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Cobbett's Return To England, 1800, Part 5 to the Life & Works of
William Cobbett

The Cobbett family arrived at London on July 15th, 1800. They first took up accommodations in London; but Cobbett favoured the countryside13, so that, in July of 1805, he moved his family14 to Botley, Hampshire, a place about five miles east of Southampton. Here, at Botley, Cobbett was to pursue one of his principal passions in life, viz. his insatiable love of growing things. Cobbett, of course, did not take up the life of a farmer to the exclusion of his passion for writing. He kept his pen busy and sent his articles with instructions up to London.

Before his move to Botley, Cobbett had solidified his connections with the printers and booksellers of London, a number of which he had first established during his time in America. As we have seen, Cobbett first published in America and these works found their way to Britain where he was to develop a steady increase in readership. Immediately with his return to London, in 1800, Cobbett set out to set up his own paper. His first attempts were not successful; then there came Cobbett's Weekly Political Register. The first issue went to the streets in January, 1802, thereafter, until 1835, the year of Cobbett's death, every Saturday in London, one could put two pennies down15 and get his fix of the Political Register. Lord Lytton, a writer of the 19th century, was to observe:

"Whatever a man's talents, whatever a man's opinions, he sought the Register on the day of its appearance with eagerness, and read it with amusement, partly, perhaps, if De la Rochefoucauld is right, because, whatever his party, he was sure to see his friends abused. But partly also because he was certain to find, amidst a great many lies and abundance of impudence, some felicitous nickname, some excellent piece of practical-looking argument, some capital expressions, and very often some marvelously-fine writing, all the finer for being carelessly fine, and exhibiting whatever figure or sentiment it set forth in the simplest as well as the most striking dress."16
Cobbett's writing was, in the main, political; he made it his business to criticize government. Though he had a great deal of difficulty with the way things were run in England, Cobbett was satisfied that the structure of government in England, was, "near perfect." For Cobbett, it was the person or persons that were running things that were at fault; then he came around to thinking that the structure, as sound as he thought it was, was bound to become infected or defiled by that which causes it to run: profit-seeking electees running after profit-seeking electors, or to put it more plainly -- the political system was overrun, overwhelmed with graft. This was not Cobbett's imagination working overtime: the political system, certainly up to 1832, was, indeed, corrupt: all, it seems was bribery, blackmail, and the general abuse of power. "By 1806," as his biographer George Spater was to observe, "Cobbett had definitely made a break with the past. From thenceforth his principal work has to promote those changes in the laws which he thought necessary to create a decent government devoted to the interests of the people."17

Cobbett's goal, in his political commentary, was to change the common man's lot by seeing to improvements in how he was collectively governed; but Cobbett was just as keen, again through his writing, to change the common man's lot by inspiring the individual to better himself. Cobbett was a voluminous writer. Much of it, of course, appeared in his own newspaper, the Political Register. In addition, he published a great number of books, as Spater was to write: "all for the purpose of instruction, and nearly all the instruction related to four subjects: language, gardening or farming, personal behavior, and government affairs, with a goodly amount of overlap among categories."18 Rural Rides -- a work which I read a number of years back and which, given my interest in rural England, I much enjoyed -- was the work for which Cobbett is best remembered and a must read "for those who want to come to the true history of England, an unequaled picture of the early nineteenth century, written by a man well qualified to observe and to comment."19

Trevelyan thought that Cobbett possessed a "rare literary power."20 Hazlitt thought Cobbett to be a most powerful writer. "He is not only unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day, but one of the best writers in the language. He speaks and thinks plain, broad, downright English. He might be said to have the clearness of Swift, the naturalness of Defoe ..."21 Cobbett has been likened to Thomas Paine, the writer of Common Sense (1776), a work which fed the American revolutionaries. But Cobbett was no Paine:

"Cobbett with vast industry, vast information and the utmost power of making what he says intelligible, never seems to get at the beginning or come to the end of any question: Paine in a few short sentences seems by his peremptory manner 'to clear it from all controversy, past, present, and to come. ... Cobbett is a pleasanter writer for those to read who do not agree with him; for he is less dogmatical, goes more into the common grounds of fact and argument to which all appeal, is more desultory and various, and appears less to be driving at a previous conclusion that urged on by the force of present conviction. He is therefore tolerated by all parties, though he has made himself by turns obnoxious to all; and even those he abuses read him. ...
If he is less metaphysical and poetical than his celebrated prototype [Paine], he is more picturesque and dramatic. His episodes, which are numerous as they are pertinent, are striking, interesting, full of life and naïveté, minute, double measure running over, but never tedious--nunquam sufflaminandus erat. He is one of those writers who can never tire us, not even of himself; and the reason is, he is always 'full of matter.' He never runs to lees, never gives us the vapid leavings of himself, is never 'weary, stale, and unprofitable,' but always setting out afresh on his journey, clearing away some old nuisance, and turning up new mould. His egotism is delightful, for there is no affectation in it. ...
As a political partisan, no one can stand against him ... he knocks out their brains ... [with] his powerful and repeated attacks. But with the same weapon swung round like a flail, with which he levels his antagonists, he lays his friends low. ... If his blows were straightforward and steadily directed to the same object, no unpopular minister could live before him ...
In short, wherever power is, there is he against it: he naturally butts at all obstacles, as unicorns are attracted to oak-trees, and feels his own strength only by resistance to the opinions and wishes of the rest of the world. To sail with the stream, to agree with the company, is not his humour. ...
When he is in England, he does nothing but abuse the Borough-mongers, and laugh at the whole system: when he is in America, he grows impatient of freedom and a republic. If he had stayed there a little longer, he would have become a loyal and a loving subject of his Majesty King George IV. He lampooned the French Revolution when it was hailed as the dawn of liberty by millions; by the time it was brought into almost universal ill-odour by some means or other (partly no doubt by himself) he had turned, with one or two or three others, staunch Bonapartist. ... He changes his opinions as he does his friends, and much on the same account. He has no comfort in fixed principles: as soon as any thing is settled in his own mind, he quarrels with it. He has no satisfaction but in the chase after truth, runs a question down, worries and kills it, then quits it like vermin ..."22
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Peter Landry
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2011