as a farm labourer at Farnham Castle. He also worked briefly as a gardener at Kew in the King’s garden.
On 6 May 1783, on an impulse he took the stagecoach to London and spent eight or nine months as a clerk in the employ of a Mr Holland at Gray’s Inn. He joined the 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot in 1783 and made good use of the soldier’s copious spare time to educate himself, particularly in English grammar. Between 1785 and 1791 Cobbett was stationed with his regiment in New Brunswick, and he sailed from Gravesend to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cobbett was in Saint John, Fredericton, and elsewhere in the province until September 1791, rising through the ranks to become Sergeant Major, the most senior rank of NCO.
He returned to England with his regiment, landing at Portsmouth 3 November 1791, and obtained discharge from the army on 19 December 1791. In Woolwich in February 1792, he married Anne Reid, whom he had met while stationed at Fort Howe in Saint John. He had courted her by Jenny’s Spring near Fort Howe.
France and the United States: 1792–1800
Cobbett had developed an animosity towards some corrupt officers, and he gathered evidence on the issue while in New Brunswick, but his charges against them were sidetracked. He wrote The Soldier’s Friend (1792) protesting against the low pay and harsh treatment of enlisted men in the British army. Sensing that he was about to be indicted in retribution he fled to France in March 1792 to avoid imprisonment. Cobbett had intended to stay a year to learn the French language but he found the French Revolution in full swing and the French Revolutionary Wars in progress, so he sailed for the United States in September 1792.
He was first at Wilmington, then Philadelphia by the Spring of 1793. Cobbett initially prospered by teaching English to Frenchmen and translating texts from French to English. He became a controversial political writer and pamphleteer, writing from a pro-British stance under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine.
Cobbett also campaigned against the eminent physician and abolitionist Dr. Benjamin Rush, whose advocacy of bleeding during the yellow fever epidemic may have caused many deaths. Rush won a libel lawsuit against Cobbett, who never fully paid the $8,000 judgment, but instead fled to New York and back to England in 1800, via Halifax, Nova Scotia to Falmouth in Cornwall.
The government of William Pitt the Younger offered Cobbett the editorship of a government newspaper but he declined as he preferred to remain independent. His newspaper The Porcupine bore the motto “Fear God, Honour the King” first started on 30 October 1800 but it was not a success and he sold his interest in it in 1801.
Less than a month later, however, he started his Political Register, a weekly newspaper that appeared almost every week from January 1802 until 1835, the year of Cobbett’s death. Although initially staunchly anti-Jacobin, by 1804, Cobbett was questioning the policies of the Pitt government, especially the immense national debt and the profligate use of sinecures that Cobbett believed was ruining the country and increasing class antagonism. By 1807 he supported reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Cartwright.
Cobbett opposed attempts in the House of Commons to bring in Bills against boxing and bull-baiting, writing to William Windham on 2 May 1804 that the Bill “goes to the rearing of puritanism into a system.”
Cobbett published the Complete Collection of State Trials in between 1804 and 1812 and amassed accounts of Parliamentary debates from 1066 onwards, but he sold his shares in this to T. C. Hansard in 1812 due to financial difficulties. This unofficial record of Parliamentary proceedings later became officially known as Hansard.
Cobbett intended to stand for Parliament in Honiton in 1806, but was persuaded by Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald to let him stand in his stead. Both men campaigned together but were unsuccessful, for they refused to bribe the voters by ‘buying’ votes; it also encouraged him in his opposition to rotten boroughs and the very urgent need for parliamentary reform.
Cobbett was found guilty of treasonous libel on 15 June 1810 after objecting in The Register to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen by Hanoverians. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment in infamous Newgate Prison. While in prison he wrote the pamphlet Paper against Gold, warning of the dangers of paper money, as well as many Essays and Letters. On his release a dinner in London, attended by 600 people, was given in his honour, presided over by Sir Francis Burdett who, like Cobbett, was a strong voice for parliamentary reform.
‘Two-Penny Trash’: 1812–1817
By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached 4d. per copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a daily newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes. Cobbett was able to sell only just over a thousand copies a week. Nonetheless, he began criticizing William Wilberforce for his support of the Corn laws, as well as his personal wealth, opposition to bull- and bear-baiting, and particularly for his support of “the fat and lazy and laughing and singing negroes.”
The following year Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett now sold the Political Register for only 2d. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000. Critics called it ‘two-penny trash,’ a label Cobbett adopted.
Cobbett’s journal was the main newspaper read by the working class. This made Cobbett a dangerous man, and in 1817 he learned that the government was planning to arrest him for sedition.
United States: 1817–1819
Following the passage of the Power of Imprisonment Bill in 1817, and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings, he fled to the United States. On Wednesday 27 March 1817, at Liverpool, he embarked on board the ship Importer, D. Ogden master, bound for New York, accompanied by his two eldest sons, William and John.
For two years, Cobbett lived on a farm in Long Island where he wrote Grammar of the English Language and with the help of William Benbow, a friend in London, continued to publish the Political Register. He also wrote The American Gardener (1821), which was one of the earliest books on horticulture published in the United States.
Cobbett also closely observed drinking habits in the United States. In 1819, he stated “Americans preserve their gravity and quietness and good-humour even in their drink.” He believed it “far better for them to be as noisy and quarrelsome as the English drunkards; for then the odiousness of the vice would be more visible, and the vice itself might become less frequent.”
A plan to return to England with the remains of the British radical pamphleteer and revolutionary Thomas Paine (died 1809) for a proper burial led to the ultimate loss of Paine’s remains. The plan was to remove Paine’s remains from his New Rochelle, New York farm and give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the bones were still among Cobbett’s effects when he died over 20 years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to them after that, although down the years various people have claimed to own parts of Paine’s remains such as his skull and right hand.
Cobbett arrived back at Liverpool by ship in November 1819.
Cobbett arrived back in England soon after the Peterloo Massacre. He joined with other Radicals in his attacks on the government and three times during the next couple of years was charged with libel.
In 1820, he stood for Parliament in Coventry, but finished bottom of the poll. That year he also established a plant nursery at Kensington, where he grew many North American trees, such as the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and a variety of maize, which he called ‘Cobbett’s corn.’ Cobbett and his son tried a dwarf strain of maize they had found growing in a French cottage garden and found it grew well in England’s shorter summer. To help sell this variety, Corbett published a book titled, A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn (1828).
Meanwhile, he also wrote the popular book Cottage Economy (1822), which taught the cottager some of the skills necessary to be self-sufficient, such as instructions on how to make bread, brew beer, and keep livestock.
Cobbett was not content to let newspaper stories come to him, he went out like a modern reporter and dug them up, especially the story that he returned to time and time again in the course of his writings, the plight of the rural Englishman. He took to riding around the country on horseback making observations of what was happening in the towns and villages. Rural Rides, a work for which Cobbett is still known today, first appeared in serial form in the Political Register running from 1822 to 1826. It was published in book form in 1830. While writing Rural Rides, Cobbett also published The Woodlands (1825), a book on silviculture that reflected his interest in trees.
While not a Catholic, Cobbett at this time also took up the cause of Catholic Emancipation. Between 1824 and 1826, he published his History of the Protestant Reformation, a broadside against the traditional Protestant historical narrative of the British reformation, stressing the lengthy and often bloody persecutions of Catholics in Britain and Ireland. At this time, Catholics were still forbidden to enter certain professions or to become Members of Parliament. Although the law was no longer enforced, it was officially still a crime to attend Mass or build a Catholic church. Although Wilberforce also worked and spoke against discrimination against Catholics, Cobbett resumed his strident and racist opposition to the noted reformer, particularly after Wilberforce in 1823 published his Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. Wilberforce, long suffering from ill health, retired the following year.
In 1829, Cobbett published Advice to Young Men in which he heavily criticised An Essay on the Principle of Population published by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. That year, he also published The English Gardener, which he later updated and expanded. This book has been compared with other contemporary garden tomes, such as John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopædia of Gardening.
Cobbett continued to publish controversial material in the Political Register and in July 1831 was charged with seditious libel after writing a pamphlet entitled Rural War in support of the Captain Swing Riots, which applauded those who were smashing farm machinery and burning haystacks. Cobbett conducted his own defence and he was so successful that the jury failed to convict him.
Cobbett still wanted to be elected to the House of Commons. He was defeated in Preston in 1826 and Manchester in 1832, but after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, Cobbett was able to win the Parliamentary seat of Oldham. In Parliament, Cobbett concentrated his energies on attacking corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law. In his later life, however, Macaulay, a fellow MP, remarked that Cobbett’s faculties were impaired by age; indeed that his paranoia had developed to the point of insanity.
From 1831 until his death, he farmed at Normandy, a village in Surrey a few miles from his birthplace at Farnham. As of early 2013, the expanded and modernized farmhouse, Grade II listed, was for sale at a price of £1,975,000. Cobbett died there after a short illness in June 1835 and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Parish Church, Farnham.
In his lifetime Cobbett stood for Parliament five times, four of which attempts were unsuccessful:
In 1832 he was successful and elected as Member of Parliament for Oldham.
Cobbett is considered to have begun as an inherently conservative journalist who, angered by the corrupt British political establishment, became increasingly radical and sympathetic to anti-government and democratic ideals. He provides an alternative view of rural England in the age of an Industrial Revolution with which he was not in sympathy. Cobbett wished England would return to the rural England of the 1760s to which he was born. Unlike fellow radical Thomas Paine, Cobbett was not an internationalist cosmopolitan and did not support a republican Britain. He boasted that he was not a “citizen of world…. It is quite enough for me to think about what is best for England, Scotland and Ireland.” Possessing a firm national identity, he often criticised rival countries and warned them that they should not “swagger about and be saucy to England. He said his identification with the Church of England was due in part because it “bears the name of my country.” Ian Dyck claimed that Cobbett supported “the eighteenth-century Country Party platform”. Edward Tangye Lean described him as “an archaic English Tory.”
Cobbett has been praised by many thinkers of various political persuasions, such as Matthew Arnold, Karl Marx, G. K. Chesterton, A. J. P. Taylor, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson and Michael Foot.
Cobbett’s birthplace, a public house in Farnham named “The Jolly Farmer,” has now been renamed “The William Cobbett.”
The Brooklyn-based history band Piñataland has performed a song about William Cobbett’s quest to rebury Thomas Paine entitled “An American Man.”
A story by Cobbett in 1807 led to the use of red herring to mean a distraction from the important issue.
An equestrian statue of Cobbett is planned for a site in Farnham.
William Cobbett Junior school in Farnham was named in his honour, whose logo is a porcupine.
Cobbett’s sons were trained as solicitors and founded a law firm in Manchester, still called Cobbetts in his honour.