Monday, 20 August 2012

On William Cobbett

By seeming chance, last year I came upon William Cobbett’s A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland. It completely changed my understanding of the political economy of the twenty-first century. Although written in the 1820s, apparently on the subject of the religious changes following from the reign of Henry VIII, it is in fact an economic history of the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions of the modern era. In turn, seeming chance led Cobbett, in his early youth, to study read Swift’s Tale of a Tub. At that time, two centuries ago, the enduring relationship between faith positions and political economy was more clearly understood. This is what Chesterton had to say in his 1926 biography of Cobbett:

“The critics were all wrong about Cobbett. I mean they were especially wrong about what he represented. Cobbett was not what they have always represented him as being; not even what they have always praised him as being. Cobbett was not merely a wrong-headed fellow with a knack of saying the right word about the wrong thing. Cobbett was not merely an angry and antiquated old farmer who thought the country must be going to the dogs because the whole world was not given over to the cows. Cobbett was not merely a man with a lot of nonsensical notions that could be exploded by political economy; a man looking to turn England into an Eden that should grow nothing but Cobbett’s Corn. What he saw was not an Eden that cannot exist but rather an Inferno that can exist, and even that does exist. What he saw was the perishing of the whole English power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there. And some cannot see it – even when it is here.” (William Cobbett by G.K. Chesterton, p5).

That was written nearly a century ago. And still, to this very day, Cobbett is dismissed as a dreamer longing for a bygone age that never was, rather than the prophetic figure of the times to come, if the trends he noted towards resignation of the powers of self-determination to the powers-that-be were to continue apace.


  1. You are absolutely right. Have you read Paper against Gold? This is equally relevant.
    Cobbett was a very serious critic of the emerging Empire, of American democracy, of the debt system, of utilitarian philosophers and capitalist political economy.
    To his credit Chesterton realised this as did HJ Massingham, whose Wisdom of the Fields I cordially recommend

    1. Agreed, Paper against Gold is an amazingly relevant book. Cobbett was certainly no dreamer but was a man well ahead of his time.