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Henry Collins

March 9 1763: The Birth of William Cobbett

(March 1958)

From Socialist Review, March 1958.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 263–66.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The greatest figure in working class journalism, on whom Marx modelled his style and whose writing left wing journalists of today could study with advantage, began his political life as a Tory, a supporter of tradition and authority. Cobbett’s army background, his love of the English countryside and of the sturdy, independent yeomen with which his imagination peopled it, predisposed him to support the establishment and to look with suspicion and hostility on French Jacobins and English Radicals. In 1802 he founded the Weekly Political Register and, as a conscientious political journalist he learned, though slowly, where the responsibility for rural evictions and slum housing really lay.

In 1806 William Pitt, the drunken and misanthropic symbol of reaction died, and high hopes were laid on the “Ministry of All the Talents” which succeeded to the government. Though there was a perceptible easing of repression it soon became clear that no reform would come out of shifting parliamentary combinations and William Cobbett, Francis Place, Sir Francis Burdett and Lord Cochrane began a campaign to mobilize public pressure for the return of radicals to Parliament. Burdett and Cochrane became MPs for Westminster – one of the few boroughs with any kind of popular franchise – in 1807, and with the support of Cobbett’s paper, political radicalism re-emerged from underground.

Action at home and abroad

The programme of the new radicalism was at first extremely limited. War-time conditions created a profiteer’s paradise and the House of Commons was corrupt beyond belief – bribery of electors by candidates and of MPs by the Government being accepted features of the Constitution. While the war lasted, Corbett and the radicals campaigned chiefly against corruption and for cheap government, with the aim of reducing taxes. The programme appealed to those sections of the middle class which were being crushed by taxation without sharing in war contracts, and also to a growing number of workers, slowly coming to realize that their misery was increased by high taxes on the necessities of life.

Cobbett was well aware, however, of the connection between a reactionary economic policy at home and reactionary objectives abroad. The war against France, ostensibly for the defence of Britain against Napoleon, had among its objects the restoration of monarchies in Europe. “The war, which began in 1793, is now over,” wrote Cobbett on September 25, 1815:

“The troops are not all come home, the ships are not all paid off, the account is not wound up, but the war is over. Social Order is restored; the French are again in the power of the Bourbons; the Revolution is at an end; no change has been effected in England; our Boroughs, and our Church, and Nobility and all have been preserved; our government tells us, that we have covered ourselves with glory …”

He turns to the workers

If parliament was to be reformed, however, so that the crushing weight of taxes might be relieved, the people – at least those of those of them who paid direct taxes – must be enfranchised. But the cause of reform could not be won without mobilizing behind it the strength of the urban working class and Cobbett instinctively turned to that class as it began, from the end of the war and for the first time in history, to emerge as an independent force in politics. His Weekly Political Register cost a shilling and a half-penny and was beyond the reach of working class pockets, though country workers had formed the habit of having extracts from the Register read to them in pubs.

The “Twopenny Trash”

In November 1816, he wrote the first of his Addresses to the Journeymen and Labourers which he published simultaneously in his ordinary edition and in a special twopenny edition, which, since it did not contain news but only articles, was exempt from the stamp duty on newspapers. The venture was a huge success, and “Cobbett’s Twopenny Trash,” as it was called by its critics and, before long by its supporters as well, became a regular feature of the political scene. Cobbett was no longer a middle class radical and champion of the rural workers. He had become the authentic spokesman and leader of the working class – the first leader of a workers’ mass movement in history.

In that eloquent first Addresses to the Journeymen and Labourers, Cobbett wrote:

“Whatever the Pride of rank, of riches or of scholarship may have induced some men to believe, or to affect to believe, the real strength and all the resources of a country, ever have sprung and ever must spring, from the labour of its people ... Elegant dresses, superb furniture, stately buildings, fine roads and canals, fleet horses and carriages, numerous and stout ships, warehouses teeming with goods; all these, and many other objects that fall under our view, are so many marks of national wealth and resources. But all these spring from labour. Without the Journeymen and the labourers ... the country would be a wilderness, hardly worth the notice of an invader.”

Cobbett went on to demand the vote for everyone who paid direct taxes. Soon he realised the inadequacy of this in a country which the workers were impoverished by indirect taxes, and he began to work for universal adult male suffrage, which was to become the central demand of the Chartist movement twenty years later.

The lack of organisation

Under conditions of post-war crisis in which falling prices and demobilization combined to cause mass unemployment, Cobbett’s influence among the workers was immense and working class journals, like Jonathan Wooler’s Black Dwarf, mass meetings addressed by Corbett’s friend, “Orator” Hunt, and Hampden Clubs, organized by Major Cartwright were followed by renewed repression. The new labour movement was harassed by provocateurs and police spies. Cobbett warned the workers against falling into police traps, advising his readers, on February 15, 1817,

“to have nothing to do with any Political Clubs, any secret Cabals, any Correspondencies but to trust to individual exertions and open meetings.”

Essentially an individualist, Cobbett did not appreciate the strength inherent in working class organization. An agitation carried out through public meetings and journalism was as far as his ideas carried him, and when, in 1817, the Government suspended Habeas Corpus, so that any of its opponents could be arrested without charge, he left for the United States.

After his return, in 1819, repression was intensified, and the Six Acts gave greater powers to the magistrates to suppress meetings and disperse gatherings. The fourth Act, especially directed against the cheap edition of Cobbett’s Register and other working class journals, levied a fourpenny stamp tax on papers costing less than sixpence and appearing more often than once a month.

“It is quite sufficient to know that every printer, every bookseller, every publisher, every writer for the Press, is now liable to be banished, if he dare write, print, or publish anything which shall be regarded ... as tending to bring into hatred or contempt, the Government and Constitution ... as by law established ... are we still to be told that we are free men? Good God Almighty!”

wrote Cobbett on January 6, 1820. Yet his advice remained the same:

“I am for making use of all the elbow-room, which we have yet left us by the Acts ...”

Though he did not advocate organization, either legal or [other]wise, under prevailing conditions, Cobbett gave every support to Arthur Thistlewood, who had planned to kill the entire Cabinet at dinner when, after being first instigated and then bet by a police agent, he and the other “Cato Street Conspirators” were tried and executed. Cobbett published both Thistlewood speech at his trial and a moving account of the dignified and resolute behaviour of the condemned men at their execution, in 1820.

Cobbett died in June, 1835. His greatness and his limitations were evident to his dying day. Both were displayed in his articles, denouncing the new Poor Law, of the previous year the callous behaviour of the Poor Law Commissioners in enforcing the workhouse test. He called for nation-wide resistance to the enforcement of the Act, but after his own fashion. “Half-a-dozen counties “ he wrote

“are in a state of partial commotion; the jails are opening the doors to receive those who are called the rebels against the Poor-law Bill ... here is the country disturbed; here are the jails filling; here are wives and children screaming after their fathers; here are these undeniable facts; and what is the cause? Not a desire to overturn the Government ... not a desire to disobey the settled laws of the country; not any revolutionary desire; not any desire to touch any one of the institutions of the country. What is it then? Why a desire ... to maintain the laws of their country, as they were settled at the time when the present church of the country was established ... the very fundamental principles of the Government; and which are of two hundred and forty years’ standing.”

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