William Cobbett was an English journalist and member of parliament, who was born in Farnham, Surrey. He believed that reforming Parliament and abolishing the rotten boroughs would help to end the poverty of farm labourers, and he attacked the borough-mongers, sinecurists and "tax-eaters" relentlessly. Through the seeming contradictions in Cobbett's life, his opposition to authority stayed constant. He wrote many polemics, on subjects from political reform to religion. This is volume one out of four of his most essential writings, covering the years 1794 to 1801.
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Essential Writings 1, W. Cobbett
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
OBSERVATIONS ON PRIESTLEY’S EMIGRATION.8
A BONE TO GNAW FOR THE DEMOCRATS.25
A LITTLE PLAIN ENGLISH,36
A NEW-YEAR’S GIFT TO THE DEMOCRATS;63
REMARKS ON THE BLUNDERBUSS.86
REMARKS ON THE PAMPHLETS LATELY PUBLISHED AGAINST PETER PORCUPINE.101
FROM “PORCUPINE’S GAZETTE.”. 110
PETER PORCUPINE TO JUDGE SHIPPEN.155
PRIESTLEY’S CHARITY SERMON FOR POOR EMIGRANTS.162
LETTERS TO THE RIGHT HON. HENRY ADDINGTON, ON THE PEACE OF AMIENS.164
MULTITUDE OF LAWS.201
THE ENGLISH PRESS AND BUONAPARTE.204
THE TAKING OF THE INVINCIBLE STANDARD, IN THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE ENGLISH AND FRENCH ARMIES NEAR ALEXANDRIA, MARCH 21, 1801.210
PROSPECTS OF WAR.225
WAR OR PEACE.227
THE MECHANICAL MINISTRY.228
FINANCE AND TRADE.232
BANK RESTRICTION BILL.245
“CAPITAL, CREDIT, AND CONFIDENCE.”. 253
TRADE AND REVENUE.263
STATE OF PARTIES.276
THE BUDGET OF 1805.410
The political writings of our late father are contained in exactly one hundred octavo volumes, namely, of “Porcupine’s Works” twelve, and of the “Weekly Political Register” eighty-eight; the former being a selection of pamphlets and articles written in a monthly publication, and articles written in a daily paper, at Philadelphia, from the year 1794 to the year 1800; and the latter being a weekly publication on politics, begun in the year 1802, and ended with its author’s life, in June 1835.
Having undertaken to abridge these two works, it is but right that we should fully and frankly state why we do it at all; what we propose to give in the abridged shape, at what times we shall publish, and to what extent the work will go; and, in order to do this fully, we will first explain what tempted us to the undertaking. On looking at the formidable row of volumes, we could not help asking ourselves “What is the use of the works in their present shape?” For, the fame of an author must depend upon the notoriety and usefulness of his works, and, as these hundred volumes cannot be had, and therefore cannot be useful in their present shape, we resolved upon making the attempt to bring into a very much smaller compass the essence of what they contain. For this purpose we mean to take the best papers on the most interesting topics, from the earliest of our author’s writing to the last; and to bring them together in such a way, as shall make it an easy task to trace his whole literary career, and the political history of the time in which he has taken a part in politics. We at first thought of an arrangement of matters, but found it impossible to make it. The chronological order of the writings will therefore be preserved, and his first essay in print will be the first of our abridgment; and, as the work will not extend to a greater length than six volumes, a perfect index will render it almost as easy to refer to particular papers and topics, as if the arrangement had been the one that we first intended.
That the publication will be useful we have no doubt. The matters treated of in the “Register,” not only have been of interest and great importance, but they are so still, and they are becoming more and more so every day that we live.
“But why rake up the works of Porcupine? Porcupine was a Tory,” will, perhaps, be said to us by some of our friends. In the first place, Porcupine’s works will live, whether we like it or not; they have already become, if not absolutely scarce, more valuable by two fold than they were six months since; we cannot smother them, and if we could, we would not; and, as to the toryism, the publishing of selections from these works will give us the best means, and perhaps the fairest excuse, for clearing away much misapprehension on this score. The selections from Porcupine will show how greatly his objects and conduct have been misrepresented. We publish them in order to show how far his conduct was different from what the world has been taught to believe; and incidentally they will form a sort of history of American politics during an interesting period, and they will show his own progress in style and manner of writing.
It is very true that Mr. Cobbett at the age of 32, quitting France as the revolution broke out, and having lived eight years in the barracks of New Brunswick, in the condition of private soldier and then sergeant-major, did, in the United States, very warmly espouse the cause of England, of her King, Constitution, and people: it is true that when he looked on the bloody details of the revolution in France, and saw the people of America praising, imitating in their fashions and manners, and even praying for, the leaders and fraternities engaged in them; and that when he saw American writers attempting to change their old calendar for that of France, with its fructidor and ventose; and saw also the French Ambassador gravely propose to them to adopt a new French scheme of weights and measures in the place of the old English one; and a silly Scotchman attempt to persuade them to blot out all English recollections by changing the written language of their fathers, he burned with more than ordinary indignation; and it is also true, that when he saw a powerful faction, not merely in the country, but in the United States Government itself, anxious to injure his own country by procuring commercial connexions between France and America, for the avowed purpose; it is true that when he saw this, and saw an evident anxiety in the same faction, to accede to the declared wishes of France, by engaging America in war with England, he broke silence, and did his utmost to avert what must have been calamitous to her. This is all true; and it is also true, that in doing this, he did not stay to draw distinctions between English reformers and French revolutionists: all that looked with complacency on the National Convention, all that called themselves “Citizen,” were, to him, blood-thirsty operatives of the guillotine, or the abettors of those who were so. But it is not true that he ever was in his principles a tory, in the vulgar and modern sense of that word. “Tory” now means a man who would govern by corrupt means, a cruel, iron despot, a proud and greedy oppressor. These are the qualities that any ordinary man now attributes to the “Tory,” and the Tories have acquired the character by their practices. But to say that “Porcupine” is chargeable with such, is the grossest misapprehension of character that can be imagined; and we think that every sensible reader of his works will be convinced, that the great aim of them is to unite the interests of the Kingly Government of England and of the Federal Government of America. There was nothing wrong in this; it was not only commendable, but it was the duty, of an Englishman, having the power, and being in the situation to give his power effect, to do his utmost to preserve to England the friendship of her lost colonies, and to prevent their throwing their weight into the scale of France.
It is a very common notion, that he wrote against the American Government; that he did nothing in America but abuse the statesmen and the people of that country. Nothing can be more false. He earnestly advocated the administrations of Washington and Adams, in opposing the French party in America, and it is not too much to say, that he gave them very efficient support. To understand this, the reader ought to be acquainted with American politics from the close of the old American war (the war of Independence) to the death of Washington; but, as it is not every reader that has the information, we cannot enter upon our task without giving a very short narrative of facts to prepare him for what we are about to place before him.
Mr. Cobbett arrived in America in the last week of October 1792, and fell immediately into the company of the numerous emigrants who had fled from France and St. Domingo to avoid the perils of revolution. He remained till August 1794, imbibing every day’s news of the tragedies that were acting under the new French Republic, and learning the politics of the one in which he was living. His mind was quickly made up upon the iniquity of the scenes in France, and it was but another step, to hold in abhorrence all who applauded the revolution. On American politics, he learned, that the constitution at first established in that country after the war of Independence, had been found inefficient soon after it was tried, and that in 1787 it was reformed; and, moreover, that this reformation had divided the leading men of America into two formidable and fierce parties; one party desiring a close imitation of the English form of Government, and the other desiring a more popular and mere republic; the distinctive marks being, that one desired to have a President and Senate elected for life, and the other a President and Senate elected for terms of years. Add to this, that the party who were the admirers of the English form, wished to conciliate the friendship and alliance of England, and that the other party wished for the friendship and alliance of France, and then we have the key to his motives for joining the English party, and pouring out his wrath upon that which favoured France. The event that provoked him to write his first essay, was something said against the English Government by Dr. Priestley, who arrived an emigrant from England in June 1794. Whatever was said by the infuriated party of America against her he could stand; but condemnation from an Englishman he could not; and, therefore, he attacked the Doctor in an anonymous pamphlet which was published at Philadelphia, which had a considerable sale, brought the writer at once into the field of strife, and made him, not long after, forsake his peaceful occupation for that boisterous one in which he passed the remainder of his days. At the age of 33, then, he published this pamphlet, on which we shall only remark here that the reader will see in it many of the excellences of his after writings; the same clearness, the same humorous bitterness, and a good deal of invective, though rather less grammatical accuracy. But of this he will be his own judge. The next publication was a pamphlet under the title of “A Bone to gnaw for the Democrats;” and the title suggests to us to explain further, that the American parties above alluded to, were known as Democrats and Aristocrats, or Federalists and Anti-federalists, or Whigs and Tories. These distinctions will be clearly understood if we take the Anti-federalist and the Federalist; for these were the real American distinctions, the others being borrowed either from France or England. At the close of the war of independence, in 1783, the thirteen States of America united under an Act of Confederation, but each State kept itself so completely sovereign in everything that concerned it, that, in matters of war and peace, and foreign commerce, there was no general government of sufficient power to give effect to the Confederation. This caused the reformation of 1787 before alluded to, which gave larger power to the Congress, and instituted an executive in the person of the President.
Federalist, Aristocrat, and Tory, mean the same; and Anti-federalist, Democrat, and Whig, mean the same. The principal federalists were, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, and Pinkney; and the principal anti-federalists were, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Rush, and Randolph. We take such names only as will be found most noticed in the writings that we are about to republish. In all the political strife of the eight years (from 1792 to 1800) in which Mr. Cobbett moved in America, the prominent question was, “Which country shall we seek to be allied with—England or France?” The anti-federalists were for France, and the federalists were for England. The mode of warfare, therefore, was to blacken the former as democratic traitors, ready to hand their country over to France for bribes received from that country; and with the other party, to blacken the federalists as aristocrats, who wished to bring America again under the monarchical yoke of England. He is innocent of political warfare who will not give the parties credit for doing the amplest injustice to each other! For, although there might have been reason to suspect the subordinate men on both sides, it is impossible to believe that there was any design in the minds of such men as Jefferson or Washington to sell or give up their country to either France or England. Both, however, were hunted through their official career as suspicious, and both seem to have been pursued to the last by the exaggerations of their furious party opponents. They have paid the price of greatness as all great men do. This pamphlet, then, was an attack upon the French, or anti-federal, party; and the object of the author was, to decoy the French Republic, and hold up England to favour in the eyes of the American people. It is obvious enough, that it was not his intention to pull down the Government of General Washington, but to counteract those unfavourable impressions that were industriously made against England, to bring the Americans into a friendly feeling towards her; and, no English reader ought to consider this as an attack on his own opinions, however popular they may be. The pamphlet was very successful, had an immense sale, and was, as all Mr. Cobbett’s anonymous writings have been, attributed to different men of learning and importance. The anti-federalists felt the shafts which he flung at them, and unwisely compared him to the porcupine, a name which he instantly adopted, as he many years afterwards adopted that of Lord Castlereagh’s “two-penny trash.”
His business, from the very first week of his landing in America, was that of teacher of English to the French emigrants, who abounded in Philadelphia and its neighbourhood, and at this he earned between four and five hundred pounds a-year. His first pamphlet brought him no money, although it had a large sale; he wrote others, and sold the manuscript and copyright; but, at so low a price, that, whatever the bookseller may have done, the author earned only one hundred pounds in two years. The proof of their having been valuable, is, that he wanted to buy them back, years after they had been published, and though he offered as much for them as he had originally taken, the bookseller refused his offer. He became an important writer, and, as he very proudly expresses it, “stood alone,” to bear the abuse and falsehoods of a teeming press. In the spring of 1796, he took a shop in Philadelphia for the purpose of selling his own writings, before which he had written some of the best of his pamphlets. The two principal ones are, “A Little Plain English,” and “A New Year’s Gift to the Democrats;” the first being a refutation of arguments put forth against the treaty of amity and commerce with England, entered into by the President Washington in 1794-5, through the mediation of Mr. Jay, and which treaty, being the first fruits of the reform of the constitution, threw the French party into violences bordering on treason. It is impossible to read it without admiring the ability with which the subject is handled; and it is impossible that an Englishman, even now, should not admire the boldness and energy of the man who could make so strong a defence for his country single-handed. In the progress of the ferment about the British treaty, a most awkward exposure of the Secretary of State, Randolph, was made, and in a manner as curious as the whole affair was awkward. England being then at war with France, a French vessel from America, carrying dispatches from the French Minister at Philadelphia, was taken in the Channel; the French captain threw the dispatches overboard, and they fell into the hands of the English Government. Being found to contain an account of the American Secretary of State’s treachery towards his own country, in concert with the French Minister, the English Government sent them to the President of America; and this affair furnished the friends of England with a weapon against the friends of France that “Porcupine” used effectively in the “New Year’s Gift to the Democrats,” the second of the two pamphlets above alluded to. The affair caused the immediate ratification of the British Treaty, which had been held in suspense by the Secretary’s intrigues, and it ended in his disgrace.
In 1796, Mr. Cobbett, having quarrelled with his bookseller, opened a shop, and, in a manner truly characteristic of him, bade defiance to his opponents. His friends feared for his personal safety, for the people were infected with the love of France. “I saw,” he says, “that I must at once set all danger at defiance, or live in everlasting subjection to the prejudices and caprice of the democratical mob. I resolved on the former; and as my shop was to open on a Monday morning, I employed myself all day on Sunday in preparing an exhibition, that I thought would put the courage and the power of my enemies to the test. I put up in my windows, which were very large, all the portraits that I had in my possession of kings, queens, princes and nobles. I had all the English Ministry, several of the bishops and judges, the most famous admirals, and in short every picture that I thought likely to excite rage in the enemies of Great Britain. Early on the Monday morning, I took down my shutters. Such a sight had not been seen in Philadelphia for twenty years!” The daring of this act produced excessive rage; the newspapers contained direct instigations to outrage, and threats were conveyed to him in the openest manner; but there were many amongst his political opponents, and even the people, who admired the “Englishman”; and, that the Government itself felt as it ought to do, will be seen in the course of our Selections.
He had already begun a monthly periodical work, one number of which had been published before he became his own publisher, called the “Prospect from the Congress Gallery;” which contained State papers, the substance of speeches made in the House of Representatives (the gallery of which he attended), and his own remarks upon them. He changed the title to that of “The Political Censor,” and carried it on with great success till March 1797, when he thought that he must have something that would put him more on a level with his opponents, a daily newspaper. Then it was that he began the “Porcupine’s Gazette,” which immediately acquired a large number of readers, and in which he carried on his warfare upon more equal terms as to time, and enraged his enemies beyond all common bounds. In argument he was far beyond them, and his cruel satire raised a storm of abuse that is yet living in tradition throughout the United States: they accused him of being a flogged deserter from the army, who had subsequently earned his living by picking pockets in the streets of London; and, so slight was their respect for sex, that they made an attack which caused the following refutation in the Censor: “Since the sentimental dastard, who has thus aimed a stab at the reputation of a woman, published his ‘Pill,’ I have shown my marriage certificate to Mr. Abercrombie, the minister of the church opposite me.” The selections from this Gazette will be but few, for they consist principally of personalities on such opponents, who were not of sufficient importance to create any interest now. Many are extremely good in themselves; and, though they were called abusive, allowance should be made where the provocation was so great. They are witty, rather than abusive, for wit sanctifies harsh terms, whatever puny critics may say. That which would be merely vulgar in a vapid writing, becomes wit when genius puts the point to it. Pope, Dryden, and Swift, have used hard words, and in their day were called abusive, too, but their very epithets are admired in ours. Wit can take liberties that dulness must not.
To say that there was no error in the writings of a man beginning his career at 33 years of age, having been born under a roof where knowledge was not to be gained, educated in a barrack, and always without a guide, would be impertinence; but he who says that a man thus qualified, and with a mind made by nature of the most vehement kind, is to answer rigidly for every error in giving his thoughts to the public once during every week for the space of nearly 40 years, demands that perfection of mind, that abundance of knowledge, and that foresight into events, which no man has hitherto shown. In “Porcupine’s” writings then, he always assumes that the English Government, both in its form and in its practices, is the most perfect of governments; but he did it while living at three thousand miles from that Government, and in a country where casual travellers now find it extremely difficult to preserve the republican notions with which they start from home. In the early stages of his political life, he was both scholar and teacher, and therefore, to forbid any change of opinion, would have been to forbid him to make progress. He always owns his changes of opinion, and gives the reason, following the rule laid down by Lord Chatham, who was himself accused of inconsistency:—“The extent and complication of political questions is such, that no man can justly be ashamed of having been sometimes mistaken in his determinations; and the propensity of the human mind to confidence and friendship is so great, that every man, however cautious, however sagacious, or however experienced, is exposed sometimes to the artifices of interest, and the delusions of hypocrisy; but it is the duty, and ought to be the honour, of every man to own his mistake, whenever he discovers it, and to warn others against those frauds which have been too successfully practised upon himself.” [Life, &c., vol. 1., p. 42.] And if the politicians of our day were to be tried upon this point, what havoc might be made! Indeed one has but to read the debates of the Parliament for examples.
A man who changes his opinion because he now knows more than he did, is not only not to blame for the change, but is dishonest if he does not avow it. Indeed, it can scarcely be called a change of the mind; it is becoming possessed of more information. The mind is not active, shifting of itself; it is passive, and receives impressions. It is the conduct which changes; and unless it can be shown that change of conduct arises from corrupt or other unworthy motives, a change of it is no crime. Something may, indeed, be said of the temerity of the man who speaks with great confidence on any topic before his knowledge and experience warrant it; but who is to decide when a man is to begin? Lord Grey, in abandoning his own famous Petition of 1793, said that a difference had arisen between his “present sentiments and his former impressions,” and he excused it by saying that “he, indeed, must have either been prematurely wise, or must have learned little by experience, who, after a lapse of twenty years, can look upon a subject of this nature” (Reform) “in all respects in precisely the same light” (Speech on the State of the Nation, 1810). Mr. Hobhouse accused Lord Grey of “apostacy” in thus abandoning short Parliaments, and “electors as numerous as possible.” [Defence of the People, pp. 62, 183], but even he has since joined Lord Grey’s Government, which not only refused to give us that radical reform for which both had so ably contended, but denied even the pittance of triennial Parliaments! Now these changes of conduct take place in men who have the least possible excuse for any change at all. They are bred, for the most part, under the roofs of statesmen; they are carefully educated for statesmen; they have every chance which association with clever and experienced men can give them; they have all the means afforded to them of gaining the best information; and God knows they have due leisure to imbibe precepts, digest their reading, and to reflect on what they hear and read; and yet we find them change! Lord John Russell, in 1823, wrote a solemn book upon the Constitution, and, of course, weighed every principle, and almost every word that it contains, before he put it forth. His Lordship, in that book, admits the venality and mischiefs of rotten boroughs, but concludes that it would be unwise to make a change; questions whether the remedy would not be worse than the disease; and yet, in seven years after, he applied the famous “Russell purge,” which cleared the body-politic of the baneful obstruction. In another part of the same book, Lord John emphatically inveighs against the unconstitutional practices of the Tory Government, in proportioning our standing army to those of foreign powers; and yet, in 1833, he sat quietly by, while Sir John Hobhouse, the Secretary at War, brought in his Army Estimates, and told the House of Commons, that “when gentlemen were called upon to vote how many troops we should keep up, it was most necessary and proper that they should be put in possession of the exact amount of the forces maintained by other powers;” and he made no remark even, much less did he give any opposition, when Sir John Hobhouse had finished reading his Tables of the relative numbers kept up in each of the continental states, as compared with our own.
Do we mean to apply this, then, and say, “because these statesmen have done these things, another has a right to do so?” Not at all. It would be mere recrimination, which is a bad defence; but the fact is, that more is made of it in one case than in the other, which is unjust. The able writing of Mr. Cobbett caused this, no doubt. He produced effect, and that caused hostility. Unable to answer him, his opponents always tried to lessen his effect, by showing that he once thought with them. Indeed, before he had had time to change his opinions at all, they made use of his name, to push into notice their own absurdities, and published as his what he had never written. He complains of this in Porcupine (vol. 4, p. 19). And when his views and conduct had changed, then they had nothing so formidable for him as his former self. The same might be done by every other man who has lived long, and written or spoken much, provided always he have been of sufficient importance to make it worth the trouble. In short, great changes of views and conduct must always happen in times of change; and he who would hold, as an unqualified proposition, that a man’s views are never to change, is not above contending that a doctor shall not change his medicines to suit the changed condition of his patient. There are men whose pride and boast it is, that they have never changed in their lives; that they have always adhered to one notion. A finger-post can say as much; for, with equal merit and more modesty, it always stands in the same place where it was first planted, and “most consistently” says the same thing; but, not unfrequently, in these improving times, when roads are turned and shortened, we see its awkward arm flying off in the wrong direction, promulgating a mischievous delusion, though still and for ever the very type of “consistency” in gesture and in language.
Porcupine’s forcible writings were soon known to the Government in England. He received invitations from some of its ablest writers and partizans to return home, and he left America for England in 1800. But, here we must remark, that even the English agents of the Government in America found him too self-willed and independent, to venture to give him decided and open approbation. He mentions (Porcupine, vol. 4, p. 63) that, being in a shop, unknown or unobserved, he heard himself characterized by the English consul as “a wild fellow;” and upon this he remarks, in the same page (published in 1796), “I shall only observe, that when the King bestows on me about five hundred pounds sterling a year, perhaps I may become a tame fellow, and hear my master, my friends, and my parents, belied and execrated, without saying a single word in their defence.” Ref 002 It was the same when he came home. Though the Government had discernment enough to see in him a man of great power, and a strong acquisition to any government that could have him for an advocate, it never had him in fact, and never thought it had. He came home at the time above stated, full of that confidence which the success of his writings had naturally given him; he was immediately sought for by the late Mr. Windham, was by him introduced to Mr. Pitt, at a dinner-party, invited to Mr. Windham’s house, was offered a share in the “True Briton” newspaper, with printing-machines and type ready furnished; but refusing this offer, he set up a newspaper called “Porcupine’s Gazette,” which, as it did not suit his fancy, he gave up shortly, and opened a bookseller’s shop in Pall-mall, in partnership with his friend, Mr. John Morgan, an Englishman, with whom he was acquainted in Philadelphia. In this shop he might have made what fortune he pleased; for never was man more favourably circumstanced. He had the choicest connexion that a tradesman could wish for, and as much of it as would have sated the appetite of the most thrifty man; but then, he had no sooner entered upon this promising career, than he (1801) disputed the policy of the Peace of Amiens, then about to be made; and, as he would speak out, he quarrelled with the Government, and in a series of letters to Lord Hawkesbury and Mr. Addington, exposed their folly as manifested in the treaty; broke off from the friendships that had been lavished upon him, and again almost “stood alone” against the English Government, as he had done against its foes while in America. In this stand, however, he concurred in opinion with Mr. Windham, whose integrity and thoroughly English heart he always respected highly. In January 1802, he began the Political Register (calling it the Annual Register), which ultimately became what he never intended, a weekly Essay on Politics. It soon acquired a great sale and reputation; contributors to it were numerous and excellent; and, though its conductor wrote with his usual force, there is a moderation in the papers written by him at this time, which makes them somewhat tame in comparison with those which he wrote in America, and those which he has written since, when personal hostility mixed itself in the controversy. They are more dignified, but less personal; and are for that reason the best specimens of his force in argument. His maxim (professed to be borrowed from Swift) was, “If a flea or a louse bite me, I’ll kill it if I can;” and though this maxim made him too fond of killing fleas—too fond of striking at mean objects; yet the spirit of his writings would not have been half what it was, but for the sallies of humour that it brought into play. He was not long left to this species of repose; for the Government began to feel his powerful detections, and to fear the effects of a publication becoming so popular and wide of circulation. Its own scribes were, of course, let loose upon him; and others, prompted by a wish to show their value, or by envy of a man who was gaining so much both of fame and wealth, were nowise behind: accordingly, he was soon engaged in personal strife again. Paragraphs incessant, and pamphlets of all dimensions, appeared against him; but the favourite mode of attack was that of publishing in his name, and in close imitation of the Register, slanders on himself; and so far was this carried, that its readers were actually served through the post with the fabrication instead of the Register! He was “fool,” “vulgar,” “incendiary,” “knave,” “libeller,” “coward;” when rich, lucre was his object; when poor, they smote him for his poverty: in short, a war with the whole legion of the press of England he waged, with scarcely a truce, from 1804 till the day, when death having put an end to the conflict, they came forward simultaneously, some to confess his power, some to express the pride of countrymen, some to deplore the loss of one so useful; and one, the chief organ of the party to which he had been most opposed, to bestow on him the title of “last of the Saxons.”
We have fulfilled our promise to state fully our reasons for publishing these selections; but full as this Preface is, we have been tempted, more than once, to make it a vehicle for answering some current misrepresentations of the day. We have abstained with difficulty; and shall conclude, by stating, as a summary, that the work will be published in weekly numbers, which, at the end of four weeks, may be had in parts, and, at the end of three months, in volumes; that, according to our present calculations, the volumes will be altogether six in number; and that a full index will conclude the publication.
John M. Cobbett,
James P. Cobbett.
1st November, 1835.
Note by the Editors.—Mr. Cobbett went to France in March 1792; remained at the little village of Tilq, near St. Omers, till the 9th of August in that year, when he set out on his way to Paris, meaning to remain there during the winter. He had reached Abbeville on the 11th, and there heard of the dethronement of the King and the massacre of his guards, and could not but foresee such troubles as a man would not like to encounter, especially in company with a newly-married wife. He changed his route towards Havre-de-Grace, in order to get on ship-board to go to America, and reached it on the 15th. He travelled in a calèche, and, as the people were at every town looking out for “aristocrats” they stopped him so frequently, and the police examined all things so scrupulously, making him read all his papers in French to them, that he did not reach Havre till the 16th. He remained there a fortnight, which brings him to the 1st September, the day on which the general massacre began, of which he had heard some account from the captain of a vessel which quitted Havre later than the one in which he was, but which came up with, and spoke her on the passage. He landed in Philadelphia in the end of Oct. 1792, and went to Wilmington on the Delaware, where he found a number of French emigrants, who were greatly in want of a teacher of English, and as he was well able, he was soon in great request and had as many scholars as he could attend to. Partly from his own experience, and partly from the information derived from them, he formed his opinions on the revolution and the actors in it; but he did not put them into print till the arrival of Dr. Priestley, who, in his answers to addresses that were presented to him from political and other societies, put forth some observations against the English form of government. Then he published the following pamphlet.
When the arrival of Doctor Priestley in the United States was first announced Ref 003, I looked upon his emigration (like the proposed retreat of Cowley to his imaginary Paradise, the Summer Islands) as no more than the effect of that weakness, that delusive caprice, which too often accompanies the decline of life, and which is apt, by a change of place, to flatter age with a renovation of faculties, and a return of departed genius. Viewing him as a man that sought repose, my heart welcomed him to the shores of peace, and wished him what he certainly ought to have wished himself, a quiet obscurity. But his answers to the addresses of the Democratic and other Societies at New York, place him in quite a different light, and subject him to the animadversions of a public, among whom they have been industriously propagated.
No man has a right to pry into his neighbour’s private concerns; and the opinions of every man are his private concerns, while he keeps them so; that is to say, while they are confined to himself, his family, and particular friends; but when he makes those opinions public, when he once attempts to make converts, whether it be in religion, politics, or any thing else; when he once comes forward as a candidate for public admiration, esteem, or compassion, his opinions, his principles, his motives, every action of his life, public or private, become the fair subject of public discussion. On this principle, which the Doctor ought to be the last among mankind to controvert, it is easy to perceive that these observations need no apology.
His answers to the addresses of the New York Societies are evidently calculated to mislead and deceive the people of the United States. He there endeavours to impose himself on them for a sufferer in the cause of liberty; and makes a canting profession of moderation, in direct contradiction to the conduct of his whole life.
He says he hopes to find here “that protection from violence which laws and government promise in all countries, but which he has not found in his own.” He certainly must suppose that no European intelligence ever reaches this side of the Atlantic, or that the inhabitants of these countries are too dull to comprehend the sublime events that mark his life and character. Perhaps I shall show him that it is not the people of England alone who know how to estimate the merit of Doctor Priestley.
Let us examine his claims to our compassion; let us see whether his charge against the laws and government of his country be just or not.
On the 14th of July 1791, an unruly mob assembled in the town of Birmingham, set fire to his house and burnt it, together with all it contained. This is the subject of his complaint, and the pretended cause of his emigration. The fact is not denied; but in the relation of facts, circumstances must not be forgotten. To judge of the Doctor’s charge against his country, we must take a retrospective view of his conduct, and of the circumstances that led to the destruction of his property.
It is about twelve years since he began to be distinguished among the dissenters from the established church of England. He preached up a kind of deism Ref 004 which nobody understood, and which it was thought the Doctor understood full as well as his neighbours. This doctrine afterwards assumed the name of Unitarianism, and the religieux of the order were called, or rather they called themselves, Unitarians. The sect never rose into consequence; and the founder had the mortification of seeing his darling Unitarianism growing quite out of date with himself, when the French revolution came, and gave them both a short respite from eternal oblivion.
Those who know any thing of the English Dissenters, know that they always introduce their political claims and projects under the mask of religion. The Doctor was one of those who entertained hopes of bringing about a revolution in England upon the French plan; and for this purpose he found it would be very convenient for him to be at the head of a religious sect. Unitarianism was now revived, and the society held regular meetings at Birmingham. In the inflammatory discourses called sermons, delivered at these meetings, the English constitution was first openly attacked. Here it was that the Doctor beat his “drum ecclesiastic,” to raise recruits in the cause of rebellion. The press soon swarmed with publications expressive of his principles. The revolutionists began to form societies all over the kingdom, between which a mode of communication was established, in perfect conformity to that of the Jacobin clubs in France.
Nothing was neglected by this branch of the Parisian propagande to excite the people to a general insurrection. Inflammatory hand-bills, advertisements, federation dinners, toasts, sermons, prayers; in short, every trick that religious or political duplicity could suggest, was played off to destroy a constitution which has borne the test and attracted the admiration of ages; and to establish in its place a new system, fabricated by themselves.
The 14th of July, 1791, Ref 005 was of too much note in the annals of modern regeneration to be neglected by these regenerated politicians. A club of them, of which Doctor Priestley was a member, gave public notice of a feast, to be held at Birmingham, in which they intended to celebrate the French revolution. Their endeavours had hitherto excited no other sentiments in what may be called the people of England, than those of contempt. The people of Birmingham, however, felt, on this occasion, a convulsive movement. They were scandalized at this public notice for holding in their town a festival, to celebrate events which were in reality a subject of the deepest horror; and seeing in it at the same time an open and audacious attempt to destroy the constitution of their country, and with it their happiness, they thought their understandings and loyalty insulted, and prepared to avenge themselves by the chastisement of the English revolutionists, in the midst of their scandalous orgies. The feast nevertheless took place; but the Doctor, knowing himself to be the grand projector, and consequently the particular object of his townsmen’s vengeance, prudently kept away. The cry of Church and King was the signal for the people to assemble, which they did to a considerable number, opposite the hotel where the convives were met. The club dispersed, and the mob proceeded to breaking the windows, and other acts of violence, incident to such scenes; but let it be remembered, that no personal violence was offered. Perhaps it would have been well, if they had vented their anger on the persons of the revolutionists, provided they had contented themselves with the ceremony of the horse-pond or blanket. Certain it is, that it would have been very fortunate if the riot had ended this way; but when that many-headed monster, a mob, is once roused and put in motion, who can stop its destructive steps?
From the hotel of the federation the mob proceeded to Doctor Priestley’s meeting-house, which they very nearly destroyed in a little time. Had they stopped here, all would yet have been well. The destruction of this temple of sedition and infidelity would have been of no great consequence; but, unhappily for them and the town of Birmingham, they could not be separated before they had destroyed the houses and property of many members of the club. Some of these houses, among which was Doctor Priestley’s, were situated at the distance of some miles from town: the mob were in force to defy all the efforts of the civil power, and, unluckily, none of the military could be brought to the place till some days after the 14th of July. In the mean time many spacious and elegant houses were burnt, and much valuable property destroyed; but it is certainly worthy remark, that during the whole of these unlawful proceedings, not a single person was killed or wounded, either wilfully or by accident, except some of the rioters themselves. At the end of four or five days, this riot, which seemed to threaten more serious consequences, was happily terminated by the arrival of a detachment of dragoons; and tranquillity was restored to the distressed town of Birmingham.
The magistrates used every exertion in their power to quell this riot in its very earliest stage, and continued to do so to the last. The Earl of Plymouth condescended to attend, and act as a justice of the peace; several clergymen of the Church of England also attended in the same capacity, and all were indefatigable in their endeavours to put a stop to the depredations, and to re-establish order.
Every one knows that in such cases it is difficult to discriminate, and that it is neither necessary nor just, if it be possible, to imprison, try, and execute the whole of a mob. Eleven of these rioters were, however, indicted; seven of them were acquitted, four found guilty, and of these four two Ref 006 suffered death. These unfortunate men were, according to the law, prosecuted on the part of the King; and it has been allowed by the Doctor’s own partisans, that the prosecution was carried on with every possible enforcement, and even rigour, by the judges and counsellors. The pretended lenity was laid to the charge of the jury! What a contradiction! They accuse the Government of screening the rioters from the penalty due to their crimes, and at the same time they accuse the jury of their acquittal! It is the misfortune of Doctor Priestley and all his adherents ever to be inconsistent with themselves.
After this general review of the riots, in which the Doctor was unlawfully despoiled of his property, let us return to the merits of his particular case and his complaint: and here let it be recollected, that it is not of the rioters alone that he complains, but of the laws and Government of his country also. Upon an examination of particulars we shall find, that so far from his having just cause of complaint, the laws have rendered him strict justice, if not something more; and that if any party has reason to complain of their execution, it is the town of Birmingham, and not Doctor Priestley.
Some time after the riots, the Doctor and the other revolutionists who had had property destroyed, brought their actions for damages against the town of Birmingham, or rather against the hundred of which that town makes a part. The Doctor laid his damages at 4122l. 11s. 9d. sterling, of which sum 420l. 15s. was for works in manuscript, which, he said, had been consumed in the flames. The trial of this cause took up nine hours: the jury gave a verdict in his favour, but curtailed the damages to 2502l. 18s. It was rightly considered that the imaginary value of the manuscript works ought not to have been included in the damages; because the Doctor being the author of them, he in fact possessed them still, and the loss could be little more than a few sheets of dirty paper. Besides, if they were to be estimated by those he had published for some years before, their destruction was a benefit instead of a loss, both to himself and his country. The sum, then, of 420l. 15s. being deducted, the damages stood at 3701l. 16s. 9d.; and it should not be forgotten, that even a great part of this sum was charged for an apparatus of philosophical instruments, which, in spite of the most unpardonable gasconade of the philosopher, can be looked upon as a thing of imaginary value only, and ought not to be estimated at its cost, any more than a collection of shells or insects, or any other of the frivola of a virtuoso.
Now it is most notorious, that actions for damages are always brought for much higher sums than are ever expected to be recovered. Sometimes they are brought for three times the amount of the real damage sustained; sometimes for double, and sometimes for only a third more than the real damage. If we view, then, the Doctor’s estimate in the most favourable light, if we suppose that he made but the addition of one third to his real damages, the sum he ought to have received would be no more than 2467l. 17s. 10d., whereas he actually received 2502l. 18s., which was 35l. 0s. 2d. more than he had a right to expect. And yet he complains that he has not found protection from the laws and government of his country! If he had been the very best subject in England, in place of one of the very worst, what could the laws have done more for him? Nothing certainly can be a stronger proof of the independence of the courts of justice, and of the impartial execution of the laws of England, than the circumstances and result of this cause. A man who had for many years been the avowed and open enemy of the Government and constitution, had his property destroyed by a mob who declared themselves the friends of both, and who rose up against him because he was not. This mob were pursued by the Government, whose cause they thought they were defending; some of them suffered death, and the inhabitants of the place where they assembled were obliged to indemnify the man whose property they had destroyed. It would be curious to know what sort of protection this reverend Doctor, this “friend of humanity,” wanted. Would nothing satisfy him but the blood of the whole mob? Did he wish to see the town of Birmingham, like that of Lyons, razed, and all its industrious and loyal inhabitants butchered, because some of them had been carried to commit unlawful excesses, from their detestation of his wicked projects? Birmingham has combated against Priestley. Birmingham is no more. This, I suppose, would have satisfied the charitable modern philosopher, who pretended, and who the Democratic Society say, did “return to his enemies blessings for curses.” Woe to the wretch that is exposed to the benedictions of a modern philosopher! His “dextre vengresse” is ten thousand times more to be feared than the bloody poniard of the assassin: the latter is drawn on individuals only, the other is pointed at the human race. Happily for the people of Birmingham, these blessings had no effect; there was no National Convention, Revolutionary Tribunal, or guillotine, Ref 007 in England.
As I have already observed, if the Doctor had been the best and most peaceable subject in the kingdom, the Government and laws could not have yielded him more perfect protection; his complaint would, therefore, be groundless, if he had given no provocation to the people, if he had in no wise contributed to the riots. If, then, he has received ample justice, considered as an innocent man and a good subject, what shall we think of his complaint, when we find that he was himself the principal cause of these riots; and that the rioters did nothing that was not perfectly consonant to the principles he had for many years been labouring to infuse into their minds?
That he and his club were the cause of the riots will not be disputed; for, had they not given an insulting notice of their intention to celebrate the horrors of the 14th of July, accompanied with an inflammatory hand-bill, intended to excite an insurrection against the Government, Ref 008 no riot would ever have taken place, and consequently its disastrous effects would have been avoided. But it has been said, that there was nothing offensive in this inflammatory hand-bill; because, forsooth, “the matter of it (however indecent and untrue) was not more virulent than Paine’s Rights of Man, Mackintosh’s Answer to Burke, Remarks on the Constitution of England, &c. &c., which had been lately published without incurring the censure of Government.” So, an inflammatory performance, acknowledged to be indecent and untrue, is not offensive, because it is not more virulent than some other performances which have escaped the censure of Government! If this is not a new manner of arguing, it is at least an odd one. But this hand-bill had something more malicious in it, if not more virulent, than even the inflammatory works above mentioned. They were more difficult to come at; to have them, they must be bought. They contained something like reasoning, the fallacy of which the Government was very sure would be detected by the good sense of those who took the pains to read them. A hand-bill was a more commodious instrument of sedition: it was calculated to have immediate effect. Besides, if there had been nothing offensive in it, why did the club think proper to disown it in so ceremonious a manner? They disowned it with the most solemn asseverations, offered a reward for apprehending the author, and afterwards justified it as an inoffensive thing. Here is a palpable inconsistency. The fact is, they perceived that this precious morsel of eloquence, in place of raising a mob for them, was like to raise one against them: they saw the storm gathering, and, in the moment of fear, disowned the writing. After the danger was over, seeing they could not exculpate themselves from the charge of having published it, they defended it as an inoffensive performance.
The Doctor, in his justificatory letter to the people of Birmingham, says, that the company were assembled on this occasion “to celebrate the emancipation of a neighbouring nation from tyranny, without intimating a desire of any thing more than an improvement of their own constitution.” Excessive modesty! Nothing but an improvement! A la françoise, of course? However, with respect to the church, as it was a point of conscience, the club do not seem to have been altogether so moderate in their designs. “Believe me,” says the Doctor, in the same letter, “the Church of England, which you think you are supporting, has received a greater blow by this conduct of yours, than I and all my friends have ever aimed at it.” They had then, it seems, aimed a blow at the established church, and were forming a plan for improving the constitution; and yet the Doctor, in the same letter, twice expresses his astonishment at their being treated as the enemies of church and state. In a letter to the students of the College of Hackney, he says, “A hierarchy, equally the bane of Christianity and rational liberty, now confesses its weakness; and be assured, that you will see its complete reformation or its fall.” And yet he has the assurance to tell the people of Birmingham that their superiors have deceived them in representing him and his sect as the enemies of church and state.
But, say they, we certainly exercised the right of freemen in assembling together; and even if our meeting had been unlawful, cognizance should have been taken of it by the magistracy: there can be no liberty where a ferocious mob is suffered to supersede the law. Very true. This is what the Doctor has been told a thousand times, but he never would believe it. He still continued to bawl out, “The sunshine of reason will assuredly chase away and dissipate the mists of darkness and error; and when the majesty of the people is insulted, or they feel themselves oppressed by any set of men, they have the power to redress the grievance.” So the people of Birmingham, feeling their majesty insulted by a set of men (and a very impudent set of men too), who audaciously attempted to persuade them that they were “all slaves and idolaters,” and to seduce them from their duty to God and their country, rose “to redress the grievance.” And yet he complains? Ah! says he, but, my good townsmen,
“——— you mistake the matter:
For, in all scruples of this nature,
No man includes himself, nor turns
The point upon his own concerns.”
And therefore he says to the people of Birmingham, “You have been misled.” But had they suffered themselves to be misled by himself into an insurrection against the Government; had they burnt the churches, cut the throats of the clergy, and hung the magistrates, military officers, and nobility, to the lamp-posts, would he not have said that they exercised a sacred right? Nay, was not the very festival, which was the immediate cause of the riots, held expressly to celebrate scenes like these? to celebrate the inglorious triumphs of a mob? The 14th of July was a day marked with the blood of the innocent, and eventually the destruction of an empire. The events of that day must strike horror to every heart except that of a deistical philosopher, and would brand with eternal infamy any other nation but France: which, thanks to the benign influence of the Rights of Man, has made such a progress in ferociousness, murder, sacrilege, and every species of infamy, that the horrors of the 14th of July are already forgotten.
What we celebrate, we must approve; and does not the man who approved of the events of the 14th of July, blush to complain of the Birmingham riots? “Happily,” says he to the people of Birmingham, “happily the minds of Englishmen have a horror for murder, and therefore you did not, I hope, think of that; though, by your clamorous demanding me at the hotel, it is probable that, at that time, some of you intended me some personal injury.” Yes, sir, happily the minds of Englishmen have a horror for murder; but who will say that the minds of English men or English women either, would have a horror for murder, if you had succeeded in overturning their religion and constitution, and introducing your Frenchified system of liberty? The French were acknowledged to be the most polite and amiable people in all Europe: what are they now? Let La Fayette, Brissot, Anacharsis Cloots, or Thomas Payne himself, answer this question.
Let us see, a little, how mobs have acted under the famous Government that the Doctor so much admires.
I shall not attempt a detail of the horrors committed by the cut-throat Jourdan and his associates in Provence, Avignon, Languedoc, and Rousillon—towns and villages sacked, gentlemen’s seats and castles burnt, and their inhabitants massacred; magistrates insulted, beat, and imprisoned, sometimes killed; prisoners set at liberty, to cut the throats of those they had already robbed. The exploits of this band of patriots would fill whole volumes. They reduced a great part of the inhabitants of the finest and most fertile country in the whole world, to a degree of misery and ruin that would never have been forgotten, had it not been so far eclipsed since, by the operation of what is, in “that devoted country,” called the law. The amount of the damages sustained in property, was perhaps a hundred thousand times as great as that sustained by the revolutionists at Birmingham. When repeated accounts of these murderous scenes were laid before the National Assembly, what was the consequence? what the redress? “We had our fears,” says Monsieur Gentil, “for the prisoners of Avignon, and for the lives and property of the inhabitants of that unhappy country; but these fears are now changed into a certainty: the prisoners are released; the country seats are burnt, and”—Monsieur Gentil was called to order, and not suffered to proceed; after which these precious “Guardians of the Rights of Man” passed a censure on him, for having slandered the patriots. It is notorious, that the chief of these cut-throats, Jourdan, has since produced his butcheries in Avignon, as a proof of his civism, and that he is now a distinguished character among the real friends of the revolution.
Does the Doctor remember having heard any thing about the glorious achievements of the 10th of August 1792? Ref 009 Has he ever made an estimate of the property destroyed in Paris on that and the following days? Let him compare the destruction that followed the steps of that mob, with the loss of his boasted apparatus; and when he has done this, let him tell us, if he can, where he would now be, if the Government of England had treated him and his friends as the National Assembly did the sufferers in the riots of the 10th of August. But, perhaps, he looks upon the events of that day as a glorious victory, a new emancipation, and of course will say, that I degrade the heroes in calling them a mob. I am not for disputing with him about a name; he may call them the heroes of the 10th of August, if he will: “The heroes of the 14th of July,” has always been understood to mean, a gang of blood-thirsty cannibals, and I would by no means wish to withhold the title from those of the 10th of August.
Will the Doctor allow, that it was a mob that murdered the state prisoners from Orleans? Or does he insist upon calling that massacre an act of civism, and the actors in it the heroes of the 12th of September? But whether it was an act of civism, a massacre, or a victory, or whatever it was, I cannot help giving it a place here, as I find it recorded by his countryman, Doctor Moore.
“The mangled bodies,” says he, “were lying in the street, on the left hand, as you go to the Chateau, from Paris. Some of the lower sort of the inhabitants of Versailles were looking on; the rest, struck with terror, were shut up in their shops and houses. The body of the Duke of Brissac was pointed out, the head and one of the hands was cut off: a man stood near smoking tobacco, with his sword drawn, and a human hand stuck on the point: another fellow walked carelessly among the bodies with an entire arm of another of the prisoners fixed to the point of his sword. A wagon afterwards arrived, into which were thrown as many of the slaughtered bodies as the horses could draw: a boy of about fifteen years of age was in the wagon, assisting to receive the bodies as they were put in, and packing them in the most convenient manner, with an air of as much indifference as if they had been so many parcels of goods. One of the wretches who threw in the bodies, and who probably had assisted in the massacre, said to the spectators in praise of the boy’s activity, ‘See that little fellow there; how bold he is!’
“The assassins of the prisoners were a party who came from Paris the preceding evening, most of them in post-chaises for that purpose, and who attacked those unhappy men while they remained in the street, waiting till the gate of the prison, which was prepared for their reception, should be opened. The detachment which had guarded the prisoners from Orleans, stood shameful and passive spectators of the massacre. The miserable prisoners being all unarmed, and some of them fettered, could do nothing in their own defence; they were most of them stabbed; and a few, who attempted resistance, were cut down with sabres.
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