William Cobbett

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Cobbett, William

Cobbett, William (kŏbˈĭt), 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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cobbett, William


Born Mar. 9, 1762, in Farnham, Surrey; died June 18, 1835, near Guildford. English publicist and historian. The son of a small-scale farmer.

Until Cobbett was 19 he worked as a farmer and then held a series of jobs. After coming to the USA in 1794, he began his journalistic career there with attacks on the ideas of the Great French Revolution. He returned to his native land in 1800 and began publishing the Weekly Political Register in 1802. In vivid articles he was sharply critical of the British social and political system, gaining enormous popularity and influence in democratic circles. He was repeatedly persecuted by the government. In 1832 he was elected to Parliament. It was on Cobbett’s initiative that the minutes of Parliament began to be published in 1804 and the proceedings of the most important court trials in 1809. In his principal historical work, History of the Protestant Reformation, Cobbett came to the conclusion that the chief cause of the English Reformation was the attempt of the king and his close associates to gain control of the Catholic Church’s wealth. Cobbett noted the major role played by the state in driving the masses from the land, and he linked the development of capitalism with the worsening of the position of the masses. However, the positive side of his program was reactionary and Utopian, since he looked to the Middle Ages for his ideal of a social order.


Selections From Political Works, vols. 1–6. London, 1835.
The History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, vols. 1–2. London, 1824–27.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed, vol. 9. (See the index of names.)
Cole, G. D. H. The Life of W. Cobbett. London, 1947.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cobbett, William

(1763–1835) journalist, publicist; born in Surrey, England. After exposing corruption in the British Army, he fled in 1793 to the U.S.A. to avoid a court-martial. There he opened a bookshop, displayed royalist and Federalist sympathies, and under the pen name Peter Porcupine sharply attacked opposing politicians and journalists in a publication called Porcupine's Gazette. Often assailed by libel actions and threats of deportation, he overreached himself in attacking the influential Dr. Benjamin Rush for treating yellow fever through bleedings and purges; he lost a libel suit brought by Rush and was assessed $5,000, but fled before the verdict had been delivered. Back in England in 1800, he published a reform-minded newspaper, the Register. Returning to America in 1817, he farmed on Long Island and avoided political journalism; in 1819, after his house burned down, he again sailed to England, where he became an extremely influential voice for reforms to help the working class.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.