Lecture 45: William Cobbett

It has been said (never mind by whom) that Chesterton’s books about others are really about himself. The qualities he admired in these indeed admirable characters were qualities that we immediately recognize in Chesterton. This is especially true of William Cobbett.

Like Chesterton, William Cobbett (1763-1835) was a writer of many genres who cannot be pinned to just one. He was a social critic who defied the new and fashionable ideas of his day, defending local culture, tradition, the family and the farm. And for this he was called “paradoxical.” He had great literary gifts, but much to the frustration of his greatest fans, he poured most of his energy into scrappy journalism and his own small circulation papers. He was prolific, witty, prophetic, controversial. He spoke “too plainly to be understood.” He was “a great public character; form some points of view a great comic character.” And he was a Distributist before there was Distributism.

Chesterton was especially impressed by the insightfulness of Cobbett’s writing in two main aspects: his history, which was an honest look at the past, and his economics, which was a prophetic look at the future.

Cobbett’s History of the English Reformation certainly clanged in the ears of anyone who accepted the Whig version of history. “He seemed to be calling black white, when he declared that what was white had been blackened, or that what seemed to be white had only been whitewashed.” He called on tradition and put it against the officially written word. He pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the Catholic faith did not fade away of its own accord; it was violently stolen from the English people. It wasn’t Bloody Mary that was bloody and Good Queen Bess that was good. It was the other way around. It was Queen Mary who tried to give the people’s historical faith back to them. It was Queen Elizabeth who hunted people down and executed them. But the Anglican historians did not bother mentioning these things, since the victims were Catholic priests and monks and nuns, and the accomplices were Britain’s lords and ladies. Cobbett had simply discovered an ancient crime, which, like all crimes, had been concealed. It is still largely concealed from the world. Cobbett was marginalized for daring to bring up this inconvenient past. But “it was not his facts that were challenged; it was his challenge.”

By saying that the Middle Ages were largely good and happy and peaceful times was not just an objective endorsement of the Catholic faith from a man who was not Catholic. It was even worse. It was anti-progressive. Cobbett maintained that it was not just the people’s religion that was crushed, it was their daily way of life; the principle of medieval trade was “comradeship and justice, while the principle of modern trade was avowedly competition and greed.”

Cobbett did what for Chesterton was the most romantic and adventurous thing a man can do. He went around the world to find his own home. He discovered England. In his “rural rides” he saw a land that was being lost, a land that he wanted to save. He saw the way the world was going. It was going away from the individual craftsmanship and “cottage” industry toward mass production and the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution created great wealth, but it also created even greater poverty. It created a permanent underclass of wage slaves who “could never save enough out of common wages to buy a farm, still less a shop in the town.” The paradox of the Utilitarians, says Chesterton, is that they preach prudence but destroyed any chance of people actually obtaining the things they saved money for. “They destroyed agriculture and turned England into a workshop: a workshop in which the workers were liable at any moment to be locked up and left to eat hammers and saws.”

Cobbett’s importance to Chesterton rivaled that of Dickens. In both cases, it was the sympathy with the poor that Chesterton found so compelling. “There is one kind of man who pities a beggar because the beggar is so different from himself, and another who does it because the beggar is so similar.” Feeling one’s own hunger and realizing that some people are always hungry, seeing one’s own momentary hopes deferred and realizing that some people’s basic hopes are perpetually crushed, this is when it dawns on a person that all men are brothers, “not just poor relations.” It is what Chesterton calls the psychological experience that corresponds to the philosophical doctrine of the equality of man. Every one is entitled to the basic rights enumerated so concisely in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Cobbett was an early warrior for these rights. He knew that the solution lay not in economic dependence but in independence. And as was the case with Chesterton, the political and literary world could not understand what Cobbett said “because it was not obscure enough.”

There are two other parallels between Cobbett and Chesterton that must be mentioned, things which Chesterton admired in Cobbett – whether consciously or unconsciously – because they were true in himself. First, Cobbett “contrived by sheer poetry to picture himself as prosaic. He was so imaginative that he imagined himself to be merely a plain man.” Chesterton, of course, did the same thing with himself.

Secondly, Cobbett was a complete thinker, one who wrote broadly about everything rather than narrowly about a one thing. In the modern world, with its fragmented thinking, this makes a writer somehow inaccessible. “From him…so many men were divided, because in him so many things were unified.”

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