Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
William Cobbett (1925) is one of eight full-length biographies written by Chesterton. This biography is not particularly theological, but it is reviewed here as an important specimen of Chesterton’s thought. None of Chesterton’s biographies are orderly accounts of a person’s life, work, and death; he is mainly concerned with Cobbett’s thought-life and influence on society.
The subject, William Cobbett (1763-1835), was a pamphleteer and Member of Parliament who fought for political reforms on behalf of the English poor and especially farmers. Among Chesterton’s other biographical works, Cobbett is the odd man out, being neither a religious figure, nor a great literary man; but Cobbett’s economic and political philosophy was Chesterton’s bread and butter. (Chesterton was a champion of “distributism,” an idea further described below.) In short, Cobbett despised financial corruption and plutocracy and encouraged an agrarian lifestyle, and was greatly alarmed by the many changes of the Industrial Revolution in England. He sought to encourage parliamentary reform in his writings, but he faced a great deal of opposition, including eventual flogging and imprisonment.
Cobbett was an opponent of various forms of corruption:
- Abuse of enlisted soldiers (in the pamphlet The Soldier’s Friend, 1792);
- “Rotten boroughs,” parliamentary boroughs that were essentially bought by the rich, similar to gerrymandering in American politics (finally abolished in 1867);
- Disenfranchisement of rural farmers (Rural Rides 1822 to 1826).
Of these, Chesterton makes the most of the third, masterfully showing how industrialization was driving farmers out of hamlets and into towns, as evidenced in architecture: in the author’s eyes, churches in English villages are often very old and spacious beyond the needs of the parish; but country seats betrayed much younger architecture, showing that they were the product of a different time. Economic inequality was growing worse, not better.
William Cobbett also vehemently opposed national debt, stock markets, and even paper money (Paper Against Gold, 1817). On hearing of the first, we might think he was a libertarian; after the second, we might think he was a radical; after the third, we know Cobbett for what he is: a man out of time. Cobbett believed convoluted modern financial practices were distractions from true wealth, and would lead to eventual decline.
While Chesterton expresses some tenets of distributism in most of his written works, they are clearly expounded in historical context in this biography. The ideas of distributism, while not framed in Christian terms in William Cobbett, are presented here in relation to Chesterton’s Christianity, with the hope that this will help believers to see their political thought in light of Scripture.
Distributism cuts across both socialism and capitalism, providing a “third way.” Socialism is typically criticized (at least, in the U. S.) because it may indirectly discourage productivity, but the Bible encourages believers to be productive members of society:
“Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before.” (1 Thess. 4:11, NLT)
Capitalism is often criticized for tending towards monopoly. The words of Isaiah clearly condemn monopoly:
“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” (Isa. 5:8, ESV)
The prophet Isaiah makes much of social justice and equality as an expression of God’s holiness. John Goldingay, in one of his many modern studies on Isaiah, points out that neglect of the poor is a main motivator for God’s judgment in Isaiah 1 to 5. A hundred years earlier, Joseph Parker, in his People’s Bible, commented on Isaiah 5:8:
“Men had little freeholds of their own: it was a life marked by small proprietorships; almost every man had some little patch of vineyard. The disposition, however, was to do away with small proprietories, and for the greater men to grasp all the land . . . The little freeholders of Palestine, were in many cases forced into a position of slavery, and made to toil as slaves on the lands which they once honestly owned and hopefully cultivated.”
These words concerning Israel, written in 1891, are a remarkable parallel to the problem described in Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1826) and in Chesterton’s biography (1925). In debating economic policies as they relate to the poor, believers should not consider capitalism and socialism as the only two options. There is a needed corrective in Chesterton’s encouragement towards a simple life.
Chesterton portrays Cobbett as a unique and tortured soul, a genius rational beyond the reckoning of his time. In this Chesterton takes some artistic liberty, probably seeing much of himself in his subject. He is right though, that Cobbett was not well understood. William Cobbett was, like Chesterton, a native of Surrey, and we may forgive the author for idolizing someone with such a profound influence on his own political thought.