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Peter Porcupine. A Study of William Cobbett:
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THE FOLLOWING STUDY of William Cobbett aims at no more than a portrait of the man himself against a background only as detailed as is necessary to explain a life so closely connected with public events of the time. An attempt has been made to reduce to their simplest elements the problems that vexed Cobbett and his contemporaries; explained or debated at any length, these become, however interesting to the specialist, dead party politics to the general reader, and tend to obscure the vivid humanity of the men to whom they were not history, but the commonplace matters of every day. The books mentioned in the bibliography will fill in in detail what can only be given here in general outline. Much of what concerned William Cobbett so deeply is yet in debate; scholars are not yet determined as to the rights and wrongs of such large questions as the English Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the French upheaval of 1789; experts have not yet pronounced their final judgment on the policies of Castlereagh and Pitt, Canning and Peel. In almost every work consulted a different opinion on these subjects will be found; even the cool, dry summing up of one specialist, though free from partiality and prejudice, will contrive to leave a different impression on the mind from that made by the equally just conclusions of another specialist; even writers on political economy can give a personal colouring to their sober pages, so that a system which appears worthy and useful in one grave author's passionless deductions appears worthless and mischievous in those of another equally responsible and impartial writer.
Nor is it easy, in looking back across the hundred years that separate us from the life of William Cobbett, to view clearly the people, the problems, the social conditions among which he moved with such passionate vigour. We are the direct heirs of those times and have witnessed the fruitage or decay of much that he saw in the bud or in the root; many of his prophecies have come true, many have proved false.
This extraordinary man believed himself a typical Englishman and a typical peasant, in the sense, that is, that he was the epitome and sublimation of that nation and that class. These claims might well be admitted, but we can question if William Cobbett was more the typical Englishman than was George Herbert or Oliver Cromwell, or Sir Walter Raleigh or Samuel Johnson, and before we have come to the end of possible typical Englishmen we may decide that there never has been anyone who could, without rival Or dispute, be thus allowed to be completely symbolic.
We may also question if William Cobbett was the typical peasant made articulate after centuries of silence; his appearance was not obviously that of a man of the commonest stock, as is that of John Crome in the Opie portrait, as is that of Robert Burns in any portrait; the former was a townsman, the latter a countryman, and they came of different races, but in their handsome features show the virility, the independence, the sombre power of men of the people, who happen also to be men of genius. John Clare, the peasant who put English scenery into poetry, had no such robust features but rather a highly-bred ascetic countenance. Was anyone of these men truly representative of the class from which he came?
It would surely be difficult for anybody to answer that question. The peasant had been silent so long, his mind revealed only by his games, his superstitions, his ballads, his customs, many of which were unrecorded and unnoticed, his character shown only by his courage in war, his occasional and useless revolts; he had been for so long treated in the mass and so seldom as an individual that it is almost impossible to decide if he thought as William Cobbett, saw the landscape as John Crome saw it, or mused in his mute soul the poetry of John Clare.
It seems more likely that these men, and other men of strong talent, who have sprung directly from the soil, were exceptional, as the aristocrat of genius is exceptional. Even among the middle classes, where most genius is to be found, the typical man would be a very ordinary creature.
But it is attractive to consider William Cobbett as the ideal peasant; he had at least all the fine qualities associated with those people who, in a noble simplicity, have direct contact with the earth, and his faults were not aristocratic faults.
It is as hard and as dangerous to classify the times in which he lived as to classify the man himself; the eighteenth century has been termed the age of prose or the age of reason or the classical age, the early nineteenth century the romantic age, and while we can see how these terms arose yet any labels are misleading—there were romantics in the eighteenth and classicists in the nineteenth century; every age is an age of transition, and life, the raw material of history, is never static and never follows an exact pattern. It is also clear that no one is ever quite aware how the period in which he lives will be classified by posterity, and if he is a vital human being he is too much occupied by the business of living to try to classify it himself.
William Cobbett was such a vital human being; he lived through the American War of Independence, the first French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England, and these events did not seem to him as they seem to us in text-books, but were part of the rich, bewildering, exasperating pattern woven as a background to his own robust and honest personality, in which he was, with such simple egotism, absorbed.
It was a long life, a good and a happy life—he described it himself in somewhat angry terms; for he was a powerful hater and he considered that he had been deeply wronged; but we are not deceived, we know that a man so healthy in body, so single in mind, must have enjoyed every minute of existence. To such a nature there is a little core of warm satisfaction even in defeat, trouble, and failure—the satisfaction of being alive, of being himself. In his darkest moments William Cobbett was always sustained by the pride and pleasure of being William Cobbett.
It was also a bold and vigorous life, full of adventure, of action, of wholesome fights, of generous friendships, of patient and skilful labours, of delight in nature and man's honest handiwork; it was a life illumined by a steadfast love given and taken and an unselfish purpose steadfastly followed.
There are few men of whom there is so little of evil, meanness or weakness to be chronicled, few men of whom it may be said, as truly as it may be said of this man, he was in the highest sense of the word successful, and in the fullest sense of the word happy.
My grateful acknowledgments and thanks are due to Charles E. Sebag-Montefiore Esq. for information he has given me concerning his ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore, Bart., also to J. D. Carleton Esq. for the notes he so kindly contributed on the scholars of Westminster School.
Richmond, Surrey, 1935
"Take this self-taught peasant for all in all, he was, perhaps, in some respects, a more extraordinary man than any other of his time... he ended by bursting that most formidable barrier which separates the class of English gentlemen from allbeneath them."
Second obituary article on William Cobbett, June, 1835.
"Dear father, when you used to set me off to work in the morning,
dressed in my blue smock-frock and woollen spatterdashes, with my
bag of bread and cheese and bottle of small beer swung over my
shoulder on the little crook that my old godfather Boxall gave me,
little did you imagine that I should one day become so great a man
as to have my picture stuck in the windows, and have four whole
books published about me in the course of one week."
William Cobbett, pamphlet 1796.
IN THE YEAR 1777 a young boy was trudging resolutely along the road which led from Farnham to Richmond, in the County of Surrey. It was a June day, exceedingly fine and bright. A few opal-coloured clouds sailed high across the upper air of deep blue; the harvests were ripening in the riverside fields, the hay was being cut in the meadows; honeysuckle, briary and dog-roses were flowering and ripening in the hedges which here and there divided garden and meadow from the rough, broken high-road.
The boy, who was about fourteen years of age, was tall and strong, with small grey eyes, a ruddy complexion and a tuft of tow-coloured locks on top of his small, round head. His air was confident and cheerful as the day, and he walked with large, swinging strides; his attire consisted of a long smock of coarse blue linen, beautifully stitched across the shoulders and breast, homespun breeches and cloth gaiters with scarlet garters, buttoned over coarse hand-made shoes. He was engaged upon an adventure and he looked about him eagerly with youth's passionate desire for novelty and excitement; but the scene, though exceedingly agreeable, differed little from that to which he had been used all his life. He had been born and bred amid the rich hopfields of Farnham and he had no knowledge of any other part of the world. His farthest journey had been to the market-town of Guildford; he was well-used to the kind of scenery that he saw about him now, ploughland and grassland, pleasant lordly estates, where elegant mansions of classic architecture stood on shaven lawns shaded; by dark, exotic trees, long, low irregular farm-buildings with stabling and orchards, thatched cottages, and here and there a steeple of a parish church, where a grey tower rose above the grey tombstones, like a shepherd guarding a flock.
When the boy reached the outskirts of Richmond the sun was low in the sky. He paused to look with admiration at the river, which twisted and sparkled through vales of enchanting loveliness, to glance at the handsome gates of noble domains, and, as he reached the street, to peer with curiosity through the small panes of the bow-shaped shop-windows; these, which were tricked out to attract the rich, the idle, the fashionable, and the elegant, held many objects which the curious young rustic did not understand at all. The people, too, who moved up and down the hill, either on foot or in chaises, were much better dressed than anyone whom the country boy had seen before. Even the gentry, the squires and their ladies who resided round Farnham or who might be seen on market-day in Guildford, were never set out with this air of luxury and idleness. The boy looked at them all shrewdly but without envy; their powder and plumes, their broadcloth and silk, their smart horses and glittering equipages, pleased him very much.
But his objective was Kew, the gardens of the Palace. He had been told that it was not far outside Richmond and he was now satisfied that he would be able to gain it before nightfall. He was, however, hungry; he looked around for a modest inn, where he could spend the threepence which was all that was left him of the sixpence halfpenny with which he had started his adventure, the other part of this small provision having gone on bread and cheese at midday, save a halfpenny that had been lost.
He was familiar with inns; for his father kept one named The Jolly Farmer on the outskirts of Farnham, a humble place, where home-brew was served to day-labourers in the one sanded parlour, or, during hot weather, on the oak bench outside. The host of The Jolly Farmer deserved that name himself, for the inn was also a small farm, which he worked with the aid of his four sons and one or two hired men. The Surrey peasant was an exceptional man, and it was owing to this quality that his son was now able to tramp the winding streets of Richmond, looking about him with pleased amazement at the fine company come out to take the coolness of the summer evening.
When the landlord of The Jolly Farmer had been a child, he had driven the plough for twopence a day, and had saved enough from these humble earnings to pay the village schoolmaster to impart to him what knowledge he had; in this way, he, the son of a day-labourer who had worked for forty years on one farm, learned not only to read and write, but the elements of grammar and some mathematics, to which he presently added a good understanding of land surveying. By reason of this knowledge so far beyond that usually possessed by the peasantry, he had raised himself above the position held by his father, who had died in the two-roomed cottage where he had lived for nearly half a century.
The young adventurer, trudging through Richmond, had learned from his father how to read, how to write, something of grammar, and a sound knowledge of elementary agriculture; he could hardly remember when he had not been able to earn his own living by scaring rooks with wooden clappers, or following at the plough's tail, or taking animals to and fro the pastures. He was an exceedingly happy boy, healthy and well-nourished, and his mind was stored with pleasant memories; his mother and his grandmother had woven and made all the garments that he wore, his blue smock, his thick galligaskins, the knitted hose, the scarlet garters, his shirt and breeches. He had charming memories of his grandmother, living, like a creature in one of those wonder tales that delight small children, in the tiny cottage where there were but two windows, before one of which a damson-tree showed the beauty of its white blossom and purple fruit, and before the other a filbert-bush produced delicious nuts in curly green cups. Such holidays as the boy had had, at Christmas or at Whitsuntide, had been spent with this old woman in her cottage, where he and his brothers had been given bread and milk for breakfast, apple pudding for dinner, and bread and cheese for supper. The heat came from, and the meals were cooked over, a turf fire, and a rush dipped in grease was all the artificial light the old woman ever had. The boy remembered her and the cottage as being brightly illuminated by contentment.
He had been for some little while employed on the estate of the Bishop of Winchester at Farnham Castle, and, to his thinking, His Lordship owned very fine gardens indeed, and he had been proud to work there, until one of the gardeners had told him that the splendours of Farnham Castle were as nothing compared to the King's gardens which surrounded Kew Palace.
It was, therefore, to see these Royal gardens, and to satisfy a passion of curiosity that the boy had left his pleasant home and his congenial work, and had walked sturdily from the dawn of the bright summer day, until the first blur of twilight found him in Richmond. It had been a delightful journey; everyone of whom he had enquired the way had been agreeable, obliging, and amused by the boy's bright confident air and his healthy comeliness, which was set off so engagingly by his rustic attire. He felt indeed self-confident, and made no doubt that he would obtain good employment in the King's magnificent garden at Kew; for he considered himself already pretty well accomplished in all that had to do with the cultivation of the earth. From his infancy he had been accustomed to weed wheat, to lead a single horse at harrowing barley, to hoe peas, to join the reapers at harvest, and to drive the team and hold the plough. Moreover, while employed at Farnham Castle, he had become quite skilful in clipping box-trees into the shapes of urns, peacocks, and angular men and women.
As the hill sloped down to Richmond Green he saw an inn modest enough for him, and took his threepence from his pocket.
At the same time he noticed a bookshop, and, forgetting his hunger in curiosity, pressed his snub nose against the shining pane of the window to stare at the handsome volumes bound with gold tooled leather displayed within. These, of course, were not to be thought of; he at once put them beyond his envy, but inside the door there was a box of cheaper books with the prices marked on them clearly enough.
The boy was extremely interested in books, though he had known only such few as were in the possession of the village schoolmaster and those carefully guarded volumes set on the shelf in the farm house parlour, from which his father had taught him his own scanty and quickly acquired learning. One of the volumes on which the boy now gazed was entitled A Tale of a Tub and these words fascinated him. Tubs he had seen in plenty, but he was puzzled to think how a tale could be made of one. The name of the writer of the book was Dean Swift, and the price was threepence.
The boy in his blue smock and red garters beneath his knees, in his homespun, rustic attire, with his earnest face crowned by the stiff yellow hair, stood considering under the amused, compassionate eyes of the bookseller. It was a question of his supper or the book. He was very hungry but he wanted the book with the passionate desire of youth, urged by curiosity.
He did not hesitate long. Three pennies were counted out and he hurried onwards towards Kew with a feeling of extraordinary elation. Even as he walked he began to turn the pages. What was it about, this queer "tale of a tub"? He did not know that the expression was an old manner of saying—a trifle—a nothing—and one, therefore, very likely to be useful to a satirist; nay, he had not even heard of satire and he knew nothing whatever of the famous tragic man who had written the book.
He no longer had any eyes for the neat, well-kept mansions with their gardens and coach-houses, and the lawns, with classic statues and summer-houses, with rococo temples and dainty weeping willows, that sloped down to the waters of the Thames, nor time to admire the grace of the new bridge which spanned the river from Richmond to Twickenham, nor the swans, proud like the fashionable folk, who sailed along the placid reaches of the river. His nose was in his little book and he hurried to be free from the houses and the people, that he might read it in peace. He had forgotten that he was hungry and that he was tired; he had almost forgotten the Royal Gardens, the glories of which had been so long and so persistently in his mind.
He left Richmond and came out into the country again; he found open fields on either side of him, with here and there a grove of trees, their foliage gently waving in the evening breeze. The scene was very lovely, a pastoral landscape in muted tones of blue and green, brushed by the last gold of sunset and veiled by the grey of deepening twilight. Looking up from his book in order to find a place where he might rest and read, the boy beheld a startling sight, which formed a fitting climax to an adventurous day.
Ahead of him and dominating all the gentle landscape, arose one of the wonders of Kew, of which the gardener at Farnham Castle had told him so often—the pagoda of Sir William Chambers, with its great height, odd shape, and peculiar colour of dark brick and faded peacock green, with the little curved roofs which divided storey from storey. It was true, then, that he was on the verge of a magnificent domain full of wonder. The boy gave a sigh of relief and contentment. The book came first, however, even before the attractions of the prospect promised by the sight of the pagoda. He found a haystack not far from the edge of the road. The smell of the early new-mown grass was so familiar to him that he did not know it was sweet, but he threw himself down beneath it with great satisfaction and began to read.
The book held him as long as the light lasted. He could not understand a great deal of what he read; it was a fantastic story and had nothing whatever to do with a tub, but, in a way that he could hardly understand himself, It excited and stimulated him, and he felt all afire with sensations and emotions he had not known he possessed. He had always been happy and perfectly satisfied with the homely, loving, peaceful life of The Jolly Farmer, which was all he had ever known; but now, in some way that it was quite beyond him to analyse, the day's journey, the joy of a deliberate setting out to a definite goal, the greater joy of reaching that goal, the odd excitement of the book with the strange title, the reading of it beneath the haystack, the beauty of the evening, no greater than the beauty of hundreds of other evenings he had known, yet, somehow, suddenly realized by him and therefore made vastly important—all these things combined to give him a sense of almost unbearable exaltation. It was as if he, a penniless boy, son and grandson of peasants, with no prospect in the world beyond that of earning his living as his father and grandfather had earned it, working in the most humble capacity on the soil, had suddenly been promised fame and power, a life full of splendid action and glorious vicissitudes.
When he could read no more he took a wisp of hay for his pillow and with the book in his hand slept peacefully in the warm, sweet air beneath the unclouded stars.
He was awakened by a chattering of birds and at once sprang up with the new treasure under his arm and trudged off towards the Royal Gardens at Kew, the pagoda, looking even more magnificent in the dawn light, always before him. The brightening day shone down on wonders which amazed the country boy—an immensely long brick wall over which showed trees of varieties quite unknown to him, handsome gates with iron scrollwork and stone piers surmounted by heraldic animals, which guarded, assuredly, a realm of enchanting wonder.
Without hesitation the hungry little boy penetrated the royal domain and made his way to the house of one of the gardeners, a Scotsman, who received him with amusement and compassion, listened to his tale, gave him breakfast, and offered him work in His Majesty's garden. So easily and so completely was the first ambition of William Cobbett achieved.
* * *
The gardener at Farnham Castle had not exaggerated the glories of Kew. Amid this artificial landscape so cunningly arranged on the banks of the Thames were many extraordinary things; orangeries and glass-houses full of remarkable fruit that never would ripen under English skies unless thus carefully protected, dark grottos, classic temples, romantic statues, little lilied lakes and stiff palaces, all very neat and precise and looking, to the new gardener's boy, like the genteel estates round Farnham and yet also very odd and splendid.
Sir William Chambers, who had laid out this garden, had a strong taste for Chinese art, and in the midst of his decorous English landscape-gardening with its tones of bistre and pearl, and its dainty neatness, could be seen here and there, appearing unexpectedly on hillocks or at the end of a vista, specimens of Eastern grotesquerie, which roused young Cobbett's admiration, but which he did not altogether like.
One of the first tasks given him in this wonderful place was that of sweeping away the early fallen leaves of the year, which had fluttered down on the shaven plats round the pagoda. He was happy, he liked work of any kind, and he was still enormously pleased at being employed in the Royal Gardens and having the Tale of a Tub to read in his few leisure moments, and the books on horticulture lent by his employer to pore over.
He was always alert and curious, with a quick observation and a vivid memory, eager to note and eager to retain everything he saw and heard.
Looking up from his twig broom he noticed a group of boys of about his own age sauntering between the trees and staring at him with amusement. He still wore the dress he had left Farnham in, the blue smock, the red garters, the woollen galligaskins, the hide shoes. This peasant attire had not been seen before in Kew Gardens, and the three boys began to laugh good-humouredly among themselves. Upon this, young Cobbett paused in his work, leaned on his broom, and with equal good humour surveyed them. The eldest was about his own age, but dressed in manly splendour, a stout, handsome blue-eyed lad, whose fair hair was curled and powdered, who wore a little sword, and showed lace ruffle, silk stockings and buckled shoes. Such attire to the gardener's boy was as amusing in its effeminacy as his smock and gaiters were odd and comic to the young gentleman. Cobbett smiled in easy tolerance and went on with his work as if strangers no longer interested him. The young gentleman made a grimace of defiance, which the gardener's boy, looking up, returned; so in common good-nature they went their ways, never to meet again.
When the gardener came up he told Cobbett that those were the King's sons who had just gone by—George, Prince of Wales, and his brothers. The peasant boy accepted the information without surprise or envy; he had not the least desire to change places with the young princes, nor indeed with any lad on earth.
* * *
This job at Kew, though so satisfactory, did not long continue. Mr. Cobbett of The Jolly Farmer at Farnham wanted his boy home again, and as soon as he heard of his whereabouts came to fetch him. Young William returned quietly; he was in truth a little homesick, for he was passionately fond of his parents and his younger brothers, and wanted to see again the old woman in the cottage with the filbert and the damson-trees, who, though nearly blind, still sat at her spinning-wheel or knitting thick stockings for her grandsons. Besides, the adventure which had taken him to Kew had somehow fulfilled itself; he had seen all these royal wonders, he had worked among them, and he was not sure that he did not prefer the simple beauties of his native fields to these odd, out-of-the-way ornaments, which were really no use at all, and which fitted, in his opinion, strangely enough into an English background. He had satisfied his curiosity, he had seen the pagoda, the grottos and the temples, and the King's modest palace with its step-gabling, and the great stove-heated glass-houses full of luscious, extravagant plants and flowers; he had seen the King himself, too, a pleasant-looking, stout gentleman of middle-age, plainly dressed, with a voluble manner and a benevolent air, the Queen, a homely-looking woman with round features rather like those of a pug dog, a prim, anxious manner and always with some needlework or a pious book in her hand.
Everything that he had seen fitted into young William Cobbett's ideas of what it ought to be and he was perfectly satisfied with what he had learned of the world beyond Farnham.
Of what this world really meant, or how it was run, he knew nothing. He had never heard the word "politics"—all he knew of the history of his country was what his father had told him, that England had always been free and independent, prosperous at home, victorious over enemies abroad, and never invaded by a conqueror. He had also imbibed, rather than been taught, certain ideas and principles that came to him as naturally as the English air he breathed. Though he knew so little of how the country was governed, he was quite sure that it had the best government in the world; though he had grasped next to nothing of the religion taught in Farnham church, he was quite sure that there was not, and never had been, a religion to compare with it; it was enough for him that it was the English government and the English religion. It seemed to him right and proper that there were peasants, yeoman farmers, gentry, aristocracy, a king and a queen, and a parliament—he did not trouble to bother his head as to why these things were. He could see no objection to any of them; he thought his own life and that of his friends and companions were perfectly happy and he envied no one. It did not irk him that he had to touch his cap to almost everyone that he met, pull his forelock to the squire and see his mother drop a curtsey to the squire's dame. He was not resentful because his days were long and laborious, because his life provided little comfort and no luxuries.
He returned quite contentedly to The Jolly Farmer and took up his old life, helping his father on his father's land. He fitted exactly into that frugal and industrious household where everyone had the same mind, the same temperament, and the same tastes.
* * *
Some excitement from the outer world presently penetrated to the tiny, clean parlour of The Jolly Farmer. The Surrey peasantry had not been for many a long day interested in anything that happened outside the confines of their own small world, their fields, meadows, farms, and the market-town. Now it began to be known, by village talk, from the news in the Gazette, a copy of which would sometimes come to Farnham in the pocket of a hop factor from London, that England was at war. This in itself was not extraordinary nor likely to excite much interest. A war with France had come to an end the year William Cobbett had been born, 1763, and nobody had taken much notice of it one way or another. This new war was, in a way, a civil war—England was fighting her colonies in North America, and the rights and wrongs of the uncommon quarrel were hotly debated over the mugs of ale The Jolly Farmer provided.
This was the first time that William Cobbett's attention had been attracted to anything outside his own immediate concerns. He could not fail to be attracted by the violent altercations that went on between his father, whose opinion the boy so much respected, and Mr. Martin, a Scotch gardener from a neighbouring estate, who would often come in in the evening for a pot of the best beer.
Hampered by limited knowledge and swayed by prejudice, the gardener and the innkeeper would go over the causes and events of the war with the Colonists, and William Cobbett heard for the first time such abstract terms as Liberty, Independence, Conscience, and Freedom. The elder Cobbett espoused warmly the cause of the rebels; the other man said that they were a parcel of rascals who would not pay their just taxes, while the other maintained that they were a proud people who would not submit to oppression, and that no one in his inn should drink a health to the King's troops, who were being sent thousands of miles away to cut the throats of honest men, just because they would not submit to tyranny.
On this important matter the whole of the neighbourhood was divided; some were for the Colonists, some for the King. For in this simple way the opponents were classified; and young William, after his day's work in the fields, would eagerly join a knot of the disputants, listen to their opinions and give his own. This matter of the war in America served to open the minds of the country folk as to what was going on in the world beyond their own. They began to discuss the art of government, and young William was one of those who most profoundly considered these questions, which now came so pertinently and so poignantly into the minds of men who had never thought of them before.
The rights of man. Of what did these consist? Liberty, independence, the obligation of the individual to the State—how might all these be, with reason and fairness, adjusted? Young Cobbett began to reflect on his own rights, the rights of those about him. He believed, simply and passionately, that there was no power on earth that could, with justice, disturb him or his kind at their hard and honest labour, or take from them their small, sternly won rewards, which were, to his thinking, the fruits of their own virtues, their industry, patience, frugality, and self-denial.
The life was hard, even for a healthy boy; rising at dawn, long hours of manual labour, plain food and not too much of it, hard beds, hard chairs, a steady succession of daily, monotonous tasks, and no holidays or diversions beyond a few fairs and festivals. These, when they came, were very delightful to the boy. One he most enjoyed was the great Hop Fair at Way Hill which came at Old Michaelmastide and was looked upon as a kind of celebration and reward of the toils of the summer, a pause when the long, steady labours of the year had come to fruition in the harvests of autumn. The elder Cobbett used to take his sons turn and turn about and it was William's turn to go the year when the news came that the British had taken Long Island. William and his father were sitting down at the common table in the inn waiting for their supper when the post came in with an extraordinary issue of The Gazette. A farmer jumped up and began to read at once about the victory in a loud, provocative voice.
The news of the British success was received with mixed sentiments; there were not wanting those who acclaimed the cause of the Americans, and who praised the rebel leader, General George Washington. The elder Cobbett took this part and there was a quick dispute to which young William listened with lively interest. The argument became unpleasantly warm; Cobbett took his boy by the hand, and followed by about a dozen others led him into another room, where their supper was served apart and where they did not fail to drink the health of George Washington and success to the American arms.
The boy greatly admired his father on this occasion; he was stirred by his pugnacity, his stubborn holding to his own opinion, his refusal to take the popular side. William's own nature responded to those qualities, his sympathy was entirely with the Colonists. He thought of his own life, how fiercely he would resent anyone's interference with it, and he wished that he, too, was out in America fighting for independence. With this wish came a certain restlessness, not a dissatisfaction with his happy life of labour, of cricket matches, hare-coursing and fairs, but a desire to see more of the wonderful world, to know what men were doing, thinking, and saying, beyond Farnham. The satisfaction produced by the success of the Kew adventure and the intellectual stimulus of the Tale of a Tub began to wear off; he longed again for contact with larger events than those Farnham could provide.
His opportunity came unexpectedly. When he was nineteen years old, in the year 1782, he went on a visit to a relative who lived at Portsmouth. This was a new and brilliant experience. The salt air in his nostrils, the whole aspect of the place gave him a fresh and, as it seemed to him, unaccountable sensation. The attraction of the land sank into insignificance beside the attraction of the sea; everything he had heard of the glories of England had centred round the sea; the magnificent victories, the tales of heroic courage, the valiant enterprises undertaken by brave Englishmen—were they not all connected with the sea, ships and with the Navy? All these early associations recurred to the country boy and filled him with unreasonable excitement, which was roused to uncontrolled enthusiasm by the sight of the Grand Fleet riding at anchor off Spithead, one of the most brilliant spectacles in the whole world; the gorgeous ships, painted and beflagged, in all their intricate beauty, the symbol of the power of England and of the utmost ingenuity and daring of man, rode safely on the vast majestic ocean, as proud as the water-lilies on the village pond.
The stalwart young man could not behold this grandiose display of human pride and power without wishing to be a part of it. Nothing would do but that he, an Englishman, must be a sailor and become part of those national glories that he saw so happily displayed.
It had been a thirty-mile walk from his uncle's house to Spithead and, when he returned to his relative, he had been too tired to sleep. Nevertheless, the next morning he was off again and had paid sixpence to get into the old castle on the beach at Spithead, where the magnificence of the fleet might be seen at closer view from the top.
His resolution was confirmed; he desired nothing in the world but to be a sailor. It was not difficult to find a boat, which took him on board The Pegasus, man-of-war, where he, the fine, upstanding, clean, well-spoken young peasant, was brought before the captain. This aristocratic sailor was no judge of character; besides, he viewed the glories that seemed so dazzling to William Cobbett with a critical eye; he thought the young man was endeavouring to escape from some unfortunate love affair, and strongly dissuaded him from going to sea, representing forcibly to the enthusiastic youth the toils, privations, and punishments which he would be subject to as a sailor. In vain young William pleaded. Captain Berkeley was obdurate and the would-be recruit was sent ashore.
He was not yet defeated and applied to the Port Admiral for his name to be put on the roll of those entering the Navy. This request was refused. His visit to Portsmouth came to an end and he returned once more to The Jolly Farmer, another adventure over, and he himself, in his own opinion, not advanced in his ambition. His restlessness had been greatly increased by the Portsmouth episode; he could not forget that magnificent glimpse of the splendour possible to humanity.
* * *
He got through the days impatiently and longed for the opportunity of another adventure. It soon came.
A year after he had been at Portsmouth, 1783, William Cobbett was enjoying a holiday on a beautiful May day; his face clean, wearing smart holiday clothes and with a few shillings, the result of much saving, in his pocket, he was going, in the company of three country girls, to Guildford Fair. He did not look forward to the day's pleasure as he had been wont to do. He sighed a little and loitered on his way to the spot where he had arranged to meet his pretty companions; to reach this he had to cross the turnpike road. There he lingered watching the London stage-coach rattling down the hill; as he beheld it a strong impulse moved him, as a strong impulse had moved him to go and see the Royal Gardens at Kew, and then again to enlist on board The Pegasus.
Why not go to London, the great and marvellous city? He raised his hand, the coach stopped, and the boy climbed up into the seat beside the driver. At nine o'clock that evening the stage-coach drew up in the inn courtyard at the foot of Ludgate Hill. The farmer's boy in his best clothes, with his merry shining face, self-confident and pleasant manners, with a few crowns and half-crowns in his pocket, with no baggage and knowing no one in the capital, got down from his place and paid his fare.
His hoard, which had taken him so long to garner, had been sadly depleted by the expenses of one day's travel; his coach fare and his supper paid for, he had no more than three shillings left, yet he viewed the future without despondency. His vague fortunes were directed by a friendly hand; a hop merchant who knew the elder Cobbett, and who had often dealt with him at Waybill, chanced to see the lad, recognized him, got into conversation with him, and learned of his escapade; young William would not say what he was doing or where he intended to go, but he was resolved not to return home, although his new acquaintance endeavoured to persuade him to do so.
Not only was the love of adventure' still strong within him, but he was too proud to return to The Jolly Farmer and confess not the second but the third folly, and a useless one. He did not dread the reproaches of his kind parents, but the scoffs of his acquaintances, who would doubtless mock when they saw him returning empty-handed for the third time to the plough-tail.
Looked after by his father's friend, young William lingered in London, refusing the affectionate pleas of his father urging him to return; he did this with a feeling of shame, yet with a sense of the inevitable.
The man who had interested himself in his fortunes, finding that he could not persuade him to return, looked about to see what employment he could find him in London. It was not easy to procure work for a young countryman, though Cobbett had, for a peasant, the unusual accomplishments of being able to read and write fluently. His protector was about to place an advertisement in the Press, when he met an acquaintance who offered the runaway an opportunity of earning his board and lodging.
This was an attorney of the name of Holland, who had chambers in Gray's Inn and who agreed to take in the young countryman as a clerk. This adventure did not promise glories equal to those of Kew or Portsmouth, and was indeed a miserable ending to the joyous enterprise which had begun with taking the London coach on the turnpike road; but there was no alternative.
Since young William was too proud to return home, he was forced to enter the dark offices, to him like a dungeon, of Mr. Holland, and to undertake the daily and monotonous task of "quill-driving" as he termed it, on sheets that contained seventy-two words, two inches apart.
The robust young man laboured in a room so ill-lit that, unless the day was unusually bright, it was necessary to burn candles. The hours were from five in the morning till eight or nine at night, and sometimes all night long; nor was he skilful at the unaccustomed and uncongenial labour. It took him a month to learn to read the legal script and to copy it with a reasonable degree of swiftness, his spelling was not good and he had scant knowledge of grammar.
At the end of two months, however, he was able to render himself tolerably serviceable to Mr. Holland, who, thoroughly satisfied with his application and intelligence, promised him an endless continuation of the work.
For nine months William Cobbett laboured in the dark room in Gray's Inn, without relaxation, companionship or any of the pleasures of the town, and totally deprived of the pleasures of the country to which he had been all his life accustomed. He saw little of his employer, and the dismal female, the laundress of the room, who took him his meals, seemed to him the oldest and ugliest woman he had ever seen, and was in miserable contrast to the bright faces of the countrywomen which he had been used to seeing.
In this wretched situation his one relaxation was walking in St. James's Park, which he was only free to do on Sundays, where he was pleased to gaze on trees and earth and water, grass and flowers—all that he had loved so intensely and left, as it now seemed, so wantonly. Nothing, it appeared to the disappointed lad, could have been more unfortunate than the result of the impulse which had sent him off on the London coach instead of to the fair at Guildford.
But his heart was high, his spirit unbroken, his mind alert, and he was always looking about for means of escape; one presented itself; in a not unusual fashion.
One Sunday when he was strolling in St. James's Park he saw an advertisement for recruits for the Chatham division of His Majesty's Marine Service. Young William remembered that magnificent sight of the Grand Fleet riding at anchor at Spithead. His desire for the sea had increased owing to the misery he had suffered during his London imprisonment; he gathered together the few shillings and the few possessions he had and went down to Chatham and enlisted in the service of His Majesty King George III.
After he had taken the King's shilling he learned that he had made a mistake; he had not, as he had thought, enlisted in the Marines but in a marching regiment, which the Irish captain informed him was the oldest, boldest in the whole army, and at that moment serving in the glorious country of Nova Scotia, where the young recruit would be sent as soon as he had been trained in the regimental depot at Chatham.
This prospect intensely pleased the new recruit—he saw at last a chance of realizing those brilliant prospects which had twice, vaguely and vainly, come before him. He longed to see the New World which was painted for him by the jolly Irishman in such brilliant colours, and he was ready to apply himself with the greatest possible diligence, patience, and enthusiasm to his new duties. He knew the life would be hard but he was not afraid of that, since he was inured to severe toil and was exceptionally vigorous and healthy in body.
* * *
At the age of twenty-one, the sturdy lad who had tramped from Farnham to Kew in blue smock and red garters was a fine, broad-shouldered young man in scarlet regimentals, with small, neat, well-shaped, ruddy features, a resolute expression, small, lively grey eyes and strong light hair turned back into a Hessian queue and powdered.
He was, both from early habit and strenuous training and nature, sober, temperate; he neither drank nor smoked and was content with the plainest of food; he felt within himself the capacity for infinite hard work and also the assurance that by means of this hard work he would attain some honourable ambition.
Quite what this ambition was he did not himself know, for two strains, two affections, two desires, mingled in his robust mind and stout heart. One was a passionate love of the land, and of all that was meant by the land, of the peasantry and of all that was meant by the peasantry; the other was a love of adventure, of novelty, of excitement, of seeing strange things, of doing difficult things in the hope of achieving some position of power and distinction.
Private William Cobbett still knew little of the world about him. It did not concern him how the country was run or who was in the government; he was not very much interested even in the Treaty of Paris, which had just been concluded, and which confirmed the independence of the Thirteen States of America which had already been wrested from the British Government. His interests were more personal and more immediate; the hard life with its infinite possibilities that he was about to undertake; the New World with its infinite potentialities he was about to visit. He knew that he had almost everything to learn and his simple, alert mind thought itself equal to the task. He had some twinge of hopelessness, but he felt that what he was doing was right and natural. His father, himself a vigorous and enterprising man, would not blame him for wishing to see the world, to serve England, to share in those national glories which had been often related with such innocent pride among the Surrey peasantry.
He looked round at the life in Chatham and saw that it was very different from what life had been at Farnham. His keen grey eyes observed opportunities on every hand; there were bookshops, there was even a library, there were men among his future companions who looked lively and intelligent; there were news sheets to be bought which contained items that might be conned and discussed; there were shops that sold pens and paper, there were pretty young girls going about as fresh and attractive as any whom he had left behind in Surrey.
There seemed in Chatham chances for fun and diversion as well as for hard work. The intelligent young soldier was satisfied with the vocation he had chosen. In the small bundle that he had brought from the Gray's Inn rooms was the Tale of a Tub that he had bought for threepence at Richmond, seven years before. He knew it almost by heart and understood all its meaning, which at first had been so obscure. It was his only real treasure, since his other possessions were mere, rude necessaries of life; but this was not only a luxury, it had an intense personal meaning. He had found out, too, something about the man who wrote the queer story; he felt an odd sympathy with him—he, too, was an independent, pugnacious, perhaps violent spirit. William Cobbett did not know very much of what Dean Swift had done or what he had tried to do, but he admired the long-dead Irishman and felt for him some kinship, the significance of which he could not fully understand; it seemed most unlikely that his own life would ever shape itself on the lines of the life of Jonathan Swift; and yet, when, fascinated, he returned to the well-thumbed pages of the threepenny book, he felt in some strange way that it would be so. Though the second-hand book might be his only material treasure, he did not feel himself poor; his tall, robust, healthy body, his strong character, his good habits, his capacity for hard work, were, he knew, riches indeed. He looked about him shrewdly and felt himself the equal of any of his fellows.
WILLIAM COBBETT soon discovered that the life of a private soldier in a foot regiment was harder and more disagreeable than that of a day labourer. It was, also, even in time of peace, more dangerous, not only to health through privation and ill-treatment but to character through bad example, opportunity for vice, and long periods of idleness. However, the young peasant's robust body was inured to all hardships and his character was formed; he was resolute, hard-headed, self-disciplined, immune from all the temptations that beset the average young man; vice had really no attraction for him, and his ambition upheld him even in the dismal atmosphere of barracks full of half-starving, discontented, ignorant soldiers, officered by men who were mostly idle, frivolous and vicious, besides being utterly incompetent.
William Cobbett soon sized up the world in which he found himself and resolved that, even here, he could and would succeed. He began with the advantage of being in everything superior to his companions, and this advantage he increased by the most diligent application to his duties; these were not, to a man of his mental and physical energy, difficult, and left him leisure for self-improvement. When he had been working in Mr. Holland's dreary, dungeon-like offices, he had discovered that he was deficient in a knowledge of grammar. He had a passionate desire to speak and to write his own language correctly, not only because he had a great deal to say, and because the world of books fascinated him, but because he wished to gain a sense of power over other people, who were, he had been assured, mostly deficient in an accurate knowledge of the English tongue.
He found great delight in attempting difficult things; to take pains was to him a pleasure; it was a severe enough test for the young soldier to begin this self-education; everything was against him; his companions were of a low type, mostly illiterate rustics, underpaid and underfed; they received only a portion of the rations due to them, the rest being withheld by the corruption of the officers; their pay was miserably low and they were liable, at any sign of discontent that might be interpreted as mutiny, to suffer the terrible punishment of flogging; nor did the officers, mostly men of rank who had entered the army because they were unfit for any other profession or because it was the fashionable thing to do, take any interest in them. The men, as far as their wretched means allowed, followed the example of their superiors, and what time was not spent in a sullen performance of their duty was devoted to drinking and gambling.
William Cobbett observed all these facts, stored them in his singularly retentive memory and doggedly pushed on with his scheme of self-improvement. He earned a few extra pence through being appointed copyist to Colonel Debieg, the commandant of the garrison, and he bought himself a copy of Lowth's Grammar, which he learnt by heart through writing it out two or three times and repeating it morning and evening as well as every time he took sentry duty. This task was accomplished under difficulties which would have daunted any but the most enthusiastic and energetic of men.
Out of the daily sixpence he received as pay, he could spare only an occasional farthing for paper and ink. He could not afford even a rush light and he had to study by the firelight of the soldiers' common-room when his turn came to take his place by the hearth, with no place for his books but his knapsack and no desk but a bit of board he held on his knees, while around him the careless, often half-drunken soldiers bawled, shouted and whistled in their poor, idle leisure.
While he was undertaking this earnest labour, the young man, who now stood six foot one inch in his stockings and was of heavy build, suffered acutely from lack of food. Twopence a week was all that was left to each soldier after the minimum rations had been bought. This minimum was barely sufficient to keep body and soul together; indeed, William Cobbett saw some of the young peasants who had come from the plough-tail to join the army fall into a consumption and die for lack of proper nourishment.
William Cobbett himself was often, in his own words, "too hungry to be able to endure life," and on one occasion the loss of a halfpenny he had saved to buy a red herring caused him to cry like a child; but his character was proof even against these miseries; he soon was wearing the smart worsted shoulder-knots of a corporal, and earning, what was more important to him, another twopence a day, and he found even in the course of dismal barrack-life certain compensations.
There was the library at Brompton, which he joined; swiftly and with a certain content the young soldier read over the meagre selection of romantic plays and poems which formed the librarian's small stock; he was not much impressed, and certainly not much influenced by what he read. Any excursions into the realms of fantasy seemed to him a waste of time and his realistic mind despised the very word romance, yet even this course of frivolous reading served to broaden his mental outlook and helped him to obtain that grasp of his own language which he so ardently desired. The librarian had a pretty daughter, and some of the young corporal's hard-won leisure was spent in her charming company. He was not in love, but he liked to be with fresh, wholesome, pleasant girls. He was no pedantic solemn-faced student; his work was done simply and as a matter of course and when it was over he enjoyed himself, also simply and as a matter of course.
* * *
His ardent and restless spirit soon tired, however, of life at Chatham, and he felt he had exhausted his opportunities for work and play, when, early in 1785, he learned that he was to be sent with a detachment to join his regiment, the Fifty-Fourth Foot, in Nova Scotia. This promised to be a genuine, exciting adventure, and was one which William Cobbett looked forward to with the greatest eagerness. He was actually to go on board one of those magnificent ships that he had admired so passionately in the days when he had seen the Great Fleet off Spithead, and he was actually to see the New World which had been painted to him in such brilliant colours as an earthly paradise.
When Corporal Cobbett went aboard the troopship bound for Halifax, his mind full of the New World and what it might offer, he was very little concerned with the Old World and still scarcely knew the meaning of the word "politics," but he was, in the truest sense of the word, patriotic. He felt himself, almost unconsciously, not only a true-born Englishman but representative of all other true-born Englishmen; it seemed to him that he belonged to his country, not by chance or accident of birth, but by deliberate choice, so exactly did his character and temperament fit in with his surroundings; in his estimation he was as much a part of the country as the stones or trees he saw about him, as the soil he trod underfoot, as the moist air he breathed.
Despite his desire for change and adventure, to see the world and to undertake a life of action, he knew himself to be rooted in the earth of England, as definitely as was the wayside grass. His life had been in every way hard and it might have been thought that he would have regarded himself as owing his native country very little; but this was not so—he complained of nothing.
He liked England, he liked his fellow countrymen; he looked back with pleasure on his hard childhood, his frugal, industrious home, the parents whom he respected and admired, the old, blind grandmother with her spinning-wheel, the three brothers following the plough; he liked even his fellow soldiers, ill-treated, wretched as they were, without chance or hope, without the ability to make a chance or create a hope. They were English and in the main good fellows; kindly, honest, with no ill-nature or disloyalty in them. Much of the young corporal's liking for his men was founded upon compassion; he saw, in a way that they seemed incapable of seeing for themselves, that they were abominably treated. He despised the officers, who seemed to him his inferiors in everything, save birth; he viewed with contempt their idleness, their vices, their frivolities, their indifference to their work. A secret rage that he did not yet know how to express burned in his heart against these silly gentlemen; the manifold corruption, through which the helpless private soldier was oppressed and cheated by his superiors, amazed and exasperated him; he did not, perhaps, remember that the officers also were English.
* * *
What was beneath the surface of this England that William Cobbett found so pleasant, that he considered so inevitable and so permanent?
When he sailed with his detachment for Halifax he knew very little of what had taken place in his country since his birth; but those twenty-two years of British history had not been by any means eventless. The Peace of Paris, that blow to French trade which was to have such disastrous consequences, had been signed through the influence of George III and Lord Bute, against the wishes of Lord Chatham in the year that William Cobbett was born, 1763. The following year John Wilkes, a man with whom the young soldier might have felt some sympathy, had been arrested for libelling the Government in the famous forty-fifth number of The North Briton.
In 1765 Lord Grenville had brought in his famous Stamp Act and the year after Lord Rockingham had repealed it. Under the ministry of Lord North the war with the Colonies, in which the elder Cobbett had taken such a passionate interest, had broken out in 1775. The Earl of Chatham, most brilliant and popular of English statesmen, had died in a dramatic fashion in 1778, and two years later Europe had joined in the struggle against Britain, who surrounded by foes had lost, for the first time since the battle of La Hogue, complete command of the seas.
William Cobbett, as a young man, had heard with excitement of those splendid victories of Hood and Lord Rodney over the French in the West Indies, which had restored the lustre of British prestige and revived the substantial glories so dear to a proud nation.
William Cobbett and his fellow soldiers could easily understand anything as concrete as the great victory in 1783, gained by Hood over Degrasse, or Lord Rodney's destruction of the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent three years before, followed by another victory over the French. It was easy to say and easy to understand such a sentence as "Rodney has captured four admirals in one year." Such a vivid affirmation of national greatness was enough for most Englishmen. If Britain were supreme on the ocean, nothing else really mattered.
Not very much public interest was taken in the Treaty of Versailles, which had been signed the year before William Cobbett sailed from Chatham, and had put a decorous gloss on the loss of the American Colonies; neither he nor any with whom he was able to converse knew or cared about Parliamentary affairs—they therefore remained ignorant of the great political agitation which had taken place in 1789-90 when Yorkshire headed the movement for Parliamentary Reform; but they had heard, perforce, of the wild and savage "No Popery" riots in 1780, when London for four days lay at the mercy of a frantic mob; but the soldiers had not attached much meaning to this outbreak and not one of them could understand the question of Roman Catholic Emancipation. Most of them, including Cobbett himself, had a natural dislike of Popery.
Of the men in office during his childhood and youth, William Cobbett knew nothing. North, Rockingham, Fox, Shelburne, were the merest names to him, and while he was painfully learning grammar and the routine of military duties at Chatham, he had seen without admiration or amazement the rise to power of William Pitt, a young man only three years older than himself, on the fall of the Coalition Government in 1783.
Cobbett was also utterly unaware of the insidious and underground progress industry was making in England, a progress that was to be of supreme importance to the young soldier. Life seemed to him static and he could not believe that it would ever change. As far as his knowledge went, matters had been the same in the beloved islands since the days of savagery. The peasants and the farmers had been living on the land and pulling their forelocks to their betters; the women had been making garments woven from the wool of their own sheep; they had been sleeping under their thatched roofs and walking over their own fields and turfed down to moulder in their own churchyards, without change or desire for change.
He could not know that this state of things was almost at an end, the eighteenth century was nearly over and much was nearly over with it; he was unaware of the gradual rise of the trading class, those Indian adventurers and Nabobs who, returning wealthy from the East, were buying not only estates but seats in Parliament. He knew nothing of the elaborate system of bribery which dominated the country from high to low. He would have been intensely surprised and indignant, if he had been informed that that revolt of the American Colonists, which his father had admired so much as a gesture of manly independence, had been in reality manoeuvred by a small group of self-interested traders; he did not know that these same traders and their interests really ruled England; that the merchants were the people who mattered, not the incompetent Rockingham, the honest North or the voluble and showy Fox, or any other of the brilliant or shallow men in office or scheming to obtain office.
Naturally he had rejoiced in the brilliance of the victories achieved by Hood and Rodney, which had done so much to raise the pride of every Englishman; but he knew nothing of the complete inefficiency and wholesale corruption of the Admiralty under the administration of the fourth Earl of Sandwich.
Neither was anything heard by the soldiers at their depot in Chatham of the appalling and continual blundering of Howe and Burgoyne in America; nor could anyone, let alone William Cobbett, living in the year 1782 when Lord North resigned, have known what is now so clearly seen, that the honest, industrious and narrow-minded King had, with North, given up his twelve years' attempt to rescue the Monarchy from the dominion of the new trading aristocracy who, with his defeat, passed quietly to supreme power.
The young man who, with the election of 1784, had just come into office, William Pitt, second son of the great Earl of Chatham, himself represented these vast trading interests. He was descended from Nabobs, was youthful, enthusiastic, brilliantly-endowed as William Cobbett himself was, and, like Cobbett, a patriotic Englishman. The election which had returned him to power had not, however, been by any means the voice of England, but the result of wholesale and skilfully managed bribery. The young Minister found the country burdened with a gigantic national debt of two hundred and forty million pounds, half of which had been incurred through the expenses of the war with the Colonies. This national loan had proved a safe investment for those with money to spare and had created a whole class of bankers, stock-jobbers, speculators, and large and small investors, who formed a powerful reinforcement to the traders and the aristocracy in alliance with, or under obligation to, the bankers and merchants.
William Cobbett was intimately concerned with agriculture, but he had never heard of Robert Walpole's brother-in-law, Lord Townsend, who had made farming a profession in 1730, nor of Coke of Holkham, the Earl of Leicester, nor of Jethro Tull, who had done so much to revolutionize farming and had invented new machines and new methods of working the soil; nor of Robert Bakewell, then still living, the genius of stock-breeding, nor of Arthur Young, the connoisseur and traveller, who was devoting much of his energy to agricultural developments.
* * *
Of still greater importance in the history of mankind than these agricultural enterprises were the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, which, like narrow rivulets gradually broadening into a river, had been flowing for the last hundred years, unperceived by all save those intimately connected with them. These things were to be of special significance in the life of William Cobbett, but when, as a man of twenty-two years of age, he sailed for Halifax, he had not even conceived the notion of such a thing as an industrial or social revolution.
During the whole of the eighteenth century England had been a capitalist country; hard work and poor pay had been the lot of the scattered cottage workers employed in the woollen trade, the staple industry of England. Child labour had been known to Daniel Defoe, who had commented in 1725—"every child of five can earn its own bread, the parents are hard taskmasters."
The use of charcoal for manufacturing had destroyed nearly all the great forests of the Middle Ages, and at the end of the eighteenth century shortage of timber had led to the use of coal, which was only produced painfully and with much loss of life owing to the difficulty of draining the mines. Industry was also much handicapped in England by the bad condition of the highways, and, as the country had never been invaded and it had never been necessary to move about large bodies of troops, there were no good military roads as upon the Continent, and when the old Roman ways fell into disrepair they were mended by the most primitive methods, such as hurling loads of large flints and stones into the ruts. It was then extremely difficult for coaches, horses, pedestrians, or animals to get from one place to another. Despite these disadvantages industry in England had been progressing at an extraordinary rate, and from 1733, when Kay invented the flying shuttle, to the year after Cobbett sailed for Halifax, when Cartwright invented the power loom, improvement after improvement had been made in the manufacture of goods. In 1765 there had been Hargreaves's spinning "Jenny," Kay and Arkwright had perfected the water-plane from 1767-70, in 1779 Crompton had invented the mule for spinning cotton.
All these things, not considered of very much importance in their day, abused by many and ignored by many more, were rapidly leading to what is perhaps the most important change which has happened in the history of mankind, the perfection of machinery. The England which to William Cobbett's enamoured eyes seemed so tranquil, so static, so permanent, was beneath the surface seething with energetic vigour that was reaching out to vast changes. Though there seemed no cloud in the sky, mighty storms were gathering below the horizon.
* * *
Cobbett enjoyed his voyage to Nova Scotia, which he found short and pleasant, but it was marred by a distressing accident. When the soldiers' baggage was being taken ashore at Halifax, a case of books, including the precious volume, the Tale of a Tub bought in Richmond so many years ago, was lost in the Bay of Fundy, and the youthful corporal felt that he "would rather have lost thousands of pounds."
Nova Scotia was a disappointment to the ardent young adventurer. He saw nothing but "bogs, rocks and stumps, mosquitoes and bull-frogs"; the population consisted of the Yankee loyalists, those men who had remained faithful to the British Government after the independence of the Colonies. The English peasant, accustomed to see his superiors well-clad and well-fed, was astonished to behold "'captains' and 'colonels' without soldiers and 'squires' without stockings or shoes." This experience was to one of his domineering temperament a considerable pleasure, the sensation of ordering an esquire to bring him a glass of grog, or a colonel to take care of his knapsack, was as agreeable as novel.
After a very short stay in Nova Scotia the regiment was ordered to St. John's in New Brunswick, where, or at Fredericton near by, it remained for nearly six years.
The military life here was much the same as it had been at Chatham. The character of William Cobbett developed without changing; he resolved still to live hard and frugally, and it cost him no great effort; he was also determined to continue to improve himself. In a short time he was made Regimental Sergeant-Major, being promoted above many senior to him in the service, and, as he was both efficient and eager for work, most of the business of the regiment passed under his control. He was also first clerk, the accounts and letters of the paymaster went through his hands, all the returns, reports and other official papers were of his drawing up. It was hard, unremitting labour, but he rejoiced in it. His punctuality was proverbial in the regiment; he rose in summer at daylight and in winter at four o'clock, and managed his arduous duties so well that he always had leisure for continuous self-improvement.
His early formed contempt for his officers was increased by closer acquaintanceship. He knew them to be incompetent, rapacious, drunken, and ignorant, and scorn soon increased to hatred in the heart of the honest, brave and pugnacious young sergeant-major. He had, however, the shrewdness to disguise his opinion of those who were his superiors, and who could, if inflamed against him, have found occasion "to flog and break him for fifty different offences."
It was the corruption that most disgusted him; this seemed to him as incredible as it was appalling; he found that the quarter-master kept about a fourth part of the men's provisions, and the old sergeant told him that this had been going on for many years and was horrified at the idea that Cobbett should mention it. He, however, did so, but was quick enough to see by the way in which his complaint was received that he had better be quiet about abuses, however flagrant, until he was safely out of the reach of the military authorities.
The young man's grave and justifiable self-esteem was much heightened by his opinion of the adjutant of the regiment, an ignorant man and particularly lacking in the knowledge of what William Cobbett had made himself so thoroughly master—grammar.
Through the adjutant's incapacity and his own cleverness he enjoyed several quiet triumphs, of which the most notable occurred on an occasion when a body of British commissioners came to examine the States of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The officers and the commissioners all becoming drunk together at a dinner given by the regiment in Fredericton, the foolish adjutant in tipsy friendliness offered to write the officials' report for them, and when sober, found the work beyond him.
He applied to the smart and industrious sergeant-major, and after a good deal of indirect manoeuvring, William Cobbett undertook to do the reports at the price of a holiday; he much wanted to go up country to see an old farmer who had invited him to shoot wild pigeons. The tedious work was well done and the adjutant claimed it as his own, but this caused Cobbett neither regret nor anger; he was satisfied with his own pleasure in a good piece of work and with the holiday.
He was not content, however, to allow himself to be a mere tool, and to let his talents go for ever masquerading under other men's names.
Seeing that it would be quite impossible to do anything to bring to account the corrupt officers while he was in the regiment, he laid his plans to expose them when he should return to England, and to this end he solicited and obtained the help of a corporal, one Bestland, who was under certain obligations to him and whom he much liked as a good and honest fellow.
The sergeant-major and the corporal together seized the opportunity, whenever it came, to copy out portions of the regimental accounts, which passed through Cobbett's hands. These were such as to give clear and undeniable proof of wholesale dishonesty on the part of the officers, and such was the laxity of discipline in the regiment, and the ignorance and indifference of the officers in general, that Cobbett and his assistant were able to accomplish this work without being interrupted or suspected.
* * *
On the whole, however, and apart from the exasperation and irritation caused him by the real inferiority of those whom he had to consider his superiors, William Cobbett enjoyed the life in New Brunswick. The country was new, unspoiled, beautiful and magnificent. He had a certain amount of leisure, a certain amount of recreation, and, best of all, he had friends. He made warm acquaintances among the local people and held at least two of his fellow soldiers in close affection. One was a Staffordshire man, John Fletcher, a witty, charming, refined fellow, always good-humoured and cheerful; another was a Yorkshireman, of the name of Smaller, who could neither write nor read when he joined the army, but who was, in William Cobbett's opinion, "more fit to command a regiment than any colonel or major I ever saw." Indeed, the young Yorkshireman boasted all the virtues that William Cobbett most admired, punctuality, cleanliness, sobriety, honesty, bravery, and generosity.
Once the two young Englishmen, Cobbett and Smaller, were lost in the virgin woods amid the melting snows, in the rigours of early spring. Smaller carried Cobbett on his back for five miles to the first dwelling, where he arrived with his legs and feet cut to pieces and covered with blood. He had taken off all his clothing in the effort to create a fire from them by the help of his pistol.
There was a certain exhilaration in the life too, the clean air, the brilliant skies, the piercing, stimulating cold of winter, and the glitter of the snow and the sparkle of the bayonets. All these gave the young man sensations that he found impossible to describe; they acted like so many stimulants to mysterious emotions of desire and hope.
With every month that passed over his head he felt his confidence increase; he had found—and no experience could have been more gratifying—that he could do what he had laid himself out to do; all his ambitions, small as yet perhaps, he had been able to achieve.
* * *
While he was in New Brunswick, the young soldier had two experiences, both of them beautiful, one productive of lasting happiness, the other of poignant remorse. He was stationed in a fort near the city of St. John, a regiment of artillery was quartered near by and it chanced that he was in the company of a sergeant of artillery and some other non-commissioned officers in a room at the barracks, when the artillery sergeant's daughter, a young girl, entered, and remained talking with the soldiers and their wives for less than an hour. In this short time William Cobbett resolved to make Ann Reid his wife. He thought her beautiful; she was healthy, fresh, with dark hair, a fine carriage and good features; but what the thoughtful sergeant-major most admired in the maiden was the sober dignity of her demeanour.
The image of the dark-haired, modest girl lingered in the young man's mind, and three mornings after he had first met her he was out, according to his habit, at break of day. It was mid-winter, the snow deep upon the ground and the air sharply cold. The dawn was just breaking as William Cobbett and his two young companions passed the house occupied by Sergeant Reid and his family. There, at this tranquil and unlikely hour, was Ann, out in the snow, carefully scrubbing out a washing-tub.
"There's the girl for me!" cried William Cobbett, with a strong sense of exhilaration.
He had discovered that she possessed not only all the beauties, but all the virtues, which he considered desirable in woman. With the resolution that marked all his actions he decided to make her his wife and to leave the army as soon as possible in order to marry her.
The matter was soon settled; both Ann and her father were agreeable to the fine sergeant-major's suit. The young couple were betrothed. "I should have as soon thought of her changing into a chest of drawers as of her marrying anyone else," he declared.
It was not long before they were separated, the artillery being sent back to England, Ann's father with them. She was bound to accompany her parents, and there was every prospect that William Cobbett's regiment would be kept for some while in New Brunswick. They made their vows and their farewells; as a parting gift the young soldier handed to his love his life savings, consisting of a hundred and fifty guineas. He knew that she would be going to Woolwich and he did not like what he knew of the place nor did he wish her to be subjected to hard work and privation. She was to take the money, he said, to make herself comfortable, to buy good clothes and decent food and she was to await his return to England.
This was his first serious love adventure, but there was another, less tangible, perhaps more enchanting.
Losing his way on one of his rambles, the soldier took shelter in a lonely farm inhabited by Yankee loyalists, where he was most hospitably received. The farm, the occupants, the situation pleased him immensely, and he lost his heart to the daughter of the house, a lovely New England maiden with lively blue eyes and long, light-brown hair twisted neatly on the top of her head, who to him was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen, save one only.
When this adventure occurred it was two years since he had seen Ann Reid. Long afterwards he wrote of the episode in poignant terms:
"In such a case, at such an age, two whole years, is a long, long while! It was a space as long as the eleventh part of my then life...here was vanity, here was passion, here was the spot of all in the world, and here was also the life...I most delighted in. Here was everything that imagination could conceive united in a conspiracy against the poor little brunette in England!"
The New England girl was aware of the young soldier's engagement to the artillery sergeant's daughter; but he believed that, nevertheless, she was being attracted to him, and that he, in continuing this warm friendship for two years, was doing a wrong to her and her parents. He could not, however, resist the delight of this idyllic life, which seemed to him in every way ideal, and the company of this girl who seemed to him in every way a perfect woman. His nature was chivalrous, and he felt as if in indulging this irresistible friendship he was committing a serious sin; the temptation was great; he might have married the fair American and settled down as a farmer, so choosing the life he loved best amid the beauty and the promise of the New World. But fidelity conquered. Ann Reid's letters arrived regularly from Woolwich; they were such as he expected of her. He conquered a rising passion, a strong inclination, and remained faithful to his absent betrothed.
In 1791 his regiment was recalled to England. He forced himself to make his farewells to the charming American, to her father and brother, whom he had come to regard with so much affection. This parting was of such a poignant nature that he could never afterwards dwell on it without strong emotion; but when it was over and he was once more on board ship bound for England, his heart dwelled on the prospect of fresh adventures and the expectancy of meeting Ann Reid.
SERGEANT-MAJOR WILLIAM COBBETT returned to England after six years' residence in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, animated by a considerable but justified self-esteem and self-delight. He was offered a commission, and as he enjoyed military life, was avid for the glories of England, and possessed all those qualities likely to lead to success in the army, it might have been considered that nothing but caprice or perversity would make him refuse this chance. Indeed, through his orderly, self-disciplined, self-controlled life, there did run this streak of perversity. He decided he would not remain in the army.
He was impatient to marry Ann Reid, and eager to expose those officers who had been battening on the misery of the soldiers. He believed himself to be in a position to save his country thousands of pounds and his fellow men much unmerited suffering. He obtained his discharge on the ground of good conduct and through the kind offices of his major, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, younger son of the Duke of Leinster and grandson of the Duke of Richmond.
William Cobbett had always excepted this attractive young aristocrat from the grievances he had against the other officers, and this though there was much in the character of the enthusiastic, impetuous, idealistic Irishman that the stolid realism of the Englishman disapproved of.
When he had been in the depot at Chatham, Cobbett had come, during his miscellaneous reading, upon the works of J. J. Rousseau, whose philosophy was so profoundly affecting Europe in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The soldier had been impressed by much of the Frenchman's teaching, though it had not greatly influenced his character, but the officer was already a fervent disciple of the man who preached the "moral law," the return to nature, and the delights of the noble savage. Indeed, while in North America, Lord Edward, intoxicated by the new ideas of liberty and freedom then in the air, inspired by the noble, uncultivated beauty of the New World, had tried to put into practice some of the doctrines of Rousseau and to live, in the bosom of nature, the grand and simple life of the Red Indian.
None of this kind of "enthusiasm" was at all to the taste of William Cobbett and he hated revolutionary ideas, but he admired Lord Edward because he was humane, conscientious and generous, and alone among the officers of the Fifty-Fourth regiment, he had not stooped to steal the subsistence of the men. With mutual admiration then, and mutual regret, these two remarkable men parted, never to see each other again.
Having obtained his discharge, Cobbett went to Woolwich to Ann, to whom he considered himself absolutely pledged, yet to whom he had been so nearly unfaithful. He found her working as a general servant at five pounds a year in an officer's house; she was still the same charming maiden, with steadfast and loyal eyes, fresh and candid. She greeted him with deep affection, but without surprise. She had loved him from the first moment she had seen him, with all the strength of an honest, simple nature, and her trust in him and in her God was too implicit for her to suspect that anything would ever come between her husband-elect and herself.
As soon as she had greeted him, she ran upstairs, and, returning immediately, put into his hand, untouched, the hundred and fifty guineas that he had given her when her father's regiment had been ordered from New Brunswick.
The moment was full of exquisite pleasure for her lover; in this supreme adventure he had been supremely successful; the woman whom he had chosen on an hour's acquaintance, with a suddenness that might have seemed caprice or fancy, had proved that she possessed the qualities he most admired,—integrity, loyalty, self-control.
They were married soon after, and Cobbett, who had preserved, not without difficulty, the documents which proved the corruption of the officers whom he intended to bring to justice, set about accomplishing this task.
It was the year 1791 and England had not, on the surface, changed since Corporal William Cobbett had sailed from Chatham to Halifax six years previously.
The first years of the ministry of William Pitt had not been eventful in any spectacular sense. Nothing had come of Edmund Burke's attempt in 1780 to bring forward the question of reform and to attack the manifold system of political corruption which had been in force during the eighteenth century. Neither had anything come of Dunning's motion, "that the influence of the Crown was becoming too powerful."
The long trial of Warren Hastings, one of the two great men who had given India to England, had provided ample matter for public controversy, comment, and amusement, without being in itself of much importance to the nation.
Though the germ of the Industrial Revolution had long been in the national life, only the few understood that this was the beginning of a series of transitions. William Cobbett was not among those few; he did not even pay much attention to the events which had taken place in France; he shared the opinion of the average Englishman, that these excitable foreigners might be left to settle their own affairs, that they had long been misgoverned by aristocrats and priests, and that it was scarcely to be wondered at that they were endeavouring to obtain some of the freedom and happiness long enjoyed by more fortunate and worthier Englishmen.
In May, 1789, the harassed King of France and his desperate ministers had called together the States-General; two months afterwards the Bastille had fallen.
"How much the most important event in the history of mankind!" Charles James Fox had exclaimed, "and how much the best!"
This expressed the enthusiasm felt by many liberal and enlightened men all over Europe at what seemed to be the final overthrow of the tyranny of medievalism and the setting up of an ideal State.
* * *
There were those who chanced to be in Paris in July, 1789, however, who were impressed differently by the taking of the disused fortress and the murder of the garrison. Among these was Robert Banks Jenkinson, son of the first Earl of Liverpool. His horror and disgust at the excesses of the Parisians on this occasion gave him a strong feeling towards Toryism, which later was not without its effect on British politics.
In 1791, when Cobbett was preparing his case against the dishonest officers, it was generally believed that French affairs would remain confined to France, and there would be no occasion for the interference of Europe in the Assembly's honest and energetic attempt at constitutional reform, which would probably result in a monarchy on the English model.
The ex-Sergeant-Major was not concerned with the French Revolution, nor indeed with politics at all, nor cognizant of, nor interested in, any possible scheme for reform, save only in that one instance of which he had personal experience, malpractice in the Army. He knew nothing of that Thomas Hardy, the Stirlingshire cobbler, who in this very year had set up a bootmaker's shop at No. 9, Piccadilly and begun to take an interest in the affairs of his fellow men.
The same time as William Cobbett had enlisted in the Army, Thomas Hardy had come to London with only eighteen-pence in his pocket. He was, like Cobbett, a man of a keen, shrewd intelligence, and self-educated, and, unlike Cobbett, was watching, with enthusiastic interest, affairs across the Channel, and already was forming in his mind a scheme to found a club or society, to be entitled The London Corresponding Society. The object of this union was to link together all the various workmen's clubs in the country, and to encourage and spread the ideas of the French Revolution.
By the time that William Cobbett married Ann Reid at Woolwich Parish Church, the 5th February, 1792, Thomas Hardy had launched this novel and daring Society. Indifferent to politics, the ex-Sergeant-Major had been busy getting together the papers which proved the corruption of the officers; he wrote to Sir George Young, the Secretary of War, enclosing a petition which set out his case in terse and simple English, expressed in that good grammar of which he was so proud. He had intended to accuse four officers by name, but one of these, the Colonel, had died. The Secretary of War gave Cobbett an interview, listened to all he had to say, and promised him immediate attention.
This was not forthcoming and the long delay threatened to exhaust the ex-Sergeant-Major's scanty means; finally he learnt that the accused men were to be court-martialled on a few only of the charges, which had been drawn up, he perceived, in such a way as to make acquittal almost inevitable. More important still, the trial was to be held, not in London but at Portsmouth, where, Cobbett had good reason to know, the accused officers would be safe, and he and his fellow witnesses liable to suffer intimidation and even violence. Worse than this, he learnt that no steps had been taken to secure the regimental books or to prevent tampering with them.
These documents, vital to his case, had remained in the hands of the accused officers for several months; this, in his opinion, made any trial a farce; then, again, he could not secure the discharge of Bestland, who, suspected of being in Cobbett's interests, was kept in the Army. The evidence of this man, who had helped him copy out the passages from the regimental books, was essential, and Cobbett dared not call him nor even name him while he remained under military discipline, for fear the unfortunate soldier should be flogged. Indeed, it soon became apparent to the ardent and pugnacious young man, that he had undertaken more than he could carry through, and that the forces arrayed against him were too powerful to be contended against, with any hope of success.
Still in touch with his former companions of the Fifty-Fourth Foot, he learned that men were being brought up to swear that he had drunk "to the destruction of the House of Brunswick" and shown other signs of grave disloyalty while he had been in the Army. This was absolutely false. William Cobbett, as he said himself, "hardly knew what the House of Brunswick was," and was entirely loyal to His Majesty, King George III.
A short residence in London served also to show him that the corruption which had seemed to him so shocking was not confined to one regiment, but was really the system on which the whole country was run, and that to expose three officers would simply mean, as it were, selecting at random examples of a general dishonesty in which all, from the highest to the lowest, participated. He realized—and it was a bitter realization—that he had been exceedingly simple, and that the great ones, to whom he had appealed to investigate and punish, if need be, flagrant wrong-doing, were themselves involved in a system of peculation which spread through the whole country like tares in a cornfield.
The young ex-Sergeant-Major took stock of his position; he realized that he was of the humblest birth, without friends or influence, with very little knowledge of the world, and with no more money in his possession than the savings which Ann Reid had so honestly returned to him and a few other guineas which he had been able to get together. He could see no prospect of help or sympathy.
William Cobbett was no braggadocio swaggerer; he knew when to be bold and when to be discreet; he refused to walk into the trap prepared for him. He did not appear to make his accusation when the court martial was opened. The case was taken in his absence and the three officers acquitted in default of the appearance of their accuser.
* * *
The poor, friendless young man had, however, weapons of which the government guessed nothing, but which were to prove in the future far more powerful than influence, friends, wealth or noble birth. Soon after the abortive court martial, there appeared a pamphlet entitled The Soldier's Friend, which, besides giving the stay-at-home citizen an insight into some of the miseries and grievances of the private, contained a powerful onslaught on the evil ways of the officer. At first it was not noticed, but gradually the little pamphlet won considerable success.
William Cobbett did not claim, for a long while, the authorship of The Soldier's Friend, but there can be little doubt that he had at least a considerable hand in its composition.
Thus sharply disillusioned, but full of energy and self-righteousness, and intensely happy in his union with Ann Reid, Cobbett was doubting, at the age of twenty-eight, what he should do with the super-abundance of life he felt within himself and how he should employ the long years which lay ahead.
He remained at heart a farmer, and his intense love of the English soil and the English peasantry had not been diminished by his residence in the New World. Yet he did not want to return to Farnham and live as his father and grandfather had lived; the spirit of adventure was still strong within him; he liked learning and the task of self-education.
He decided to go to France, to see a new country and to learn a new language. He had already made distinct progress with French grammar and he had a rather perverse wish to perfect himself in this foreign tongue. Although he had no definite prospects and although he had just been so severely taught his own insignificance in the world, William Cobbett started out for France with his usual self-confidence, self-reliance and pugnacious attitude towards men and affairs. With no other plan in his head than that of acquiring the French language, he took his young wife, so docile, loving, industrious and frugal, to Tilques, a village near St. Omer. He resided there for nearly six months, applying himself with his usual diligence to French grammar and speech, and making friends with the inhabitants, whose Latin liveliness, courtesy and hospitality he much liked. He had never been, as he said, accustomed to such civility, and to the man who had been for seven years used to strict discipline and constant subjection to social superiors, this easy, pleasant intercourse with those who accepted him as an equal was intensely gratifying.
* * *
The great events that were taking place in Paris did not much affect this out-of-the-way corner of France. William Cobbett had no contact with politics, either in his own country or in that where he was now residing. He learnt with interest, but with the detachment of an outsider, of the lightning-like progress of the French Revolution, the King's attempt at flight and acceptance of the New Constitution when he was brought back to Paris, the appeal of the Emperor Leopold, the brother of Queen Marie Antoinette, to the Kings of Europe to aid a king in distress and to support the theory of the Divine Right now in jeopardy, and the league of Prussia and the Empire against, not France, but the Revolution.
Indeed, living thus quietly in France, Cobbett escaped much of the growing excitement which would surely have engulfed him had he remained in England, where the intellectuals were eagerly devouring Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution and Thomas Paine's counterblast The Rights of Man, where these principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which had long been smouldering in the bosoms of the thoughtful or expressed in the forbidden unlicensed pages of the daring, were now at last named and discussed among all classes.
Opinion was much divided in England on the matter of the recent events in France. Some beheld the beginning of anarchy, and, like Edmund Burke, passionately denounced these violent attempts at change of government. Others, like Tom Paine, Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge, were dazzled by what they took for the first brilliant light of a new dawn for mankind. Indeed, in these months, the government of France was largely under the direction of idealists, men who, without experience or even great talents, were endeavouring to put into practice what they considered the ideals of Greece and Rome, and the principles which they believed they had found in the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
* * *
William Cobbett stood apart from all this feverish excitement. He knew nothing of Greece or Rome, he had never been inspired by Plutarch's Lives of Illustrious Men, nor hung enthralled over the pages of the Social Contract. He remained satisfied with himself and delighted with the kindly, courteous folk among whom he was living. He was intensely happy with his wife, who, profoundly in love with him, and regarding him as a great man, spared neither wit nor pains to make him in every particular content.
She provided him, on every point, with solace; not only was she an entirely loving and admiring companion, she was a neat housekeeper and a good cook. He repaid her with a scrupulous fidelity and a chivalrous devotion; it would never have occurred to him to talk with a woman on intellectual matters, or to expect her interest in any of the serious affairs of life; but in everything that might be considered within her province she had his entire confidence. These pleasant days were, of a necessity, in the nature of an interlude.
The two hundred guineas with which the Cobbetts had left England, however frugally expended, could not last for long. The vigorous and enterprising young man had still no wish to return to his native country, where he would have to settle down into those rural occupations which, he felt, would satisfy only half his nature.
He decided to journey to Paris, where he was sure he could find some means of livelihood. He had, however, got only as far as Abbeville when he heard of the famous 10th of August and the sack of the Tuileries and similar excesses, which showed that the dreams of the idealists were likely to prove delusions.
Warned by these happenings that France was no more likely to hold a place for him than England, he turned his attention to the New World, where his experiences had been so pleasant.
Both he and his wife knew what life meant in America. He decided to return there, not however this time to the British colony, but to the United States themselves. It was fifteen years since the Declaration of Rights (which had been recently copied by the enthusiasts of the Gironde) had been issued by the Thirteen States; the moving spirit of the rebellion, which had thrown off the rule of King George III, George Washington, was President of the Federated States, and Cobbett could remember, with a feeling of affection and friendliness, how his father had championed this hero in those days which now seemed so far off, when he, the young farmer's boy, had not foreseen any prospect of his travelling to America.
* * *
In October, 1792, William Cobbett landed again in the New World. He resided in a hired house at Wilmington on the River Delaware, more than twenty-five miles below the Quaker city of Philadelphia. From this vantage ground the young man, whose wife had just given him a son, looked round for the means of livelihood. He thought of farming, but had not the capital to undertake this in a new country; he found that politics, which hitherto he had rather avoided and disliked, were as lively in the New as in the Old World, and that the clashes of the French Revolution had roused some strong echoes in the United States.
The Federalists, under George Washington, were in power, and were all for "law and order"; popular opinion in America was however on the side of the French revolutionaries. The Democrats, led by Thomas Jefferson, even wished for an open alliance with the French people, who had helped them a few years before in their own fight for independence. Political controversy was rife everywhere. Washington's Government, which was one that would have been called "Tory" in England, was accused of wishing to shape the new Republic on the lines of the Monarchies of Europe, and they, in their turn, accused Jefferson and his followers of violent revolutionary principles likely to lead to anarchy.
However forceful, industrious and enterprising the young emigrant was, he did not at first see how he was to make a career under the conditions which he found in the United States, but he soon discovered that two of his self-taught accomplishments would stand him in good stead. He knew English and French grammar, and America was beginning to be full of French emigrants, mostly moderate Republicans, who had fled from France at the fall of the Gironde in May 1793. To these men it was essential that they should know the language of the country which was to be their home, and it was not easy to find an American with a sufficiently thorough knowledge of French to teach them.
William Cobbett came forward, and not only undertook to teach these Frenchmen a sound knowledge of English, but wrote for their benefit a grammar. The conditions of his life were not easier than they had previously been, not only luxuries, but comforts were still far beyond his reach.
The first child died, despite the devotion of father and mother, but Ann Cobbett contrived to keep a home that perfectly satisfied her husband. He wrote afterwards:
"Never, in my whole life, did I live in a house so clean, in such trim order, and never have I eaten or drunk, nor slept nor dressed in a manner so perfectly to my fancy as I did then. I had a great deal of business to attend to that took me a great part of the day from home, but if ever I could spare a minute from business the child was in my arms. I rendered the mother's labour as light as I could—any bit of food satisfied me; when watching was necessary we shared it between us, and that famous grammar for teaching French people English, which has been for forty years, and still is, the great work of this kind to all America and every nation in Europe, was written by me in hours not employed in business, and in great part during my share of the night's watching over the sick, and then only child, who, after lingering many months, died in my arms."
The business that Cobbett refers to in this extract was his teaching of English to the French emigrants, for long his sole occupation. This was sufficiently successful to permit him to move to Philadelphia, where he wrote Le Tuteur Anglais, an English grammar written in French for the use of his pupils.
He found that he was once again being successful in a career which had been chosen almost at random. By his teaching and translating he was earning three hundred and thirty pounds a year, a handsome sum, largely owing, as he noted with justifiable pride, to his own industry and diligence.
The happiness of his married life was clouded only by the death of a second child at birth, and it seemed as if William Cobbett might have gone on for the rest of his life teaching English to French emigrants in Philadelphia.
He made many friends among the French emigrants, but he did not greatly like the Philadelphians, whom he described as a "cheating, sly, roguish gang." Nor did the country greatly appeal to him. He was considering the West Indies or a return to England when chance directed his attention to politics.
One of his students was reading out to him a newspaper article which happened to contain an account of the arrival of Dr. Joseph Priestley in the United States, together with the addresses presented to him by the Americans on his arrival and the learned divine's replies.
William Cobbett had long since forgotten any grievance he might have had against the British Government, and any revolutionary tendencies which might have been roused in him by the abortive court martial. He still felt himself to be not only a true-born Englishman, but a representative of England.
The political situation in Europe was then acute and such as was likely to inflame the passions of all but the most philosophic men.
In 1792, William Pitt had, despite the conflagration on the other side of the Channel, prophesied fifteen years of peace. Less than a year afterwards England was at war with France. It was the beginning of that long struggle, which has been condemned as being, from the English side, a series of blunders and follies conducted with incompetency and extravagance, but which had, when Dr. Joseph Priestley landed in America, been distinguished by some spectacular successes, that of Hood before Toulon, and Lord Howe's victory on "the glorious 1st of June" before Ushant.
The Nonconformist chemist himself was a remarkable character, with whom, under other circumstances, William Cobbett might have sympathized; born in 1733, the son of pious dissenters, Joseph Priestley had been educated at a Dissenting academy at Daventry, and had soon become a distinguished preacher. A higher claim to fame was his attainments as a chemist. His book on electricity published in 1767, had been followed by several others, brilliant enough to secure his election to The Royal Society in 1794. He was a voluminous writer, who had filled with success such different offices as that of librarian to Lord Seldon, and pastor of the Mill Hill Dissenters. One of his books had given sufficient offence to the Dutch Calvinists for them to order it to be burnt by the common hangman in Dordrecht, 1783. His sympathy with the French Revolution had led to the sacking of his house by the anti Jacobin mob, in Birmingham, whose constitutional ardour had destroyed nearly all his property, his chemical apparatus and his books.
Dr. Priestley had then gone to London, where he had been a preacher in the famous Gravel Pit Chapel. Highly disgusted, however, by the war with the French revolutionaries, and exasperated by the constant attacks on what were termed his "Jacobin" principles, Priestley had decided in 1794 to emigrate to America, where he was received by the democratic societies with those warm addresses of welcome that so excited the anger of William Cobbett.
This anger, as Cobbett himself explained, "made me a political writer." He determined to answer Priestley and his party, not so much because he hated the dictatorship into which the French Revolution had then resolved, nor because he sympathized with revolutionaries like Fox, as because of his pure patriotism, his friendship for the British soldier then fighting the very men whom Priestley praised, and his feeling for England, his native land, which, as it seemed to him, was being grossly and unfairly attacked.
He thought it a dastardly action for this Englishman to come abroad and abuse his own country, and he replied in his first political pamphlet, Observations on the Emigration of Joseph Priestley, written with a force, pungency and virulence not unworthy of the author of the Tale of a Tub.
This effort in invective he contrived to get published; it was issued anonymously by Thomas Bradford, who did not care to put his name on the title page. It had a considerable circulation and was brought to the notice of the British Government, which lost no time in having it reprinted in London.
The secret of the authorship leaked out in Philadelphia and Cobbett found himself exposed to much hostile criticism, the Philadelphians being, almost to a man, Democrats. He was accused of being a foreign adventurer secretly in the pay of the British Government, and attacked on every possible occasion with a vigour as unsparing as his own. Finding himself thus in the thick of political controversy, William Cobbett also found himself in his element; he gave as good as he get, and completely enjoyed himself. One pamphlet followed another. A Bolder Law for the Democrats, A Little Plain English, Kick for a Bite, addressed to the people of the United States—these last two appeared under the pseudonym of Peter Porcupine.
By the end of 1796 he was an accomplished and voluminous pamphleteer, having written not only translations, editions, prefaces, but a number of political pamphlets, besides several issues of a periodical The Political Censor.
All these were reprinted in London, where they were used as government propaganda, and so highly were they thought of that Sir Robert Liston, the British Ambassador in America, transmitted an offer from Pitt's Government to take William Cobbett into their service. This the independent young man refused; he continued, however, to serve that Government to the best of his considerable ability, and in a series of very able, violent, one-sided writings, attacked the French Revolution and upheld Toryism and all its principles.
He, also, found time to write a false and slanderous Life of Thomas Paine, founded on a lying pamphlet, which was likewise at once reprinted in England. He did not make much money from these activities; the price of the pamphlets was very low and the booksellers took a large proportion of the profits, but he thoroughly enjoyed the controversy. Skilful and unscrupulous pamphleteers were already in the field and he was fiercely attacked; his private as well as his public life came under the lash of his adversaries. This, as he was quick to see, was but an earnest of his success, and his self-esteem was flattered to think that he had become of sufficient importance to rouse all this wrathful activity among people who, a few years before, had not heard of him. He wrote:
"When I had the honour to serve King George, I was elated enough at the putting on of my worsted shoulder-knot, and afterwards my silver-laced coat; what must my feelings have been to see half a dozen authors, all Doctors, or the devil knows what, writing about me at one time, and ten times that number of printers, bookbinders, and booksellers, bustling, running and flying about in all directions to announce my fame to the impatient public?"
After quarrelling with Bradford, the bookseller, over the profits from the pamphlets, Cobbett opened a bookshop of his own in Philadelphia, where he took a large house at the rent of three hundred pounds a year in Second Street, which belonged to a rich Quaker, one John Olden.
William Cobbett began his business more from a simple desire to exasperate the Philadelphians, who so disliked the British and so extolled the French, than to run a profitable business. He took the opportunity at the opening of his shop to display in the window an enormous portrait of George III, and a vast battle piece depicting Lord Howe's decisive victory over the French; while the likeness of every King, Potentate or Minister, calculated to annoy the Philadelphians, was given a prominent place. The result, whether Cobbett intended it or not, was considerable publicity for himself and the enterprise. He and his audacious writings became known from one end of the United States to the other; Olden was requested to evict his pugnacious tenant, under threat of violence.
The generous Quaker immediately offered to give him the house; Cobbett refused, and replied to his enemies in a vigorous pamphlet The Scarecrow.
* * *
In the midst of these excitements William Cobbett received a visit from a remarkable man, a gentleman whom he could neither understand nor appreciate, and whom he detested, but whose attention he did not fail to take as a singular compliment to one who had been born a farmer's boy. It was M. Talleyrand, formerly Bishop of Autun, then trading in America as a flour merchant, but in reality, it was believed, an unofficial French agent, who called upon the daring bookseller with a request that he might be taught English.
Cobbett, who hated the Frenchman and all he stood for, replied that "he was no trout and not to be caught by tickling."
He loathed the flattery that Talleyrand employed, and believed that he was endeavouring to buy him for the French under the impression that the more violent a pamphleteer is, the more likely is he to change sides; but finding his subtleties and pleasantries of no avail, "the lame fiend," as the Englishman scornfully called him, "hopped away," and William Cobbett saw him no more.
* * *
The following year, 1797, Cobbett was in the full stream of his activities; it seemed that he had at last, at over thirty years of age, found himself. He had begun a newspaper, which came out daily under the title of Porcupine's Gazette & Daily Advertiser, which he used to defend the administration of George Washington and to attack Thomas Jefferson and the Democrats. The paper had a good circulation but only just paid its way, so heavy were the expenses for a man without capital. The editor remained largely absorbed in what was happening about him, that is, in the home politics of the United States, and paid little attention to the general affairs of Europe. It was no great concern to him that Napoleon had marched into Italy in 1796, that the battle of Cape St. Vincent had been fought in 1799, that Prussia and Spain had made peace with France in 1795, or that Spain had joined France in 1796 and that in the following year, when Austria also made peace with the Directorate, England stood alone against the astonishing success of revolutionary France. An article in Porcupine's Gazette, however, which caused William Cobbett to be prosecuted in the State courts of Pennsylvania by the Spanish minister for libel, brought him into touch with European affairs. He had made some stinging remarks about the subservience of Spain to France on the withdrawal of the former country from the European affiance against the revolutionaries. The Grand Jury threw out the bill but the aggressive bookseller began to be marked by the authorities as perilous and tiresome.
Unabated in vigour, however, he made another attack upon the Democrats, this time on Dr. Benjamin Rush; the well-known physician was, during an epidemic of yellow fever, treating his patients by bleeding, purges, and a powder of his own invention. These methods raised William Cobbett's anger; he commented on them in his Gazette with abusive contempt and in October, 1797, Dr. Rush sued him for libel. The case was hung up for two years, coming on finally in 1799.
In the interval Cobbett had prudently removed his threatened bookselling business to New York. The trial for libel took place and Dr. Rush won. Cobbett was condemned to pay five thousand dollars. He had not so much ready money and all his property in Philadelphia was sold, including a whole impression of Peter Porcupine's works and a collected edition of all his American writings, which were destroyed as waste-paper.
* * *
In the January of the last year of the century, 1800, William Cobbett, nothing daunted, started another paper entitled The Rush Light in New York, in which he again attacked Dr. Rush, this time at least it seemed with some justice, since the famous President, George Washington, died soon after being subjected to the bleeding, purges and concocted powders, to which the Englishman had so violently objected on the unpopular grounds of common sense.
William Cobbett then stood at pause in New York. He was exasperated by the treatment he had received from the Philadelphians; his position in the United States was now no better than it had been in London six years before, and he believed that he might at any moment be deported as he had refused to become a naturalized American. That portion of the United States of America—Philadelphia and its inhabitants—which he had seen, he did not like. He seemed, certainly, exceedingly successful as a political pamphleteer, but where had this success led him? He had not, he declared, made a single penny out of any of his publications or journalistic ventures.
He had, besides, become a little homesick and, being English to the core, longed to see the old country again. A friend had assured him from London that his loyalist writings had made such a good impression on the British Government that he would never lack employment when he returned home.
William Pitt with undaunted energy and unremitting labour was then founding the Second Coalition, which included Austria, Prussia and Naples. This was directed not against France, but Napoleon, who had been shut up in Egypt by the battle of the Nile, but, nevertheless, constituted a danger to conservative Europe, which revolutionary France had never been. Pitt was anxious to obtain help in all possible directions; a good pamphleteer was exceedingly valuable; the Minister was delighted to hear of the vigorous and patriotic Peter Porcupine.
* * *
Disliking the people whom he found around him, longing to see his home and his country again, burning with loyalty towards the British throne, with a simple patriotism, some ambition, animated by the desire to use to the full the new talents he had discovered in himself, William Cobbett resolved, in the year 1800, to return to England.
He did not do so without a final defiance. This took the form of an open letter to the American papers, in which he said:
"When people care not two straws for each other, ceremony at parting is a mere grimace...Let me, however, not part from you in indiscriminating contempt. If no man ever had so many and such malignant foes, no one ever had more friends, and those more kind, more sincere and more faithful."
This long diatribe ended in a defiant burst of patriotism:
"With this I depart for my native land, where neither the moths of Democracy nor the rust of Federalism doth corrupt, and where thieves do not with impunity break through and steal five thousand dollars at a time."
The reference was to the fine he had had to pay to Dr. Rush.
With characteristic prudence he made a satisfactory business arrangement of his affairs in New York, and sailed for England on the 1st June, taking with him his wife and two young children, William and Ann. He had been away from England nearly eight years and was then thirty-seven years of age. Full of hope, energy and self-delight, he turned his face towards the Old World and looked forward to viewing at close quarters what he had defended so violently at a distance.
THE ENGLAND to which William Cobbett returned in the year 1800 was essentially different from the England he had left nearly eight years before, even though his shrewd grey eyes did not notice many superficial changes.
During his residence in America he had lost contact with European politics, being entirely absorbed in his personal, stimulating and amusing struggle with the Democrats in the United States; these struggles had caused him definitely to take sides. He was a Tory, a King's, a Government man. He had forgotten who was responsible for the cheated, wronged, half-starved, half-clothed soldier, in his admiration for that abstraction, England, which in a long, costly, bloody war was standing for all that Cobbett admired against all that he detested.
The French Revolution had, as a member of the Gironde remarked bitterly—"like Saturn, devoured her own children."
The excesses of the French Revolution, not to be denied or excused by the most ardent admirers of the "Rights of Man," had given all moderate Europeans a horror of the word Reform.
To William Cobbett the French Revolution was completely detestable, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican adventurer, no better than a mad dog. He was heart and soul with the British Government in their strenuous efforts to hold at bay this disrupted country, which had been, under all handicaps, so alarmingly victorious in Europe, and this mushroom dictator who happened to be a man of genius.
The great success of his political fights and the fame and power they had brought him had helped "Peter Porcupine" to identify himself with the cause he had espoused; he was bound to like what so flattered his self-esteem—his success had been very personal.
Viewed from afar he had seen neither fleck nor flaw in Britain, nor in the men who were conducting Britain through this perilous and stormy time, and it was a self-satisfied, self-confident man of thirty-seven, who landed in England eager to put his services at the disposal of the Government; he was under no delusion as to the value of these services.
It was no small satisfaction to the farmer's boy, the ex-Sergeant-Major, the struggling bookseller, self-educated, without friends or influence, to discover that the great ones of the land not only knew of his existence, but wished to enlist his help. Practical realist as he was, he did not pause to reflect that it was the least worthy of his gifts, which made him valuable. There were men of genius and men of talent in England then, to whom the Government would not have paid a penny to save them from starvation; men whose names have survived with a greater brilliance than that which surrounds William Cobbett, and whose achievements have cast a greater glory upon England. But to the men who were guiding the country through the stress of the Napoleonic wars talent and genius were useless unless they could be directed to one purpose, the successful continuance of the struggle.
The Government did not cast an eye on this Englishman because of his virtues; they did not value his integrity, his passion for the land of his childhood; they wanted him because he had shown himself a brilliant pamphleteer and industrious journalist, a virulent and unscrupulous political writer.
* * *
Two of the men whom William Cobbett had most vehemently attacked had fallen on misfortune—Thomas Paine, who had fled from England under the fear of a trial for sedition and had been received with open arms by the idealists of the Gironde, and made a member of the National Convention. When this fell he had been cast into prison, where he had passed eleven months in daily expectation of his execution; and when Cobbett, feeling a triumphant satisfaction, was returning to that London, of which he had had a brief and unsatisfying experience, Paine was still in hiding in France getting together the material for his work, The Age of Reason. It was not till 1802 that he finally escaped to America, where he was protected by that Jefferson who had been William Cobbett's most determined opponent. Nor had Dr. Priestley been more lucky; the great chemist was wandering about America endeavouring to form a congregation of Dissenters, but could never get together "more than four or five at a time." He died in exile in 1804, having wasted in useless political and theological controversy his energy and gifts, which he might have more happily employed in that direction where he was so brilliantly endowed, that of science.
* * *
The face of England had not greatly altered since Cobbett had last looked upon it. Macadam and Telford had not yet made much progress with their road building, their canals and bridge-making, which were to change, not only the appearance but the life of the country. Trade interests continued to rule the country by underground means and Pitt kept in power by the bribery of the merchants and the parvenu nobility.
But none of this was particularly apparent to the returned exile, nor was there anyone to point out to him that tens of thousands of lives and millions of pounds had been lost in the progress of the war, and that Britain's only definite acquisition was the Cape of Good Hope and some tropical islands where the climate was more deadly to the British soldiers than the powder and shot of the enemy.
The year before Cobbett drove in his post-chaise from Falmouth to London, Abercrombie's hopeless expedition had been sent to Holland under instructions from William Pitt so vague as to leave that competent soldier under the impression that "he had been told to do something, but no one knew what." After seven years of war France was no weaker in men or money, and Britain was almost without an army. Much of the brilliant success of the French had been due to the incompetence of the Allies, which had helped to gain the brilliant victories of the Republic as definitely as had the magnificent organization of Lazare Carnot, and the passionate, single-minded enthusiasm of the volunteer armies of France.
In England, nobody whose opposition counted was against the war; many were making a large fortune out of it. Many others, and among them William Cobbett and his type, saw it as an inevitable and glorious struggle burnished by the lustre of several of those spectacular sea battles in which the English could justly boast of being always victorious.
Even the brilliant campaign of Marengo, which had laid Italy at the feet of the First Consul, had not daunted those sturdy Britons who saw William Pitt the younger, as William Blake, the mystic poet, painted him—a mighty angel guiding England through the storm, or those smug profiteers who were making such fine incomes out of the struggle maintained by ill-paid soldiers and "pressed" seamen.
There was some talk that year that the Second Coalition against Napoleon was falling to pieces and that Austria was about to collapse, but all these were but rumours in the air to the eager pamphleteer, who took, with his family, a comfortable lodging in St. James's Street, and at once put himself in touch with John Wright, the anti-Jacobin bookseller, who had for some time been looking after his English interests.
Of home politics he was as ignorant as of foreign, and he took no interest in the Act of Union with Ireland, which was being put through by means of corruption, on a scale so large and shameless as to make those military scandals which had once shocked William Cobbett appear insignificant indeed; nor did he take any interest in the personality of Robert Stewart, recently Lord Castlereagh and Chief Secretary for Ireland, who was managing the affairs of that frantic country with pitiless brilliance. Ireland had just passed through a period of open rebellion; twice the French had endeavoured to land forces there, and William Cobbett's one-time Major, the attractive and enthusiastic Lord Edward Fitzgerald, had joined the rebels, and had died miserably in prison from a wound received in a scuffle with the police.
Looking around on the bright, crowded scene of London, the returned exile breathed a sigh of satisfaction, the deep, untainted satisfaction that is only possible to a simple, successful man; he could boast, in good, round terms, of concrete achievements.
First, he was famous, his name had been spread, not only all over the United States but all over England; people were anxious to make his acquaintance, he was pointed out when he went abroad, and he was assured that his help to the Government would be invaluable. Then, he had a certain amount of money behind him, a small but flourishing business in America, prospects of earning a good income in England. He, his wife, and his children were well-housed, well-fed, and well-dressed; he had a feeling of satisfaction every time he looked at his stout, broadcloth coat, his well-cut breeches and gaiters, his watch-chain and fob, all solid, of the best workmanship, and indicating a substantial prosperity.
He had taught himself the rules of a happy successful life as thoroughly and as eagerly as he had taught himself French and English grammar; his domestic felicity was still perfect; he had never found a single fault in Ann, his wife, nor she in him, and his two children afforded him a continued pleasure. Man of the soil as he was, essentially a peasant farmer, the varied spectacle of the city seemed to him a good setting for his success. London was full of vivid and interesting personalities, a jolly, interesting place for a robust Englishman, well-liked and successful.
On the surface the Industrial Revolution did not seem to have made much progress in the eight years that William Cobbett had been absent from his native country, but in 1789 steam had mostly displaced the water-mill, an event little noticed but one quite as important in the history of England as those more spectacular happenings which so took the mind and fancies of the men absorbed in the excitement, profit and horror of a great war, which, stripped to the bone, was a struggle for the trade that machinery would so greatly increase.
* * *
William Cobbett had scarcely settled in his new lodging when he received an invitation to dinner from William Windham, Secretary at War in Pitt's Government. Nothing could have been more flattering, and the successful pamphleteer might have been excused if he felt a glow of triumph on beholding the company assembled to meet him in the glow of the wax candles in Mr. Windham's handsome drawing-room. This consisted of many of the most brilliant men who led the Anti Jacobins—as the enemies of France's Revolution were then termed.
To meet, to flatter, to congratulate the self-educated man, were gathered together, George Canning, George Hammond, John Hookham here, George Ellis (who had so keen a relish for both politics and literature, the statesman who wrote The Needy Knife Grinder), and William Pitt himself, the overworked, harassed minister, with his mind concentrated on one purpose—to defeat France.
Cobbett was pleased, but not dazzled by the sparkle of these affable gentlemen; he felt he could hold his own, even amidst so much wit and talent; his voice was loud, his laugh unabashed; he held his head high.
All these men were distinguished and as typical of England as was William Cobbett himself; George Canning and John Hookham Frere had been boys together at Eton, where Frere had begun a weekly newspaper. Afterwards Canning had gone to Oxford and Frere to Cambridge, but they had met again in the House of Commons and as contributors to the pages of The Anti-Jacobin, edited by William Gifford. Frere, at the time of this august dinner-party, was just over thirty years of age, a scholar, a diplomat, a wit, a polished and amiable man of the world, a most attractive type of English gentleman. His friend, the magnificently endowed George Canning, product of the same class, the same environment, the same system of education, was in everything splendid, appearance, eloquence, business capacity, learning, power of concentration, and in the capacity of complete devotion to a single idea. Both these remarkable men were, in the narrowest sense of the word, patriotic. But theirs was not the patriotism of Cobbett.
George Ellis, more a literary man than a politician, had also contributed to The Anti Jacobin, and his works on early English poetry and romances were a serious contribution to scholarship. He was united in close friendship to Canning and Frere and was popular, not only on account of his gifts, but because of his witty, racy conversation, his refined and friendly manners. George Hammond was the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
Between the host, William Windham, and William Cobbett an instant liking and incipient friendship sprang up. Windham was then fifty years old; he also had been educated at Eton; he came of an old, aristocratic Norfolk family, had been the intimate friend both of Edmund Burke, recently dead, and Dr. Johnson; he was acceptable wherever he went for his wide interests and lively "table talk," his gracious manners, his charm. Since the death of Burke he had been considered the most eloquent speaker in the Commons. He was a scrupulously honest man, somewhat limited in his views; he regarded Jacobinism with an even more passionate aversion than that felt by Frere and Canning, and he could not welcome too warmly William Cobbett, the man who had shown himself such a virulent anti-Jacobin pamphleteer.
* * *
The most important man in the company, however, and one whom Cobbett regarded with the greatest interest, was William Pitt, the man who might be supposed to signify the new England of the nineteenth century forming out of that of the eighteenth.
This statesman, the linchpin of that vast coalition against France, which England had been supporting by subsidy after subsidy, was then in his fortieth year, elegant in person, with a thoughtful, snub-nosed face; delicacy of health had prevented him from being sent to Eton, but he had been carefully trained for the position he then occupied, and his neat, emphatic, scholarly eloquence gave a gloss and a lustre to all his actions, however mediocre or mistaken might be his motives; he was a master of the unanswerable, well-graced platitude.
He did not like journalists, and mistrusted the growing power of the Press, as he mistrusted any innovation, save those which he could keep completely within his own power; not only was he an enemy to "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" as understood by the French revolutionaries, but he was no friend of tolerant or liberal thought; he had never made any effort to ameliorate the condition of those ill-paid, undernourished soldiers, with whom William Cobbett was too familiar, and only at the pressing instance of the King had the men fighting the war which Pitt directed received an increase of pay.
Cobbett believed that the Prime Minister would have wished an enquiry to be made into the charges of corruption he had brought when he had left the Army, but in this he was probably deceived, since nothing that the zealous ex-Sergeant-Major could have told him of the methods on which the Army was run would have been news to the Premier of England, who, a little malicious under his easy air, regarded William Cobbett's rosy face across Windham's mahogany.
He had always used, as a man engaged in a dangerous task, perhaps, must use, repressive measures; he had countenanced in Ireland methods for putting down the rebellion which had sickened the professional soldier, Sir Ralph Abercrombie; he had put down with the utmost sternness the Naval mutinies, especially that terrible outbreak at The Nore in 1797, which was supposed to have been inspired by The Soldier's Friend pamphlet; in 1794 he had endeavoured to get convicted for sedition a man for whom Cobbett should have felt every sympathy—Thomas Hardy, the cobbler, who had tried to draw together in a strong federation all the scattered feeble working-men's clubs and societies throughout the country, and who had had the courage to send an address of congratulation to the National Convention in Paris.
Scott, the famous lawyer, afterwards Lord Eldon, had endeavoured in the interests of the Government to secure the conviction of a man who was regarded as a dangerous agitator; but Hardy had been acquitted, and drawn in triumphal progress by his fellow-workers down the Strand. If Cobbett knew of this episode, it did not colour the pleasure he took in the Premier's affability.
The dinner given by the Secretary at War was considered a great success; William Pitt exerted himself to gain the good graces of the man who he thought might be as useful to him as Swift had been to Bolingbroke, and shortly afterwards there was another dinner party given by George Hammond, where Cobbett met again the brilliant, seductive George Canning.
Later Cobbett was sent to the Foreign Office, where he was offered the editorship of one of the Government papers, of which there were two—The True Briton and The Sun.
At that time he had only five hundred pounds in the world, but he refused the tempting offer of thousands, in much the same spirit as Andrew Marvell refused the bag of gold offered by Lord Danby, the emissary of King Charles II.
Mingled perversity, independence, and integrity prevented Cobbett from grasping the success to which he had long looked forward, which was at last within his reach, and which he might without shame have accepted, for no one considered it a disgrace to accept Government money, or to live on a pension or sinecure. To Hammond he quoted the fable of "The Wolf and the Mastiff." The wolf might be gaunt, half-starving and in constant peril, and the dog sleek and comfortable, but it was chained whilst the wolf was free.
With characteristic daring and energy the foremost journalist of his time decided to start his own paper, which he named The Porcupine. It was to be free of Government money, to have independent views, and, as a mark of contempt towards Dr. Rush, to refuse all advertisements of patent medicines. Cobbett hardly realized the mistake, from a worldly point of view, that he had made in taking this independent line and in refusing the support of the brilliant, powerful group of men who had offered him their protection and their money. There were no more dinner-parties, no more meetings with William Pitt, no more compliments from George Canning.
The new pressman was at once regarded with suspicion and a certain amount of distrust and his paper began, unfortunately, with a quarrel. The hoped-for circulation of The Porcupine in America came to nothing, because a secretary of the Post Office had a monopoly of the right of forwarding periodicals by the King's packet-boats and required five guineas a year for each copy sent. An appeal from the editor of The Porcupine to the Postmaster-General brought nothing but an added suspicion of a man who had begun by making trouble, and the Post Office withdrew its advertisements from the columns of the new enterprise, which failed in November, 1801, with a loss of seven hundred and fifty pounds. It was bought by John Gifford, the Government man, and shortly afterwards merged with The True Briton.
* * *
It was in the early days of his struggles with The Porcupine that William Cobbett took it into his head to re-visit his native place, that neat hop-garden of Farnham, which he had left so long, but which he had never forgotten.
His love of, and zest for, political controversy, his domestic happiness, his success, had for some while absorbed him, but these emotions had only overlain, not stifled, his fundamental love of the English countryside. Unemotional and unsentimental as he was, thick-skinned and practical, he could not re-visit the home of his happy and modest childhood without poignant sensations.
He afterwards described how, when he had driven in his post-chaise over the long and dreary heath of Bagshot, he looked down into the beautiful and fertile valley of Farnham and his heart "fluttered with impatience, mixed with fear" to see all the scenes of his childhood. He had learned shortly before of the death of his father and mother, a loss he had accepted with philosophy.
His eyes had become accustomed to the grand and massive landscape of the New World and it was the smallness of the scene that first impressed him; the famous Crooksbury Hill, which grew the Scotch fir-trees and where he had been used to take up the eggs and young ones of the crows and magpies, seemed to him now no more than a little hillock; from the Bush Inn he saw the sandhills which once appeared prodigious, where he had played as a child, and the sight of it caused him to exclaim: "What a nothing!"
The memories it brought to his mind were not insignificant; he recalled all the charming details of his childhood:
"My pretty little garden, my little blue smock-frock, my little nailed shoes, my pretty pigeons that I used to feed out of my hand, the last kind words and tears of my gentle-hearted and affectionate mother."
These tender memories were followed by a proud satisfaction:
"What a change! I looked down at my dress. What scenes I have gone through, how altered my state! I had dined the day before with the Secretary of State in the company of Mr. Pitt, and had been waited upon by men in gaudy liveries. I had had no one to assist me in the world, no teachers of any sort, I felt proud, the distinction of rank, birth and wealth, all became nothing in my eyes."
* * *
William Cobbett, drawn as he was towards his native place and the life of a farmer, returned, nevertheless, to St. James's Street, and the busy political life of London, the noisy streets, the crowded taverns where the last news of the war was discussed.
After Hohenlinden the Empire had made a separate peace with France, while Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, and Russia, formed a League of Armed Neutrality, which was directed not only against Napoleon, but against the maritime supremacy of England.
The King's refusal even to listen to the subject of Catholic Emancipation had brought about the resignation of Pitt immediately after the Union with Ireland, which the Minister had achieved by promising some measure of relief to the Roman Catholics. This brought about, however, no changes in the policy of England; for the Speaker of the House of Commons, Henry Addington, who took Pitt's place, was his man and supported by his followers. The Peace of Amiens, despite the opposition of Grenville and William Windham, was ratified in March, 1802.
Cobbett had formed a friendship, something more than political, with William Windham, and supported him in his violent hostility to every kind of treaty with the French, and this in spite of the fact that his eyes were fully open to what war had done for England. It had not taken him a long residence in London to understand the sufferings of the people due to a prolonged blockade, high prices, and considerable unemployment, which had been aggravated by bad harvests. There were fears of grave riots. Still Mr. Windham and his ally, the active pamphleteer, refused to consider the necessity for a peace, and, when this was celebrated with the usual illuminations in London, Cobbett, then living at No. 11, Pall Mall, where he had a bookshop, The Crown and Mitre, refused to take part in the general rejoicing and would not light his candles till the windows were broken and his door beaten down.
The riots were so severe that it took a troop of horse-guards to disperse the crowd; some Civil Service clerks, employed in the Government Press, were arrested and fined for these disturbances. Cobbett refused to intervene on their behalf.
This matter of the peace had set the active journalist in opposition to the Addington Government, and in two letters, one to the Right Honourable Henry Addington, and one to the Right Honourable Lord Hawkesbury, afterwards second Lord Liverpool, he expressed with his usual force his dislike of the Treaty of Amiens, which he considered to be a stepping-stone to the French ascendancy in Europe, and most humiliating to Great Britain.
Not disheartened by the failure of The Porcupine he set about, with the help of his patron, Mr. Windham, starting another newspaper. Windham and his friends thought it worth while to subsidize the brilliant and vigorous journalist, and the sum that was needed to finance another newspaper was raised by private subscription. William Cobbett accepted this assistance on condition that he was to remain entirely independent—"the money was to be looked upon as sunk in the risk and I was never to be looked upon as under any sort of obligation to any of the parties."
The paper was named, clumsily, The Political Register, and it had a definite policy; it was against the Peace, a friend of "law and order," as typified in Church and State, and against all revolutionary tendencies, however speciously these might be masked under the virtuous word "Reform."
* * *
In the spring of 1801 Cobbett had gone into partnership with John Morgan, as bookseller and publisher. They issued the works of Peter Porcupine in ten volumes, and with an impressive subscription-list headed by the Prince of Wales and the Royal Dukes who, as little boys, had smiled at the quaint attire of the rustic lad sweeping leaves round Sir William Chambers's pagoda in Kew Gardens; one of them, the Duke of Kent, he had already met on pleasant terms.
By 1803 the publishing business was sold and Morgan had returned to Philadelphia, where Cobbett had first met him, and where he continued to act as his friend's agent and publisher. The Crown and Mitre was left and Cobbett took his family to lodge in Duke Street, Westminster. He remained busy, happy, occupied, content with both his public and private life. His main business was the direction of his paper, which had been from the first number a considerable success, and for which he continued to write voluminously and constantly, with vigour and conviction. He had, in the early numbers, a definite object—to overthrow the Addington Government and force a renewal of the conflict with Napoleon.
The fiery editor of The Political Register, which came out weekly at the price of tenpence per copy, had however other causes at heart besides a renewal of the war with France. He threw himself furiously against the motion for the suppression of bull-baiting, which had then been proposed, and Mr. William Windham, with his help, succeeded in throwing out the Bill. Cobbett was also hotly against the so-called "freedom of the Press," which he declared was but a mask for roguery, and he vigorously defended the slave trade, which William Wilberforce had been struggling to abolish since 1788, since, he declared, slavery was necessary for British commerce; besides, he despised "blacks."
* * *
The provocative behaviour of Napoleon caused a breach of the unstable peace, and to the delight of William
Cobbett and his patrons, war was renewed in May, 1803. The triumphant Cobbett celebrated this triumphant occasion by a pamphlet Important Considerations for the People of the Kingdom, which was a piece of Government propaganda in favour of the war, eagerly welcomed by the Ministry and distributed to the parson of every parish in the country. This pamphlet was full of that burning and unreasoning rhetoric always useful to politicians who are endeavouring to lash a nation to continued exertion in the face of peril and exhaustion, and for abstract, perhaps non-existent, ideals.
After a pretty description of the beauties of England, Cobbett wrote:
"Shall we, who are thus abundantly supplied with iron and steel, powder and lead, shall we, who have a fleet superior to the maritime force of all the world, and who are able to bring two millions of fighting men into the field, shall we yield up this dear and happy land, together with all the liberties and honours which our fathers so often died on land and sea to preserve with their blood? Shall we thus at once dishonour their graves and stamp disgrace and ignominy on the brows of our children; shall we, too, make this base and dastardly surrender to an enemy whom, within these twelve years, our countrymen have defeated in every quarter of the globe?"
Working himself and his readers up in this style, the tone of which is easy to set and easy to maintain, Cobbett continued:
"Singly engaged against the tyrants of the earth, Britain now attracts the eyes and the hearts of mankind; groaning nations look to her for deliverance; justice, liberty and religion are inscribed on her banners."
The direct issue of Catholic Emancipation being forgotten in the stress of the renewed war, Pitt returned to office in 1804, replacing the ineffective Addington without commotion. Cobbett's patron, William Windham, remained in opposition with the Grenvilles.
Cobbett had now no great cause of quarrel with the Government, since the war had been renewed, but his own friends and patrons had been left out of Pitt's new Cabinet and he had begun to suspect, when he was attacking Addington, that Pitt was behind that inefficient politician, and now, when Pitt again resumed office, William Cobbett's distrust of him became intensified.
However, for a while he left English politics alone and turned to the wretched affairs of Ireland, at least to the extent of allowing an Irish judge, by name Robert Johnson, to write for him a series of articles under the signature of Juverna, which contained a bold attack on the management of Ireland. The Government proceeded against author and editor, but in a very mild manner; damages were given against Johnson and Cobbett, but they were not required to pay; the affair blew over; the editor "gave away" his contributor, but probably had asked his consent to do so.
* * *
During these exciting, busy years William Cobbett made frequent visits to the country, and in 1804 decided to gratify that other side of his nature which had so long been starved. He would become, in part at least, a farmer. He had then four children, two more sons having been born to him while he was in London.
In July, 1805, he purchased an estate named Fairthorn, between Botley and Curbridge, five miles from Southampton. He had decided to make the dangerous experiment of endeavouring to live two lives at once—that of a hard-worked editor, journalist, and political writer, and that of an equally industrious and energetic farmer. This was a perilous division of his strength and interests, and one that was too much even for his assertive resolution to cope with; but at first all seemed successful.
In the handsome old farmhouse, surrounded by the abundant acreage, the editor of the most successful newspaper of the day, with his wife and children, settled down to enjoy a life which would have seemed to him, in his early days, ideal.
At last, under perfect conditions and, as an added satisfaction, owing entirely to his own exertions, he was able to lead that existence which he considered the worthiest, most useful, and happiest possible for mankind. This vigorous, healthy man in the mid-forties seemed, indeed, to have reached the height of the achievement possible to his type. He was an excellent farmer, a kind if stern master, a loving husband, a devoted father. He liked to direct others sternly and attentively, to allot various tasks, and to see that they were carried out; he liked to develop in his own way and at his own leisure all his various schemes for the improvement of himself, his children, and his land.
Ann Cobbett assured for him that domestic peace, without which the whole fabric of his life would have gone to ruin, and he was intensely grateful. Their duties were divided on primitive lines, he for out-of—doors and she for indoors; he to look after his acres and to supervise his men; she to run her household, bear, nourish, and bring up her children, and overlook her maid-servants.
His political interests, which became with every week more lively, he kept severely apart—they were not allowed to intrude on his jolly hearth; even in the conduct of the farm he did not consult his wife, and she, content in her own sphere, was glad to leave everything outside that to her husband. Towards his growing family he showed a touching and tender devotion.
By 1807 two daughters had been added to the four children whom he had brought from London to Botley, and the shrewd, energetic and loving father applied to these boys and girls his own opinions as regards education. Many of his ideas were derived from the book which had had for nearly fifty years such a profound influence on the bringing up of children, Rousseau's Emile. The young Cobbetts led an open-air, natural, carefree, active life; at the same time they were neither indulged nor pampered, but were taught to be strong, hardy, self-disciplined and brave. William Cobbett had always made severe strictures on parents who put their own pleasure or their own laziness before their duties, and he put his own hard precepts into practice with admirable patience and devotion. The best in the man came out when he wrote:
"I was resolved to forego all the means of making money, all the means of living in anything like fashion, all the means of obtaining fame or distinction, to give up everything, to become a common labourer rather than make my children lead a life of restraint and rebuke. I was resolved that, as long as I could cause them to do it, my children should lead happy lives, and happy lives they did lead if ever children did in this whole world."
None of the children was sent to school, and that part of their education which their father termed "book-learning" he undertook himself. His methods were eminently successful and he created round the large, square, red farm-house at Bosley, with its lawns and gardens sloping down to the river, an atmosphere of happy devotion, common interests and common labour.
As William Cobbett was always good-humoured, full of vitality, always doing something interesting, and willing to share his interests, he found no difficulty in making healthy children happy and interested also.
He was well-liked in the neighbourhood and had many friends and acquaintances; he enjoyed greatly offering hospitality, which he did with a good-humoured simplicity and a natural grace that had nothing of the nervous self-satisfaction of a man who has risen above his usual station, and finds himself uneasy in the presence of his social superiors.
The self-made man was friendly and genial alike with squire and labourer. He felt no envy for those above him and showed no patronage to those below him. He still thought, in this period of his prosperity, as he had thought when a boy in his Farnham days, that there was no fault to be found with the old English life of countryside or country town.
A certain hardness went with his efficiency; he could not tolerate anyone working less vigorously, less honestly, or living less plainly than himself. He had no compassion for the lazy maid, the idle labourer, the spoilt child, the mincing, fine lady. He saw nothing wrong in the old, brutal sports of the countryside, and he regretted that these were becoming less popular.
He considered that these "manly" amusements and games encouraged many of the qualities necessary to a free and hardy people—courage, endurance, skill in self-defence, insensibility to pain. He did what he could to encourage boxing, wrestling, quarter-staff, single-staff, bull-baiting. He trained his children in these views and taught them to course the hare, to hunt the fox, to shoot birds, diversions in which he took an intense delight himself, and which he had indulged in from his early childhood. If he did not think very deeply on any of these subjects, if his ideas were somewhat superficial, at least he defended them with his usual pugnacious obstinacy.
When some of his friends ventured to object to blood-sports on the ground of cruelty, William Cobbett had ready the usual reply to such charges. He pointed out with zest the hideous cruelties practised on animals required for food, leather or fur, and declared vehemently that the people who countenanced, even passively, these horrors had no right to object to blood-sports. Even vegetarians, Pythagoreans, he argued, could not save themselves from complicity in cruelty towards the animal world; even if they did not eat meat, were not their shoes made of leather and their books, even their Bibles, bound in it? The argument, as far as it went, was sound, and it has always been popular.
Nor, hard as he was, was he without that streak of sentimentality which so often goes with cruelty. He could think tenderly of "the pretty little pigeons" he used to feed by hand as a boy, and yet go out with zest on a pigeon-shooting expedition. He was in this, as in much else, the eighteenth-century "jolly farmer"; his red waistcoat, his stout skin breeches, his buttoned gaiters, his ruddy face, his shrewd, twinkling grey eyes, a smile on his lips, always active, authoritative, a little self-important, a little self-assured, but good-humoured and amiable, at least on his own domain and with all who agreed with him; he was as "typical" of his nation and class, as such an individual creature could be.
He remained a complete realist; his character, indeed, had been early formed, and had changed little since his youth; what he could not understand he despised and scorned; anything that could not be reduced to concrete terms and could not be seen, touched, appraised, measured, was a folly or a vice.
Poetry was not to be indulged in, because poets very often were not able to earn enough to keep their families, and what was the use of even the finest verse, if it meant that a woman and children must live in misery?
William Shakespeare was scorned for his bawdy talk, his bad grammar, his annoying habit of punning, and condemned for his dubious moral teaching. Music was altogether pernicious, clouding the mind, bemusing the faculties, little better than drink or drug, an encouragement to laziness and too often a stimulus to the wicked and the tyrannical. Feminine coquetry, wiles, and graces also came under William Cobbett's lash; he would have had every woman like his own wife and daughters, clean, fragrant, and completely unadorned; he cried:
"Do you not see that when a cotton dress has done its best, there is no more to be done?"
A woman must be neat. That to him was as essential as that she should be hard-working, but a ring, a brooch, a fancy comb, and she was aping the prostitute. He had such high ideals of a woman's niceness, delicacy, and purity, that he regarded a second marriage as a kind of disgrace, and looked upon any departure from female decorum as a crime that nothing could atone for.
He had severe standards for men, too, and his ideal community would have been one in which vice was unknown; nor could he see the difficulty of attaining these ideals—he had found that he could attain them himself; he had discovered a woman who was, in his opinion, exactly what a woman ought to be; his children, too, gave him no trouble—they were without fault or vice.
Why, then, could not everybody live like William Cobbett of Fairthorn Farm, Bosley—sober, industrious, energetic, self-disciplined, self-improving, honest, truthful and courageous?
This moralist made no allowance for the complexity of human nature, nor for the complication of the social system in which that human nature was entangled.
With all his shrewdness and all his experience he remained essentially simple; not only had he no sympathy with, he could not understand, anyone different from himself.
A wide range of human emotions, appetites, ambitions, fears, aspirations, despairs, was unknown to him; insensitive and self-satisfied, he had no conception of what life might be to another human being less self-assured, less healthy in mind and body than himself.
And this, also, as far as he was himself concerned, was more dangerous—not only did William Cobbett not understand the varying types of humanity, there was much in his own character that was not clear to him, and not altogether under his control; this was shown by the attempt to lead a double life, one of rural felicity at Botley, and one as a prolific political journalist and pamphleteer in London. He had not understood what an extremely dangerous thing he was doing for his own future peace and prosperity, when he had refused the Government offer to become their mouthpiece in the Press, and he did not grasp that if he really wished to lead the peaceful farmer's life, full of domestic delight, disturbed by nothing more serious than comic quarrels with the local parson, he would have been wise to keep out of all manner of politics. When he had taken the money of William Windham and his friends on the condition that he preserved his independence he had done a very dangerous thing and taken up a position almost impossible to maintain with success; quite impossible, indeed, for a man of his temperament.
But in those first years at Botley he was happy with the profound happiness of the healthy and the self-confident, the man who has never felt a pang of sickness in his body, a pang of doubt or regret in his mind. Cobbett found the bustling London newspaper world of polemics and competition, where he was a person of importance, admired and feared, as enjoyable as the spacious farm life where he was master on his own acres. In each of these spheres his boundless energy found full scope; he supervised every detail of his newspaper as thoroughly as he watched over every detail of his farm. The big, hearty, opinionated man, who never admitted himself in the wrong, and who could never see any point of view save his own, was well-liked by both those who called him friend and those who called him master, because of his honesty, his good nature and his warm partisanship for all that he understood by England.
During the first ten years of his residence in his native country the farmer journalist began to understand many things; some at first hand from his own observations, and some at second hand through his political friends in London.
What interested him most was the land and the people who worked on the land; he was able to pay his own labourers well, to make them happy, to keep them usefully and continually employed, and he did not see why this could not be done throughout the country; instead, he saw what must have distressed any honest man to see—pauperism and wealth growing up side by side, until they seemed to be welded into part of the constitution.
He beheld the poor becoming poorer, and having the little they possessed taken away from them, and being reduced often to that helpless misery which was, above everything else, hateful to his vigorous spirit; the majority of the peasantry was placed entirely at the mercy of the rich, the rich that were not the squires, the gentry, the nobility, whom he himself had been brought up to respect, and whose precedence, power, and money he had never envied, but the new class enriched by the National Debt, by sinecures, bribery, by war profiteering, by moneylending, by the new system of banking; by everything, indeed, that Cobbett detested and mistrusted without understanding.
William Pitt came to be to him the symbol of all these evils; the Minister had fostered the profiteers, given them titles and places, he held his great position by their consent; he was himself a grandson of a trader—Diamond Pitt, who had founded his wealth and position by transactions considered dubious.
All Cobbett could hear, all he could see of political corruption, which ran like poison through all the ramifications of State government, brought him back to the attitude he had taken up when he had left the Army, burning with a desire to bring the dishonest officers of the Fifty-Fourth Foot to justice.
The keen journalist, the shrewd observer, began openly to accuse Mr. Pitt, who had inherited the system of political bribery from the eighteenth century, of having pushed the use of such measures to much further length than any of his predecessors, and he went so far as to hint that not only had the Prime Minister glutted his supporters with bribes but that he had himself dishonestly handled public money.
Two strong emotions were blended together in the obstinate, powerful mind of William Cobbett—love and compassion for the people from whom he had sprung and whom he saw being cheated and stripped of their heritage, as the poor soldiers, once his companions, had been robbed of their rations; hatred and scorn for the shameless corruption which was enriching and endowing with power an enormous class of people that was in his eyes idle, worthless, unscrupulous, and tyrannical.
He disassociated himself gradually from all his onetime friends, even from his patron, William Windham, and in the pages of The Political Register he pursued a line of independence; in his honest opinion nothing would save England from revolution or collapse but a complete overhaul of the entire Constitution, and he was simple enough to believe that this might without much difficulty be done.
His sympathies had entirely changed from those of the ardent, loyalist Philadelphian days; by 1807 he was beginning to write: "We, the People—"
THE NATIONAL HISTORY that William Cobbett, with a growing suspicion and a heightening sarcasm, watched from his London offices or his farm at Botley, was not altogether glorious. Two gross scandals exemplified that general corruption which the editor of The Political Register was daily attacking with an intenser fury.
Both these exposures of dishonesty in two of the most important branches of the national services, the Army and the Navy, seemed to him a triumphant vindication of his worst suspicions, and he fastened upon them with justified anger.
Henry Dundas, of the noble Scotch family of Dundas of Dundas, was a talented lawyer and an able politician who had held various offices of importance in both Scotland and England. He was a close personal friend of William Pitt, whose policy he always warmly supported, but had left that Minister when he resigned office in 1801. The Addington Ministry had created the able and energetic Scotsman Viscount Melville and Baron Dunira, and, when Pitt had again taken up the government in 1804, Lord Melville had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty.
In the following year he was impeached on the report of the Commissioners of Naval Enquiry, and, following a Parliamentary investigation for breach of duty, he resigned his office and his name was erased from the list of the Privy Council; this was a cause of great grief and exasperation to William Pitt and of stern rejoicing to William Cobbett. Nor did the matter rest there. In 1806 Lord Melville was brought to trial before Lord Ellenborough on the charge that he had allowed public money in the funds to be employed in speculation for his own private advantage.
William Cobbett had been fiercely interested in the ugly business from the first, and his investigation, which had been duly reported in the pages of The Political Register, had done much to attract attention to the state of affairs at the Admiralty. Melville was acquitted, but there were those who did not hesitate to affirm that the minor officials, Alexander Trotter and others, who had been found guilty, were in reality scapegoats for their chief, who at least did not hold office again.
Two years later William Cobbett used all his journalistic influence in the Mary Anne Clarke affair, which occupied public attention for a twelvemonth. A Royal Prince, who had been for long an object of William Cobbett's contempt, the Duke of York, was implicated. He was Commander-in-Chief of the Army, in which post he had not proved himself either efficient or successful, and he was accused of permitting his mistress, a common adventuress of the name of Mary Anne Clarke, to sell commissions in the Army and of sharing with her the profits. Articles in the pages of The Political Register had frequently and bitterly attacked the Commander-in-Chief on the score of incompetence, and the editor very willingly took up the Mary Anne Clarke sensation.
England buzzed with scandal; the Duke quarrelled with his mistress who, at the Bar of the House of Commons, gave evidence against him; before a Committee it was proved to be true that she had sold military commissions to the highest bidder, and though the Duke of York was acquitted by a small majority, he soon afterwards resigned his command.
* * *
Between these two scandals William Pitt died, aged forty-six, killed by overwork, anxiety, and the news of the defeat of the Allies at Austerlitz. William Cobbett seized the opportunity to abuse the dead man and what he termed his "system"; he attacked the proposals to give Pitt a public funeral and a burial in Westminster Abbey, and that the nation should pay his debts. He had nothing good to say of the dead minister and did not hesitate to denounce him roundly as one who had mishandled the war, misgoverned the country, and been the fountainhead of all manner of abuse and corruption. The Ministry of All the Talents took office after Pitt's death; this was headed by Lord Grenville and included, despite the King's intense personal dislike, Charles James Fox; Cobbett's patron, William Windham, was Secretary of State for War.
With so many of his patrons in office, men whom he might still count as his friends, William Cobbett had a second chance of settling down as a steady supporter of the Government. He, however, completely preserved his fierce independence; he had hopes of his friends in the new Ministry, and some confidence in them, and until these hopes were fulfilled and this confidence was justified, he would not offer them his support. He had a cut-and-dried programme of reform; he had been protesting against corruption, the system of place-men and sinecures. Since in 1802 he had raged against Addington's grant of a sinecure worth three thousand pounds a year to his son, a boy of twelve, he had been steadily publishing articles which drew attention to cases of political dishonesty.
This, and the treatment of the "poor man" constituted his main grievances, and in the programme he submitted to Grenville, Windham, and Fox, he emphasized the need of a thorough overhaul of political methods.
The speculator, the stock jobber, the rack-renter, were to disappear, together with the whole of the obnoxious "Pitt system"; "funding" or payment of high interest on the National Debt was to go, there were to be no pensioners or holders of sinecures battening on the people; the Army and Navy were to be reorganized, the soldier and sailor given a fair rate of pay and protected from the possible peculation of their officers.
William Cobbett was confident that these, as they seemed to him, just and moderate proposals, which called out for crying reform long overdue, would be adopted by the Whigs.
He was soon disillusioned, as he had been when he had gone to the War Office with his grievances in 1792. "The Thing" had its roots too deep in national life; it was not easily to be eradicated. The Ministry of All the Talents could not have held their places for a week if they had attempted to do a quarter of what this reformer demanded of them.
Cobbett was, for old associations' sake, particularly interested in the Army, and he had gone to his patron, Windham, the new Secretary of State for War, and offered him a plan for forming an efficient and permanent force, which was designed, above all things, to shut the door against all forms of jobbery.
Windham, himself an honest and upright man, but deeply pledged to the standards and ideals of his own, the governing class, thought Cobbett a fanatic and his proposal impracticable. Coldness and then hostility came between the two men; within a few months of Lord Grenville's Ministry's being in office, Cobbett was definitely and vigorously attacking the Government. He soon came to find that all he had disliked under Pitt was to be continued under his successor.
In May, 1806, the would-be reformer gave himself some practical experience of the methods of returning Parliamentary candidates.
Honiton, in Devonshire, then sent two members to Parliament, and when a by-election occurred for one of these seats Cobbett put himself forward, resting his appeal to the electors on one thing only—"that the burden of taxation on the poor people was due to improper expenditure on place-men and pensioners."
He wished to make this a test case, so he declared that not only would he, if returned (or indeed under any circumstances) not touch one farthing of the public money, but he would not expend one farthing in buying votes.
This challenge was seen in the pages of The Political Register by the famous and pugnacious Thomas, Lord Cochrane, son of the ninth Earl of Dundonald, "The first sailor of his class, the last sailor of his school," and when Cobbett went down to Honiton to contest the seat, he found this gallant young officer, already famous for the El Gamo exploit, willing to take his place under the same conditions.
Cobbett then stood down, supported Cochrane through the stormy scenes of the election, making himself heard by sheer weight of personality and loudness of voice. Cochrane, who was no politician, who indeed was only able to contest the seat through getting leave of absence from his ship, which had then put into port, lost through refusing to bribe. It was well known that "Mr. Most" would always be able to buy any seat in the House. The usual price of a vote was five pounds, and after the great sailor's defeat he and Cobbett sent the bell-men round offering ten pounds to everyone who had voted for the defeated candidate, with the result that in the general election which soon followed Cochrane was returned by a considerable majority, but then refused to pay his supporters one farthing.
This Devonshire experience showed Cobbett at close quarters how the Members of Parliament were elected, and he began to turn his attention to the question of Parliamentary reform. His sympathies were naturally with the poor, who were forced by misery to sell their votes; he did not blame the wretched electors, and he quoted a story of one man who had said to him: "I would like to vote for you, sir, but I have a numerous family of small children and I cannot bear to see them crying for bread."
* * *
During the short Ministry of All the Talents, the Bill for the abolition of slavery was passed, the triumphant climax of the long work of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, as his supporters were named, and the great county of Yorkshire, which had been for so many years solidly behind him.
This did not much interest William Cobbett. He had no sympathy, no liking for "blacks," and if their enslavement was necessary for the prosperity of England and the comfort of English working men, why, it might, for all he cared, go on.
Fox next endeavoured to put through another piece of constructive statesmanship, a peace with Napoleon, but he died eight months after his great rival Pitt, before this could be carried out; he had, indeed, become convinced himself that a worth-while peace would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
William Cobbett was now definitely severed from any connection with the Government or with any man in office, though he still retained a friendly feeling for William Windham, his earliest patron, to whom he addressed a series of open letters in The Register, appealing to him, before it was too late, "to save the country."
In foreign affairs Cobbett still took little interest; he had no word of praise for General Wellesley's magnificent holding of the Peninsula, though he was furious with the Convention of Cintra, by which the British General, after defeating the French, allowed their army to be withdrawn from Portugal; when, according to the journalist, he could have utterly destroyed them and ended the war by a great victory.
More interesting to the busy agitator were affairs nearer home, such as the open exercise of bribery which went on in the City of Westminster. The Westminster electors had been rendered powerless by a bargain which allowed a Whig to retain one seat, and a Tory the other, and against this Cobbett protested, endeavouring to rouse the working classes to an assertion of their rights by a series of powerful letters in the pages of The Register. He appealed in particular to the superior artisan class or journeymen, who composed a large portion of the population of Westminster; well-informed, well-paid workmen who, in Cobbett's opinion, had no reason to fear their employers. His exhortation fell on congenial soil; these journeymen had been some of Thomas Hardy's most ardent supporter and were in 1807 among the most enthusiastic followers of Francis Place, the socialistic and "reforming" tailor. In 1807 the Ministry fell; an attempt to give a measure of relief to the Roman Catholics had been wrecked by the obstinacy of the King, and Grenville resigned; the Tories under the leadership of the Duke of Portland assumed the government. It was at this general election that Lord Cochrane was returned, and the Westminster Radicals, encouraged by Cobbett, ran two candidates, Sir Francis Burdett, and James Fall, the son of a tailor who had made money in India. Burdett was elected with a heavy majority and Fall withdrew.
* * *
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a close friend of the Prince of Wales, and representative of almost everything Cobbett detested, contested one of the Westminster seats as a Tory and thus exposed himself, by no means for the first time, to Cobbett's virulent scorn.
Adroit wit as he was, Sheridan laid himself open to attack when he abused from the hustings Cobbett's proposals that the Government should cease to pay interest on the National Debt.
"It was," he said, "a suggestion that faith should be broken with the public creditors."
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the large crowd rang with contemptuous laughter.
"Hear! Hear! Mr. Brinsley Sheridan detests breaking faith with creditors!"
This election had stimulated and pleased Cobbett; one side of his nature was as much at home in scenes like these as the other side of his nature was at home in his farm or on his genial hearth.
He wrote: "I found the people of that populous city (Westminster), full of public spirit and real loyalty and of resolution to defend their country." He also declared that he "had found no disloyalty even among the extreme Radicals."
Cobbett was eager to show that he and those of opinions like his own had nothing against the Throne as a symbol, or the King personally. But he was now identified absolutely with one cause—that abstraction which he termed The People.
These excitements did not absorb the whole of his energies; he was continually going down to Bosley, superintending the management of his acres, the education of his children, the treatment of his servants. He had begun an abridged edition in French of portions of The Register, which had only been stopped by the resumption of the war, and also a kind of "review of reviews," or extracts from the leading newspapers of the moment, entitled The Spirit of The Public Journals. He had undertaken, too, that enterprise which was afterwards to become the celebrated Hansard's Parliamentary Debates; he entitled this Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates, and it contained a faithful verbatim report of all the speeches given in Parliament.
He was not afraid to put his hand to an even more fatiguing compilation, which he entitled Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England. This set out to give an account of all political proceedings from 1066 to 1803; and was edited by Cobbett's old friend and agent, Wright.
Another printer, Thomas Bailey Howell, compiled Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials.
These enterprises were not only outlets for energy and love of hard work, they were attempts to make money. Cobbett found his expenses getting out of hand, despite the fact that The Political Register was bringing in more money than any newspaper had ever brought in before; but Botley was being run on a lavish scale, and Cobbett found it difficult to be niggardly with the pence, although the printing press and his own pen were his sole sources of income.
In 1807-8 there was a lull in these manifold activities, Cobbett did not rest but he changed his manner of work; he retired to Botley, where he employed himself in buying more land, in developing it, in keeping open house for everyone of Radical opinions, in educating his children, in making himself in every way efficient, busy and useful in his little kingdom, where his family and his servants formed his willing subjects. It was without affectation or hypocrisy, a happy household, typical of the robust, sensible, satisfying domestic life of the English countryside in the eighteenth century.
It is curious to note that while Cobbett's children enjoyed "poking over Bewick's Quadrupeds," the great family treasure was La Maison Rustique, a book that, near about this period, was fascinating the penetrating mind of Henri Beyle, with whom Cobbett can have had nothing in common.
Distinguished people graced the handsome red-brick house where Cobbett's entire capital was sunk, Dr. Mitford and his clever, fascinating daughter, Sir Francis Burdett, a charming aristocrat who considered himself a Reformer and who expressed agreement with all his host's views, and Lord Cochrane, the self-assertive sailor who had entered Parliament in so strange a manner without buying a single vote.
There were pleasant gatherings in Mrs. Cobbett's neat parlour, amiable tea-parties on the lawn, charming rambles among the fields, through the spruce orchards and well-kept gardens. The master of this pleasant domain learned from his friends that if he wished to preserve his tranquillity he would be wise to modify the anti-Government tone of The Register. He knew the advice to be good and with that prudence that always underlay his pugnacity, gave heed to it, considered his prosperous acres, his smiling family, and tried to leave unexposed his opinion of the mismanagement of the Ministers.
At his break with Mr. Windham his last hope in officialdom had gone, and he was no man for rioting, revolution or violent agitation.
He now made a pause in his attacks on the Government in the same spirit as he had withdrawn from the court martial in 1792; he edited the pages of The Register with more care than he had ever used before; he knew that the Government were looking out for a chance to silence him, and he did not wish to give it to them.
He had also changed some of his views; formerly opposed to Catholic Emancipation he now supported it, though he did not agree that to pass this measure would be to quiet Ireland, whose miserable fate he had been lately investigating. This question brought him back to what was always his original and essential grievance—the wrong done to the helpless peasant; on this subject he could not be silent for long.
"A Bill to tranquillize Ireland, indeed! Tranquillize two or three million of half-starved, half-naked, half-barbarous people! It is the whole state of Ireland, it is the system of governing Ireland that ought to be changed."
His self-imposed restraint was sorely tried. He had been deeply angered by a suggestion in 1804 to bring in a General Enclosure Bill, which would take for ever from the poor people of England the common land, which had been largely their means of livelihood, and he had been instrumental in preserving, for a while at least, Horton Heath, on which the labourer had for centuries been allowed to cultivate his patch and feed his cow, his pony, his sheep, and his pigs.
This question of enclosure was a large one, but William Cobbett saw it only as a taking of the land away from the poor and giving it to the rich.
From 1760 to 1844 two thousand five hundred and fifty-four separate Enclosure Acts were passed, and nearly five million acres of land enclosed. It was the beginning of this wholesale displacement of the poor from the soil, carried through by Parliaments of landowners, that William Cobbett saw and so furiously resented.
Other things that he loathed were slowly taking possession of England. Population was increasing; that of England and Wales, which had been seven million in 1750, became eleven million in 1821; and at about this period the population of London doubled, while that of Manchester rose from twenty thousand to a hundred and forty-five thousand, and that of Birmingham from twenty-seven thousand to a hundred and six thousand; everywhere the town, and all that the town represented, had been encroaching upon the country and all that the country represented.
William Cobbett also saw the growth of pauperism and the exploitation of the utterly poor. He did not like the Speenham land decision of 1797, which brought the labourer's wage up out of the poor rate to a minimum on which he could live, and still less did he like the scheme of Samuel Whitbread for a minimum wage; he detested anything that partook of the nature of charity; he did not want the compassion, the dole, the gifts of the rich for the poor, and he was furiously indignant at the conditions under which pauper children were sent out to work in the rapidly increasing cotton-mills or apprenticed to chimney-sweeps, or forced to work in the fields in gangs, the leader with a bell on his neck.
Cobbett also resented, and bitterly, the attempt of Whitbread and Wilberforce to "educate the common man" as they termed it, and he abused them roundly and justly for failing to understand or at least appreciate, the difference between the terms "book learning" and "education."
"If the farmer understands well how to conduct the business of his farm, and if, from observation of the seasons and the soil, he knows how to draw from the latter as much profit as therefrom can be drawn; if the labourer be expert at ploughing, sowing, reaping, mowing, making of ricks, loading the wagon, threshing and winnowing the corn, and bestowing on the cattle the various necessary cares: if this be the case, though neither of them can write or read, I call neither an ignorant man."
And he insisted with obvious justice, common sense, and honesty:
"I am for giving the labourer sufficient in the shape of wages to maintain his family and leaving him to live and manage his affairs entirely in his own way."
While he was thus expressing his opinion about domestic politics, always so near and dear to him, he flung out some caustic comments on the conduct of the war, which he would have had conducted much more vigorously:
"The horrors of poverty in peace time were often much worse than the horrors of war. If war were to kill commerce, so much the better."
William Windham had declared in the House: "Let Commerce die but let the Constitution live," and Cobbett, with his quick ear for a catchword, adopted this expression as a text from which to expound his opinions.
He argued that England had long groaned under a commercial system, the most oppressive of all possible systems, and it was commerce that was producing evils hateful to all honest Englishmen. Let therefore the war kill commerce, which produced the stock jobber, the spinning Jenny baronet, the banker, the alien Jew, the corrupt place-man, and was bad for the farmer and the peasant.
Through all these divers arguments and these various sallies, which seemed often inconsistent and capricious, William Cobbett was true to one thing—the cause of the common, labouring people. Such a man, who was both a brilliant journalist and a powerful personality, was likely to be a danger to any Government, especially to a Government at war, and by 1809 the then Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was eagerly searching for some means of silencing Cobbett effectively and for ever.
* * *
The editor of The Political Register, however, became increasingly aware of his danger and became increasingly careful, but in June 1809 indignation caused him to cast prudence to the winds and a passionate article in his paper put him in the enemy's power. The local Militia at Ely in Cambridgeshire, had been promised a guinea apiece upon enlistment; they had received only a portion of the money and had expressed open discontent at this "stop page of their knapsacks" as it was termed, and advancing in a body on their officers, had clamorously demanded their arrears of pay. For this offence five men were arrested and sentenced to five hundred lashes each; part of this punishment was remitted and part inflicted by the privates of a German regiment, which had just arrived at Ely. The Government organ, The Courier, thus reported this occurrence:
"The mutiny among the local Militia which broke out at Ely was fortunately suppressed on Wednesday by the arrival of four squadrons of the German Legion Cavalry from Bury under the command of General Auckland. Five of the ringleaders were tried by a court-martial and sentenced to receive five hundred lashes each, part of which punishment they received on Wednesday and a part was remitted."
* * *
The reading of this paragraph struck at William Cobbett's love of justice, his liking for the British soldier, his hatred of the foreigner, and his contempt for the Ministers. He held especially in his loathing Lord Castlereagh, who had been Pitt's last Secretary for War; this aristocrat, the greatest statesman in Britain, and among the greatest statesmen in Europe, was misunderstood, loathed, and traduced by William Cobbett with that fierce unreasoning prejudice which he so resented in others. His fury was directed not only against Lord Castlereagh, who was, as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, responsible for the Act which rendered the Militia liable to be called up for active service at short notice, but also against Mr. Huskisson, Secretary to the Treasury in William Pitt's Ministry, a close friend of George Canning, who termed him "the best practical man in England" and who was then holding a post in the Treasury. He was considered an able financier, and had done much to forward the banking system that Cobbett so detested. Personal animosity, therefore, as well as moral indignation, inspired the fiery paragraphs that Cobbett penned, choosing the paragraph from The Courier which described the floggings as a motto for the next issue of The Register. His sincerity lent added force to a style always trenchant.
"It was not in the power of man," he afterwards wrote, "to express indignation too strongly" on this occasion.
"Well done, Lord Castlereagh! This is just what it was thought your plan would produce. Well said, Mr. Huskisson! It really was not without reason that you dwelt with so much earnestness on the utility of the foreign troops...Flog them! flog them! flog them!...Lash them daily! What! shall the rascals dare to mutiny? and that, too, when the German Legion is so near at hand?...Base dogs! What! mutiny for the price of a goatskin; and then, upon the appearance of the German soldiers, they take a flogging as quietly as so many trunks of trees!"
There was knowledge behind the savage irony; Cobbett had seen soldiers flogged, and their comrades, "as stout, hardy bold men as anywhere to be found," fall fainting at the sight. It was through fear of a flogging that he had kept silence about the officers' corruption and through fear of his friend Bestland's being flogged that he had refused to give his name as a witness in the court martial and therefore allowed the case to go by default.
In a further scathing passage Cobbett drew attention to the complaints made about Napoleon Bonaparte's treatment of his soldiers, which now had been equalled, if not exceeded, by the treatment meted out to the Englishmen.
This provocative article caused the Attorney-General to file an information against Cobbett for sedition; but the Government, rather unaccountably, held its hand either not thinking the case good enough to secure conviction against the dangerous journalist, or hoping that he would be quieted by more subtle means of intimidation.
Cobbett himself did not believe that he would be prosecuted, though he thought that the Ministry was only waiting for some opportunity to catch him; he glowered defiance and refused to accept the proffered intercession of John Reeves, the King's printer, who was an old friend.
* * *
The year 1809 was not a fortunate one for the British Government. It saw the unfortunate expedition to Walcheren, which was a complete failure and entailed a loss of forty thousand men, the beginning of Napoleon's Moscow campaign, and considerable domestic disturbances, owing largely to the activities of the Radicals.
The most conspicuous of these disturbances was a prosecution of the editors of The Morning Chronicle and The Examiner for alleged disloyalty and treason, the imprisonment of John Dale Jones, the Radical, for alleged breach of Parliamentary privilege, and the ordering of Sir Francis Burdett to the Tower for protesting against what he declared to be arbitrary action. Burdett, at that time considered the leader of the Radical Party, fortified himself in his great Piccadilly mansion where, with the aid of Lord Cochrane, who arrived with a keg of gunpowder, he intended to mine and defend the house against both police and soldiery. Considerable riots broke out, the military rushed the doors of Sir Francis's mansion, and he was taken, amid perilous excitement, to the Tower.
Early in 1810 Cobbett, who had done much to foment these defiances of the Government, realized that proceedings were at last to be taken against him. He hoped for an acquittal, but he left nothing to chance; his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Reid, a survivor of Sir John Moore's brilliant and terrible retreat to Corunna, was to take charge of Botley; Cobbett anticipated sums of money due to him and other sums likely to be earned in order to pay all his debts. These arrangements were made with the cool deliberation of a general about to engage in a desperate battle—but one that could not fail to be victorious.
There was some question as to the expediency of bringing Cobbett to book on the charge of having published Sir Francis Burdett's article in defence of Dale Jones, but this was dropped and he was brought to trial in June, 1810, almost exactly a year since the publication of the flogging article, on the charge of sedition.
The Lord Chief Justice was on the bench and this was not his first experience of cases of alleged political offences.
Edward Lord, Baron Ellenborough, was then sixty years of age; he had been educated at Charterhouse and Peterhouse, Cambridge, and called to the Bar in 1780; Warren Hastings had retained his services during the long trial of 1787; he had been raised to the peerage and made Lord Chief Justice in 1802. The case of Henry Dundas, Lord Melville, had come before him; he had tried Horne Tooke, Doctor Watson, Leigh Hunt and Peltier for treason and blasphemy. He was a resolute, orthodox Government man, and had not the least sympathy with, nor compassion for, the Radical, the Reformer or the rebel.
Against the advice of Francis Place, the sharp-tongued Radical tailor, who did not like him and who has left a very spiteful account of the trial, William Cobbett resolved to defend himself. In this his self-confidence betrayed him; his only experience of public speaking had been shouting amid the excitement of a general election, and in the grave and formal atmosphere of the Law Court he was at a disadvantage, and soon even at a loss. He based his defence largely upon the fact, that if his comments on the flogging case had been treason, so had been many of the utterances made in the House of Commons.
The Lord Chief Justice, who was strongly prejudiced against Cobbett, reminded him that remarks made in the House were privileged; Cobbett, who had from the moral point of view so good a case, found it difficult to defend himself from a legal standpoint. If his matter was lame, his manner was bad; he was long-winded, pompous, self-satisfied, and roused no sympathy in the hearts of a jury which, composed of quiet and orderly citizens, was considerably influenced against Cobbett by the recollection of the late riots in Piccadilly.
England was in the midst of a long, costly war; there had been a constant fear of invasion since 1804, when Napoleon, newly made Emperor, had established a camp of a hundred thousand men at Boulogne, which he entitled l'armée d'Angleterre.
The resplendent success at Trafalgar had done much to take away from the minds of Englishmen this unnerving fear of invasion, but the result of the war was still in the balance in 1810; neither England nor her Allies had any great successes to boast of on land, and the terror of the military dictatorship of France was felt in every British heart. The question of the flogging of a few soldiers, any individual injustices and brutalities, corruptions or wrongdoings, which seemed to Cobbett of such paramount importance, mattered nothing to the average man in comparison to his dread of a revolution, his horror of a foreign invasion; Jacobinism and anti Jacobinism were beginning to be names going out-of-date, but the word "reform" was still regarded by many as a mere mask for the word "rebellion."
The most exasperating thing of all was that Cobbett tried to make himself appear as a man with a grievance, who had been disliked and persecuted by the Government for years, and who now was a victim to the spite aroused in tyrants by his efforts on behalf of the oppressed.
There was much truth in this attitude, but the self-proclaimed martyr is never popular, and Cobbett's self-satisfied vaunting of his virtues was irritating to lesser men. The tall stout figure with the small features, keen grey eyes, compact head, scarlet waistcoat and good broadcloth, stood for something neither understood nor admired by the average Londoner; cosy, safe little men regarded him as an enemy to law and order, one who would encourage a thieving mob, or mutiny among soldiers paid to keep out a horde of throat-slitting Frenchmen. To Lord Ellenborough, orthodox and superficial, the prisoner was detestable as an "outsider," a fellow self-educated, raised above his proper station, a libellous scribbler and a representative of a class that should never have a mouthpiece. In short, the prisoner was, to Judge and jury, what many good and great men have been to those in authority over them—"a damned nuisance."
The jury, therefore, not liking William Cobbett, profoundly mistrusting all he stood for, seeing in his professed humanitarianism nothing but an excuse to trouble the Government, and so, the safety of the nation, took only five minutes in which to find him guilty; he was allowed to return to Fairthorn Farm, but a Sheriff's officer accompanied him.
The simple-minded man was as surprised, impatient and indignant as he had been in Philadelphia when his case with Dr. Rush had gone against him; he was also much shaken and when he was allowed to think that the Government might leave him unsentenced if he would drop out of politics and wind up his newspaper, he decided to open negotiations: "I wrote to my attorney, Mr. White, to make the proposition, if I were not brought to justice, I would never publish another Register or any other thing."
He was an eminently happy, a very successful man; he might easily leave politics, pamphleteering, journalistic work, never go to London at all, and spend a perfectly satisfactory and useful life on his farm with his wife, children and servants. These considerations occurred to him forcibly, and the faithful, anxious Ann urged him to wind up the paper and placate the Government.
"At this crisis, no matter by what feeling actuated," he wrote a farewell address to his readers which contained the emphatic statement: "I never will again, upon any account, edit, publish, write or contribute towards any newspaper or any other publication of that nature as long as I live."
He then justified what might have seemed to him inconsistency and timidity, with his usual vehemence:
"I shall be accused, I know, of deserting a cause, but whose cause? If the cause of the country, has not the country, by the voice of the jury, itself condemned me? Or is it the cause of the Press? But has not a large part of the press fiercely demanded my prosecution? I lay down at the height, and at the very pinnacle of its circulation, a work which has long found its way into every part of the civilised world."
While William Cobbett, however, was preparing this complete surrender, he learnt from his agent, White, that very likely the Government was not playing fair, and that he would be sentenced just the same after he had made his submission; White had found out, through Reeves, the King's printer, that the Government was not prepared to give any undertaking of pardon, but only to hold out a hope of clemency.
On hearing this news, Cobbett recalled his letter of surrender, which was already in the post; a guest at Botley hurried to London to check Mr. White. These abortive negotiations occupied several days. On July 5th, Cobbett was called up for judgment; his sentence was one which was regarded, in his own words, "as a sentence of death." Two years' imprisonment in Newgate, "amongst felons," a fine of a thousand pounds, and on his release to keep the peace for a further seven years on a personal bail of three thousand pounds, with two sureties of a thousand pounds each. This vindictive sentence was meant to be crushing; the Government hoped that they had got rid for ever of a man who for long had made himself not only a nuisance, but a peril.
William Cobbett was at once removed from the King's Bench prison to Newgate, which contained at that time "several criminals and one man sentenced to death," as he noted with fury; the innate respectability of the peasant was bitterly outraged.
His misfortune raised his fury against his enemies to a pitch hardly to be conceived; not for a second did he see anything but himself as an innocent victim of black monsters; he rejoiced in the vindictive rage of his children against his enemies and regarded the entire country as in the grip of tyrants.
"The whole nation was bowed down at the time under the sway of Perceval, Gibbs and Ellenborough, and with several parts of the country under the command of Hanoverian generals; the people seemed like chickens, creeping and piping to find a hiding place, while the kite was hovering in the air. The sons and daughters of corruption openly chuckled at what they thought my extinguishment. Almost everyone stood aloof except my creditors."
This was, however, rather an over-statement, as many good friends rallied round the indignant prisoner, including the stout old Radical, Major Cartwright, and some Americans, and there was considerable public feeling, among the lesser classes, in his favour, though there were some, among his neighbours, who jeered at his misfortune. Cobbett noted with pleasure that five of these "big brutal farmers, trotting to Fareham market," who shouted out: "Where be the iron bars?" when passing Botley, went bankrupt in 1822—and through paper money.
The children had inherited the vindictiveness and self-righteousness that estranged so many plain sinners from Cobbett; the eldest boy wrote in the first letter he sent to his father: "I would rather be now in the place of my dear Papa than in that of those who have sent him to prison." This sentiment would have done justice to The Fool of Quality; it was highly approved by the prisoner, who, hastily adjusting himself to this change of fortune, replied from Newgate: "Be you good children and we shall all have ample revenge."
WILLIAM COBBETT took his conviction and sentence in a spirit of intense bitterness; he was stung to fury by what he considered a vindictive punishment for being the mouthpiece of English indignation against brutal injustice.
His feelings for the Ministry, for Lord Ellenborough, for the jurymen, the prosecuting lawyer, were those of black hatred; it was as if everything he had loathed, protested and fought against all his life, had suddenly turned to devour him; the dragon had snapped at St. George and clenched its teeth well into his sword arm.
Cobbett knew that the matter of the floggings had been a mere excuse, and that he was really placed in prison, because he was a dangerous agitator who was perpetually bringing up subjects that the Government did not wish discussed, but with the instinct of the clever journalist he clung, as he had every right to do, to the letter of the law; he made a fine point of the fact that he had been heavily fined and imprisoned along with criminals for protesting against English soldiers' being flogged by Germans.
He had himself suggested some time before, that his imprisonment might "be a good thing," that is, for the causes he stood for, and in truth he had earned a martyr's crown at a cheap rate.
Considering what men, as honest as and greater than himself, have paid for plain speaking, or considering the torments that have been endured for the causes of freedom, independence and justice, William Cobbett's sufferings were light indeed.
True, he was, as he often emphasized, housed in Newgate, a vile prison, along with criminals: true it was that it would be difficult to exaggerate the horrors of an early nineteenth-century prison for the pauper or the friendless.
The penal code was savage; there were no less than two hundred offences which could be punished by death, though five times out of six juries failed to convict; on a capital charge women could still be burned alive, either for murdering their husbands or their employers—what was termed petty treason; the pillory survived and it was still possible for a malefactor with whom the crowd had no sympathy to be publicly pelted to death with brickbats and stones; the law permitting women to be publicly flogged had not yet been repealed.
But when William Cobbett was in Newgate, two men were working hard for the alteration of the penal code—Jeremy Bentham, whose doctrine, "the greatest good of the greatest number" was the philosophy of the statesmen of the early nineteenth century as far as they had a philosophy, and who was intensely disliked by Cobbett, and Sir Samuel Romilly, who was with much pertinacity, patience and vigour working to better the lot of the outcast and the criminal. Romilly, who was descended from French refugees, self-educated as Cobbett himself, but a finer scholar and a more amiable man, was at this period labouring to obtain reform in the law, in the administration of it, and in the conditions of the prisons.
The laxity that prevailed in the great prisons such as Newgate was to William Cobbett an advantage.
With money he could procure a fair measure of comfort, and he at once obtained lodgings of the head jailer, a sympathizer and a Radical; from noon till ten o'clock at night he was allowed to entertain as many people as he pleased; his family was permitted to stay with him, whenever he wished; he had freedom within the prison precincts, and greatest privilege of all, he was allowed to continue his literary work and edit The Register.
Alderman Wood, a druggist and hop merchant, himself an ardent reformer, was Cobbett's official custodian, and did what he could to make conditions easy for him. The prisoner could have scarcely complained that he was treated harshly; his worse punishments were his enforced absence from Botley and the payment of the twelve guineas a week he was forced to give the jailer for his accommodation.
It was the financial aspect of his affairs that troubled him most; his trial with the fine had cost him six thousand pounds; the expenses of his sojourn in prison would be nearly another two thousand; he had a considerable number of creditors, who began at once to harry him, and there was the elaborate and costly place at Botley to be maintained.
The result of this bitter trouble was a confused and harsh quarrel with White, who had been so long his business agent and assistant in the management of The Register.
The crisis, brought about by Cobbett's imprisonment, proved that his money affairs were in a state of confusion; he had been in the habit of anticipating large sums; the accounts had been badly kept; there proved to be more creditors than anyone had supposed, and it came out upon investigation that such enterprises as his Parliamentary Debates, Parliamentary History of England and State Trials, had resulted in heavy losses, while White had been drawing a large salary on account of money which ultimately was never received.
A lawyer was immediately called in to arbitrate in a complicated dispute, and White was asked to pay Cobbett six thousand five hundred pounds, which sum, of course, he was utterly unable to raise; upon this Cobbett tied to recover some of his losses by selling the unsuccessful publications to the printers Hansard.
These financial troubles did much to aggravate the first part of his imprisonment; on the other hand, he was soothed by the friends who came forward with generous offers of assistance and tributes of admiration; among these was his paper-maker, Joseph Swan of Wolvercote, who allowed a heavy account to stand over, and Sir Francis Burdett, who loaned him a large sum of ready money. All this, however, only staved off the day of reckoning; there were the Botley debts, and he lived extravagantly in Newgate, entertaining freely all the friends who waited on him to offer congratulations on his fine stand for liberty of speech and to sympathize with him in his undeserved misfortune.
He had one personal grievance, which affected his deeply, and which he declared he would neither forgive nor forget. Mrs. Cobbett had been near a confinement when her husband was arrested, and in order to be within reach of him took lodgings in a street close to Newgate, where she was delivered of a still-born child.
Mrs. Hardy, the wife of the cobbler agitator, had died in child-bed when her husband was in prison; and though Cobbett's loving wife had been preserved to him, he was bitterly grieved by the loss of a child. In reality, he owed this more to his wife's misplaced affection than to the Government's severity; it would have been easier as well as more sensible for his wife to have remained in the comfort of Botley, and to have put the safety and life of the child before her desire to be near her husband. But Cobbett took the affair hard, "it will live in my memory as long as that memory shall last."
After he had settled down to the new position of affairs, his great energy, love of law and order, industry and self-discipline again asserted themselves, and he began to direct all affairs from Newgate with his usual method, punctuality, and vigour.
His children continually passed between Bosley and London; they brought and sent him plentiful hampers of farm produce, and assisted him, both by the journal of the farm business which they kept and by their personal reports, to conduct home affairs from the prison. He also, by this method, continued the education of the children, the eldest of whom began to help him with The Register which, now that he had more time on his hands through being free from his agricultural labours, appeared twice a week.
He found great satisfaction in his own efficiency; self-admiration is a never-failing source of pleasure, and is as beyond the reach of misfortune as is the serenity of the philosopher or the gaiety of the saint.
"I gave all the orders, whether as to purchases, sales, ploughing, sowing, herding; in short, with regard to everything...We had a hamper, with a lock and two keys, which came up once a week, or oftener, bringing me fruit and all sorts of country fare...and brought me a journal of labours, proceedings and occurrences...plants, bulbs, and the like, that I might see the signs of them; and always everyone sent his or her most beautiful flowers, the earliest violets and primroses and blue bells; the earliest twigs of trees; and, in short, everything that they thought calculated to delight me...thus, while the ferocious tigers thought I was doomed to incessant mortification, and to rage that must extinguish my mental powers, I found in my children and in their spotless, courageous, and most affectionate mother, delights to which the callous hearts of those tigers were strangers."
This gives a pretty picture of family affection; it relates probably the only occasions when baskets of spring flowers were opened in the fetid air of Newgate, nor could those gloomy precincts often have known the presence of fresh, clean and charming country children, in neat clothes, with their paniers of fruit, eggs, and honey. It is no picture of an agony nor of a martyrdom, and probably many of "the ferocious tigers" battling with the cares of government, might have envied Cobbett his self-satisfaction and his comfortable leisure.
Lord Castlereagh, who appeared as an inhuman monster to the prisoner—despite his classic beauty, high intelligence, stately courtesy, and noble birth—was labouring as hard at his task as the self-taught peasant laboured at his, and with as much sincerity.
Such as the Government was, this was no time to change it; whatever the grievances of the people might be, this was no time to investigate them. Men inspired by the highest motives had attempted "reform" in France in 1789, and had opened the gateway to ten years of incredible anarchy. Castlereagh and his colleagues had that example always before them; their objective was an honourable one—a peace in Europe which should safeguard the independence of England, and to this they sacrificed smaller issues. William Cobbett could not perceive large views, nor yet the ironic truth, that many crimes are sometimes committed in the cause of a majestic virtue.
It is always easy to be in opposition and one may speculate, with some bewilderment, on what Cobbett would have done had he been in Castlereagh's place.
The Government made a blunder in treating Cobbett so severely, since it is always foolish to create martyrs; probably the hope was that the financial ruin of the editor would kill The Register and discourage the Radicals and their Press. Cobbett's name and fame were greatly extended by his imprisonment; a host of admirers had been raised up from the ranks of those who were supporting the growing cause of Reform.
Lord Maseres, a Baron of the Exchequer, came to visit him in Newgate, wearing, as a protest against Cobbett's imprisonment, his full robes of office; the prisoner was able afterwards to boast that he had had visits from strangers from one hundred and ninety-seven cities and towns of England, Scotland and Ireland; the greatest number of whom came to him as deputies of some society, club or circle of people.
James Paul, a Quaker farmer of Pennsylvania, whose acquaintance Cobbett had made whilst in America, came forward with the generous offer to look after his wife and family, should he die in prison. There was, however, little fear of such an event; the sound health of the robust, hearty man survived the slight inconvenience of his confinement.
Besides, he soon discovered a new grievance to stimulate him; he had some time since been interested in the details of public finance, which had so long exasperated him; he had read without much enlightenment the works of Adam Smith and Dr. Chalmers, which were used as the textbooks by the governing classes, and he had found, grotesquely enough, in the writings of Thomas Paine, the man whom he had so scurrilously abused, his own ideas of national and international finance clearly and trenchantly set down.
From his rooms in Newgate he turned his attention to the paper-money system, and Paper against Money was the title of the principal series of articles he wrote in The Register whilst he was in prison. His case was an expansion of that which he had put forward in 1803, when he had first read Paine's Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance and it was, in brief, yet another attack on his old enemy—the funding system—which was to William Cobbett one of the main atrocities introduced by the Pittites.
His case was this: notes, even those of the Bank of England, were not worth their face value, and by an Act of 1797 Bank of England notes were not to be exchanged for gold; there was, therefore, no means of checking how far inflation was increasing.
Worse than this, the large number of provincial banks lately founded were issuing large quantities of their own paper, and the value of this fluctuated.
On the advice of David Ricardo a Bullion Committee was appointed in 1810, and the Bank of England was recommended to resume payments in cash against notes. The Government refused to accept this fording and, going even further, declared Bank of England notes legal tender for any amount.
The stand that Cobbett took was that there was, while the National Debt was in existence, more real money behind the country establishments than the Bank of England could command.
He was against the proposed cash payments on the ground that the country could not afford to redeem worthless paper with gold; besides his old enemies, the fund-holders, would get a huge bonus through receiving "real money" in return for notes.
He thought, too, that the little people would suffer through the fall in wages and prices following deflation.
In Paper Against Money he attacked the whole monetary system of the country, which was responsible, in his opinion, for pauperism, the misery of the honest poor, and he regarded "funding" as the triumph of the dishonest rich. William Pitt was, as usual, the villain of the piece, and his evil genii were Messrs. Muckworm, the financiers. Cobbett's understanding of what he was opposing is shown by his statement:
"This vile paper money and funding system, this system of Dutch descent, begotten by Bishop Burnet and born in hell."
In this onslaught on paper money, which he elaborated with much technical skill and knowledge, he was really fighting his old enemy, that dark change which was coming over England and taking the place of the good old times of his youth.
"The Thing" he fought was hydra-headed, and though he sometimes drove here and sometimes there, thrusting now at one set of fangs and now at another, it was always the same beast with which he strove.
The Pitt system of the "new rich" William Cobbett fought on every point; not only had he no toleration for any of the men who might have given him the other side of the question, but he did not consider that they had even a point of view. Borrowing Lord Chatham's forcible term, he called the Government supporters "muckworms and bloodsuckers," and a brilliant man like Castlereagh was to Cobbett on the same level as any petty place-seeker or corrupt jobber; nor could he distinguish between a saintly man like Sir Moses Montefiore or a fine character like Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who, in 1803, financed the war, and a miserable profiteer or cheating trader.
* * *
While Cobbett was in prison the old King became again, and this time hopelessly, insane; and the Prince, who, as a boy, had watched William Cobbett sweeping the leaves from underneath the Kew pagoda, now became Regent of England (1811) with a Tory ministry under Spencer Perceval; shortly afterwards this unfortunate man was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons by a Liverpool merchant, Bellingham, crazy from ill usage he had received in Russia, whom the Government had refused to compensate.
Cobbett, snug in his prison, rejoiced in this crime and sympathized with the assassin, who in the shortest possible time was tried and executed. Cobbett, also, found further cause for satisfaction in the Luddite Riots, which were distracting the North and the Midlands; he was glad that a bad minister had been murdered, glad that the starving peasants were protesting. He wrote, as he had written on the death of Pitt, that there was nothing to grieve over at the loss of an incompetent and corrupt minister, and he rejoiced that popular feeling ran so high that it was impossible to give Perceval a public funeral.
The Tories remained in office under the second Earl of Liverpool, who had been Foreign Secretary in Addington's Government, and whose dislike of anything savouring of reform had been heightened by the spectacle of the fall of the Bastille, which he had witnessed as a young man.
The country was then in a dangerous condition; a trade war with the United States under President Maddison broke out, and the English workers suffered terribly; there was unemployment, idle factories, a starving populace, hunger riots, and an outburst of frame-breaking in the Midlands; the desperate people blamed the new machinery for their misery.
In 1812, there were serious riots in Nottingham, the Midlands, Yorkshire, and Lancashire, Bristol, Carlisle, Manchester, Cornwall—indeed the whole of the North and West. There was no political purpose behind these despairing outbreaks of hungry people; they were like the Parisian tumults 1789-90 with the cries of "Bread! Bread!" and frantic appeals for the means of even a meagre existence.
The Government, alarmed but resolute, sent soldiery all over the country; it was feared that these scattered upheavals might end in one concerted revolutionary movement, and in 1812 an Act was passed which made frame-breaking a capital offence.
A most unlikely personage raised his voice against this atrocious law with a vigour, an eloquence, and a sincerity which were never excelled by Cobbett himself.
The dark-eyed darling of the fashionable drawing-rooms, the most successful poet and the most advertised personality of the hour, George Gordon, Lord Byron, rose in the House of Lords to make his one speech. In these words the author of the newly-published Childe Harold and a descendant of aristocratic Tories voiced the cause of the common people:
"All the cities you have taken, all the armies which have retreated before your leaders are but paltry subjects of self-congratulation, if your land divides against itself and your dragoons and your executioners must be let loose against your fellow-citizens."
England, the noble lord insisted, could not be governed by an oligarchy of traders, bankers, and those prosperous middle classes who had fattened on the profits made out of a long war, and through the invention of machinery, which had been so suddenly perfected, and which had proved so unexpectedly profitable.
"You call these men a mob, desperate, dangerous, and ignorant; it is the mob that labour in your fields, that serve in your houses, and man your Navy and recruit your Army, and have enabled you to defy all the world, and can also defy you when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair."
In glowing sentences that the lowest-born of the Reformers would have been glad to endorse the aristocratic poet continued:
"I have traversed the seat of war in the Peninsula; I have been in some of the most depressed provinces of Turkey, but never did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return to the very heart of a Christian country. Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scarecrows? are these the remedies for a starving and desperate population? When death is a relief, and the only relief, it appears, you will afford them, will they be dragooned into tranquillity?"
Byron scornfully and generously refused to believe that an English jury would convict a man accused of breaking a machine or ruining a piece of cloth, when they knew that the penalty was death.
"Suppose the Bill was passed; suppose one of these men, as I have seen them, meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your Lordships are about to value at something less than the price of a stocking frame; suppose this man surrounded by the children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he largely supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault that he can no longer support; suppose this man, and there are ten thousand such from whom you may collect your victims, be dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law, still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are in my opinion twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jeffreys for judge."
But neither William Cobbett in Newgate nor Lord Byron in the House of Lords could stem the tide of the rising prosperity of the middle classes in the Industrial Revolution, which followed the triumph of machinery, nor check the cruelty, greed, and apathy which prevented the fortunate from understanding or sympathizing with the plight of the unfortunate.
The large majority of those who profited from the social upheavals which meant ruin to so many of their countrymen, were, no doubt, honest, respectable citizens enough, as far as their private concerns went, but they had not that public spirit which refuses to prefer gain to conscience. Most of them comforted themselves by believing that God had ordained everything.
* * *
In July, 1812, William Cobbett was released from Newgate.
Apart from his concern in the widespread unemployment and the high price of bread, his sympathy with the riots, his horror at the arrests and executions with which the Government had striven to repress them, the genial, hearty man was not above enjoying himself in his own way.
He sat down as the guest of honour at a banquet of six hundred persons at The Crown and Anchor tavern; Sir Francis Burdett, who had introduced a motion in the Commons to abolish flogging, was in the chair and Cobbett received enough friendly congratulations and warm sympathy to satisfy even his huge ingenuous vanity.
The genial banquet was not even marred by a spiteful article in The Times, which had appeared that morning, and which gave an account of Cobbett's promise to drop The Register as a price for escape from imprisonment; when he was taxed with this he completely denied it, and repudiated the farewell address to his readers, which had somehow or other fallen into the hands of some of his enemies. When faced with a crisis of this kind, he often fell back on diplomacy of the kind he most abhorred when his enemies employed it.
His return to Botley was a triumph; there was a great breakfast at Alton, and a dinner at Winchester, and at Bosley itself a fine ovation from the villagers, in which his old enemy the parson, Mr. Baker, refused to take part.
* * *
"I was drawn for more than a mile into Botley by the people. Upon my arrival in the village, I found all the people assembled to receive me. I concluded the day by explaining to them the cause of my imprisonment."
We may imagine in what terms this explanation was couched.
Ann Cobbett, the lively and efficient elder daughter, wrote a naive account of this triumph to her maternal uncle:
"About five minutes after we got there (Winchester) Mama came in a post-chaise with all the children. After staying there a little while, Mama returned home with her three daughters, leaving the three boys to come home with Papa after the dinner. Parson Baker refused the keys of the church, so that the people could not ring the bells, which they very much wished to do...(However) a party of young men .. . insisted on taking the horses out of the carriage, which they did, and with colours flying and the band of music playing they brought him to Botley...Mama had ordered four hogsheads of ale, one at each of the four public-houses, in the morning, but she had no idea of what was to be done. Papa arrived here about eight o'clock, and after we had drunk tea about nine, the band came and stationed themselves on the lawn, where they continued playing for some time, after which we called them into the hall, and gave the young men and women of the village a dance."
A happier day than that which any of "the ferocious tigers," overworked and anxious, were enjoying. William Cobbett, the jovial hero of these rustic triumphs, might with truth have murmured to himself, as the village fiddles scraped and the homespun dancers whirled:
"More true joy exiled Marcellus feels
Than Caesar with a senate at his heels."
* * *
Never before had Cobbett been so popular. The Government had done what governments so often do when striving to get rid of tiresome opponents; it had made a hero of one whom it had tried to convict as a criminal. There still was Botley as it had been, prosperous, comfortable, lavish; there was the loving wife and the devoted children, and the honest, kindly servants, and there was this "jolly farmer" William Cobbett himself, with health unimpaired and spirits stimulated, with a host of new friends and thousands of new admirers and greatly extended fame.
The financial difficulties, however, remained, though George Rogers, one of his staunchest friends, had paid his thousand pounds' fine for him before he left the prison, and the large securities required for his future good behaviour were at once promised.
Still, money affairs remained unpleasant: there was the mortgage on Botley, numerous creditors, the affair with White, the failure of his printing and publishing enterprises, and the fact that he had to transfer the ownership of The Register and a large share of the financial proceeds to another party, in order to screen himself from future attacks.
Cobbett had lately taken up the cause of the Princess Caroline of Brunswick, wife of the Regent, who lived apart from her husband under scandalous circumstances. It had been intimated to him before he left Newgate, that if he would ignore this delicate affair his fine might be remitted; he had with his usual independence refused. The case of the Princess was too good a one for him or any other opponent of the Government to drop, and he used it in the pages of The Register for all it was worth; even a good cause likes to stimulate zeal by unworthy means, if these be attractive enough.
As soon as he was released, and before his own affairs were settled, Cobbett resumed his agitation for Reform; he supported the candidature of the Radical, Henry Hunt, for Bristol, although this was a man whom he had formerly written against with a coarse reference to his domestic troubles. Soon after this Cobbett put himself forward as candidate for Southampton, repeating the pledge he had made at Honiton, never to accept a farthing of the public money.
He was by now in favour of peace; he had two reasons for this change of opinion; he did not believe that a complete victory over such a man as Napoleon Bonaparte was possible, even in 1812, after the Moscow disaster, and he did not think that it would be any benefit to mankind that the Military Dictatorship of France should be abolished by the Allies for the purpose of putting the Bourbons back on the thrones of France, Spain and Naples.
Moreover, the longer the war was carried on, the firmer the hold the detested Funding system would get, and the more people would be enriched out of the National Debt: in brief, the more rich and idle people there would be, the more paupers.
When Napoleon with new armies took the field again after his Russian setback, Cobbett supported Metternich's proposal for peace, and in a series of Letters to the Earl of Liverpool he urged a cessation of the war with the United States.
This was concluded by the Treaty of Ghent in 1812; it had been a purposeless conflict that had brought no benefit to either side, and Cobbett was able to state that he had predicted its folly from the first.
At the same time Cobbett was writing a series of "open letters" to his old enemy, Lord Castlereagh, on whom he continued to visit all the hatred he had formerly felt for Pitt. When the war came to an end with the entrance of the Allies into Paris and the sending of Napoleon to Elba, Cobbett's attention was turned to his old ideals, because he thought that now at last the way would be open to Reform, and on this Reform he staked all his hopes of better conditions and a more prosperous future for the people.
The war, he wrote, had been the great obstacle; it was impossible to press the things that really mattered, as long as it continued.
"But now, to revile a man as a Jacobin will be senseless and will excite ridicule among a people who have lost their fear. The bugbear is gone, the hobgoblin is destroyed."
"It is now impossible to make people believe that immense fleets and armies are necessary; the peace is, as I said it would be, a sort of revolution in England."
Napoleon escaped from Elba, and there came the interlude of the Hundred Days, which did not, however, for long interrupt the consultations of Castlereagh, Metternich and Talleyrand, at the Congress of Vienna. The people were tired of the war; Cobbett received a great deal of unofficial support in his opposition to a renewal of hostilities; Napoleon, finally defeated at Waterloo, disappeared from the scene of European politics and Louis XVIII returned to the Tuileries. Waterloo aroused no more enthusiasm in William Cobbett than had Trafalgar; he had lost that simple, innocent patriotism that had caused him, a soldier at Chatham, to glory in the victories of Rodney and Hood. He knew too well the men who gained these glorious battles, their sufferings, their unrewarded sacrifices, and he despised too deeply the class to whom went the prizes, the ribbons, medals, and titles—"the peerages or tombs in Westminster Abbey." The Duke of Wellington was to him "the murderer of Maréchal Ney" and his account of how he learned of the victory is given in a bitter passage that shows his mind at its most vigorous and lucid, and his style at its most emphatic and effective.
He was disgusted with the way the peace was celebrated—"in its fits of drunken joy, the nation laughed at me"; therefore, as a farmer, hard hit financially, though he had wished the war to end in order that the nation might turn its attention to the pressing need for Reform, he was out of tune with the brutal and senseless rejoicings.
"I have been out very early in the morning...I met a populous gang of gypsies...I perceived the whole caravan decorated with laurels. The blackguard ruffians of men had laurel boughs in their hats; the nasty ferocious-looking women, with pipes in their jaws, and straddling along like German trolls, had laurel leaves pinned against their sides. The poor asses...that were quivering their skins to get the swarms of flies from those parts of their bodies which the wretched drivers had beaten raw had their bridles and halters and pads stuck over with laurel. I...passed the gang in silence, until I met an extraordinary ill-looking fellow, who with two half-starved dogs performed the office of rear-guard. I asked him the meaning of the laurel boughs, and he informed me that they were hoisted on account of the 'glorious victory obtained by the Duke of Wellington over Boney'; that they were furnished to them by a good gentleman whose house they had passed the day before...and who had given them several pots of ale, wherein to drink the Duke's health. 'And to be sure,' added he, 'it is glorious news and we may now hope to see the gallon loaf at a groat again, as 'twas in my old father's time.' I left this political economist, this 'loyal man and friend of social order,' to overtake his companions; I went home with a mind far from being as completely made up as that of the gypsy and his black-coated and white-wigged benefactor."
Life could never, however, be all bitterness for the genial, zestful man; his new vine bore five or six bunches of grapes the first year—"by my management, and one grape, measured by my excellent friend, Mr. Brown of Peckham Lodge, was three inches and three quarters in circumference."
There were other causes for congratulation, huge watermelons, and long trim walls of rosy bricks, where peaches, nectarines, and apricots, ripened, neat trees loaded with apples, cherries, and pears—a homely Paradise created by diligence and care. The industrious farmer could truly boast: "I never saw myself down on one spot in my whole life without causing fruits and flowers and trees (if there was time) and all the beauties of Vegetation to arise around me."
While thus happily employed in rustic delights, the great cause was not forgotten and Cobbett was writing bold "open letters" to the sufficiently harassed Castlereagh hammering on the old point that without "Reform" the peace would bring no blessings to Englishmen, and nothing should be done until the questions of widespread pauperism at one end of the scale and unearned wealth at the other were seriously considered and boldly attacked.
* * *
Unfortunately for the Radicals, one of their most vigorous supporters, Lord Cochrane, became involved in a scandal that ended in his conviction for fraud. It is possible that the Government had for some while resolved to silence Cochrane as they had resolved to silence Cobbett.
The flamboyant sailor, a Francis Drake in a tie-wig, had been a thorn in the side of authority since he had complained of the excessive honours, as he considered them, granted to Sir John Jarvis after the battle of Cape Sr. Vincent, and the neglect of his own second-in-command in the heroic exploit off the Spanish coast that had earned him personal promotion.
Despite his vaunted hatred of political corruption, Cochrane was not above making money by speculation, a method so despised by Cobbett; the brave sailor had earned large sums in prize money, with which he had been buying stocks.
Sharp-witted rogues had soon discovered that it was possible to depress or inflate the Stock Market by rumours of the success or failure of the Allied Arms, and early in 1814 a daring attempt of this kind was made.
A man in a scarlet, military uniform posted from Dover to London (21st February, 1814), paying his way with French money and dropping hints that Napoleon was slain and the Allies were in Paris.
This created a boom on the Stock Exchange, and among those who benefited were Lord Cochrane, his uncle, Andrew Cochrane Johnston, and several of their friends.
Lord Cochrane's brokers were under instructions to sell his holdings on a rise of one point, and on this rumour of the Allied success his lordship made nearly two thousand pounds.
When the fraud was discovered, the Stock Exchange traced the perpetrator, a man calling himself Du Bourg, and it was discovered that his destination in London had been Lord Cochrane's house.
Cochrane, then a post-captain and a Member of Parliament, who was fitting out his flagship The Tonnant for active service in the war against the United States, was arrested, but not before he had demanded the right to clear himself. He helped the police to trace "Du Bourg," who was a Prussian subject named de Beranger; this man was arrested at Leith.
The Government decided to prosecute, the expense of the case being borne by the Stock Exchange, and a true bill was found against Lord Cochrane, his uncle, several of his friends, and the tool de Beranger, a professional sharpshooter instructor lately in prison for debt, who had brought himself to the notice of the Cochranes by begging for employment in the Navy.
The trial took place before Lord Ellenborough, who had shown himself so hostile to Cobbett.
Anxious as the Stock Exchange may have been to make an example of a type of criminal becoming too common, it is reasonable to suspect that the Government were keen to be rid of Cochrane, a man tactless, pugnacious, always criticizing his superiors, and as eager to point out the abuses in the Admiralty as Cobbett had been to point out those in the Army.
He met with a complete denial the seven counts of conspiracy to defraud by spreading false rumours, and declared that de Beranger had merely called on him with a tale of distress and an appeal for employment on The Tonnant.
The uniform was explained as being that of a Rifle Volunteer officer—this, however, was green with scarlet facings.
The Lord Chief Justice summed up with especial animus against Cochrane, and all the prisoners were found guilty. Cochrane was sentenced to an hour in the pillory, a year's imprisonment and a fine of a thousand pounds.
The first part of the punishment was waived because of fear of a riot, but the famous sailor was lodged in prison, his banner as Knight of the Bath torn down from Henry VII's Chapel, and his name struck off the Navy List, while he was expelled from the House of Commons.
The Radicals and the labouring classes worked hard in his cause; he was re-elected to Parliament, no one venturing to oppose him, and remained patiently in prison working at a new lamp, which was afterwards used to light the streets.
As he refused to pay his fine he remained in Newgate after his sentence was served; finally, his friends urged him to give way because of his failing health but he wrote out his defiance on the back of a thousand-pound note with which he paid his fine—this was quite in the style of Cobbett: "I submit to robbery to protect myself from murder in the hope that I shall live to bring the delinquents to justice."
When he returned to Parliament he was supported by "Old Glory," made a dashing attack on Lord Ellenborough, and another on the Government; he was fined a hundred pounds, refused to pay and was again imprisoned. Poor people subscribed their pennies to pay this fine and he was released.
The subsequent career of the stalwart ally of William Cobbett was brilliant; he accepted the command of the navy of Chile, then in revolt against Spain (1818), and having there achieved complete success, fought Portugal on behalf of Brazil. After having assured the independence of this Republic he helped Greece against Turkey, returned to England on the death of George IV, and, becoming Earl of Dundonald in 1831, endeavoured to obtain the restoration of his honours. This he succeeded in doing in 1832—at least in part—he was granted a free pardon and received his due promotion to Rear-Admiral.
Only on his death in 1860, and on the occasion of his burial in Westminster Abbey were his insignia restored to their place in King Henry's Chapel.
There was much in this magnificent sailor that was great. He would, surely, given the opportunity, have been as successful, as popular, and as honoured as Rodney, Hood, Howe, St. Vincent or Nelson; but his temper, very similar to that of William Cobbett, was such as is not easily tolerated in a subordinate; he contrived, no doubt to his honour, to make a nuisance of himself to those who had the power to break him, and so, in the prime of his life, had his career ruined. It is possible that, in a spirit of dare-devilry, he was a party to the de Beranger fraud (there seems no doubt of his uncle's guilt), but it is much more likely that he was a victim to the Ministry's policy of silencing all agitators and hostile critics. It can hardly be imagined that Lord Nelson would have been arrested on such a charge and convicted on such evidence.
* * *
During the last years of the war the circulation of The Register had somewhat fallen off. The extremely repressive measures of the Government had not been without effect, the lower classes were kept down, the middle classes were joining the aristocracy in ignoring all questions of domestic policy. The climax of the war absorbed everyone, and Reform, Industrial Revolution, the Luddite Riots, the machinery breakers, the horrors of pauperism—all went into the background, and it was to a dwindling audience that Cobbett, at the time of Waterloo, addressed his passionate appeals on behalf of the wretched and oppressed and the common people, whose mouthpiece he was rapidly becoming; he, however, continued to make play with the subject of the Princess Regent, and yet a third controversial subject occupied his attention—that of religion.
After he had been converted to Thomas Paine's financial ideas he had studied this author on the question of religion and, if he, the unthinking Protestant, had not been convinced, he had been somewhat troubled by An Appeal to Reason, that extremely popular tract which was considered so blasphemous that Radicals were frequently sent to prison for selling it. On such matters as these William Cobbett was distinctly out of his depth; he loathed Dissenters and utterly discounted the value of men like the Wesleys, George Whitfield, with their enormous influence over the lower and middle classes.
He considered Methodists either fools or tricksters; and such was his contempt for that enthusiasm which had leavened the materialism of the Protestantism of the eighteenth century, that he found all the pretensions of the Dissenters, "their heavenly gifts, their cause, their inspirations, their feelings of grace" but so much "canting gibberish" and he considered it a great scandal to the country that they were permitted to indulge in these "outrageous insults" to the intelligence of the average citizen.
With this weapon of sturdy common sense William Cobbett endeavoured to bludgeon his way through the thickets of religious controversy. He opposed, in 1813, a Bill that was brought in to relieve Dissenters of some of their disabilities, his grounds were that there should be complete toleration or restraint of every brand of religious thought, save alone that of the Church of England. He maintained that if the Unitarians could not believe in the Trinity, and might be allowed by law to affirm this belief, the same licence should be extended to other incredulities.
"I am for no partial appeals; I am for a general Act permit ting every man to say or write what he pleases upon the subject of religion, or I wish the whole thing to remain what it is now."
The bottom of his intolerance was that he detested and despised a faith which tried to distract the poor from their material grievances by offering them mystical benefits; for the same reasons he disliked the "free soup" policy of Wilberforce and Harriet Martineau, and their kind who would offer the paupers blankets, gruel or firing instead of the comfortable living which was theirs by right. He also continued to oppose education for the poor; in this he was against the majority of the Radicals, but he declared stoutly that he could not see that the poor would derive any benefit from learning to read the lies printed in the Tory Press.
In 1813 another old enemy appeared—a general Bill for enclosures. It would have been to William Cobbett's interest to forward this, since it would entitle him to enclose sixty to a hundred acres of excellent land.
"But I will never give my consent to the enclosure of it or any part of it, except for the purposes of the labourers."
In this he was true to his principles at some cost to him self; and there is no doubt that his rage and grief at these continuous attempts to force the peasant off the land were genuine emotions. With him there was no conflict between political convictions and private feelings; an intense sincerity lay behind his invective.
He, also, took a stand in 1814 and 1815 against the proposed measures to protect home-grown corn, and with no supporters he presented a petition to Parliament against the Corn Bill definitely voicing his belief in Free Trade. The first years of the Peace added to the disasters of England as much as Cobbett had prophesied they would; the National Debt mounted up, the circulation of paper-money increased, prices rose, there was unemployment, bankruptcy, widespread distress. Soon after the glories of Waterloo had brought the Twenty Years' War to an end the hand-loom workers, displaced by the new machinery, were either starving or working in the factories for a wage hardly sufficient to keep body and soul together.
With the Peace, Great Britain lost her markets for ammunition, war equipment and other military necessaries. On the other hand, there was a large number of profiteers; stock jobbers and Government contractors had made huge fortunes; there was a vast class of wealthy speculators, and those people whom William Cobbett particularly despised—the fund-holders of the National Debt—prospered exceedingly, while taxation remained high, although the Government granted relief from some of the war taxes and removed the Income Tax, which had never risen above two shillings in the pound. In fact, everything had come to pass that Cobbett thought would, and he continued to fix his attention on Parliamentary Reform.
The Government paper had announced the fall of Napoleon in these dramatic words: "The play is over, we may now go to supper." To which Cobbett replied with his devastating common sense: "Go to supper! You have not yet paid for the play, and before you have paid for the play, you will find that there is no money left for the supper."
Cobbett, Sir Francis Burdett, Lord Cochrane (still furious from his conviction), Henry Hunt and Major Cartwright (the old aristocratic officer who had lost his commission through sympathy with the French Revolution, and who had been more than once in trouble on a charge of sedition), now got together in an attempt to organize Reform agitation throughout the country.
What Cobbett wanted was, in his own opinion, exceedingly simple—it was merely a return to "the good old days," an end to sinecures and corruption, a reform of the Army and Navy, a sweeping away of the National Debt, of the Pittites, and all they stood for, the stock jobbers and the new manufacturing towns.
All this he and his followers hoped and believed could be obtained through Parliamentary Reform; he did not even ask for national suffrage, he thought that matters might be mended if every direct taxpayer had a vote.
Towards the end of 1816 he openly stated his case and made his direct appeal to the workers of England. This pamphlet, addressed to the journeymen and labourers, brought him forward definitely as a leader of the working classes and the mouthpiece of the poorest people. He put this on sale at the unprecedentedly low price of twopence and the huge success which followed caused him to issue a special twopenny edition of The Register every week as well as the shilling edition; this soon had the huge circulation of forty or fifty thousand copies a week.
The story went that the oft-attacked Lord Castlereagh, upon his attention's being drawn to this new working-class journal, had remarked contemptuously that it was "twopenny trash." Cobbett seized upon the name as he had before seized on that of "Peter Porcupine," and proudly gave the term of contempt—Twopenny Trash—to his working-class journal.
The benefits that would follow Reform, he thus put forward.
It would do away with the crying shame of bribery at elections. Members would be returned to Parliament, not through interest, but through merits. A reformed Parliament would assuredly make a severe investigation into national administration and sweep away "the muckworms and bloodsuckers." It would cut down the excessive Civil Service and lower the high salaries paid to Government officials; it would reduce the standing Army; it would spend no Secret Service money, and do away with the whole ugly system of spies and informers. It would reform the Bar, it would give real freedom to the Press, since the Government would no longer finance any newspapers. It would reduce taxes and stop interest on the enormous National Debt.
At the same time William Cobbett was careful to assert that he was a reformer but no iconoclast.
"We want great alterations, but we want nothing new."
He used the great influence he acquired through this new weapon, Twopenny Trash, to stop the useless, costly riots and to induce the people to put all their faith in Parliamentary Reform. He was not against machinery:
"As to the use of machinery in general, there cannot be any solid objection. It might even save money which could be spent on other forms of labour."
In brief, he counselled patience, endurance and a resolute effort towards reform. These arguments had a considerable effect. The riots, which had been largely fomented by spies and stool-pigeons, died down, and an organized agitation took their place.
The Government, soon cognizant of this, and again afraid of revolution, began to meet this pressure for reform with harsh measures, most objectionable of which was the extensive employment of the spy system. As the result of a socialist meeting in Spa Fields in 1816 several men of good repute were put on trial for treason, but were acquitted. Lord Sidmouth, then at the Home Office, relaxed no effort to find more plots and more victims; the situation became daily more difficult and perilous to the advocates of Reform. The Combination Act rendered any form of trade union organization illegal; some of the laws passed to combat the anti Jacobins, such as that against Corresponding Societies, were still in force.
Seeing these dark portents of troubles to come, Cobbett with that prudence which ran side by side with his pugnacity advised his readers to have nothing to do with any political club, any secret cabals, any correspondence, but to trust to individual exertions and open meetings.
Towards the end of 1816 he began to realize that even prudence would not avail him; the forces against him were too formidable even for him and his stalwart friends to combat.
In March, 1817, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, and Cobbett, easily and even correctly described as an agitator, was liable to imprisonment without trial. Other repressive Acts, some of them aiming directly at the editor of Twopenny Trash were hastily passed through Parliament. It became illegal to hold public meetings without the approval of the authorities; the penalty for resistance to this was death; all papers, pamphlets, etc., and the places where they might be read, such as public reading-rooms, lecture halls, were to be sternly overlooked. This hit at those who formed a large portion of Cobbett's audience—the poor people unable to read who gathered together in clubs to hear his pamphlets or periodicals read aloud—meant a severe decrease in the sale of Twopenny Trash, and the more expensive Political Register.
Once again Cobbett saw the toils closing round him and he was well aware that if he were again sent to prison he would not have such a comparatively easy time as he had before. No doubt now he would really be silenced, unable to continue his writings, communicate with his supporters and friends, or to follow public affairs.
Swiftly and secretly he made preparations for departure to the New World, which had sheltered him twice before. Common sense was once more his guide.
William Cobbett argued that it would be no use to his family, his friends or his cause, if he were silenced in prison; whereas from the safe distance of the New World he might be all the use possible; he was still heavily burdened with debt, and for this reason also he might find himself arrested. He had friends, acquaintances, and connections in New York, and to that city he sailed in April, 1817, taking with him two of his sons, then sturdy well-grown young men, warmly devoted to their father and deeply imbued with his political principles. This was not the end, but a temporary set-back to his violent efforts to enlighten the masses as to the misgovernment that was the cause of all their miseries. He felt no shame in his flight, which was, he argued, from the tyrannies of the Emergency Act, and from the activity of a minister like Lord Sidmouth, who had (no doubt by a slip of the tongue) admitted:
"I am sorry to say that William Cobbett has not written anything that the law officers could prosecute with any chances of success."
Cobbett was still under securities for good behaviour, and if he could trust his own courage and prudence even under the most exasperating circumstances, he could not be sure of that of his followers, many of whom were violent-minded or excitable.
From Liverpool he wrote a farewell to his faithful readers.
This was couched in emphatic terms; Cobbett might be in retreat, but he abated nothing either of his own self-satisfaction or of his contempt for his enemies. He also recognized the power of the Government during the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act and declared that it would be "worse than madness to attempt to strive against it." He painted a grim picture of himself seated in a prison, without having had a hearing, denied pen, ink and paper, and with no company save that of the keepers.
He considered it only common sense to fly from such a possibility, but he promised his readers that he would "always be a foreigner in every country but England" and "never become a citizen or a subject in any other State."
But his was a class patriotism and mingled with a mighty vanity; for those Englishmen whose ideas were different from his own he had no fellow feeling, and attacked them as virulently as if they had been foreigners. In this farewell to his readers he boasted of the celebrity which his writings had attained and which they would preserve—"long and long after Lords Liverpool, Sid-mouth and Castlereagh are rotten and forgotten."
And, in his final, words to his "beloved countrymen" he assured them that he would always be animated by love of the English, and for the happiness and renown of England, adding an assertion of hatred for his opponents, who were, in his opinion, corrupt, hypocritical, and dastardly.
His enemies did not fail to notice the weak spot in his hurried journey to America; "he fled from his creditors," as the Quarterly Review reported spitefully.
On the voyage out the old self-assertiveness, the old self-satisfaction had plenty of opportunities for flourishing. Because of his healthy body and frugal living William Cobbett was not sea-sick, nor for long were the two sons William and John, whom he had so carefully trained; they were, therefore, able to enjoy themselves whilst weaker mortals languished. He recorded with simple pride the ease and skill with which he and his two sons, whom he had striven to make two copies of himself, kept their berths neat, clean and tidy.
There was plenty for Cobbett to occupy himself with on the long voyage, there were disagreeable companions to be put in their places, unpatriotic bagmen to be taught a lesson, and the long habits of cleanliness and order to be maintained, even in these unlikely surroundings.
"Every morning of my passage I was up, shaved, and dressed before any other person was stirring. Then I called up my sons. Our place was swept out, or washed out, aired and beds made by ourselves before breakfast. While others were lolling in their berths, we were out on deck. During the time of sea-sickness, which I had none of, I took care of my sons, attended them on deck, brought them down, waited on them like a nurse, gave no trouble to anybody; and when that was over, our room was, at all times, fair weather or foul, as clear from all annoyances as one of our fields at Botley. We were stinted to one tumbler of fresh water a day; we never complained of this and we kept ourselves perfectly clean. The consequence was we landed at New York as fresh as we were when we went on board the ship."
Cobbett found, however, that the voyage was disagreeable and dangerous; the ship Importer took from March 27th to May 5th from Liverpool to New York; it was twice struck by lightning, which brought down two of the masts, killed a man, and injured two people between whom Cobbett chanced to be sitting.
The three fugitives landed, however, in good spirits—it was springtime and the New World.
It was seventeen years since William Cobbett had last looked upon America, seventeen years of great activity, industry, success, and happiness, despite all his enemies, his imprisonment; despite disappointment and failures—happiness above all. His splendid body, his robust health remained unimpaired. Nearly fifty years of age, he felt the vigour of a man of thirty; more than half-way through life he felt the confidence of one who had everything to look forward to. His feelings may be judged from what he soon afterwards wrote in the pages of The Register, which he continued to edit from the other side of the Atlantic:
"To see a free country for once, and to see every labourer with plenty to eat and drink! Think of that! And to never see the hang-dog face of a tax-gatherer. Think of that!...No hangings and rippings up...No Olivers...no Stewarts and Perries, no Cannings, Liverpools, Castlereaghs, Eldons, Ellenboroughs or Sidmouths, No bankers, No squeaking Wynnes, No Wilberforce, think of that! No Wilberforces!"
The first inn he stayed at "on the main road to the city, thirteen miles from New York" delighted him with its evidence of prosperity:
"Good beds, good rooms and the food—' really was eating.' We had smoked fish, chops, butter and eggs, with bread, crackers, sweet cakes...not just to smell to—but in loads. Not an egg, but a dish full of eggs. Not a snip of meat or of fish but a plate full. Lump sugar for our tea and coffee; not broke into little bits the size of a hazel nut; but in good thumping pieces. For dinner we had the finest of fish, bass, mackerel, lobster; of meat, lamb, veal, ham, etc. Asparagus in plenty, apple pies (though the middle of May). And for all this an excellent cider to drink, with the kindest and most obliging treatment, on the part of the Landlord and Landlady and their sons and daughters; we paid no more than twenty-two shillings and sixpence a week."
This delightful state of affairs had, of course, a moral:
"all this was the effect of good government, of just and mild government, which took so little from the people in taxes that they had the means of happiness fully left in their hands."
WILLIAM COBBETT was likely to find the Americans well-disposed towards him. Not only had his journalistic enterprises in New York, which he had conducted through his nephew Henry Cobbett, and various agents, gained for him an appreciative public, his other writings had been frequently reprinted in the United States, and he was known to have been a firm friend of America in the war with England, which had ended in the Treaty of Ghent, when, through England's failure to obtain any of the points at issue, Cobbett was enabled to take up his usual attitude of "I told you so!"
When, however, the political exile reached Long Island, he made no effort to associate himself with American politics, though he was still resolved to lead that double life which was almost too much even for his energy and which involved him in such manifold trouble.
He hired a farm named Hyde Park, near North Hemp stead on Long Island, and settled down to farming; but he also continued the publication of The Register, which for two years he conducted from the other side of the Atlantic. Some of these issues contained articles that were among the best he ever wrote, including The History of the Last Hundred Days of the English Freedom, in which besides a trenchant attack on the Boroughmongers and an appeal to the people to be patient and not to be provoked into rebellion, he wrote his first suspicions of Sir Francis Burdett, who in this troublous epoch of the early Radical movement had shown himself, according to Cobbett, a lukewarm friend.
If no imprisonment had ever been more pleasant than that which Cobbett had undergone in Newgate, no exile had ever been more agreeable than that he now suffered in the New World. He has left the following charming account of it:
"I worked on the land morning and evening, and wrote in the day in a North room. The dress became very convenient, or rather a very little inconvenient affair. Shoes, trousers, shirt, and hat. No plague of dressing and undressing! I never slept better in all my life. No covering. A sheet under me, and a straw bed. My window looked to the East. The moment that Aurora appeared, I was in the Orchard. It was impossible for any human being to lead a pleasanter life than this...The dews were equal to showers; I frequently, in the morning, washed hands and face, feet and legs, in the dew on the high grass."
Writing to his daughter Ann, Cobbett stated:
"If this untaxed, beautiful, fertile, and salubrious island had been inhabited by Englishmen, it would very far have surpassed the Garden of Eden; for here the trees produced golden fruit and we were forbidden to eat none of them."
A curious reflection, since who were these Colonists but Englishmen?
Concerned as he was in home affairs, the exile did not allow them to trouble him unduly; never was there a man more self-righteous:
"Tranquillity I enjoyed unalloyed by one single bitter reflection as to any one act of my whole life."
While Cobbett was putting his new farm in order, and with his usual zest and exuberance taking a keen enjoyment in this new life, his fellow-agitators, less fortunate or more courageous, were bearing the full brunt of the storm. Insurrection followed insurrection, and the renewed suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act enabled the Government to seize and place in prison all the more notable agitators. One of the most stinging grievances continued to be the employment of spies by the Ministry, the most notorious of whom was a certain Oliver, a Government agent disguised as a revolutionary, who went up and down the country inciting the discontented and the ill-treated to open rebellion.
Lord Sidmouth, then at the Home Office, was ostensibly responsible for these methods of dealing with the troubles brought about by the poverty of the country. They were, however, approved of by the entire Ministry, and men like Castlereagh and Wellington, statesmen of realistic genius, then employed in endeavouring to settle the affairs of Europe and to see that the French people were not penalized for Napoleon's defeat, showed no concern at the tyranny being practised on their poorest countrymen. Their excuse indeed, was, no doubt, that anything was preferable to revolution or civil war.
To William Cobbett, reading the news in his Hyde Park Farm, the behaviour of the Government was horrible in the extreme. He went so far as to accuse Lord Sidmouth of fomenting the Derbyshire rising in order to have an excuse to continue the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act for yet another year. He also roundly declared that this so-called insurrection was worked into a rising by Oliver. For this desperate resort to arms three men were executed, and many others transported for life.
Cobbett, himself safely out of the storm, expected Sir Francis Burdett actively to undertake the defence and protection of these unfortunate victims; and when the Radical baronet refused to stand up for men who had been guilty of acts of violence, and this despite the pleadings of Henry Hunt, who himself did his best for the unhappy prisoners, an open breach was made between the Long Island exile and one who had been among his warmest friends and closest political adherents.
Sir Francis, on his side, began to perceive that he had entangled himself with dangerous men, and, with some reason, put down the miserable plight of the revolutionaries to Cobbett's inflammatory writings and speeches.
Lord Cochrane, whose own troubles had not helped to slacken his zeal for Reform, decided to leave an ungrateful country and help the South American revolutionaries, then struggling against the power of Spain; and Burdett and Cobbett quarrelled over the question who should stand for his vacant seat at Westminster. The baronet won and took the place of Cochrane in Parliament, but did not regain his former position as leader in the House of the Radical Reformers.
There was more trouble, which cost William Cobbett another friend—Henry Hunt, with whom he had been closely associated for a long time, and whose candidature for the Westminster election he had eagerly supported.
Francis Place, who considered Cobbett an impudent mountebank and who had a streak of spite in his disposition, secured somehow from John Wright, Cobbett's business man, a letter written many years previously, in which there was a reference to Hunt's riding about the country with the wife of another man, having deserted his own. This being read from the hustings ruined Hunt's hope of getting into Parliament and made Cobbett's support seem ridiculous.
When this news reached him, Cobbett's violent anger exploded on the head of Wright. The letter, he declared, was a forgery, and Hunt accepted this explanation; Cobbett never hesitated to repudiate inconvenient documents.
Soon afterwards the great and good Sir Samuel Romilly, who had laboured so hard for the reform of the Penal Code, committed suicide through grief at the death of his wife, and, his seat thus becoming vacant, Hunt came for ward to contest it. He was, however, rejected in favour of John Cam Hobhouse.
While these English events were occupying half of his time and attention the exile was leading an exceedingly active life as a yeoman farmer on Long Island, and not even the struggle of Wellington and Castlereagh to achieve the pacification of Europe, the defection of Sir Francis Burdett, the malice of Francis Place, the Westminster elections or the Derbyshire executions, prevented him from taking the most lively interest and satisfaction in his new, congenial surroundings. He noted with keen appreciation every detail of the rich, brilliant world around him and was inspired by a profound self-satisfaction and self-confidence.
From one point of view, he might certainly be considered successful, as he boasted himself to be; he had, as he constantly reminded both himself and others, risen from nothing with no advantages, and entirely through his own virtues, energies, industry and talent, to be a power in two continents, an inspiration for the people and a dread to the Government.
His domestic life had been without cloud or flaw; and he had somehow contrived to combine the two different existences of a busy political journalist and an up-to-date farmer.
On the other hand, his opponents might fairly argue that he had not been able to put into practice the almost impossible programme, the counsel of perfection, he urged on others. He had had constant quarrels, and for dubious reasons, with men for whom he had professed the warmest friendship, and he, who admired frugality, was so much in debt that it was convenient for him to get out of the way of his creditors; in several instances, too, he had uttered and maintained falsehoods.
Much as he boasted of the hardness of his early life, he had, as soon as he began to make money, spent it as freely as the most ordinary creature, and lived extravagantly not only at Botley but even while in gaol at Newgate. He had been involved in several law cases, and when he had an opportunity to defend himself against a monstrously unjust accusation, he made a bad impression by being long-winded, self-assertive, over-confident and stressing—not the justice of his cause—but the conspiracy which he alleged existed to silence him; no doubt it had been his self-importance, as much as his inflammatory journalism, which had caused the jury so rapidly to find him guilty, when he had been charged with sedition; but there was another fault which his opponents could find with his conduct, the gravest of all.
He had made it possible for them to charge him, with a fair show of justice, with a prudence that amounted to cowardice. There are always specious arguments to be used in favour of retreat, in favour of taking the safer way, but those are hardly likely ever to be popular. William Cobbett might protest, as he did protest, that he would be of no use to anyone in a dungeon, cut off, and silenced, just as he had protested at the beginning of his career that it would be of no use for him to face a court martial, when he was sure he would not obtain justice; but in each he avoided the issue and gave his enemies a chance to accuse him of a discretion verging on timidity—and the fact remained that while he was keeping up a paper warfare with the Government, sparing none and libelling many, he was living in comfort and enjoyment, while his friends and followers were in the thick of the fight, many of them in prison and some of them losing their lives.
It is true that he had always urged these people to follow his own careful course and to avoid that open conflict with a powerful and unscrupulous Government which had so re-arranged the law as to be practically a dictator ship. But William Cobbett was not, had not been for many a year, short of food, without a home, without hope of work or money, and he had never been illiterate, bewildered, worked upon by Government spies and excited by revolutionary leaders. It might, therefore, have been argued that he should have remained in England to sustain, to the best of his ability, the unhappy wretches whose cause he had so keenly at heart, and who were in no way as fortunate as himself.
He had, of course, answers to all these charges, and in no particular took any fault to himself; he did not admit that he had libelled or slandered anybody; those whom he had attacked were rogues and villains for whom no harsh terms would be too strong. As for his debts he imputed them all to his imprisonment and the consequent dis organization of his affairs; nor did his flight lie on his conscience; indeed, nothing he ever did lay on his con science; even the Hunt affair did not trouble him. With complete self-satisfaction he watched the storm from afar, and endeavoured to direct the lightning and to control the thunder.
His amiable and loving wife and his younger children remained installed in comfort at Bodey, and dear as they were to him, he apparently bore the separation from them well. Indeed, as he naively admitted, he was perfectly happy in the new life at Hyde Park Farm. Agriculture, however, could not long absorb his energy—he must continue writing, and something besides the political article for the Gazette. So taking his mind off the violent unrest in England, Radical struggles, Francis Place's traducing him, John Wright's betraying him, and all the manifold villainies of Sidmouth and Castlereagh, he applied himself with genial good-humour to write his impressions of the New World, which appeared under the title of A Journal of a Year's Residence in America. It was in three parts; the general preface was dated April, 1818.
The avowed object, as this stated, was to give an account of the United States as a country to live in, and especially to farm in; but the book was at once less and more than that.
While in Newgate William Cobbett had read the agricultural works of Jethro Tull, and these had re awakened his ever lively interest in farming.
It was, therefore, a special delight to him to study the methods of farming in the New World, and a great deal of his new journal was devoted to this subject; it was also full of varied lights on the rich personality of its author; Cobbett's pen, like his mind, darted here and there, and this lively, uneven, and ill-balanced book gives perhaps a truer picture of the author than it does of the United States.
A perusal of this journal will give a lively picture of the temper and disposition of the exiled performer, as well as a charming landscape of the United States in the early nineteenth century, sometimes etched in with the care of a Paul Sandby, sometimes as vivid and racy as a drawing by Gilray or Rowlandson, sometimes reading like a paragraph written by Daniel Defoe or the description of a vignette by Thomas Bewick.
* * *
The book begins with what is meant to be a very accurate and businesslike account of Long Island in the style of the old geography books, but it soon gets to "the place where I live" and the personal note obtrudes on the design of the formal handbook.
Soon there is a charming little sketch:
"The dwellings and gardens and little outhouses of labourers, which form so striking a feature of beauty in England, and especially in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire, and which constitute a sort of fairyland, when compared with those of the labourers in France, are what I, for my part, most feel the want of seeing upon Long Island. Instead of the neat and warm little cottage, the yard, cow-stable, pig-sty, hen-house, all in miniature, and the garden, nicely laid out, and the paths bordered with flowers, while the cottage door is crowned with a garland of roses or honeysuckle; instead of these we here see the labourer content with a shell of boards, while all around him is as barren as the sea-beach; though the natural earth would send melons, and the finest in the world, creeping round his door, and though there is no English shrub, or flower, which will not grow and flourish here. This want of attention in such cases is hereditary from the first settlers. They found land so plentiful that they treated small spots with contempt; besides, the example of nearness was wanting. There were no gentlemen's gardens, kept as clean as drawing-rooms, with grass as even as carpet."
This sojourn on the Long Island farm was a peaceful interlude in Cobbett's active life; all his troubles were set aside from his every-day existence and he found the peaceful round on the farm, free from all the conventionalities that he detested, very much to his taste.
Quick as he was to note the natural beauties about him he never forgot either the enemies whom he had left behind, or his usual contempt of human weakness.
The cold sharp east wind that stung him as he went abroad in the May of his first year's residence at Hyde Park Farm reminded him of that which shook the shivering "old debauchers" in London, and when he found that not a sprig of parsley was to be had for love or money, he noted, indignantly in his journal—"What improvidence?"
The superb climate, the magnificent scenery gave him a pure and primitive delight, he rejoiced in wandering abroad over his hired domain, wearing his white chip hat with a wide brim, coatless, with deerskin shoes, admiring the green freshness of the woods, the shy flowering of the lovely locust-tree, the clean ground that sucked up every morsel of dirt.
His health had never been better, and he had the satisfaction of proving his well-known efficiency in dealing with difficulties.
Mosquitoes and flies plagued his neighbours, but he kept them off his premises by the frequent use of shovel and broom to dispose of all filth and stagnant water; a friend might catch two quarts of flies on one window in one day, but on Hyde Park Farm there were not so many to be found, were the whole premises searched over; William Cobbett gave far more attention to cleanliness than did most of his contemporaries; he was wiser than he knew in combating the dirt and insects which bred disease.
His crops were very successful; the weather, as he put it "did so much" that this was not surprising; the wheat, rye, oats and barley continued to share his attention with the political news from England; while he continued to be disturbed by the quarrelling and sufferings of his native land, nothing could really mar his delight in his heavy crops of cherries, the fields of Indian corn and the healthy state of the onions and cabbages. Nor did he miss the administrations of the faithful Ann too acutely; he was quite comfortable with his American housekeeper, even though she did not know how to cook his favourite apple pudding, but served up pieces of fruit in batter. This was quite a matter of importance to the exiled Englishman, who noted in his journal that the art of making puddings and pies should always be learned by the wives and daughters of his countrymen taking up residence in the United States.
He noted with zest the admirable way—so different from that in use at home-employed by the Americans in stacking and threshing wheat and rye; he wrote down careful details of the process which left "the straw as burnished gold, not a speck in it."
Sometimes he was visited in his little kingdom by friends from England, who, under these generous skies amid these rich, untaxed bounties of nature, drank destruction to the Borough-mongers in gallons of milk and water and congratulated Cobbett on having "no more flies than in England." Even the great heat of July and August did not lessen his enthusiasm for this carefree life; he liked sleeping on a straw mattress with nothing over him but a sheet, he liked having no clothes to put on except trousers, shirt and shoes.
Pitying those compelled to endure the stench of cities, and scorning those who could have enjoyed rural delights, but who preferred towns, the editor of The Political Register sat down, in his light attire, with the thermometer at 85 degrees in the shade, to write his scathing articles on the villains and ruffians who had ruined the England that might have been as unspoilt as was Long Island.
With that gusto that he used for every detail concerned with himself; Cobbett noted how the good, simple,
American fare agreed with him, how free he was from headache or muddled brains; he believed that he derived great benefit from the milk and water that he drank in such quantities and when he was enabled to engage an English servant who knew how to make apple puddings and pies, his satisfaction was complete.
The beauty of the Indian corn gave him special pleasure, when he squeezed a wineglass full of milk out of one ear, he reflected that it was no wonder that the hungry disciples were tempted to pluck the luscious golden tassels "though it was the Sabbath day."
The autumn brought other joys, pippins that King George would have been delighted to meet in a dumpling, Cobbett thought, warm rains and a frost that pinched the leaves to beautiful tones of yellow, red, russet and a dying green.
Enamoured as he was of the gentle scenery of his native land, the exile thought that he had never seen anything so beautiful as the October sunshine falling through "the fine lofty trees on the gay verdure beneath." November was an agreeable surprise to the Englishman, it was so fair and pleasant, with the highways and paths as clean as boarded floors.
Everything in America pleased him; he believed himself in a kind of paradise, where nothing could be wrong; he continued to keep apart from American politics, and only concerned himself with his own little corner of ground which flourished so richly under his care.
* * *
On Christmas Day, 1817, William Cobbett entertained English friends in the parlour of his hired farm-house; everything was in the English fashion, with sirloin of beef, cakes and puddings, and, greatest satisfaction of all, home made candles—"as handsome as I ever saw, and, I think, the best I ever saw," remarked Cobbett proudly. The pure light of these fresh tallow candles took the exile's mind home to his suffering fellow countrymen, the farmers who were forced to waste their produce, and "no more dare to turn their tallow into candles than to rob on the high road."
And the conversation round Cobbett's hearth that Christmas night, after the good meal had been served and cleared and while the fine candles burned without guttering or grease, turned on the old rankling grievances of tyranny and extortion, while the host's voice thundered against "the hellish system of funding and seat selling."
* * *
Some of Cobbett's descriptions of his activities on an American farm are comparable to a Thomas Bewick vignette.
Thus, in the early days of 1818, he noted down precisely how he:
"patched up a boarded building, which was formerly a coach-house; but which is not so necessary to me, in that capacity, as in that of a fowl-house. The neighbours tell me that the poultry will roost out on the trees all the winter, which, the weather being so dry in winter, is very likely; and, indeed, they must, if they have no house, which is almost universally the case. However, I mean to give the poor things a choice. I have lined the said coach-house with corn-stalks and leaves of trees, and have tacked up cedar-boughs to hold the lining to the boards, and have laid a bed of leaves a foot thick all over 'the floor. I have secured all against dogs, and have made ladders for the fowls to go in at holes six feet from the ground. I have made pig-styes, lined round with cedar-boughs, and well covered. A sheep-yard, for a score of ewes to have lambs in the spring, surrounded with a hedge of cedar-boughs, and with a shed for the ewes to lie under, if they like. The oxen and cows are tied up in a stall. The dogs have a place, well covered, and lined with com-stalks and leaves. And now, I can, without anxiety, sit by the fire, or lie in bed, and hear the North-Wester whistle."
There was never, however, much lying in bed for William Cobbett. By January 12th he was setting out for Philadelphia to indulge the pugnacious side of his character by an appeal to the "Legislature of that State for redress of great loss and injury sustained by me, nearly twenty years ago, in consequence of the tyranny of one McKean, who was then the Chief Justice of that State."
It was a very hard frost, but the roads were good, and the Delaware was frozen over. The post-chaise broke down on the road in New Jersey, but, vigorous and alert as ever, William Cobbett arrived again in Philadelphia, gazing about him with an ardent curiosity.
His old acquaintances asked him if he did not find the city greatly improved, but Cobbett never found a city improved by being what he termed "augmented." He agreed that it had always been a very fine city, and found that it had:
"Nearly doubled its extent and number of houses since the year 1799. But, after being, for so long a time, familiar with London, every other place appears little. After living within a few hundred of yards of Westminster Hall and the Abbey Church and the Bridge, and looking from my own windows into St. James's Park, all other buildings and spots appear mean and insignificant?"
He had the curiosity to seek out the house where he and his wife had set up their modest housekeeping nearly twenty years before:
"How small! It is always thus: the words large and small are carried about with us in our minds, and we forget real dimensions. When I returned to England in 1800, after an absence from the country of sixteen years, parts of it, the trees the hedges, even the parks and woods, seemed so small! It made me laugh to hear little gutters, that I could jump over, called Rivers! The Thames was but a 'Creek!' But, when, in about a month after my arrival in London, I went to Farnham, the place of my birth, what was my surprise! Every thing was become so pitifully small!"
William Cobbett always greatly admired the Quakers and had many warm friends among them, and he spent part of the time he was in Philadelphia in going out to Bustleton to visit "my beloved friend, James Paul, who is very ill"; this gentleman was that staunch supporter who had offered to look after "Nancy and the boys," when Cobbett had been sent to Newgate prison.
He noted the Philadelphians were very, very "cleanly" and believed that they owed this quality to the Quakers. But this sent him off into a eulogy of England and the bright little English towns, especially those with which he was most familiar. What could compare with Guild ford, Alton and Southampton?
"Not even Bath or Salisbury, which last is much about upon a par, in point of cleanliness, with Philadelphia, and, Salisbury is deemed a very cleanly place. Blandford and Dorchester are clean; but, I have never yet seen anything like the towns in Surrey and Hampshire. If a Frenchman, born and bred, could be taken up and carried blindfolded to Guild ford, I wonder what his sensations would be, when he came to have the use of his sight! Everything in Guildford seems to have received an influence from the town. Hedges, gates, stiles, gardens, houses inside and out, and the dresses of the people. The market day at Guildford is a perfect show of cleanliness. Not even a carter without a clean smock-frock and closely-shaven and clean-washed face."
Finding that his business required his presence in Harrisburgh, he went there noticing with much approval the fine farms with their well-built barns that he passed on the way. He was pleased, too, with the American town, which was very clean and pleasant, with no beggarly houses and everything indicating that ease and plenty that William Cobbett valued so highly.
He found it detestable, however, to idle in this fine town, waiting on legal delays, and even the substantial comforts of the town where the board was spread abundantly three times a day began to pall. He became "weary of the everlasting loads of meats, weary of idleness!" Away from the activities of his farm he began to feel homesick; as he sat over the "mugs of milk" that the kind landlady brought him, his mind was again in England.
In the hope of hastening his law case he went to Lancaster, where he stayed at Slaymakers—"a very fine tavern"—where the food was even more rich and abundant than it had been at the Harrisburgh inn, and where Cobbett bargained with the innkeeper for a daily dish of chocolate instead of dinner.
This American town also met with the exile's full approval, it indicated that prosperous comfort, that lack of ostentation that formed his ideal of human dignity.
"No fine buildings; but no mean ones. Nothing splendid and nothing beggarly. The people of this town seem to have had the prayer of Hagar granted them: 'Give me, O Lord, neither poverty nor riches.' Here are none of those poor, wretched habitations, which sicken the sight at the outskirts of cities and towns in England; those abodes of the poor creatures who have been reduced to beggary by the cruel extortions of the rich and powerful. And this remark applies to all the towns of America that I have ever seen. This is a fine part of America. Big Barns, and modest dwelling-houses. Barns of stone, a hundred feet long and forty wide, with two floors, and raised roads to go into them, so that the waggons go into the first floor upstairs. Below are stables, stalls, pens, and all sorts of conveniences. Up-stairs are rooms for threshed corn and grain; for tackle, for meal, for all sorts of things. In the front (South) of the barn is the cattle-yard. These are very fine buildings. And, then, all about them looks so comfortable, and gives such manifest proofs of ease, plenty and happiness! Such is the country of William Penn's settling! What a contrast with the farm-houses in England! There the little farm houses are falling into ruins, or are actually become cattle-sheds, or, at best, cottages, as they are called, to contain a miserable labourer, who ought to have been a farmer, as his grandfather was. Five or six farms are there now levelled into one, in defiance of the law: for there is a law to prevent it. The farmer has, indeed, a fine house: but what a life do his labourers lead! The cause of this sad change is to be found in the crushing taxes; and the cause of them, in the Borough usurpation, which has robbed the people of their best right, and indeed, without which right they can enjoy no other."
His admiration of the American scene led him to speculate on a favourite theme; the supposed decrease in the English population. It was a favourite theory of his—one that occurs again and again in his writings—that England had been able to support far more people in the Middle Ages or under Elizabeth Tudor than inhabited the island in the early nineteenth century.
All the elaborate calculations he founded on this sup position, to which he always clung obstinately, were based on error; the population of England under the Plantagenets did not exceed three millions, at the end of the sixteenth century five millions, while, when Cobbett lived, it had risen to eleven millions.
But when Cobbett looked round, with patriotic envy, on the abundance of the New World, he returned to his old charge that bad government had reduced the numbers as well as the happiness of Englishmen, and that nothing had increased in England, save the places of dissipation, the luxuries of the landholders—the poor-houses, the mad-houses and the jails.
On the 19th February he quitted Harrisburgh "very much displeased" at the failure of his appeal. This set back had caused him to lose something of his good humour, and, when he saw an ox being roasted on the frozen Delaware, his comment was:
"The fooleries of England are copied here and everywhere in this country with wonderful avidity."
The roads were very dirty and heavy, and by the end of the month he was writing:
"I hate this weather. Hot upon my back, and melting ice under my feet. The people (those who have been lazy) are chopping away with axes the ice, which has grown out of the snows and rains, before their doors, during the winter."
He, also, noticed the hogs scavenging about the streets, eating the refuse which had been thrown out and preserved under thick ice. This again reminded him of the miseries of England:
"Just before I left New York for Philadelphia, I saw a sow very comfortably dining upon a full quarter part of what appeared to have been a fine leg of mutton. How many a family in England would, if within reach, have seized this meat from the sow! And are the tyrants who have brought my industrious countrymen to that horrid state of misery never to be called to account? Are they always to carry it as they now do? Every object almost that strikes my view sends my mind and heart back to England. In viewing the ease and happiness of this people, the contrast fills my soul with indignation, and makes it more and more the object of my life to assist in the destruction of the diabolical usurpation which has trampled on King as well as people."
On the 1st March a tramp made himself known to him, who claimed to be a native of Botley, and whose request for alms gave Cobbett a chance for one of those lectures he so enjoyed delivering on diligence and industry:
"'Go,' said I, 'for shame, and ask some farmers for work. You will find it immediately and with good wages. What should the people in this country see in your face to induce them to keep you in idleness. They did not send for you. You are a young man, and you come from a country of able labourers. You may be rich if you will work. This gentle man who is now about to cram you with roast beef and plum pudding came to this city nearly as poor as you are; and I first came to this country in no better plight. Work, and I wish you well; be idle, and you ought to starve.'"
On the 10th March he was, as he termed it, "among the thick of the Quakers." These people pleased him immensely—they had all the virtues he most admired, cleanliness, civility, ease and cheerfulness:
"These people are never giggling, and never in
low spirits. Their minds, like their dress, are simple and strong.
Their kindness is shown more in acts than in words. Let others say
what they will, I have uniformly found those whom I have intimately
known of this sect sincere and upright men.
"As the day of my coming to Mr. Townshend's had been announced beforehand, several of the young men who were babies when I used to be there formerly came to see 'Billy Cobbett,' of whom they had heard and read so much. When I saw them and heard them, 'What a contrast,' said I to myself, 'with the senseless, gaudy, upstart, hectoring, insolent, and cruel, Yeomanry Cavalry in England, who, while they grind their labourers into the revolt of starvation, gallantly sally forth with their sabres to chop them down at the command of a Secretary of State; and who, the next moment, creep and fawn like spaniels before their Borough-mongering Land lords!'"
Again, highly pleased with himself and his surroundings, Cobbett set off in a Jersey-wagon, through such mud as he never saw before, to Brunswick, New Jersey, but, "though the roads were the worst I ever set eyes on, the horses and driver were the best."
The driver was a tavern-keeper and drank too much spirits on the road: "This is the great misfortune of America."
This man, complimenting Cobbett on his young and fresh appearance, gave his passenger a chance for a characteristic statement:
"I'll tell you how I contrive the thing. I rise early, go to bed early, eat sparingly, never drink any thing stronger than small beer, shave once a day, and wash my hands and face clean three times a day, at the very least."
The driver replied that this was "too much" to think of doing.
At Elizabeth Town Point he met a Connecticut farmer, who was amusingly like Sir Francis Burdett:
"Features, hair, eyes, height, make, manner, looks, hasty utterance at times, musical voice, frank deportment, pleasant smile. All the very fac-simile of him."
Cobbett gave this Yankee, as he was termed, a present of some early York cabbage seed and cauliflower seed, which had been lately sent him from London.
He returned home part of the way by the steamboat, and then by a little light wagon that "whisked me home over roads as dry and as smooth as gravel walks in an English bishop's garden in the month of July."
His industry had the usual satisfying results:
"Young chickens. I hear of no other in the neighbourhood. This is the effect of my warm fowl-house!"
On March 26th the sight of a sow, which refused to move without its litter, reminded him of an eloquent and soul-affecting passage in Rousseau's Emile, also the pretty poem of Mr. Roscoe, which every young man about to marry was advised to read. The subject of the poem and the passage was to cast reproaches on women who refused to nurse their own children, as the sow was only too anxious to do.
On the 21st April Cobbett took a survey of, or rather glance at, the face which nature then wore. The passage begins smoothly, but soon has an unexpected turn:
"The grass begins to afford a good deal for
sheep, and for my grazing English pigs, and the cows and oxen get a
little food from it. The pears, apples, and other fruit-trees have
not made much progress in the swelling or bursting of their buds.
The buds of the weeping willow have bursted (for, in spite of that
conceited ass, Mr. James Perry, to burst is a 'regular verb' and
vulgar peasants only make it 'irregular'), and those of a lilac, in
a warm place, are almost bursted, which is a great deal better than
to say, 'almost burst.' Oh, the coxcomb! As if an absolute
pedagogue like him could injure me by his criticisms! And as if an
error like this, even if it had been one, could have any thing to
do with my capacity for developing principles, and for simplifying
things which, in their nature, are of great complexity!
"Yet we still have green peas and leaved cabbages as soon as they will. We have sprouts from the cabbage stems preserved under cover; the Swedish turnip is giving me greens from bulbs planted out in March; and I have some broccoli too, just coming on for use. How I have got this broccoli I must explain in my Gardener's Guide; for write one I must."
There follows a passage of what might be obtained on Hyde Park Farm in the meat way; "fowls fatting, ducks coming along to meet the green peas, chickens ready for the asparagus," make it at all times more than can be consumed:
"And if there be anyone, who wants better fare than this, let the grumbling glutton come to that poverty which Solomon said shall be his lot."
In a more fanciful vein, Cobbett proceeds to celebrate the beauty of this and the English country, which he always so keenly remembered:
"There are two things, which I have not yet mentioned, and which are almost wholly wanting here, while they are so simply enjoyed in England. The singing birds and the flowers. Here are many birds in summer, and some of very beautiful plumage. There are some wild flowers and some English flowers in the best gardens. But, generally speaking, they are birds without song and flowers without smell. The linnet (more than a thousand of which I have heard warbling upon one scrubbed oak on the sand hills in Surrey), the sky lark, the goldfinch, the wood-lark, the nightingale, the bull finch, the black-bird, the thrush, and all the rest of the singing tribe are wanting in these beautiful woods and orchards of garlands.—When these latter have dropped their bloom, all is gone in the flowery way. No shepherd's rose, no honey suckle, none of that endless variety of beauties that decorates the hedges and meadows in England. No daisies, no prim roses, no cowslips, no blue-bells, no daffodils, which, as if it were not enough for them to charm the sight and the smell, must have names, too, to delight the ear."
Cobbett's attempt to obtain redress for the old wrongs having failed, he returned to Hyde Park Farm by no means crestfallen and took up his old interests with zest; chief among them was the vegetable known as the Russian or Swedish turnip and termed by Cobbett the Rutabaga. He devoted a whole chapter to this turnip in his American Journal and the prodigious crop that he raised at Hyde Park Farm made him long to introduce the novel and useful vegetable in England.
This led him to reflect upon the uselessness of the Board of Agriculture that William Pitt had established, and which was only an excuse, Cobbett thought, for "sending spies about the country." What had this famous board, that had promised to accomplish so much for the English farmer, done?
It had bribed a man of great talents, Arthur Young, away from his principles by the temptation of a post worth five hundred pounds a year and it had, among a mass of rubbish published one good paper, that written by the jail-keeper of the County of Sussex, a certain Mr. Cramp, on the produce of a single cow. Cobbett, snug in his cosy backwater, reflected bitterly on this miserable Board of Agriculture which had only added to the afflictions of the English farmer.
He judged the President, Lord Hardwicke, to be, neither in experience nor natural abilities, any better than the negro employed on Hyde Park Farm, the Vice-Presidents to be a parcel of sycophants, while the committees and correspondents were composed of nabobs and parsons of the worst description.
* * *
The second year of Cobbett's exile passed as quietly and pleasantly as had the first; he continued to send his trenchant articles to the Political Register, though these were something out of date by the time they reached London, to experiment with cabbage, turnips and manures, to write his journal and to plan other works.
His greatest excitements were such domestic incidents as the following disaster, which Cobbett chronicled, with, for once, a laugh at himself; he would have been very successful with his transplanting of Indian corn:
"Had not eight or nine steers and heifers
leaped, or broke, into my pasture from the road, kindly poked down
the fence of the field to take with them four oxen of my own, which
had their heads tied down, and in they all went just upon the
transplanted corn, of which they left neither ear nor stem, except
about two bushels of ears, which they had, in their haste, trampled
under foot! What a mortification!
"I had nothing to wreak my vengeance on. In the case of the Boroughmongers I can repay blow with blow, and, as they have already felt, with interest and compound interest. But there was no human being that I could blame; and as to the depredators themselves, though in this instance their conduct did seem worthy of another being whom priests have chosen to furnish with horns as well as tail, what was I to do against them? In short, I had, for once in my life, to submit peaceably and quietly."
His varied industries at this time, the pride he took in them, are best described in his own words which reveal, as no other words could, the extraordinary self-complacency of the man, which armoured him against doubt, depression or regret, the attacks of his enemies or the criticisms of his friends.
"Since my turnips were sown, I have written great part of a Grammar and have sent twenty Registers to England, besides writing letters amounting to a reasonable volume in bulk; the whole of which has made an average of nine pages of common print a day, Sundays included. And, besides this, I have been twelve days from home, on business, and about five on visits. Now, whatever may have been the quality of the writings, whether they demanded mind or not, is no matter: they demanded time for the fingers to move in, and yet, I have not written a hundred pages by candle-light. A man knows not what he can do 'till he tries. But then, mind, I have always been up with the cocks and hens, and I have drunk nothing but milk and water. It is a saying, that 'wine inspires wit': and that 'in wine there is truth.' These sayings are the apologies of drinkers. Every thing that produces intoxication, though in but the slightest degree, is injurious to the mind: whether it be such to the body or not is a matter of far less consequence. My Letter to Mr. Tierney, on the state of the Paper-Money, has, I find, produced a great and general impression in Eng land. The subject was of great importance, and the treating it involved much of that sort of reasoning which is the most difficult of execution. That Letter, consisting of thirty-two full pages of print, I wrote in one day, and that, too, on the 11th of July, the hottest day in the year. But I never could have done this, if I had been guzzling wine, or grog, or beer, or cider, all the day."
William Cobbett could not long remain detached from his times; the American episode could not be more than an episode, breaking his personal connection with the English scene; rooted as he was in the past and always looking backwards with longing, he was yet very much of his own moment and had a wider, deeper influence among his countrymen than he himself realized. He stood for something more than himself or his own writings, or his own ideals, or his own theories, for he was, to many simple, bewildered minds symbolic of a splendid England which had been and might never be again.
Even in his self-imposed retreat, the other side of the Atlantic, he remained a power in England, where friends and enemies alike had come to regard him as the voice of the working man, heard for the first time coherently and clearly making definite demands in the name of those who had never been able to demand anything before. His opponents often accused him, and with apparent justice, of being a "turncoat," but his followers knew that he had always been sternly consistent in his attachments and his hatreds.
The stout, grey-haired man who sat down in the New York farm parlour penning articles against the stock-jobbing industrialists and in support of the desperate rioters of the Midlands was the same at heart as the ardent young Tory who had filled his windows with prints of British victories in order to annoy the Federalists of Philadelphia.
He had changed sides, not out of inconstancy or for his own advantage, but because he had discovered that his simplicity had been misled into supposing that the British Government was run on the same honest lines as had been his own cottage home, where a lie was a lie and punished, and where no one cheated, or stole, or was without his fair share of labour.
While he toiled at his crops and his writing, heart and mind turning daily more and more longingly to England, while he worked out his different problems—sometimes one of the soil and seed—sometimes one of how English agriculture might be made to pay its way or how the horrors of poverty amid plenty might be remedied, he wrestled fantastically with the detested enemies—the potato and William Shakespeare.
This "worse than useless root" was so loathed by Cobbett that he spent much time and pen and ink in abusing it, and everyone who had encouraged it; he believed that it was responsible for lowering the standard of living among the poor English and, writing in America, recalled indignantly the miserable, white-faced, pot-bellied children he had seen at home peeping out of cottage doors when the pot on the fire was cooking the common mess for man and pig—the potato. None of this mean vegetable on Cobbett's farm and none of the works of Milton and Shakespeare on the shelves where Jethro Tull stood beside the grammars and the text-books.
Paradise Lost he had tried and not liked, it was as offensive to his common sense as was Methodism or the "enthusiasm" of the Wesleys. He could only believe that such nonsense was tolerated, because, like the potato, it happened to be the fashion.
"Indeed, the whole of Milton's poem is such barbarous trash, so outrageously offensive to reason and to common sense that one is naturally led to wonder how it can have been tolerated by a people, amongst whom astronomy, navigation, and chemistry are understood."
And as to Shakespeare's plays Cobbett shared the opinion of George Ill on this subject, but expressed himself with more force than His Majesty would have dared to use.
"What can make an audience in London sit and
hear, and even applaud, under the name of Shakespeare, what they
would hoot off the stage in a moment, if it came forth under any
other name? When folly has once given the fashion, she is a very
"Now, sir, what can induce the American to sit and hear with delight the dialogues of Falstaff and Poins, and Dame Quickly and Doll Tearsheet? What can restrain them from pelting Parson Hugh, Justice Shallow, Bardolph, and the whole crew, off the stage? What can make them endure a ghost cap-a pie, a prince, who, for justice sake, pursues his uncle and his mother, and who stabs an old gentleman in sport, and cries out 'dead for a ducat! dead!' What can they find to 'delight' them in punning clowns, in ranting heroes, in sorcerers, ghosts, witches, fairies, monsters, sooth-sayers, dreamers; in incidents out of nature, in scenes most unnecessarily bloody. How they must be delighted at the story of Lear putting the question to his daughters of which loved him most, and then dividing his kingdom among them, according to their professions of love: how delighted to see the fantastical disguise of Edgar, the treading out Gloucester's eyes, and the trick by which it is pretended he was made to believe that he had actually fallen from the top of the cliff! How they must be delighted to see the stage filled with green boughs, like a coppice, as in Macbeth, or streaming like a slaughter-house, as in Titus Andronicus! How the young girls in America must be tickled with delight at the dialogues in Troilus and Cressida, and more especially at the pretty observations of the Nurse, I think it is, in Romeo and Juliet! But it is the same all through the work. I know of one other, and only one other, book, so obscene as this; and if I were to judge from the high favour in which these two books seem to stand, I should conclude that wild and improbable fiction, bad principles of morality and politicks, obscurity in meaning, bombastical language, forced jokes, puns, and smut, were fitted to the minds of the public. But I do not thus judge. It is fashion. These books are in fashion. Every one is ashamed not to be in fashion. It is the fashion in extolling potatoes, and all the world like potatoes, or pretend to like them which is the same thing in effect."
So William Shakespeare and the potato were disposed of with the same gravity and hearty vigour, and William Cobbett looked about him on the American scene, observing, noting, always admiring, sometimes a little home sick; he could not find even among the Pennsylvanian Quakers anything quite so "neat and tight" as the little English farm-houses that he had loved in his childhood; to him America was always what England had been in his own youth before "The Bishop begotten and Hell-born system of funding" had stripped the mother country "of every vestige of what was her ancient character."
He had always liked pretty, modest; pleasant women, and the Americans, girls and matrons, he found delightful, as lovely as the Cornish beauties, and all, whether rich or poor, blooming or fading, possessing the supreme merit of good humour. He admired the hardy, bony men, too, and was much impressed by their capacity for long, arduous labour, the way in which they lived close to the soil, drawing their life out of, and giving it back to, the earth.
"My old and beloved friend, Mr. James Paul, used, at the age of nearly sixty to go at the head of his mowers, though his fine farm was his own, and though he might, in other respects, be called a rich man; and I have heard that Mr. Elias Hicks, the famous Quaker Preacher, who lives about nine miles from this spot, has this year, at seventy years of age, cradled down four acres of rye in a day...
"Of the same active, hardy, and brave stuff, too, was composed the army of Jackson, who drove the invaders into the Gulph of Mexico, and who would have driven into the same Gulph the army of Waterloo, and the heroic gentleman, too, who lent his hand to the murder of Marshal Ney. This is the stuff that stands between the rascals, called the Holy Alliance, and the slavery of the whole civilized world. This is the stuff that gives us Englishmen an asylum; that gives us time to breathe; that enables us to deal our tyrants blows, which, without the existence of this stuff, they would never receive. This America, this scene of happiness under a free government, is the beam in the eye, the thorn in the side, the worm in the vitals, of every despot upon the face of the earth."
Yet, he yearned after his own people:
"You will not, for a long while, know what to do for want of the quick responses of the English tongue and the decided tone of the English expression. The loud voice: the hard squeeze by the hand: the instant assent or dissent: the clamorous joy: the bitter wailing: the ardent friendship: the deadly enmity: the love that makes people kill themselves: the hatred that makes them kill others. All these belong to the characters of Englishmen, in whose minds and hearts every feeling exists in the extreme."
When he admired the splendid city of New York, he felt that all Englishmen would be proud that it bore an English name; but this reflection was soon followed by another—what a sorry contrast was formed by "the incessant anxieties, the miseries and the murderous works in England" with the happy prosperous crime-free country—"I have not heard of a man being hanged in the whole of the United States since my arrival."
But he remained an alien in this country that was to him almost ideal, he was true to his promise that he would never belong to any country save England; at home there was Aim, the younger children, his friends, his followers, the readers of Twopenny Trash.
And he had almost exhausted the possibilities of this odd, detached life; the gardening book had been written and Cobbett had indulged his love for controversy in a brisk argument with Maurice Birkbeck, who had come to America for political reasons, and who was endeavouring to persuade his tax-laden countrymen to emigrate to the New World.
Cobbett liked Birkbeck, but despite this and his intense admiration for the United States, he thought it would be disastrous to advise English families to emigrate to this land of plenty and good government where they would always be aliens, where they would have a difficulty in understanding the conditions, and where considerable capital was required for a successful start in farming.
Cobbett was never one to allow sentiment or idealism to overrule common sense and he soon disposed of the visions of Maurice Birkbeck by applying to them the test of hard fact.
All his prudence and care, however, 'could not prevent an accident on his hired property; a serious fire destroyed many of the farm buildings and ruined much of the ground; this decided Cobbett to return to England.
He did not think he had any longer much to fear from the tyrants; the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act had not been renewed in January, 1819, and he had had his rest, made his experiments, and put through a fine amount of literary work, which, in the ordinary way, he would not have been able to accomplish.
Apart from the journal, there was his Grammar of the English Language, which had been published in 1818 most successfully, The American Gardener, a revised version of the French Grammar, and a number of rough drafts and projects, which never came to anything.
His friends were urging him to return; there seemed, indeed, no good reason why he should not do so, apart from the disaster of the fire.
Among his schemes for literary work had been a life of Thomas Paine, which was to make amends for his early, uninformed, and unjust attacks upon a writer whom he now greatly admired. This came to nothing, but there was something else that William Cobbett thought he could do for Tom Paine, who had died in his farm at New Rochelle, not far from Cobbett's estate of Hyde Park, in 1809. He had been buried there, for no one, not even the Quakers, would accept the bones of the infidel for their hallowed grounds.
William Cobbett obtained permission to dig up these unwanted bones and take them with him to England, where he hoped to raise over them a handsome mausoleum. With these curious relics in his baggage he sailed for England (which he never was to leave again), and on 20th November, 1819, arrived at Liverpool.
There was some difficulty in passing the bones of Paine through the custom-house, and more than a touch of ridicule about the whole business, but Cobbett, thick-skinned and with no sense of humour, was not daunted in his resolve to do a belated justice to a man whom he had once violently slandered. He had declared that no action of his life had ever caused him any regret, but it seems as if he had felt some remorse for his treatment of Thomas Paine. So the odd reparation was bustled through and Cobbett stood on English ground again, well set up by his exile and ready for any trial of strength with a harassed Government.
In appearance he was still "the jolly farmer," when he regretfully left his easy American clothes and put on his broadcloth, scarlet waistcoat, beaver hat, starched cravat and stout top-coat; his robust figure had broadened and coarsened, the lusty Sergeant-Major had become a portly middle-aged man, who looked like a country squire, the small features were emphasized by the deep lines of sagging muscles, the neck and jaw had thickened, the mouth was compressed, the hair, brushed up on the top of the neat head, no longer needed powder to whiten it, and was thinning; the grey eyes remained clear and keen, the deep voice still vibrant and commanding.
His vigour had been renewed by his absence from the scene of doleful conflict, his hatreds nourished by his flight, he was too self-confident and full of the joy of approaching combat to pause to consider that he had been, for the best years of his life, engaged in a struggle where, so far, he had gained no victory.
WHEN "the last of the Saxons", as some of his admirers named Cobbett, landed in England, he had the gratification of making a considerable stir in his native country.
His friends received him with official welcomes, with banquets, dinners, breakfasts, congratulations and warm expressions of good will, though by some of those in authority he was avoided; on one occasion he was asked to leave an inn, when he was endeavouring to address the crowd from the windows; but his progress from the coast to Botley, where he once again embraced his loving family, might be considered one of triumph.
The Government countered the return of the dangerous agitator by the famous Six Acts, which, if not directed entirely against him, yet struck at him very severely; the Ministry, supported by the Prince Regent, had not, during the last few months of William Cobbett's residence in America, relaxed any severe measures.
In the August of that year, 1819, had occurred that unfortunate affair which came to be known in derision as "Peterloo." A meeting of Radicals had taken place at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester; the regular soldiery sent to disperse these so-called rioters had acted with discretion and good-humour; but some yeomanry, having been sent to aid them, had lost their heads, fired at the crowd and killed six people.
Much exaggerated for party purposes, "Peterloo" had greatly inflamed both the organized reformers and those unfortunates who, caring nothing for politics, were merely protesting against starvation.
The Six Acts, which were ascribed to Lord Sidmouth and Lord Castlereagh (who was more concerned with the "Concert of Europe" than with the happiness of the English peasant) were not, however, very severe measures and might be considered fairly prudent attempts to avoid civil war or a revolution. It was probably sincerely believed by the Ministers (Lord Liverpool, the Premier, was essentially a moderate man), that it was better to deal severely with the minority than to allow the whole country to fall into anarchy. Such sincerity would, how ever, never be credited by William Cobbett or his fol lowers, who represented the Prince Regent, all the Ministers and their underlings, as corrupt tyrants; the Radicals, smarting under genuine grievances, could not make allowances for the almost intolerable difficulties encountered by those who were striving to keep the country in some degree of law and order.
The first of the Six Acts enabled magistrates to deal more expeditiously with political offenders; the second Act rendered training and arming of any private bodies illegal; the third was directed against blasphemous and seditious libel, and was intended to act as a muzzle on the Liberal or Radical Press; the fourth enabled the police to search private houses for arms; the fifth rendered it very difficult to hold political meetings; the sixth was intended to suppress all the popular Radical publications, and in particular Cobbett's Twopenny Trash. This cheap edition of The Political Register had been able to reach an enormous audience at a low price, and this low price had been maintained, even at a profit to Cobbett, because, as the paper published no news, it became a pamphlet and not a newspaper and so was not liable to tax. Under the last of the Six Acts all pamphlets came also under this duty, which amounted to fourpence a copy, and it meant that Twopenny Trash could not be sold under sixpence, which would put it beyond the means of the very class it was intended to reach.
* * *
For a while, at least, William Cobbett's exuberance was checked; not only his political power, but his pocket was hard hit by this measure; from the sales of Twopenny Trash had been drawn his main income.
His creditors were still dissatisfied, and the glory of a public dinner given him at The Crown and Anchor, Westminster, with Henry Hunt in the chair, was somewhat marred by his arrest for debt when leaving the tavern. Hunt and another friend bailed him out, but financial ruin could not be long staved off.
A bold attempt to run an evening newspaper—Cobbett's Evening Post—was a failure; the journal ceased after three months, bringing further loss to its proprietor.
Not daunted by these setbacks, Cobbett pledged him self to stand for Coventry at the next general election. This soon occurred, on the death of the old mad King in 1820 and the accession to the throne of the Prince Regent, under the title of George IV.
Cobbett rushed down to Coventry to contest the seat, found everyone against him save a handful of extremists, and polled only five hundred and seventeen votes; being thus involved in yet further expenses, he decided to go bankrupt and to sell Botley.
This last resolve involved a considerable sacrifice, for he had hoped to build up a handsome estate for his children; but the bankruptcy was the mere shifting of a burden which had hung heavily round his neck for ten years. His creditors, particularly Sir Francis Burdett, with whom he had so violently quarrelled, treated him with great generosity and forbore to present their claims. Harsh behaviour would not have helped these creditors to obtain their money, since Botley was fully mortgaged and Cobbett without assets. How far this bankruptcy, which merely meant that Cobbett got out of paying large sums of money he had borrowed, and repudiated debts he owed, could be reconciled with the strictly virtuous principles he had always inculcated, when dictating to others, is rather difficult to see, but Cobbett, always complacent, took no fault to himself and traced all his troubles, perhaps justly, to the fine and imprisonment in 1810.
Even his warmest friends could not, however, deny that he had that total lack of commercial capacity which renders it dangerous for a man to engage in large transactions. When one so lacking in all business acumen does enter into considerable money-making enterprises, the carelessness and foolishness of his behaviour invariably give rise to charges of bad faith. Cobbett's self-righteousness and quarrelsomeness added to his business difficulties; successful as his papers were, and however large the sums he made out of them, his journalistic career was interrupted by one tedious quarrel after another.
* * *
Immediately on top of the bankruptcy came one of the most violent of these, with John Wright, to whom he had given the lie on the question of the Hunt letters during the Westminster election. There was another trouble with one Cleary, an action for libel in con sequence of something said in The Register. Time and temper and money were wasted in these actions. In all of then Cobbett was unsuccessful, and in none of them did he cut a very good figure, being forced to drop the charges of fraud and dishonesty he had brought against Wright after trying in vain to escape liability by technical quibbles.
Wright received a thousand pounds by way of damages, which Cobbett's friend, George Rogers of Southampton, paid for him. After this action was settled, there was yet another dispute with William Bendall, a Radical who had been in prison, while Cobbett was in America, who had become, first agent, then publisher, for The Register. This was an undignified quarrel, Cobbett asserting that Bendall had not paid over the money due to him; though it was adjusted without recourse to law, the reputation of the Radical leader was not enhanced by these sordid and violent disputes with his fellow Radicals.
Largely frustrated in his attempt, which for so long had been so successful, to express himself through the Press, Cobbett, established early in 1821 at a seed farm at Brompton, London, tried to keep his party together and to spread his views by lectures, going from place to place and speaking whenever he could get a chance of an audience. These tours were not altogether successful; a great deal of prudence had to be employed in public speaking, if arrest and imprisonment were to be avoided, and Cobbett was never so eloquent by word of mouth as he was on paper.
His pugnacious vitality was by no means abated by these set-backs; he felt as strongly, and expressed himself as forcibly as ever; but he had not quite his former influence; not only had the strong measures of the Government checked him, there was increased hostility against himself and his doctrines, which had spread beyond the aristocracy and the Pittite parvenu to what might be termed the "respectable classes," that is, those who had some property or estate in the country and who feared that the Radicals might bring about a revolution.
Cobbett found himself, indeed, a little out of his depth, like a strong swimmer battling against an increasing flood; it was not that he had become fatigued in the fight, but that those whom he e fought had so increased in strength.
The "Wen" as he termed the City, "The Thing" as he termed mechanical industry, had swollen out of all measure. Everywhere he went he saw traces, to him disgusting and horrible beyond words, of a new era. The smoke from the factory chimneys of the rapidly increasing cities of the Midlands and the North seemed to him to float all over England, blurring the prospect, which had been so dear and so charming; despite rioting, protests, Luddites and frame-breakers, machinery had obviously come not only to stay, but to encroach on almost all human activities.
There was the steamboat, the beginnings of the railway, the hasty erection of large, gloomy factories and rows of drab dwellings for factory workers, the spreading out of the cities into the country like tongues of flame licking up all that was fresh and green; the labourers were steadily and, as it seemed, inevitably, being forced off the land into the new factory-towns, while the heaths and commons, the fields and meadows, that had for hundreds of years been their undisputed property, were being taken by those with capital to develop them on modern lines and who were using the peasants' land to put more money into the pockets of those who were already wealthy. In brief, William Cobbett saw almost everything he liked and valued being destroyed, almost everything he loathed and feared increasing in strength and power. It was almost impossible, even for him, obstinate and simple as he was, to deceive himself into hoping that "the Jew and the banker, the stock jobber and the speculator" would ever disappear; that the National Debt would ever be repudiated or that a time would come when a large portion of the population would not be living on government interests or sinecures.
He still pushed on, however, with his notion of reform, comforting himself and his followers with the hope that when the "Borough villains" were done away with—or alternatively, when ruin and revolution should overturn the tyrant—England might return to the good old times.
* * *
Meanwhile a considerable drama absorbed public attention in England to the exclusion of more important affairs, gave a rallying point to the Radicals and a strong personal interest to William Cobbett. Not without much gratification, which had nothing whatever to do with politics, did he find himself caught up in the affair of the Queen, a scandal without precedent in the history of England, since the reign of Henry VIII.
The King's marriage had been notoriously unhappy; he had espoused Caroline of Brunswick merely as a matter of convenience. The Princess was careless and unattractive; the Prince wilful and squeamish; no two people could have been more unsuited one to the other. An early separation had taken place. The King, united by a Roman Catholic ceremony to the charming Mrs. Fitzherbert, had never made any secret of his aversion to his legal wife; Caroline had neither the tact, dignity nor charm necessary to make her position of the despised and neglected Princess of Wales tolerable in England. Help less, good-humoured and stupid, she had been, when her husband ascended the throne of England, six years abroad, leading a life which, described under the mildest possible terms, was unconventional and eccentric. The King had made every effort to get rid of a woman whom he had never wanted and whom he had, indeed, little reason to like or to admire.
In 1806 there had been "A Delicate Investigation" into the lady's conduct, from which she had, through innocence or luck, emerged if not scatheless, yet not deposed from her nominal rank.
Her feelings towards her husband were naturally those of bitterness and hatred, and if he had never come to the throne it is not likely she would have made any attempt to renew relations with him. When she, however, saw a chance of becoming Queen of England, she hastily returned to her husband's country to assert her rights. In doing so, she displayed little dignity or delicacy. She had no interest in politics nor any instinct for playing the royal personage. She was leading abroad the kind of life she liked, among the people for whose company she was best fitted, and this attempt to enforce claims which she had for years passively allowed to drop, to thrust herself upon a man who loathed her and whom she loathed, for the mere sake of asserting technical rights and of having herself proclaimed Queen over a people for whom she felt a profound indifference, argued neither a sound judgment nor a good heart on the part of the unhappy lady.
The state of English politics and of English society chanced to promise her some success. The English people were profoundly indifferent to the character, or rights and wrongs of Caroline of Brunswick; but they were grateful to her for providing an entrancing scandal, which appealed to all classes from scullery-maid to peer, and for giving them a focus of all their discontents against the King and the Government which supported him.
On the surface the case could be made to look very well; all the virtues seemed on the side of the woman, ill-treated by her husband, a Queen repudiated by a King, a wife accused of infidelity by a man himself notoriously unfaithful.
George IV was not popular, save among his immediate associates. It is not easy to see why this was so. The King had a rich, self-contained, yet complex personality, was well-bred, generous, a wit, a patron of art, far above the average in intelligence and charm. Excluded always from politics and the fighting services, he had steered a difficult course with graceful bravura, and been at once the focus and symbol of the social life of the time.
He was immoral, extravagant and irreligious, and in his later years drank heavily and was touched by insanity; these faults and defects do not generally render a sovereign unpopular; but for some reason difficult to define, a nation which always dwelt so lovingly on the gross excesses of the Court of Charles II adopted a very censorious attitude towards the licentiousness of that of George IV.
For the unrest and miseries his country suffered during his regency and reign he was by no means responsible; ugly as the story of his marriage was, it is difficult to see how any man, once involved in such a situation, could have conducted himself differently. He had, at least, the courage to brave a vast scandal sooner than receive as his wife a woman whom he detested, and who certainly had few qualifications for the post of Queen of England.
The only child of this wretched marriage, the Princess Charlotte Augusta, had died early in 1819 in child-bed, shortly after her marriage with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg; and after the King's brothers, all elderly men, the heiress of England was Victoria Alexandrina, only child of the Duke of Kent, who had been born in Kensington Palace on the 24th May, 1819.
The question of the King's divorce had, then, little or nothing to do with the succession, since no one supposed that even were he free from Caroline of Brunswick he would contract another alliance. He was then a man of nearly sixty, not in good health, not inclined to matrimony, and in the background was Mrs. Fitzherbert.
* * *
William Cobbett at once became one of Caroline's most vehement supporters; he had been keenly on her side since 1806, when Parliament, though acquitting her of any serious charge, had quite justly accused her of "levity of conduct." Had William Cobbett paused—as he never seemed to pause—to consider his own character, he might have found that his partisanship of Caroline of Brunswick was a proof that life cannot be forced into a formula, for he had always protested the strictest ideals of feminine chastity, decorum, wifely submission, and homely modesty.
Yet here was he, breaking all his own rules and passionately championing a woman who, however wronged and slandered, could scarcely be considered a model of female virtue.
Nor was this championship merely political. The jolly farmer in his homespun, with his scarlet waistcoat, his shrewd grey eyes, ruffled linen cravat and greying poll was really fascinated by the blowsy German Princess with her red face, careless clothes, noisy manner, and coarse laugh.
He honestly saw himself as the knight championing the princess in distress; he liked the downright, jovial Caroline; she, never nice or fastidious, had no objection to accept the championship of this man of the people, nor to cause as much trouble as she could in the realm over which she hoped to reign.
With tender amusement Cobbett's daughters watched him taking precise care over his attire before he waited on the wronged Princess, and before his numerous interviews with Caroline putting an extra polish to his manners. He was, indeed, quite carried away by the whole situation—the joy of having such a weapon against the King and the pleasure of being the devoted servant of so good and maligned a woman, and a Princess.
He was successful in this, as he had been successful in so much, from the day when he had set out from Richmond to Kew with the Tale of a Tub in his pocket; when he had been sweeping the leaves round the pagoda and seen the man, who was now the King against whom he was fighting, grin at him for his rustic clothes.
* * *
The Government was surprised and alarmed at the power Caroline speedily obtained; she became just that rallying point which the Radicals needed; they adopted her as their standard and their battle-cry, and in her name soon attracted the greater mass of the lower classes, to whom the specious story appealed.
William Cobbett rejoiced exceedingly, as he saw the popular agitation swell in a manner so dangerous to the Government; he was not acute enough to see that the case of Queen Caroline had nothing to do with the large issue of political corruption and the wrongs of the poor, and that those who used her as a figure-head would be in danger of being bewildered and stranded, when this figurehead was removed, nor did he realize that the Queen's personal friends hoped for a compromise that he was making impossible by his violence.
During this dramatic struggle, as Queen's man, Cobbett was careful to show his sincere belief in monarchy; he did not object to a King, but to a bad King, as he considered George IV. Though he believed that it would be a great advantage to the cause he had at heart for the Radicals to take up the Queen's part, he honestly objected to George IV as the type of man whom he most mistrusted and despised, the very fountain-head of all the vice and corruption that were poisoning the Kingdom.
To make his case clear he addressed a letter to the Radicals, in which he declared that the affair of the Queen was only to be regarded as:
"An incident in the great drama of which the workings of the cause of Reform are the plot; a great incident, indeed, but still an incident."
In brief, he hoped that through the scandal of the King's marriage Reform would be brought nearer.
Things worked out otherwise; but for a while this stalwart figure of the man of the people was in constant attendance on the wronged daughter of Princes, and the case of Caroline of Brunswick was expounded with warm partiality in the pages of The Register—twopenny trash, perhaps, but powerful enough to disturb the repose of kings.
The feelings of George IV, on this subject, may be gauged from the anecdote that, when the death of Napoleon was announced to him in the phrase: "Sire, your greatest enemy is dead,"—His Majesty exclaimed joyfully: "Is she, by God!"
The loyal addresses to the Queen from various working-class bodies all over the country were reprinted in the pages of The Political Register, and on this occasion William Cobbett even tolerated "female reformers," as they were termed, although he was against female suffrage, which he had stated in one of his attacks on Jeremy Bentham to be "ridiculous." Despite the Combination Act, some old trade unions survived and new were being formed, and these associations of tradesmen, watermen and lightermen, carpenters, weavers, wool combers, and so forth, were continually sending loyal addresses to Caroline, and Cobbett was asked to present them; thus he was making himself at once the leader and the spokesman of the huge working-class movement. This gave him a double gratification; not only was he the mouthpiece of the people, he was able to do a large service to the distressed Queen.
He found time, among his manifold literary activities, to write several of the Queen's letters and speeches for her; among them was the famous letter to the King in which she stated her entire case, but which George, unfortunately for William Cobbett's pride of authorship, returned unopened.
The national excitement in this royal scandal reached fever pitch, when on July 5th, 1820 "stern-path-of-duty" Liverpool laid before the House of Lords a Bill of Pains and Penalties against Caroline of Brunswick. Henry Brougham, that untrustworthy genius, with sparkling eloquence gave the greatest possible point to her defence; behind the brilliant protest of the great orator was a mounting public indignation. The measure passed its first and second readings, but with a majority of nine only, and the Government did not dare to take it to the Commons; it was accordingly withdrawn in the November of that year. This was, however, for the unfortunate Queen a barren triumph—she was acknowledged by no one but the people and the agitators. The Privy Council refused her demand that she should be crowned alongside the King, July, 1821; her attempt to force, with the mob at her heels, the doors of Westminster Abbey on the occasion of this solemnity nearly led to her suffering further indignity.
The whole affair had, indeed, become hopelessly de grading to all concerned in it. It had the humour, brutality, and folly of an electioneering riot, a mere picturesque scramble in the streets of London between the people and the soldiery. Caroline of Brunswick extricated herself from an intolerable situation in the only possible way; worn out by grief, anxiety, and a self-indulgent life, she took a chill and died of an inflammation in August, 1821, to the sincere grief of William Cobbett and the Radicals. "I'm dying but it don't signify," she said and begged that "Queen of England" might be put on her coffin.
* * *
That tragic, exciting, and futile business settled, Cobbett turned his attention to more serious matters, which had in deed never ceased, at least partially, to occupy his thoughts.
Not only had his literary output been immense during the first few years of his return to England, but he had been deeply concerned in the conditions of the factory workers and the farm labourers into which he had been looking with his usual honesty, zeal, and shrewdness.
It was a terrible indictment that the keen agitator was able to bring against the severe measure of the Government and the apathy of his fellow countrymen. The attempts to degrade and completely enslave the people of England had been gradual, but they had not been the less efficient for being slow. The helplessness of the toilers in the new factories made them practically slaves—they could be starved, sent to prison, shot down; all the new laws were against them, none was for them.
In a letter to Wilberforce Cobbett drew a telling contrast between the public concern in the abolition of the slave trade and the public indifference towards the sufferings of the factory workers; he held up to scorn the mentality of the humanitarians who could so passionately support themselves the cause of the negroes and be so indifferent to that of their fellow-countrymen.
Cobbett wrote to these abolitionists:
"You should have gone to the gravel pits and made your appeal (that is, for the abolition of slavery) to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks round their shoulders and with hay bags round their legs—you should have gone to the roadside and made your appeal to the emaciated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make roads as level as a die for the tax agent to ride on. What an insult to call such people under the name of free British labourers, to appeal to them on behalf of black slaves, when these free British labourers, these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls out of which the black slaves have breakfasted, dined or supped. Will not the care, will not the anxiety of a really humane Englishman, be directed towards the white instead of towards the black?"
He went on to make the terrible and apparently unanswerable statement:
"A very large proportion of the agricultural labourers of England exist in a state of almost incessant hunger."
And he argued, with equal force and justice, that the condition of the cotton-spinners was worse than that of any African slave.
A proposal in 1824 to erect a statue to James Watt in Manchester gave Cobbett an excuse to attack another aspect of "The Thing."
"A little while ago there were GOD knows how many poor creatures crushed to death by the falling in of a roof at one of the hot places in which these Cotton-Lords shut their slaves up to work. Now there comes an account of a parcel of poor creatures killed or maimed by the bursting of one of their infernal steam-engines."
And he argued that, if machinery must be employed, the owner should be responsible for all the damage it did to his workers.
These strictly political labours were accompanied by other writings of a more general character, which have proved to have more permanent life. The best known of these is Cottage Economy, which, although it shows the author's inexhaustible desire to preach and to teach, is a charming, fragrant book, full of that nostalgia for what Cobbett thought was the past but what was in reality his own happy childhood.
Besides doing a good deal of editing, he wrote many articles and farming manuals for practical use, and some little lay sermons directed with characteristic energy against the religious tracts, which were, as Cobbett thought, misleading and distracting the peasants. He had no sympathy whatever for Hannah More and her type of pious comforter who, instead of going to the root of the miseries of the poor, tried to alleviate them by chance gifts of blanket and soup, and by preaching that contentment under horrible conditions which would find its reward in Heaven.
This revolted Cobbett's practical common sense, and he termed Hannah More, with her class consciousness and her narrow piety, "an old bishop in petticoats," and went directly to the precepts of practical morality in his own little tracts, which were against hypocrisy, cruelty, fraud, and, with a direct hit at the King, on drunkenness in kings, priests, and people.
These little tracts, well and vigorously written, afforded Cobbett a fine opportunity for hitting out at all he most disliked—the Malthusians in The Unnatural Mother or Forbidden Marriage, parsons in Parsons and Tithes, the law in Unjust Judges, and his old enemies the Court place-men, in Bribery, Oppression, Public Robbery.
Apart from these activities, showing that he had still energy left, the hard-worked Radical brought out several newspapers; Norfolk Yeoman's Gazette, The Gridiron, The Statesman, and a revival of Cobbett's Evening Post. These journalistic ventures were short-lived, but served to increase his influence. In 1823 he received the medal of The Society of Arts for his services to agriculture, the only official recognition of his labours that he ever obtained.
At this time he had the pleasure and excitement of being able to rub his hands together, and say once more: "I told you so" to the Government on the tangled and embittering question of "gold versus paper" which he had first taken up when in Newgate.
The Government had tried to return to gold in 1819 by an Act which ordered the Bank of England to return to cash payments; this change was, however, made gradually, because of popular discontent, and Cobbett himself was fiercely against it, because he thought it would, by deflating paper, cause even greater misery among the poorer classes, who were unable to obtain gold. The Act of 1819 had been Sir Robert Peel's, but it was Castlereagh, ever the arch-villain to Cobbett, who was challenged in the defiant jibe:
"...to put me (if I am wrong), on the gridiron and boil me alive, while Sidmouth stirs the fire, and Canning stands by to make a jest of my groans."
Cobbett was not mistaken; the financial position of the Government, which had first created, then disowned, paper-money, became critical.
Cobbett took vast credit to himself for being a correct prophet in this matter, and though his hopes that the Ministry would be overthrown by a severe financial crisis were never realized, matters looked ugly enough for the Government in 1826.
After two years of reckless speculation on the part of the "muckworms" and their parasites, of crazy inflation by country banks, there was a panic that brought down banking house after banking house, caused startling bankruptcies and endless misery, and made the paper holders rush for gold.
The Government and the Bank weathered the storm, but Cobbett held his "Feast of the Gridiron" in derision throughout the country and made much of the result of the "paper against gold" struggle.
He always had a quick instinct for the popular phrase, the effective gesture—"the gridiron" became as familiar a cant expression as "Twopenny Trash" or "Peter Porcupine." There was a "Gridiron" paper and feasts of "The Gridiron" were held by Radicals in different parts of the country. At one of these feasts, held at the London Tavern in April 1826 under Cobbett's presidency, the toast was:
"The industrious and labouring people, and may their food and raiment cease to be taken from them by the juggling of the paper-money system."
* * *
The Government did not relax their severity. Richard Carlile, the editor of The Republican, among others, spent six years in Dorchester gaol; this suffering for the cause of the people did not, however, endear him to Cobbett, who quarrelled with him on the subject of birth control; in this dispute, as in many others in which he had engaged, Cobbett displayed neither moderation nor good humour, nor any ability to see the other side of the question, and on no subject was he more obstinate than Malthusianism.
"I have hated many men, but none so much as you," he wrote to Pastor Malthus, who in 1798 had issued from his quiet Surrey retreat the Essay on Population that had so profound an effect on social economy. A new edition of the famous pamphlet had appeared in 1803, had attracted great attention, and had inflamed William Cobbett to a deeper rage than had even the crimes of Castlereagh or Pitt.
Thomas Malthus was a disciple of Condorcet and Godwin; he took, as he himself admitted, "a gloomy view" of the future of mankind, and he could see no way out of the labyrinth of misery in which the common people were ensnared, save that of lowering their birth rate until the labour market was not overcrowded.
As professor of political economy at Haileybury College, Malthus had further opportunity of enforcing views that seemed to many people to be based on sheer logic and common sense. Malthusianism was a theory likely to be popular with those classes who would be, directly or in directly, called upon to support the unemployed and the unemployable. No need of Poor Laws, of any form of relief, no need to fear riots or felonies, no need for those who were prosperous to concern themselves with those who were unfortunate, if there were only sufficient "common people" to work the factories, to till the ground, to fill the ranks of the Army, and to man the Fleet. The logical outcome of this theory was that the more of the superfluous population who starved to death, the better for the country—and since eleven million people could not earn a livelihood, the only way to ease the situation was to reduce the number to a lower figure. This was to be done by the self-restraint and self-denial of the labouring classes themselves; they were to live unmarried and chaste that their social superiors might not be concerned with the problem of how to support their children. It has been said that the history of civilization is the history of the martyrdom of the common man—Malthus suggested that the martyr, to escape further torment, should commit suicide.
To William Cobbett this theory seemed horrible and blasphemous; it filled him with a profound indignation. He thought, and rightly, that the country could easily support even far greater numbers than the eleven millions that seemed so huge a population to the Malthusians; he believed, and wrongly, that far more people had lived happily in England under the Plantagenets, and he resented, furiously, what he considered the outrageous proposition that the poor should be denied the supreme dignity and the supreme delight of the most prized of human relation ships in order to ease the pockets and lull the consciences of those who were wealthy and powerful through no virtues or efforts of their own.
* * *
In August, 1822, Cobbett saw another of his enemies violently removed from any interference with human affairs. Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, who had been the second Marquess of Londonderry since his father's death in April, 1821, still contrived to be "the life and soul of the British Government," as one of his admirers put it, and even took on the Home as well as the Foreign Office. With cool tenacity he held to his considered policy—repressive measures at home, until the cowed people were exhausted into submission, and "The Concert of Europe" abroad. He had none of the narrow patriotism of George Canning, but shared the views of "the conqueror of the conqueror of the World"—as to the restoration of the dignity of France (under the Bourbons) and the repression of the dangerous military ambitions of Russia and Prussia. To one with these large concerns on hand the details that angered William Cobbett were invisible; it was nothing to the overburdened states man that The Political Register pointed out that a hungry woman had been hanged for stealing potatoes from a cart; such miserable episodes had no part in that vague and simple entity that to Castlereagh was his country.
He had never treated himself with any manner of indulgence; it was his intrepid front, his commanding courage, his unflinching stand for all he held to, the cool haughtiness of his handsome person, that enraged his opponents as much as did his severity, his anti-liberalism, his refusal to consider the case of the common people.
Against the high-bred, implacable resolution of the aristocrat all the invective of the peasant had spent itself in vain, but in 1822 Cobbett had a revenge that to many men would have been savourless, but which he highly relished.
Lord Londonderry was preparing to represent Britain at the Congress of Verona, when the delicate, brilliant, overburdened brain gave way under the pressure of incessant anxiety and incessant labour; in a fit of dementia, partly brought on by the opium given him by his doctors, the broken statesman destroyed himself at North Cray Place, his Kentish seat; he was fifty-three years of age.
Despite his suicide he was buried in Westminster Abbey, between the rivals William Pitt and Charles James Fox, and those who watched the coffin being lowered into the vault noticed the uncontrollable grief that convulsed the stern features of the Duke of Wellington.
But William Cobbett rejoiced as loudly and violently as he had rejoiced at the broken heart of Pitt, and at the murder of Spencer Perceval. Yet, if he had not the generosity to see the virtues of his enemies and opponents, he had perhaps some excuse for his unreasoning anger. In chronicling the epidemic of rick burning, when the Suffolk mail-coach passed seventeen fires in one night, he made this bitter comment:
"It is useless to inveigh against the Crimes Committees; that which ought to engage our reflection is the cause—the main cause, doubtless, is unsatisfied hunger."
This problem of the extreme manifestation of poverty—hunger—exasperated and baffled Cobbett into an increasing fury, which began to be tinged with a bitter hopelessness.
How came it that some people were starving, that others, abundantly supplied with the means of relieving them, were not only indifferent to this suffering, but even punished the innocent victims when they protested?
It seemed to Cobbett that the only answer was to be found in the essential evil, the greed, apathy, pride, and cruelty of human nature.
And it would, indeed, be difficult to find a satisfactory answer to the charge that Cobbett so frequently repeated—that those who had the means did nothing to help those who had not.
The sense, as well as the humanity, of this long cruelty might also be pertinently questioned. Had it been good policy to ill-treat the Navy so brutally that the Mutiny at the Nore, which nearly delivered England to the enemy, was provoked? Was it sound tactics to starve, beat, and hand over to spoliation the common soldiers, upon whom the safety of the nation depended?
Lord Nelson, the nation's laurelled darling, wrote after the Peace of Amiens (1803):
"When we calculate, by figures, on the expense of seamen, I think it said, £20 per man, that 42,000 seamen deserted during the late war, the loss in money, on that point alone, amounts to £840,000."
Was it any more wise than it was generous to provoke the wholesale destruction that took place during the agrarian riots which dragged on during so many years?
Some time after Cobbett wrote that the common people were in "a state of incessant hunger," a well-meaning clergyman, resident in Kent, noted that even the employed labourer received, when working ten hours a day, seven shillings a week.
"I find it difficult," wrote this parson, the Rev. Julian Young, "to answer their objections to the present order of things, or to inspire them with hopeful views for the future."
Thirty-two years later he made out tables showing that a man with a wife and three children, receiving twelve shillings a week, could not buy the bare necessaries of life under fourteen shillings for seven days—for six children the expenses would be sixteen shillings; "not one farthing is allowed for beer or animal food of any kind; for hat or cap, boots or shoes, stockings or socks, night-shirt or day-shirts, coat, vest or trousers, or...needle and thread."
Do these figures constitute a triumph for the theory of Thomas Malthus or for that of William Cobbett?
The same chronicler gives us the result of these conditions:
"Barns broken open, granaries rifled, ricks burnt, sheep stolen out of the folds by night and slaughtered under the windows of their owners—the carcase and fleece carried off, the head, with some insolent and threatening notice tied round it, left at the farmer's door."
The Rev. Julian Young also tells of "a poor, stolid, unlettered hind, not addicted to vicious company, in offensive in his demeanour, not given to drink...unable to read or write," who lay in Devizes House of Correction, under sentence of death, for a random shot at a farmer. The earnest parson endeavoured to convert this poor wretch to the truths of Scripture; he seemed to have no effect and was giving up in despair, when the prisoner burst into tears.
"'These tears are a goodly sign, my friend; your sorrow, I trust, for your sins past. You seek for pardon!' Judge of my horror at his answer. 'No, sir, I don't! I was not thinking of my sins. It is as I'm so dreadfully hungry! I'd give all the world, if 'twas mine, for one good bellyful afore I die! I do assure you I feel as if I could eat a jackass!'"
William Cobbett knew what hunger was; the recollection of his own tears at the loss of the halfpenny that meant the deprivation of the longed-for red herring was always close behind his championship of those who wept bitterly for the same grievous need, always coloured his invective against the fine gentlemen who could never realize the agony of an empty stomach, who could contemplate without pity the human degradation and anguish embodied in the words "incessant hunger."
AT COBBETT'S FARM at Brompton, a pleasant, commodious dwelling surrounded by well kept gardens, all was industry and contentment, the master could look upon his family and congratulate himself upon a worthy and rare success. There were no gaudy, useless weeds among this fine crop; the children had grown as straight, as healthy as the seeds and saplings on which their father spent so much loving care.
The boys and girls were, mind and body, what their father wished to see. His exact and affectionate training had produced precisely what he wished to produce, and here was luck indeed, for children do not always fit so neatly into the pattern that their parents cut out for them.
The secret, perhaps, lay in the happiness of the Cobbetts' home life. None of the children had ever known fear, apprehension, misunderstanding, coercion or punishment, and all of them had inherited the robust, cheerful, honest, industrious dispositions of their parents. Nature had not played a freakish trick on William Cobbett by giving him a musician, a wanton, a fanciful dreamer, a wilful actress, a moody poet—there was no cuckoo in this brood. Everyone was healthy, occupied, pleased with him or herself and with life, and in the background was always Ann Cobbett, excellent housewife, excellent mother, with her neat, obedient maid, her clean rooms, her shining furniture, her punctuality, and evenness of disposition. Cobbett had early taken to heart one of the trenchant injunctions in Emile—not to plague the young overmuch—"since the child might not grow up."
This happy domesticity was at the very core of the Radical leader's existence, and one of the reasons why he was so anxious that other Englishmen should be in the same way happy.
Why, he argued, could not everyone be in the state of felicity in which he found himself, well-fed, well-housed, with a devoted wife and cheerful, contented children? Why should not everyone have good food on the table, decent beds to lie on, ground to cultivate, leisure for honest diversions?
Looking on his own success, he summed up his own life in sweeping terms, with mingled bitterness and self-satisfaction.
He had a strong personal grievance; he was a righteous man who had been persecuted by the unrighteous; he, who was neither a Republican nor a revolutionary, but a reformer, a Radical, one who would go to the root of things, had been treated like a criminal by corrupt, dishonest intriguers.
"I am now, at the end of thirty years of
calumnies, poured out incessantly on me and my family from the
poisonous mouths and pens of thirty mercenary villains, called
newspaper-editors and reporters. I have written and published more
than three hundred volumes within thirty years, and more than a
thousand volumes, chiefly paid for out of the factories, have been
written and published for the sole benefit of impeding the progress
of those fools that jumped from my pen. My whole life has been a
life of sobriety and labour. I have invariably shown that I have
loved and honoured my country and that I have preferred its
greatness and happiness far beyond my own.
"At four distinct periods I might have rolled in wealth derived from the public money, which I have always refused in any way to touch, but having thwarted the Government in its wastefulness of the public resources, and particularly in my endeavours to produce that reform of Parliament to which the Government itself had at last been impelled to resort, I have been twice stripped of all my earnings, and once lodged in a felon's gaol for two years and once driven into exile for two and a half years."
Yet sincere as this diatribe undoubtedly was, on another occasion Cobbett could say that he doubted "if any men had had a life as happy as my own," and this happiness was his great virtue and his great charm. He enjoyed it all, the fight, the abuse, the controversy, the incessant pouring out of writings which contained advice and reproof, reprimands and menaces—yes, he relished it all, as much as when he was a younger man he had relished the quarter-staff combats, when the object was to draw an inch of blood from the opponent's head, and when, if a death occurred, it was not to be regarded as manslaughter, but as pure sport.
* * *
The dramatic and exciting affair of the Queen had scarcely died away, when one of equal interest took its place in William Cobbett's life, and he, now a man of well over sixty, threw himself with the greatest exuberance into this new agitation—Catholic Emancipation.
He was greatly stimulated by the perusal of a remarkable book by a remarkable man: The History of England by John Lingard, the first part of which appeared in 1819. Cobbett, living before the days when history was considered a science, had long felt an extreme mistrust for those compilations termed "Histories," which passed for exact truth, but which were, indeed, a mixture of opinions and prejudices, fictions and half-lies; nor was he interested in the narration of the official acts of Kings and Queens, Princes and Ministers; he wanted to know how the labourer lived in the past times, how much meat he had for his belly, how much beer for his pot, how much land he might farm, how many cattle he might keep, what good cloth his wife spun, and how well-covered his children were in winter; and these things William Cobbett could not find in the so-called "history books."
He, therefore, despised them all, and dismissed, not without reason, those stately histories of his day, as mere compilations put together to blind people to the real truth of things. He found that there was no chronicle of those whom he considered the real people, the peasantry, the yeoman farmer, the common man, those who had sup plied the soldiers and the sailors who had won the victories of which English historians boasted so continually, and the glory of which they always attributed to some overpaid, corrupt, and callous Generals or Admirals.
Disdaining, therefore, such compilations as he could find and even regarding them as part of the vast plot to bewilder and deceive the poor as to their rights and miseries, William Cobbett had resolved to write a history of England himself, a task for which he was by no means qualified, since he was untrained, without the scholar's mind, and incapable of impartiality.
Through the pressure of other work the task had never been undertaken, but Cobbett's interest in history was revived by the eager perusal of Lingard's work, which seemed to him as veracious in its detail as it was novel in its point of view. John Lingard was, like himself, of humble birth and belonged to an oppressed minority, always a sure claim to Cobbett's sympathy.
The Radical's interest in the Roman Catholic question had begun with his interest in Ireland. The Roman Catholics had been given the franchise in Ireland in 1793, but they were still unable to sit in the Commons, and their complete emancipation had long been the battle-cry of Daniel O'Connell.
William Cobbett had taken up this question without greatly understanding it, and on reading Lingard's book he felt a flood of light break in upon his mind, such as he had felt when he had read Thomas Paine's Financial Essays.
John Lingard, a younger man than Cobbett, had studied at the English College at Douai, had been ordained priest in 1795; when after the French Revolution the English College moved to Crookhall, near Durham, John Lingard became its vice-president; when the College was transferred to Ushaw Lingard retired to lead a secluded life at Hornby, where he wrote his famous history. The modest priest was a charming man, of an amiable character, and he represented the cause of his co-religionists with that good humour, moderation, and toleration for opponents which seldom fail to gain in their turn sympathy and consideration.
It was the first time since the Reformation that the Roman Catholic point of view had been put forward, and Pope Pius VII was not over-rewarding the sincere and industrious historian when he made him a Doctor of Divinity in 1821.
The Reformation, like the Glorious Revolution, had always been presented to the English people as an unmitigated good, and the Roman Catholics had been traduced, slandered, ridiculed, and misrepresented with every variation of falsehood from crudities to subtleties.
Apart from any other merit it might have had, Lingard's book had the appeal of novelty, and it attracted not only those who were pledged to the Catholic Emancipation Bill, but the Radicals and Reformers who, like Cobbett, were for the liberty and independence of the subjects and were quite willing to thrash the Government with any sticks that came handy.
So impressed was Cobbett by this book that he sat down at once to write his own History of the English Reformation: which was in fact largely a popularized version of Lingard's book told in the Radical's own lively and vigorous style. It reached, of course, a much larger audience than did the temperate scholarly work of the Roman Catholic priest, and helped to raise the popular excitement on the question of the Emancipation Bill to fever-heat. Cobbett was clever at doing this; he knew just how to strike the imagination of the common man, how to put his case in a rough and ready manner that would appeal to the most simple and rouse the most indifferent. His book helped to push the whole matter of Roman Catholic Emancipation forward and to raise such a com motion in the country that eventually Wellington, Premier in 1829, passed a Bill, which he had intensely disliked, in order to take a weapon out of his enemies' hands and forestall a revolution.
This cause was largely helped by Daniel O'Connell, who was returned to Westminster as Member for County Clare and gave up the six thousand pounds a year he was earning as a successful lawyer in order to live on the income that was supplied for him by fellow Irishmen. Oddly enough, Cobbett quarrelled with O'Connell, as he quarrelled with so many who might have been considered likely to be his best friends. A common cause was not sufficient to bind him to any man, and O'Connell, as "Mr. O," was soon being smartly handled by Cobbett beside "Old Glory," as he called Sir Francis Burdett, his one time friend and patron, in the pages of paper and pamphlet; Cobbett accused O'Connell of vanity and corruption.
His History of the Reformation was extraordinarily successful; more a piece of party than historical writing, it was vigorous, fresh, and attractive to the class of persons to whom it was addressed, and contained many novel points of view.
Cobbett regarded the Reformation under one aspect as an attempt to drive the peasants and the small farmer off the land, from which they had an historic right of drawing subsistence.
In one of his most cherished arguments Cobbett was entirely wrong. Nothing could persuade him that the population had not been much greater in the Middle Ages than it was in his own time; or that the land, which with difficulty in his day was supporting ten or eleven millions had in the Middle Ages supported twenty or thirty millions.
He based this contention, in which he could not be contradicted (as there was then no means of discovering the number of the population in the Middle Ages) on the large size of the churches, which he often saw with a mere scattering of cottages round them. These beautiful and stately structures, he argued, must have been raised for a larger population than that to which they ministered in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; he admired them and the monasteries that had disappeared, because they had sheltered and succoured the poor.
Cobbett was mistaken in supposing that the pre-Reformation period had been a period of felicity for the peasant and in believing that the priests and monks had been more indulgent landlords and employers than had the laymen who succeeded to their property and their power after the dissolution of the monasteries.
Neither did he know that the enclosure of common lands had been going on since the Statute of Merton, 1236, and the unemployment of the peasant was as serious a problem under the Tudors as under the Guelphs—it has been estimated that in 1548 a tenth of the population was out of work, through the enclosures and the decay of agriculture. The necessaries of life, also, were costly, prices were inflated through the introduction of gold and silver from the New World, and the harassed Government used stern measures against the famished common people, driven by misery into violence.
Had William Cobbett been transported to "the good old times," he would have found that unchanging human nature creates the same conditions about it, in whatever circumstances and in whatever period it is placed. Nor would the ardent Radical have found his greatest enemy, the capitalist, lacking, even as early as the fifteenth century, when the trader was ousting the feudal lord and the wealthy merchant buying his way into the ranks of the nobles.
The social revolution that Cobbett deplored and that he believed had begun with his own birth in reality went back to the reign of Henry VII, when the elaborate, romantic structure of the Middle Ages began to give way to the policy of laisser faire.
* * *
There were many things, besides the question of Roman Catholic Emancipation, to occupy William Cobbett; inexhaustible as his energy was, the stout, ageing man, now white-haired, still with the shrewd grey eyes and the ruddy complexion, never failed to find fresh objects of interest, enmity and exasperation.
There was so much to be fought, not only the steam-packets, the railways, and machinery, but that "infernal invention, gas," which some people were endeavouring to put forward in place of honest lamps and candles. He fell foul, too, of the ordinary fireplace, and advocated one of a new shape, with a well beneath to catch the ashes—John Bull's fireplace; and all the while there were Thomas Paine's bones resting at the seed farm at Brompton, and now and again some scheme would crop up to give them a mausoleum or an honourable burial. This sturdy, but slightly grotesque effort for the reparation of the memory of a dead man had brought Cobbett nothing but ridicule. He had given fine matter to the lampoonists and cartoonists, but had not brought Thomas Paine any nearer to honourable burial. Cobbett's enthusiasm did not stretch to a monument at his own expense.
Then there was the writing of Poor Man's Friend—"which I like best of anything I have written," and in 1829 The Advice to Young Men came out, which contained, under his favourite guise of "laying down the law," all his views on human relationships and his familiar recipes for happiness.
There was another quarrel with Henry Hunt, which reached exceedingly bitter lengths; there was an unsuccessful candidature for Preston; and there was a general and continuous fulmination against the "Wen" (London), and "The Thing," the Government system or mechanical industry.
Nothing is easier than for those inactive in opposition to point out where those labouring in office go wrong, but it was admitted, even by those who did not agree with him on many points, that in several of his prophecies William Cobbett was right. The Committee of Enquiry into the state of the factory worker, as late as 1841, did reveal "disgraceful depths of inhumanity," as dreadful as Cobbett had declared them to be; on every side there was abundant evidence to be gathered by any thinking man of the unnecessary injustice and cruelty of the new Liberalism of those classes rising to wealth and power through the industrial era. Nor was Cobbett alone in pointing out the vast influence, all the greater for being partly underground, of the great bankers; in 1819, the Duc de Richelieu had said:
"There are six great powers in Europe—England, France, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and the Baring brothers."
Nor was Cobbett altogether wrong in his estimate of the Ministers, harsh, extravagant, and unjust as it often was. William Pitt the younger was not the fool that William Cobbett so often and so harshly declared him to be, but he was not a man of that serpent intellect that his followers proclaimed him to be, and he had made mistakes that were very costly to his country, and if George Canning was a far better man and politician than William Cobbett allowed him to be, he was yet a dangerous type of narrow patriot, and only extricated himself from a severe blunder over the Munro doctrine, 1823, by a bluff as unscrupulous as it was brilliant; even in their own peculiar fields of foreign policy, the Ministers were not infallible.
The nervous, overworked, and moderate Lord Liver pool, after fifteen years of office, fell in a fit, in 1827, which left him paralysed. Sir Robert Peel hastened to Brighton, where the harassed King lay sick in the Eastern Palace that seemed compounded of the dreams of William Beckford and Thomas Moore. Against a background suitable for Lalla Rookh or Vathek, George IV wept on Peel's shoulder, and showed a nervous distrust of the future that would have deeply gratified William Cobbett.
The King had his troubles as well as the peasant, or the factory worker. Who was to take the place of Lord Liverpool?
George IV, who had roused Peel in the middle of the night, was only distracted from this problem by noticing the Minister's dressing-gown. "My dear Peel, where did you obtain that atrocious garment? Pray open that wardrobe over there and I shall show you what a robe-de-chambre should be."
Anxious both to return to a sick wife and to obtain office, Peel humoured the monarch, and, arrayed in brocade and sables, sat by the oriental couch, while George discussed tailoring and recovered his good spirits. By dawn Peel was promised the Premiership and posted back to London; a little later George Canning, too ill to walk, was carried into the Pavilion in a sedan-chair and obtained the prize.
* * *
William Cobbett was not wrong in pointing out that there was plenty of money in the country, quite sufficient to redress the grievances of the poor, as was proved by the following facts.
When in 1818 the Bank of England had asked for seven million pounds to fund Treasury bills, the rush of applicants had almost broken down the doors, and the whole sum was subscribed by the first ten who reached the counter; in 1825 six hundred new companies had been floated with a capital of nearly four hundred millions. There was money, too, forthcoming, twenty million pounds, to be paid as compensation to the slave-owners, when the total abolition of slavery was passed in 1833; and great as was the misery among the working classes and the small gentry after the war, "the transition from war to peace" that Lord Liverpool spoke of, on every side there flourished the profiteer, the small man who had become the big man, the commoner who had become the lord, the petty parasite who had become a landed gentleman—all manifestations of that hideous "Thing" against which William Cobbett perpetually turned his fury and his rage.
While Cobbett rejoiced at the broken heart of Pitt, the slit throat of Castlereagh, the death of Ellenborough, and metaphorically, indeed, danced on the graves of all his enemies, he detested most, perhaps with more justice, the magnificent George Canning, whom he blamed for much of the country's misfortune, though he had nothing but sarcasm and invective to throw at the second Earl of Liverpool, an honest, well-meaning matt who had borne the fatigue of office for fifteen years and was so acutely aware of the difficulties of his situation that it was said of him that he never opened a letter without trembling, being sure "that something had gone wrong somewhere."
Canning died seven months after taking office (from a chill caught at the graveside of his opponent, the Duke of York), in the Palladian villa of the Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick and in the room where Fox had expired.
While his enemies thus fell around him, Cobbett gloried in his own health and strength; not for him the suicide or the broken heart, or the collapse from overwork or the insanity brought on from drink and dissipation. He had, literally, the reward of his virtues, his milk and water drinking, his frugal meals, his early rising, his set exercises. "How different," he might boast, was his fate from that of the King, whom he had always detested, and who, shut into the solitude of the gloomy magnificence of Windsor Castle, sank into senile decrepitude, tainted with hereditary insanity and relieved only by the hallucinations brought on by huge potations of curaçoa.
Cobbett had further cause for relief when the King died in 1830, and when his brother William, Duke of Clarence, succeeded as William IV. This prince passed for liberal-minded, and was considered respectable; his accession was supposed to bring the cause of Reform much to the fore ground of politics and even to ensure its ultimate success; as to his brother, The Register was plain enough on the subject of George IV.
"As a son, as a husband, as a father, and especially as an adviser of young men, I deem it my duty to say that, on a review of his whole life, I can find no one good thing to speak of, in either the conduct or the character of this King; and, as an Englishman, I should be ashamed to show my head, if I were not to declare that I deem his reign (including his regency) to have been the most unhappy for the people that England has ever known."
* * *
William IV's first Ministry, under the Duke of Wellington, was faced with the question of Reform. The state of the franchise could not be defended. In 1780 the Duke of Richmond had estimated that the number of adult men in England was one million six hundred and twenty-five thousand, while the voters numbered only two hundred and ten thousand, and that three hundred and fifty-five seats were under the control of one hundred and seventy-seven peers or wealthy commoners. In brief, the election of the dominating majority of the House was the privilege of well under five hundred persons—therefore, no amount of speciousness could possibly represent the Parliament as being "the voice of the people."
What neither William Cobbett nor any of the Radicals who supported the project of Parliamentary Reform with so much patience and fervour seemed to perceive was that Reform would not put power into the hands of the working classes, but into those of the middle classes enriched by the new Industrial Revolution.
Indeed, none of the agitators looked very far into the future—the thing was to get this Reform brought about, and William Cobbett, at least, does not seem to have had any doubt that not only was Reform a good thing in itself but that it would bring much good in its train; he threw all his energy, popularity, zeal, and invective into the last stages of the struggle, which took place under Wellington's successor, the Whig, Lord Grey.
This statesman, who had been a severe critic of Pitt and a warm champion of Queen Caroline, was admired by Cobbett, who considered him mild and fast; he also had a good word for Lord Melbourne, husband of Lord Byron's Lady Caroline Lamb, then Home Secretary, but he warned his followers against putting any trust in these gentlemen once "The Thing" had got hold of them.
New papers to guide and enlighten the working classes sprang up from month to month; the workers themselves joined together in large organizations, made possible by the abolition of the anti Jacobin Combination Act in 1825; everywhere was activity, bustle and high feeling, further enlivened by rick burning and local riots.
In July, 1830, William Cobbett published the first number of Twopenny Trash, the title his enemies had given to the cheap edition of The Register of 1816, and not content with the huge audience this gave him, his massive, sturdy figure might have been seen travelling all over the country addressing packed and enthusiastic audiences on the great cause of Reform. Everywhere he was received well, with the one exception of Cambridge, where the Vice-Chancellor of the University refused to allow the popular agitator to speak.
He was up in Manchester lecturing to the industrial workers; he was in Birmingham and the Midlands. It was two years of incessant and almost incredible activity. In London he appeared in The Rotunda Theatre, Blackfriars, and in the Sans Souci Theatre in Leicester Fields. He was stimulated by the hope of an almost immediate success. "All England is stirring," he wrote in August, 1830, "and in the autumn I begin to see land."
There was sufficient excitement in foreign affairs also, a revolution in France which, after the intrigues of two hundred years, gratified the ambition of the House of Orleans through the elevation of Louis Philippe to the throne as King of the French; a war between Belgium and the Netherlands, and a revolt in Poland.
Cobbett was quick with his journalistic instincts to turn these events to account; he told his keen audiences in The Rotunda that the revolution in France was accomplished, not by the aristocracy, not by gentlemen of any description in fact, but by the working people alone, and he presided at a huge banquet given to celebrate the success of the French Revolution of the Three Days, which was then considered in England as a triumph for Liberalism and as a step towards the establishment of a French Republic.
When the Duke of Wellington went out of office and Earl Grey in, Cobbett again warned his followers against putting any trust in the new Premier. He did not want any concessions or any half-measures. He wanted the full scheme of Reform to be carried, and carried fighting, and this was the scheme that he set forth in his plan of Parliamentary Reform—that a new Parliament should be chosen every year, that every man of eighteen and over should have a vote, and no man more than one vote, that no man should be excluded from voting, whether pauper, soldier, sailor or anything else if he was of sane mind and not a criminal, that there be no pecuniary qualification for members, that the mode of choosing members be by ballot.
Cobbett was right in supposing that this was not the scheme that Lord Grey and his colleagues had in mind when they finally decided to pass the Reform Bill. They were thinking in terms of property, not in terms of humanity. The corrupt, rotten Boroughs, such as that which Lord Manson had just bought for a hundred thousand pounds were, of course, to be swept away, and the new power was to go to the new industrial areas, and not to the peasant and the factory worker. Lord Grey was an aristocrat, and Cobbett was right in mistrusting him on that score; he was also an honest man and sincerely believed that the leaders of the country should be aristocrats, and he thought that they could best maintain their power by giving privileges to the middle class, who would, in consequence, become their grateful supporters. Meanwhile, the poorest classes, acutely suffering, practically in despair, were becoming desperately impatient; the "rural war" broke out again—there were rick burnings, destruction of property, chasing out of their houses of unpopular overseers, machines destroyed, in particular the new agricultural machines which were causing such widespread unemployment, but there was little real violence or shedding of blood on the part of the rioters. Cobbett supported these unfortunate men.
"I knew that English labourers would not lie down and die in their numbers with nothing but sour sorrel in their bellies, I knew that all the wheedling, coaxing, all the blustering and threatening, I knew that all the teaching of the tract societies and all the imprisoning and all the harnessing to carts and waggons, I knew that all these would fail to persuade the honest, sensible and industrious English labourer, he had not the right to live."
Articles in this strain brought Cobbett into the position where he had been in 1810. Not only did he have to face a fierce campaign opened by both the Whig and Tory Press, but a motion was brought forward by a Mr. Travor in the House of Commons to the effect that Cobbett had been guilty of sedition in his defence of the rioting labourers.
An eye-witness thus describes the great Radical lecturing at this time:
"1830. Feb. 11. Heard William Cobbett lecture. Strong sense, masculine English, extravagant prejudice, political economy, currency radicalism, universal invective—all jumbled together! Personally, a homely, independent vigorous farmer, dressed in a blue coat, brass buttons, broad brimmed hat (a white one) drab breeches, top boots."
In following entries the diarist mentions the burning down of the Opera House and that "I sat a long time with John Constable and watched him paint."
* * *
The country was deluged with pamphlets, written by men such as Owen, Hodgkin, Carlile, which were direct incitement to violence and property destroying; some labourers who had set fire to a barn near Battle, soon after Cobbett had spoken there, were arrested and a confession extracted from one of them, Thomas Goodman, "that there would not have been any fires or mobs, if Mr. Cobbett had not given any lectures."
This Goodman, a youth of eighteen years of age, made three confessions to the same effect, which were attested by magistrates, and on the strength of this he was pardoned, though his companions were sentenced to death or trans ported. One of them, Henry Cook, a rustic of nineteen years of age, had, in the press, knocked off Mr. Bingham Baring's hat and was one of the nine persons who were hanged after the Battle riots. Four hundred and fifty-seven were then transported; the Whigs thus showed themselves as severe as the Tories in suppressing riots.
This Mr. Bingham Baring was one of the members of the great House of Baring, which was a peculiar object of Cobbett's virulent hatred; at that time five Barings sat in the House of Commons, honourable representatives of Mammon.
Nor did Lord Grey's Government, which had thus shown itself unexpectedly severe, stay its hand here. Richard Garble, who was supposed to have encouraged the rioters, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of two hundred pounds, and Lord Grey declared that it was his "determined resolution" to suppress "outrages and excesses" with severity and rigour.
Cobbett, remembering his past experience, had been more prudent than Cathie; it was proposed, however, to make an example of the active agitator, though for some while nothing was done; but finally, through, it was said, the personal intervention of the King, whose family had no cause to love Cobbett, he was brought to trial in July, 1831.
He spoke in his own defence and with far more effect than he had spoken twenty years before; he held his audience for four and a half hours, and as Charles Greville, the Clerk to the Privy Council, admitted, "his insolence and violence were past endurance, but he made an able speech."
The prisoner had plenty of good material with which to feed his eloquence; the pardoning of poor Goodman, the hanging of Henry Cook, the miserable state of the people, which could not be denied, and the Government's neglect of them, which could hardly be glossed over. His appeal to the jury was made in dramatic terms.
"If I am compelled to meet death in some stinking dungeon, to which they have the means of cramming me, my last breath shall be employed in praying God to bless my country and to curse the Whigs to everlasting, and revenge I bequeath to my children and to the labourers of England."
This jury had been carefully selected; the Lord Chief Justice summed up as shrewdly against Cobbett as had Lord Ellenborough in the former trial; but it was felt that the prisoner had won the day.
After being shut up all night the jury admitted to a disagreement—six were for an acquittal and six for a conviction; the agitator was released and there was no talk of another trial.
* * *
Meanwhile in Parliament Lord John Russell, cadet of the Whig millionaire House of Bedford, had been making speeches for the Reform Bill and to this end Government measures were prepared by a special Committee of the Cabinet. These proposals did not advocate universal suffrage, and of female suffrage there was not even mention.
It was merely proposed to give the vote to ten-pound householders in the towns, leaseholders and tenant-farmers in the countryside. This left out the great proportion of those who had been agitating for Reform; on the other hand, the proposed Bill made away entirely with the old rotten Borough and suggested that representation should be re-distributed in accordance with the numbers of the population.
Here was one of the heads of Cobbett's Hydra cut off. The "Borough villains" were slain at last, and with them would go all the sinecures, pensions, places, and jobbery that he had so long and so fiercely decried. The Radicals, faced with the Government proposals, were forced to consider whether they would accept what were to them harsh measures. The subject was wrangled and disputed over in and out of Parliament, and threshed out in the pages of The Political Register and Twopenny Trash; there was the question of voting by ballot, too, to which Cobbett attached great importance:
"Any man who opposes the ballot must be a friend of bribery and corruption, a real rogue."
On the whole, however, he was for the Bill, on the grounds that half a loaf is better than no bread.
Henry Hunt entered Parliament at a by-election in December, 1830, and was the first genuine Radical to take a seat in the House; for "Old Glory" (Sir Francis Burdett) had gone over to the Whigs.
Hunt was an extremist in his politics and opposed the Reform Bill as not going far enough; thereupon Cobbett attacked him and a fierce quarrel ensued, not greatly to the credit of either man.
The result of the struggle over the Reform Bill was the King's sudden resolution to dissolve Parliament and a general election added to the excitement and the confusion. Cobbett wished to stand himself, but had not the financial means. A fund had been opened to send him to West minster, but nothing like the sum of ten thousand pounds, which he required, had been subscribed; so he stood aside.
The Whig Government was returned with a large majority; the King, apprehensive of a revolution, endeavoured to induce Grey to make the Bill more popular. Cobbett continued his agitation outside Parliament and nothing was talked of anywhere but Reform. Finally, the Bill in its original state passed the Commons (September 1831) by three hundred and forty-five votes to two hundred and thirty-six. It was, as might have been expected, rejected by the Lords, by a hundred and ninety-nine votes to a hundred and fifty-eight. Only two Bishops voted for the measure.
There were further and more serious riots. Nottingham Castle was burnt down, and several notable buildings in Bristol, including the Mansion House and the Bishop's Palace, were destroyed. Cobbett began to talk of France in 1789.
"The French Revolution did not begin at Paris—it came thither by degrees from the country. It was the starving chopsticks in the country."
The Government gave way and a third Reform Bill was introduced in December. It passed the second reading in the Commons by a large majority; it was two months in Committee and passed its second reading in the House of Lords by a majority of nine. It was the intention of the peers, however, to destroy the effectiveness of the Bill in Committee; Lord Grey asked the King to create enough Whig peers to pass the Bill, and on William IV's refusal left office.
The cry of the excited people was now: "The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill!"
The state of the country, with runs on the Bank, the Agrarian Riots, the pelting of the King's carriage in the streets of London, the attack on Apsley House, was indeed alarming. William Cobbett rejoiced in the situation—nothing pleased him better than to get his own way through the violent discomfiture of his opponents—it was, all issues apart, a good fight.
The Duke of Wellington at the King's personal request gave way; after two years of bitter struggle the Bill became an Act on July 7th, 1832.
The rotten Borough disappeared; ten-pound house holders in the town, and fifty-pound leaseholders and tenants in the country obtained the suffrage. The power had passed from the aristocracy into the hands of the shop keepers and town-employers, and the landowners and the farmers. The position of the working classes remained unchanged and there was no ballot.
William Cobbett might have considered his life-work in some ways accomplished. He was nearly seventy years of age, had not spared himself in any direction and an old complaint, the only disability from which he had ever suffered, had recently begun to trouble him—this was an incessant coughing and a tightness on the chest. Even his energies and love of pugnacious action had been some what abated by the events of the last two years. He looked forward to peace and tranquillity for what time might remain to him.
"By Michaelmas next I shall have a farm somewhere in my own native country. A farmer I will live and die."
Yet he considered the people had a right to his services and he wanted the experience of being a Member of Parliament. He had even a naive delight in considering such an honour. He accepted an invitation to stand for Manchester in the Reform Parliament as early as 1831; in 1832 he contested Oldham, with John Fielden as colleague.
Elected at Oldham after a lively campaign, Cobbett withdrew from the proposed contest at Manchester; shortly before he had again acquired a farm, Normandy Farm, Ash, in a lovely valley, beneath the Hog's Back, not far from Farnham where he had been born. He would not admit defeat even at the hands of time. At seventy he faced these two new ventures, the new farm and the seat in Parliament, with all the cheerful optimism with which the boy of fourteen had faced the walk to Kew so many eventful years before.
A simple pleasure in his worldly success was shown by the title of his proposed autobiography: From lough-boy to a Seat in Parliament. This was never written, but the contemplation of the agreeable task was very pleasant to the old man, whose father and grandfather lay under the rude head-stone in Farnham churchyard.
IN THE YEAR of the accession of William IV Cobbett published his most famous book, one which is usually considered to have great literary value—Rural Rides. This consists of an account of journeys made on horseback by William Cobbett, sometimes accompanied by his youngest son Richard, sometimes by another youth, through most of the counties of England during the years 1831-32.
As might have been expected the sub-title to Rural Rides is With Economical and Political Observations; these may be said to form the bulk of the work. Cobbett rode forth for the two reasons that inspired most of his actions—for his own pleasure in doing something that he liked, and to improve his mind by shrewd observation of his fellow-men and their works. Since not only his own taste, but his political conviction, were based upon agriculture, he wished to see at first hand the exact conditions under which his countrymen laboured on the farms and in the fields; and so, whenever he could snatch a few weeks from his pressing activities in the nine years that preceded the passing of the Reform Bill, he rode abroad for business and enjoyment combined, and in the evenings had, characteristically, enough vigour left to jot down what had happened during the day.
Rural Rides, which runs into two thick volumes, is much in the style of the American Journal, a mingling, without order or selection, of all of Cobbett's interests, ideas, aversions, and enthusiasms. It is a commonplace criticism of this work to say that it is redolent of the countryside of a hundred years ago; it has been even written of it "that the reader feels the breeze fanning his cheek, he smells the heather and the young hawthorn, and he hears the song of birds on every side."
A close reading of Rural Rides will show this to be only partly true. There is, indeed, nothing to indicate in any of Cobbett's writings that he had any eye for abstract beauty, any sense of the subtle, the mysterious, the melancholy or the exquisite; he much admired neatness, tidiness, and prettiness, he rejoiced heartily at the sight of a well-fed labourer, a rosy-cheeked country-lass, a tidy cottage and a well-kept farm; but he could hardly look at a paling without considering of what timber it was made, at a tree without speculating what use it would be, or admire a prospect without noting the soils and the condition of the crops; and the pictures of the English countryside are so rare as to be notable; not often do we come to such a paragraph as the following:
"Woodland countries are interesting on many a count, not so much on account of their masses of green leaves as on account of the variety of sights and sounds and incidents that they afford. Even in winter the coppices are beautiful to the eye, while they comfort the mind with the idea of shelter and warmth; in spring they change their hue from day to day during the two whole months which is about the time from the first appearance of the delicate leaves of the birch to the full expansion of those of the ash; and even before the leaves come at all to intercept the view what, in the vegetable creation is so delightful to behold as the bed of a coppice bespangled with primroses and bluebells? The opening of the birch leaves is the signal for the pheasants to begin to crow, for the blackbird to whistle and the thrush to sing; and just when the oak buds begin to look ready, it is but a day before the whole tribe of finches burst forth into song from every bough, while the lark, imitating them all, carries the joyous sounds to the sky."
The effect of this passage is instantly spoiled by bitter reflections on pauperism and the tax-gatherer, ending with the anti-climax:
"O cursed paper-money, is there a torment surpassing the wickedness of thy inventor?"
Indeed, what William Cobbett was looking out for, and what was the utmost which he was capable of appreciating, were the signs of comfort and prosperity, a countryside expressed in scenes of nearness and prettiness, where every labourer should have his hunk of bread and bacon, his mug of small beer—where every cottage should have its cosy thatch and its neat plot of ground, and where every highroad should have its grey mare jogging merrily to market with a cart laden with produce behind.
Beyond this William Cobbett could not go; a materialist to the core, what was not useful for him hardly existed; he extolled the old churches and admired the old monasteries, not for their architecture, but because they had looked after and sheltered the poor. He praised the wealthy nobles of pre-Reformation times, because in their wills they had made provision for the sick and the needy, and this was indeed the main reason for his wishing toleration extended towards the Roman Catholics; he championed them, because according to his ideas, when they had been powerful in the land, they had looked after the poor in a way that the Protestants had never attempted to do. He ridiculed any attempt at the picturesque, and mocked at the sham fallen Gothic arch and bridge he viewed on one gentleman's estate; no neglected landscape or ill-kept wood was delightful to him, and his feeling for the wild creatures was not that of the naturalist, but the sportsman; his rides were often interrupted by hunting or coursing, which he thoroughly enjoyed: "Cruel? No, indeed. How do you get your food?—and read my American Journal."
It has been said that Cobbett showed, as in a mirror, the England of his day in these Rural Rides. This may be questioned. England has many aspects, and has been many different things to different men.
* * *
The England of Rural Rides is assuredly not the England of Geoffrey Chaucer or of George Herbert nor of Henry Vaughan; it is not the England of Gilbert White, who was dismissed by Cobbett "as the parson who took notes"; it is scarcely the England of George Morland, who had died of drink in a sponging house in Coldbath Fields many years before Cobbett took the first of his rides; it is not the England of George Crabbe, whose Parish Tales was published in 1819; nor the England Charles Lamb saw from his desk in the India House; nor the England of John Crome working quietly in Norwich, while Cobbett was scribbling down his jottings; nor that of George Borrow engaged at the same town in hack translations; and still less was it the England of Thomas Rowlandson, who died while Cobbett was riding round the countryside. Is there not as much truth in what Dr. Syntax saw on tour as the rides of the conscientious realist, Cobbett?
This is not the England of the Sandbys, of David Cox, of Samuel Prout, or of any of the early water-colourists or landscapists who transposed into terms of art the English scenes of the early nineteenth century. If one wishes to know exactly where William Cobbett failed, another book, which covers much the same ground, and was written at the same period and by a man of the same class, should be read simultaneously with Rural Rides.
This is the Autobiography of Thomas Bewick. This man "gently sighed away his last breath at half-past one of the morning of the eighth of November, 1828," when William Cobbett had already been for seven years riding up and down England.
Bewick was also a farmer's lad; of hard-working, honest, kindly parents. He had many other points in common with William Cobbett; he was healthy, robust, an adept with the quarter-staff, and at an early age had started off on his own adventures. He held Liberal or even Radical opinions about the French Revolution, William Pitt, the enclosures, the rights and the value of the very poor. He had, however, two attributes which William Cobbett did not possess, and could not even understand. Thomas Bewick was gentle-hearted and he believed in spirits. To read his tender account of the hunted hare which leapt into his arms, and to compare it with another boyish incident in the life of William Cobbett, when he seized "poor Watt" from the dogs in order that he might tear off the scut and keep it as a trophy, is to get the full measure of the difference between the two men.
Bewick was ten years older than Cobbett and he sat down to write his autobiography in 1812, the year after Cobbett had taken his first rural ride. The two men had, therefore, the same political background, and, as they came of the same class, and both were exceptionally talented and intelligent, viewed the world from much the same angle. Bewick was a mystic, a gentle-hearted man, one who did not trouble himself about politics or creeds or dogmas, but who rather viewed England as Wordsworth and Coleridge viewed it; he had the vision of those poets, who had become romantic in their revulsion from the delusions they felt at the progress of the French Revolution, and who found in nature, in legends, and in fancy, all that they had been cheated of in politics.
Thomas Bewick's Autobiography long remained unpublished, and was never as well known or praised as the famous Rural Rides. It can be supposed, however, that it is a far truer, as it is a far more pleasing, picture of the England of the early nineteenth century, and of the heart and mind of the English rural population. Bewick had the advantage of having been brought up in the North, then still a half-haunted part of the country, where one might believe in ghosts, devils, elves and fairies; where the poetry so thoroughly despised by Cobbett was often heard unconsciously on the lips of the peasants. Besides being scattered with many beautiful and romantic land scapes, the pages of Bewick's book contain several excellent character-sketches, quite beyond the reach of William Cobbett to have sketched, such as that of Will Bewick:
"I think I see him yet, sitting on a mound or seat by the edge of his garden, regardless of the cold and intent upon viewing the heavenly bodies, pointing to them with his large hand and eagerly imparting his knowledge to me, with a strong voice such as one now seldom hears."
This vignette and others equally charming, taken from among those whom Bewick terms—"the unnoted poor" are not to be equalled in the pages of Cobbett. Nor has he, with all his love of soldiers, so fine a story to tell as that of the forsaken North-countrymen at the Battle of Minden, which Bewick heard, when a boy, from the lips of an old Borderer:
"Abandoned by Lord Sackville they shook hands the whole of the line, swearing to stand by each other without flinching."
With regard to politics and religion, Bewick noted:
"I may be mistaken, but I think many a well-meaning man has spun out his life and spent his time on subjects of this kind in vain."
Leaving such problems alone, he employed his genius on his exquisite woodcuts, unparalleled for their truth and poetry, and was able, farmer's lad as he was, to write like this:
"I had not got far from the house till I was pursued by a beautiful young woman, who accosted me in baddish English, which she must have got off by heart just before she left the house, the purport of which was to urge my acceptance of the usual present—(a pocket full of bannocks and scones). This I wished to refuse, but with a face and neck flushed with scarlet she pressed it upon me with such sweetness, while I felt at the same time that she invited me to turn that I could not help it—I seized her and smacked her lips. She then sprang, away from me, with her bare legs, like a deer, left me fixed to the spot not knowing what to do. I was particularly struck with her whole handsome appearance—it was a compound of loveliness, health and agility; her hair, I think, had been flaxen or light, but was tanned to a pale brown by being exposed to the sun—this was tied behind with a ribbon and dangled down her back, and as she bounded along it flowed in the air. I had not seen her while I was in the house, and felt grieved because I could not hope ever to see her more."
* * *
It was not for William Cobbett, however, "to be looking up from nature to nature's god," but rather to be seeing that his fellow-men were well treated and a sufficiently powerful stream of invective loosed upon their tyrants.
The Rural Rides is full of the most vehement and often unjust expressions of opinions, sometimes bordering upon the grotesque, as the remark on "the great fools, milksops and frivolous, idiots turned out from Winchester and Westminster, or from any of those dens of dunces called Colleges and Universities"; or the contemptuous references to "blasphemous Jews."
At a time when the princely Moses Montefiore was receiving at his house in Ramsgate the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria, then being so carefully educated for the occupancy of the English throne, William Cobbett was talking of Jews with a gross, ignorant contempt that would have been better in place in the superstitious Middle Ages.
These rides were on the whole much enjoyed by Cobbett, who had as an audience his dutiful small son Richard or another companion, and who spent many pleasant hours visiting friends or admirers and seeing how Cobbett's corn (maize) or Swedish Turnip that he had introduced into the country was flourishing.
He found much to lament; in many places the people were dirty and starving, in many others they were under paid; he saw men working in gangs in the fields like slaves, their leader with a bell upon him; he saw other gangs breaking stones on the roads; he met everywhere traces of pauperism, the ugliest manifestation of "The Thing." All, of course, must be put down to William Pitt, Lord Castlereagh, George Canning, Sidmouth, or any other man who had been in the Government during the last twenty years.
The following passage shows clearly what Cobbett regretted and what he detested:
"Everything about this farm-house was formerly the scene of plain manners and plentiful living. Oak clothes-chests, oak bed-steads, oak chests of drawers, and oak tables to eat on, long, strong and well supplied with joint stools; some of the things were many hundreds of years old. But all appeared to be in a state of decay and nearly of disuse. There appeared to be hardly any family in that house, where formerly there were, in all probability, from ten to fifteen men, boys and maids: and, which was the worst of all, there was a parlour. Aye, and a carpet and bell-pull too! One end of this once plain and substantial house had been moulded into a "parlour"; and there was the mahogany table, and the fine chairs, and the fine glass, and all as bare faced upstart, as any stockjobber in the Kingdom can boast of. And there were the decanter, the glasses, the 'dinner-set' of crockery ware, all just in the true stockjobber
"Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly?
"Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages."
The reader of Rural Rides cannot help respecting the bitterness that arose from the conviction that a good cause was being lost. Cobbett honestly thought that the burden of the National Debt would drag the country to bankruptcy, and for this he blamed "the rag-men and their rags," as he named the bankers and their notes.
He could not believe that any possible good would come from the factory system as far as the poor were concerned. He did not foresee that the Trade Unions would increase in strength, and that by degrees and in divers ways the lot of the labouring classes would in the next hundred years be considerably ameliorated. He had no inkling of the humanitarianism, the desire for learning, for free education, the struggles against grossness, brutality, and disease which would absorb the next generations; he saw nothing but black and white, and the black slowly encroaching upon and destroying the white.
Like his friends, the Quakers of Philadelphia, or the idealists of the early days of the French Revolution who had tried to pat Rousseau into practice, he could not see that life, being dynamic, may not be reduced to a formula, and that people do not march directly and in logical sequence from point to point, but that they stumble and grope and move crookedly to their ends. He could not see that the sturdy, the industrious, the honest, cannot entirely people the world, and that it would be a dull place if they did. He made no allowance for genius, the man of talent, for' the eccentric, the hero who is half knave, the philosopher who is half charlatan, the good man who has his villainous lapses. And William Cobbett's obsession for the very poor, who were to him as they were to Rousseau—"the people"—threw all his ideas out of focus.
Rural Rides, therefore, is less a picture of England than of William Cobbett. His own character shows clearly enough in these two volumes—it is largely a self-portrait he has painted. You can see him clearly enough, the heavy, stout man between sixty and seventy, "as heavy as a four-bushel sack of wheat," mounted on his gentle yet powerful horse, well-dressed, well-fed, riding through all weathers, frugal and healthy, now refusing a tip to a guide who has led him astray, now giving his luncheon or all the money in his pocket to underpaid or underfed labourers, enjoying his own activity and the pleasant prospect, yet always finding an opportunity for a hit at his enemies, advice to his friends, or a lecture to the world in general.
Through the journals run his eagerness to preserve the little gentleman's estate, the little farmer's farm, the poor labourer's meat dinner, and Sunday coat, and a detestation not only of William Pitt and his Martello towers, but of the bankers who were buying up the old estates, and in particular such major offenders as members of the great House of Baring.
"The Barings alone have, I should think, swallowed up thirty or forty of these small gentry without perceiving it. They, indeed, swallow up the biggest race of all; but innumerable small fry slip down unperceived like caplins down the throat of the shark, while these latter feed only the codfish. It frequently happens, too, that a big gentleman or nobleman whose estate has been big enough to resist for a long while and who has swilled up many caplin-gentry goes down the throat of the loan dealer with all the caplins in his belly."
An intense sympathy with his own class almost justifies the abuse, so often undeserved, he cast on those who had, in his opinion, oppressed and despoiled; the labouring people, he protested bitterly, were treated "by all the hordes who lived on the taxes, as not being of the same flesh and blood with themselves."
He could not emphasize often enough that he desired not revolution, but reform; inconsistent in much, he was always consistent in that—everything had been admirably arranged in England and villains had ruined the fair structure of a just, humane, and noble Constitution. Neither he nor those he stood for felt any envy of those above them, not a speck of jealousy heightened their indignation. He wrote in The Register:
"I was born and bred a farmer, or a sort of labourer, and I have never desired to have any rank, station or name, or calling, more or other than that of farmer."
After William Cobbett took his seat in the House, there was no more time for rural rides; it had been his intention to cease publication of The Register after thirty years, but the times were too full of excitement for him to leave the field where he had fought so long, and he continued to publish the famous newspaper when he was member for Oldham, finding time both for editorial and parliamentary duties. He told his readers:
"I wanted nothing for myself...but I wanted to take away the power of oppressing and pillaging the order to which I belonged."
"Everyone admired my industry, my wonderful exertions, and feared my strong and implacable hatred of oppression of all sorts, and particularly the partiality of taxation, the stripping of the working people of their earnings, and the heaping of these earnings upon others."
But the satisfaction of his well-earned seat which "I set a high value upon as vindicating the character of the Commons, or Common people of England" was some thing marred by the sad suspicion that it would not achieve very much for the great cause.
It was soon dear enough that Lord Grey, the aristocrat, intended to govern by means of the aristocrats, who would be kept in their places by the grateful moneyed classes, lately given the franchise; this new political combination offered little hope for the common people. Cobbett had said that the union of Reform and Whig was "marriage with a halter" and so it had proved.
Lord Grey might be all that was honourable and sincere, but he was as ready to turn the troops on a desperate, starving mob, as had been Castlereagh, Sidmouth or any Tory of them all. And the first Reformed Parliament showed as little sympathy with the sweated poor as had the "Borough villains."
While men like Sir Robert Peel, whose huge fortune of £40,000 a year was derived from industry, were in power, what hope for the factory slaves? Against the might of a plutocracy, which had been long climbing into authority, at last granted by the Reform Act, what effect had the voice of "the jolly farmer"?
Already, in his own lifetime, he was an anachronism, a figure from the past; the forces against which he was striving were too much even for his harsh strength, but he refused to relinquish the struggle even though it broke muscle, heart, and spirit.
The time was to come when there was to be at least a partial and tardy recognition of the rights and sufferings of the common people, when the conscience of the thoughtful minority would impose on the thoughtless majority a modicum of decent behaviour, but that time was not to be witnessed by William Cobbett.
During his brief experience of Westminster the future looked as dark and disturbed as the thick, poisonous smoke that was spreading from the new factories and the new railways, fouling the lovely and majestic aspect of England in order that the slavery of one class might bring money to another class. But the stalwart old man kept doggedly on his way, with his hot hatreds and his deep compassion, trying to adapt himself to the new life forced on him by his parliamentary duties, the later hours, and the consequent late rising, which seriously affected his health.
Two years before the passing of the Reform Bill he had moved his office to Dr. Johnson's old house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street; and from there he issued his English-French Dictionary; on his election to Parliament lie took a house, 21, Crown Street, Westminster, but this was soon sold and he confined himself to Bolt Court for a London residence; his home was always at Normandy Farm.
Still healthy and boasting of his health, he occupied himself with other projects beside The Political Register—an evening paper, a new monthly, and the re-issue of his speeches in pamphlet form, thus with this activity easing the pang brought by the realization that the late-achieved ambition of a seat in Parliament would not enable him to accomplish much for the causes which he had at heart; neither was the Reform Bill what he wished, nor could it achieve what he had hoped it would achieve. His party, the extreme Radicals, was too small to have any power over the Treasury Bench; it consisted, besides him self, of Daniel O'Connell and a few of the Irish, the two Bulwer-Lyttons, George Grote the historian, Faithful, Cobbett's lawyer, and John Fielden, his colleague at Oldham; the little band did what they could, but it was rather an object of curiosity than of fear. Many a government has found it wise to offer a share of its responsibilities to a difficult opponent and, probably, Cobbett and O'Connell gave less trouble in Parliament than they had done out of it.
Cobbett was much troubled by his cough; at last his splendid vitality was lowered; he told his readers: "When I was young and cared less about the matter, I was hoarse and it did not signify whether I was or not..."
But he was now old: "I cannot go to sleep for fear that the cough will come. I dare not go out of doors, though I want to be out from morning till night."
He turned from this annoyance to sum up with zest all his achievements, his sufferings, and his triumphs, since he was not content with the word "genius" as an explanation of his own success.
"Not all the genius in the world could, without something more, have conducted me through these perils...there must be industry; there must be, before the eyes of the nation, proofs of extraordinary exertion; people must say to themselves: 'What wise conduct must there have been in the employing of the time of this man! How sober, how sparing in diet, how early a riser, how little expensive he must have been!' These were the things, and not genius, which caused my labours to be so incessant and so successful."
He had much upon which to congratulate himself—the introduction into England of "Cobbett's corn," of the making of straw-plait, of several valuable trees, the authorship of nearly a hundred books, that he had always had a shop of some size in London, successfully brought up seven children. There were rewards, too:
"What do I want in the world but the things that I have? I have a house in Fleet Street, I have another in Kensington, I have Normandy Farm, near the place of my birth. These are all good houses, too, they are furnished with every necessary. What more than this can I want?"
Yet with all these bounties of fortune there remained the disappointment of his ineffectiveness in the House, and his disgust at the futility of the Commons as a means of helping the poor man; had the long, keen struggle for Reform ended in this? He said in his first speech: "It seems to me that I have heard a great deal of unprofitable discussion."
He was conscious that he, out of place among professional legislators, did not cut much of a figure in the House, where his stalwart, yet venerable person, his old-fashioned clothes, his fleshy, classic features and his grey poll, excited among his fellow-members more amused respect than hostility. It began to be felt, perhaps unconsciously, that, pugnacious and assertive as the new member was, his ideas and his methods were outdated and that his railings were largely directed against accomplished facts and inevitable changes. His amendment to the Address, which advocated a complete reversal of the Government policy, was supported only by twenty-three members, of whom twenty were Irish; he soon saw that a small group of men could achieve nothing in Parliament—even Hunt had disassociated himself from Cobbett because of their quarrel—but he worked hard. The hopeless working classes sent him in petition after petition, as many as thirty on one day arrived. These he conscientiously presented and used every means in his power to forward, but he was painfully aware that it was all a waste of time and energy. If he found nothing to admire, nothing hopeful, in the House of Commons, he found much to feed his prejudices.
On the amiable and nervous Sir Robert Peel in particular he vented the dislike it was now unprofitable to waste on dead men. This Minister, a product of Harrow and Oxford, embodied much that Cobbett detested. He was one of the wealthiest men in England, because of the labours of the poorest. Cobbett had watched with scorn his career as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1812, Home Secretary under Liverpool in 1822, under Wellington in 1828, and had fiercely protested against his famous New Police Act. Sir Robert Peel's private character gave no occasion for blame or scandal; he was scholarly, charming, amiable, of mediocre intelligence, and afflicted by that timidity felt by many men who were in office at that period, but Cobbett loathed him and directly challenged "Orange Peel" (as the Minister was named because of his support of the Protestants in Ireland) by a suggestion that, on the grounds of the misery caused by his "return to gold" Bill, a petition should be made to the King to remove him from the Privy Council. Cobbett, probably, did not hope to get more than the four votes which actually came to his lot. It was a piece of publicity likely to please the working classes, who looked to the Member for Oldham for some result of his election; he gave them what he could—a forcible expression of opinion.
* * *
The unfranchised working classes soon broke out into despairing riots; the Trade Unions and the Co-operative Movement fostered political agitation, and the country was as shaken with political unrest as in the days of the "Borough villains."
The trend of the times was seen, when a Tory, Michael Sadler, introduced a Ten Hours' Bill for factory workers under eighteen years of age. This did not pass, and its only use was to provide William Cobbett with an opportunity to make a speech on behalf of the unhappy factory workers, which was worthy to be compared with that made by Lord Byron in 1812. The Bill had been objected to on the ground that unless the workers (children under eighteen, it must be remembered) were employed for more than twelve hours England's commercial prosperity would be damaged:
"This 'reformed' House has this night made a discovery greater than all the discoveries that all former Houses of Commons have ever made, even if all their discoveries could have been put into one. Hitherto we have sometimes been told that our ships, our mercantile traffic with foreign nations by the means of those ships, together with our body of rich merchants—we have sometimes been told that these form the source of our wealth, power and security. At other times the land has stepped forward and bid us look to it and its yeomanry as the sure and solid foundation of our greatness and our safety. At other times the Bank has pushed forward with her claims, and has told us that, great as the others were, they were nothing without 'Public Credit' upon which, not only the prosperity and happiness, but the very independence of the country depends But, sir, we have this night discovered that the shipping, the land, and the Bank and its credit, are all worth nothing compared with the labour of three hundred thousand little girls in Lancashire. Ay, when compared with only an eighth part 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. With what pride and what pleasure, Sir, will the right honourable gentleman opposite, and the honourable Member for Manchester behind me go northward with the news of this discovery and communicate it to that large portion of the little girls whom they have the honour and the happiness to represent."
Parliament decided that the children should work twelve, not ten hours, by two hundred and thirty-eight votes to ninety-three.
Cobbett might justly quote in The Political Register Rousseau's remark that the man who is compelled to work all the hours that he is awake is, whatsoever name he may choose to bear, to all intents and purposes a slave.
In March, 1834, occurred the lamentable case of the Dorchester Labourers, who were sentenced to seven years' transportation for forming, in the village of Tolpuddle, a branch of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and then asking for a rise in wages. Trade Unionism, Co-operation, the agitation for Reform, had caused something like a panic among the upper and governing classes, only to be compared with the panic inspired by so-called Jacobinism forty years or so before.
Robert Owen headed a huge deputation of protest to Lord Melbourne; William Lovett, afterwards to be the Chartist leader, began a large agitation in favour of the labourers, but the men were duly transported and Trades Unions began to give way under the pressure exerted to ruin them.
This excitement had scarcely died away, when the indignant Cobbett was involved in another agitation, the Reform Parliament having undertaken to reform the' Poor Law; here again money, not flesh and blood, seemed the main concern of the Government. The question was not how the poor man was to be treated with regard to his comfort, dignity and self-respect, but how money might be saved on his support. Outdoor relief was to be stopped, the able-bodied were to be encouraged, or even forced, to emigrate; the old, the feeble, the unemployable were to be placed in workhouses or unions, where the sexes were to be separated in obedience to the doctrine of Pastor Malthus, who thought that the poor should not be allowed to breed.
The rage and despair of Cobbett at the passing of this measure equalled the rage and despair of the suffering and helpless poor against whom it was directed. He termed the new workhouses "Bastilles" and continued to maintain passionately that the land should and could provide honest work and a modicum of comfort for all.
He had all the poor whom he championed behind him in this protest; the new Act was regarded by those whom it affected as a climax to all their sufferings, and the misery and disgrace associated with the new poorhouses were scarcely second to those associated with prison.
After this law had been six years in operation and William Cobbett dead nearly as long, the justice of his indignation was proved by the scorn of a brilliant young foreign Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, who told Englishmen that the Poor Law "outraged the manners of the people."
"To control the poor by shutting them up in prisons," he declared, "was contrary to every humane society."
His seconder, Dr. Wakley, was even more forcible:
"Are the paupers of this country slaves? Have they lost the right of every Englishman because they are poor?"
Wakley, a medical man, went on to describe the torments of the poor "women in childbed with accommodation worse than gentlemen give their horse and their dogs."
This increased, almost incredible, misery of the poor on one side, and the cruel fear of the property owners, symbolized by Sir Robert Peel, on the other, which protected the possessions of the wealthy at the expense of the torture of the destitute, created for William Cobbett a situation of unspeakable horror; he could not control his rage, his despair, his invective, and he did not find his profound agitation easy to bear.
The change of life necessitated by a residence in London and attendance at Westminster affected a health which he had begun to believe invulnerable; his cough continued. He was forced to spend some days in the Fleet Street house, not in bed, but writing actively—more and more books. His A History of the Regency and Reign of George IV, a pamphlet on the Malt Tax, Letters to Politicians (such as the Honourable John Stewart Wortley and the Earl of Radnor), in which he made an attack on his old enemy, the potato, and prophesied the speedy end of England:
"the whole fabric of the ancient government absolutely falling to pieces, the working millions all in a state of com motion, their habits of patient industry and of cheerful and willing obedience rooted out of their minds because of their unbearable want, the once happy homesteads of England blazing from the hostile hands of those whose labour had filled them at the harvest, every working man with a resolution no longer to bear the thought of his child in the cradle doomed to be a slave, to eke out his life upon potatoes and salt, that swarms of the monopolists and usurers may wallow in luxury."
There were the railways, too, to be attacked—they were increasing out of all knowledge:
"It is certain that much mischief may arise from these projects. They are unnatural effects arising out of the resources of the country, having drawn unnaturally together in great heap. They are likely to turn out to be monstrous losses to those who have been foolish enough to spend their money on them. However, it is not of much consequence, seeing that they are generally sinking into the hands of Jews, jobbers and usurers."
* * *
Although feeling the effects of old age, overwork, and mental distress, some of his early restlessness revived in William Cobbett, and in 1834 he must be off to Ireland in order to see for himself the condition of these unfortunate people, regarded by the English as "filthy savages and wild barbarians."
His friendship with Daniel O'Connell and his support of the Roman Catholic Emancipation Bill secured him a fine welcome in Dublin, but he was shocked and horrified by what he saw in Ireland. Alive as he had been to all the manifestations of poverty in England, he had never conceived a poverty such as this. In a forcible image he declared that he had seen "A thousand men and women, boys and girls, and all the rags they had on their backs were not worth one English labourer's smocked frock."
Not even the wretched potato could be obtained by the Irish peasant, who lived on oatmeal boiled in water and on broken victuals collected in begging carts, drawn by women from house to house.
Cobbett was quick to notice, as William of Orange had noticed a hundred and sixty years before, that the land itself was rich and fertile, and that misery of the country could not be imputed to the poverty of the soil.
His journey through Ireland was a triumphal progress, and, of course, he contemplated turning it into a pamphlet—Ireland's Woes—a Warning to Englishmen. Nothing, he declared, could be too strong to bring home to the English the state of the sister isle:
"This miserable people have been brought to this state by little and little, and for want of beginning in time to do the things which they ought to have done in their own defence."
The dreadful state of Ireland might well have moved to tears of indignation a more moderate, a less partial man than the English Radical. Who could look without a vicarious sense of shame on what centuries of the rule of the English over people their superior in everything save numbers had 'produced? This egradation of a highly intelligent, chivalrous, sensitive race, possessing a most ancient culture, faithful to a hereditary religion, this reduction to utter misery of a people whose sole fault was their refusal to submit to a choice between slavery and extinction—how could these actions be justified by even the most obstinate of Englishmen? Lord Grey had spoken of the tyranny of Napoleon's exceeding that of Caligula or Nero—an even more forcible comparison might have been employed to describe the English Government of Ireland.
When Caroline of Naples, half-mad with desire for revenge on the Neapolitan republicans, wished to inflict the most atrocious punishment possible on the unhappy city, she could think of nothing more extreme than this—"Treat Naples," she wrote to Lord Nelson, "as you would a rebel Irish town."
When Cobbett saw Ireland, he saw the results of two deliberate attempts to exterminate an entire civilization; he saw a land from which the native nobility and gentry, fine flowers of a fine culture, had been almost entirely removed by murder, or exile; he saw one of the loveliest countries in the world parcelled out among the conquerors and the foreigners, who were enjoying the estates watered by the blood and tears of their rightful owners.
Perhaps he thought of the gay and kind young officer, Edward Fitzgerald, who had commanded the Fifty-Fourth Foot, when he had been a Sergeant-Major, and who had died in a common prison, perhaps he listened to the stories of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett; it is certain that his eyes were opened to a chapter in the history of the English people wholly to their discredit.
And the country was so rich, so fertile, "one acre here," he said, "is worth four acres in Surrey," yet here, were filth, nakedness, starvation, despair; it was hard, indeed, for a spectator of the horrors of Ireland in 1835 "to justify the ways of man to man."
This new experience brought the urge for new labours; Cobbett lectured in Ireland and prepared fresh literary schemes. But it was too late for him to enter the lists as the champion of Ireland. When, fatigued and de pressed, though still full of energy, he returned to London, there was another political crisis. The King had just dismissed the Whigs, there were more pamphlets to write, an election to go through, a mighty struggle against the New Poor Law to be undertaken (he was re-elected with out opposition). A longing for the country, a revulsion from the town, became very strong in the heart of the ageing, ailing man. Even the luxuries of the "Wen" depressed him, "the rattlings of the infernal hackney coaches, the sight of the seventy-five thousand pound gateway and the hundred and fifty thousand pound picture gallery." He longed for "the sweet air, the singing of the birds, and the coming forth of the leaves" of Normandy Farm:
"I hate London, and neither can nor will live in it for a constancy. Besides I have a very fine farm to attend to, and have a brick floor to sit on and write. I have long promised the Poor Man's Bible—it is half done."
He was full of plans; he felt the life within him in exhaustible. But he was much troubled by an increased inflammation of the throat; hoarseness had attacked him recently, when he had attempted to speak, the difficulty with his breathing enfeebled him, still he followed public affairs with lively, eager interest. Wellington had formed a Government after the General Election of 1835; after it, Peel and the Tories were in power, and Cobbett, furious against the Whigs for the Poor Law Act, almost welcomed them. He continued to pour out pamphlets, the most important of which was a simple summary of all his Twopenny Trash—a Legacy to Labourers, in which he expounded once more what he had been insisting on all his life, the rights of the humble poor.
He prepared himself, though hampered by a new enemy, ill-health, to fight in person the Poor Law Act to the last ounce of his strength; he noticed with satisfaction that the resistance of the people threatened severe rioting, perhaps revolution, perhaps civil war—for this cause he too would choose to be a rebel; it was better to fight, to be jailed, to be hanged or transported than be starved into slavery, he remembered Ireland, and presented petition after petition to the Melbourne Ministry.
His thoughts turned with increased longing to his home, which he had made amid the scenes of his happy childhood; Normandy Farm was situate in a lovely valley between Guildford, the clean, shining old town he had so much extolled, and Farnham, where the Jolly Farmer stood near the fine grey-towered church where he had been baptized. All about were the hop-fields and meadows the orchards, the ploughed lands that formed his earliest, warmest recollections, near by were the sand-pits where he had played with his brothers; along the Hog's Back ran the high-road he had been trudging, when he had the impulse to stop and mount the London coach. Surrounding all were the gentle Surrey hills, their pale hues of green, opal and violet blending with the tender azure or the veiled pearl of the English sky.
Dearly he loved his native place, "which spot...is the neatest in England, and, I believe in the whole world. All there is a garden...Arthur Young calls the vale between Farnham and Alton, the finest ten miles in England."
It was in this vale that Normandy Farm stood, and there waited for him his Nancy, who had been quietly faithful to him since, a bride of seventeen, she had married her young soldier in Woolwich church.
The most famous love stories are those attended by crime, misfortune, the breaking of some law, the outraging of some convention, but probably the most beautiful are those which have never been chronicled; perfect happiness baulks the historian and the romancist.
In old age William Cobbett wrote of his wife:
"—a companion, who, deprived of all opportunities of acquiring what is called learning had so much good sense, so much useful knowledge, was so innocent, so just in all her ways, so pure in thought, word and deed, so disinterested, so devoted to me and her children, so free from all disguise, and, withall, so beautiful, so talkative, and in a voice so sweet, so cheering, that I must, seeing that health and capacity which it has pleased God to give me, have been a criminal, if I had done much less than what I have done...Care! What care have I known!...I had a partner that never frowned, that was never subdued in spirit, that never abated a smile on these occasions, that fortified me, and sustained me by her courageous example, and that was just as busy and as zealous in taking care of the remnant as she had been in taking care of the whole; just as cheerful and just as full of careness, when brought down to a mean lodging, as when the mistress of a fine country house."
Exhausted by his political labours William Cobbett travelled to this beloved scene, still unpolluted by the filth from factory chimneys, still free from the stench and rattle of the railway, to the fields where the thatched cottage and the snug farm, the esquire's neat home and the gentleman's Palladian mansion, had not been encroached upon by the gaudy dwelling of the stock jobber, the "rag merchant," and the idler fed by sinecures or the National Debt: to the tender partner who knew nothing of Acts of Parliament, with whom he never discussed anything but love and trust, contentment and joy. He was tired; he looked back over his life with the long vision of one near the journey's end. Lord St. Albans had left his name to foreigners, but to his own people after some time was past, William Cobbett wrote:
"Some generations, at least, will pass away before the name of William Cobbett will cease to be familiar in the mouths of the people of England, and for the rest of the world I care not a straw."
He still hoped for some short space of peace, in which, an old man, he might enjoy his "few fields"; he played with the delusion that he might see England as happy "as when I was born," but his illness was gaining upon him; there could be nothing now, but rest.
* * *
On May 25th, 1832, he left the "Wen" after courageously staying late to vote in the House on the repeal of the Malt Tax despite ill-health, to go down to his farm; he intended to rest, to cure his sore throat. The day after his arrival he inspected his little domain, finding fault here and there, as was his custom, about what had been done in his absence, enjoying himself at being in the country again and among his own family and dependents. Much as he hated the beverage ("slops" as he termed it), tea was served to him in the garden; he drank it with pleasure on that afternoon of Thursday.
That night he was suddenly unwell and the doctor was called in; but on Sunday he appeared to have recovered, and discussed with full intelligence his two overwhelming interests—politics and farming. He looked at the bright, cloudless weather and wished for four days' rain for "the Cobbett corn and the root crop."
On the next day he seemed greatly recovered and irked at being confined in the house, so he was set in a chair and carried round his little estate. As they took him across the field with his four sons beside him, he noticed a little boy in a blue smock with red garters crossing the meadow, and mounting a stile; he looked at the child with alert interest, then turned and smiled with tender meaning—"gave a laughing look"—at his elder son, who understood him perfectly and felt an odd pang. William Cobbett had seen the image of his own childhood—the boy who had walked from this spot to Kew Gardens to see the pagoda and get work among the King's fine glass-houses, grottoes, and gardens: "He seemed refreshed at the sight of the little creature, which he had once precisely resembled, though now at such immeasurable distance."
He was taken back to the house, and at half-past one the next morning died peacefully, closing his eyes as if for sleep.
The rain that he had wished for came on the day of his funeral—the wheel had come full circle; he was buried in the churchyard of Farnham Church, where he had been brought as a child to be christened, and where his rustic ancestors lay under their rude headstones.
It was a quiet ceremony, Daniel O'Connell and the four sons were among the mourners who followed the coffin between the summer hedges that bordered the high-road above the valley farm to the river meadows with lush grass and grey willows that spread between The Jolly Farmer and the handsome church.
The summer rain fell lightly and presently glittered with the intermittent brilliancy of the June day. Ann Cobbett was there with John Fielden and many neighbours and friends; the grave had been dug close to those of the grand-parents, who had lived in the little cottage with the filbert-bush and the damson-bush, the father and mother who had been so happy and so kind, English day-labourers and their wives absorbed now into the native soil they had never left.
The earth was heaped over the coffin, the mourners went to the Bush Inn, the widow and her sons returned to the chill desolation of Normandy Farm, so empty and forlorn in the summer luxuriance.
Beyond the churchyard, in the fields, the English farm boy in the blue smock and the red garters whistled on his way, free of it all.
THE DEATH of her husband must have been like the end of life to Ann Cobbett, but it was twelve years before she was laid beside him in Farnham Churchyard (1848); the seven surviving children proved by their conduct that lives cannot be planned on rigid lines; not one of the four sons became the yeoman farmer Cobbett rejoiced to be, nor yet a passionate Radical, and not one of the daughters married, though they had been educated in a happy domesticity where wifehood and motherhood were considered the supreme vocations for decorous females.
Cobbett had failed to fulfil one of the obligations he enjoined so seriously on others; he left his family unprovided for—his estate was worth about one thousand four hundred pounds; he was only the leaseholder of Normandy Farm, and the other houses had been sold; he also, always muddled about money affairs, had secretly parted with some of his most valuable copyrights to his publishers; this involved his family in a law-suit, which they lost.
The eldest son, William, tried to face these difficulties and to continue The Register, but this, essentially a one-man paper, died under the new editorship and caused the bankruptcy of the younger Cobbett a year after his father's death; among his few assets were the bones of Thomas Paine, which were impounded by the receiver.
William, the second son John Morgan, and the third son James Paul, all became barristers—the last two settled in Manchester;' the Law was hardly a career admired by their father, nor Manchester a place that he would have approved for a residence. John Morgan and James Paul were interested in politics, and the former held his father's seat for Oldham, but as a Conservative (or Tory-Conservative, a term first used in 1834); he married a daughter of John Fielden, his father's friend and colleague.
The youngest son, Richard Baverstock, became a solicitor, and also resided in Manchester, where he had a bookshop and joined the Chartists.
These four sons and Ann, the eldest daughter, wrote various works in the style of their father—William issued various legal text-books. It was all a long way from The Jolly Farmer.
COBBETT'S writings are so thickly strewn with hot references to "blaspheming Jews," bankers, stock jobbers and capitalists, to whom he imputed all the evils under which the poor man groaned, and who were all classed together by him, as "villains," that it is as well to consider briefly the career of a man who represents the above race and the above activities, one who has been named "the outstanding Jewish figure of the...nineteenth century," and "the symbol of his times."
Moses Montefiore came of a family of English Jews settled in London since 1630, of high birth and fine character, who traded with Italy, the country of their origin; his mother was Rachel, of the princely race of Lombroso de Mattos Mocatta, and he was born at Livorno, 1784, while William Cobbett was teaching himself gram mar in Chatham Barracks.
His father was a trader in the then fashionable Leghorn straws, to be seen in so many female portraits of the period and in the marbles of Massa and Carrara, but the son, connected by the marriage of one of his relations with the famous House of Rothschild, entered the Stock Exchange, receiving his Broker's Medal—this was limited to twelve Jews—in 1815, the year of the victory that Jewish financiers had done so much to bring about.
Moses Montefiore acted as broker to the bullion brokers, Mocatta and Goldsmid, and it was to him that Nathan Mayer Rothschild confided the important secret of Napoleon's escape from Elba. From then he was continuously engaged in banking and commercial ventures, financing many of those enterprises which Cobbett detested—gas, life assurance, and issuing the loan in 1835, which enabled the Government to compensate the slave-owners on the abolition of slavery; he received the distinction of being the first Jew elected to the Royal Society, was a director of one of those early railways that Cobbett so loathed, and at the age of forty wound up his business, that he might devote the rest of his life and fortune to his people.
He married Judith Cohen, daughter of a family of distinguished Dutch Jews, a beautiful, highly cultured, intelligent, and charming lady, who warmly assisted him in all his projects for the betterment of their people. In 1831 he purchased a noble mansion in the then admired Gothic style, East Cliff Lodge, Ramsgate, and there entertained the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria. Two years later he raised there a synagogue, which be came the centre of worship for all the devout Jews in Fngland. High worldly distinctions were conferred on Moses Montefiore—the Duke of Norfolk presented him to King William IV in 1829, he was elected to the Athena um in 1830, and appointed High Sheriff and Deputy-Lieutenant for Kent; Queen Victoria summoned him to her first levee, and he was elected Sheriff of the City of London in 1837, being knighted the same year, the first Jew to receive that distinction.
Sir Moses valued his title, because it did honour to his people, and he noted with touching pride: "I had the pleasure of seeing' my banner with Jerusalem floating proudly in the Hall." (The Guildhall.)
When Lord John Russell's Bill for Removing Dis abilities from the Jews came before the Commons nine years later, Sir Robert Peel supported it, giving as one of his reasons the high character and humane missions of Sir Moses Montefiore.
This belated justice done by England to a race so brilliantly intelligent, so finely cultured, so enterprising and so inoffensive, removed one more barbarism from the English Statute Book and opened the way to the emancipation of Jews in other lands where, partly at least, some of the atrocious sufferings of an innocent people began to be lessened through the spread of that sense of liberty first aroused by the French Revolution.
To the cause of the Jews Sir Moses Montefiore devoted himself with as much fervour as William Cobbett dedicated himself to the English peasant—his patriotism for the country that had become merely symbolic to its scattered people was as intense as that of Cobbett for the sweet fields of Surrey.
The rest of his long life—he died in 1885, aged more than a century—was entirely devoted to his religion, his people, and the service of the suffering and persecuted. Across three-quarters of the nineteenth century moves this princely figure of the aristocratic Jew, accompanied by his noble wife, travelling all over the world to relieve his fellows, to plead for them, to assure himself that all was being done that could be done in this, to him, sacred cause. His adventures, his exertions, his travels from land to land, from Court to Court, reveal that single-minded devotion to an ideal which seldom fails of success; that piety which sustains more than food and wine; that implacable sincerity which never admits defeat.
The cynical might, perhaps, suggest that the Rothschild millions had something to do with the measures of justice that Sir Moses obtained for the persecuted Jews, and coloured the warm friendship displayed towards him by the great ones of other races and religions.
This was not so; Sir Moses, who had retired from business so early, was not an extremely wealthy man, and his triumphs were gained through the respect inspired by a rare force of character; when a Roman Cardinal asked him how much of the Rothschild cash had secured the release of the falsely accused Jews in Damascus, he answered: "Not as much as I have given your lackey to hang up my coat."
Money is extremely powerful, but something more than money is needed to accomplish what Sir Moses Montefiore achieved.
This long career, in itself of such intense interest, stands out strangely different from that of William Cobbett—as different as the authoritative profile, dark eyes, and black hair of the stately merchant-prince as depicted in the Dighton etching 1818, are from the blunt, fair features of the English rustic sketched by Bartolozzi—but it is worth while considering them together.
Both these men devoted themselves to obtaining justice for their own people justice, not favours or privileges—both were sincere, single-minded, unsparing of them selves in their several causes.
Yet, to Cobbett, Sir Moses Montefiore represented all that was, by the most hateful means, destroying what was most worth preserving in England, and he would never have admitted that any of the Rothschild-Montefiore activities could possibly have been productive of any good.
The oppressed Eastern Jew was to Cobbett as uninteresting as the manacled African slave, and probably Sir Moses was as indifferent as were Queen Victoria and her Ministers to the miseries of the British factory and mine worker, the child labourer strapped to the bench, the women pulling trucks underground.
Each was to his own God justified.
IT would be ludicrous to attempt to defend the great Universities and schools from the charges so recklessly brought against them by Cobbett, but in view of the famous passage in which he inveighs against Winchester and Westminster, and congratulates himself on having escaped their pernicious influence, it is amusing to take, as an example, the latter school, and to see what manner of men this form of education was producing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when Cobbett was railing.
During this period the school that had numbered Dryden, Locke, George Herbert, Cowley, and Ben Jonson among its alumni, and never contained more than three hundred boys, enriched English life with Edward Gibbon, Robert Southey, Charles Wesley, the two Col-mans, the great sailors, Keppel, Vernon, Howe and Sir Eliab Harvey of the Fighting Temeraire, the distinguished soldiers, Burgoyne, Strafford and Combermere, the politicians Thomas, Pelham-Halles, Jeremy Bentham, the Duke of Newcastle, his cousin Thomas Pelham, the first Earl of Chichester, the Third Duke of Portland, Hough, Warren Hastings, Lord John Russell, Sir Arthur Paget, and "silver-tongued Murray," the great Lord Mansfield.
Perhaps even Cobbett would have allowed some merit to some of these men; his one-time friend "Old Glory," Sir Francis Burdett, was also at Westminster.
Steele mentions that "half the Ministry" came from Westminster, and Charles Lamb pleaded for a weekly free admission to the Royal Tombs, to the Commons, on the ground that many of them had been educated at the neighbouring school. Perhaps it was the thought of Westminster as a nursery for young politicians that so enraged Cobbett, but the majority of those whom he most disliked were educated at Eton.
IT is still possible to see Cobbett's beloved country somewhat as he saw it; Guildford, that he so highly praised, has preserved more of its eighteenth-century aspect than have many country towns; though by no means free from the manifestations of "The Thing," and now almost in the shadow of "The Wen," it is not difficult to imagine it as a background to the gaitered farmers and smocked labourers who were Cobbett's com patriots. One can still follow the road that he took to and from Guildford and Farnham; the landscape is like a palimpsest and the topmost writing is not so thickly placed but that it can be imagined away.
The lovely valley beneath the Hog's Back is little changed; from this gentle height we can look down on the cluster of buildings now known as Normandy, where Cobbett's farm stood, and where there are still farms, ploughed lands, and meadows; this place, exquisite in spring and summer, is delightful enough to justify Cobbett's admiration and affections for his native scene.
Nearer Farnham there are hop-fields—not so many as there once were—sand-pits like those down which the boy Cobbett rolled with his brothers, their smocks tied round their knees. Farnham has great charm, which has survived even those modern "improvements" that Cobbett would have so loathed; beneath the intermittent ugliness and defacements it is possible to reconstruct the little town as it was a hundred years ago.
The Jolly Farmer still stands in part an inn, in part a little general shop—"Cobbett's Birthplace" written across the front testifies to local recognition. If the house has not been altered, it must have been of some pretensions in 1763, for it is much larger than the one-storey thatched inns where Morland's rustics drink their ale—a good example is in his September Morning.
The birthplace is near the grave; the handsome parish church stands on slightly rising ground above the river meadows with willows and thick grass; the avenue of gnarled trees must have been there for Cobbett to pass through.
Near the porch is the heavy altar-tomb with railing, in the dull tasteless fashion of the nineteenth century; the inscription has been renewed by some pious hand, so that now the letters are metal on granite and beyond the reach of time and weather. It is very simple—birth, enlistment, rise to Sergeant-Major, political writer, member of Parliament, death. Not a word of the famous imprisonment, of the dead man's convictions, no text or pious ejaculation, no hope expressed of mercy or resurrection to come; Thomas Paine himself might have approved such an epitaph.
The other side of the tomb tells us that Ann Cobbett—who was "so beautiful and so talkative "—also lies here, for ever obscured and for ever silent; again nothing but the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death-1848 when Queen Victoria had been eleven years on the throne.
The humble headstones of father and grandfather have been gathered within the railing, modestly sharing the respect offered to the successful and the famous.
Is the busy mother who made her little boys happy, is the grandmother who, though blind, knitted their cosy stockings, gathered into this rustic Pantheon?
Within the church is a mural tablet, erected to William Cobbett at the cost of John Fielden; ugly, but costly enough no doubt, in marble with disproportionate pillars and a well-modelled bust in relief in the classic style—yet again nothing but the bare fact that John Fielden has placed the memorial to William Cobbett.
The head, profile to the right, and truncated at the neck, like the bust on a coin, bears a strong resemblance to the few existing portraits of Cobbett; but the expression is serious to the point of anxiety, as if the complexity of life had been, after all, too much for the simple man.
No doubt the little boy who set out to walk to Kew more than a hundred and fifty years ago would have been very proud could he have foreseen that he would have, in the home church he was leaving behind in the summer blue, one day so fine a tomb, so respectable a memorial; and he would' have been most pleased could he have guessed that one day "Cobbett's Birthplace" would be written across The Jolly Farmer.
TO obtain a full knowledge of William Cobbett it is necessary to read his self-revealing books and pamphlets, so crowded with descriptions of his own life, so full of insights into his own character, opinions, and feelings.
His excellent style, clear, exact, and forcible, has earned him a place among famous English writers, but his matter is usually interesting only to the historian or the reader immediately concerned with Cobbett himself; for, though his invective, his power of abuse, his violence, and emphatic opinions have been much admired as signs of honesty and virility, they soon become fatiguing and exasperating to the liberal-minded.
Cobbett is, above all, a journalist; he deals entirely with what were to him topical subjects; he addresses one particular audience. His concern with the great interests of his life obtrudes even into his Grammar, where it enlightens an austere subject, and into his finest work, the Rural Rides, where it spoils what might have been a book with a more specialized appeal.
It is quite amusing to lament modern restraint, which has caused the art of abuse to become extinct, but it can hardly be denied that few works shot with fierce prejudices, bitter hatreds, and furious invective, have much chance of survival; irony, the rapier of the gentleman, is always keen and elegant—the crude sarcasm of the peasant, as heavy as the quarter-stick wielded on the village green, soon becomes an obsolete weapon.
Cobbett's self-satisfaction, so continually and so flatly expressed, also spoils his work—such noisy vanity can be as assailing to the subtle-minded as the cool, silent arrogance of Lord Castlereagh was to the simplicity of William Cobbett.
He was good-humouredly referred to, in his own life time, as "good roast beef," "mutton broth," "old plum-pudding," etc., and he gloried in these epithets, which represent, doubtless, qualities that are admirable, if they are not too much stressed; farm-house fare is excellent, but it does not comprise dishes suitable for everyone's table at every meal, nor is he whose appetite is too squeamish for such relishes inevitably afflicted with bad taste. Many men besides William Cobbett have risen from the common people to fame, and most of them have preserved some humility.
Cobbett knew nothing of literature as an art, as his comments on Shakespeare and Milton show, and he was, as far as he was literary at all, one of those artless writers who unconsciously achieve success.
His real triumph lay in his clear exposition of his case; here he did what he set out to do, put plain sense in plain terms, and appealed directly to the class he wished to teach and guide—the inarticulate, unrepresented, often illiterate peasant.
Much of his advice is sound, and the truth of his remarks on the bringing up of children, the rearing of infants, the duties of wives and mothers, could never be disputed by an intelligent person of any period or condition. It is unfortunate that so many of his strictures on the conduct of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might still be applied to-day—that barbarism, "the wet nurse," may be extinct in Britain, but her place has been taken by the feeding-bottle, probably with increased injury to the infant; on the education of girls, on the drawbacks of the boarding-school, on the servant question, indeed on all that concerns domestic life, Cobbett was far ahead of his own time, and indeed ahead of the present times.
Many of his other dicta are of less general application, some are outdated, but when he set them forth they were very suitable to the period and to the people addressed.
Politics mingle in all his writings; as his sole weapon was his pen he was forced to become a newspaper agitator, and none of his schemes was seriously considered by those then in power; some of these schemes were impracticable, some unreasonable, but many that then seemed fantastic or foolishly partial have now become part of our system of government. Many of the wrongs of the poor that Cobbett employed his talents to protest against, have been redressed—and what he would have been amazed to learn, as much through the efforts of the aristocrats and middle classes as through the struggles of the common people themselves; in much he was a true prophet, and it is probable that, given the opportunity, he would have shown considerable constructive ability in dealing with social problems—some of his bitterness is the bitterness of the man who knows what he can do and is not permitted to do it.
In considering Cobbett's literary output, therefore, we should keep in mind that "my nearly a hundred books" were deliberate means to a definite end, and had no pretensions to be anything else.
His good style is the outcome of a clear mind, a passionate conviction, an emphatic simplicity of outlook, and the love of a precise, tidy disposition for correct grammar.
Towards some aspects of life William Cobbett was deaf; blind and inarticulate; music to him meant the scrape of the fiddle in the taproom or on the village green, poetry was a symptom of effeminate idleness, painting might serve to enforce a moral lesson or as caricature to adorn a political pamphlet; in general, the arts were a waste of time and usually a bad moral influence.
William Hogarth might be tolerated, because he knew and passionately cared about such plain abstractions as vice and virtue, industry and idleness, but William Shakespeare was not to be endured, because his values were not those of a plain, honest man, because of his bawdy talk, and because of his horrid zest for puns.
It might not be thought startling that William Cobbett objected to these examples of Elizabethan bad taste, were we not aware that this peasant who cared nothing about the arts is himself an asset to English literature because of the excellent English in which he expressed his vehement and simple thoughts.
Indeed his matter, so vital to him, was for long dis regarded because of the merit of his manner, of which he thought very little.
This literary achievement in so unlikely a person is less surprising when we consider that it was founded on grammar. William Cobbett had a great deal to say; he was the born journalist always ready with eager commentary on what was passing about him, and the born political writer always willing to rush into a debate or to accept a challenge, and his native shrewdness told him that if he was to write effectively he must learn grammar. He had not that smattering of education which deceives so many into trusting their own ignorance. Handicapped by no oddments of ill-digested learning and humbly conscious of his own lack of knowledge, he set his strong mind the task of learning grammar as he set his strong hands the task of planting and sowing, pruning and reaping.
The labour was easily accomplished and gave him vast and lasting satisfaction. He was an egoist and nothing seems to gratify the egoist mere than a knowledge of grammar; the pride of the grammarian seems to exceed all other pride, he is like a man armed with a stick and everlastingly using it on others, even on those who may be his superiors in all but this. So the acquisition of this power gave a great sense of superiority to the self-taught peasant and deeply pleased his simple vanity; there was hardly anyone that he met who might not be caught up on some point of grammar, hardly any book that might be opened which was not sadly deficient in grammar. He was able to laugh at those better born, better educated, more powerful than himself because he could detect in their speech or writing slips of grammar.
His knowledge was also dear to him because it had been self-acquired; he had gloried in this learning of a difficult thing under difficulties, as no scholar ever gloried in studies undertaken at ease, and he made good use of this weapon he had seized for himself.
There is more than painstaking exactitude in William Cobbett's work, he had a natural genius for language, which inspired his style, which is a model of its kind, but it is of peculiar interest as being one of the few examples of literature arising from the use of pure grammar to express the thoughts of a self-educated man.
William Cobbett had no vision to describe, no dream to preserve, no story to tell, no wild emotions to relieve; these things, which have been the inspiration of so many writers, did not concern him; nor did he write from sheer love of letters or from admiration for older masters, he wrote because he wanted to express plain thoughts in a plain but correct style. He achieved this ambition, his method is eminently suited to his matter, and, like J. J. Rousseau, he owed much of his popularity to his limpid, exact and attractive manner of writing.
Much as Cobbett admired Dean Swift, he did not copy his style; the two men were very different in themselves and in their writings; Swift gives the impression that he could have said brilliantly anything he chose to say, while Cobbett gives that of only being able to say just what he did say, his limitations are always apparent to the mind of the reader, and the monotony of his circumscribed interests becomes as irritating to others as the grammatical mistakes in other writers were to him. The difference between the two authors may be thus illustrated; it is felt, when considering them, that Dean Swift could have described William Cobbett accurately in a few lines, and that William Cobbett could never have understood the half of Dean Swift.
Several examples of Cobbett's style have already been given; every reader of such a prolific author will have his own favourites; the following passage gives a good idea of both Cobbett's own character and his power of boldly describing a vivid scene.
It is an electioneering episode, slipped into the rambling page of The American Journal, and attacks one of Cobbett's aversions—"the parsons."
"You saw them all assembled (that is, the
parsons) in grand cohort the last time that I saw any of you. You
saw them at Winchester, when they brought forward their lying
address to the Regent. You saw them on that day, and so did I; and
in them I saw a band of more complete blackguards than I ever
before saw in all my life. I then saw Parson Baines of Exton,
standing up in a chair and actually spitting in Lord Cochrane's
poll, while the latter was bending his neck out to speak. Lord
Cochrane looked round and said, 'B.G.—Sir, if you do that
again I'll knock you down.' 'You be d——d,' said Baines,
'I'll spit where I like.' Lord Cochrane struck at him; Baines
jumped down, put his two hands to his mouth in a huntsman-like way,
and cried: 'Whoop! whoop!' till he was actually black in the face.
One of them trampled upon my heel as I was speaking. I looked
round, and begged him to leave off: 'You be d——d,' said
he, 'you be d——d, Jacobin.' He then tried to press on
me, to stifle my voice, till I clapped my elbow into his ribs and
made 'the spiritual person' hiccup. There were about twenty of them
mounted upon a large table in the room; and there they jumped,
stamped, hallooed, roared, thumped with canes and umbrellas,
squalled, whistled, and made all sorts of noises. As Lord Cochrane
and I were going back to London, he said that, so many years as he
had been in the navy, he had never seen a band of such complete
black guards. And I said the same for the army. And, I declare,
that, in the whole course of my life, I have never seen any men,
drunk or sober, behave in so infamous a manner.
"But the mass was the most audacious, foul, and atrocious body of men I ever saw. We had done nothing to offend them. We had proposed nothing to offend them in the smallest degree. But, they were afraid of our speeches; they knew they could not answer us; and they were resolved, that, if possible, we should not be heard. There was one person, who had his mouth within a foot of Lord Cochrane's ear, all the time his Lordship was speaking, and who kept on saying: 'You lie! you lie! you lie! you lie!' as loud as he could utter the words.
"Baker, the Bosley Parson, was extremely busy. He acted the part of buffoon to Lockhart. He kept capering about behind him, and really seemed like a merry andrew rather than a 'spiritual person.'"
THE STANDARD LIFE of William Cobbett is that by G. D. H. Cole (London 1925); this contains a full account of Cobbett's career and a complete relation of his complicated political background; there is an exhaustive chapter by F. E. Green on the Rural Rides, a bibliography of Cobbett's numerous works, including his pamphlets, translations, and books that he edited.
There is also a bibliography of works on Cobbett him self, and a note on those valuable for a study of his time. Mr. Cole's skill, learning, and impartiality make his biography indispensable to anyone wishing to learn of either William Cobbett himself or his period. None of the previous biographies of Cobbett is of much value and Mr. Cole's work supersedes them all.
The standard histories of England, France, and the United States may be consulted for the story of 1763-1835; and the following books for detailed expositions of the problems which chiefly concerned William Cobbett; it is very notable how modern historical research, the patient labour of experts, and the bearing of trained, impartial minds on questions long obscured by passion, have not only clarified darknesses that seemed impenetrable but reversed judgments that seemed infallible.
In The National Dictionary of Biography are articles on all the prominent men of William Cobbett's time, with copious references to further sources of information. A Modern History of England by G. R. Stirling Taylor (London 1932) provides an excellent example of the view point of a highly intelligent modern writer who sees the past without prejudice or sentiment.
Great Events in History (London 1934), edited by G. R. Stirling Taylor, contains three articles bearing on the nineteenth-century situation in England: The Invention of Machinery, by E. Lipson, The Arrival of Labour in Politics by G. D. H. Cole, and The Triumph of Laisser-Faire by G. R. Stirling Taylor.
The works of J. L. and B. Hammond are essential for an understanding of the social conditions of England during William Cobbett's life-time: The Town Labourer, The Skilled Labourer, and The Village Labourer; other standard works on aspects of the Industrial Revolution are Common Land and Enclosure, E. C. K. Gouner, Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century, C. R. Fay; Industrial History of Modern England, G. H. Perris; The Economic History of England, Vols. II, III by E. Lipson; Short History of the British Working-Class Movement by G. D. H. Cole; Life of Francis Place by Graham Wallas; The Passing of the Great Reform Bill, J. R. M. Butler; The English Jacobins, E. G. Smith; The Growth of English Industry and Commerce, 2 vols., W. Cunningham; British History, 1700-1822, C. R. Cruttwell, 1928, is a useful work, written from the orthodox point of view, for students, but extremely helpful to the general reader.
The above books constitute only a very brief bibliography of a very large subject, but the interested reader will find that they contain, either in themselves or through the references that they provide to other works, comprehensive materials for the life and times of William Cobbett; the present biography is not of sufficient pretensions either for a detailed bibliography or for notes or continual references in the text; any statement that the reader feels inclined to challenge can be checked from the sources given above.
Cobbett intended to write his autobiography—The Progress of a Ploughboy to a Seat in Parliament—and under this title, published London N.D., there is a most ingenious compilation from his own works, which reads like a consecutive narrative, and which is nearly all in Cobbett's own words. The compiler and editor is William Reitzel.
The Life of Thomas Paine by M. D. Conway (London 1892) contains Cobbett's sketch of Paine. The bulk of Cobbett's writings has suffered the fate of most journalism; scattered and seldom reprinted, save in brief extracts, they are lost to all but the student of nineteenth-century politics. Several of Cobbett's more ambitious efforts, the "famous" books of which he was so proud, are still in print and easily obtainable; the more important are:
Finally, there is the brilliant study of William Cobbett by G. K. Chesterton, which contains an original, sympathetic, and profound appraisement of the nineteenth-century reformer by one of the most sincere and attractive of modern thinkers.
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