________ is "a man as much fit to be president as I am to be an Archbishop! A man who is a deist by profession, a philosopher by trade, and a Frenchman in politics and morality."

Interesting to learn that you could score points against an American politician by calling him "French" -- 200 years ago.

The subject is Thomas Jefferson, as you might have guessed. The author of the quote is less well known by far. William Cobbett (1763-1835) was an early 19th century reformer and journalistic muck-raker. He stirred up too much trouble in Britain and had to flee to America in 1792. Though a friend of progress, he, like Edmund Burke, disapproved intensely of the French Revolutionaries' bloody way of going about it. And he began his writing career, under the pen name "Peter Porcupine," by sounding the alarm about France in America, where many people were well-disposed toward France, and toward revolutionary movements.

He began to publish a newspaper, the "Weekly Political Register." Peter Porcupine had a tendency to bristle.

"Peter Porcupine no longer limited his scope to top-level governmental decisions, but became the arbiter of both public and private virtue. As such, he periodically pointed out American shortcomings, including the 'great depravity and corruption' of their morals, the low level of their literacy, and poor quality of their officials. He ridiculed the Pennsylvania legislature's description of a new highway as an 'artificial road,' declaring that more sensible people would have called it a 'turnpike.' He criticized the composition of the Philadelphia board of health on the ground that the doctors composed nearly half of its members ... These gratuitous observations on his neighbors were used as amusing fillers to flesh out Cobbett's daily criticism of the president, his cabinet, and various members of congress." [George Spater, "William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend," Cambridge, 1982]
Eventually he was sued for libel and lost, and had to flee back to Brtain (where he got in trouble for criticizing corruption, was jailed and fled back to America again).

I discovered Cobbett this week while digging through my newspaper's archives, which go back a long way (the paper has been published since 1796). I found a reprint of an 1802 Cobbett warning to America about the recent French acquisition of Louisiana:

"Louisiana is ceded to France, whose well fleshed blood-hounds will be howling round the skirts of your naked plantations before you have time to collect means of resistance. Think them not ignorant of any part, foot, property, or circumstance, of the territory, which they are about to possess. There is not a river, a creek, a cove, an inlet, nor a hill, nor a dale, a rock nor a cave, of which they do not know the bearing and the dimensions as well as I know the width and the length of the paper, on which I am now writing.

They have calculated, to a pound of gun-powder and to a drop of blood, the means of levering from your authority the states of Kentucky and Tennessee; and remember, that, I, whose voice you refused to listen to in 1796, now tell you, that, unless you give up to them a great portion of your commerce with England, those states will in less than two years, be attached to the Republic of France.

You have no earthly means of defence. Not that you are destitute of money or of men; but who will you find to march five hundred miles across a wilderness, to meet at the end of their route the murderers of Alexandria and Acre, backed with the very settlers, whom you wish to preserve from their grasp?

By your treaty with Spain, you obtained the free navigation of the Mississippi. This freedom you have now to obtain from France; and be you well assured that she will not grant it without an equivalent. What this equivalent may be, it is impossible for me precisely to point out; but, be it what it may, you must yield it, or yield your hopes to retain the dominion of the western states, which would be instantly ruined by the closing of the Mississippi, and which to avoid that ruin, would transfer their allegiance to the power on whose pleasure their prosperity will solely depend.

One of the reasons long ago given by French politicians, for obtaining possession of Louisiana, was to secure a certain and never failing supply of provision and lumber for their West-India colonies; and as they will find these articles in abundance in Kentucky and Tennessee at a much cheaper rate than in the Atlantic states it is more than probably, that they will prefer the taking possession of settlements for themselves, which requires that fort of industry and perseverance, for the practice of which they are disputed neither by nature nor their habits.

He was an egotist and a pain in the ass, but he could wield the rhetorical whip. Of course, Jefferson, the infidel, did heed advice like this and buy Louisiana away from France the next year. I haven't done enough research to know whether Cobbett praised him for this, but I rather doubt it.


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© January 13, 2005 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"