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Friend of the People
The life and career of William Cobbett was one of great paradox and
Though passionate in his politics, he chose to remain aloof from party.
This allowed Cobbett to comment freely on any and every subject that appealed
to him. He was branded an egotist by his opponents and this accusation
does hold water. It is true that Cobbett held nobody’s opinion higher than
his own. He spent half of his life urging his countrymen to heed his advice
and the other half berating them when they ignored him. However, Cobbett
did have many graces that not only saved his character but have also preserved
his name to this day as one of the great reforming patriots. These qualities
ranged from his undoubted sincerity in his cause, his undeniable affection
for his country and his people and, most of all, the fact that he was often
painfully (for the establishment) right on many of the burning issues of
THE GREAT CRUSADER
Perhaps Cobbett’s greatest talent was in taking the complex issues of
the day out of the hands of those who preferred to keep exclusive control
of them. He then relayed these issues in laymen’s terms to the common people.
Indeed some of the great crusades in his ceaselessly crusading life were
his attempts to expose and put a stop to the corrupt practices of Government.
He campaigned tirelessly to expose the abuse of Government funds to finance
unearned pensions and sinecures, going as far as to publish lists of names
and figures in his ‘Weekly Political Register’. His hatred was strong for
sinecurists and all other ‘tax-eaters’ who fed off the high taxation that
impoverished the common people. Cobbett idealised the poor but free Englishman
and warned that there were fast becoming only two classes of man, masters
and abject dependants.
Witnessing the poverty that seemed to be swallowing up whole counties,
Cobbett saw clearly the need for reform in both the political and economic
spheres. Consequently, (through the ‘Political Register’) he supported
the Chartist cause, taking care however to maintain his independence. In
an effort to reach the highest possible circulation he published a special
edition of the 'Register', dropping the price from a shilling to tuppence
to accommodate the poorest in the land. In this edition, "An address to
the journeymen and labourers of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland",
Cobbett broke down the argument and counter-argument of reform to its bare
essentials, claiming that it was the burden of taxation that impoverished
the people, rather than any programme of industrialisation.
Cobbett urged his readership to support the reform movement but he also
bewarned of the great dangers that awaited the Chartist cause. He urged
Chartist leaders to renounce the violence that accompanied their activities
and assured them of success if they followed a more conciliatory path.
This had the effect both of pleasing certain sectors of the establishment
and much paining others.
Naturally the prospect of less violence and vandalism had its attraction.
However, the more cynical opponents of reform were perturbed by the concept
of a peaceful, legitimate and well-argued case being presented to the King
and Parliament. They feared that the justness of many of the Chartists’
grievances would find a sympathetic ear among the British Government and
The establishment feared Cobbett as one who could unite the common people
both with each other and with other sections of society. Cobbett was certainly
an early opponent of big government, christening the term, ‘the Thing’.
This was an all encompassing name for borough mongers, pensioners, sinecurists,
placemen and all ‘tax eaters’.
Though a committed reformer and a recognised radical, Cobbett took great
pains to point out that he was no revolutionary. He wrote in 1809, "I have
had too much opportunity of studying men and things to be led astray by
any wild theories of liberty... I want no innovation. All I wish is the
constitution of England undefiled by corruption."
An abiding quality of Cobbett’s life and character was his patriotism.
This, however, took a different form from that of many of his political
Cobbett saw loyalty to nation as indivisible from loyalty to family,
people and the very land itself. He concerned himself far less with foreign
adventures than with the preservation of the culture he so loved. In his
works he urged his countrymen to retain as much of their heritage as they
possibly could. As a farmer he gave his employees leave to observe all
the old holidays and festivals, organising and sponsoring the manly Sunday
sports which Cobbett believed bred strength and character.
"Love of country", Cobbett wrote, "is founded in the value which men
set upon its renown, its laws, its liberties and its prosperity, or more
properly speaking, perhaps, upon the reputation, the security, the freedom
from oppression and the happiness, which they derive from belonging to
Cobbett often said that he wished to be able to say to his sons,"I leave
England to you as I found it, do you the same by your children."
This comment betrays much of Cobbett’s thinking. He implored his countrymen
to preserve their nation in trust for the next generations but warned the
coming children that, in return for the gift of country, came the heavy
responsibility for its care and preservation.
GO TO JAIL
Indeed family affections lay at the centre of his world. He believed
in the hearth and the family table, but beyond this he held that a bond
of family existed among all those that made up ‘his people’. It was this
concept of family unity that landed Cobbett a two-year prison sentence.
Through the ‘Register’ Cobbett had long been a thorn in the side of a government
that itched to put him out of circulation. Cobbett always managed to use
his grammatical skill to avoid any charge of sedition but in 1810 Cobbett’s
patriotism was sufficiently outraged for him to misjudge his comments.
Five militiamen stationed in Ely had complained of a stoppage in their
pay and had been flogged for their trouble. Outrage enough, but the fact
that the beating was administered by German mercenary troops brought Cobbett
to a state of near hysteria.
To a man such as he, the idea of Englishmen being beaten in England
by foreigners was totally unacceptable. He roundly, loudly and violently
condemned the incident in sufficient terms to earn himself a charge of
seditious libel and a subsequent gaoling. This danger of arrest and imprisonment
loomed large over Cobbett for most of his career. His outspokenness in
one of the most repressive periods in our history kept him almost constantly
in a state of war. Not only with the Government of the day but also with
those personal opponents with whom Cobbett had fought a running battle
over decades. Of these enemies, Cobbett reserved perhaps his greatest venom
for William Wilberforce. Their bitter exchanges on the issues of the day
provided much entertainment for the public. They clashed on virtually every
subject, though their mutual disaffection was based as much on personal
dislike as on their political differences.
LOVE OF FREEDOM
For Cobbett’s part, he saw his highly religious opponent as the very
worst kind of hypocrite. Wilberforce led the campaign to end the trade
in slaves and to emancipate those slaves already in existence. Of course,
no man should be in slavery and Wilberforce’s passion for this ideal to
become reality is well known. Less well known however is the extent to
which Wilberforce was willing to curtail personal freedom, not for Negro
slaves but for his own countrymen. For all Wilberforce’s supposed love
of freedom, he supported or was responsible for much of the repressive
legislation brought into being, over the period during and after the Napoleonic
As the poor of England buckled under the weight of the Corn Laws and
heavy taxation, the case for reform gathered strength under the leadership
of Cobbett and others. The radical’s demand for lower taxes, cheaper food
and a reform of a parliament met with stiff opposition from the establishment
of which Wilberforce was a leading member. As the clamour for reform grew
louder so the measures designed to resist it grew even more oppressive.
For example, under the reign of George III there were more than seventy
capital offences. These ranged from impersonating a Greenwich pensioner
to highway robbery. The latter had wide reaching connotations, indeed a
woman in Manchester was executed for the crime of stealing potatoes from
In fairness, Wilberforce did oppose some proposed legislation to increase
the numbers of capital offenses. Nevertheless, in 1817 at a time of domestic
unrest, he advocated the suspension of habeas corpus.
Cobbett, and others who moved among the common people, understood that
they had no desire for violent insurrection. Those such as Wilberforce
who had no contact with the people feared a bloody revolution and reacted
accordingly. Wilberforce’s support for the suspension of such an important
safeguard of his countrymen’s rights as habeas corpus was, for the radicals,
hypocritical in the extreme. For did not Wilberforce preach so much on
freedom? Reformer Sir Francis Burdett vented the feelings of his colleagues.
"I confess I am astonished at the concurrence in this measure of an
honourable and religious gentleman who lays claim to a superior piety...nothing
could be more anti-Christian than to shut up persons in solitary confinement."
Cobbett, however, was not quite so polite in his condemnation. Wilberforce
was always a target for his pen. Cobbett’s dislike for Wilberforce grew
with every edition of the ‘Register’. Cobbett constantly taunted the object
of his distaste, lecturing him on every topic, punctuating his writing
with comments such as, "Now you will observe Wilberforce,... well Wilberforce,...
Mark it Wilberforce, note it down".
One of Cobbett’s pet hates was Wilberforce’s involvement in organisations
such as the long winded ‘Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Encouragement
of Religion and Virtue throughout the United Kingdom’. This organisation
sought among other things, a tighter moral code and a stricter Sabbath.
Cobbett, for his part, saw an ulterior motive in this apparently pious
organisation. He believed the movement sought to ban what Cobbett saw as
the manlier sports popular among the common people. To him, the Society
was an attempt to extinguish the sparse pleasures and amusements of the
poor. Cobbett accused Wilberforce of attempting to turn the poor into clean,
sober and punctual wageslaves.
Again, in contrast to Wilberforce’s supposed love of freedom, he gave
firm and vocal support for much repressive legislation. He strongly urged
that the Seditious Meetings Bill should be passed and he lent his weight
to the successful passage of the ‘Six Acts’, the last of which sought to
tax the radical press out of existence. This Act slapped stamp duty on
almost all publications except those containing subject matter of ‘piety,
devotion, or charity’.
Cobbett was quick to spot the loophole. With delicious insolence he
published his work firstly as, ‘Cobbett’s Monthly Religious Tracts’, then
as ‘Cobbett’s Monthly Sermons’. To his eternal glory he actually got away
with it! His ‘Sermons’ became regular reading for those who enjoyed Cobbett’s
attacks on his old adversaries, Wilberforce most definitely among them.
COBBETT THE TRADITIONALIST
It is a great paradox that history sees Wilberforce as the establishment
figure and Cobbett as the radical seeking great change. In reality Cobbett
wanted to maintain (or return to) the traditional ways and freedoms of
England. For all his piety, Wilberforce used his position to support oppressive
measures that were effectively stripping the Englishman of his long held
and hard gained rights. The new Corn Law of 1815 drew a predictable division
between the two men.
Though Wilberforce claimed to have given the proposed law much thought,
his decision to side with the agricultural lobby came as no surprise to
Cobbett, who mobilised support against the bill writing,"there is something
so monstrous in the idea of compelling people to purchase their food dear
when they could purchase it cheap."
What Cobbett would have made of the CAP we will never know!
The furore over the new law again increased the unrest among the people
which Cobbett duly attempted to channel into a positive movement for reform.
Wilberforce however, deeply mistrusted Cobbett’s motives, commenting that
of all the conspiratorial villains, "Cobbett is the most pernicious of
So the two men fought each other on virtually every issue but, as we
have seen, at the heart of their animosity for each other was a deep, abiding
mutual loathing. Wilberforce hated what he saw as Cobbett’s irreligiousity,
while Cobbett detested what he deemed Wilberforce’s ‘holier than thou’
attitude. Indeed, Wilberforce’s claim to have reached his decision on the
1815 Corn Law whilst at prayer, sent Cobbett into paroxysms of anger.
If there was one issue that divided them however, it was Wilberforce’s
abolitionist campaign. Wilberforce has his place in history as a leading
light in the struggle to end the trade in slaves. Though Cobbett never
supported this inhuman traffic, he refused to join the abolitionists who,
virtually to a man, he labelled as hypocrites. Indeed, many of those that
worked themselves into a frenzy on behalf of the African Negroes totally
ignored the grinding wage slavery that existed in their own towns and shires.
Many of them even grew rich from profits and dividends wrought from the
pain and misery of their own nation’s children.
THE CASH VALUE OF MAN
Though of course slavery was a great wrong it is a (perhaps unpalatable)
fact that by affixing a cash value to a human being, that person has some
degree of protection from the cruel world.
If a master brutalised or neglected a slave enough to cause his death
or incapacitation, it was necessary to replace him. This entailed a cash
loss that the sensible owner would of course attempt to avoid. If, on the
other hand, a nineteenth century English child employed in industry became,
through the neglect that society showered upon him, incapable of work,
then his employer would simply replace him with a different child. So,
although the African black was officially a slave, and the English child
officially free, a look at longevity and infant mortality records will
blur the picture of exactly which of the two was better off.
This was Cobbett’s point. How could those such as Wilberforce break
their hearts at the plight of the black American, yet ignore the pain racked
faces and crippled bodies of children worked fourteen hours a day at machines
that today could safely be described as lethal weapons?
Indeed, huge numbers of Britons lived and worked in intolerable conditions
that would have been unheard of on any southern American plantation. These
conditions existed before the campaign for abolition reached its peak and
they continued long after slavery was brought to an end.
To illustrate this point we can look at Jack London’s ‘The People of
the Abyss’, published in 1903, almost forty years after the end of the
American Civil War. In this vivid description of English wage slavery,
London writes of an old couple whom he came across in our capital city.
These old people had lost their children either to the Empire or to disease.
They found themselves unable to continue to work. Therefore, with no children
to support them, they were driven to the workhouse. There they were separated.
After a lifetime together, they bade each other farewell, for in the workhouse
there was no fraternisation between the sexes. Consequently, this old couple
faced the very real possibility of never seeing each other again.
A parallel case in America? It is of course quite possible, even probable
that such acts of cruelty occurred in the slave states of America. In Britain,
however, it was a matter of procedure.
So, although Cobbett did not support slavery, he saw much to clean up
in his own backyard before he looked across the ocean. ‘Charity begins
at home’ is certainly a maxim with which Cobbett would have sympathised.
Quite what he would have made of some of our present day philanthropists
is certainty not difficult to gauge.
Though Cobbett never joined a party he did finally enter Parliament
in 1832 as he approached his seventieth year. Now in close proximity to
his old adversaries Cobbett demonstrated that though old age approached
he had lost none of his fire and irreverence. A high spot of his three-year
tenure at Westminster was a short contribution to the debate on Lord Shaftesbury’s
factory bill of 1833. Representatives of the textile interest argued that
to reduce the working day of mill children from twelve to ten hours would
ruin the industry and deal a mighty blow to the nation. Cobbett rose and
claimed to have seen the light!
'SEEN THE LIGHT'
"We have this night discovered, that the shipping, the land, and the
bank and its credit, are all nothing worth compared with the labour of
three hundred thousand little girls in Lancashire! Aye, when compared with
only an eighth part of the labour of those three hundred thousand little
girls, from whose labour if we only deduct two hours a day, away goes the
wealth, away goes the capital, away go the resources, the power, and the
glory of England!"
Cobbett’s efforts on this bill were of no avail but he spent the last
two years of his life in similar campaigns. The Poor Law of 1834 brought
predictable fury from the old campaigner. The bill proposed to introduce
the workhouse as the only form of relief. For one such as Cobbett, who
always craved the sweet air, this was the cruellest of laws. Again his
efforts came to nothing but he continued to campaign until his death in
1835. He had outlived Wilberforce by two years and Cobbett made no secret
of his pleasure at surviving his old foe. The two men had fought a bitter
war for many years and there was never any rapprochement between them.
Cobbett hated Wilberforce and his loathing was returned. But Cobbett held
the advantage in that he enjoyed hating Wilberforce and enjoyed fermenting
hatred in a man who so dearly yearned to be a saint. One of Cobbett’s most
cherished achievements was in making Wilberforce hate him.
TRUE TO THE END
When William Cobbett died it was at home as he wished. He was a man
for whom land and people were indivisible. He believed that his people
belonged to their country and that England belonged to its people. Despite
all the injustice that he fought, he believed that the laws, customs and
people of this country were fundamentally good and that the preservation
and advancement of this nation were paramount.
We can be sure that Cobbett would have fiercely opposed most of our
twentieth century philan-thropists. The do-gooders of today seem to have
reserved their compassion for anyone but those who originate from these
shores. It is becoming increasingly obvious that our modern day Wilberforce’s
are having a deleterious effect on our society. It is a great pity that
William Cobbett is not here to tell the people why.
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