William Cobbett, His Thought and His Times
The English Jacobins
The nature of English politics in the late eighteenth century has suffered because historians, like voyeurs in a crowd, get hypnotized by the object of their preoccupation and pursue it with a concentration so intense that they ignore everything else that jostles them for their attention. For Sir Lewis Namier politics was the House of Commons and its members, rather than its activity. Who were these members? How did they get there? These were the grand objects of his passion. That artisans of Birmingham, the great manufacturing center of the English Midlands, were swarming to John Freeth’s coffee house and passing resolutions in favor of Wilkes and, later, of the American colonists mattered not one whit to him. The control of the Forester family of the nearby constituency of Much Wenlock obsessed his eye.
Yet public opinion and protest were not entirely ignored, particularly the Yorkshire Association Movement of the 1780s. This movement at least caught the fancy of Herbert Butter-field, Ian Christie, and half a dozen less historians but, again, they analyzed and discussed it almost entirely in relation to politics at Westminster, and particularly its involvement with the Rockingham group and the fall of Lord North. It required an American scholar, Miss Caroline Robbins, in The Eighteenth Century Commonwealth Man, to make us realize that radical political attitudes, rooted in the turbulence of seventeenth-century English politics, continued to flourish in the eighteenth century. As the years pass, the seminal nature of Miss Robbins’s book becomes more and more apparent. It entered fields too long ignored by fashionable scholarship—the rich nature of the English political experience, the deep sense of political freedom which the triumphs of the seventeenth century had bred, and the extent of the political nation in eighteenth-century England. Now we are looking into the provinces, not only the areas of new industrial or commercial growth, such as Birmingham, or Liverpool, but also the West and East where trade and industry were declining, and we are discovering an active, articulate political nation with its clubs, coffee houses, debating societies, and circulating libraries, with well-forged links with the London radical press. These lower-class politicians were often impressively preoccupied, as their betters no longer were, with the fruits of the Enlightenment; some were ardent evangelists of Voltaire and Rousseau.
Of course, the political discussion was incoherent, tinged with regret for a lost age as well as full of Utopian ideas of the future, and very readily distracted by paeans of adulation for old English freedom and liberty. But political passion abounded, political issues stimulated argument, and right down to the artisans men talked and lived politics. In the meanest market towns there were taverns where these provincial Hampdens met and thrashed out the issues: except maybe for casting a vote at an election, devoid of power they might be, nevertheless they possessed the freedom to talk, the liberty to denounce. Only the English, and their American cousins, were so free to utter their political views without …