Epilogue: William Cobbett and America
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Epilogue: William Cobbett and America book
William Cobbett (1763-1835), journalist, farmer and resident in North America for three substantial periods, exempli es the point par excellence that individuals in this era did not t neatly into rigid political categories that may be imposed by modern readers. Not only did his broader political allegiances change more than once, but, unlike Coleridge, so too did his attitudes to the United States of America. He also typi ed the pattern that British commentators’ opinions on America re ected their views on British politics and, indeed, that the subject of America was o en simply a forum for arguing about domestic a airs. Perhaps in his case more than most, however, he was o en really discussing not only British politics but himself and his own experiences, under the guise of writing about America. Cobbett had a troubled and rocky relationship with the politics of his own country. He idealized the British constitution and his conception of how it had worked in practice in the recent past, and he was usually anxious to proclaim a profound English patriotism, but he was frequently disillusioned by his present observation and experience of the government of Britain. e United States acted for him as a foil for the England which at times he adored and by which at other times he was deeply disappointed; indeed, twice, America provided an asylum for him when he ed from political persecution at home a er voicing his criticisms too strongly. As his contentment with British politics and society rose and fell, he frequently appeared to change his mind in inverse proportion regarding the merits and aws of American politics and society. It has been suggested that Cobbett was not very interested in international politics – that he was a ‘Little Englander’, who said of himself that he was not, unlike Paine, ‘a citizen of the world’, but instead he was preoccupied with the interests of ‘England, Scotland and Ireland’. Yet he collected his writings on America into twelve volumes as early as 1801.2
In one person, Cobbett contained the full cocktail of British attitudes towards the United States – fascination, admiration, adulation, resentment, contempt and fear – not only over the course of his lifetime, but sometimes all struggling for dominance in him at the same time. His importance to this study lies in the combination of the breadth of his experience of the United States, and his achievement in becoming the most widely read popular political writer in Britain in the early nineteenth century. His Weekly Political Register, which he wrote and published for more than thirty years, including two years he spent in Newgate prison in 1810-12 and during two years of exile in the United States in 1817-19, had tens of thousands of readers by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, even before he started to produce a shorter, mass, two penny edition in 1816.3 is chapter traces his revolving opinions on America, and it suggests in conclusion that, beneath the vast quantity of Cobbett’s verbiage, both admiring and poisonous, certain constant or at least solidifying views on the United States can be discerned. Many of the positions on America expressed by British commentators across the political spectrum emerged at di erent times in Cobbett’s writing, but the rmer opinions that he formed over time are perhaps the most interesting for this inquiry.