The Voice of the People

William Cobbet: The Poor Man’s Friend

by George Spater
Cambridge University Press, 2 volumes, 653 pp., $49.50

William Cobbett was born the son of a farm laborer in 1763 and became England’s greatest radical journalist before he died in 1835. George Spater writes of his genius for exposition, and it is more truth than compliment to add that Spater’s own gift for setting out in clear prose the political and social events of a complex era makes his book a key one for any full understanding of Cobbett and his times. Spater had an added advantage in being able to view his subject through American eyes, for Cobbett, who is popularly considered as English as roast beef, was subtly influenced by the years he spent in America during the 1780s and 1790s, and later in the 1810s, and has needed a good American biographer. It is also fortunate that Spater is free of the complexes about class that would tend to tangle a British account of Cobbett.

Not the least memorable thing about this solid (but never dull) life of a very solid man is Spater’s own assessment of Cobbett’s celebrated or notorious contemporaries. Virtually everybody from the politicians to the royal family gets a reinterpretation that reduces them from outsize characters or outsize statues to flesh and blood, and this without satire. It is because Spater has the measure of men like George Canning, or the illfated prime minister Spencer Perceval, or Pitt, that Cobbett himself emerges the correct shape and size. What a figure he was and what nerve he had!

A large part of Cobbett’s achievement and character derived from what can only be called a natural emancipation from the traditional handicaps of the “poor start.” They called it rising from obscurity in Cobbett’s day and it was a shaky thing to do. You had to watch your step and justify your temerity. This does not seem to have occurred to Cobbett. Without “family,” as it was termed, he took his place with ease and authority in every level of society; without education, he wrote excellent textbooks which were used in schools all over Britain, America, and Europe, spoke easy French, instructed lawyers, edited great newspapers, and perfected a prose style that made the copious advice he gave on every subject, from governing the world to running a kitchen, powerful reading for anybody who could read. His authority was unmistakable, his energies prodigious, even his egotism tolerable.

Physically he was all that agrarian man should be, six feet tall, blond, pink-skinned, majestic (though with small eyes), very upright, strong, and very fresh and clean. In an age in which revolution and reaction created two heady gales of opposing rhetoric, he spoke and wrote a handsome, plain English which had a way of reducing most of the grand arguments of his day to what was either simple common sense or an equally simple idiocy. His passion was for the field workers who during his childhood were the most numerous of the toilers actually producing the nation’s wealth. Somehow …

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