William Cobbett (March 9, 1763 - June 18, 1835) was a radical agriculturist and prolific journalist. He was born at Farnham, Surrey. He thought that the reform of Parliament and the abolition of the rotten boroughs would help cure the poverty of the farm labourers. Cobbett constantly attacked the borough-mongers, sinecurists and tax-eaters. He opposed the Corn Laws, a tax on imported grain.
Through the many apparent inconsistencies in Cobbett's life, one strand continued to run: an ingrained opposition to authority and a suspicion of novelty. Early in his career, he was a "loyalist" supporter of King and Country; later, he joined (and arguably helped inspire) the burgeoning radical movement.
On 6th May 1783, he took the stagecoach to London and spent eight or nine months as a clerk in the employ of a Mr Holland at Gray's Inn. He enlisted in the army in 1784 where he taught himself to read and write. His regiment was posted to New Brunswick and he sailed from Gravesend to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cobbett was in St Johns, Frederickton and elsewhere in the province until September 1791. He rose through the ranks to become Sergeant Major.
He returned to England with his regiment landing at Portsmouth 3rd November 1791 and obtained his discharge from the army on 19th December 1791.
He had developed a disdain for the corrupt officer class, gathering evidence while in New Brunswick, but his charges against officers were sidetracked. He fled to France in March 1792 to avoid retribution. Intending to stay a year to learn the language he found the French Revolution breaking out so Cobbett sailed for the United States in September 1792.
He was first at Wilmington and then Philadelphia by the Spring of 1793. Cobbett initially prospered by teaching English to Frenchmen and translating texts from French to English. He became a controversial political writer and pamphleteer writing with a pro-British stance under the pseudonym 'Peter Porcupine'.
A disastrous lawsuit led to his financial ruin in 1799 and he returned to England in 1800 sailing from New York, via Halifax, to Falmouth. Cobbett was greeted warmly by the British establishment on arrival but refused all offers of reward for his propagandising in the United States.
He began publishing the Parliamentary Debates in 1802. This record of Parliament later became known as Hansard. Cobbett stood for Parliament in Honiton in 1806. He was unsuccessful as he refused to bribe the electorate by 'buying' votes.
Cobbett was found guilty of treasonous libel on 15th June 1810 after objecting in 'The Register' to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen by Hanoverians. He was sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison. While in prison he wrote the pamphlet 'Paper against Gold', warning of the dangers of paper money, as well as many Essays and Letters. On his release a dinner in London, for 600, was given in his honour, presided over by Sir Francis Burdett.
His suspicious character became more pronounced towards the end of his long life. Following the passage of the Power of Imprisonment Bill in 1817 and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings, he fled to the United States. On Wednesday 27 March 1817 at Liverpool he embarked on board the ship IMPORTER, D. Ogden master, bound for New York, accompanied by his two eldest sons, William and John.
A plan to return to England bearing Tom Paine's bones--so that they might have a suitable burial--led to the loss of his predecessor's remains. Cobbett arrived back at Liverpool by ship in November 1819. In 1820 he stood for Parliament in Coventry but finished bottom of the poll.
Cobbett met John 'Mad Jack' Fuller at a public meeting in Battle, East Sussex in 1822. His most famous book, Rural Rides, was published in 1830, an account of his travels on horseback in southern England in the 1820s. Cobbett was elected a Member of Parliament for Oldham in Lancashire in 1832. Macaulay, a fellow member, remarked that his paranoia had developed to the point of insanity.
He was a gifted journalist, though later generations have taken offence at his some of his apparently anti-Semitic and racist views. He provides an alternative view of rural England in the age of an Industrial Revolution with which he was not in sympathy.