Sunday, 25 November 2018

William Cobbett and the Poor

William Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer, journalist and member of parliament, who was born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament including abolishing the "rotten boroughs" would help to end the poverty of farm labourers. Relentlessly he sought an end to the borough-mongers, sinecurists and "tax-eaters" . He was against the Corn Laws, which imposed a tax on imported grain. 

Early in his career, he was a loyalist devotee of King and Country: but later he joined and publicised radicalism, which helped the Reform Act 1832, and to his being elected that year as one of the two Members of Parliament for the newly enfranchised borough of Oldham. Not a Catholic, he became an forceful advocate of Catholic Emancipation in Britain.

This pen sketch by G.K. Chesterton sums up the ills of society in Cobbett's time, still there in Chesterton's time, and still very much in evidence today.

An Extract from William Cobbett by G.K. Chesterton

It is now rather more than a century and a half since a small boy of the poorer sort was occupied in scaring rooks where they rose, as they still rise, in black flotillas flecking the great white clouds that roll up against the great ridges of Surrey and the southern shires. Yet further south where the Sussex hills take on an outline at once more opulent and more bare there was repeated a rhyme that might run like a refrain through much of his story.

  Bees are bees of Paradise,
  Do the work of Jesus Christ,
  Do the work that no man can;
  God made bees and bees make honey,
  God made man and man makes money,
  God made man to plough and reap and sow,
  And God made little boys to scare away the crow.

And so the little boy in question continued to scare away the crow, in obedience to that providential arrangement.

The little boy was destined to grow up into a tall and vigorous man, who was to travel far and into strange places, into exile and into prison and into Parliament; but his heart never wandered very far from the simple ideals that are summed up in that verse.

He was no mere dreamer or more or less lovable loafer, of the sort sometimes associated with the village genius. He would have been as ready as any man of the utilitarian school to admit that men would do well to imitate the industry of bees.  Only, those who look at his literary industry may be tempted to say that he had more sting than honey.

Similarly he was no mere romantic or sentimentalist, such as is sometimes associated with a love of the rural scene. He would have been as ready as any merchant or trader to face the fact that man, as God has made him, must make money.

But he had a vivid sense that the money must be as solid and honest as the corn and fruit for which it stood, that it must be closely in touch with the realities that it represented; and he waged a furious war on all those indirect and sometimes imaginary processes of debts and shares and promises and percentages which make the world of wealth to-day - a world at the worst unreal and at the best unseen.

He was most immediately concerned, in the conditions of the hour, with what he regarded as the fugitive and wasteful paper-chase of paper money.  But what he was at once predicting and denouncing, like a small cloud that had not yet become a universal fog, was that vast legal fiction that we call finance. 

In any case, against a world in which such financial mysteries were multiplying every day, in which machinery was everywhere on the march, and the new towns spreading with the swiftness of a landslide, in which England was already well on the way to becoming merely the workshop of the world, against the whole great crawling labyrinth of the modern state which is almost one with the modern city, there remained in him unaltered, cut deep into the solitary rock of his soul, the single clause of his single creed: that God made man to plough and reap and sow.

For this was William Cobbett, who was born in 1762 at a little farm at Farnham in Surrey.  His grandfather had been an ordinary agricultural labourer, one of a class drudging for a miserable wage, and fallen so far from anything resembling the pride of a peasantry that in English history it had utterly sunk out of sight.

It was something that has hardly been known since heathen times; there rests on all its records the ancient silence of slavery. It was to these slaves that the heart of Cobbett continually turned, in what seemed to many its dizzy and incalculable turnings.

Those that were trampled and forgotten alike by the Tory squire and the Radical merchant were those whom Cobbett eared to remember; exactly as both Patrician and Plebeian citizens might have been puzzled by a sage whose first thought was of the slaves.

And if ever in this land of ours the poor are truly lifted up, if ever the really needy find a tongue for their own needs, if ever progressives and reactionaries alike realise upon what ruins were built both their order and their reform, how many failures went to make their success, and what crimes have set their house in order, if they see the underside of their own history with its secrets of sealed-up wrath and irrevocable injustice--in a word, if a great people can ever repent, then posterity may see achieved by this agency also, by this one lonely and angry bee in whom society saw nothing but a hornet, the work of Jesus Christ.

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