Cobbett Founds the

The most influential organ of radical political dissent in late Georgian England, William Cobbett’s Political Register set important precedents for future political journals. Initially patriotic in tone, the weekly gravitated toward exposure of corruption and agitation for social justice and parliamentary reform. A broadsheet version, dubbed Cobbett’s Twopenny Trash, was the first English political periodical aimed at the working class.

Summary of Event

In January of 1802, a new weekly journal called the Political Register appeared on the streets of London. The journal’s editor and principal writer was William Cobbett, a self-educated farm boy. Cobbett had recently returned from the United States, where he had established himself as an incisive political commentator under the pen name Peter Porcupine “Porcupine, Peter” (William Cobbett)[Porcupine, Peter (William Cobbett)] . The persona of Peter Porcupine was that of a thoroughgoing Tory who was both pro-English and anti-French. Cobbett’s initial editorial stance in his new journal was similar. A new British government administration had recently signed a peace agreement with France. The Political Register filled a publishing vacuum, speaking for those who favored both social reform—traditionally a Whig or radical platform—and continuing the war with revolutionary France—a stance spearheaded by the Tories under William Pitt the Younger Pitt, William, the Younger . Cobbett’s journal was partly the brainchild of the prowar Whig radical William Windham. Windham, William
Political Register
Cobbett, William
[kw]Cobbett Founds the Political Register (Jan., 1802)
[kw]Founds the Political Register, Cobbett (Jan., 1802)
[kw]Political Register, Cobbett Founds the (Jan., 1802)
Political Register
Cobbett, William
[g]Great Britain;Jan., 1802: Cobbett Founds the Political Register[0120]
[c]Communications;Jan., 1802: Cobbett Founds the Political Register[0120]
[c]Social issues and reform;Jan., 1802: Cobbett Founds the Political Register[0120]
Windham, William
Hansard, Luke
Burdett, Sir Francis

The lively, provocative writing and independent spirit of the Political Register made it an instant success. Its circulation began at three hundred copies and grew to more than three thousand copies by the end of 1804, despite the fact that its ten-and-one-half-pence price meant that no ordinary working person could afford a personal subscription. Indeed, Cobbett pointed with pride to the fact that the cost of his publication ensured that it had only a respectable readership.

Early issues of the journal included complete transcripts of parliamentary debates; Debates;parliamentary that was a novelty at that time, but daily papers soon followed suit. In 1804 Cobbett decided to issue Parliamentary Debates as a separate publication and at the same time undertook his History of Parliament series, editing and preparing pre-1803 records for publication. He also undertook a compendium of state trials. The Parliamentary Register appeared under Cobbett’s directorship until 1810, when he sold the rights to its printer, Luke Hansard, Hansard, Luke who continued to issue it as Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates

In 1804, Cobbett toured rural southern England, seeing at first hand how enclosures, wartime prices, and land speculation were devastating the lives of rural laborers. In the quarter century since he had left his family farm, large landholdings operated as businesses had prospered, while rural unemployment skyrocketed and most farm laborers became dependent on parish relief. Cobbett now saw war fever as a smokescreen for wartime profiteering, and he ascribed the nation’s economic woes to oppressive taxation, excessive indebtedness, and government corruption. The solution, he concluded, was a radical reform of Parliament.

After 1804, the editorial stance of the Political Register moved toward the radicalism of Sir Francis Burdett Burdett, Sir Francis and Henry “Orator” Hunt and away from Windham’s Windham, William more moderate Whig Whig Party (British) politics. It was never an easy alliance. The radicals’ support came from urban areas, and their concerns reflected that fact. Cobbett’s main goal was preserving rural English society. While the radicals clamored for universal manhood suffrage in industrial cities, Cobbett advocated abolishing all borough parliamentary seats. He eventually opposed the Corn Laws Corn Laws that regulated the import and export of grains but only when he became convinced that high agricultural prices mainly benefited wealthy farmers.

Another feature of the Political Register distinguishing it from many contemporary radical publications was its respect for the Church of England Church of England . Cobbett had no use for evangelism and Puritanism, and was quick to attack church corruption. However, he was neither an atheist nor a freethinker. On the subject of Roman Catholic emancipation Roman Catholic emancipation , which he supported, he clashed with the Irish parliamentarian Daniel O’Connell by advocating government constraints on Roman Catholic clergy.

The Political Register faced its first major challenge in 1810, when the government prosecuted Cobbett for publishing an impassioned piece on soldiers who had refused to obey orders in the town of Ely. Troops from Hanover Hanover had been called in, and the ringleaders were brutally flogged. The spectacle of English soldiers being flogged by Germans appalled Cobbett. His resulting xenophobic diatribe against a British ally and apparent condoning of mutiny during wartime came under the government’s definition of sedition. He was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of one thousand pounds and spend two years in London’s Newgate Prison.

While Cobbett raised money to pay his fine and cover the substantial costs that would be necessary to live in comfort in prison, he discovered that his business manager had mishandled the finances of the Political Register and cost him six thousand pounds. By selling the Parliamentary Register to Hansard Hansard, Luke and continuing to edit the Political Register from his prison cell, Cobbett managed to avoid bankruptcy but never fully recouped his losses. He emerged from prison two years later an angry, embittered man.

The end of the war with France in 1815 brought hard times. Sales of all periodicals dropped. Cobbett’s accusation that the government had engineered Napoleon’s escape from his exile on Elba Elba in order to crush French liberty garnered derision and cost him support. A loan from Sir Francis Burdett Burdett, Sir Francis helped Cobbett keep his journal afloat, and violent urban riots in 1816-1817 increased public demand for radical journalism. To avoid paying periodical taxes, Cobbett issued his landmark Address to the Journeymen and Labourers of England
Address to the Journeymen and Labourers of England (Cobbett) as a broadside, priced at two pence. This single issue sold an unprecedented 200,000 copies and grossed more than sixteen hundred pounds. Emboldened by this success, Cobbett began issuing more of his articles aimed at workingmen as broadsides and pamphlets. Some numbers of Cobbett’s Twopenny Trash
Cobbett’s Twopenny Trash[Cobbetts Twopenny Trash] sold as many as forty thousand copies. His was the first English political publication specifically aimed at members of the working class. It remained popular because Cobbett understood the concerns of his audience and wrote in a style that appealed to them.

Responding to widespread rioting, the government suspended habeas corpus Habeas corpus;in Great Britain[Great Britain] in March of 1817 and began imprisoning troublemakers without trial. Fearing incarceration, Cobbett dashed off The Last Hundred Days of English Liberty and then sailed for the United States, where he remained until 1820. During his absence, his journal continued to appear but lost much of its support, particularly among followers of Hunt and others who remained in England, some of whom suffered imprisonment for their actions.

The trial of Queen Caroline Caroline, Queen (1768-1821) of Brunswick, the former Princess of Wales, for adultery in 1820 provided a cause with broad popular support. Cobbett championed the queen and castigated the unpopular King George IV in the pages of his journal; he also wrote most of Caroline’s petitions and public statements. Pressured by popular clamor, the House of Lords finally abandoned the prosecution. Caroline died soon afterward.

William Cobbett.

(Library of Congress)

In 1821, Cobbett began the series Rural Rides, Rural Rides (Cobbett) later collected in book form. He used it to combine his love for traditional rural life with scathing commentaries on the social forces undermining that life and appeals for parliamentary reform. Appealing to readers of all classes, Rural Rides remains a minor classic of English literature, securing for its author literary as well as political fame.

By the late 1820’s, English reformers were concentrating on urban problems. In 1828 and 1829, the Political Register resounded with warnings that deteriorating conditions in rural England were likely to result in insurrection. When the so-called Swing riots broke out in southern England in 1830, the authorities suspected Cobbett of more than accurate prophecy. Brought to trial for sedition in 1831, he defended himself ably and was acquitted. He continued writing and publishing his weekly Political Register until his death on June 18, 1835. His journal, which was again in financial difficulties, soon ceased publication.


In retrospect, the Political Register looms larger as a literary than a political force. Of the causes it so eloquently advocated, only Roman Catholic emancipation Roman Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform were realized during William Cobbett’s lifetime. Morever, the form taken by parliamentary reform did virtually nothing to ameliorate the grim lives of the rural poor.

Cobbett skillfully identified and dramatized the multiple economic woes that characterized Britain in his day, but he was no economist. Had the government taken his advice and reduced taxes by defaulting on the national debt, the results would surely have been disastrous. Cobbett’s preoccupation with government corruption made for entertaining reading, but he exaggerated the impact of the problem and proposed cures far worse than the disease.

The Political Register failed to catalyze a political revolution, but it did represent a revolution in journalism. Especially in its broadsheet form, it was the first English-language periodical to put political and social controversy into the hands of working people in language to which they could relate. Other contemporary reformers tended to be patronizing, claiming to speak for the unrepresented masses but seldom listening to those masses or explaining clearly how the proposed remedies could be expected to effect reform. Cobbett respected his audience. He addressed them directly, on their own level. Two hundred years after the founding of the Political Register, his lively, hard-hitting prose is still read and still resonates.

Further Reading

  • Burton, Anthony. William Cobbett, Englishman: A Biography. London: Aurum Press, 1997. A balanced treatment that discusses the background and context of key political treatises.
  • Dyck, Ian. “William Cobbett and the Rural Radical Platform.” Social History 18, no. 2 (1993): 185-204. Emphasizes Cobbett’s rural roots; offers a detailed treatment of the role of the Political Register during the Swing riots.
  • Green, Daniel. Great Cobbett: The Noblest Agitator. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983. Good coverage of Cobbett’s two trials for libel, Twopenny Trash, and the trial of Queen Caroline.
  • Thompson, Noel, and David Eastwood, eds. The Collected Social and Political Writings of William Cobbett. Reprint. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1998. Seventeen volumes in facsimile, with an extensive introduction. Includes all of the widely cited articles from the Political Register. Arranged partly by topic and partly chronologically.

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