William Cobbett is a problem figure in English history. Among his several stage credits are his performances as the soldier's friend, the champion of the rural laborers and the parliamentary leader of the common people. During the 1810s and 1820s he took his celebrated rural rides for the purpose of discovering first-hand the wants and needs of the country laborers. He voiced their “cottage charter” in the Political Register, he composed hundreds of tracts disseminating their reform program, and in 1830 he led them in the Captain Swing disturbances—the laborers' militant campaign for improved wages, full employment, and the return to the cottage of bacon, beer, and wheaten bread.
Cobbett's sympathies for the farm workers have long been a subject of observation among historians and literary critics. Matthew Arnold suggested that Cobbett's politics were regulated by the condition of country workers, while Hugh Egerton described Cobbett as “the one eminent author whom the farm labourers of England can claim as their own.” For Leslie Stephen, Cobbett was “the voice of the English peasant,” for J. B. Morton he was “the peasant articulate,” and for G. K. Chesterton he “spoke for those innumerable who are also inarticulate.” The great biographer of Cobbett, G. D. H. Cole, agreed: Cobbett was a politicized peasant “at one in nature and sentiment with the mass which he aspired to lead.” Unlike the previous commentators, Cole developed his argument at some length, but his primary understanding of Cobbett was as a rustic-minded critic of industrialism and high finance—a valid assessment certainly, but one neglectful of Cobbett's self-professed ignorance of industrial labor and of market economy.