9th March 1763. Victory for Free Speech.
‘When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman’? asked John Ball a 14thc radical priest.
The 18th century was to spawn three men who by their championing of the common man and free speech were to incur the wrath of the authorities. It resulted in imprisonment, charges of Libel, Treason and numerous escapes to America and France.
Two of these were Thomas Paine and John Wilkes, the third was William Cobbett born in Farnham, Hampshire Today in 1763.(1)
John Wilkes founded the weekly North Briton but was arrested for Libel in 1763 when he accused the government of lying in the King’s speech. Later released he was expelled from the House of Commons and outlawed whilst in Paris.
In 1791-2 Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ supported the French Revolution against Burke’s ‘Reflections on the ‘Revolution in France’, resulted in a charge of Treason causing him to flee to France.
Cobbett in 1792 was also forced to flee returning in 1800. By 1802 his Political Register was the first to publish a regular record of the proceedings in the House of Commons.
His Register published for over thirty years at over a shilling was in 1816 to be reprinted weekly at 2d, nick- named the ‘2d Trash’.
An obstacle to the growth in independent newspapers was the ban on reporting of Parliament and the Stamp Duty.(2)
Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates ran for nine years until taken over in 1810 by Luke Hansard, Printer to the House of Commons.
Cobbett, no Republican, was primarily a political writer, often in trouble with the Libel Laws being found guilty of Treasonable Libel in 1810 after objecting to the flogging of the Ely Local Militia, resulting in two years in Newgate Prison.
In 1817 forced to flee to America again, returning in 1819, Cobbett (1763-1835) began his rural tours between 1822 and 1826 describing the dire conditions of the rural poor at a time when Britain was adjusting to new conditions after the Napoleonic War, threatened by revolution and struggling to adjust to industrialisation all of which was brought home to the doors of Westminster.
The result of his journeys was his Rural Rides in 1830, giving us a last look at England as a truly rural land.
In 1831 he was prosecuted for encouraging a riot of agricultural labourers, but escaped conviction. In March 1833 a year after the Great Reform Act, he was elected to Parliament for Oldham.
Cobbett became in the words of Hazlitt ‘a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country’ having become a champion of parliamentary reform.
(1) Excise officer Thomas Paine was to spend his early years in America supporting the cause of Independence.
(2) It was from the assumption that papers had a right to publish Parliamentary debates, that the Times came into being in 1785.