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Definition: Cobbett, William from Philip's Encyclopedia

English journalist and political reformer. He fought for the British in the American Revolution, and his criticism of the fledgling democracy in the United States forced his return to England. In 1802, Cobbett founded the weekly newspaper Political Register. He was an outspoken critic of abuses of political power and was imprisoned (1810-12) for his attack on flogging in the army and forced into exile (1817-19) in the USA. His masterpiece, Rural Rides (1830), describes the conditions of rural workers. He was elected to Parliament in 1832.


Summary Article: Cobbett, William
from Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Birth Date: March 9, 1763

Death Date: June 18, 1835

British journalist and political reformer. Born in Farnham, Surrey, England, on March 9, 1763, William Cobbett was self-educated and as a young man worked as a plowboy and gardener. During 1783–1791 he served in the British Army in the 54th (the West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot, with service in New Brunswick; he became clerk of the regiment and rose to the rank of sergeant major. Following discharge in 1791, he wrote a pamphlet titled The Soldier's Friend that was a harsh indictment of the poor treatment and pay of soldiers.

Facing prosecution for publishing a pamphlet against the army, Cobbett fled briefly to France before going to the United States and settling in Philadelphia, where he lived from 1792 until 1800. He continued to write and publish in the United States, usually under the pseudonym “Peter Porcupine,” gaining prominence and notoriety for his vehement polemics condemning the French Revolution, the principles of the Democratic Republicans, and U.S. society in general. His writings were published in 1801 in 12 volumes as Porcupine's Works. Prominent targets of his writing in the United States were Joseph Priestley and Dr. Benjamin Rush. When Rush successfully sued Cobbett for libel, Cobbett returned to England in 1800. His journalism in the United States influenced the growing trend of shrill political partisanship in the press.

In England, Cobbett founded a daily newspaper, the Porcupine, in 1800 and then in 1802 founded the weekly journal Political Register that ran until his death. An advocate of political reform, he was also inconsistent in his politics. At times he supported Great Britain, and at other times he supported the United States. During the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, Cobbett defended Britain's right to search the Chesapeake for Royal Navy deserters. However, in the 1811 President–Little Belt Affair, Cobbett sided with the United States. During the War of 1812, he published The Pride of Britannia Humbled: The Queen of the Ocean Unqueen'd (1815), which commended the successes of the U.S. Navy.

In the midst of political and financial difficulties in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Cobbett returned to America in 1817, again settling in Philadelphia until 1819. Again returning to England, Cobbett became involved in the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820, devoting many articles in the Political Register to the cause. He continued to publish other works as well, having some success with agricultural writings and reports from his rural rides throughout the southern counties, published in serial form during 1822–1826 and in book form as Rural Rides (1830). After the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, he was elected a member of Parliament from Oldham, from which he attacked corruption in government and the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Cobbett continued to write until his death in Normandy, Surrey, on June 18, 1835.

See also

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair; President-Little Belt Affair

Further Reading
  • Cole, G. D. H. The Life of William Cobbett. Routledge London, 2010.
  • Ingrams, Richard. The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett. HarperCollins New York, 2005.
  • Nattrass, Leonora. William Cobbett: The Politics of Style. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 2007.
  • Stevenson, John. “William Cobbett: Patriot or Briton?” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 6 (1996): 123-136.
  • Timothy J. Demy
    Copyright 2012 by Spencer C. Tucker

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