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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 12. William Cobbett; Weekly Political Register

The heir to the pamphleteering eminence of Paine was a man oddly like, and, again, oddly unlike, his predecessor. William Cobbett, too, rose by his own efforts from the poorer classes. His father was a small farmer and innkeeper in Hampshire, and he educated himself with indomitable pluck while he was serving as a soldier. Owing to his accomplishments, he rose to the rank of sergeant-major and became a kind of clerk-factotum to his regiment; but, in 1791, he suddenly obtained his discharge and attempted to convict several of his former officers of peculation. No facilities for proof were allowed him and he did not appear at the court-martial. Instead, he went to France, and, after a short residence there, occupied in acquiring the language, he emigrated, like Paine, to Philadelphia. Still following Paine’s precedent, he had not been settled long in America before he took up the pamphlet-writing trade. Under the apt pseudonym of Peter Porcupine, he conducted a pro-British and anti-French campaign, until he was ruined by libel cases and obliged to return to England, in 1800. He was well received, as was natural, in government circles, and soon started work as a tory free lance. His first venture, The Porcupine, failed; but his second, Cobbett’s Political Register, a weekly newspaper with long leaders, which he began in 1802, gained the public ear. At first tory, then independent, at last strongly radical, he maintained, till his death, an influence of which no persecution and no folly could deprive him. He appealed to the farmer and small trader as no one else could. The composition of his weekly Register was not his only occupation. Besides other publishing ventures, including Parliamentary Debates, later undertaken by Hansard, and State Trials, he combined business and enthusiastic pleasure as a model farmer. All went well until, in 1810, he received a sentence of two years’ imprisonment on account of an invective against military flogging. He could keep up writing his Register; but his farm went to wrack, and he came out heavily in debt. Still, however, his hold on the public increased, and, when, in 1816, he succeeded in reducing the price to twopence, the circulation of his paper rose to over 40,000 copies. A temporary retreat to America did little to impair the extent of his audience, and, all through the reign of George IV, he was a leader of political opinion. Books from his pen, egotistic in character, on farming, on politics, on the conduct of life by the young, appeared one after another, had their temporary use and still provided specimens of his character and his literary style. By 1830, his fortunes were re-established; the Reform act opened the doors of parliament to him, and he sat in the Commons till his death in 1835.