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Cobbett's Return & New Charges, 1819-35, Part 8 to the Life & Works of
William Cobbett

Cobbett's return to England may simply be put down to the fact that that was the place where he could be with his family. The reason for his flight to America no longer existed as the Habeas Corpus Act, an act which has been in place since 1679 and by which the liberty of every Englishman was made as certain as law could make it, was back in place; so, Cobbett had nothing to fear if he kept his nose clean.32 However, while Cobbett had less to worry about, viz. that he shouldn't be pulled out of bed some night on account of a government roundup, how to make a living was more of a problem then ever. Again, I turn to George Spater:
"Cobbett's ability to make money out of the Political Register was abruptly curtailed by the new laws Lord Liverpool's government rushed through parliament. One of these -- directly aimed at Cobbett and his imitators -- put an end to cheap unstamped pamphlets commenting on affairs of the day. ... Thus the price of the Political Register to the reader would be tripled, rising from twopence to sixpence."33
It was at this time that Cobbett tried to supplement things by bringing out another paper, the Cobbett's Evening Post, a daily which first came out on January 29th, 1820; it lasted but fifty-five issues. It was too, at about this time, that Cobbett, with the help and encouragement of his friends, ran for parliament; he ran in Coventry. The election was held in March of 1820. At the end of it, not having been able to overcome the government competition, Cobbett lost, as he put it: "At Coventry, my opponents took 'loyalty and religion' to themselves, and allotted to me 'sedition and blasphemy.'" After the election, Cobbett was forced into bankruptcy and during the process he was reduced to meager circumstances. After his discharge, however, it seems that things went better for Cobbett. There was a greater demand then ever for news commentary, as, there was much news. In 1820, George III died and his son George IV took the throne. In June, the estranged wife of the king, Caroline returned to England demanding her right to sit along side George IV as his Queen. The new king would not agree, and thus, the Caroline Crisis ensued; it "swallowed up every other topic from June to November." All of this spilled over into 1821 when the Queen was put on trial; and, during the coronation ceremony she was prevented from entering Westminster Abbey. These tasty domestic stories were to be supplemented by other international happenings such as the second expedition of Parry to the Polar regions, and, the insurrections in Greece. People who could write these stories up, and in a manner such as Cobbett did, were bound to make a living.

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.

It was in 1830 that Cobbett once again ran afoul the law. In his Political Register, on December 11th, 1830, Cobbett published his article, "Rural War." Cobbett effectively supported those in the country who at this time were smashing farm machinery and burning stacks (ricks or rucks) of hay in the fields. Cobbett asserted that "one thrashing machine takes wages from ten men; and they [the tenant farmers] also know that they should have none of this food; and that salt and potatoes do not burn." On February 17th, 1831, Cobbett was indicted for seditious libel.34 The process that Cobbett was then put through was all too familiar to him; but this time he won. The main reason being, is that the court was headed up by a very different judge. Lord Tenderten who heard the 1831 case was quite a different person than Chief Justice Ellenborough who heard the case back in 1809. Ellenborough, as Spater observed, was the son of a Bishop and Tenderten the son of a hairdresser: Ellenborough was overbearing, Tenderten was mild-mannered. This court business came late in Cobbett's career and given his sad experience in 1809 and the resultant two years in prison, Cobbett had to be quite anxious about the process. The acquittal was to be one of the highlights of Cobbett's life.

Seemingly to top off his victory in the court room, Cobbett, within a couple of years of that was to finally35 win a seat (Oldham) in parliament, a place which was to come under Cobbett's direct eye, a place of "insensible roarings and scoffings" where there is created "the noise of a parcel of dogs howling at the moon."36 Cobbett, by the time he took his seat in parliament, had lost his bloom and was in the twilight of his years. The great Macaulay, who had sat in parliament with Cobbett in 1833 was to observe that Cobbett's "faculties were impaired by age" and that "his egotism and his suspicion that everybody was in a plot against him increased and at last attained such a height that he was really" quite mad.

The nocturnal schedule and endless routine of parliament ill-suited Cobbett and it was to take its toll. In June of 1835 he complained of feeling ill; influenza it is said. He was soon put to bed and it was very much downhill thereafter. It seems he was alone with his servants but the word went out and each of his family came to see him, being separately ushered into the room. It seems that he had instructed the servants that he was only too happy to have a visit from them but none were to stay over night under his roof. At the last of it, Nancy, Cobbett's long suffering wife, did stay over and sat by the bedside bathing the temples of her unconscious Billy.

He had written his last article for the Political Register on 13th June 1835; five days after that William Cobbett was dead.37

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Peter Landry
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2012