Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cobbett, William
COBBETT, WILLIAM (1762–1835), essayist, politician, and agriculturist, was born at Farnham in Surrey on 9 March 1762. Of a purely peasant origin, his early days were spent in the fields, and he had few educational advantages until he arrived at an age when his native force of character could help him to severe self-application. He was much impressed at an early age by Swift's 'Tale of a Tub.' In 1783 a sudden freak brought him to London, where he obtained employment as a copying-clerk to an attorney. After some months he enlisted in a line regiment. At the depót at Chatham he developed an extra-ordinary capacity for literary cultivation. All his leisure was devoted to acquiring English grammar and to the study of the best English classics. He soon obtained promotion, and joined the regiment in Nova Scotia, a promising non-commissioned officer. During eight years of service he uniformly commanded respect from his superior officers, and was employed by them in keeping accounts, registers, &c. At the end of 1791 his regiment returned to England, and Cobbett obtained his discharge with honourable notice. He married a soldier's daughter, and stayed in London during the spring of 1792, making some endeavour to bring certain officers to account for peculation, which, however, proved abortive. It was suggested by his enemies that he had made some corrupt compromise with the persons accused. His defence is given in the 'Political Register' for 14 June 1809 (Political Works, iii. 249-64). In support of the agitation then afloat for an increase of soldiers' pay, he wrote (or assisted to write) 'The Soldier's Friend.' His action in these cases endangered his personal liberty, and he went to St. Omer in France, and there applied himself to the study of the French language and literature. Thence he emigrated to Philadelphia in October 1792. Cobbett endeavoured to obtain an office under government, but soon settled down as a teacher of English to the French refugees. He presently published 'Le Tuteur Anglais' (1795). He also occupied himself in translating for the booksellers Martens's ' Law of Nations ' and other works. He was soon drawn into politics. ' Hearing my country attacked,' he says, ' I became her defender through thick and thin.' Challenged to do so on the occasion of Dr. Priestley's public reception in Philadelphia, he produced 'Observations on Priestley's Emigration.' The pamphlet enjoyed immense success, and was forthwith reprinted by the anti-jacobin party in England. This made Cobbett's career. He took the federal side in American politics. In January 1796 he began a monthly tract under the title of ' The Censor ; ' this was discontinued after eight numbers, and its place occupied by 'Porcupine's Gazette,' a daily newspaper, which ran from March 1797 till the end of 1799. Cobbett opened a bookstore in July 1796. He reprinted and published much of the violent loyalist literature then current, including Chalmers's scurrilous 'Life of Thomas Paine,' garnished with his own unreserved comments. He had now become a factor in American politics as a pamphleteer, and began to reap the consequences. He narrowly escaped conviction for libel in an action brought by the Spanish envoy. During the yellow fever of 1797 he so ridiculed the purging and bleeding adopted by Dr. Rush that he incurred another prosecution, which ended in a verdict against him for $5,000. After this affair was over Cobbett transferred his business to New York, and started a new federal monthly, 'The Rushlight.' But this change unsettled him, and he sailed for England in June 1800.
The fame which Cobbett had already acquired at home insured him a hearty reception from the government party on his arrival in London. Windham and others patronised him and assisted him to start a daily paper. ' The Porcupine ' appeared on 30 Oct., and lasted till November 1801, when its strong anti-gallican principles proved too much for its continued success, and the paper was relinquished. In March 1801 Cobbett started a bookshop in Pall Mall, but transferred it to Mr. Harding in 1803. In January 1802 he began 'Cobbett's Weekly Political Register,' which, with very trifling interruptions, was continued till his death, more than thirty-three years after. In 1801-2 he reprinted all his American writings in twelve volumes, under the title 'Porcupine's Works.' In 1803 he began the 'Parliamentary Debates,' which subsequently (1812) passed into the hands of Mr. Hansard. ' Cobbett's Spirit of the London Journals ' was published for one year only (1804). In 1806 'The Parliamentary History of England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the year 1803' was projected, and ultimately completed in thirty-six volumes. ' Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials ' (afterwards known as Howell's, from the name of the original editor) was commenced in 1809. With all this business activity Cobbett found time to pursue planting and agriculture on a large scale at Botley in Hampshire, where he usually resided after 1804.
About 1804 Cobbett began to take the popular side in politics. He had already incurred a charge of libel, occasioned by some plain-spoken articles on Ireland, contributed by Judge Johnson of the Irish bench. He was convicted, but escaped further action upon the discovery of the true authorship. This helped to convince him that he was on the wrong side, and he thenceforward devoted himself to the cause of reform. His journal was the best authority of the day, the news portion being marked by extreme accuracy and intelligence. The action of Wardle in obtaining inquiry into the misdoings of Mrs. Clarke owed much to Cobbett's support (1809). A severe article on military flogging at length brought him into trouble, and he was prose-
cuted by the government, the result being an imprisonment for two years and a fine of 1,000l. (June 1810). Cobbett offered to drop his paper in order to escape punishment. The offer was rejected, and Cobbett denied positively that he had ever made it. The fact, however, seems to have been conclusively established at later actions for libel (see Huish, ii. 312-35). Cobbett's business affairs had been managed badly, and he came out of prison pecuniarily ruined. Cobbett's writing was at its very best at this period, and the ' Political Register ' continued to enjoy some authority until, in 1816, during the domestic distresses of the day, he threw himself without reserve into the agitation for reform, and reduced the price of his journal to twopence. The result of the change was an enormous circulation among the working classes. Fearing a second imprisonment on the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and being much embarrassed, he went to America in March 1817. Here he kept a farm, and continued to write, for more than two years. He brought back to England bones of Thomas Paine, with the object of glorifying a character which he had formerly vilified, and provoked much justifiable ridicule. He now published numerous works of domestic and educational utility, and ventured again on a daily paper, 'Cobbett's Evening Post' (January-March 1820). His warm advocate of Queen Caroline, and Cobbett was the writer of her celebrated letter to the king. In 1821 he opened a seed-farm at Kensington, and resided for some years at Barn Elm, following his favourite pursuits of agriculture and planting. He now undertook a series of political tours, traversing England on horseback, the accounts of which he regularly printed in his paper. These tours were published in a collected form in 1830 under the title 'Rural Rides.'
Cobbett was now the leading journalist concerned in the movement for parliamentary reform. He at length incurred a government prosecution for incitement to sedition. He undertook his own defence with astonishing vigour and ability in July 1831. The jury being unable to agree were discharged, and Cobbett triumphed. He had long meditated a parliamentary career, and had already contested Coventry (1821) and Preston (1826) without success. He had appealed to his admirers to raise a fund for the purpose. His character had been injured by his vagaries, and especially by a quarrel with Sir Francis Burdett, who advanced him 3,000l. as a loan which Cobbett declared to be a gift. His money transactions had been questionable, and his position was precarious. He was at the bottom of the poll at both places. He obtained a seat for Oldham in the first reformed parliament. This was too late in life to be of much service to his cause or to his reputation. He made an absurd attack on Sir Robert Peel, which brought on him some discredit and ridicule ; but he was eventually listened to with respect. He was engaged in a debate on the malt tax just before his death in June 1835, at Normandy Farm, near Guildford, the seat of his latest planting experiment.
Cobbett's boundless pugnacity, self-esteem, and virulence of language injured his reputation ; his inconsistency was glaring and his integrity sometimes doubtful. But his shrewd sense, homespun eloquence, and independence of judgment are equally conspicuous. His views of politics and history were crude, and his economic theories often absurd. But he showed a genuine and ardent interest in the welfare of the poor, especially the agriculural labourer ; and in many ways, as in his opinions about the Reformation, anticipated he doctrine of the Young England party as led by Disraeli. His style is admirable in its way, and his descriptions of rural scenery unsurpassable. There is abundance of material for seeing what his contemporaries thought of him in the periodicals of the time, and many interesting personal matters will be found in the authorities quoted below. The 'Political Register' was at this period a anti-Cobbett literature, at all periods of his life, is one of the most striking phenomena connected with his history ; and this, more than anything else, tells of the extra-ordinary power and independence of his character.
Besides the works already named, Cobbett wrote: 1. 'Letters to Lord Hawkesbury and Henry Addington on the Peace with. Bonaparte,' 1802. 2. 'The Political Proteus, a view of the public character and conduct of R. B. Sheridan, Esq.,' 1804. 3. 'Paper against Gold,' 1815. 4. 'A Year's Residence in the United States of America,' 1818. 5. 'A Grammar of the English Language, in a series of letters,' 1818. 6. 'The American Gardener,' 1821 (afterwards reproduced with some modifications as 'The English Gardener,' 1827). 7. 'Cobbett's Monthly Religious Tracts' (afterwards 'Twelve Sermons'). 1821-2, a most excellent series, very little known. 8. 'Cottage Economy,' 1821. 9. 'Cobbett's Collective Commentaries' (on the proceedings in parliament), 1822. 10. Introduction to reprint of Tail's 'Horse-hoeing Husbandry,' 1822. 11. 'Cobbett's French Grammar,' 1823. 12. 'History of the Protestant Reformation,' two parts, 1824-7 (this book has had a large circulation and been often translated. It is a bitter attack on the protestant view, and dwells upon the tyranny and corruption of the ruling classes of the Reformation period). 13. 'The Woodlands,' a treatise on planting, 1825. 14. 'Cobbett's Poor Man's Friend,' 1826. 15. 'A Treatise on Cobbett's Corn,' 1828. 16. ' The Emigrant's Guide,' 1828. 17. 'Advice to Young Men, and, incidentally, to Young Women,' 1830. 18. 'Eleven Lectures on the French and Belgian Revolutions, and English Boroughmongering,' 1830. 19. 'Cobbett's Plan of Parliamentary Reform,' 1830. 20. 'A Spelling Book . . . with stepping-stone to English Grammar,' 1831. 21. 'Cobbett's Manchester Lectures,' in support of his fourteen reform propositions, 1832. 22. 'A Geographical Dictionary of England and Wales,' 1832. 23. Preface to Gouge's 'Curse of Paper-money,' 1833. 24. 'History of the Regency and Reign of George the Fourth,' 1830-4. 25. 'Cobbett's Tour in Scotland,' 1833. 26. 'Life of Andrew Jackson, president of the U.S.A., abridged by Wm. C.,' 1834. 27. ' A New French and English Dictionary,' 1834. 28. 'Surplus Population, and Poor-law Bill, a comedy in three acts,' 1835. 29. ' Legacy to Labourers,' 1835. 30. 'Legacy to Peel,' 1835. 31. 'Legacy to Parsons,' 1835. Six volumes of 'Selections from his political works' chiefly the 'Register' were edited by his sons John M. and James P. Cobbett in 1835.
Some of these works had already appeared in serial form in his journal. In the compilation he was assisted by J. H. Sievrac, B. Tilly, J. Yonge Akerman, and others. It is asserted (Tait's Magazine, 1835, f. 496) that Cobbett wrote out, in some regimental books of the 54th, directions for a sergeant-major or an orderly, in the manner of Swift's 'Advice to Servants,' 'which were full of admirable humour and grave irony.' His writings are full of autobiographical matter, and some of his correspondence is in possession of the British Museum.
[Add. MSS. 22906. 22907, 31125, 31126, 18204 f. 73, 22976 f. 212, 27809 f. 129, 27937 ff. 51, 117, 28104 f. 71, 31127 ff. 1-20; Life by Robert Huish, 1835; William Cobbett, a biography, by Edward Smith, 1878; Waters's Cobbett and his Grammar (New York, 1883); Bulwer's Political Characters (1868), ii. 90-193; Rural Rides, with notes, 1853, ed. by Mr. Pitt Cobbett, 1885; Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine; Times, 20 June 1835; Athenaeum, 27 June 1835; Gent Mag. (N.S.) iv. 205, 246, 670; Tait's Mag. 1835, pp. 493-6; Penny Cyclopædia; Fraser's Mag. lxv. 176-9; Gilfillan's Gallery of Literary Portraits, ii. 28; Hazlitt's Table Talk, essay vi.; Francis's Old New York, p. 141; Hudson's Journalism in the United States, pp. 154, 309, 620; Recollections of Samuel Breck, p. 204; Fearon's Sketches of America, pp. 61, 64; Windham's Diary, pp. 430, 439, 444, 446, 460, 488, 493, 501; Parl. History, xxxvi. 1679; Minto's Life and Letters, iii. 341, 347; Lord Colchester's Diary, i. 442, 518, ii. 240, 279, iii. 284, 468; Wilberforce's Life, ii. 384, iii. 46, 93, 531, iv. 277, 308, v. 67, 108, 203; Fonblanque's Life and Labours, p. 63; Earl of Albemarle's Fifty Years of My Life; Lord Althorp's Memoirs, p. 450; Brougham's Memoirs, i. 437, 501, iii. 265-7; Brougham's Letter to Marquis of Lansdowne, p. 96; T. Moore's Memoirs, ii. 354, 356, iv. 98; Cartwright's Life and Corresp. passim; S. Romilly's Memoirs, ii. 211, iii. 28; Wm. Lovett's Life, &c. p. 55; Bentham's Works, iii. 465 et seq., v. 66, 80, 97, 106-117, x. 351, 448, 458, 471, 570, 601, xi. 68; H. Hunt's Corresp. passim; Greville Memoirs, i. 14, 175, ii. 68, 158, 335, 351, 353, 373, iii. 27. 75; Somerville's The Whistler at the Plough, pp. 263, 295; Dr. Parr's Works, viii. 21; Rump Chronicle 1819, passim; Yorke's Political Register, passim; Birkbeck's Reply, &c.; Recollections of John O'Connell, M.P., pp. 2, 5, 32-5, 39.]