Cobbett, William

Cobbett, William kŏbˈĭt [key], 1763?–1835, British journalist and reformer. The son of a farm laborer, he ran away from home at 14 and later joined the British army. He resigned in order to expose abuses in the military forces, but, unable to prove his accusations, he fled to France to escape suit and thence went to the United States. In America, in his Observations on Priestley's Emigration (1794), Porcupine's Gazette (1797–99), and other pamphlets and periodicals, Cobbett defended the British monarchy and praised aristocratic government in preference to democracy. His outspoken and skillful disparagement of French Jacobinism and of the pro-French party in the United States made him a major target of the Jeffersonian Republicans. Dr. Benjamin Rush secured a $5,000 verdict against him for libel in 1799, and shortly afterward Cobbett returned to England. As the threat of French Jacobinism dwindled, Cobbett's Tory patriotism gave way to a deep concern for the condition of the working classes, especially rural workers, in the rapidly industrializing English society, and by 1807 he had become a Radical. His Political Register, begun in 1802 and published intermittently throughout the remainder of his life, was one of the greatest reform journals of the period and achieved an unparalleled influence among the working classes. For his attacks on the use of flogging as military punishment he was fined and imprisoned (1810–12). Severe financial difficulties forced him to sell his Parliamentary Debates to Hansard's printing firm (see Hansard). After the passage (1817) of the Gagging Acts to suppress radicalism and to hinder the circulation of reform literature, Cobbett fled once again to the United States. He settled on a farm on Long Island and wrote his famous Grammar of the English Language (1818). Returning to England in 1819, he became a central figure in the agitation for parliamentary reform, but he also found time to write many books, the most important of which, Rural Rides (1830), comprises a classic portrayal of the situation of the rural worker. After the Reform Bill was passed in 1832, Cobbett was elected to Parliament, where he became a member of the Radical minority.

See biographies by G. D. H. Cole (3d. ed. 1947, repr. 1971), G. K. Chesterton (1926), J. Sambrook (1973), and G. Spatr (1982).

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