How quickly can a way of life be forgotten? That is the question William Cobbett is asking in Cottage Economy. Few people on earth have ever been as well-prepared to understand the meaning of this question as we are. It seems incredible to think that between1793 and 1821 the small farmers and rural laborers of England forgot how to brew beer and bake bread and raise pigs, which are among the arts that Cobbett discusses in this pungent, admirable book. It seems incredible, that is, until you realize that we have lost similar kinds of knowledge just as quickly and completely in our own time.
Knowledge of the land and how to live wisely and thriftily on it does not just lie there, dormant, like a crocus that will renew itself in the first flush of spring. It must be cultivated, and it must be knotted, in practice, to the people who have cultivated it before us. In Cottage Economy, Cobbett is trying to reconnect the rural men and women of 1821, who were defrauded of their agricultural birthright by England’s disastrous wartime economy, with their elders, who were wise almost beyond remembering in the ways of the land.
This is a hard idea to get across—the notion that once upon a time, perhaps only a little while ago, people knew a better way of doing things. The small amount of humility needed to believe it is beyond us. The result is that we always exaggerate the simplicity, the uncouthness of the past. We assume that what people knew then is not worth knowing now. Or, worse, we assume that those people, now interred, aren’t really up to the demands of what we know now. This is the peculiar wonder of Cobbett. In his other writings, he can be caustic and cynical, though he usually reserves his vitriol for the newly moneyed classes—he calls them “stock-jobbing”—and for the government tyrants of his tyrannical time. But he never misjudges the past by overrating the present. He does not despise what his elders knew. Nor does he doubt the abilities of the present generation, unless they flee, as he writes in Rural Rides, “from the dirty work as cunning horses do from the bridle.”
It is worth thinking for a moment about the remarkable balance Cobbett strikes at the time he is writing Cottage Economy. He is 58. He has already lived several lives, in England and America. He is an innovator through and through, in journalism and in agriculture. He is also a political reformer through and through. And yet he clings to the household knowledge of an earlier time, convinced that it is the surest way for a laboring family to prosper. There is not an ounce of daydreaming in him. “You should bear constantly in mind,” he writes in Cottage Economy, “that nine-tenths of us are, from the very nature and necessities of the world, born to gain our livelihood by the sweat of our brow.” And yet he despises anyone who teaches the laborers of England “to be contented with their misery, and promises them, in exchange for their pence, ever-lasting glory in the world to come.” He leaves the reader in no doubt how he feels about the political exploitation of Christian meekness. “It is to blaspheme God to suppose that he created men to be miserable, to hunger, thirst, and perish with cold, in the midst of that abundance which is the fruit of their own labour.”
William Cobbett’s understanding of money differs widely from ours. He believed that “though paper-money could create nothing of value, it was able to transfer everything of value.” The wartime debt raised by manipulating the monetary supply took “from the labourer the half of his earnings.” The system of paper money, Cobbett wrote, was “able to rob gentlemen of their estates, and labourers of their Sunday-coats and their barrels of beer; able to snatch the dinner from the board of the reaper or the mower.” But you should not let Cobbett’s idea of money, unfamiliar as it is, hide the importance of his idea of economy. What he means by that word might better be described as the simple, independent wealth of living by one’s labor.
There is a fierce ring to Cobbett’s own introduction to Cottage Economy. That note would sound a little odd in the prow of a book about beer and bread and poultry if you didn’t know how bitter the first two decades of the nineteenth century had been in rural England. They were as hard on the rural economy of England—by which I mean a constellation of cultural, economic, and agricultural values—as the past few decades have been on the rural economy of America. I find the ferocity, the near-grandeur of Cobbett’s opening paragraphs to be stirring even now. He is such a good writer, so direct, so plain, so careful to say just what he means. What Cobbett possessed, said G. K. Chesterton, who wrote a preface to Cottage Economy in 1926, was “a quite business-like belief in the possibility, or rather the necessity, of a rural civilization.” Cobbett is at his very best when he rises to the full height of that paradoxical-sounding belief, as he does in this book.
Of course, it is possible to read Cottage Economy just for Cobbett’s advice on how to raise cattle or make rush lights. This book is deep in the good practical sense that almost anyone who gardens or keeps animals soon learns to love. You can even pretend, if you like, that this is merely an especially good how-to book, without any implications concerning the politics of our own time. You can pretend, if you like, but Cobbett will not make it easy for you. He will show you the politics in a pot of tea, and you will never drink the stuff again without thinking of him, without wondering about the choices you have made.