- William Cobbett, the Press and Rural England: Radicalism and the Fourth Estate, 1792–1835 by James Grande
This new study of William Cobbett’s journalism draws heavily on a collection of family papers lodged at Nuffield College, Oxford and presents a convincing portrait of radical writing during the transition of Georgian to Victorian England. Cobbett’s own literary interests and achievements evolved during that forty-year period and unfolded with dramatic and unexpected turns. He began the world by enlisting in the army in 1784 at 21 and served King and country for seven years. Stationed in Eastern Canada, he educated himself and earned the respect of his superiors by helping them improve their own written English before returning home in 1791 for six months, only to escape the prospect of arrest by fleeing to revolutionary Paris with his new wife. The Government, angered by his advocacy of fair pay for the common soldier and unhappy with proceedings Cobbett intended to initiate against officers in his regiment for peculation, trumped up charges of sedition against the publisher of the anonymous Soldier’s Friend. France after the de facto imprisonment of the royal family in October 1791 proved no more attractive than Jacobin-fearing England; six months later, fearing the outbreak of war between the two countries, Cobbett fled to the United States. Once settled in Wilmington, Delaware in the winter of 1791–92, he began teaching English to French émigrés before immersing himself in US politics, the results of which were several publications increasingly strident in their patriotism and distaste for life in America. “‘This country is good for getting money,’” he conceded in a letter to a friend but in every other respect he found life there distasteful (28). These reservations deepened and subsequently appeared under the appropriately titled Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine (1796), an early instance of the engaged, combative journalism that was to remain the hallmark of his career.
The Cobbett who returned England in 1800 bore little resemblance to the infantryman with an honorable discharge who had prosecuted his studies “‘amidst the woods and snows of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick’” (105). Within a decade, this one had earned his stripes as a journalist with a political agenda honed in Anglo-American politics and eager to engage in public issues, of which there was no shortage. Determined to promote his version of an “Old England” based on the practical virtues of a traditional rural life combined with an unflagging assault on corruption he launched first The Porcupine (1801) and then Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register. The former with its motto, “‘Fear God, Honour the King,’” and a “bellicose, Francophobic Britishness” (39) lasted only a year, but his Weekly Political Register endured until Cobbett’s death in 1835. Further projects followed, including his plan [End Page 165] to publish accurate transcripts of parliamentary speeches. This project, he believed, was one of “‘great political importance’” as a way to counter the bias he encountered in the daily press. Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates proved a success, a rival to The Mirror of Parliament on which Dickens began his career, and a leading organ until Hansard became the official government publication in 1829. Another later endeavor also struck home, but not in the way Cobbett intended. A continuing assault in the Political Register on the wisdom of the Government’s suspension of specie (introduced in 1797) earned him two years in Newgate Prison for seditious libel (1810–12). Incarceration inflicted a blow on Cobbett’s financial welfare, but he remained defiant despite the repressive policies of a Government easily spooked by rumors of rebellion at home. Prompted by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in March 1817 and fearing the prospect of re-imprisonment without trial, Cobbett sought sanctuary in the United States a second time.
Throughout the two and a half years of his later exile, Cobbett conducted his journalistic work from the other side of the Atlantic until he returned in June 1820. Popular radical opinion...