Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Cobbett, 2 November 1792

From William Cobbett

Wilmington, Delawar State, 2nd Nov. 1792.


My friend, whom Mr. Short has mentioned in the enclosed letter, procured it for me thinking you might have it in your power to serve me upon my landing in this country: but, conscious that I can have no other pretension to your notice at present than merely that founded on a recommendation, and wishing to avoid the importunate part too often acted by men in my situation, I have chosen this as the least troublesome way of paying my respects to you.

Ambitious to become the citizen of a free state, I have left my native country, England, for America: I bring with me youth, a small family, a few useful literary talents and that is all.

Should you have an opportunity of serving me, my conduct shall not show me ungrateful, or falsify the recommendation I now send you. Should that not be the case, I shall feel but little disappointment from it, not doubting but my industry and care will make me a happy and useful member in my adopted country. I am, with great respect, Sir, Your most obedient Servant,

Wm. Cobbett

P.S. Sir, I am but a few days landed in America, and am settled here for the Winter, if no employment offers itself during that time.

RC (NNP); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State Philadelphia.” Tr (DLC: James Madison Papers); in Madison’s hand; at head of text: “(Copy)”; subjoined to text of William Short to TJ, 6 Aug. 1792, the letter enclosed here. Recorded in SJL as received 3 Nov. 1792.

William Cobbett (1763–1835), a largely self-taught English journalist and pamphleteer, had recently emigrated to the United States by way of France to avoid punishment for his attacks on military corruption in England. After a brief residence in Wilmington, Delaware, Cobbett and his wife settled in Philadelphia, where he taught English to French refugees. The Englishman’s vituperative attack on his compatriot Joseph Priestley in 1794 horrified Republicans and launched Cobbett’s stormy career as a powerful pro-Federalist and pro-English advocate on the American scene. Taking the pen name of Peter Porcupine, Cobbett continued to excoriate the Republicans in Porcupine’s Gazette, a daily that he founded in Philadelphia in 1797. Convicted of libeling Benjamin Rush in connection with the physician’s treatment of yellow fever in the Philadelphia epidemic of 1799, he returned to England the following year (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds. Dictionary of National Biography, 2d ed., New York, 1908–09, 22 vols. description ends ).

Cobbett’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain TJ’s patronage later became an issue in American politics. During the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1799, Republican polemicists sought to discredit him by asserting that the British government had dispatched him to America in 1792 as a secret agent for the express purpose of obtaining a position in the Department of State. In support of this charge, the present letter from Cobbett and Short’s 6 Aug. 1792 letter to TJ were printed in a Republican newspaper and political pamphlet. Both publications described the letters as having come from an unidentified person in Wilmington who had seen the originals while Cobbett was awaiting TJ’s reply (Aurora-General Advertiser, 1 Aug. 1799; “An American,” To the Independent Electors of Pennsylvania [Philadelphia, 1799], 6–8). Cobbett retaliated by publishing an open letter to TJ, in which he denied that he had ever been a British agent, maintained that he had neither opened Short’s letter nor kept a copy of his own to TJ, and accused TJ of responsibility for their publication (Cobbett to TJ, 5 Aug. 1799, Porcupine’s Gazette, 12 Aug. 1799). Modern historical research has sustained Cobbett’s denial of the allegation that he came to America as an agent of the British government (G. D. H. Cole, The Life of William Cobbett [New York, 1924], 58). Although TJ characteristically ignored Cobbett’s public rebuttal, the accuracy of the printed texts of the two letters suggests that he was in fact the person ultimately responsible for furnishing copies to the Pennsylvania Republicans.

In 1796 Cobbett claimed that “some few months” after writing this letter, he wrote another to TJ “requesting him to assist a poor man, the bearer of it, and telling him that I should look upon the assistance as given to myself. I dare say he complied with my request, for the person recommended was in deep distress, and a Frenchman” ([Cobbett], The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine … [Philadelphia, 1796], 35–6). Cobbett’s second letter to TJ has not been found and is not recorded in SJL.

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