Cobbett, William

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Cobbett, William (1763-1835): English Writer.

Cobbett was a popular English journalist and essayist who is famous for agitating for political reform in the days leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832 and who was, at various points in his career, against classical education, the influence of foreign culture in England, paper money, and the abolition of the slave trade. Of humble birth, he was only semiliterate in his youth, but taught himself the rules of English grammar, on which he later published a book for working-class students (1818), while in the army. He left the army in order to prosecute his officers for fraud and had to leave the country when they threatened to retaliate.

Initially conservative, he began his writing career by commenting on the French revolution. Having fled criminal charges in England, he lived in America, where he wrote pamphlets attacking the revolution, American democracy, and political radicalism of all sorts as editor of the Porcupine’s Gazette in Philadelphia. He returned to England in 1800, where he edited the Political Register (1802), a Tory journal that became, after 1806, dedicated to political radicalism after Cobbett came under the influence of Paine, Thomas. In 1810, because of his opinions regarding the flogging of militiamen, Cobbett was imprisoned for two years for seditious libel and bankrupted. Thereafter, he championed the cause of the discontented working classes until having to flee to Long Island in 1817 to avoid criminal charges. He returned to England in 1820 with the bones of Thomas Paine, which he had rescued from an obscure American grave. He ran a seed farm in Kensington and defended himself against a charge of sedition (1831). He was a Member of Parliament from 1832-35 and the leader of a group of radicals. He died in 1835. Cobbett’s most famous works are Rural Rides, Cottage Economy, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, and Advice to Young Men.

Further Reading:

Nattrass, Leonora. William Cobbett: The Politics of Style, 1995.

Paul Beidler