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William Cobbett

Friend of the People

The life and career of William Cobbett was one of great paradox and contradiction.

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 his time.


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 people.

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 opponents.


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 such country..."

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.


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.


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 wars.


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 a cart.
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.


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 all."

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.


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!


"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.


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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