William Cobbett

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Nothing is so well calculated to produce a death-like torpor in the country as an extended system of taxation and a great national debt.

William Cobbett (March 9 1763June 18 1835) was an English politician, agriculturist, journalist and pamphleteer, writing first in the Tory and then in the Radical cause.


  • However roguish a man may be, he always loves to deal with an honest man.
    • Letter, Philadelphia, to Rachel Smithers (6 July 1794), published in The Autobiography of William Cobbett: The Progress of a Plough-boy to a Seat in Parliament, ch. 5, p. 57 (1933).
  • I began my editorial career with the presidency of Mr. Adams, and my principal object was to render his administration all the assistance in my power. I flattered myself with the hope of accompanying him through [his] voyage, and of partaking in a trifling degree, of the glory of the enterprise; but he suddenly tacked about, and I could follow him no longer. I therefore waited for the first opportunity to haul down my sails.
    • Porcupine’s Gazette, No. 799 (13 January 1800).
  • In one point, and that too of more importance than is generally attached to it, the puritans of the two epochs bear a critical resemblance, namely, their hostility to rural and athletic sports: to those sports, which string the nerves and strengthen the frame, which excite an emulation in deeds of hardihood and valour, and which imperceptibly instill honour, generosity, and a love of glory, into the mind of the clown. Men thus formed are pupils unfit for the puritanical school; therefore it is, that the sect are incessantly labouring to eradicate, fibre by fibre, the last poor remains of English manners. And, sorry I am to tell you, that they meet with but too many abettors, where they ought to meet with resolute foes. Their pretexts are plausible: gentleness and humanity are the cant of the day. Weak men are imposed on, and wise men want the courage to resist. Instead of preserving those assemblages and those sports, in which the nobleman mixed with his peasants, which made the poor man proud of his inferiority, and created in his breast a personal affection for his lord, too many of the rulers of this land are now hunting the common people from every scene of diversion, and driving them to a club or a conventicle, at the former of which they suck in the delicious rudiments of earthly equality, and, at the latter, the no less delicious doctrine, that there is no lawful king but King Jesus.
    • Political Register (27 February 1802).
  • When, from the top of any high hill, one looks round the country, and sees the multitude of regularly distributed spires, one not only ceases to wonder that order and religion are maintained, but one is astonished that any such thing as disaffection or irreligion should prevail.
    • Letter to William Windham (27 May 1802), quoted in J. C. D. Clark, English Society. 1688-1832. Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice during the Ancien Regime' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 89-90.
  • The ancient nobility and gentry of the kingdom...have been thrust out of all public employment...a race of merchants, and manufacturers and bankers and loan-jobbers and contractors have usurped their place.
    • Political Register (10-17 July 1802), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p. 8.
  • Nothing is so well calculated to produce a death-like torpor in the country as an extended system of taxation and a great national debt.
    • Letter (10 February 1804).
  • Amongst the great and numerous dangers to which this country, and particularly the monarchy, is exposed in consequence of the enormous public debt, the influence, the powerful and widely-extended influence, of the monied interest is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it necessarily aims at measures which directly tend to the subversion of the present order of things...I mean an interest hostile alike to the land-holder and to the stockholder, to the colonies, to the real merchant, and to the manufacturer, to the clergy, to the nobility and to the throne; I mean the numerous and powerful body of loan-jobbers, directors, brokers, contractors and farmers-general, which has been engendered by the excessive amount of the public debt, and the almost boundless extension of the issues of paper-money.
    • Political Register (8 September 1804), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p. 29.
  • ...the existence of a 'system' that was ruining the country. The system of upstarts; of low-bred, low-minded sycophants usurping the stations designed by nature, by reason, by the Constitution, and by the interests of the people, to men of high birth, eminent talents, or great national services; the system by which the ancient Aristocracy and the Church have been undermined; by which the ancient gentry of the kingdom have been almost extinguished, their means of support having been transferred, by the hand of the tax gatherer, to contractors, jobbers and Jews; the system by which but too many of the higher orders have been rendered the servile dependents of the minister of the day, and by which the lower, their generous spirit first broken down, have been moulded into a mass of parish fed paupers. Unless it be the intention, the solemn resolution, to change this system, let no one talk to me of a change of ministry; for, until this system be destroyed...until the filthy tribe of jobbers, brokers and peculators shall be swept from the councils of the nation and the society of her statesmen...there is no change of men, that can, for a single hour, retard the mighty mischief that we dread.
    • Political Register (20 April 1805), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), pp. 27-28, 71-72.
  • I have always said, that, without commerce...this island could not possibly continue to be great...but, it is the system of rendering every thing commercial; of making merchants and bankers into Lords; of making a set of fund-dealers the distributors of honours and rewards...it is this system that I reprobate.
    • Political Register (11 January 1806), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p. 15.
  • I cannot...perceive any ground for hoping that any practical good would, while the funding system exists in its present extent, result from the adoption of any of those projects, which have professed to have in view what is called Parliamentary Reform...when the funding system, from whatever cause, shall cease to operate upon civil and political liberty, there will be no need of projects for parliamentary reform. The parliament will, as far as shall be necessary, then reform itself.
    • Political Register (15 March 1806), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p. 11.
  • The very hirelings of the press, whose trade it is to buoy up the spirits of the people … have uttered falsehoods so long, they have played off so many tricks, that their budget seems, at last, to be quite empty.
    • “The Last Ten Years,” Political Register (4 January 1812).
  • Having still in my recollection so many excellent men, to whose grandfathers, upon the same spots, my grandfather had yielded cheerful obedience and reverence, it is not without sincere sorrow that I have beheld many of the sons of these men driven from their fathers' mansions, or holding them as little better than tenants or stewards, while the swarms of Placemen, Pensioners, Contractors, and Nabobs...have usurped a large part of the soil.
    • Political Register (21 December 1816), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p. 31.
  • It is no small mischief to a boy, that many of the best years of his life should be devoted to the learning of what can never be of any real use to any human being. His mind is necessarily rendered frivolous and superficial by the long habit of attaching importance to words instead of things; to sound instead of sense.
    • “To Mr. Benbow,” Political Register (29 November 1817).
  • To suppose such a thing possible as a society, in which men, who are able and willing to work, cannot support their families, and ought, with a great part of the women, to be compelled to lead a life of celibacy, for fear of having children to be starved; to suppose such a thing possible is monstrous.
    • “To Parson Malthus,” Political Register (8 May 1819).
  • All my plans in private life; all my pursuits; all my designs, wishes, and thoughts, have this one great object in view: the overthrow of the ruffian Boroughmongers. If I write grammars; if I write on agriculture; if I sow, plant, or deal in seeds; whatever I do has first in view the destruction of those infamous tyrants.
    • Political Register (14 August 1819), quoted in Karl W. Schweizer and John W. Osborne, Cobbett and His Times (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990), p. 18.
  • But what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, "the metropolis of the empire"?
    • Cobbett's Weekly Political Register (5 January 1822).
  • Good government is known from bad government by this infallible test: that under the former the labouring people are well fed and well clothed, and under the latter, they are badly fed and badly clothed.
    • Political Register, XLVI, pp. 513-514 (31 May 1823).
  • I set out as a sort of self-dependent politician. My opinions were my own. I dashed at all prejudices. I scorned to follow anybody in matter of opinion.... All were, therefore, offended at my presumption, as they deemed it.
    • Political Register, LXXV, pp. 364-365 (4 February 1832).

Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine (1796)[edit]

Quotations are cited from the 1927 Nonesuch Press edition.
  • As to politics, we were like the rest of the country people in England; that is to say, we neither knew nor thought any thing about the matter.
    • P. 21.
  • But I do not remember ever having seen a newspaper in the house; and, most certainly, that privation did not render us less industrious, happy, or free.
    • P. 22.
  • Men of integrity are generally pretty obstinate in adhering to an opinion once adopted.
    • P. 23.
  • I would have these good people to recollect, that the laws of this country hold out to foreigners an offer of all that liberty of the press which Americans enjoy, and that, if this liberty be abridged, by whatever means it may be done, the laws and the constitution, and all together, is a mere cheat; a snare to catch the credulous and enthusiastic of every other nation; a downright imposition on the world.
    • P. 59.

A Grammar of the English Language (1818)[edit]

  • Grammar, perfectly understood, enables us, not only to express our meaning fully and clearly, but so to express it as to enable us to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express.
    • Page 14.
  • Nouns of number, or multitude, such as Mob, Parliament, Rabble, House of Commons, Regiment, Court of King's Bench, Den of Thieves, and the like.
    • Page 96.
  • Sit down to write what you have thought, and not to think what you shall write.
    • Page 180.

Advice to Young Men (1829)[edit]

Full title: Advice to Young Men, and (Incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life
  • As to the power which money gives, it is that of brute force, it is the power of the bludgeon and the bayonet, and of the bribed press, tongue and pen.
    • Letter 1, p. 36.
  • Another great evil arising from this desire to be thought rich; or rather, from the desire not to be thought poor, is the destructive thing which has been honoured by the name of “speculation”; but which ought to be called Gambling.
    • Letter 2.
  • Women are a sisterhood. They make common cause in behalf of the sex; and, indeed, this is natural enough, when we consider the vast power that the law gives us over them.
    • “To a Husband,” letter 4.
  • Perhaps there are none more lazy, or more truly ignorant, than your everlasting readers.
    • “To a Father,” letter 5.

The Autobiography of William Cobbett (1933)[edit]

Full title: The Autobiography of William Cobbett: The Progress of a Plough-boy to a Seat in Parliament
  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada are the horns, the head, the neck, the shins, and the hoof of the ox, and the United States are the ribs, the sirloin, the kidneys, and the rest of the body.
    • Ch. 2, p. 28.
  • I was a countryman and a father before I was a writer on political subjects.... Born and bred up in the sweet air myself, I was resolved that [my children] should be bred up in it too.
    • Ch. 8, p. 99.
  • A full belly to the labourer was, in my opinion, the foundation of public morals and the only source of real public peace.
    • Ch. 12, pp. 185-186.

Quotes about Cobbet[edit]

  • One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style stuns his readers…He is too much for any single newspaper antagonist; "lays waste" a city orator or Member of Parliament, and bears hard upon the Government itself. He is a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country. He is not only unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day, but one of the best writers in the language. He speaks and thinks plain, broad, downright English.
  • The pattern John Bull of his century, strong as the rhinoceros, and with singular humanities and genialities shining through his thick skin.
    • Thomas Carlyle, in "Sir Walter Scott" (1838), collected in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1857) vol. 4, p. 148.
  • It is especially his bad language that is always good. It is precisely the passages that have always been recognized as good style that would now be regarded as bad form. And it is precisely these violent passages that especially bring out not only the best capacities of Cobbett but also the best capacities of English.

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