I am the Watchman

Linda Colley

  • William Cobbett: Selected Writings edited by Leonora Nattrass
    Pickering & Chatto, 2312 pp, £495.00, December 1998, ISBN 1 85196 375 8
  • Rural rides by William Cobbett, edited by Ian Dyck
    Penguin, 576 pp, £9.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 14 043579 4

It is partly because so much appears to be known about William Cobbett (1763-1835) that he is insufficiently understood. Few political writers anywhere and at any time have been more prolific or had more impact on their contemporaries. His newspaper The Political Register, which appeared at intervals between 1802 and 1835, sold at its peak of popularity up to 70,000 copies an issue and was read by millions on both sides of the Atlantic. His now barely remembered History of the Protestant Reformation, published in cheap monthly parts between 1824 and 1826, sold 700,000 copies over two years, and contributed to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act. Rural Rides (1830) was still more successful and has never been out of print. As even the Attorney General prosecuting him in 1831 conceded, Cobbett was ‘one of the greatest masters of the English language that ever composed it’.

He was also a writer who kept the divide between politics and the personal deliberately uncertain. He fed his readers regular accounts of his life and the lessons to be drawn from it. He confided cosy snippets of his mundane experience: how he lit fires, the type of seed-corn he favoured, his wife’s recipes for bacon, what he thought of flannel underwear, and more. And just as the vigour of his prose is sometimes misperceived as artlessness, so this abundance of autobiographical detail can easily be mistaken for frank comprehensiveness. ‘His biographers are saved the search for significance,’ G.D.H. Cole declared: ‘he has it all ready for them.’ Only close reading reveals that Cobbett hardly ever mentioned his mother. Or that his wife (who tried to kill herself and from whom he died estranged) was restricted in his prose to a catalogue of domestic virtues. Or that he constantly modified his life story, even down to the date of his birth.

But it is his familiar image that has tended to militate most against a thorough analysis of his life and work. Over six feet tall, physically tough, and with a face he described as florid, but which others saw as ‘dull and heavy’, Cobbett could seem to an almost eerie degree a living embodiment of John Bull. This was how James Gillray represented him at the time; and it was also how he enjoyed representing himself. He was ‘an Englishman’, he boasted in 1795, ‘a calf of John Bull’, and the older he got, the more he resorted to such analogies. Later commentators proved only too willing to concur. He was ‘a man whom England alone could have produced’, his Times obituarist wrote. He was ‘the pattern John Bull of his century’ in Carlyle’s eyes; ‘a good brave old chap’ for Raymond Williams. As Williams’s remark suggests, Cobbett has been cherished but also confined by some of his most influential 20th-century interpreters. In particular, his full significance has been obscured by a succession of socialist expositors from his Fabian biographer G.D.H. Cole to E.P. Thompson.

Believing that Cobbett’s life coincided with the Industrial Revolution’s most violent assault on English labouring conditions (something many economic historians would now dispute), this school of writers interpreted his abiding interest in rural and agricultural matters as confirmation of his John Bull traditionalism. ‘He did not think in terms of the new social conditions,’ Cole observed: ‘he felt in terms of the old.’ Pacifist and/or anti-imperialist themselves, these socialist commentators could make sense of Cobbett’s own mixed record on war and empire only by presenting him, in a less than satisfactory way, as being sometimes radical and sometimes reactionary. Most damaging of all, they clothed him in a Little Englishness that characterised their own outlook to a far greater degree than it did his. Raymond Williams wonderfully evoked certain pastoral particulars of Cobbett’s vision:

The smell of baking bread, the glow of the cheek at the oven . . . the look of fine young oaks along the Weald, of the beauty and usefulness of ash trees; of the bright water meadows by the Ouse, the clouds above the trees of Penyard Hill, the flocks of sheep to Appleshaw fair; nuts and apples at Newbury, wildfowl at Petersfield, nightingales at Chilworth; white wheat on the clay.

But, like Thompson, Williams was much less interested in exploring or even acknowledging the substantial sections of Cobbett’s writings that were neither domestic nor insular.

These six volumes of some of Cobbett’s most influential work are therefore at once welcome and not what is most needed. Leonora Nattrass, who in the past has written sensitively on Cobbett’s style, has chosen to omit some of his better-known works (such as Rural Rides), and concentrated on those political texts that were widely read in his lifetime, but are much less well known and less easily accessible today. Each volume comes with a brief introduction, and with endnotes designed to elucidate ‘the dense web of contemporary references which make up the context for Cobbett’s political journalism’. The latter occasionally wobble in confidence and accuracy (e.g. ‘Thomas Buxton, later Sir Fowell’), perhaps because Nattrass is a literary scholar and not a historian. Yet it is historians who need to work hardest at seeing Cobbett afresh. Literary specialists such as Olivia Smith and Nattrass herself have done sterling work demonstrating the rhetorical art and innovativeness behind his seemingly artless prose, but with some few exceptions – Ian Dyck is one – current historians are not much interested in Cobbett. Mainly this is because he appears too much a known quantity, but it is also the case that what was once styled labour history has become deeply unfashionable, while Cobbett can seem too vulgar and populist to interest the new breed of intellectual historians. So, until all this changes, how should we best approach him?

One way to begin would be by acknowledging how substantially un-English his life experience was, and the impact this had on his ideas. He was taken up and transformed, as were so many Britons of his generation, by the business of war, empire, emigration and revolution abroad. His earliest exposure to political debate came when the American Revolution persuaded his father, an innkeeper in rural Surrey, to buy newspapers for the first time. As soon as he was old enough, he decided that ‘this little island of Britain’ was ‘too small a compass for me’, and sailed to what was left of its North American empire with the Army. He served in Canada for six years, rising to the rank of sergeant-major, and met his wife at New Brunswick. He returned to civilian life in Britain in 1791, and left almost immediately for France, eager to learn its language and witness its revolution. He then spent almost eight years in the United States, which was where he taught himself political journalism. Another extended trip to America in 1817 gave him the time and distance he needed to plot his most influential books.

This exposure to other countries shaped what and how Cobbett wrote, as well as contributing to his apparently idiosyncratic blend of ‘radical’ and ‘reactionary’ positions. He never forgot that he had once been a soldier, not least because it was as an Army clerk that he learned the rules of English grammar. At one level, his military background meant that he had no patience with those internationalist radicals from his own island who hoped for the success of French Revolutionary legions against the British Army. He felt too much for the poor bloody infantry for that: ‘What! Is every man who puts on a red coat, to be from the moment deserted by all the world; and is no tongue, or pen, ever to stir in his defence?’ He dedicated many of his published writings to non-commissioned men in uniform. And he retained from his military training and travel a degree of geopolitical awareness that distinguished him from most of his civilian counterparts. He used his Letters to Lord Hawkesbury (1801) to lambast the terms of the Treaty of Amiens, and to warn of French ambitions in Egypt and the Mediterranean. These letters are normally described – as in this edition – as driven by political conservatism, yet in terms of strategic analysis Cobbett got it substantially right.

The American segments of his life proved still more important. They helped make his writing style plainer and more colloquial and demotic. Living in the United States also gave Cobbett an unusually variegated understanding of its qualities and potential. He admired its role as ‘an asylum for the oppressed’, repeatedly stressing the abundance of opportunities and cheap land it offered to hardworking immigrants. If they must emigrate, he told his British readers, it should be to the States, not Australia or Canada; and large numbers of men and women took his advice. But unlike many of his radical contemporaries who could see only unmitigated good in America’s precocious democracy, an utter contrast to Britain’s own stale and narrow politics, Cobbett knew from his own experience that America had its own modes of corruption. He also recognised that the United States was a fledgling empire as well as a shining republic. As early as the war of 1812, he warned that American seapower would in due course overtake the Royal Navy, and he foresaw that US influence would increasingly impinge on Latin America.

Personal exposure to the current and onetime British Empire shaped Cobbett’s ideas in another, more insidious respect. It made him ever more acutely aware that busy imperial forays into every part of the world were effecting irreversible transformations within Britain itself. Right from the start, his cult of England was more dynamic and flexible than his pastoral whimsy suggests. He boasted that he favoured the word ‘England’ ‘because I hate a long compound name for a nation’. But he accepted that the three kingdoms were now one, and that ‘to secure this happy union, we must first know one another well.’ He threw himself into speaking tours in support of Parliamentary reform in Scotland and Ireland, insisting that the Irish were as much fellow countrymen of the English as men and women in Somerset. If he did sometimes give vent to anti-Scottish sentiments, this was less because of his ‘anti-British mind’, as one newspaper put it, than because Scots and Scottish intellectuals seemed to him too entrenched in the establishment, too much part of ‘the Thing’: ‘every-thing that has power,’ he wrote, ‘every-thing that has emolument, is Scotch.’ By the same token, some of his anti-semitism – though only some of it – stemmed from his belief that Jewish financiers were acting as a life-support system for corrupt British administrations: ‘GOLDSMID, the rich Jew, whose name you so often see in the newspapers’.

As he aged, however, he grew more paranoid about those he deemed alien, and about the degree to which they were now emphatically within. He scanned the Royal Navy and noted – accurately – ‘how large a portion of Americans and other Foreigners we have on board of our ships’. He watched the City of London, and shuddered at its ‘Jews and loan mongers and such like devils’. He went on rural rides but still encountered towns like Cheltenham that seemed to him crowded with ‘sooty-necked Jews’, ‘East India plunderers’ and ‘West Indian floggers’. He considered the diet of the poor, and judged it ruined by colonial imports: tea, sugar, coffee and tobacco, ‘of which there is not one . . . that we should not be much better without’. Most of all, he was repelled by blacks and by miscegenation: by how women in his own country were now walking openly ‘along the streets, hanging upon the arms of nasty black men’.

Cobbett’s attitudes towards women and sex – like his racism – have usually been decently marginalised, yet they are part of why he urgently needs reappraising. We don’t have to know that his relationship with his wife was unhappy: there were enough hints in his published writings to suggest that the bluff, untroubled masculinity of his public image was something of a façade. What are we to make, for instance, of his assertion that ‘Nature has so ordered it, that men should become less ardent in their passion after the wedding day, and that women shall not’? Certainly he reacted with fury and panic to what seemed to him black males’ excessive physical and sexual power. Reluctantly acceding in 1833, a year after becoming an MP, to his Oldham constituents’ demand that he vote for the final abolition of slavery in British colonies, he could not resist lashing out at those women who had petitioned Parliament on this cause. ‘Two hundred and seventy-eight thousand ENGLISH FEMALES’, he complained, had chosen to identify themselves with ‘fat and muscular black fellows’.

Cobbett’s reactions are noteworthy not because they were representative of his time and place, but because they were not. Anti-slavery, as Seymour Drescher and others have demonstrated, was one of the most popular political causes in Britain throughout Cobbett’s adult life. Yet he was not merely unsympathetic to this reform, but passionately averse to it. His reactions to blacks and to other perceived aliens also illumine the evolution of his ideas more broadly. If he became ever more obsessed with a myth of England and of English history in the 1820s and early 1830s, it was because he recognised that his country was being irretrievably changed. Changed, not just by economic pressures at home, but also by international and global forces. In his History of the Protestant Reformation, he conjured up a vision of pre-Reformation England as a society full of kindly monks, noble kings and contented peasants. But, above all, as a society that was entirely English. By contrast, 1688 – the epic revolution of the Protestant patriotic canon – signified for the elderly Cobbett the coming of ‘Dutch and German armies’, involvement in successive foreign wars, the poisoned chalice of empire, and corruption and aliens increasingly infecting England ‘like lice upon the body of a diseased animal’.

‘I am the watchman, the man on the tower,’ he raged at the end. Such desperate paranoia suggests why the real, unexpurgated Cobbett is at once less attractive than G.D.H. Cole’s carefully affectionate Fabian version, and far more interesting. Cobbett’s unfailing concern for the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh labouring poor, and his work on behalf of adult male suffrage make him – up to a point – a plausible hero for the democratic Left. His brilliant, pithy, bellicose writing transformed British political journalism, and has left a mark even today. His true successor may be the violent, undeferential, hugely popular and not unimportant Sun newspaper. But Cobbett’s work and ideas need to be located in a transatlantic and global context. And their political hybridity is something that needs to be explained, not simply accepted. If he looked forward at one level to a more humane, less corrupt, more egalitarian Britain, he was also a forerunner of the Young England movement, and ultimately of the National Front.