William Cobbett was a complicated man, even by the standards of his day. Born in Farnham but settling in Botley in 1805, he was a wealthy landowner mainly known for being founder, writer and editor of The Political Register. This was a weekly newspaper that started off with Tory leanings but soon fell foul of the establishment after advocating universal suffrage and publishing recordings of parliamentary debates, which was illegal at the time (although it was less progressive in other ways, being pro-bear-baiting and mocking William Wilberforce for his support for ‘the fat and lazy and laughing and singing negroes‘). He spent two years in prison for “treasonous libel” because of the paper, leading to a cartoon being published titled “the Hampshire Hog in the Pound” (pictured above) essentially poking fun at the idea that jail was hardly going to slow down his money-grubbing schemes. Certainly Cobbett was a shrewd businessman. When the government started heavily taxing newspapers in a bid to quash dissent, Cobbett made a move way ahead of his time and purged all news content from the paper, leaving only pure opinion. This made it technically a “pamphlet” allowing it to circumvent the tax, and it was a huge hit, its circulation jumping from one to forty thousand. Critics called this new paper “the twopenny trash”. Cobbett was so unphased by his haters that he adopted the moniker himself.
It was in this publication on November 30 that Cobbett published his “Letter to the Luddites”. This hefty nine-and-a-half-thousand-word article touches on a lot, including a whole set of tables regarding the price of produce, but in essence tells them that all their problems are due to taxation (which you can probably figure out from the above, he was not a fan of) and the government’s quantitative easing, or as he calls it “the paper-money bubble”. In essence then, though he declares sympathy with their plight, he propounds the idea that the Luddites had merely some sort of blinkered, technophobic fixation on destroying machinery, rather than an agenda for social change, an idea echoed later by Marx, and still commonly held to this day. He pretty nakedly states this somewhat condescending view in his final paragraph:
“For past errors I make all possible allowance. We all fall into errors enough naturally; and, no wonder that you should have adopted erroneous notions, seeing that the corrupt press has, for so many years been at work to deceive and mislead you. This base press, knowing what would be the inevitable consequence of your seeing the real causes of your calamities, has incessantly laboured to blind you, or to direct your eyes towards an imaginary cause. Machines, Bakers, Butchers, Brewers, Millers; any thing but the taxes and the paper-money, in all the acts of violence to which you have been led by these vile hirelings you have greatly favored the cause of corruption, which is never so much delighted as at the sight of troops acting against the people.”
The Political Register had a wide working-class circulation, and was read outside London, so this article may not have been wholly screaming into a void. But the complex arguments of a complex man could not quell the Luddites’ anger, and the sight of troops acting against the people would come in the following year on a dramatic scale. But to find out about that, you’ll need to come see the show. Or I guess, look it up on Wikipedia. But the show will be more fun, promise.