A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea"
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]

Chapter One

In 1775, fighting had broken out between British soldiers and the English colonists in North America. Great Britain determined to put down what they thought was a small revolt of ill-equipped men in one place in one colony, a revolt -- again, so the English thought -- that had little popular support in the colonies. It was a matter of nipping things in the bud. By 1776, the British leaders were beginning to realize they had an extensive and difficult problem on their hands.

In June of 1777, the English general, John Burgoyne, led 7,000 men south from Quebec so to occupy Crown Point and obliged the Americans to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga which the rebellious colonists had taken two years earlier. Although the long march had taken its toll on Burgoyne's soldiers, they continued to push forward, such that, by September, they were approaching Saratoga, and there a battle broke out with the entrenched Americans. In the meantime, another American force had circled around and cut Burgoyne's retreat route by destroying his boats at Lake George. On October the 16th, having no choice, Burgoyne surrendered.

The tidings of Burgoyne's surrender had reached Europe that December and the French king lost no time expressing his views on the matter. On February 6th, 1778, the French officially become allied with the new nation by concluding a treaty in respect to trade.1 At about the same time, Spain concluded a treaty with France and contemporaneously declared war on England.2 Before the year was out, on December 20th: War between Holland and England was declared.3

By 1781, the war in the colonies -- such a long way off and happening at a time when Britain's powerful enemy was but across the English Channel and posing a most serious threat -- was proving to be most unpopular at home. The Tory Government of Lord North was tottering.4 Then the news of Yorktown arrived. Yorktown was where, on October 17th, the British general, Charles Cornwallis surrendered his forces; it was an event that effectively brought victory to the Colonies.5

In November of 1782, peace terms between England and the United States were signed6; in January of 1783, with France and Spain. Peace did not stick, however. After 1789, with the outbreak of the French Revolution, there followed thirteen years of war between Britain and France. Safe to say, that William Hazlitt was born into a time, a time that was to stretch for years, during which there was always talk of war.

As for the politics of Great Britain in the last couple of decades before the end of the 18th century: The American Revolution had just ended and the French Revolution was going on. Many British aristocrats were bracing for the worst; though, the steps that the English rulers had taken a hundred years earlier made a bulwark against a bloody revolution, such as did unfold in America and (most particularly) in France. The ideas of democracy and of liberty, in England, were advanced beyond mere notions much before the Americans and the French took up arms in the cause of democracy. England had her "Glorious Revolution," in 1688; and pretty much a bloodless one at that. Democratic institutions had settled in, in Great Britain, quite nicely, much before the American and French revolutions. By the last quarter of the 18th century, the British government, or rather an orderly succession of them, were looking -- though the record is decidedly spotty -- to the business of preserving the people's civil rights. The Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1778, gave the Roman Catholics the same rights in England as everyone else.7 It was in 1780 that the British parliament, much before any other legislative chamber in the world, passed an act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.8 "The first great journals date from this time [c. 1780]. With the Morning Chronicle, the Morning Post, the Morning Herald, and the Times9, all of which appeared in the interval between the opening years of the American war and the beginning of the French Revolution, journalism took a new tone of responsibility and intelligence ..."10 Public opinion from this point on was moulded by what was written in the public press. The English parliament, by its acts passed in 1773, required that "milestones should be set up on the highways, signposts erected at road junctions, and that bridges should be walled or fenced."11 On August the 2nd, 1784, the first mail coach made a scheduled run. It left London at 4pm for Bristol and then 8am for London. It was too, in 1784, that the first golf club was founded at St Andrews. So too, in that year, 1784, Andrew Meikle made an invention, the threshing machine. And, in 1785, The Big Bang of the Industrial Revolution occurred in England, when, for the first time, steam engines were used to power spinning machinery. On January 26th, 1788, the first convict ship sailed for New South Wales. It was the same year that a law was passed requiring that chimney sweepers be a minimum of 8 years old (it was not much enforced).


William Hazlitt was born on April 10th, 1778, the fourth child to a minister in the Unitarian church. At the time the family was located in Maidstone, Kent. P. P. Howe in his biography on Hazlitt wrote, "The visitor to Maidstone will find the Unitarian
12 chapel in Bullock Lane, between Earl Street and the High Street, still (1922) standing as it was in Hazlitt's father's time; the dwelling-house in Rose Yard adjacent, where Hazlitt was born, has long since disappeared."13 In October of 1779, his father, an outspoken supporter of the American Revolution, moved the family -- William then only being eighteen months of age -- to the relative safety of Ireland.14 From there, in April of 1783, the Hazlitts departed for Boston. The Rev. and his wife with four children: John, age 16; Peggy, 12; William, 6; and little Harriet, 2. They sailed from Cork aboard the Henry. They first resided at Philadelphia (Union Street). In August of the following year, 1784, the Hazlitts left Philadelphia for Weymouth, fifteen miles from Boston.15 "Romantic Weymouth was given up after a year and eight months, when the family found it convenient to live nearer to Boston. Upper Dorchester was their new home, five miles from Boston - in a small house on the high road. Hazlitt continued to preach as before in Boston, Salem, Hingham, and other places, but at last in despair he determined to go back home, which he did by himself, sailing from Boston in October 1786."16 The next year, in 1787, the Rev. Hazlitt likely having made all the arrangements, the Hazlitt family sailed for England, arriving at Portsmouth 43 days later. After the family spent a number of months in London, they took up residence at Wem, Shropshire17; the father having "accepted the charge of a small congregation." The Hazlitt family was to remain at Wem for more than the next twenty-five years. John, his brother (eighteen, I think) was left behind in London to take up his studies with Sir Joshua Reynolds, and "to move in the Godwin circle."

Peggy, Hazlitt's sister, reminisced about her brother William as he came into young adulthood.

"The first six years subsequent to our settlement at Wem he devoted to study, and under his father's guidance he made a rapid progress. He was at this time the most active, lively, and happiest of boys; the time divided between his studies and his childish sports passed smoothly on. Beloved by all for his amiable temper and manners, pleasing above his years, the delight and pride of his own family."18
This happy little boy that Peggy Hazlitt described, was to grow into manhood; and was to eventually take his place as one of the greatest English writers of all time. His writings were acute, clear, and very often contained deep criticisms of the people and the politics of his time. Hazlitt made sharp "observations upon life and manners, upon history, and the metaphysics of the human mind." To George Gilfillan, William Hazlitt had a "rich seminal mind," "genuine originality," "insight," and "enthusiasm." All of this may well be a reasonable projection of the little boy that Peggy Hazlitt described; but the character of the man, as he turned out, could not have been predicted from this description.

Thorton Hunt -- the eldest of Leigh Hunt and who was to go on to become an accomplished man of letters in his own right -- wrote of the adult William Hazlitt:

"William Hazlitt, -- sensitive, captious, anxious to please, ready to fear that he has displeased, prompt to take offence; quick of insight into definite character and bookish qualities; half genus in art, but only half; trained in a narrow dissenting school, conscious of deficiencies in the very alphabet of literature, at a loss in the world, perplexed by fanciful mistrusts that others are ridiculing him; jealous, bitter, eloquent, generous, confessing a weakness for rackets and tea, at war with himself against foibles he despises, but confident in honest purpose, and the permanent rule of intellect and beauty."19
How William Hazlitt was to turn out this way, is something we may better understand as we go about examining the life and writings of William Hazlitt.
[Next: Chapter Two -- "Bentham, Godwin and French Revolution of 1789."]

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1 Professor Coolie Verner observed that the French were "basically disinterested in the plight of the one combatant although keenly desirous of humbling the other." [The introduction to No. 18 of the Map Collectors' Series, Maps of the Yorktown Campaign 1780-1781 (1965).]

2 George Otto Trevelyan, George The Third And Charles Fox, vol.2, pp. 42.

3 Mahan, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, p. 339.

4 Lord North was King George's flunky: George the III was operating the country by controlling parliament through royal patronage.

5 With the victory at Yorktown, "the war in America was virtually at an end, and the news of Yorktown in England brought the system of personal government by the King to an end too." (George Macaulay Trevelyan, Shortened History of England, p. 408.) "With this disaster the hope of subduing the colonies died in England. The conflict flickered through a year longer, but no serious operations were undertaken." (Mahan, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, p. 346.)

6 The American Revolution came about more because of the ineptitude of the bumblers that were in charge of British policy at the time than it did because of any strategic planning on the part of "Americans revolutionaries." John C. Miller observed: "British military policy was predicated during the early period of the war upon two assumptions; that Americans would run at the sight of British troops and that a large number of loyalists would rise to assist the redcoats in putting down the rebellion. Neither calculation proved correct: Americans did not run and the Tories did not rise." (Origins of the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown; 1943) p. 442.)

7 This move was to bring on the Gordon Riots of 1780. According to a politician of the day, Lord George Gordon, the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act was but a scheme designed to put "popists" in power and make the rest, second class citizens. Gordon's speeches appealed to the average Englishman. Riots broke out in London.

8 The first of these acts appears to be the Dolben Act of 1788; by it, it was required that there was to be more humane conditions on slave ships.

9 The first edition of The Times, though for its first three years it was known as The Daily Universal Register, came out in 1784.

10 Green, History of the English People, vol. X, p. 77.

11 T. S. Ashton, An Economic History of England: The 18th Century (London: Methuen, 1955) p. 24.

12 On my visit to Maidstone, I took a photo of the Unitarian chapel in Bullock Lane.

13 The Life of William Hazlitt (1922) by P. P. Howe (Penguin, 1949) at p. 39. Herein I refer to this work simply as Howe; he is an acknowledged expert on Hazlitt.

14 Bandon, in county Cork.

15 Augustine Birrell, William Hazlitt (London: MacMillan, 1902) p. 11. Herein I refer to this work simply as Birrell.

16 Birrell, p. 14. The first Unitarian church in America was established in 1785 at Boston. [Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) p. 114.] Yet, within the year, Rev. Hazlitt was in such a state of despair that he felt he had to move back to England? Was this a case of church politics, or more generally the state of affairs in the newly independent colonies where there existed a great jumble of people who possessed unique opinions about religion and politics.

17 We have pictures of the Hazlitt's family house at Wem: plaque, front and Side.

18 As quoted by Birrell, p. 19. The six year period that Peggy refers to would be 1787 to 1793, William's age from 10 to 16; Peggy, incidently, was 6 years older than her brother William.

19 See Appendex 2, Blunden, Leigh Hunt and his Circle (London: Harper Brs., 1930), at p. 362.


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[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]
[Hazlitt's Works]
[Political Essays]
[The Spirit of the Age]


2011 (2019)

Peter Landry