William Cobbett and the Remains of Thomas Paine

On March 9th 1763 the journalist and politician William Cobbett was born. To describe him as a political radical would be misleading, but for much of his life he took a fiercely anti-authoritarian stance. Serving as a soldier in the British Army his early views were formed as a reaction to the corruption he witnessed amongst the officers while the enlisted men endured harsh treatment. Fearing persecution for his outspoken views he fled to France in 1792, where he found the revolutionary environment to be antithetical to his conservative approach. He immediately left for the nascent United States where he wrote pamphlets and articles supporting the British position.

Returning to Britain in 1800 he was offered the editorship of a Government newspaper which he declined in favour of his own publication The Porcupine which carried the motto ‘Fear God, Honour the King’. His next project The Political Register was launched in 1802 and initially took an anti-radical stance before drifting into increasingly virulent attacks against the Government of William Pitt for financial mismanagement and cronyism. The Register started to gain traction with the working classes and he was imprisoned for libel and, fearing a further prosecution for seditious writing, he returned to the United States in 1817.  While in the United States, Cobbett hatched audacious plan to return the remains to Britain of the great republican, revolutionary pamphleteer and political philosopher Tomas Paine, who died in 1809. Alas the plan to give Paine a granf reburial on home soil not come to fruition and Paine’s remains were found with Cobbett’s effects after his death in 1835, whereupon they were sadly lost to us.

Cobbett is impossible to classify in standard political terms. Neither wholly radical nor conservative it is to his immense credit that he saw the greatness in Thomas Paine, with whom he shared very little in philosophical terms and sought to return him to his homeland. Today, control of the historical narrative is important to a British elite concerned with maintaining their position of authority. So while the identification and reburial of the remains of medieval tyrants such as Richard III and Henry I receive great publicity and funding the same is not true for Thomas Paine. Like William Cobbett, Paine is still regarded as a danger to the establishment, something which Cobbett would have surely understood.

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