A Blupete Biography Page

The Life & Works of

William Cobbett

1 In addition to be known as, "The Poor Man's Friend"; William Cobbett was also popularly referred to as "John Bull, incarnate." See Hazlitt's essays in The Spirit of the Age and in Table Talk; P. P. Howe's New Writings by William Hazlitt, "Mr. Cobbett and the Quakers"; and see C. H. Herford's work, The Age of Wordsworth (London: Bell, 1916) at p.9 and Spater's work, William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend (Cambridge University Press, 1982) at vol.1, p.5. This last work, extensively referred to herein, I simply refer to as, "Spater."

2 "Loyal club-mongers communicate their schemes to the government." (1817, Wks. XXXII. 72.) "[They] live like fighting-cocks upon the labour of the rest of the community." (1826, Rural Rides)] "The enriching and pampering of those who render no public service." (1812, As written in The Examiner, 19 Oct., 671/2.) "Tyranny has no enemy so formidable as the pen." (1820, Gram. Eng. Lang.)

3 Cobbett left us with autobiographical material; see, in particular, Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1927) and The Progress of a Plough-Boy (London: Faber & Faber, 1933).

4 Spater, vol.1, p.12.

5 Hazlitt figured that Cobbett's experience in a Barrister's office was the reason that Cobbett generally saw "things through the medium of heat and passion, not with reference to any general principles..." A statement which is equally harsh on both Cobbett and lawyers, alike. (See Hazlitt's essay, "Mr. Cobbett.")

6 It was Robert Lowth's, A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), a classic.

7 Cobbett was to write: "Nova Scotia had no other charm for me than that of novelty. Every thing I saw was new; bogs, rocks and stumps, musquitoes and bull frogs." (As quoted by Spater, vol.1, p.20.) Of the six years that Cobbett spent in Canada as a soldier he spent most of those years in an area which we now know as New Brunswick (for a while at Saint John then at Fredericton, Fort Howe).

8 Spater, vol.1, p.21. Cobbett also turned teacher and gave lectures on such diverse subjects as proper army drill and mathematics, open to all including the highest ranking officers.

9 Spater, vol.1, p.47.

10 Cobbett was a great admirer of Burke's; "this great man ... the profoundest of statesmen; the ornament of his country."

11 Spater, vol.1, p.85.

12 By this time there were two Cobbett children; Anne nearly five years old and William not yet two. I note, for my Nova Scotian friends, that on route to England, Cobbett and his family was to have a short stay over at Halifax. (Murdoch, History of Nova Scotia, vol. 3, pp.193-4.)

13 For Cobbett, London was a "scene of noise & nonsense."

14 His family in 1805 included four children, the eldest ten years old and the youngest two. Cobbett was eventually to have seven children: four sons and three daughters. All of his children were educated at home; all the boys were to become lawyers. Incidently, Nancy Cobbett was contemporaneously described as being "a quiet, good sort of woman," "a sweet motherly woman," one who was totally devoted to her husband and her children. In later years, however, Nancy was to become very frustrated with her increasingly estranged husband, and, at one point, attempted suicide. (See Spater, vol.1, p.162, vol.2, pp.518 & 532-5.)

15 To its critics, the Political Register and the papers like it, were referred to as "two-penny trash." G. M. Trevelyan wrote, "In his Register and other publications he had devised and conducted, single-handed, a system of political education for the masses, at a time when they had no serious political writings within their reach." (Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929, 2nd ed. at pp. 216-7.)

16 As quoted by Spater, vol.2, p.447. Spater writes (vol.1, p.122) "Cobbett was responsible for -- if not the invention, at least the development, of -- what is known in America as the editorial and in England as the lead article. His views were expressed in the Political Register in the form of open letters addressed to named individuals or groups of individuals and through a weekly column, often entitled 'Summary of Politics,' in which he reviewed and commented on the news reported in the daily papers."

17 Spater, vol.1, p.156.

18 Spater, vol. 2, p.433.

19 Spater, vol. 2, p.440.

20 I quote G. M. Trevelyan, from his work, British History in the Nineteenth Century, p.186. It would appear, though, that, Trevelyan, for the most part, was no admirer of Cobbett. To Trevelyan, Cobbett's writing reflected a "gross unfairness and inaccuracy"; that Cobbett did a "good deal of posing"; and, "whose economics were as wild as his history." (Ibid.) George Spater, in his work on Cobbett's life, was to write that despite "the repeated attacks on him [Cobbett] for inconsistency, it seems probable that he changed his mind no more often than anyone else in public life who expressed himself over an extended period." (vol.1, p.5.)

21 See Hazlitt's essay, "Mr. Cobbett." Though his brain incessantly teemed with new projects; he was always ready with a fresh argument. "An argument does not stop to stagnate and muddle in his brain, but passes at once to his paper. His ideas are served up, like pancakes, hot and hot. Fresh theories give him fresh courage. He is like a young and lusty bridegroom, that divorces a favourite speculation every morning, and marries a new one every night. He is not wedded to his notions, not he. He has not one Mrs. Cobbett among all his opinions." (Ibid.)

22 Hazlitt's essay, "Mr. Cobbett."

23 Courier, see Spater, vol.1, p.234.

24 Cobbett was not the only defendant. Richard Bagshaw, John Budd and T. C. Handsard were also named; the first two as publishers and Handsard as the printer. These others did not contest the matter, and in spite of Cobbett's declaration in the open court that they had nothing to do with the impugned article, they were also sent off to prison: the publishers two months each and the printer, three months.

25 Spater, vol.1, pp.241-2.

26 We should not form the image of Cobbett being held in a dank and furnitureless cell without company for two years. In fact Cobbett was moved to a house adjacent to the prison belonging to one of the keepers; he occupied the upstairs flat; rent was paid to the keeper by Cobbett or his friends. "At length," Spater reports (vol.1, p.246) Cobbett was to be "comfortably housed in a sitting room and two bedrooms ..." Cobbett was permitted to conduct his business from these accommodations and his family was permitted to come and go without any problems, indeed, throughout the two year period, one of Cobbett's older children could be found occupying the spare bedroom.

27 I write of Sir Francis Burnett (1770-1844). Burnett had received an aristocratic education (Westminster then Oxford) and married Sophia Coutts, she of the banking family. Burnett was therefore very well connected. He entered parliament and was decidedly on the side of reform. He more than once got himself in trouble with the House and things became that serious that at one point he was carried off to the Tower under a Speaker's warrant (it would not appear that he was kept under arrest for very long). Burnett for many years was a supporter of Cobbett's; but, in 1817, the pair were to have a falling out.

28 It will be remembered that Cobbett left America in 1800, quite critical of the place, when, as "Peter Porcupine," he 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. This time around, however, circa 1818, he saw a "free country where every labourer with plenty to eat and drink." Where never there was to be observed "the hang-dog face of a tax gatherer. ... No Judges escorted from town to town and sitting under the guard of dragoons. No packed juries of tenants." (Cobbett, as quoted by Spater, vol.2, p.370.)

29 Spater, vol.2, p.359. It would not seem that Cobbett lost all his rights to the Botley farm, as, in 1819, after returning from his sojourn in America, the family did move back to Botley for a period of time; but, a bankruptcy proceeding in 1820, permanently ended, for Cobbett and his family, their residency at Botley. From 1821 to 1833, the Cobbett family resided in London in the Kensington area.

30 Spater, vol.2, p.375.

31 According to Hazlitt, this was the only time that Cobbett became romantic; but no sooner "had he landed in Liverpool, when he left the bones of the great man to shift for themselves; and no sooner did he arrive in London, than he made a speech to disclaim all participation in the political and theological sentiments of his idol ..." Though there has been speculation, no one seems to know what became of the bones of Thomas Paine. (See Spater, vol.2, p.532.)

32 The suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, which was put in to effect because of the Spa Fields Riot of December, 1816, and which drove Cobbett to flee the country, was lifted in January of 1818.

33 Spater, vol.2, p.390.

34 As Cobbett put it, it was the "old charge, that we are seeking to produce riot and confusion, and to destroy Social Order!"

35 Cobbett ran for parliament on two previous occasions and was defeated both times; he ran in Preston in 1826, and, at a later point, Manchester.

36 Cobbett's words are as quoted by Spater, vol.2, p.513. Spater, at the same place, describes parliament, a description which, in many respects, still fits: "The average whig or tory member of the House spoke to an audience of brothers, brothers-in-law, cousins, ex-schoolmates, boozing pals, hunting companions, fellow club members, and political allies, and was cheered when he said something his friends liked to hear. When something was said that they did not like to hear, the gentlemen of the House utilized the yawn, the cough, the sneeze, the ironical cheer, and other marks of disrespect to make it almost impossible for the speaker to proceed."

37 Spater writes that there are "no living descendants of William Cobbett," a conclusion, before which, he outlines what had become of Cobbett's family. Nancy Cobbett died thirteen years after her husband. None of the three daughters married. The four sons, all lawyers, with the exception of one had no children. The youngest Richard, Spater reports, did carry on the line a few additional generations. (See Spater, vol.1, p.162, vol.2, pp.518 & 532-5.)

38 Spater, vol.1, p.172.

39 As quoted by Spater, vol.1, p.174. Spater quotes another contemporary, at p.213: "You could see the sergeant blended with the farmer in every motion of his body."

40 Vol.1, p.6.

41 Spater, vol.2, pp.448-9.

42 Spater, vol.2, pp.522-3.


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Peter Landry
2011 (2019)