William Cobbett: The Poor Man’s Friend 
by George Spater.
Cambridge, 318 pp., £15, March 1982, 0 521 22216 8
Show More
Show More

When William Cobbett was about forty he brought out a weekly paper that has dictated the style and shape of British and American journalism ever since. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register came out almost every week from 1802 until his death in 1835. According to George Spater, this once powerful paper is now largely forgotten ‘except by historians who occasionally take a hasty glance here and there into its vast bulk of some 42,000 pages’. The existence of that bulk represents part of the difficulty in writing a fullscale biography of this brilliant and influential journalist. One needs to know about all the things Cobbett wrote about.

George Spater aptly and readily cites and quotes from the Register. But even he can hardly have its contents at his fingertips. It is easier, really, to write about Cobbett’s career as a political agitator. One does not need to be very left-of-centre, not very democratic, to approve of the reforms which Cobbett set in motion. ‘Most of the major remedial legislation,’ says George Spater, ‘urged by Cobbett and opposed by the ministers of the day, except his proposals relating to the debt, were eventually enacted into law by parliament.’ He offers a list: Cobbett’s proposals about factory laws, labour unions, laws relating to the press, military discipline, poor laws, universal suffrage ... (We are reminded of Cobbett’s list of good things done by Bonaparte.) Every socialist will think of Cobbett as a man on his own wavelength, a pioneer of his own political theory: if Cobbett comes out with something illiberal, unscientific or backward-looking, he may be excused and the blame put on the primitive age in which he lived. There is, of course, something patronising about this.

He was ‘the last great tribune of the agrarians’, wrote G.D.H. Cole, and, ‘by force of circumstances, also the first great tribune of the industrial proletariat’. But that was in 1924, when it looked as if ‘the industrial proletariat’ was going to last for ever, and Cole had a socialist plan for their benefit. An ecologist might suspect that Cole’s theories and plans will prove to be outdated more rapidly than Cobbett’s pragmatic approach to the details of human life.

Cobbett was a regimental sergeant-major before he was thirty and his politics and journalism carry the marks of this rank and profession. One of the characteristics is an awareness of the need to keep an eye open for every danger: from rankers as well as officers, from American and French ‘democrats’ as well as Napoleonic or aristocratic despotism. He has often been attacked for inconsistency, but it is not inconsistent to recognise that an old enemy is no longer such a danger as an old ally. E.P. Thompson would like Cobbett to have a stricter political theory. He wrote in 1965: ‘Cobbett helped to create and nourish the anti-intellectualism and the theoretical opportunism (masked as “practical” empiricism) which has remained an important characteristic of the British labour movement.’ It is true that there are not many other -isms that apply neatly to Cobbett (or the Labour movement), not even ‘voluntarism’ or ‘populism’. I am not sorry, myself.

Cobbett’s appeal to more conservative, even reactionary people is not surprising. It was the mark of a ‘patriot’ in his time to be for ever praising the past. To be a patriot was to be a spokesman for the ‘old ways’ of the people against the bad modern king, lords and parliament. Hazlitt mildly criticised this tendency in Cobbett’s left-wing ally, Sir Francis Burdett, who was always ‘wanting to go back to the early times of our Constitution and history in search of the principles of law & liberty. Liberty, in our opinion, is but a modern invention (the growth of books and printing) – and whether new or old, is not the less desirable. A man may be a patriot without being an antiquary.’ But a genuine regard for the past, for old books and simple rustic ways, is a great advantage to a left-winger who wishes to reassure the timid and guard them from ‘future-shock’. Cobbett deliberately worked on his old-fashioned ‘image’: those who met him compared him with characters in Scott’s historical novels. Of course, he went too far. While Hazlitt was trying to persuade his middle-class readers that boxing was not too wicked really, Cobbett was assuring the masses that bull-baiting was a good old English sport, not to be banned by Methodists. Cobbett supported Roman Catholic emancipation with the argument that this was the old religion of the country, in better times, but he was venomous against the modern business practices of newfangled Quakers and Jews. (It is not surprising that Richard Ingrams of Private Eye should think G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Cobbett the best.) Hazlitt supported the Jews as much as the Catholics, and he rebuked Cobbett quite fiercely for being a ‘bullying antagonist’ to the Quakers. Though he admired and learned from Cobbett, Hazlitt more than once complained of his bullying tendency. It is a natural tendency for a sergeant-major to get his way by bullying – both the officers and the men.

A sergeant-major bestrides the ranks. He is the guardian of regimental tradition. He is in loco parentis to his men, for he comes from their class and must make sure that they are properly fed, clothed, housed, trained – and not mutinous. He must explain their needs to the officers and interpret the officers to the rankers, who are to salute the uniform, not the man within. He must maintain a grip upon his officers, frighten them a little, but not devalue their rank, even if he has to arrange for some officers to be transferred elsewhere. He needs an exceptional command of English, written and spoken, so that he understands and is understood by everyone in the regiment: he ought to be a wit, his words memorable. He must be something of a play-actor, ever conscious of the public eye, maintaining a fine presence and remembering his public role even during the lonely hours in his office, writing and planning. He must expect to be lonely.

These are Cobbett’s characteristics. When he left the Army he carried some of them to extremes. Tories feared that his way of looking after the lads might provoke bloody mutiny, a popular revolution. Left-wingers were sour about his bullying, his rough, satirical tongue, his co-operation with the officer class, his respect for traditions, his know-all egotism. His first pamphlet was called The Soldier’s Friend: it was about ‘the close connection that exists between the ruling Faction in this country and the military Officers’. It came out in 1792, excited soldiers during the Nore mutiny of 1797 and was disclaimed by Cobbett (George Spater suggests) until 1832. The Poor Man’s Friend came out in 1826, at twopence a part, addressed to the Working Classes of Preston (where Cobbett had stood for election). He presented himself as a public friend to the lower ranks and the working classes. He instructed the rankers in the most friendly, familiar way (most of his published books are instruction manuals), almost as if he were one of them. Thus he frightened the officer class, for their own good, but retired from his attacking position (sometimes ungracefully, so that he was called coward) when dangerous mutiny seemed likely.

He was such a good friend to the public that we wonder whether he had any private friends, any private life. George Spater quotes from some notes made by Cobbett’s son, James, who was projecting a biography but found the task difficult, as well he might. In 1865, James wrote of his father:

He had but little individual attachment. Liked people’s company; – they liked his (when he was agreeable). But he formed very little of friendship. In Rural Rides he speaks of his ‘ardent friendship and not less ardent enmity’. But he was not steady or constant in either; excepting that as to the enmity, public causes were continually arising to keep the enmity renewed ... He was engrossed with the effect he sought to produce on society at large ... There was with him but little banding together with others for a common end, as with many men inspired by the ‘patriotic’ sentiment. He might be sd. to use others, rather than to act with them.

Cobbett’s frequent references to his private life, his upbringing and his loving, dutiful, well-trained family are more charming than plausible. Simple country folk, following the good old English ways, with no need of newfangled book-learning, pianos or tea, they are presented as an example to the nation. The children ride with their father, listening to his wise words, like the Swiss Family Robinson, and the good mother cooks and cleans, never complaining that the children don’t go to school, as sweetly dim as a Mrs Noah in a toy ark.

As it is, plenty;
As it’s admitted.
The children happy
And the wife devoted
To this as it is
Let his thinning hair
And his hauteur
Give thanks, give thanks.

Cobbett’s admirers, racing on to deal with his political and journalistic successes, tend to accept his idyllic picture of his family life, since it makes him such a fine representative of the British working class. But George Spater has much new material, from the estate of Cobbett’s great-grandson, General Sir Gerald Lathbury, and from American universities, which pours cold water on Cobbett’s public pose. G.D.H. Cole, in the preface to the third edition of his biography (1946), referred unhappily to his discoveries about Cobbett’s family life. When he was MP for Oldham, there was a terrible quarrel between Cobbett and his wife, with the four sons ranged, at first, two on each side. One of Cobbett’s henchmen, Jesse Oldfield, claimed the family farm and drove out Cobbett’s son, William, who went bankrupt. ‘There is no need to tell the whole story here,’ said Cole. But George Spater goes into more detail. Oldfield and three other ‘worshipful stalwarts’ were looking after Cobbett and keeping his family away. His hostile wife was not allowed to see the dying man until he was unconscious. He had driven away his most faithful son and wrote, rather theatrically, to Oldfield: ‘Thus, you will see, the last child goes.’

None of his daughters married. Three of his sons managed this task in their fifties or sixties, but had no children. Only the youngest, Richard, became a father. He comes over in Rural Rides as Cobbett’s charming little companion, but George Spater has found a letter little Richard sent to his sister: ‘People talk of teaching the young idea how to shoot – I wish they would teach children to shoot their Fathers – Mothers.’ This is pretty grim. We begin to see Cobbett’s family as a source for charming parentheses in his articles, designed to make the public like him. When Cobbett was imprisoned in Newgate, he told the public with Dickensian oversweetness about the lovely hamper his children would send him, packed with ‘his or her most beautiful flowers, the earliest violets and primroses ... a journal of their labours, interspersed with drawings of our dogs, colts ... I always thanked them for their “pretty letter”; and never expressed any wish to see them write better.’ But George Spater has found a nasty letter which Cobbett sent from Newgate to one of his sons, complaining: ‘Your letters of late have been so full of blunders ... bad spelling ... so unsatisfactory in their contents that really, at last, I am got to hate to see them come.’

We are bound to suspect that Cobbett’s home life was rather bleak, romanticised in his writings as a support for his political pose. George Spater psychologises about ‘the strong aggressive component’ in Cobbett’s nature, ‘his constant striving for superiority’: not content to be a superior soldier or a superior writer, ‘he insisted on his superiority as a husband, as a father, as an employer, as a teacher, as – whatever role he was playing at the moment.’ When Cobbett promoted a new fire place, strain of apple, system of currency or law reform, these projects were all, according to Spater, merely ‘means of proving his superiority’. This psychological treatment tends to reduce Cobbett to a patient under examination to see what is wrong with him. It makes a change from earlier biographers arguing about his public life – what he got right and what he got wrong.

George Spater is different from his predecessors in that he has no theme, no political stance. He is an unusual scholar. He practised law in New York for 25 years – and he writes more like a judge delivering a favourable summing-up than a defence advocate, like Cole, always giving his client the benefit of the doubt. George Spater then became chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines. Readers will be inclined to respect his views about Cobbett’s business affairs, his law-cases and practical abilities, but we would also like his views on how a nation’s economy should be managed. Discussing Cobbett’s arguments about government finance, Spater puts the question: ‘Is the government responsible to any degree for the state of the national economy?’ He goes on:

The official answer of the early 19th century was no. In contrast, Cobbett’s answer was yes, and this has become the official answer of the 20th century. The debate is focused on a second question, the one that Cobbett posed: what is the correct economic policy to be pursued in order to fulfil that responsibility? It is a question that even now cannot be answered with any certainty. We observe, however, that Cobbett’s remedies (cutting government expenditure and reducing taxes) are still seriously considered as candidates for the relief of economic distress.

George Spater has cleared his throat very nicely, but he does not answer Cobbett’s question or challenge Cobbett’s answers.

It is the same when he turns to Cobbett’s campaign against paper money. A select committee of the House of Commons reported in 1810 that currency should be brought back ‘to the original principle of cash payments at the option of the holder of the Bank papers’, and all Spater says is: ‘The enormously complicated questions raised by the report, still far from resolved at the end of the 20th century, were the principal subjects to which Cobbett directed his attention as he began to serve his term of imprisonment.’ But what does Spater think? Cobbett complained that the emancipation of the Roman Catholics in 1829 did not go far enough and would not solve the problem of Ireland. Spater puts in, rather timidly: ‘One cannot help wondering how much hardship and heartbreak might have been avoided if, at this point, the emancipation had followed Cobbett’s solution.’ Admirers of Cobbett want something more positive than ‘one cannot help wondering ...’

But that is one of the difficulties in writing a biography of such a compulsive, prolific writer: when he died, his works totalled more than a hundred and twenty volumes, and his old enemy, the Times, conceded that he was ‘by far the most voluminous writer that has lived for centuries’. So many of his arguments deserve a chapter of comment. George Spater’s function is to act as an annalist, bringing together a mass of carefully checked information – much of it unfamiliar – dispelling the sentimental haze. He is generally sceptical about Cobbett’s boasting – though he seems to accept Cobbett’s claim that he had planted a million forest trees and 10,000 apple trees by 1825. (We wonder where. Not, surely, on Cobbett’s four-acre farm in Kensington?) The reader must supply his own theme, his own estimate of Cobbett. What George Spater has put into my head, by his arrangement of the known facts, is that too many of Cobbett’s admirers have accepted this crafty journalist’s presentation of himself as a peasant. Certainly he liked to praise simple country folk who never move far from their birthplace, and he contrived to give the impression that he was one of them. Yet, surely, he was from boyhood a wandering, adventurous, hard-reading intellectual, eager for fame and the company of the powerful, a roving reporter and a risk-loving political agitator. Rural Rides, his most popular book, has solidified his reputation as a rustic. But 60-year-old peasants don’t go rushing around the country, fighting political battles and winning debates, writing sharp political articles about their experiences and cunningly sweetening them up with nature notes.

‘Take this self-taught peasant for all in all,’ wrote the Times in 1835. ‘Cobbett remained to the end a peasant,’ wrote G.D.H. Cole in 1924 – and he printed as epigraph to his biography an elegy on Cobbett about ‘gentle nature’s stern prose bard, her mightiest – peasant born’. There was a more conservative biography of Cobbett in 1949 by W. Baring Pemberton, an Eton history master (who feared that Cole’s book was ‘written with a slight tenderness toward the extreme Radical point of view’): he held that Cobbett would be remembered ‘as long as there lives one Englishman who loves his countryside and who dares to doubt whether material progress is a sure guarantee of increasing happiness’. Pemberton’s epigraph was from Pope:

Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.

Nothing like Cobbett. That happy little peasant deserted the paternal acres as fast as he could – aged 11, by his own account. He made for London, got a job at Kew and was smiled upon by the future George IV. After returning to Kent (where his father, a contentious innkeeper, would be arguing the case for the American rebels against his Tory customers), young Cobbett tried to join the Navy, but was dissuaded. So he went to London and worked as a lawyer’s clerk before joining the Army. He became a clerk to the commandant, went to Canada for six years with his regiment, kept himself to himself, outstripped his fellows and became regimental sergeant-major. He obtained his discharge when he was about thirty and returned to England for five months, taking the opportunity to get married and bring a law-case against his officers for corruption. Then he went to France and on to Philadelphia, with a letter of introduction to Thomas Jefferson. He stayed in America for eight years, teaching French refugees and earning a great reputation as a controversial journalist, taking a strong pro-British line against the pro-French. His pen-name, Peter Porcupine, was famous on both sides of the Atlantic. He became one of the tourist attractions of Philadelphia, remarks George Spater, who does well to tell us so much about the American years – this smart, satirical European journalist provoking the staid and gentlemanly Yankees. George Washington, Abigail Adams and her son John Quincy Adams all praised him, with self-congratulation for American tolerance of his right to free speech. In England, the King spoke of him as ‘my friend, Cobbett’.

When he was 37 – and had been out of the country for 15 years – the famous journalist returned to England in triumph, and the Prime Minister offered him the editorship of a government paper. But he preferred to start his own independent paper, since he was switching from anti-democrat to anti-despot. It was not until he was 43 that he bought three acres at Botley and began to perfect his peasant-farmer act. He continued his fiery political journalism and agitation until he was in his mid-fifties. Then, in 1817, he was caught between the divisions of the Left (the wet liberals, we might say, and the terrorists) and in danger from the Government. So he went to America again for two years until the Government had got over its scare and had brought back Habeas Corpus. He came back with a stunt – the bones of Tom Paine – but this failed. Now he was 59, about to start the most productive decade of his life, which included dashing about on his rural rides and fomenting the agitation that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. He was put on trial again, accused of working up the rural rioters who operated under the name of Captain Swing, but this time he was acquitted, and the Government did what he wanted. He was returned for Parliament, aged about seventy, and sat provocatively on the wrong seat, on the Treasury Bench. (There is a good drawing of this, among the many excellent illustrations in Spater’s book.) In no way does he resemble the peasants he praised and spoke up for: his new farm at Kensington – experimental, un-peasant-like – was subsidised by his writing.

‘His affectation was to appear to be more “normal” than he was.’ So wrote E.P. Thompson, warning readers about Cobbett’s charm, his ability to persuade conservatives that he was John Bull, to persuade leftists that he was the Voice of the People. ‘He never allowed his readers to forget that he had once followed the plough, and that he had served as a common soldier. As he prospered, so he affected the dress, not of a journalist (which he pretended not to be), but of an old-fashioned gentleman farmer.’ Cobbett was very good at pretending not to be a journalist. But he was a journalist. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, has written very well about Cobbett’s style and ‘the profound democratic influence of Cobbett’s attitude to his audience ... For 30 years he talked to his audience like this, until men were talking and arguing like Cobbett all over the land.’ Every personal column, every leading article, owes something to Cobbett’s sense of ‘democracy’ – though he might not have liked that word.

George Spater’s valuable book does not conclude with much of a eulogy. He obviously admires and respects Cobbett’s determined leadership on behalf of poor men, in and out of uniform, but he does not claim to know whether his policies were sound in their time or worthy of example now. He notes the comment of a fellow MP that Cobbett was ‘really as mad as Rousseau, poor creature!’ Spater follows this up with an account of Cobbett’s symptoms (which refers to Anthony Storr’s book, Human Aggression): Cobbett’s ‘great egotism, his suspicious nature, his readiness to see conspiracies against him, his extreme aggressiveness, his desire for revenge, his lack of emotional attachment to others, and his strong sense of unrivalled power and superiority which produced such a violent reaction when there was any suggestion that he was lacking in either’. On the last page of his book, he writes: ‘Cobbett had created a myth of a William Cobbett who was greater than himself. The man in the myth was a benign sovereign: wise, gentle, just, brave, the lover of all that was good, the enemy of all that was bad, the idol of his people. It was a myth Cobbett himself believed in, and according to this myth he lived and died.’

This is melancholy. George Spater does not seem to be conscious of the charm of politics – especially in Cobbett’s time: he does not see the fun of it all, the sport, the risks, the triumphs. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of life shines through his commentary, in the sparkling English of Cobbett and his contemporaries – and in their wicked cartoons. Cobbett was certainly not as virtuous as his myth, but we would not want him to be as smug as that: we would rather think of him as a bit of a humbug, on occasion. ‘A very pleasant man,’ said Hazlitt. ‘I certainly did not think less favourably of him for seeing him.’ We may envy Hazlitt this meeting: surely Cobbett is the most valuable journalist-politician this country has ever produced.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences