The English radical journalist and politician William Cobbett (1763-1835) was an advocate of parliamentary reform and a critic of the new industrial urban age.
William Cobbett was born at Farnham, Surrey, on March 9, 1763. His father, a small farmer, could afford him little schooling. Cobbett worked briefly with a copying clerk in London in 1783; he enlisted in the army in 1784 and served until 1791, mostly in Canada. In 1792 he wrote a pamphlet exposing military corruption but was unable to supply adequate evidence to press his case and fled to France and then to America.
Writing under the name of "Peter Porcupine" in Philadelphia, he attacked the French Revolution and defended England, then at war with France. During his American sojourn Cobbett wrote numerous pamphlets and founded and edited several small periodicals, including the Political Censor and Porcupine's Gazette. At this stage in his career he was clearly anti-Radical and anti-Jacobin (pro-Federalist and anti-Democrat in American terms). Cobbett savagely criticized the English scientist Joseph Priestley, who had also settled in Philadelphia, for his support of the French Revolution. But criticism of Dr. Benjamin Rush ended Cobbett's American journalistic career; he accused the famous physician and Democrat of killing patients (George Washington, among others) through his bleeding and purging technique. This brought a charge of libel against Cobbett, and he returned to England in 1800.
Britain's Tory government welcomed him as a literary asset in the struggle against republican France. He opened a bookshop in London and in 1802 began his famous Weekly Political Register. Gradually moving toward radicalism, he criticized the government's conduct of the long Napoleonic War. He was especially concerned about the war's economic repercussions on the home front. Because of his criticism of the government's handling of an army mutiny, in 1810 Cobbett was convicted of sedition and imprisoned for 2 years. Upon his release in 1812, he emerged as the great popular spokesman for the working classes. In his new, cheaper Register, he championed parliamentary reform and attacked the government for the high taxation and widespread unemployment of the postwar period.
Cobbett's newfound radicalism alarmed the government, and he went to America in 1817. On his return to England in 1819 Cobbett discovered a new enemy of the people—industrialism—and he repeatedly attacked this development in his famous Rural Rides. These essays, which praise old agricultural England, were first published in the Register and in book form in 1830.
Although his grand projects, the Parliamentary Debates and the Parliamentary History of England, were taken over by others while he was in prison, Cobbett never lost his interest in politics. He ran for Parliament unsuccessfully twice but was elected in 1832 from Oldham, following the acceptance of the Great Reform Bill. The parliamentary reform implemented by the bill fell far short of the demands of Cobbett and the Radicals, since the working class was still denied the vote. He opposed much of the legislation of the new Whig government in the reformed Parliament, especially the New Poor Law of 1834. He died on his farm near Guilford on June 18, 1835.
Cobbett has been praised as the prophet of democracy, but most of his writings look back to the old agrarian England of responsible landlords and contented tenants. He was not a profound thinker; his comments on economic matters were nearly always erroneous. Emotion rather than reason dictated many of his conclusions. But his passion for the interests of the common man and his ability to write in a jargon that was understood by the working class made him the leading English Radical of the early 19th century.
The range in the evaluation of Cobbett is suggested by the two standard biographies: G.D.H. Cole, William Cobbett (1925), views him as a Radical leader of the working classes, while G.K. Chesterton, William Cobbett (1925), considers him a Conservative. More recent biographies of Cobbett are William Baring Pemberton, William Cobbett (1949), and John W. Osborne, William Cobbett: His Thought and His Times (1966). Osborne more than the earlier biographers minimizes Cobbett's significance, calling him "a failure in politics … and of very limited influence in his lifetime." Mary Elizabeth Clark wrote a specialized study, Peter Porcupine in America (1939). There is a provocative chapter on Cobbett in Crane Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1933).
Booth, Simon, William Cobbett: an introduction to his life and writings, Farnham Eng.: Farnham Museum Society, 1976.
Clark, Mary Elizabeth, Peter Porcupine in America: the career of William Cobbett, 1792-1800, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977 1939.
Cole, G. D. H. (George Douglas Howard), 1889-1959., William Cobbett, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Green, Daniel, Great Cobbett: the noblest agitator, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, 1983.
Osborne, John Walter, William Cobbett, his thought and his times, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981, 1966.
Schweizer, Karl W., Cobbett in his times, Savage, Md.: Barnes &Noble Books, 1990.
Spater, George, William Cobbett, the poor man's friend, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Williams, Raymond, Cobbett, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.