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COBBETT'S POLITICAL WORKS 1
COBBETT is gradually becoming a mere name to us, though he is probably the only, or almost the only, Englishman who ever rose to real greatness exclusively as a journalist. We propose to attempt to draw a slight outline of the man and of his most characteristic opinions, taking as our authority the selections made by his sons from his political writings in America and England. Familiar as his name was within living memory,
necessary for the information of many at least of our readers to give a short outline of his career.
His writings contain, among other matters, materials for a complete autobiography, if any one took the trouble to extract, and arrange in chronological order, the statements which he made, at various times, as
1 Selections from Cobbett's Political Works. Being a complete · Abridgment of the 100 Volumes which comprise the Writings of Porcupine and the Weekly Political Register. With Notes, Historical, and Explanatory. By John M. and James P. Cobbett. 6 vols.
to the leading incidents of his life. He was born in Hampshire in or about the year 1765. He was the son of a farmer, and the grandson of a labourer who, as he boasted, lived for forty years in the same service. In 1784 he enlisted at Chatham in the 54th Regiment of Foot, and served in it in the North American provinces, especially in Nova Scotia and Canada, from 1785 to 1792, when the regiment (of which, by the way, Lord Edward Fitzgerald was Major) returned to England.
His great talents raised him almost immediately to the rank of corporal, and within about a year and a half to that of sergeant-major. He gives an account, in a letter written to the independent people of Hampshire,' in 1809, of his career in the regiment. It is a most characteristic passage, but, full as it is of vanity, it is fair to Cobbett to say that there is reason to believe it to be substantially true. He was clerk to the regiment, and he says, 'In a very short time the whole of the business in that way fell into my hands, and at the end of about a year neither adjutant, paymaster, nor quartermaster could move an inch without my assistance. The military part of the regiment's affairs fell under my care in like manner.'
He describes how a new drill-book came out, and how he had first to learn it and then teach it to others, 'to give lectures of instruction to the officers themselves, the colonel not excepted.' He thus came
to have a wonderful opinion of himself, which continued to characterise him in all departments of affairs through the whole of his life: “As I advanced in experience I felt less and less respect for those whom I was compelled to obey. . . . From 19 to 27 is not much of an age for moderation, especially with those who must necessarily despise all around them. But the fame of my services and talents ran through the whole country. I had the affairs of a whole regiment to attend to. ..I found, however, time for studying English and French grammar ; I learnt geometry and fortifica
; tion; I built a barrack for 400 men, without the aid of either draughtsman, carpenter, or bricklayer. The soldiers under me cut the timber and dug the stones, and I was the architect. ... With all these occupations (of which I mention only a few particulars that occur to me at the moment) I found time for skating, fishing, shooting, and all the other sports of the country, of which, when I left it, I had seen and knew more than any other man.'
With all these gifts, and especially with a thorough knowledge of both English grammar and the French language, which performed for him the very same office which a classical education performs for young men of a different class, Cobbett applied for, and obtained, his discharge from the army in 1792. He did so, although he had the prospect of receiving a commission without purchase, in order to expose certain frauds which he had detected in the quartermaster's department. In the letter which we have already quoted he gives a long account of his attempts to obtain a court-martial, and of the shuffling manner in which, as he says, he was put off. His enemies afterwards charged him with having flinched from his accusations when it came to the point, to which he replies by charging them with all manner of frauds.
Be this as it may, he left the army in 1792, and went to France with his young wife. He was both disgusted and reasonably alarmed at the scenes into the midst of which he fell, for he was in France (though not at Paris) till shortly before the September massacres; and he accordingly sailed from
; Havre to America, and settled at Philadelphia, where he gave lessons in the English language to the French emigrants.
He afterwards began to publish a paper in favour of the Federalists and the English alliance, which was called by different names, and at last Porcupine's Gazette. He carried on in it for several years, furious polemics with various persons, and especially with the unhappy Democrats, whom he lashed with more than all the fury which he afterwards poured upon the heads of English Tories. In March 1795, for instance, after much dwelling on the brutalities of the Revolution, he observes, 'At the very name of Democrat, humanity shudders and modesty hides its head.' He returned to England in 1800, in great favour, as his sons say, with the powers of the day, and he received offers of assistance both from Mr. Windham and Mr. Pitt. He, however, refused them, and shortly afterwards differed with the Government about the Peace of Amiens, the policy of which he disputed.
In 1802 he established the Political Register, and continued it till his death. In 1810 he was imprisoned in Newgate for a year, for what in those days was considered a libel, and he went over to America in 1817 in order to avoid the operation of the Six Acts. He stayed there about two years, when he returned to England, and continued his avocations with no other interruption till his death, on the 18th June 1835. It should be added that he sat for Oldham in the first Reformed Parliament; but he achieved no marked success in the House.
Such, in outline, was Cobbett's career. We will now attempt to give some estimate of the man himself, and some account of his more characteristic opinions. If we had to take a representative man from each of the three kingdoms, Cobbett, O'Connell, and Walter Scott would be by no means bad men to choose. Cobbett was a model John Bull. He had all the characteristics of the race in an exaggerated form, and the chief interest which now attaches to his opinions, arises from the degree in which they illustrate the strength and the weakness of a thorough-bred Englishman, of much more than average power, but not of more than average enlightenment.