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Cobbett in Coventry 1820
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William Cobbett (1763-1835) was a distinctively English political actor, who defies easy classification. He was in turn, a soldier; a polemicist (under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine) in America in the 1790s, writing against radicalism and Paine; a publisher in London and an apologist for William Pitt and the Tory government; a chronicler and recorder of Parliamentary proceedings in Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates (1803-4); the owner of the Political Register a successful weekly paper that sold widely to ordinary working people from 1802 until 1835; an associate of Major John Cartwright, Sir Francis Burdett and other reformers; a prisoner of the state for his denunciation of the use of flogging of members of the militia by Hanoverian troops; a sufficient risk to political order that, in 1817, the government offers him £10,000 to retire from politics; a self-appointed guardian of the radical legacy of Paine (whom he had once denounced) by bringing Paine's bones back to England in 1819, where they were promptly mislaid; a parliamentary candidate in Coventry in 1820; a defender of the farming interest following his own troubles as a seedsman and nurseryman and an advocate for rural sports and amusements; a candidate in Preston in 1826; a long awaited electoral victor in the General Election of 1832 when he was elected for Oldham, by which he was re-elected in 1835, shortly before his death.

He was one of the country's most successful publicists, but his imprudence and restless disposition meant that his many of his publishing and farming ventures rarely succeeded for long. From 1805 he increasingly became a thorn in the side of governments, and a resolute advocate for political reform - albeit, largely with the aim of pre-empting the dangers of revolution. He was an extremely effective communicator, in person and in print, and was one of the most popular writers of his generation. His Rural Rides (1821-26) gave a powerful portrait of English rural life, coupled with swingeing attacks on landlords, middlemen, corn dealers, and the swelling spread of the 'Great Wen' of London into the English countryside. And he captures perfectly some of the less familiar strands of English radicalism as it developed in the late 1810s and the 1820s. He became a convinced Painite, but coupled this with a belief in a strong agrarian society, and saw in the developing urban expansion a corruption of the British character which he feared would prove fatal. He was an advocate of freedom of the press, but was not prepared to challenge the government directly by joining the ranks of the unstamped press, and continued to sell his Political Register as stamped, even though it dramatically inhibited its circulation. 

Cobbett was in many respects a reactionary. He retained from his Anti-Jacobin propaganda of the 1790s a hatred of Jacobin egalitarian principles, but he also distrusted the powers of government that had been raised against that threat only, as he saw it, to be deployed to the cost of ordinary men and women and the established ways of the country.  He had little interest in industry but came to be concerned for the industrial working classes and their poverty as a result of his political tours of the Northern counties.  He was against machines and sympathised with those who turned on them in the Luddite riots of the 1810s. And he contributed a strand of thinking to radicalism that emphasised the potential for a self-sustaining community in which agricultural production played a major part, and in which ordinary people lived fuller, less exploited lives.  Chartism's concern with land and its distribution to the people, shared this bucolic admiration for the independent producer rooted in the soil of the community.