Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Bonar
William Cobbett (1763–1835)
[William Cobbett was the son of a small farmer of Farnham, Surrey, and was born there in 1763. In 1784 he enlisted in the 54th regiment, spent a year at Chatham, and was sent with his regiment to Nova Scotia, rising to the rank of sergeant-major. He quitted the army in 1791, and married in February 1792. At this time he brought a charge against some of his officers, but instead of pressing it, went from England to France, and thence to Philadelphia, where he played the part of a vigorous champion of England, writing Observations on Priestley’s Emigration (1794), A Bone to Gnaw for the Democrats, and the monthly paper Peter Porcupine (1795). Persecution drove him back to England (1800), and he was at first courted by Pitt’s government. His first publications after his return, including the early numbers of the famous Political Register (begun 1802), were still “loyal.” But soon after the renewal of the war his paper became (and remained) strongly radical, though never republican. He was prosecuted for strictures on flogging in the army (1810), and imprisoned till 1812. The Register continued to appear, edited from prison. When Sidmouth’s Six Acts made agitation dangerous, Cobbett withdrew to America, editing the Register in exile (1817–19). In 1819 he reappeared, bringing with him the bones of Paine, as the great assailant of paper money. Thenceforward he plied his pen unmolested. Returned for Oldham in 1832, he sat in Parliament, though hardly a power there, till his death in June 1835.]  1
COBBETT was, like Defoe, a born pamphleteer. Swift may have been his model in style, as he himself hints. The habit of writing in short clear sentences mainly of Saxon diction was common to both. But Cobbett’s style was in other respects entirely his own. His words flowed as easily as his thoughts. His anecdotes, and especially his epithets, clung to the memory. He made no pretence of profound learning. He dealt out facts and arguments closely within the range of the ideas and experience of ordinary Englishmen; and he was a “popular writer” in the sense of one who wrote what all could understand. The naïveté of his egotism disarmed his critics. He rivalled Junius in the rich discursiveness of his vituperation. He had all the infallibility of a newspaper editor, without wearing the usual mask of one. A great many of the virtues which he claimed for himself seem really to have belonged to him. He is the model of a good husband; he never keeps his wife waiting; he goes home at once when a storm comes on because she is afraid of thunder; his attention to her in small things and great is unfailing. A political agitator in season and out of season, he has all the virtues of a respectable citizen. He has improved every opportunity; he has raised himself by pure patience, sobriety, and energy to a place of power without office, and to honourable recognition as a writer, with no teacher but himself. He has taught himself grammar, gardening, arithmetic, forestry, and farming. He loves the country, and writes charming descriptions of rural scenes and rural life. He brings back from America not only the bones of Paine, but the locust tree and Indian corn. He has taught his countrymen how to plait straw hats. He rises early. He is a lover of riding and coursing. He knows what to eat, drink, and avoid. He praises beer and detests tea, himself seldom drinking either, and smoking little, unless to gain other people’s confidence. He cares little for music, and rarely quotes a poet. Hear him discourse on politics, you would believe it had been all his study. He is happy in knowing the exact causes of the distress of the country, and will be broiled on a gridiron if he is wrong. He knows (from Paine) that taxation and paper money are the root of untold evils. He abhors place-hunters, boroughmongers, stock-jobbers, political economists, Scotchmen, Quakers, and Jews. He is earnest for the emancipation of the Catholics, but frowns on the repeal of the Test Act. He praises the Mediæval Church, and hates Queen Elizabeth and the “wife-killer,” as cordially as “Old George Rose” and Ellenborough. Yet he dissuades the Luddites from breaking machines, has great respect for the rights of property, and regards old England as, after all, the best of countries. If not on theology, he will at least deliver himself on morality; and he prints “sermons,” if not on the cardinal virtues, at least on the cardinal vices. He is a fairly sound churchman, little as it appears from many of his writings. Like other men who have been self-taught and self-made, he is most certain of his infallibility where he is most fallible. He made many mistakes in his judgment of events, policies, and persons; and in this respect he learned little wisdom with years. His proposal in the House of Commons that Peel should cease to be a Privy Councillor because of his currency measure of 1819, came ill from a man whose prophecies Peel had helped to falsify. His epithets are often undeserved; and his arguments often seem to be convincing only because their language is clear. But to have written every week for thirty years and never wanted readers was a feat in itself; and it is an additional glory that, while delighting and exasperating his contemporaries, he wrote much that posterity will not willingly let die.  2

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