The English have had a penchant for the most unlikely heros, heros they’ve honored more—in the classical meaning of that much abused phrase—in the breach than in the observance. Carlyle was one such hero. The names of his admirers are a roll call of the Victorian greats. Yet he was the least representative thinker of his time, the most heretical, the most outrageous and outlandish. Damning all the “mud-gods” of his age-liberalism, rationalism, utilitarianism, materialism, individualism, laissez-fairism—he was read and revered by those who made that age what it was. Emerson said of Past and Present that it was “as full of treason as an egg is full of meat.” Even its style was treasonable. The era of Macaulay, Hazlitt, Mill, and Dickens, of writers distinguished for their lucidity, urbanity, and wit, lavished praise upon a critic whose prose was tortuous and turgid, full of neologisms and solecisms, expletives and invectives, capitals and italics, labored metaphors and German phrases. It is as if Carlyle appealed to the “underside” of the culture, the self-doubt and self-denial, even self-hate, that lingered just beneath the surface, a rebelliousness that never quite broke out and yet was never quite pacified.
So it was with another hero of the time, the Grand Old Man of English radicalism, William Cobbett (1763-1835). Cobbett was, one might say, the poor man’s Carlyle. He was to the working classes what Carlyle was to the intellectuals, a man more often praised than heeded, a maverick without party or organization but with a considerable and devoted following. Even his style was Carlyle’s—choleric, eccentric, abusive, self-congratulatory, occasionally sentimental, more often acrimonious, and always to excess. Carlyle, in his book on heroes, perhaps with himself in mind, had described his prophet-as-hero as an “original.” Cobbett was such an original. It is a commentary on the age that two of its most influential men should have been so passionate and intractable, so impervious to the enlightened, progressive ideas of their time.
Yet this most untypical Englishman was described by his contemporaries as the typical “John Bull.” Carlyle himself saw Cobbett as that—“the pattern John Bull of his century.” So too did the novelist and critic Lytton Bulwer (or Bulwer-Lytton, as he was later known), who in 1833, two years before Cob-bett’s death, penned a devastating sketch of him under the pseudonym of “William Muscle.”
He is thoroughly English; no other land could have produced the bones and gristle of his mind. He writeth a plain, strong style, and uttereth the most monstrous incredibilities, as if they were indisputable. He esteemeth himself before all men. He believes that the ministers have consulted several times on the necessity of poisoning him. He is indignant if others pretend to serve the People; they are his property. He is the Incarnation of popular prejudices and natural sense. He is changeable as a weather-cock, because he is all passion. He is the living representative of the old John Bull: when he dies, he will leave no like: it was the work of centuries to amalgamate so much talent, nonsense, strength, and foibles, into one man of five feet eight: he is the Old Radical . . . .
It is fitting that this Old Radical should have been the hero of biographers as dissimilar as G. D. H. Cole and G. K. Chesterton, eminent representatives of the radical Left and the radical Right. Less fitting, perhaps, is Cobbett’s role in the present biography by George Spater. A formidable work of scholarship, enormously detailed, amply researched, documented, and illustrated, it somehow fails to capture the passion of the man, possibly because it is itself so dispassionate. Spater dutifully acknowledges Cobbett’s 'prejudices, peculiarities, and contradictions, but only dutifully, as befits the conscientious historian, with no great conviction, certainly with no sense that they go to the heart of his subject. There are no “monstrous incredibilities” to be found here (and no quotation from Bulwer to suggest them). It is not a portrait without warts, but they are warts limned in lightly so as to humanize the man without disfiguring him.
Toward the end of the second volume we are even presented with a few warts that we may not have suspected. On the basis of new documents, Spater presents us with facts that suggest a quite different family life from that which Cobbett himself had drawn for us in his autobiographical reminiscences. In his Advice to Young Men and in his other writings he frequently cited his own behavior as husband and father as a model for his readers, and adduced his own warm, happy, loving family as an inspiration to them if they would only follow his example. In fact, he turns out to have been a domestic tyrant, as irascible and egotistic in his private life as (this we have always known) in his public. The attempted suicide of his wife in 1827, which Spater attributes, on the basis of her age alone, to a possible “menopausal depression,” may more plausibly be accounted for by an impossibly difficult husband. Shortly before that episode he had responded to what he took to be her insubordination by shutting himself away from his family (literally locking himself in a different part of the house) for seventy-four days, refusing to communicate with anyone except in writing. Eventually he formalized what had been a de facto separation by leaving his family entirely. This was in 1833, a time which Spater characterizes as the beginning of his mental “breakdown.” Spater gives no evidence of such a breakdown, although he does attribute to it some of the more disagreeable traits brought to light by the new manuscripts. In fact, Cobbett’s paranoia, hostility, rage, and egotism verging on megalomania had been conspicuous throughout his life, although they may have been exacerbated by old age. It was, after all, well before that “breakdown” that he virtually separated from the family, so that his children must have been drawing upon earlier memories when they later spoke so bitterly of their home life. Five years after their father’s death, the youngest son, then twenty-six, wrote to his sister: “People talk of teaching the young how to shoot—I wish they would teach children to shoot their Fathers and Mothers.” Spater prefaces this quotation by describing the letter in which it appeared as the “exuberant” expression of “his preference for the company of young people when their fathers and mothers were out of the way.” (This was the only one of Cobbett’s seven children to marry at a reasonably young age—indeed, the year after he wrote this letter—and to have a child. The three daughters remained unmarried, and the other three sons married late in life and had no children.)
This matter is of more than biographical interest. Confronted with such letters, Spater admits that Advice to Young Men, written-in 1829-30 when Cobbett’s estrangement from his family was nearly complete, was largely mythical, indeed part of a larger myth about the whole of his life starting with his own supposedly idyllic childhood on the farm—from which he ran away at the age of eleven. But if these parts of the Advice were mythical, so were the many articles in the Political Register, the newspaper from which he derived most of his influence, which also drew upon the supposed experiences of his youth. And so too, perhaps, his image of “old England,” which he dramatically counterposed to the miseries and iniquities of the present “System.” It is an axiom of historical scholarship that a source that is known to be seriously flawed in one respect is “tainted” as a whole, not to be trusted in any other respect without independent confirmation. Yet Spater all too often relies upon these sources, accepting at face value what Cobbett chose to tell his readers.
In his own time Cobbett was repeatedly accused of lying, exaggerating, and contradicting himself. Spater occasionally alludes to these charges but without giving much weight to them. One such charge elicits the observation: “Lies? That there were such occasional lies cannot be doubted. Misstatements of fact are inevitable even in a modern newspaper with its superior information-gathering services. And in Cobbett’s case his radical opinions and hyperbole were readily translated into lies by his opponents.” In one footnote Spater admits that Cobbett had “no compunction about lying when he thought it appropriate,” that when he was on trial he confessed to having lied, but in a worthy cause. Elsewhere Spater explains that Cobbett used facts not literally but impressionistically: “Like most good talkers, Cobbett regarded the exact fact as unimportant; it was the impression that he wished to create.” Those “impressions” serve well as indications of Cobbett’s ideas, opinions, and attitudes, but not, as they are so often taken, as evidence of the conditions and events of his time.
Fortunately, for much of this work Cobbett is not the exclusive source. In reconstructing some of the more complicated episodes of his life, Spater has drawn upon a wide literature, so that for the first time we have a reasonably complete picture of his tumultuous life: his career in the army from 1784 to 1791, followed by the court martial of three officers he had charged with embezzling funds of the regiment; his flight to France to avoid appearing at the court martial and his subsequent sailing for America when revolutionary France became too dangerous; his eight years in America, where, under the name of “Porcupine,” he was a thorn in the side of homegrown and foreign Jacobins and a staunch defender of Tory England; his return to England in 1800 and the founding of the Political Register two years later, the weekly paper that was the vehicle of his opinions and one of the main sources of his influence for thirty-three years; his conversion to radicalism in 1806, conviction on the charge of sedition in 1810, and his two-year imprisonment in Newgate (where, for a substantial sum, he occupied a private suite in the house of the sheriff, lived with his family, entertained visitors, and conducted his myriad affairs, including the publication of the Register); the success of the first two-penny edition of the Register in 1816 and his flight to America when he feared prosecution again; his return in 1819 and his championing of Queen Caroline in one of the great causes célèbres of the time (in which radicals and the lower classes enthusiastically rallied to the side of an undistinguished, unattractive, self-indulgent queen against her equally undistinguished, unattractive, and self-indulgent spouse); another trial for sedition in 1831 resulting in a hung jury; and his final successful bid (after several that were unsuccessful) for a seat in the Reformed Parliament, which he held briefly until his death in 1835. Interspersed with the narrative are the complicated details of his financial affairs, bankruptcies, lawsuits, business ventures, landholdings, and publications, and the still more complicated details of his feuds with government officials, members of parliament, reformers, and radicals.
In unravelling all these episodes and bringing them together into a comprehensive account of Cobbett’s life, Spater has produced a work that will be indispensable to biographers and historians of the period. If he has done less justice to Cobbett’s writings and ideas, one can sympathize with him, for these are even more complicated than his life. It has been estimated that Cobbett wrote—or rather dictated—some twenty million words, the equivalent of over a hundred good-sized books, on subjects as diverse as the poor laws and parliamentary reform, the manners and morals of young men (“and incidentally young women,” as the title of one book put it), English grammar and the French language, brewing and bread-making, the Protestant Reformation and the history of the reign of George IV, the beauties of the countryside and the horrors of London, the “Great Wen.” Whatever the subject, even in the midst of his grammar lessons, Cobbett found occasion to animadvert upon his favorite themes: taxes, paper money, the national debt, sinecures, pensions, rotten boroughs, politicians, speculators, usurers, Jews. It was these writings that were his claim to power and fame in his own time and that are still his claim to our attention today.
If Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation, for example, was as influential as Spater says it was—we are told it had “an unparalleled sale throughout the western world,” did more than any other work to “break down Protestant prejudice,” and earned Cobbett a “large share of the credit” for Catholic emancipation—the substance of that book surely deserves more than the few sentences devoted to it here. And if it provoked as much controversy as Spater says, surely something more by way of critical analysis is called for than his assurance that it is a “mere quibble” to object to Cobbett’s errors and exaggerations, that “if Cobbett too warmly urged that everything in the old religion had been good and that the change was made solely for sordid reasons, this was only a counterbalance to three centuries of erroneous and exaggerated propaganda to the opposite effect.”
In fact, the History of the Protestant Reformation may not have been quite as influential as Spater says. At the time many advocates of Catholic emancipation thought it an embarrassment to the cause and counterproductive. Moreover, Cobbett himself was not consistently in favor of the measure; he publicly opposed it when it was introduced in parliament on the grounds that it did not provide for a thorough reform of the suffrage as a whole, and even after its passage Cobbett vacillated, first grudgingly supporting it, then attacking it, and attacking too those “mongrel Catholics” (including the “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell) who had fought so hard for it.
Other views of Cobbett’s are less easy to rationalize or defend, and these tend to be belittled or ignored by his admirers. When G. D. H. Cole, in his influential biography of Cobbett more than half a century ago, neglected to make any mention of Cobbett’s virulent anti-semitism, one could understand it, Cole himself having had a certain tolerance for that prejudice. But at this late date, especially after another of Cobbett’s biographers, John Osborne, has given it the attention it deserves, the casual treatment it receives in Spater’s book is less explicable. A single sentence in the first volume, half a dozen sentences in the second, and a few quotations tucked away in footnotes at the back of the book hardly seem adequate for a subject Cobbett himself made so much of. The Jews occupied a prominent place in his demonology, the “System” run by tax-collectors, stock-jobbers (brokers), fund-holders (holders of government bonds), moneylenders, middlemen, usurers, speculators, and parasites who were ruining old England. This was not the casual, garden variety of anti-semitism common at the time. Cobbett’s anti-semitism was more passionate and persistent. Even when the objects of his aversion happened to be non-Jews, he managed to subsume them under the species of Jews: Christian brokers and bankers were “Jewish Christians,” usurers were “Jews in soul though Christians by profession,” Quakers were “broad-brimmed Jews,” a dealer in corn was a “self-styled Christian who acts the part of Jew or Quaker.”
Nor was it only the Jews’ role (or fancied role) in the economy that offended Cobbett. Although he was not himself especially religious, he denounced, with all the fervor of a primitive believer, the “Christ killers,” and he took time out from his campaign for parliamentary reform to publish a pamphlet, Good Friday; or the Murder of Jesus Christ by the Jews, accusing the Jews, among other things, of crucifying Jesus in effigy twice a year. That pamphlet was not an aberration of youth; it was written in 1830 in his most radical period. Three years later he opposed the bill which would have permitted Jews to sit in parliament. “Suppose,” he noted, “it was proposed to us to admit a race of cannibals to these powers, should we have a right to do it? Jew has always been synonymous with sharper, cheat, rogue. This has been the case with no other race of mankind.” (The italics are Cobbett’s.) Spater does not quote these comments or allude to his opposition to this bill. Instead, he concludes his brief discussion of this subject by saying that while Cobbett did not believe that Jews should be “encouraged” neither did he want them “persecuted.” In fact (as Spater observes in a footnote), he did suggest that they be banished from England; he approved of the anti-Jewish laws promulgated by the Tsar of Russia and the King of Prussia; and he regarded the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages as one of the more endearing features of those happy times.
The subject is important in itself, of course, but also because it illuminates Cobbett’s notion of the “System” that was so hateful and so peculiarly epitomized by the Jews. While some of the demons of the “Old Corruption”—pensioners, politicians, office-holders, and courtiers—were not notably Jewish, others—tax-collectors, moneylenders, stockjobbers, land-speculators, and merchants—were, or so Cobbett thought. He did not try to reconcile his belief in private property and the unlimited right to acquire, accumulate, and inherit property with his strenuous objections to the sale of some of that property to parvenus and “foreigners.” Nor did he explain why farmers and landlords could legitimately receive a profit but not the wholesalers of grain—or, indeed, how an agricultural economy, or any economy, could function without such “middlemen.” Sometimes he declared all foreign trade to be valueless and detrimental to the country, at other times he conceded that commerce was a necessary part of an advanced civilization. In one issue of the Register, written at the height of the Luddite riots, he argued that machine-breaking was no solution to the problem of the workers, that machinery, whether on the farm or in industry, was actually a boon, since it relieved the worker of the most arduous kind of labor and permitted him to enjoy more plentiful and cheaper goods. In this same tract he cited statistics demonstrating that “middlemen” (the miller and baker) took a very small profit for their labors and he wondered how they managed on that modest return. The real evils, he insisted, were not machines or middlemen but “wholly and solely” taxes and paper money. Later, however, he reverted to form and gave full rein to his animus against machinery, industry, commerce, and trade.
Long before he had so much as seen a factory Cobbett described the “hell-holes” in which thousands of miserable creatures were locked up for fourteen hours a day without food, water, or fresh air, “hotbeds of vice and corruption” in which the most heinous sins were committed. (He once suggested that the government encouraged the growth of these factories because large manufacturing “congregations” were more easily taxed than the dispersed units of the old domestic industry.) He was finally prevailed upon to visit a few factories, but he refused to go into any more on the grounds “that I had no understanding of the matter, that the wondrous things that are performed in these places only serve, when I behold them, to withdraw my mind from things which I do understand.”
What Cobbett did claim to “understand” was the world of his youth—or rather that world recalled through the rosy mists of later years—when the cottages of agricultural laborers were furnished with curtains and featherbeds, adorned with brass and pewter, filled with objects “worth possessing and worth preserving.” In a much quoted passage he said that he wished for nothing more than to “see the poor men of England what the poor men of England were when I was born.” Less often quoted are Cobbett’s other statements praising the good old times when “all was in order” and “everyone was in his place” and all people were “fashioned to due subordination from their infancy.” Much is made, and properly so, of Cobbett’s defense of the old poor law, the system of poor relief going back to Elizabethan times which, according to Cobbett’s idiosyncratic reading of English history, was part of the Reformation settlement. But not enough is said (here or in most accounts of Cobbett) of his argument—hotly disputed by other radicals at the time—that poverty was natural and necessary and that the poor would not work except under the pressure of poverty. He was an ardent proponent of manhood suffrage, the right of the poor to participate in the making of laws and (perhaps more important for Cobbett) the imposing of taxes. But he specifically disclaimed any right to economic or social equality. Equality of wealth was contrary to “the order of the world and the decrees of God"; it was right and proper that “people in the lower walks of life should carry themselves respectfully towards those whose birth, or superior talent, or industry, have placed above themselves.” These were sentiments not of the early Tory Cobbett, the Cobbett of “Porcupine” fame, but of the later radical Cobbett, the self-styled “Poor Man’s Friend.”
Hazlitt described Cobbett as “a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country . . . unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day.” But Hazlitt did not find it easy to define the power or influence of a writer as capricious and inconstant as he thought Cobbett—“like a young and lusty bridegroom that divorces a favourite speculation every morning, and marries a new one every night.” Spater, having a simpler, less problematic view of Cobbett, also takes a simpler measure of his influence: “We must credit Cobbett for his influence on future generations or for his percipience, or both, because most of the major remedial legislation relating to state and church urged by Cobbett and opposed by the ministers of the day, except his proposals relating to the debt, were eventually enacted into law by parliament.” A footnote documents that claim by citing Cobbett’s views on “pensions and sinecures, universal suffrage, the ballot, the Septennial Act, military flogging, the sinking fund, civil servants in parliament, the game laws, equitable taxation, tithes, clerical non-residence, multiple livings, the corn laws, the poor laws, factory laws, labor unions, laws relating to the press.” It is an impressive list—and a classical example of the fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc. It is as if no one else before, during, or after Cobbett had urged the same reforms; as if Burke, half a century before, had not made a major proposal for the elimination of pensions and sinecures; as if, even earlier, Cartwright had not started the movement for manhood suffrage (Cobbett explicitly opposed female suffrage), the secret ballot, and annual parliaments; as if Paine had not exposed the inequities of the “English system of finance”; as if Smith and scores of others had not argued for more “equitable taxation” (Smith advocated “proportional” taxation, Cobbett opposed it); as if the unstamped, illegal newspapers in the early 1830s had not dramatized the cause of a free press by flouting the tax (Cobbett took no part in this campaign, his Political Register being a stamped legal paper selling for a respectable sixpence)—and so on with all the items on this list, every one of which had long been the concern of radicals, reformers, and statesmen of every persuasion.
Any serious consideration of influence must take account of failures as well as successes, of reforms or changes favored by Cobbett which did not come about either in his time or afterwards. Here one might come up with an equally impressive list (apart from the national debt mentioned by Spater): annual parliaments, the restoration of the old poor law, the abolition of paper money, the reduction of the government bureaucracy, the reduction of foreign trade, the elimination of factories, the revival of “cottage” industry in a predominantly agricultural economy. These were not “crotchets” on the order of Cobbett’s diatribes against tea and potatoes (which he held responsible for the enervation and degradation of the working classes). They were among his main causes and passions; they were what he stood for and what he was known to stand for. And they were never taken seriously, let alone implemented, in his time or afterwards.
Or consider the measures that were passed in his time, thanks to the efforts of others (sometimes his arch enemies) and often over his vehement objections. The two major reforms of the early 1830s, which occupied him and his contemporaries more than any other issues, were the Reform Act of 1832 (a moderate reform of the suffrage) and the New Poor Law of 1834 (drastically revising the old poor law and limiting relief), both of which Cobbett passionately opposed. A third, the abolition of slavery in the colonies, he grudgingly voted for, mainly, he explained, because his constituency favored it, but he played no part in the movement that finally led to that reform; indeed, he ridiculed those who were concerned with the liberation of “fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing negroes” when English workers were in a worse state of slavery. (No slave, he insisted, was ever so degraded as to be forced to eat potatoes, as the English worker was.) Nor did he contribute to a host of earlier reforms: the abolition of the income tax and the reduction of other taxes and tariffs, legal and penal reforms, the establishment of the police force, the admission of Dissenters to public office (he hated Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians almost as much as Jews), the legalization of trade unions, the factory acts limiting the hours of work of women and children. He did favor the last two measures but without much enthusiasm. He thought strikes inexpedient and unions irrelevant because the evils they hoped to remedy were not the fault of any master but of the fiscal and political system; and he could not bring much passion to the cause of factory reform when he abhorred the very thought of factories and wanted only to restore the domestic industry of earlier times. One other issue, which was a priority for most reformers and radicals, was the education of the working classes, and here Cobbett set himself against the prevailing opinion. He opposed not only any public education for the poor but any formal schooling whatsoever, private or public, religious or secular, insisting that the only worthwhile kind of education was that acquired at home in the bosom of the family—hardly a feasible alternative for those who were themselves illiterate.
The fact is that the major reforms of the time were inspired by other kinds of reformers and radicals (and conservatives as well) under the influence of very different kinds of ideas—by Evangelicals and Unitarians, Philosophic Radicals (utilitarians) and Tory Radicals, Whigs and liberal Tories. Many of them came about through the efforts of politicians whom Cobbett execrated (Pitt, Peel, Huskisson, Brougham) or of reformers whom he reviled (Bentham, Place, Romilly, Attwood, O’Connell, Sadler, Ashley). Nor was he associated with (or even well disposed to) any of the radical movements which enjoyed some degree of support in some circles: Owenism, agrarian socialism, Ricardian socialism. He was part of no movement, no party, no sect, not even a coterie. He had no political allies, as he had no personal friends.
And yet, and yet . . . Cobbett was a major influence in his own time and for years to come. It is not an influence easily defined or measured, certainly not in terms of legislation, institutions, organizations, or ideologies. But there is no doubt that it was there, that his books and journals were enormously popular, that his name was a “household word,” that the government feared him and masses of people revered him, that after his death he became, together with Paine, the symbol of radical protest.
Here, perhaps, is the key to his influence. Cobbett was the protester par excellence, protesting against all the changes in this early period of industrialism that were causing so much anxiety and distress (changes that others predicted would prove beneficial to the poor but that at the time were ominous), protesting against the powers-that-be for not setting things right, protesting against the loss of that mythical golden age when life seemed simpler and happier—protesting with a passion that overrode inconsistency, triviality, puerility, illogicality, ignorance, even malice. It was the passion of the prophet who prophesies not about the future but about the past, who inveighs against what is or what is to be in the name of what was or what might have been. In any practical, programmatic sense, Cobbett must be judged utterly ineffectual in his own time and utterly irrelevant to the future. But he was effective in expressing and validating the discontent and fears of those who took no satisfaction in the present and had no confidence in the future. Indeed, his strength lay precisely in the extent to which he went against the “spirit of the age” and the “wave of the future.” He was a Jeremiah not a Moses, a moralist not a legislator, an iconoclast not a reformer. Henry James said of Carlyle that his style perfectly suited his thought: “It is not defensible but it is victorious.” So one might say of Cobbett—of his thought as well as his style.
It is only thus that one can understand Cobbett. Rural Rides was his most popular book and the one most accessible to the modern reader. Yet even here an idyllic picture of the rich, beautiful countryside dotted with grazing oxen is followed by a typical, truly malevolent passage:
But the great pleasure with which the contemplation of this fine site was naturally calculated to inspire me was more than counterbalanced by the thought that these fine oxen, this primest of human food was, aye, every mouthful of it, destined to be devoured in the Wen, and that too, for the far greater part, by the Jews, loan-jobbers, tax-eaters, and their base and prostituted followers . . . literary as well as other wretches, who, if suffered to live at all, ought to partake of nothing but awful food, and ought to come but one cut before the dogs and cats!
In the case of Cobbett, as of Carlyle, it is important to face up to ideas which today seem “not defensible,” not only in order to understand the nature of the influence exercised by two of the most influential men of the time but also in order to understand the nature of the people over whom they had that extraordinary influence.
Carlyle’s admirers looked to him for a critique of those liberal, progressive, enlightened ideas that they themselves were committed to but that they suspected were intellectually shallow and morally dubious. Cobbett’s admirers looked to him for a critique of a “System” they did not understand but distrusted, a system more easily comprehended and condemned in terms of corrupt officials, greedy merchants, and un-Christian Jews than in the terms proposed by the political economists: technological change, the forces of supply and demand, the pressure of population (Cobbett denied to the end, in spite of the evidence of successive censuses, that the population had increased). It is a moot point whether Cobbett merely reflected the prevailing populist demonology—tax-collectors, moneylenders, stock-jobbers, middlemen—or revived a dormant one. G. K. Chesterton cited Cobbett’s hatred of Jews as evidence of his true “Englishness,” his feeling for the “traditions of the past and the instincts of people.” Maybe so. It is not an issue the biographer or even the historian can resolve.
More to the point is the fact that, whatever the appeal of Cobbett or Carlyle, whatever subterranean “instincts” they drew upon, whatever dissatisfactions they gave voice to, whatever private doubts they dramatized and legitimized, they did not in fact prevail. What did prevail, for the working classes as well as for the intellectuals, was that liberal, progressive, rational, pragmatic, phlegmatic temper that was the very antithesis of Cobbett and Carlyle, a temper that accommodated itself to the changes in the economy and in the society and made the best of them.
When Cobbett died The Times (“the bloody old Times,” as Cobbett would say) paid tribute to the “self-taught peasant” who was “a more extraordinary Englishman than any other of his time.”
Though a vigilant observer of the age, and a strenuous actor in it, he lay upon the earth as a loose and isolated substance. He was incorporated with no portion of our political or social frame. He belonged neither to principles, to parties, nor to classes . . . He was an English episode, and nothing more, as greater men have been.
It was an ambiguous tribute but an accurate one. And it serves as well for Carlyle or for any other apocalyptic thinker who goes against the grain of the “English temper.”
- George Spater, William Cobbett: The Poor Man’s Friend. Cambridge University Press, two volumes, 653 pages, $49.50 Go back to the text.
- Cobbett’s Rural Rides has just been brought out in a new edition by Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 224 pages, $22.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 2, on page 42
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