William Cobbett

From Academic Kids

William Cobbett (March 9, 1763June 18, 1835) was a radical agriculturist and prolific journalist. He was born at Farnham, Surrey. He thought that the reform of Parliament and the abolition of the rotten boroughs would help cure the poverty of the farm labourers. Cobbett constantly attacked the borough-mongers, sinecurists and tax-eaters. He opposed the Corn Laws, a tax on imported grain. Through the many apparent inconsistencies in Cobbett's life, one strand continued to run: an ingrained opposition to authority and a suspicion of novelty. Early in his career, he was a "loyalist" supporter of King and Country; later, he joined (and arguably helped inspire) the burgeoning radical movement.


Early life (1783-1791)

On May 6 1783, 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 enlisted in the army in 1784 where he taught himself to read and write. His regiment was posted to New Brunswick and he sailed from Gravesend to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cobbett was in St Johns, Frederickton and elsewhere in the province until September 1791. He rose through the ranks to become Sergeant Major.

He returned to England with his regiment landing at Portsmouth 3 November 1791 and obtained his discharge from the army on 19 December 1791. On 5 February 1792 he married Anne Reid in Woolwich: he had met her whilst in Canada.

France & the United States (1792-1800)

He had developed a disdain for the corrupt officer class, gathering evidence while in New Brunswick, but his charges against officers were sidetracked. He fled to France in March 1792 to avoid retribution. Intending to stay a year to learn the language he found the French Revolution breaking out so Cobbett sailed for the United States in September 1792.

He was first at Wilmington and 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 with a pro-British stance under the pseudonym 'Peter Porcupine'.

A disastrous lawsuit led to his financial ruin in 1799 and he returned to England in 1800 sailing from New York, via Halifax, to Falmouth.

Return to England

Cobbett was greeted warmly by the British establishment on arrival but refused all offers of reward for his propagandising in the United States.

He began publishing the Parliamentary Debates in 1802. This unofficial record of Parliamentary proceedings later became officially known as Hansard(see External link below).

Cobbett stood for Parliament in Honiton in 1806. He was unsuccessful as he refused to bribe the electorate by 'buying' votes; it also encouraged him in his opposition to rotten boroughs and the need for parliamentary reform.

Prison (1810-1812)

Cobbett was found guilty of treasonous libel on June 15 1810 after objecting in 'The Register' to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen by Hanoverians. He was sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison. While in prison he wrote the pamphlet Paper against Gold, warning of the dangers of paper money, as well as many Essays and Letters. On his release a dinner in London, for 600, was given in his honour, presided over by Sir Francis Burdett, a strong supporter of parliamentary reform like himself.

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.

A plan to return to England with Thomas Paine's remains for a proper burial led to the loss of his predecessor's remains (the full story is in his Biography (below). Cobbett arrived back at Liverpool by ship in November 1819.

England (1819-1835)

In 1820 he stood for Parliament in Coventry but finished bottom of the poll.

  • Cobbett was not content to let the stories come to him, he went out like a good 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 began riding around the country on horseback making observations of what was happening in the towns and villages. Rural Rides, a work which Cobbett is best known for today, first appeared in serial form in the Political Register running from 1822 to 1826; it was published in book form in 1830
    • extract taken from the Biography

In 1830 he was charged with seditious libel for writing a pamphlet entitled Rural War which applauded those who were smashing farm machinery and burning haystacks: he won the case. In 1832 he was finally elected a Member of Parliament for Oldham in Lancashire in 1832.

By now however Macaulay, a fellow member, remarked that his faculties were impaired by age; indeed that his paranoia had developed to the point of insanity.

He was a gifted journalist, though later generations have taken offence at his some of his apparently anti-Semitic and racist views. He provides an alternative view of rural England in the age of an Industrial Revolution with which he was not in sympathy.

Standing for Parliament

In his lifetime Cobbett stood for parliament five times, four of which attempts were unsuccessful:

External links


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