William Cobbett

Life
1763-1835; b. 9 March, 1763, Farnham, Surrey, at Jolly Farmer pub; ran away and clerked in London (“the Wen”); self-educated, enlisted in regular army, acting as effective head of garrison at New Brunswick, 1784-91, thogh ranked sargeant; read Pope, Swift and Dr. Johnson; quit the army in 1791, and wrote anon. Pamphlet, The Soldier’s Friend, accusing officers of 54th of peculation; escaped to France to avoid prosecution for same, March 1792; stayed at Tilque, nr. St. Omer, March -Aug. 1796; witness the early period of the Terror; returtned to America and formed antipathy to Jefferson, issued The Infamous Tom Paine, pamphlet; also Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine (Philadephia 1796), a pro-British tract, protesting earlier identification with Paine; praised Burke at his death for ‘Herculean, invaluable and immortal labours’, 1797; returned to England, 1800; adopted Paine’s economic views, esp. on paper money; brought Paine’s bones back to England; his Works (1801) were critical of America; in London, fnd. anti-Radical journal, Cobbett’s Political Register, 1802; views swung round; Rural Rides began in the Register in 1821; History of the Protestant ‘Reformation’ in England and Ireland (1824), and Advice to Young Men (1829). Biographies by G. D. H. Cole (1924) and G. Spater (1982). ODNB OCEL

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Works
The History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, revised by Cardinal Gasquet [1834] (London: Oates 1929), 415pp.; Mary Elizabeth Clark, Peter Porcupine in America: The Career of William Cobbett, 1792-1800 (Philadelphia: Times & News Publ. 1939); Noel Thompson and David Eastwoods, eds., The Collected Social and Political Works of William Cobbett, 17 vols. (London: Routledge/Thoemmes 1998) [1,200].

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Criticism
[M. J. Whitty], ‘Memoirs of Mr. Cobbett’, in The New Irish Magazine and National Advocate (July 1822), pp.145-47.

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Commentary

Roy Foster, Modern Ireland, p. 320, Cobbett regarded the dependence of Irish peasants on the potato as an immorality, in his letters from Ireland (1834).

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References
Univ. of Ulster (Morris Collection) holds Denis Knight, Cobbett in Ireland, a Warning to the English (1984), 302pp; ‘Reformation’, MOR BR375; Peter Porcupine (Nonesuch 1927); William Reitzel, ed., Progress of a Ploughboy (1933); Asa Briggs, intro., Rural Rides, 2 vols. (1912); Raymond Williams, William Cobbett (1983); Molly Townsend, ed., Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835 (1983); A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (?1834), 415p.

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Quotations
‘It is not by bullets and bayonets that I should recommend the attempt to be made but by conciliation by means suited to enlighten the Irish people respecting their rights and duties and by conceding to them those privileges which in common with all mankind, they have a natural and legitimate right to enjoy.’ (1815; reprint in Cobbett’s Ireland, 1990.)

‘In one street ... I saw more misery than any man could have believed existed in the whole world. Men sleeping in the same wisp of dirty straw, or weeds, with their mothers, sisters and aunts; and compelled to do so, or perish; two or three families in one room, that is to say a miserable hole 10 feet by 8 or 9; and husbands, wives, sons, daughters, all huddled together, paying 6d or 8d or Iod a week for the room; and the rent paid to a “nobleman” in England ... . At a place in the country [near Limerick city] I went to the dwelling of a widower, who is nearly 60 years of age, and who had five children, all very nearly stark naked. The eldest girl, who is fifteen years of age, had a sort of apron to hide the middle part of her body before, and that was all she had. She hid herself, as well as she could, behind or at the end of, an old broken cupboard; and she held up her two arms and hands to hide her breasts. This man pays 30s rent for an acre of the poorest land.’ (Rural Rides, London 1830, Vol. 3, pp.902-03; Cited in W. J. McCaormack, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland, 1991 Edn., p.20.)

(Peter Porcupine, 1796), ‘I went to that country [France] full of all the prejudices that Englishmen such in with their mother’s milk, against the French and against their religion; a few weeks convinced me that I had been deceived with respect to both. I met everywhere with civility and hospitality, in a degree that I have never been accustomed to. I found the people, excepting those who were already blasted with the principles of the accursed revolution, honest, pious and kind to excess.’ (Quoted in Richard West, review of Noel Thompson and David Eastwoods, eds., The Collected Social and Political Works of William Cobbett, 17 vols. (Routledge/Thoemmes 1998) [reviewer notes that Cobbett must have witnessed the flight of royalists towards the channel ports, and that he set out for the capital on 9 Aug. 1792, but turned back for fear of consequences at outbreak of the terror; cites further details of the horrors of the period and his reaction to them.]

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