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William Cobbett denounces the destruction of liberty during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1817)

The English radical journalist William Cobbett (1763-1835) denounced the crack down on dissent by the British government during the period of difficult economic adjustment which followed the ending of the 25 year war against France. He thought that England, “the cradle of real liberty and just laws”, had just experienced another revolution in government which had restored despotism:

We behold a system of taxation that has spread ruin, madness and starvation over the land; a band of Sinecurists, Pensioners, Bankers, and Funders, who strip the land of all its fruits, except the portion which they share with the standing army who aid them in the work of seizing on those fruits; a people who have no voice in the choosing of those, who make laws affecting their property and their lives; a House of Commons, the sale and barter of seats in which has, within its own walls, been acknowledged to be as notorious as the sun at noon-day; and, finally, in answer to the nation’s petitions for a redress of this enormous grievance, the cause of every calamity, we behold Acts passed by this same House of Commons, which have taken from the people all liberty of the press, all liberty of speech, and all the safety which the law gave to their very persons …

A Revolution the most extraordinary has taken place in our country. The Revolution of 1688 was a nothing, in point of importance, compared with that which we have now witnessed. Then the Royal Family and the line of descent of the Crown were changed, because a tyrant had grossly violated some of the fundamental laws of the land; but now, all the fundamental laws of the land stand abrogated by Acts of the Parliament. In England, in that same England, which was the cradle of real liberty and just laws, or, at least, which was the spot, where law and justice and freedom were preserved while despotism reigned over the rest of the world; in that England, which was so long held by the world to exhibit an example of all that was desirable in politics and in jurisprudence; in that England, whence the wise and brave men who first settled this now happy country brought all those principles of law and of government, which, by being adhered to, have been the cause of that happiness and virtue which are here everywhere apparent; in that same England what do we now behold? The very thought, though I am here beyond the reach of the evil, wrings my heart. We behold a system of taxation that has spread ruin, madness and starvation over the land; a band of Sinecurists, Pensioners, Bankers, and Funders, who strip the land of all its fruits, except the portion which they share with the standing army who aid them in the work of seizing on those fruits; a people who have no voice in the choosing of those, who make laws affecting their property and their lives; a House of Commons, the sale and barter of seats in which has, within its own walls, been acknowledged to be as notorious as the sun at noon-day; and, finally, in answer to the nation’s petitions for a redress of this enormous grievance, the cause of every calamity, we behold Acts passed by this same House of Commons, which have taken from the people all liberty of the press, all liberty of speech, and all the safety which the law gave to their very persons, it being now in the absolute power of Ministers to punish any man whom they may please to punish, in the severest possible manner short of instant death, not only without any trial by jury, but without any trial at all; without hearing him themselves in his defence; without letting him know the cause of his punishment; without telling him who are his accusers; and without any appeal, now or hereafter, from their decisions! They, or any one out of three of them, have the power to send for either of you at any hour; to cause you to be conveyed away to any jail in the kingdom; to be put into any dungeon or cell; to be deprived of pen, ink and paper; to be kept from all communication with wife, child, friend, or any body else; to be locked up in a solitary cell; to be kept in a damp or stinking hole; and to be kept without any limit as to time, other than what their own sole will and pleasure may dictate.

Such is the present state of England, and, thanks to the virtue and valour of our brethren on this side of the Atlantic, I have the power to describe that state to the world, a power, which I certainly should not have had, if the people of this country had not successfully resisted the attempts of our Government in 1814 and 1815, when Sir Joseph Yorke said, in the House of Commons, that there was Mr. President Madison yet to be put down; and, when the Times newspaper told the then deceived people, that regular Governments never could be safe, until the world was deprived of the “dangerous example of successful democratic rebellion;” or, in other words, that the Boroughmongering System never could sleep in quiet, while there was one free country left on the face of the earth. The Times was right. The “Holy Alliance” is of no avail as long as this country remains what it now is. Hither, at last, all the oppressed, who harbour the just desire to resist, may come; and, in the end, resistance would go from here, if it were to arise from no other quarter.

About this Quotation:

Cobbett identified a coalition of political, economic, and military elites which had seized control of the British state during the war against Napoleon and its immediate aftermath. These elites consisted of “Sinecurists” (those with cushy government jobs), “Pensioners” (those with pensions from previous cushy government jobs), “Bankers and Funders” (those who lent money to the state to pay for the war), and the officers of the “standing army”, all of whom “strip the land of all its fruits.” They had come to power to defeat the threat which “democracy” posed to their rule, whether in the form of American, French, or domestic democracy. In the difficult economic conditions of the post-war period protests and food riots broke out which the British state dealt with by suspending habeas corpus, censorship of the press, and arrests of dissidents. To break the control of the political and economic elites Cobbett, along with other radicals, agitated for the repeal of the protectionist corn laws (which were the lynch pin of the power of the aristocratic land owners, and the end of the “rotten borough” political system (“the Boroughmongering System”) which prevented the citizens of the growing industrial and port cities from having the political representation they deserved in Parliament.

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