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

William Cobbett

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 …

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.