When journalists are asked, as they frequently are, what great figure of the past underlies their profession like a watermark, most will name either H. L. Mencken or A. J. Liebling, both American cranks of the century just ending, though enjoyable, in their ways. Those who have truly thought about the question, however, tend to choose William Cobbett, a Regency maverick with a strong connection to Canada. Cobbett seems to represent the noblest in journalism even when at his frequent worst.
Cobbett, simply put, was an English polemicist, editor, and publisher. He was also one of those figures who, by temperament, always took the other side of every important issue of the day, not as devil's advocate but rather as a sort of one-person opposition party and all-round foe of avarice and sham. He was not simply an antagonist of the prevailing establishment but questioned the very idea of an establishment. Such a stance meant taking aim at a lot of moving targets and so necessitated a portable sniper's post; for this reason it's easy to accuse Cobbett of ideological promiscuity. But this endears him all the more to the tiny disorganized band of people who perpetuate his name, a minority group who otherwise have nothing in common, thereby compounding the confusion.
G. K. Chesterton was one such admirer, finding in Cobbett (as he tended to find everywhere he looked) something mediaeval and Catholic. D'Arcy McGee was another; he contended, with at least 50 percent accuracy, that Cobbett's "facts were as inexhaustible as his logic was vivid." In our own time, Cobbett has been championed by diametrically opposed figures such as William Safire, the right-wing New York Times columnist, who keeps a morocco-bound set of Cobbett at his fingertips, and the late George Woodcock, who wrote the preface to the Penguin edition of Cobbett's least offensive (and so most popular) book, Rural Rides.
Cobbett was born in Hampshire in 1763, the son of a farmer of the lowest and noblest sort. Eager to make his way in the world, young Cobbett joined the 54th Regiment of Foot. He was sent to Nova Scotia and later New Brunswick, where he (a) served six years, part of the time in Fredericton, (b) met his future wife Ann, who would carry on his work after his death, and (c) got into all sorts of trouble. He was by now already tapping his natural ability as a writer of mellifluous yet stinging prose, and once his enlistment was up he published articles accusing his former officers of corruption. Thus the start of his life in the political arena, one that would see him become a radical, a Tory, then a radical again, and finally a Tory once more, though as the British historian A.J.P. Taylor pointed out, such "political descriptions are irrelevant to his true outlook."
After his charge against the army, Cobbett had to flee to the United States to avoid prosecution for libel, which for him was an occupational disease, like silicosis for miners (though it should be noted that he litigated against others far oftener than he himself was litigated against). One would expect him, by now a republican and a spokesman for the common man, to have discovered political bliss in the States. But Cobbett found only scoundrels. In the words of the American historian Thomas Flexner, "he smote the Jeffersonians hip and thigh, and over the head too," mainly through a newspaper he conducted under what would become a lifelong pseudonym, Peter Porcupine. Just to add spice to his position in anglophobic America, Cobbett also took to writing pro-British pamphlets. The inevitable libel cases drove him back to England, where he promptly began defending the Americans and denigrating his fellow countrymen.
It was at this point that he commenced his famous Political Register, often called the first truly popular daily newspaper. A wonderful journal, this, and one written in a sort of code, like today's Private Eye. London, for instance, was always referred to as "the Great Wen", The Times as "the bloody old Times", and the civil service as so many "quill-drivers". What he called lawyers and members of the government in 1802 could not be repeated in a Canadian daily newspaper in this year of grace, 1997. I once owned two old bound volumes of the Political Register, complete with tax stamps, applied no doubt over Cobbett's dead body, God bless him.
He somehow managed to keep the paper appearing even while serving two years in prison for something he had written. Once released, he again found his way to the U.S., but in time returned to England when the Reform Act opened the way for him to sit in the Commons. The period in America had made him a Tory again, though he was a Tory mainly out of hatred for the Whigs (the original Dalton Camp, as it were). In 1834, the year before his death, Cobbett had dinner one evening with William Lyon Mackenzie, who, not yet having taken matters in Upper Canada into his own hands, had come over to seek official redress. Mackenzie left only the slightest notation of the meeting. A pity. What one would give for a tape of that conversation.
As is not usually the case with vaguely similar figures, the reality of Cobbett is every bit as pleasing as the idea of Cobbett. It was he who continued the fight for publicly available transcriptions of parliamentary debates, a battle that had been going on at least since Defoe's time. In fact, he published many volumes of the proceedings, founding that subgenre of paraliterature that today might be called Cobbett except that, during one of his frequent financial embarrassments, he sold the business to a printer named Hansard. As for his other works, they include an English grammar, a French grammar, a history of the Reformation, a book of advice for young men and another for young women. Some of these have been reprinted in paperback in recent years, along with his famous Cottage Economy, a tract that found favour a generation ago among readers of Harrowsmith. For Cobbett was proud of being a yeoman farmer, descended from untold generations of same, and he feared and despised the new industrial England (with its evil stockjobbers and unspeakable paper money) which he saw supplanting the old ways of his youth. He became something of a Luddite, in fact.
Cottage Economy and similar works were designed to teach the young the ways of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Like all his books, they are full of ideas on every subject, including many about which he was scantily informed. (The posthumous role Cobbett played in shaping Bernard Shaw's personality has never, to my knowledge, been fully explored.) Yet part of the fun of reading them, or any part of his mountainous output, is that he had so much difficulty sticking to his point. One begins what seem to be instructions on thatching roofs or rearing children or fixing the monetary system, only to have what one is reading suddenly become a vicious attack on the Tory sodomites at Westminster or the lunatic American riff-raff whose ethnocentricity is the ruination of the world.
Cobbett's importance, it seems to me, is less in what he thought (for he was so fickle as to both please and infuriate everyone at some time or another) as in the fact that he existed at all. That this large, heavy-set, blond, and cantankerous man, born well over two hundred years ago, managed to write so much despite vested interests that so long wished him dead is nothing short of remarkable. Especially in the England of that day, which was scandalized by even the muddled radicalism of Shelley, the Oxford-educated son of a baronet. That lowly, self-tutored Cobbett did so much and left us his personality is certainly worth celebrating occasionally. Cobbett was not always a beacon of truth but he certainly gave off a strong light. How many of us today have even a small portion of his courage.