Monday, January 16, 2012

The Loose Cannon Essayist of Post-Revolution America

by Stephen J. Gertz

"As the people of America may not be informed who Peter Porcupine is, the celebrated manufacturer of lies, and retailer oi filth, I will give you some little account of this pestiferous animal. This wretch was obliged to abscond from his darling Old England to avoid being turned off into the other world before, what he supposed, his time. It may be well imagined, that in a land of liberty and flowing with milk and honey, his precipitate retreat could not have been owing to any offence committed against the government very honourable to himself.

"Gnawed by the worm that never dies, his own wretchedness would ever prevent him from making any attempt in favour of human happiness. His usual occupation at home was that of a garret-scribbler, excepting a little night-business occasionally, to supply unavoidable exigencies; Grubb-Street did not answer his purposes, and being scented by certain tipstaffs for something more than scribbling, he took a French leave for France. His evil genius pursued him here, and as his fingers were as long as ever, he was obliged as suddenly to leave the Republic" (Paul Hedgehog, from the Preface).

"This Paul Hedgehog I know nothing of. I can hardly suppose that he is one of my cousins at New-York: if he be, for the honor of our family, I hope that he is a bastard. Let them write on, till their old pens are worn to the stump: let the devils sweat; let them fire their balls at my reputation, till the very press cries out murder. If ever they hear me whine or complain, I will give them leave to fritter my carcass and trail my guts along the street, as the French sans-culottes did those of Thomas Mauduit" (Peter Porcupine, from the Preface).

Porcupine and Hedgehog are one and the same animal, William Cobbett, the loose cannon of post-Revolution American journalism, an essayist who never let propriety get in the way of a colorful, unmercifully sarcastic attack based upon facts evidenced from his imagination. He was, in that regard, not unlike a few modern, self-pitying (and pitiful) political pundits on cable-TV: wildly irresponsible yet irresistibly entertaining for all except the objects of his scorn and their allies. His essays were, essentially, voodoo dolls with a volley of porcupine quills shot into them, his political opponents pin-cushions, his enemies dart boards. Times have changed. Cobbett, no matter where he settled, soon had to flee the consequences of his writing. Now, wacko pundits get book deals, the reward for throwing brickbats in the modern world.

William Cobbett (1763-1835). "British journalist, served in the army in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and fled to the U.S. (1792) to escape litigation resulting from his unsubstantiated exposés of army frauds. In Philadelphia he opened a bookstore, published Porcupine's Gazette (1797-1799), and with delightful effrontery got into one scrape after another, reflected in his vituperative Federalist pamphlets against the Republican friends in France. These include A Bone to Gnaw for the Democrats (1795); A Kick for a Bite (1795); The Scare-Crow (1796); and the scurrilous Life of Tom Paine (1796). He also attacked Joseph Priestley as a radical and infidel in Observations on the Emigration of Dr. Priestley (1794). This era is described in good homespun prose in the Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine (1796)" (Oxford Companion to American Literature).

In March of 1797, he attacked Noah Webster for "grammatical inaccuracy." In this assault with a poison quill, Cobbett declared Webster an "illiterate booby," "inflated self-sufficient pedant," a "very great hypocrite," and "something of a traitor." He didn't mince words; he minced the objects of his scorn, slicing and dicing with the brio of a master chef with a santoku knife. It was not unusual for his subjects to wake-up and discover that they had been julienned. He hurled invective like an Olympic hammer-thrower.

In one of his wilder moments he accused Dr. Benjamin Rush of criminal malpractice in the death of George Washington. In this, another fine mess he'd gotten himself into, he was convicted of libel, fled to England until things cooled-off, once a Tory became a radical, and eventually returned to the U.S.

The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, "In brief...describes Cobbett's boyhood; flight to London; clerkship to an attorney; career in the army, mainly in New Brunswick, 1784-1791; discharge as Sergeant Major; marriage; to France in March 1792; to New York October 1792; letter from Jefferson November 5, 1792; his dispute with Thomas Bradford; the payments made to him by Bradford, ending in March 1796; accusations he was in British pay" (Gaines, Pierce W. William Cobbett and the United States 1792-1830. A Bibliography with Notes and Abstracts). 

While well-represented in institutional collections, this book is a true scarcity in the marketplace.  Since ABPC began, in 1923, to index auction results only two copies have come to market, in 1938 and 1957. A faint penciled note to the titlepage verso indicates that this copy was bought for $1.50 in January, 1878, from Hockwood, Brooks & Co. It's now a four-figure book.

It is a measure of his sarcastic, ironic, sometimes self-deprecating humor that the subtitle to Cobbett's The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine is, A Sure and Infallible Guide for All Enterprising Young Men Who Wish To Make a Fortune by Writing Pamphlets. Christopher Hitchens, a relentlessly  more talented slayer of saints and dragons whose relationship to the truth, irony, and wit was keen rather than crazy-like-Cobbett, could not have expressed it better.

[COBBETT, William]. The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, with a Full and Fair Account of All His Authoring Transactions; Being a Sure and Infallible Guide for All Enterprising Young Men Who Wish To Make a Fortune by Writing Pamphlets. By Peter Porcupine Himself. Philadelphia: Printed for, and Sold by, William Cobbett, 1796.

First edition. Octavo (8 x 4 3/8 in; 203 x 113 mm). viii, [9]-58, [1, advert.], [1, blank] pp.

This copy bound in later red calf in period-style over original early 19th-century marbled boards. Gilt-lettered spine. Light scattered foxing. Bookplate ghost to front free endpaper. Bookplates of Newburyport Athenaeum (Massachusetts) and L.F. Dimmick, pastor of the North Church in Newburyport, to front paste-down endpaper.

Howes C-519. Evans 30212. Gaines 19b, variant with misaligned type on p. 19 corrected.

Image courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.


  1. Was amused by this... and by the ending to Cobbett's entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

    "Although Cobbett remains arguably the most important person who ever lived in New Brunswick, he is but a footnote in the history of the province. New Brunswick had more influence on him. His experiences there undoubtedly resulted in his discovery of his true calling, and until his death he used these experiences, and indeed his whole life, as raw material for his art, his writing, and his causes."

    The most important person who ever lived in New Brunswick? More important than Andrew Bonar Law? More important than Lord Beaverbrook? More important than R.B. Bennett? Wow!

    Anyway, my pick is Donald Sutherland... but Cobbett is up there.

    1. 'most important person' thats rubbish. From the comments above me I have found myself in some sort of argument clinic for Assholes...(in snagglepuss voice:Exit-stage Left,even!!!)

  2. There was nothing wild about Cobbett's attacks on Dr Rush whose "treatment" for yellow fever, based upon a wild overestimate of the body's capacity of blood, was a sentence of death. Cobbett was absolutely correct and, incidentally, Washington was bled to death by one of Rush's disciples.
    You might want to consider Cobbett's importance in facilitating the Louisiana Purchase: his campaign against the Peace of Amiens, together with Haiti's resistance to Napoleon's armies, put an end to France's interest in the territories.
    Cobbett was also exceedingly influential on the Jacksonians, his Paper against Gold an important part of the case against paper money in America.
    There really is no contest: Cobbett was not just the most important person who lived in New Brunswick but one of the most important who ever lived in Philadelphia.

  3. Considering that Rush's treatment was, for the time, standard medical practice, to denounce him, as Cobbett did, based not on "facts" of the time but on his own medical assessment was, indeed, wild. That Cobbett has been proven correct by subsequent medical research does not exculpate him; he was guilty of libel based upon contemporary legal and medical standards.

  4. Far from being "the standard" treatment, Rush's bleeding plus mercury regimen was his own invention. Yellow fever was relatively new to Philadelphia, though familiar enough to tropical doctors. Cobbett, who taught refugees from St Domingue, knew what they thought about Rush's folly. " Most of the other doctors in Philadelphia were opposed to Rush's methods of treatment" according to J Potter's Wm Cobbett in North America.
    And surely you jest about the the legitimacy of the trial which found Cobbett guilty, it was notoriously a lynching, carried out by his political enemies.
    Finally, your argument, that Cobbett, no doctor, had no business to be correct before "science" had corrected itself is very peculiar.


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email