Gilmartin, "William Cobbett and the Politics of System"

Romanticism and Conspiracy

William Cobbett and the Politics of System

Kevin Gilmartin, California Institute of Technology

This paper is extracted from Chapter Five of my book, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). I am grateful to Josie Dixon and to Cambridge University Press for their permission to reprint this material here, and to John Morillo and Orrin Wang for their assistance in preparing this paper for Romantic Circles Praxis Series.

  1. Given William Cobbett's extraordinarily single-minded obsession with an "all-corrupting and all-degrading system" of political oppression and economic injustice that had, in his view, dominated British life at least since William Pitt's direction of the wars against Revolutionary France, and given his own assurance that he had devoted his career to analyzing "all the grounds, all the causes, all effects, all the various workings of the thing; all the whole history and mystery of this grand delusion" (Register 36 [1820], 684-86), it is curious that some of his most incisive critics agree on nothing more than that he was not a systematic writer. E. P. Thompson maintains that "Cobbett's thought was not a system but a relationship" with his audience; Raymond Williams suggests that "to analyze his work . . . is not to articulate a system but to consider certain dominant themes"; and Gertrude Himmelfarb agrees that "Cobbett's writing reminds us how untidy, unstructured, unfocused his world was" (Thompson, 758; Williams, 28; Himmelfarb, 229). While Cobbett's own sense of system no doubt differs from that of these critics—allowing, as it does, for the contradiction and "outrageous inconsistency" (Hazlitt, 7: 57) that have troubled commentators since Hazlitt—his work needs to be understood as a serious and systematic response to an increasingly systematic world. "Unstructured," "thematic" approaches, and impressionistic readings of "relationship," risk overlooking the logic and cunning that run through Cobbett's prose, and his related practices of publication and circulation.

  2. For Cobbett as for his contemporary William Blake, system was a powerful and potentially oppressive means of ordering the world. The two writers conceived this ordering process in different ways, differences that correspond loosely to the definition of system as either "a set of principles" or "an organized or connected group of objects."(1) Where Blake contended with a system of mental categories, Cobbett set out here as elsewhere from "the physical means of sustaining and reproducing life" (Williams, 38), and with a keen post-revolutionary awareness of the dangers of aligning radical energy with abstract speculation. His understanding of system stressed concrete institutions and practices, an order of things with important consequences for the human mind and manners. Where a Blake dictionary has entries under Golgonooza, Luvah, and Reason, a Cobbett dictionary, were one to be compiled (and it would be no less useful), would have entries under Pitt, Canning, paper money, potatoes, and turnpikes. Blake was, in addition, more thoroughly dialectical and ironic in his approach to system. He created his own system to avoid being imposed on by other systems, yet recognized that ordering the world and having it ordered for you were not mutually exclusive activities. To the Angel's complaint in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that "thy phantasy has imposed upon me," the figure of the poet shrewdly responds, "we impose on one another" (Blake, 42). Blake answered systematic imposition on its own terms, in order to promote the strife among contraries that would cast all systems into the consuming fires of Orc, but he did not envision an end to dialectical strife. Cobbett, by contrast, did seek to get beyond system and political dispute, in order to recover for himself and the nation a rural and domestic repose more like Blake's Beulah than like ongoing mental fight. Rather than creating his own system, Cobbett set out to describe and account for a corrupt system that already existed, in order to elicit its contradictions and encourage the popular resentment that would hasten its downfall. Although sometimes prepared to mimic the system in order to oppose it, he was unwilling to yield completely to the complex dialectics of system and countersystem; this hesitation was one of the chief sources of his inconsistency, and of the energy and tension of his prose. Part of the fascination of his career is to see how closely he shadowed the system while resisting its corrupt influences. Cobbett's aims, too, were more purely combative and exclusive than those of Blake. The imposition, as he saw it, was all on one side. System was a totalizing mode of social organization, in the service of political domination and economic exploitation; it corrupted a prior utopian order and opened an alarming chasm between starving productive laborers and idle consumers. Cobbett claimed few systems as his own, and rarely used the term in a positive sense.(2) Where the "English Jacobins" of the 1790s had proved vulnerable to the charge of systematic conspiracy, Cobbett turned the tables in launching a relentless attack on the systematic organization of British elites and the British government in an age of counter-revolution. If he sometimes conducted what Hazlitt called "systematic opposition," as in "the present haranguing system" of the Rural Rides (Rural Rides, 1: 118), this was a provisional attitude forced upon him by corruption, and very much a "present" contingency. His own oppositional practices were as precarious as the system, and tended to dissolve before utopian presentiments of reform. Put too systematically, the difference between Blake and Cobbett was a difference between poetry and prose, between vision and understanding, between making and remaking, and between revolution and reform.

  3. The greatest misapprehension of Cobbett's system would be to see it as reductive and simply monolithic. The biographer John Osborne proposes that "hatred of the 'System'" is "the key to Cobbett's thought," but finds that Cobbett became "a prisoner" of his one idea: "Of course, there was no single 'System' at all. Cobbett was a perennial oversimplifier and looked instinctively for unqualified explanations . . . Though a seeker after the uncomplex when dealing with issues, Cobbett himself was a bundle of contradictions" (Osborne, 16, 35, 36). On the contrary, I would argue, Cobbett's sense of system involved a simultaneous urge towards simplicity and complexity; he was at once "a bundle of contradictions" and a model of absolute single-mindedness. If he insisted that oppression had a single nexus, located as Osborne observes in the "interlocking tyranny of government creditors . . . and owners of seats in the House of Commons" (Osborne, 16), he constantly revised his political analysis in the face of shifting interests and alliances within the system. Constant mutation and a proliferation of terms were part of what made systematic power difficult to detect and resist: "Thus is tyranny aggravated by its complexity" (Register 19 [1811], 1060). Cobbett's own famous shift from late eighteenth-century loyalist to early nineteenth-century radical led to charges of inconsistency in his own lifetime, which he met with characteristic flexibility and aggression, first dismissing the "doctrine of consistency" as "the most absurd that ever was broached" (Register 15 [1809], 816), and later reversing the charge by publishing accounts of the "Shocking Inconsistency" of his enemies (Register 41 [1822], 626).(3)

  4. Cobbett was acutely aware that radical reform confronted not one but "several systems" (Register 21 [1812], 3), directed by several hands. Throughout his writing, oppressive power was disturbingly fragmented and fragmenting. It may be useful to recall some of the many systems identified and analyzed in the Political Register, though this risks the condescending parody into which Cobbett criticism has too often degenerated:

    system of conquest smothering system barracks system system of pauperdom system of anti-Jacobinism comforting system system of public corruption system of slavery cow system child-bed-linen system church-going system industry system system of finance military system monkish system Pitt system tea-drinking system potato system system of banking system of spies system of watching calumniating system system of learned fraud system of exclusion system of beggary Manchester system tract sytem system of influence system of gambling feudal system system of paper-money funding system borough system

    Such a list conveys the extraordinary range and specificity of Cobbett's idea of system, and suggests too the scope of his own countersystematic imagination, which could apprehend with equal seriousness and anxiety the sublime terror of Napoleon's "general system of conquest" (Register 18 [1810], 636) and the quaint incursions of the philanthropist's "child-bed-linen system" (Register 16 [1809], 113). What an inert list cannot communicate, however, is the sense of urgency and order that pervaded Cobbett's writing, and the complex relationships that structured these disparate elements and made them systematic. The system could not be reduced to a discrete set of objects (paper money, linen, potatoes), individuals (spies, priests, boroughmongers), or institutions (church, banks, parliament), but included too the practices through which these were assembled and organized. Cobbett once glossed the term system as a "settled method of proceeding; a fixed line of conduct" (Register 18 [1810], 970), and insisted that the "change of system" he sought was "not so much a change of men, as a change of principles, a change of maxims and rules of government" (Register 16 [1809], 833). His own oppositional analysis exposed the implicit and often deliberately hidden "maxims and rules" of a corrupt system, and tried to disrupt their "fixed" and "settled" character

  5. Countersystematic analysis had to penetrate misleading surfaces to disclose an underlying structure. To this end, and with all his hostility towards industrial production, Cobbett often figured system as an instrument or "grand machine" (Register 29 [1815], 334), operating "with steady pace" and dynamic "powers of motion" (Register 25 [1814], 580).(4) This figure contained a revisionist polemic, since it placed the latest model of disruptive social change in the service of an older, more organic sense of corruption, and held the government rather than factory labor or production responsible for disorder.(5) The mechanical model revealed a good deal about Cobbett's own countersystem, as in this passage from an 1805 article on "The Budget":

    The art of financiering consists principally in multiplying and confusing accounts, till, at last, no one has courage to undertake an examination of them. The way, therefore, to detect a financier of the Pitt school, is, to fix upon some one point, and that, too, a point as simple as possible in itself, and that will not very easily admit of being disfigured and confused. When my attention was first attracted to the subject of finance, it appeared to me, that a gross deception was played off upon the people annually; but, an annual exposition of every little wheel, peg and wire in the immense machine, would have been an endless task. I, therefore, fixed upon one single point, namely, the surplus of the Consolidated Fund. (Register 7 [1805], 289)

    From a lowly "single point," Cobbett proceeded outward by a kind of synechdoche through "every little wheel, peg and wire in the immense machine," to an overarching system of paper money and its manipulation in the Pitt system of finance. Complexity was broken down into manageable units for the purposes of analysis, but the analysis finally insisted that each unit was part of the larger system. Throughout his life Cobbett traced the mysterious threads and wires of corrupt connection with unwavering tenacity, whether his subject was a "system of paper-money" that "seems to depend for existence on war" (Register 25 [1814], 9), or a system of "potatoe diet" that turned out to be "a component part of the tea-drinking system" (Register 29 [1815], 167). The number of systems often multiplied to accommodate new evidence, but all were part of one "immense machine."(6) If Cobbett like Blake used the principle of connection or "ramification" (Register 28 [1815], 261) to represent a world in systematic terms, it was essential to his argument that the representation was not visionary, but a prosaic and slavishly mimetic account of the only world that existed.

  6. Where mechanical terms indicated the work done by system and countersystem, Cobbett used more conventional organic figures to trace the origin and development of corruption:

    The system of managing the affairs of the nation . . . has made all flashy and false, and has put all things out of their place. Pomposity, bombast, hyperbole, redundancy, and obscurity, both in speaking and in writing; mock-delicacy in manners, mock-liberality, mock-humanity, and mock-religion. Pitt's false money, Peel's flimsy dresses, Wilberforce's potato diet, Castlereagh's and Mackintosh's oratory, Walter Scott's poems, Walter's and Stoddart's paragraphs, with all the bad taste and baseness and hypocrisy which they spread over this country; all have arisen, grown, branched out, bloomed and borne together; and we are now beginning to taste of their fruit. (Cottage Economy, 118)

    The prospect of reform hinged on the claim that the life of system was a life of corruption, destined to end in blight and decay. While Cobbett resisted political quietism, warning that "the seeds of destruction" were like other seeds "often of very slow growth; and the plant, unfortunately, too long in ripening" (Register 19 [1811], 1060), he was prepared to follow the logic of organic connection to its natural conclusion: the entire system would collapse if key components were sufficiently debilitated. "The Boroughmongers would fain shake off the fund-holders; but they cannot. Both must live, or die, together" (Register 35 [1819-1820], 303). This became a favorite argument during the heady post-war years of popular unrest and agricultural depression:

    All has been sublimated, and, if the farmers come down, all must come down. Aye, and John Bowles and Southey and Walter Scott must find their level as well as the rest. The chariot-riding proprietor of the Times must return to the humble trade of his father; John Bowles must write last-dying-speeches and confessions; Southey must make and sing his own ballads, and Walter Scott write Christmas carroles and new histories of the Children in the Wood. (Register 29 [1815], 175)

    An intricate structure demonstrated that "all must come down together," and that the system could never be represented adequately by a list of discrete elements. Though his writing was saturated with facts and calculations, Cobbett did not enter the popular market for encyclopedias of corruption like the Black Book. Instead, the Political Register grew more discursive after the war, as Cobbett devoted his energies more and more to long essays proving that a "sublimation" of the system was imminent. Rather than allow the arbitrary order of the alphabet to disperse Pitt's paper, Wilberforce's potatoes, and Scott's poems across the printed page, Cobbett insisted on yoking everything together through his own vigorous argument and analysis.

  7. Finance, and paper currency above all, seemed to Cobbett the weakest link in a corrupt system, and the most promising "point" of radical resistance. He frequently addressed the problem with rhetorical and political strategies of distinction, summed up in the antithetical title of his 1815 Paper against Gold. His letter "To the Stocking-Weavers" extended a radical boycott of taxed commodities to paper money, urging workers to keep their savings close at hand "in metal money": "Put it into no funds, no saving banks, no societies, no common stock; for, all these must, at last, rest upon the Paper System, than which a cobweb is not more fragile" (Register 39 [1821], 125-26).(7) Yet the fragility of a corrupt system of finance could also justify intervention, in the more ironic style of radical countersystem. In 1819 he developed a plan to "puff-out" the system by flooding England with counterfeit currency from his privileged position in exile. The lifelong opponent of paper money reinvented himself as enthusiastic counterfeiter. Like John Wade's theory of "virtual controul," Cobbett's "puff-out" rested on the sense that a historical shift in oppressive power from force to fraud required a corresponding shift in political resistance. Under the new regime of paper, Cobbett complained, "a printing press, a ton or two of rags every year, and an engraver's tool" had done more harm "than all the powder, ball, cannons, swords, and musquets that Europe contains" (Register 29 [1815], 334-35). Though terribly effective, this "system of rule" could not help but precipitate appropriate weapons of resistance: "They know that neither dungeons nor gags will protect them against this weapon. And, therefore, they are trying all their tricks to prevent the imitation of their paper . . . They are reduced to beg the aid of engravers, who may abandon, or betray them at pleasure . . . But what then? They can make nothing that cannot be imitated" (Register 35 [1819-1820], 48-50). The "puff-out" was an eminently dialectical strategy, a trickster's response to "all their tricks"; like Blake's "Bible of Hell," Cobbett's counterfeit money was a satirical debasement of a debased form. By answering paper not with gold but with more paper, he hoped to unleash disruptive energies embedded in corruption ("the system . . . has put all things out of their place"), which would then consume debased system and countersystem alike. Despite his own strident declarations of independence, a good deal of Cobbett's resistance to corruption can be traced back to the insight that "they can make nothing that cannot be imitated."

  8. The struggle against the system and its modern financial instruments (commerce, banks, funds, stocks, paper) was in many ways a struggle over how people should be linked with one another in society. Under the corrupt surfaces of the world of the Rural Rides, Cobbett could discern traces of an ancient and less centralized agricultural society, loosely joined by market towns and traditional patterns of deference. He insisted that the "commercial system" of Pitt "must have a corrupting tendency" because it formed "men together into large companies, or bodies" (Register 12 [1807], 900), and introduced improvements through which wealth flowed from the countryside to the city: "Talk of roads and canals and bridges! These are no signs of national prosperity. They are signs of accumulated, but not of diffused property, and this latter alone can insure national prosperity, which, rightly understood, is only another name for the general happiness of the people" (Register 19 [1811], 589). Corrupt concentration could be discerned wherever the system took effect. An early Register campaign against the distribution of military honors through the Lloyd's Committee hinged on the fear that control over "the distribution of honours and rewards" would make the "little government at Lloyd's" into "the centre of the whole nation" (Register 8 [1805], 851, 903; Register 11 [1807], 102). The characteristic habitations of modern life, "jails, barracks, factories," state-sponsored schools, and "populous cities," also corrupted "by their condensed numbers" (Advice, 250-51). Cobbett famously renamed the system "the Thing" in an attempt to update the organic figure of corruption and the venerable theory of mixed government for an age of consolidated machinery, bureaucracy, and global capital:

    After seeing that about three or four hundred Boroughmongers actually possess all the legislative power, divide the ecclesiastical, judicial, military, and naval departments amongst their own dependents, what a fine picture we find of that wise system of checks and balances, of which so much has been said by many great writers! What name to give such a government it is difficult to say. It is like nothing that ever was heard of before. It is neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor a democracy; it is a band of great nobles, who, by sham elections, and by the means of all sorts of bribery and corruption, have obtained an absolute sway in the country . . . Such is the government of England; such is the thing which has been able to bribe one half of Europe to oppress the other half. (Register 33 [1818], 377-78)

    If Cobbett frequently answered this terrifying concentration with a program of diffusion that recalled country-party politics, he did not necessarily repudiate structure nor even central authority. In his early rebuke to the Lloyd's Committee, he insisted that military rewards "should pass through the hands of His Majesty" (Register 8 [1805], 853). As he lost faith in the crown and his position radicalized, this central role was taken over by a reformed parliament, and by the massive figure of "Great Cobbett" himself. An effective countersystem had to meet the system on its own terms. Since corrupt parliamentary elections were "the very foundation upon which the system stands" (Register 38 [1821], 181), radical resistance should apply itself to a single point: "all these evils would be cured by . . . a Reform of Parliament" (Register 31 [1816], 533). For strategic purposes, the issue between Cobbett and his enemies was less centralization than the choice of centers.

  9. Cobbett's willingness to reproduce the central posture of the Lloyd's Committee was among the most striking instances of radical egotism. Even as he struggled to sustain the popular character of reform, Cobbett found himself caught up in the ebb and flow of power from a systematic center. His "History of the Last Hundred Days of English Freedom," a series of letters written in 1817 to justify his flight from England after the suspension of Habeus Corpus, endorsed the scattered energies of popular resistance. The demand for "Universal Suffrage" issued from "the People": "They had taken the thing into their own hands. They no longer looked up to Palace Yard, nor to the Guildhall of London. They had met all over the kingdom; and, they had shown, that they wanted no leaders" (Register 32 [1817], 558-59). At the same time, Cobbett organized the movement around parliamentary reform, and took personal credit for the fact that the system's old "divide and subjugate" strategy no longer succeeded in dissipating political resentment through futile "bickerings and divisions":

    My writings tended to sweep away for ever this source of influence; they tended to withdraw the attention of the people from these petty disputes; they tended to make them one firm and united body in the cause of Reform. From all quarters and corners I called them to listen to me. I raised the standard of plain common sense, of sound reasoning, intelligible language, and the whole people gathered around it. (615-16)

    Political struggle was personalized on both sides, for Cobbett went on to justify his exile through the construction of a mutually constitutive radical martyrology and demonology (Thompson, 604). "Stewart of the Courier, Walter of the Times, William Gifford and Southey of the Quarterly Review, and hundreds of others; but, these four men in particular," had called "for new laws, to protect the Constitution against the 'Two-penny Trash'" (616). The powerful myth of his persecution at the hands of a few demonic individuals shifted attention from "the whole people" to his own larger than life figure, and to the central "standard" he raised. To reach democratic organization, repressive legislation had to pass through William Cobbett, the source of "the poison that was weekly going forth to the people in 'Two-Penny Trash publications'" (616). Whether he was fighting gangs hired to intimidate supporters at a Coventry election, or riding undeterred through weeks of rain in the Rural Rides, Cobbett offered his own vigorous body as the medium through which a people would again become "one firm and united body." This said, it is important to keep in mind the contingency and mobility of Cobbett's own figure in opposition. The failure of his early bids for a seat in parliament, the eccentric itinerary of the Rural Rides, and the composition of the "Last Hundred Days of English Freedom" in exile, all confirmed that the central standard-bearer of reform was himself radically decentered and displaced, an itinerant sign of the system's ravaging effects on its victims.

  10. The translation of system and countersystem into demonology and martyrology raises the vexed problem of agency, and of Cobbett's reputation as a crude conspiracy theorist (Green, 167). While Cobbett was prepared to treat injustice and exploitation as structural features of a specific form of social organization, he launched his assault on system with an acute sense of the tactical necessity of reversing official charges of Jacobin conspiracy, and he insisted on holding individuals, and above all politicians, to account for the depredations of system. The idea of "the Government vortex" (Register 23 [1813], 741) as a feature of corruption was useful to him, rhetorically and analytically, because it generated causal explanations. He spent a lifetime sorting through newspapers, parliamentary papers, legislation, legal proceedings, and crop reports for evidence of the obscure causal relationships that linked subordinate systems first to each other—"the real cause of the increase of the paper-money" was "the increase of the Debt" (Register 18 [1810], 488), "the real cause of the war with France" was "the dread of a Parliamentary Reform in England" (Register 21 [1812], 558)—and then to the final cause or "source," parliamentary corruption. "Look well at the evils we endure, and that we apprehend. Trace them back to their cause; and you will find them meeting at this one point: the House of Commons elected as it now is" (Register 13 [1808], 863). The Political Register was unapologetically didactic, a relentless and sometimes violent initiation into the arcane causal mysteries of the system. "I teach them how to know the cause of all the misery they see amongst the poor," Cobbett once wrote of his readers, "I point out to them those who are the real cause of it, and, then I beat at their breasts 'till I force out loud indignation and bitter curses against the guilty party" (Register 21 [1812], 168).

  11. Whether so complex a system could be managed by any one "guilty party" remained obscure. When Cobbett refused "to ascribe" the Pitt system "to contrivance," on the grounds that this "would be to give to Pitt and his followers too much credit for profundity" (Rural Rides, 1: 87), he may simply have wanted to deny his enemies even a bad eminence. There was, however, a more important point at stake here too, one that went to the heart of the idea of system. As the set of "maxims and rules" that governed social life, system appeared to mark the limit of human agency and intention. In his attacks on party, Cobbett extended the "measures not men" tradition of political opposition by replacing personal influence with terms like "thing," 'instrument," and "machine."(8) This mechanistic language informed his self-destructive understanding of corruption, and made the "change of system" he often demanded seem a matter of political necessity. The Whigs, he insisted in 1809, would only find themselves in power if they were "called in . . . not by the voice of the people, or by the good opinion of the king, but by the necessities of the system": "It is the system that is in fault much more than the men; and, therefore, those are fools, who look to any set of men, without a change of that system" (Register 16 [1809], 376, 428). Despite this instrumental analysis, Cobbett was nothing if not a vindictive writer, always ready to substitute the term "author" for the more abstract "cause." His prose worked at every level to lend corruption an intentional structure, from its saturation with capitalized and italicized proper names, to its formal organization in public letters to ministers and other prominent individuals. The system was an instrument, but it was "advised and carried on" by "those persons" in positions of responsibility: "The set of men that now rule are pursuing, without any deviation at all, without any patching or botching, the system of [Pitt]; and, if that system, or any part of it, is to be still pursued, my sincere wish is, that it may remain in their hands" (Register 18 [1810], 1083, 1136-37). If Cobbett sometimes drew on the sense of impersonal determination that was emerging in economic and sociological analysis, he was ruthlessly critical of any effort to use the disappearance of agency as an excuse for existing conditions, or worse yet, as a pretext for transcendental explanation. Nothing infuriated him more than the mystifications of politicians and preachers who resorted "to a supernatural agency," and held "that it is Providence who has been the cause of our misfortunes" (Register 22 [1812], 613). This capitulation of responsibility was itself part of the deceptive logic of system. Cobbett responded by uncovering a mass of "calculations" and "evident intentions," and by insisting that political and economic decline could "never have taken place" without a human cause: "There must have been something, and something done by man too, to produce this change, this disgraceful, this distressing, this horrible change. God has not afflicted the country with pestilence or with famine . . . To man, therefore, must we look for an account for these evils" (Register 36 [1820], 5-6).

  12. Personal agency governed countersystem no less than system. As Cobbett initiated his readers into the intentional mysteries of the system, he insisted on the counter-intentions that resistance would require. The radical translation of independence from property (as alienated labor) to labor and mind restored the sense of personal control that an appeal to "Providence" tried to deny. Political strategies like the boycott of excised commodities encouraged a sense of popular sovereignty in the face of parliamentary corruption and a restricted franchise. Cottage Economy brought increasingly complex and global economic relationships back to the confines of the family and the cottage yard. Cobbett's linguistic theories were, as Peter Manning has observed, grounded in a "simple intentionalism" that encouraged readers, writers, and speakers to seize control of their words: "Grammar, perfectly understood, enables us, not only to express our meaning fully and clearly, but so to express it as to enable us to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express" (Manning, 10; Grammar, 7-8). The Rural Rides, too, were governed by an extensive vocabulary of purpose—"object," "intention," "determined," "plan," "project," "search," "resolved" (Rural Rides, 1: 85, 144, 171, 198; 2: 359)—and their intentional structure converged in the two principal activities of the hero, writing and riding: "I intended to go from UPHUSBAND to STONEHENGE, thence to OLD SARUM, and thence, through the New Forest, to Southhampton and Botley, and thence across into Sussex, to see Up-Park and Cowdry House . . . I must adhere to a certain route as strictly as a regiment on a march. I had written the route" (Rural Rides, 1: 321). Yet the text of the Rides displayed Cobbett's political and economic dispossession as fully as it exercised his remarkable self-possession. Disciplined "intention" and "route" were often frustrated by the dispersal of systematic effects across the countryside. If the Rides were a military march, they were also the negation or demonic parody of a religious pilgrimage, with Cobbett the "Plaintive Pilgrim" tracing his own "PROGRESS" as he went "to pray for Justice at the Shrine of the GREAT UNPAID" (Rural Rides, 1: 250). Even the term "PROGRESS," which might satirically describe a single ride, was too optimistic and consecutive a term for the project as a whole. The Rider proceeded with horrified fascination on an eccentric and endlessly repetitive series of tours, and passed again and again from "rotten-borough" and "villanous place" to "infernal WEN" and "ACCURSED HILL" (Rural Rides, 1: 231, 356; 2: 368, 379)(9) Deprived of his farm at Botley and of a secure place in rural society, this "Pilgrim" was without a home and without a destination. His intentions remained as complex and manifold as the effects of corruption.

  13. Like his "march" in the Rides, Cobbett's campaign to analyze the system was constantly subverted by the irrational structure of corruption, which seemed always to escape the limits of representation. I have already discussed the way his account of a "chain of dependance running through the whole nation" trailed off in a gesture of infinite regression, indicating the failure rather than the completion of encyclopedic analysis: "Army, navy, church, the law, sinecures, pensions, tax offices, war and navy offices, Whitehall, India-house, Bank, contract, job, &c. &c." Structural and explanatory categories (connection and dependence, center and periphery, cause and effect) were often overwhelmed by an atmosphere of dominance that threatened to bring the entire nation under its control. For Cobbett as for most radical critics, the most alarming evidence of a new expansion of "Old Corruption" was to be found in the wartime growth of patronage and taxation, and in a consequent set of domestic encroachments that were more sinister than any foreign empire.(10) "There is scarcely a family above the rank of day-labourers," he complained, "who is not, in some way or other, interested in the continuation of war" (Register 24 [1813], 615). As the defeat of Napoleon came to seem inevitable, and British corruption prepared to extend its dominance across the Continent, Cobbett's outlook grew more desperate. America, "the last remaining republic" (Register 28 [1815], 1), became the one global space left free of corruption, while England succumbed to a militant social order that "rendered the views, the feelings, the customs, nay the very fashions, of the people, completely warlike":

    Every thing receives its tone from the events of the war; the influence of its occurrences, is not merely exemplified in our public amusements, but it determines our modes of dress; it regulates our domestic habits. It is not confined to the Exchange, to the coffee-house, to the tavern, or to the beer-house, but it forms the topic of conversation at all our meals, and is peculiarly the theme of the chit-chat of the tea-table . . . Nothing will satisfy, nothing please, nothing gratify, this enterprizing and commercial nation, but perpetual, desolating, barbarous war. (Register 25 [1814], 449-50)

    The density of absolute terms ("every thing," "not confined," "nothing," "perpetual") was typical of Cobbett's prose in this period, as was the focus on "domestic habits" as an arena of political struggle. Very early in the war, taxation had become a particular grievance with Cobbett, since it allowed the system to multiply "the pretexts of tax-gatherers for intruding into private houses" (Register 9 [1806], 865), and to develop a "mode of collection" that opened private spaces to government inspection: "It authorises a set of officers to call you before them; to keep you from day to day dancing attendance upon them; to treat you as a creature at their command" (Register 7 [1805], 300-1). Against the Courier's claim that England had become "the last asylum of persecuted liberty," he offered instances of "the vexations of the taxing system, as imprinted upon my mind by actual experience, in my own concerns, during the last eight or nine months." By drawing these examples >from his career as an editor as well as a farmer, he extended the process by which radical reformers made "country" idioms of protest available to urban constituencies.(11) As the owner of a farm, Cobbett faced taxes for hiring a day-laborer, for making a cart to send to market, and for keeping a pony for his son; as editor of the Register, he required a stamp to draw money upon his publisher, and when the publisher moved his shop, both men were called to the Stamp Office to sign a bond. A system that could enter the private sphere in this way also invaded the interior life of the subject, and became an "evil genius" that followed "one at all times and in all places" (Register 10 [1806], 900-903). If this nightmare of corrupt influence seemed to complete the hegemony of system, it also replaced a national "chain of dependence" with immediate, local, and personal terms, offering Cobbett a way out. Returning through his own "actual experience" to the synecdochic analysis of a "single point" of oppression, Cobbett was again able to deploy autobiography as a means of political resistance.(12) Political independence was like corruption located "in the mind," and in personal habits and domestic life, and it was from these arenas that effective political resistance to systematic oppression would have to be launched.


(1) See OED, 1971 ed., s.v. "system." back

(2) There were exceptions, as when he praised "the republican system" in America (Register 27 [1815], 170) and "the Napoleon system" that put "personal merit and well-known services" above "the Aristocracy and the Church" (Register 23 [1813], 772), and when he recommended for Ireland a "system of emancipation by teaching rational truths" (Register 29 [1815], 71). It is worth noting that these positive systems were located far from home: burdened with the Pitt system of finance and its attendant political and social practices, English society had little need of more systematic organization. back

(3) Cobbett's radicalization is normally dated to the period 1806-1808, though Ian Dyck has argued (23-33) that the "agrarian base of his radicalism was taking a distinct shape" as early as 1804; see also Nattrass, 89-118. back

(4) Here as elsewhere Cobbett worked from Paine's description of "the funding system" as a "modern complicated machine" (Paine, 3: 309). back

(5) See Thompson, 189-91, for the machine as a "symbol of social energies which were destroying the very 'course of nature.'" back

(6) Although Williams identified the link between "the ruling-class State and the financial system" as Cobbett's most important and enduring insight (Williams, 73), it was an insight derived from Paine's "Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance," which exposed "a mysterious, suspicious connection, between the minister and the directors of the bank" (Paine, 3: 307). back

(7) For a related scheme to pay laborers on his own farm in kind, see Green, 270. back

(8) For "measures not men," see Brewer, Party Ideology, 68-69. back

(9) The "Wen" was Cobbett's term for London, or sometimes for cities generally. back

(10) For Cobbett's role in the critique of an "unholy alliance" of "the ruling oligarchy and the war establishment," see Dickinson, 64-65, 70-71. back

(11) For the paradox of urban enthusiasm for country ideology, see Brewer, "English Radicalism," 330-36. back

(12) For Cobbett's "method of arguing through autobiography," see Nattrass, William Cobbett, pp. 90-96. back


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