As Americans celebrate their independence from England, it is worth remembering an Englishman, later to be lionized by G. K. Chesterton, who moved to the United States in 1792, when the American nation was in its infancy. The Englishman in question is William Cobbett (1763-1835), of whom Chesterton, in 1925, wrote a biography, considering him the very embodiment of Merrie England:
Cobbett would have asked nothing better than to bend his mediaeval bow to the cry of “St George for Merry England”…. But if we take that old war cry as his final word (and he would have accepted it) we must note how every term in it points away from what the modern plutocrats call either progress or empire.
What, then, brought this champion of Merrie England to the shores of the young nation which had so recently severed its ties to the motherland?
Like so many others, both before and after the American Revolution, William Cobbett sought refuge in the New World from the injustice experienced in his native land. Having served in the British army for six years in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, he returned to England in 1791 and obtained his discharge from the army. Having gained evidence of widespread systematic financial corruption amongst the officers of his regiment, he sought to bring the culprits to justice. The evidence was ignored and he met with nothing but obstruction of, and resistance to, his efforts to pursue matters through legal channels. He then published The Soldier’s Friend as a protest against corruption in the military and the ill-treatment of troops. Fearing indictment for his outspokenness, Cobbett fled to France in March 1792 to avoid arrest and imprisonment.
Cobbett’s arrival in France coincided with that distressful country’s descent from its Revolution in 1789 to the Reign of Terror which followed. A month after Cobbett’s arrival, the French Revolutionary Wars began. Since France was now at war with Britain, Cobbett’s position was both precarious and perilous. “I perceived the storm gathering,” he wrote. “I saw that a war with England was inevitable, and it was not difficult to foresee what would be the fate of Englishmen in that country.”
Then, in September 1792, the French monarchy was abolished and a revolutionary Republic established. Cobbett was en route to Paris when he heard the news. “I heard … that the King was dethroned and his guards murdered,” he wrote. “This intelligence made me turn off towards Havre de Grace, whence I embarked to America.”
Arriving in the post-revolutionary fervour of the United States ensured that Cobbett was soon embroiled once again in controversy. Many Americans supported the French Revolution, perceiving it to be a blood brother to America’s own revolution. Furthermore, the Revolutionary War having ended less than a decade earlier, many Americans were very anti-British. In consequence, many Americans supported the French against the British in the French Revolutionary War, perceiving parallels between the French military struggle against Britain and America’s.
It was, therefore, into this cauldron of controversy that William Cobbett found himself upon his arrival in the United States. A patriotic Englishman, who never shied away from a fight, it was inevitable that he would become embroiled in the turbulent politics of the New World.
Having lived in Wilmington for a few months, Cobbett and his family settled in Philadelphia in the spring of 1793. Two years later, he wrote A Bone to Gnaw for the Democrats, a polemical broadside against the pro-French Democratic Party. Naturally enough, he sided with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists who were friendlier than the Democrats towards Britain.
In July 1796, Cobbett opened a bookstore in Philadelphia, displaying in the window a portrait of King George III. Those entering the shop were greeted with a large painting depicting the British victory over the French in a naval battle in 1794. Apart from selling books, Cobbett began to publish them, including a book attacking Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man, published in 1791, had defended the French Revolution. He would later revise and moderate his opinion of Paine, admiring much of what Paine wrote, though complaining of Paine’s hostile attitude towards Christianity.
Cobbett’s first period in the United States ended in 1800 when he returned to England. In 1810, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for condemning the mistreatment of troops in the British army. In 1817, once again fearing arrest as he continued to campaign effectively and fearlessly for political reform, he returned to America. Settling on a farm in Long Island in much more peaceful and less turbulent times, he found time to write The American Gardener, one of the earliest books on horticulture to be published in the United States.
Returning to England in 1819, he would continue to fight for political reform and would be elected to Parliament in 1832. From a Catholic perspective, his greatest achievement was the publication of The History of the Protestant Reformation, a hugely influential work of revisionist history exposing what Belloc would later call the “enormous mountain of ignorant wickedness” that constituted “tom-fool Protestant history”. The success and persuasiveness of Cobbett’s exposé of the disastrous impact of the English Reformation would pave the way for Catholic emancipation in 1829, ending the three centuries of persecution of England’s Catholics which his book had highlighted.
One example of Cobbett’s strident rhetoric in defence of the Catholic heritage of England will suffice to illustrate the powerful impact of his fiery polemic:
If … we still insist that the Pope’s supremacy and its accompanying circumstances produced ignorance, superstition and slavery, let us act the part of sincere, consistent and honest men. Let us knock down, or blow up, the cathedrals and colleges and old churches: let us sweep away the three courts, the twelve judges, the circuits and the jury boxes; let us demolish all that we inherit from those whose religion we denounce, and whose memory we affect to heartily despise; let us demolish all this, and we shall have left – all our own – the capacious jails and penitentiaries, the stock-exchange, the hot, ankle and knee-swelling and lung-destroying cotton-factories; the whiskered standing army and its splendid barracks … ; the poor-rates and the pauper-houses; and, by no means forgetting that blessing which is peculiarly and doubly and “gloriously” Protestant, – the National Debt. Ah! people of England, how you have been deceived!
William Cobbett was not himself a Catholic, which enabled him to claim impartiality with respect to the religious question, denouncing the Reformers as avaricious plutocrats irrespective of the creed they theoretically espoused. According to Christopher Hollis, Cobbett’s History was a significant influence on some of the major political and cultural movements of the following century, including the Gothic Revival, led by Augustus Pugin; the Young England movement, led by Benjamin Disraeli; the “back-to-the-land” wing of the Chartists, led by Feargus O’Connor; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, led by John Ruskin and William Morris; and the Distributist movement, led by Chesterton and Belloc. “They all, to a large extent derived, whether they were conscious of it or not, from Cobbett….”
Such is the cultural and historical impact of William Cobbett on his native land. As for his impact on the early years of the United States, we’ll let him speak for himself:
[T]hen to America; passing eight years there, becoming bookseller and author, and taking a prominent part in all the important discussions of the interesting period from 1793 to 1799, during which there was, in that country, a continued struggle between the English and French parties….
Perhaps, more than two centuries later, we can celebrate the life and legacy of William Cobbett on this Fourth of July, even as we celebrate the life and legacy of the United States of America. For the present author, a native Englishman who has found in the United States a land of opportunity and a place of hospitality and welcome, a home from home, it is a true joy to celebrate both William Cobbett and the country which offered him refuge and the freedom of speech which was often denied him in England.
May such freedoms be cherished and may we continue to fight for them.
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