William Cobbett and Rural Rides
A seminar by Andrew Giddings – delivered on 16/02/2010
The Napoleonic War which followed the French Revolution presented a great opportunity for Britain. England began paying for mercenaries to fight the war before supplying its own troops, eventually winning at Waterloo. The British Navy had absolute power, and this control of the waterways meant it could blockade French trade, allowing British trade to flourish.
This, largely the trans-Atlantic triangular trading of cotton, slaves and sugar, saw an economic boom. Scotland and Ireland joined with England, forming the United Kingdom. The enclosure policy, along with new technology that came with the Industrial Revolution, drove many of the farm labourers into the towns and cities. Manchester, the centre of the Industrial Revolution, saw its population explode, in part due to former farm workers seeking employment.
The Corn Laws were brought in to preserve the agricultural industry. It a placed huge import tariff on cheap foreign corn, meaning it was better value to buy British. The Corn Laws were in effect from 1815 to 1846. Rural Rides was written during this period.
The country was corrupted and messy, and the public began to campaign for Parliamentary reform. Cobbett’s support for such campaigns landed him in prison. The Government, afraid of more riots and revolt, eventually brought in the Reform Act in 1832. But while this got rid of some corruption, it was more of a polish than a repair. However, few people could say that Cobbett didn’t make a difference in the long-run.
William Cobbett was born in 1763, and his childhood took place in a rural setting. His father owned a tavern and taught Cobbett to read and write. He worked as a farm labourer until he was about 20 and then, having spent about a year in London, joined the army and spent around 15 years abroad. Not all of this time was spent in the army, however. While in Canada, Cobbett discovered that an officer was stealing from army funds. His exposure of the thief simply saw him being branded a troublemaker and he fled to France, and the US soon after. Here Cobbett taught English to French refugees.
When he returned, Cobbett soon started his own newspaper, called the Political Register. This began as a conservative paper, but over the course of around four years he shifted towards more radical views, eventually campaigning for parliamentary reform until he was accused of sedition, earning him two years in jail.
This only served to fire Cobbett up even more, and he began campaigning for freedom of speech as well.
Another target of Cobbett’s efforts was newspaper tax. At the time, there was a specific tax on the news, similar to fuel or alcohol duty today. This had become so great that only higher earners could afford to buy papers. Cobbett worked around this by converting his paper to a pamphlet (something of a loophole), allowing him to circumvent the 4d tax and sell it for 2d per copy. This saw the Political Register’s circulation leap from 1000 copies per week, to 40,000.
The Political Register’s popularity with the working class, along with its radical agenda, saw Cobbett being targeted for arrest, again for sedition. He headed back to America and continued to publish from there.
So from this brief biography we can pick out some of the motivation for Rural Rides, or at least explain some of the views which he expresses.
His childhood certainly put the countryside close to his heart. It may even explain why he continued to return to a country ruled by, in his eyes, an oppressive government.
His attempts to expose the corruption of his quartermaster in the military show that, even at a young age, he was willing to rock the boat and put himself on the line in order to stand up for what he believed in.
The fact that, despite his home schooling, he was able to teach English as a foreign language, shows that he was skilled with words- he even wrote a book on grammar while he was in America. It is likely that his father instilled his values and convictions in him as well.
But Cobbett found that he was directly oppressed. His freedom of speech was stifled, he was imprisoned for speaking his mind, and his newspaper efforts were suffocated by taxes. Is it any wonder that, in Rural Rides, he speaks so angrily about the system which not only seems to be trying to ruin his adult life, but take away the setting of his childhood as well? But that is not to say that Rural Rides was written only to preserve his sense of nostalgia.
Throughout the book, Cobbett’s main concern seems to be that of the people. He describes some of the remaining workers as “walking skeletons”, suggesting that when farmers became gentleman, their labourers became slaves. Labourers used to live in with the farmers, but this stopped when farmers became wealthy thanks to the war and the Corn Laws, and enclosure ended the strip system which allowed local residents to grow their own crops. Enclosure provided food for the booming population, but the high prices and inability to farm for themselves crippled the people who were reliant on the old system. Cobbett is criticizing the way the new system is widening the gap between the rich and the poor, still a hot topic of conversation today. This is part of his reputation of being a campaigner for the people.
William Cobbett and Charles Dickens were certainly on the same wavelength. Dickens was focused on the urban population, where Cobbett’s interest was in the rural people, but the two were closely linked. The exodus from the countryside which concerned Cobbett caused in the overcrowding of the cities, the filthy workhouses and the exploitation of the downtrodden poor, all focal points of the works of Dickens. Cobbett also discusses “tax-eaters”, people in highly paid, pointless jobs who take all from society and give nothing back, clogging up the broken system which is wholly supported by the efforts of the poor labourers. This wasteful and pointless clogging is exemplified in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case of ‘Bleak House’. The ‘fog’ which receives so much attention at the beginning of the book is a metaphor for the confused and overcomplicated system about which Cobbett complains.
Cobbett , Dickens and their legacy
Dickens was more successful than Cobbett in his campaign for change in the cities than Cobbett was in his campaign for change in the countryside. A reason for this may be that Dickens was trying to move things forward, where Cobbett was trying to move them back. Through his writing, Dickens was speaking to people in the towns and cities. He appealed to the middle class, as those people had some ability to encourage change, but weren’t too far removed from the working class to care about characters like Oliver Twist. In contrast, Cobbett was preaching to a countryside which was now all but empty, and he had few people to rally as they had already left. Dickens had an audience and a strategy. This is not to say that Cobbett had no success, but Dickens is certainly better remembered.
Despite this, it’s difficult not to respect Cobbett’s willingness to take such risks in order to fight for the poor labourers. Few journalists or campaigners would be willing to put themselves in such a position today, not to mention riding on horseback across the country in their twilight years. While farming did prove to have changed forever, Cobbett still made an impression on the nation and its awareness of the treatment of the working class, as well as the folly of oppressive government intervention. He and Dickens were the fathers of modern journalism, particularly campaign journalism, giving voices to the voiceless. There have been no major revolts since Cobbett and Dickens, and it could be argued that this is because the voice that they gave to the people provided an outlet, taking the lid off of the pressure cooker that leads to violent revolution, instead allowing peaceful campaigns for change. Whether or not Cobbett was successful or right with regards to the countryside should not prevent him from being held up as an example to journalists. His efforts helped to reshape the system in which we live today, and the way in which he worked fearlessly and tirelessly is something we can all learn from.
Was Cobbett blinded by his sense of nostaligia? His concern was indeed for rural people, but shows little concern for the people who would have been affected by the food shortage which might have arisen if farming hadn’t adapted to the revolution. One of the first pieces on information delivered in Rural Rides is opinion, not fact: “All Middlesex is ugly”. Does this suggest that, in modern terms, Rural Rides is more comment than fact?
The damage to the farming industry, alongside the introduction of machinery, saw out-of-work labourers flocking to the cities. But if the machinery was never introduced, would farming have been any better in that climate?
Were there any benefits to the influx of people into the cities, such as forcing leaps in technology and infrastructure? For example The Big Stink in London in 1858 resulted in Joseph Bazalgette’s engineering of a new sewerage system, an engineering marvel at the time.
How does Cobbett line up with some of the figures we’ve discussed previously, particularly Rousseau, Smith and Hegel?
Rousseau felt that mankind was better off in a state of nature, and so ultimately would have been unhappy with any kind of land ownership. But Cobbett and Rousseau were on similar grounds with regards to natural beauty, so it does seem likely that they would have agreed that things were better as they were, being against industrialisation and mechanisation. But if Cobbett was successful, it is possible that where he would have been satisfied, Rousseau would have wanted to take things further, banning land ownership altogether and allowing the people to freely work the land as they wished.
It may seem that Adam Smith would have disagreed with Cobbett. Where Cobbett campaigned for the course of farming to be dealt with, Smith stood for a free market, and if this led to the industrialisation of farming then so be it, the Hidden Hand would guide it. However, it is important to recognise that Smith would likely have attributed the problems that Cobbett saw to government intervention, such as the Corn Laws (and their subsequent repeal). If the government interference did not cause the problems, it could be argued that it brought them on more suddenly. Cobbett and Smith would almost certainly have agreed on the Corn Laws and their negative effects.
Countryside was in a state of flux, and by the time Cobbett tried to grasp it, it had already changed beyond the point of reversal. Perhaps we can draw something from Hegel, spoke a great deal about change and flux. Hegel would also have said that this change was Geist, and may have suggested that this was the reason for Cobbett’s failure to reverse the change.