William Cobbett, an English political writer, born at Farnham, in Surrey, March 9, 1762, died near Farnham, June 18, 1835. His lather, who for many years kept an inn at Farnham, and farmed a piece of land in the neighborhood, taught him reading, writing, and arithmetic, and employed him in the fields from early boyhood. At the age of 20 he vainly endeavored to enter the navy. In the following year he made his way to London, where ho became copying clerk in an attorney's office, which employment he found so irksome that he enlisted in the 54th infantry regiment in 1784. He was sent to Chatham, where he remained for a year, during which time he read much, studied grammar, and rose to the rank of corporal. Accompanying his regiment to New Brunswick, his good conduct during the following three years was such that at the age of 25 he was promoted, over 30 sergeants, to the rank of sergeant major. The regiment returned to England in 1791, after which at his own request he obtained his discharge, with excellent testimonials from his superior officers.
On Feb. 5, 1792, he married at Woolwich the daughter of a sergeant major with whom he had been acquainted in New BrunsAvick. Soon afterward they went to France, but on account of the revolution returned to England in six months, and soon sailed for the United States. At Philadelphia, under the name of "Peter Porcupine," he wrote several political pamphlets in favor of England, and opposed to French principles. He opened a shop for the sale of his own compositions, among them one attacking Dr. Rush, who brought a suit, and obtained a verdict of $5,000 damages. In 1800 Cobbett returned to London, opened a book shop in Pall Mall, published the "Works of Peter Porcupine" in 12 volumes, and established a daily paper called "The Porcupine," in which he supported Mr. Pitt's administration. This journal was shortlived, and on stopping it Cobbett commenced the "Weekly Political Register," the publication of which was continued without interruption till his death. The sale of the "Register " became so large that Cobbett was soon enabled to acquire Botley, a large farm in Hampshire, where he resumed a country life, giving a few hours daily to his editorial duty. He was prosecuted and convicted for various libels on the government and individuals.
In July, 1810, he was convicted of a libel for denouncing the flogging of English militiamen by German soldiers, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Newgate, with a fine of £1,000. The money was raised by subscription, but he had to suffer the full sentence of imprisonment; and though he continued to write in prison (among other productions, his famous currency book, "Paper against Gold"), his income suffered greatly. In 1816 he began an occasional publication called "Two Pennv Trash," whose sale rose to 100,000 copies. Its influence with the working classes was so great that the "six acts" were passed in 1817 for the express purpose of preventing public meetings, and of silencing the independent press. Cobbett retreated to the United States, dating his subsequent "Registers" from Long Island, where he leased a farm, until the repeal of the particular statute which he feared might be put in force against himself. Returning in December, 1819, he added more to his notoriety than popularity by bringing with him the bones of Thomas Paine. He had formerly denounced Paine as a regicide and infidel, and now urged the English people to give him a grand funeral and a splendid monument.
In 1820, during the prosecution of Queen Caroline for adultery, Oobbett is said to have been her secretary, writing her replies to addresses, as well as her celebrated letter to the king. He now took a farm at Kensington, where he cultivated American trees and plants, Indian corn included, which he thought might be useful to England, and to which he tried to give the name of "Cobbett's corn." In the following ten years he wrote many books, each of which obtained a large sale. Most remarkable among these are his "History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland," with such a Roman Catholic bias that it has been translated into French and Italian; English and French grammars, written with great clearness; "Advice to Young Men and Women," containing many charming passages of autobiography; "Treatise on Cobbett's Corn;" "Emigrant's Guide;" "Cottage Economy;" "Village Sermons;" "A Year's Residence in America;" "History of England," etc. He also edited various other books. Early rising, temperate living, concentrated industry, and health preserved by much outdoor exercise, enabled him to get through a greater quantity of brain work than any other author of his day, Scott not excepted. Besides the weekly writing of his "Register," he compiled 20 volumes of parliamentary debates.
He strongly condemned the currency views of Peel, and as strongly advocated Catholic emancipation, granted in 1829, and parliamentary reform, completed in 1832. In July, 1831, while the reform excitement was agitating England, the whig ministry brought Cobbett to trial for what the attorney general (Denman) described as a seditious libel, exciting agricultural laborers to destroy corn, machinery, and other property. Cobbett, who conducted his own defence, made a very damaging attack on the whig government. After 15 hours' deliberation, the jury, equally divided in opinion, could not give a verdict, and were discharged, which ended the trial. At Coventry in 1820, and at Preston in 1820, Cobbett had unsuccessfully attempted to be returned to parliament. In December, 1832, chiefly through the influence of Mr. John Fielden, a resident wealthy manufacturer of that borough, he was elected for Oldham, when 70 years old. In the following session he moved resolutions on the currency, in which there was offensive mention of Sir Robert Peel. Not only was his motion negatived, but the commons ordered the resolutions to be discharged from their minutes. He made no impression in parliament, and had no influence.
At the general election in December, 1834, he was again returned to parliament for Oldham. Unaccustomed labor, performed at late hours in a heated atmosphere, soon told upon a man far advanced in age, whose previous boast had been that he rose at 4 and went to bed at 9. He had a sudden attack of disease of the heart during a debate on the malt tax, on May 25, 1835, was removed to his country residence near Farnham, and survived only three weeks. He was buried in the churchyard of his native town, by the side of his father and mother. In 1856 a tomb was erected over the slab which had hitherto covered his grave. As a politician Cobbett was unstable and inconsistent, but always wrote with great power. As an author he stands very high. Southey declared that there never was a better or more forcible English writer. In public his pen seemed almost against every one. In domestic life he was a faithful husband and most affectionate and indulgent parent. In 1842 his son published, in six volumes, with notes, a selection from Cobbett's political works.
In 1848 this was extended to nine volumes. - See "Biographies of John "Wilkes and William Cobbett," by the Rev. John Watson (London, 1870).