First Flight To America & The Start of Cobbett's Writing Career,
Part 4 to the Life & Works of
At this time, in the new country of the United States -- one formed by revolution but fifteen years before Cobbett's arrival -- there were people sympathetic to those, in France, who were crushing the old regime and bringing about revolutionary changes. The French, was it not so, had helped the new country in its time of need; now it was time, a great number of Americans felt, to give support to the French republicans, no matter that it, the French Revolution, caused death, property loss and great misery. The sympathetic Americans either did not know of the extreme violence caused by the French Revolution; or, were simply possessed of the philosophy that an omelette cannot be made without breaking eggs. William Cobbett was all for reform -- he was throughout all of his life -- but he was, as was his fellow countryman, Edmund Burke, against the way the French were going about it.10 Cobbett then started in on what was to become his life's work as a political commentator. His first written piece was against the supporters of the French Revolution or more particularly the hardheadedness of those in America that supported the movement. This first piece of published work came out in pamphlet form. Cobbett's pamphlet was published in August of 1794. A great many Americans bought his little work. Five editions of it came out in Philadelphia; an edition came out in New York; and, indeed, an edition came out in England. With this work, Cobbett's writing became a sellable commodity.
With the success of his first bit of published writing, Cobbett was encouraged to get busy and to write others. He wrote under the pen name, "Peter Porcupine." In his writings he advocated moderation and emphasized the importance of a good relationship between Great Britain and the United States; it was a position, that, throughout Cobbett's stay in the United States, was one that supported George Washington's administration. (I should say, incidently, that while there were no organized parties in the early constitutional life of the United States, there were competing views on how the country should be run. Washington's opposite was Thomas Jefferson, the pro-French democrat, who, when running for the presidency, Cobbett was to describe as "a man as much fit to be president as I am to be an Archbishop! A man who is a deist by profession, a philosopher by trade, and a Frenchman in politics and morality.") With Washington's retirement and the election of John Adams in 1797, Cobbett removed his sights and went off Sten-gunning everybody, including the new president. I turn to George Spater:
"Peter Porcupine no longer limited his scope to top-level governmental decisions, but became the arbiter of both public and private virtue. As such, he periodically pointed out American shortcomings, including the 'great depravity and corruption' of their morals, the low level of their literacy, and poor quality of their officials. He ridiculed the Pennsylvania legislature's description of a new highway as an 'artificial road,' declaring that more sensible people would have called it a 'turnpike.' He criticized the composition of the Philadelphia board of health on the ground that the doctors composed nearly half of its members ... These gratuitous observations on his neighbors were used as amusing fillers to flesh out Cobbett's daily criticism of the president, his cabinet, and various members of congress."11
Cobbett's approach made him many more enemies than friends. His readership fell off. To complicate matters, Cobbett was sued in defamation. The Pennsylvanian judge who heard the case, at an earlier point in time, had been made the butt of one of Cobbett's commentaries. It will not be surprising, therefore, to hear that Cobbett lost the case and a large award was made against him. After the case Cobbett fled to New York, where, in short order, he determined to leave America altogether. Thus, it was, that in 1800, sailing on the Lady Arabella, Cobbett with his small family left America.12
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