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 he either never noticed or could not bear to accept the fact that, from 1820 onward, the factories were swallowing them up in their many thousands, and that the glowing, happy mid-eighteenth-century rural Surrey he remembered had had its day. His dream was not to level hierarchical English society but to force it to create economic and cultural conditions that would make farms the happiest places in which men and women could spend their lives. Instead, he watched while agriculture tumbled into ruins.
Until the present biography of this unique Anglo-American figure, Cobbett studies have been dominated by G.D.H. Cole, whose Life was published as long ago as 1924. Not only is Cole’s work extended with this new book, but it is extended in a very necessary way. The early United States made its mark on the young Cobbett and it is fitting that what is likely to be the Cobbett biography for the next generation or two should be written by an American scholar based in Britain. The radical note in Spater’s approach particularly is so unlike that of the Fabian Cole and his successors as to alert the ear to previously muffled notes from Cobbett.
William was the third of four sons born in successive years to the Cobbetts, and in common with most village boys until the Second World War he began working when still a child. He never resented this, but gloried in it. The first two fingers of his right hand remained permanently bent because of vast amounts of digging and hoeing before he was fifteen. At home his father’s talk was all of the American War of Independence. While working as a garden boy (aged eleven) for the Bishop of Winchester, he heard of Kew Gardens, the sound of which so entranced him that he set off there and then to discover it, on the way spending his last pence on Swift’s Tale of a Tub. The plowboy and garden lover settled down in a haystack to read his book, which, as he wrote in his Weekly Political Register, “produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect.” One is reminded of Clare in his early teens coming across half a page from Thomson’s The Seasons and seeing for the first time what poetry was.
Cobbett did not leave home for good until he was twenty, when his departure was as careless as anything in Tom Jones. Dressed in his holiday clothes and about to take some girls to the fair, he boarded a stagecoach that drew up when the driver saw him standing by the roadside, mistakenly thinking he was waiting for it. In a few hours he was in London, with his career sprawling ahead of him.
After a brief spell as a clerk, the only time, he wrote, that he was ever miserable, he joined the army and there, in the barracks, he settled down to teach himself good English. A year or two later he was helping to guard the Canadian border. Then clerk to the regiment, a position of notorious power and influence, he was quick to recognize the ignorance, even the near illiteracy, of his officers, and the stupid muddle of the army generally. At this time Cobbett was deeply conservative, opposed to the American revolution and any other sort of radical change; his motive for getting rid of his regiment’s corrupt practices sprang more from seeing that the old order ran honestly than that it should be injected with new ideas.
While stationed at St. John he glimpsed a pretty thirteen-year-old scrubbing a tub in a garden at dawn and he said, “That’s the girl for me.” She was an artillery sergeant’s daughter, and before she sailed back to England with her father’s regiment Cobbett gave her all his savings—150 guineas. When he married her five years later she had not spent a penny of it but had kept herself by working as a servant. Although she never learned to read and write, Nancy Reid seems to have made Cobbett an admirable wife for many years until, hardly surprisingly, the marriage caved in under the stresses he later imposed upon it. It was one thing to be the wife of an exciting and ever commanding man, and quite another to be dragged along in the wake of a peripatetic national institution.
Spater is at his best when describing Cobbett’s restlessness and heroic schemings, his compulsions and experiments, all of which frequently plunged his bright children and their unlettered mother into chaos. The family side of Cobbett does more to explain the somewhat overpowering element in his nature, and its mixture of altruism and egotism, than a more direct attempt to unravel his psychology could have done. Cobbett himself hid nothing; indeed it was his openness during a particularly evasive time that society found so devastating. His life being such an open book, it was extremely difficult for the swarming government spies of the period to dig up the usual dirt. But this capacity for public candor can be a substitute for personal intimacy, and Spater has been able to reveal this in Cobbett’s domestic life.
Like many people who do much for others Cobbett mismanaged his own affairs abominably, and eventually had debts of £28,000, an immense sum at that time. And this was not through idealistic naïveté, such as might be expected of a reformer, but because his farms at Botley and Kensington were run on generous lines just at the moment when British agriculture had fallen into one of its slumps. Although he was arrested for debt and endured every kind of financial difficulty, Cobbett seems to have been more inconvenienced than wounded by these experiences.
Spater shows how, although a small fortune ran through his fingers, and although he had to use conventional business methods as both the leading newspaperman of his day and as a farmer, Cobbett was never really interested in money—“Nothing so false as figures,” he used to say. He paid his numerous laborers, over a hundred at one time working on his market garden alone, higher wages than anybody else, and was always more patrician than peasant in his somewhat grand attitude toward what things cost, and what he must have, and what he intended to do. This too made him formidable—the absence of apology and caution in him.
Cobbett’s literary career began in America, when he joined in the uproar that followed the signing of the Jay treaty in 1794. Two years earlier he had indeed published a seditious pamphlet in London, called The Soldier’s Friend, an exposé of how it was the practice in the British army for officers to mulct private soldiers of part of their pitiful pay—just an aspect, he charged, of Establishment practices generally, with the rich and powerful maintaining a deliberate policy of subsistence wages, and no more, to the people. (He wrote this after he had initiated and then fled from a court-martial that brought charges of fraud against four officers in his late regiment; he did not dare to make such claims until he was safely discharged.)
Another early work concerned nothing less than the postwar attitudes of Britain, France, and the United States, and was entitled A Bone to Gnaw, for the Democrats. This work reveals Cobbett’s easy, highly intelligent way with global politics as clearly as The Soldier’s Friend does his championship of the ordinary man. The two pamphlets can be seen as the beginning of the double-stranded obsession that was to preoccupy him to the end of his life. His aims were rational government and a system that produced a society in which the average person could live happily.
It was in the United States that Cobbett began his work as newspaper owner and journalist. Widely known by the mid-1790s, loathed by the Democrats, he wrote a delightful piece of autobiography in order to refute the wild stories being spread about his life, using the taunting pseudonym “Peter Porcupine.” Still in his early thirties, in touch with Washington and Talleyrand, he then launched Porcupine’s Gazette, a daily which almost immediately achieved the largest circulation in America. The tone of the paper was rabidly anti-French and sublimely pro-British, and it was full of invective and abuse. Since many of its leading articles were reprinted in London, a platform awaited him there when he returned, aged thirty-seven, in 1800.
There was unease when he turned down the offer of proprietorship of the government newspaper True Briton and set out instead to publish what he had written during his fifteen years in the United States. To many it seemed that Britain was about to follow the French into revolution, and Tory and Whig politicians alike were desperately seeking a voice persuasive enough to stem the rioting and convince the nation that General Bonaparte, with his 275,000-strong “Army of England” was about to invade it. Cobbett’s answer to all this confusion and despair, hysterical “war whoop,” as Coleridge called it, and class hatred, was to start his Weekly Political Register. It ran from 1802 to 1835 and few other journals have ever possessed such influence and power.
It was also in 1802 that, as Spater writes, Cobbett “turned his principal attention from the dangers of libertarian doctrine imported from France, to the purely domestic brand of problems relating to the governance of Britain, problems to which he devoted the rest of his life.” He became the people’s Cobbett of legend, the devastating critic of institutions and privileges, the spokesman for the villagers, the reformer, particularly of Parliament, the scourge of the fixers, the deflater of the “brilliant speaker.”
Cobbett’s ability to speak as he wrote, and to write as he spoke, unnerved his many enemies and transformed him into an oracle where his followers were concerned. The truth was that he dictated much of what he printed. Equally confusing in an age whose sermons and speeches were subjected to rhetoric and mannerism, his unaffected voice, along with a physical presence that exuded wholesomeness, had a plain, direct eloquence which was irresistible. Not the least curious aspect of Cobbett was that in many ways he seemed to epitomize to the British of all classes, from monarch to worker, what they still see as “good taste” and “correct style.” He arraigned the “collective,” as he mockingly called the government, at a time when critics and journalists were being thrown into prison for speaking the truth; he “assumed the patronage of the poor,” as John Mill put it, at a time when many of their age-old rights were being torn from them.
Spater sees Cobbett’s approach as similar to that of Tom Paine, with this basic difference: that he was concerned with altering constitutions, not demolishing them. Not that this lawfulness saved him from official wrath, spite, and vengeance. In 1810 he was thrown into Newgate prison after speaking out against the flogging of young soldiers at Ely. When the Act of Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1817 he fled for a while back to the US. But for the most part he could not be intimidated; he defended the common interest with courage and wisdom. And he did so when his world was in intellectual, military, and social turmoil.
Spater doesn’t suggest that Cobbett mastered the cant and confusion of the times like a good, sane giant. He shows that his character and genius as a preacher were formed by one hard decision after another, whether in America or England. He gives a clear account of virtually everything and everybody that concerned Cobbett, whether the rulers of Europe or his New York neighbors, the important writers of the day or the emerging power of the press—which owed more to his integrity than, even now, most of us like to admit. Cobbett’s old age and deterioration too are described with an extraordinary understanding of how even the finest of men topple toward the end. Estranged from family and friends, he died nearly alone.
The lasting fascination of Cobbett is that from start to finish his life succeeded in being as much a part of the streets as of the fields, of the halls where rules and money are made as of gardens and wild acres. He continues to interest and inspire us, being both rus and urb in the fullest sense. Reading Spater’s book, you feel that if only a dozen men of his type would emerge every generation, and in every land, we might be saved.
June 10, 1982